The Dedicated Wife
It’s just after sunrise in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Jenna Levitt has finished her twelve-hour shift at the diner and is waiting for her husband to pick her up. He is thirty minutes late and not answering his cell. She might be able to bum a ride home to Lisbon from Earl Lathrop. Right now he’s got a captive audience at the far end of the counter as he works on a plate of corn beef hash with two eggs over easy. It will be after seven by the time he’s done. He titillates the morning waitresses with how fine they look today and bids good-bye to the coterie of Top of the Notch regulars. He’s the deliveryman for M & M Auto Supply and often has a part ticketed for Hansen’s garage in Lisbon. He’s over sixty and a few times before has taken her to their trailer’s front door. It’s a nice gesture, but his conversation reeks of sexual innuendo and more than once his hand has wandered from the truck’s stick shift to her knee.
She’s worked at the “Notch” for three years. It’s open twenty-four hours year round; the only place on Route 93 between Lincoln and Littleton, New Hampshire that is. During the summer and ski months there are wall-to-wall tourists that keep a shift of six waitresses busy all day. During “stick” and mud season it’s the locals, park rangers and tradesmen who are comforted when the waitresses know their orders by heart.
Her tips from last night to this morning were just shy of fifty dollars, about average for a Thursday night to Friday morning. Mr. Belliveau manages the Top of the Notch Diner. He hates assigning long shifts but getting someone to work six at night to six in the morning, especially on weekdays, is impossible unless he throws in an hourly bonus and gives her the Sunday 6:00 AM to 2:00 PM shift, a real cash cow.
At 7:30 AM Earl proclaims he’s ready to play taxi. He is scheduled to drive over to Whitefield, the opposite direction from Lisbon and deliver a fuel pump to the Center Street garage. A half hour there, a half hour back to Route 93 then a half hour to Lisbon is what he reckons. By nine, he assures her, she and her husband will be making serious whoopee. She tries David one more time. It goes to voice mail. Earl obligingly holds the truck door open to better catch a glimpse of her thighs. She’s too tired to care and prays he’ll let her alone so she can catch a quick nap.
Going east to Whitefield he seems sympathetic. He pats her knee and declares that she must be dead on her feet. She removes his hand, puts her head back and pretends to drift off. She and David have been married for three years, together for eight. She was a nineteen-year-old nursing student when he enrolled in the PhD American History program at the University of Vermont. She waited tables to put him through school. It took five years, but the weekend he received the degree they got married. He’d done his dissertation on Franklin Pierce. It went through several revisions and was rejected twice. The scholarship was acceptable, but it was poorly organized and written. It was finally accepted when David hired an English major to make it presentable using their honeymoon nest egg, such as it was, to pay him.
Once he got the degree he decided that he’d expand the dissertation, write the definitive biography of Pierce as, in his view, the few books on that subject left much to be desired. They’d moved to Lisbon, New Hampshire where rent was cheap and taxes low. The mobile park where they lived, Atwood Acres, was four hundred a month. Most restaurants in the area were seasonal so she took the Top of the Notch job. Now, three years later, next to the aged Maudie St. Pierre, she had the longest tenure of any waitress. Nursing, which had never been a big draw for her, was in the distant past. The best years of her life were over; the film credits were now running to delineate all those who had played part, however minor, in it.
David certainly wasn’t lazy. He spent his days writing and rewriting. Years back she thought he might teach when he was done, but a few teaching assistant classes he was assigned at UVM were disasters. He was too serious, too committed to history to relate to students. Three years ago when they were desperate for money, he signed up for substitute work at St. Johnsbury High School. They called him in to teach a basic US History course on a temporary basis for someone who had back surgery. He lasted two days before they begged the regular teacher to come back and work from a wheelchair. The classes were mayhem. David claimed the kids lacked interest in Pierce and had no appreciation of how important his Nebraska Act was in US history.
She had read his thesis and the subsequent book-length manuscript any number of times in the past three years. His sentences ran on forever, four or five lines in length. There was no life to the paragraphs, facts dominated, description was absent; it was like reading a series of encyclopedia articles. Yet he was gracious, deeply appreciating her criticism. “David, there’s no verb in the sentence. Even if you put one in it still won’t make any sense.”
He would study the page, his nose crinkling up in thought as he figured out how to extricate himself from the verbal labyrinth. Then he would bend down and kiss her on the nose while uttering his famous phrase, “Well, it’s back to the drawing board; funny I never spotted that before.”
