For better or worse

My brother-in-law started jogging, always with a pocket full of change. He told my sister he liked to hear the coins jingle as he ran.

In reality they were for the payphone at the bottom of the hill, next to the Shell station.

This was before cell phones.

He used the coins to call a woman they both knew, a woman who sang with them in the church choir. She was also married and sometimes they all went out together.

My sister didn’t have a clue. She learned all this later, after my brother-in-law told her he no longer loved her and was going to move out.

He let her know that it was her fault the marriage wasn’t working — he’d tried his best.

He didn’t mention divorce. Not then. All that came later — after his girl (that’s what we called her) separated from her husband.

He wasn’t going to see a counselor, he said. A counselor wouldn’t do any good. It was just … it was over. If salt loses its flavor, how is it going to become salty again?

That pissed my sister off, the way he was paraphrasing Jesus there. Jesus!

She couldn’t speak, so she cried. Then she stopped eating. Then she wanted him out of the house.

If you’re going to go, she said, then go.

I will, he said.

What are you waiting for?

I haven’t found the right place yet.

She closed her eyes and tears ran down her cheeks. She didn’t hear him leave the room, but he wasn’t there when she finally opened her eyes.

It took him two months to find the right place — long enough for the children to start hating him, though perhaps that was going to happen anyway.

My sister was happier when he was gone. Not right away, but soon enough. She started to smile again, and laugh, and joke — like the person she forgot she was, the person she stopped being during the stifled years.

That’s how I think of them: The stifled years.

To this day, though, my sister doesn’t carry change. She leaves it in the automated dispenser at the grocery store — “I don’t want it, you can have it” — or she slides it off the top of paper dollars and into tip jars at coffee shops. She avoids touching it if she can.

BOOKS BY AL RISKE

Precarious | Sabrina’s Window | The Possibility of Snow | Then We’d Be Happy