When she began working at the diner, anyone who asked about her husband received a proud reply that he had a PhD in American History and was writing a book on Franklin Pierce. Fran Tyrrell was working with her back then. Her husband had left a lucrative accounting job to become a nature photographer. She was a kindred spirit. They joked about what they would do if their husbands made it. They made weekly trips to the Food Bank and together endured the stares from those in line when they redeemed their food stamps at Lyon’s Superette. They joked about why men were consumed by such impractical ventures. Why hadn’t David picked something easier like sailing across the Atlantic in a dugout canoe? Then Fran left suddenly, moving to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where she and Jacques had compromised on his dream and opened up a picture framing shop next to The Strawberry Banke tourist haven. Since then, with each passing year, the satisfaction she received from talking about David’s career eroded. The realization that the diner was not a temporary stop until the big break came grew stronger. It depressed her to think that this was her life. One morning she lied and told a table of four vacationers that David was disabled from a skiing accident, and she was the sole support of the family. They left her a twenty-dollar tip.
He lived for new articles or information on Pierce. It was as if they were the final pieces of the puzzle he needed to finish the book. He gloried in any Pierce related incident or event. One night they were watching an old M*A*S*H rerun and one of the characters, B.J., exclaimed, as he stumbled drunkenly into a tent, “Well, if it isn’t Benjamin Franklin Hawkeye Pierce, named for a president, an Indian and a stove!”
He leapt from the couch and danced her around the room. Later that year he learned that a West Wing character, Ryan Pierce, was theoretically related to his beloved Franklin. He called the network and attempted to hook on as a consultant for the show. Each time the phone rang he practically bowled her over thinking it was an executive from NBC.
Her life, she concluded, for the past few years, at present and for the foreseeable future involved serving customers at the diner and trying to be a supportive wife to David. He was a good man. He was kind and, when he could be, generous. The few times they ate out, he would have water and encourage her to order wine or beer. They would agree to split an entrée, but he ate very little, always declaring that he wasn’t very hungry. There was no question as to his intelligence either, but try as she might, tactfully and otherwise, she could not get him to see that his dream was turning into her nightmare. How long could she put off having children, living hand to mouth, and probably be the butt of jokes at work, “When’s hubby’s book coming out, Jenna?”
Halfway from Whitefield to Lisbon, Earl interrupted her reverie. He decided he was owed conversation for his trouble. He wondered how her love life was since she worked nights during the week. He supposed she and David went at it hot and heavy during the afternoons and on weekends. And what of Belliveau—he’d heard rumors that the owner treated the diner as his own personal harem, especially with Tracy, the new divorcee. “Probably a lot of hanky panky going on in the wee hours of the morning, plenty of nooks and crannies to get some quick lovin’ in.”
She tried to ignore him; her head tilted back on the seat, eyes closed telling him that his imagination was running amuck, and he’d do well to keep his eyes on the road. She thought about defending Mr. Belliveau’s honor, but that would engender more conversation than she wanted. It was highly likely that, if she opened her eyes, she would catch Earl staring at her chest or lap. Without looking over she pulled her ill fitting cardigan around her and tried get over the anger that she wouldn’t be in this position now if David had picked her up as he was supposed to; it wasn’t like he had anything else to do today or any other.
For the last year she’d thought seriously about leaving him. She’d gone so far as taking a few items of clothing from home each day and storing them at work. Not that she feared David at all. If she packed up the Civic and left right in front of him, he, aside from being heartbroken, probably wouldn’t say a word. It would be like leaving the sad-eyed family dog sitting on the porch. And she had nowhere specific to go. There was an older sister in Oregon, yet they were not close. A few months ago she waited on a professional couple with three lovely kids that was driving to Nova Scotia. They had lived in Nashua, New Hampshire for years and simply decided to pull up stakes and found cheap, ocean view property in Musquodiboit Harbor just east of Halifax. They half jokingly asked her if she wanted to come along, perhaps as a nanny or housekeeper. She declined but kept their address and thought about it for days, even looking that area of Canada up on the internet.
At the diner it seemed that most everyone was going somewhere or had a purposeful life but her. It was like sitting in a waiting room where she had no appointment, no reason to be there at all and hoping that someday her name would be called. She felt as if she were becoming like a regular customer, Francine, a retired woman over sixty, who drove up each morning, winter and summer, just after six to order a bowl of corn flakes and black coffee, sitting alone and uncommunicative at the end of the counter for no more than fifteen minutes before leaving a modest tip and driving back to wherever she lived, the highpoint of her day finally over with. The staff was amazed because the same, non-descript meal could easily be had at home with less expense and trouble. Was that what her life would be if she left David?
David wasn’t lazy. He wrote and rewrote nearly every day. At times he would read the revisions to her out loud, seeking advice on what sounded better. Many times both versions were horrible, but she tried to be supportive and select one whereupon he’d say, “I liked that one too,” and toddle off to carve it into stone.
Several times during the year they’d make a pilgrimage to Hillsborough, Pierce’s birthplace and a state park. He would sit on the grounds outside the homestead for hours seeking inspiration and always return to Lisbon refreshed. As discreetly as possible, she’d offer up alternative suggestions for his project. Rather than a scholarly biography, why not write something that emphasized Pierce’s personal struggle--to be snubbed for re-nomination by your own party after serving as president, the cruel death of his young children, and his own demise at sixty-five from cirrhosis of the liver brought on by demon rum--all would have been tabloid items back in the day.
He perked up at this idea. She thought up a screenplay idea as well, maybe something for Public Television, a la Ken Burns, which could bring his name into prominence and secure more deals. He worked for three weeks before coming to her in defeat. “I have no idea how to write a play; besides, it would have to leave out all his legislative contributions. I don’t think I, in clear conscience, could do that.”
Perhaps, she proposed, he could widen his scope. Write a stage play that a lone actor could perform, something along the lines of Hal Holbrook’s An Evening with Mark Twain. But David was like a concert pianist who only knows one concerto. It was a five hundred-page tome on Pierce and his presidency or nothing. Many times she thought of destroying his hard drive and the notes he kept on three by five index cards stored in shoeboxes under their bed. Possibly then he would concede defeat, get a real job and they could begin life anew, even start a family.
The person she strongly identified with was Pierce’s wife, Jane. From what she’d read in David´s research the woman hated politics and Washington, begged her husband to resign and move back to New Hampshire. David’s notes glossed over her, dismissing her as subject to frequent bouts of melancholia before her death in 1863. When she asked David more about her, he waved his hand and said that Jane never understood the heavy burden Franklin was carrying.
It was 9:30 AM when Earl pulled in the yard. The Civic was sitting in its usual parking spot, so David hadn’t used it for errands as he thought he might after he dropped her off yesterday. She thanked Earl perfunctorily, offering him free coffee and blueberry pie the next time he was in the Notch. He suggested blueberry wasn’t exactly the type of pie he had in mind for doing favors. She stared him down whereupon he chuckled and explained that just because there’s snow on the roof doesn’t mean there’s no fire down in the basement. She played dumb but slammed the cab door so hard it sprang back at her.
Her anger intensified when she got to the porch steps. The outside floodlight was on and the front door unlocked. David always said they had nothing to steal, but security and power usage were pet peeves of hers, which she begged him to indulge. Once in the kitchen she saw an open milk carton and cereal bowl decaying on the counter. All the lights were on. She knew that if she went into the bathroom the seat would be up, and he rarely flushed when she wasn’t home; his theory was that it saved on the water bills.
She found him on the living room couch curled up asleep. His laptop, the low battery warning blinking, was on the coffee table where he often wrote. The floor was littered with notes, some on yellow legal pads and others on index cards of various colors. She knew the drill. He had undoubtedly worked all night, took a cereal break around five then put his head down for a minute before coming to get her. She grabbed a throw and, still folded, tossed it in his direction, too tired herself to wake him and vent her anger. She picked up some of the papers that were in her way. She knew he was close to finishing up yet another draft so he was evidently working on a title page. There were several trial runs: Franklin Pierce, Our Fourteenth President or Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire to Washington Then Back Again. Christ, he couldn’t even come up with a decent title to market the book. She crumpled the paper hoping it would wake him, but it didn’t. Machete-like she cleared a footpath and grabbed another handful of paper. Instead of titles he had begun to focus on a dedication to the book. A quick glance and the words leapt from the page. The first one read “To Jenna Levitt, My Darling Wife.” Another draft appended “And My Best Friend” to that phrase, but it was the last one, which caused her to stop and read it over and over: “To Jenna, the love and sine qua non of my life and without whom I never was and would cease to be.”
She sat down on the five-dollar rump sprung chair they had gotten at a yard sale and stared at him. It was the most beautiful sentence he’d ever written. The manuscript itself was a jumble of legislative acts, Mexican War meanderings and a prolix account of the many cabals against poor Franklin. But the dedication moved her to tears. She left the chair and moved next to him on the couch. He grunted when she laid his head in her lap. He was like one of those Bonsai trees, which take forever to mature and require constant care. She just needed patience. She watched the Microsoft Word logo on his laptop drift aimlessly across the screen’s confines, hit the corner then settle back down towards the bottom before caroming off on another ill-fated escape attempt. He snuggled up against her, glad for the warmth. She ran her fingers through his hair, slumped back and unfurled the throw to cover them both. Soon she was sound asleep.