Justin S. Crouse



Simon hoped his mother wouldn’t recognize his date suit as the one he wore to his wife’s funeral. There had been no need for a new one since then. Thankfully, his twelve-year-old daughter wouldn’t; she had only been four. He fumbled the knot, unwrapped it, and then retied it for the fifth time.

"Sarah, come help me with this," he yelled at the hall. He listened to her come up the stairs in the same loping gait as her mother. Except for his father’s red hair, she looked just like Nancy: bony frame, pug nose, and steely blue eyes.
"Tie again?" Sarah said as she came around the corner.

"Yes. It won't stay straight." Simon got down on one knee and stretched his neck out. Sarah picked the wrinkle from the knot, and snugged it against his throat. "Where’d you learn to do this anyway?" he said.

Sarah tilted her head and raised an eyebrow at him. "I told you last month, Grandpa Bob. He doesn’t know any girl stuff." She brushed white flecks from his collar.

Simon chuckled, and put his hands on her shoulders. "Grandpa Bob loves you very much you know, we all love you very much." The counselor had told him that Sarah might eventually feel unloved by Nancy’s absence. She had never mentioned it, but Simon made a point to reassure her every day.

"What happened with last month's date?" She sat at the dressing table and ran his comb through her silky hair.
"Umm, it didn't work out. I'm just, particular, I guess. Here, don’t use that." Simon dragged a box from under the bed and handed Sarah a pearl hairbrush from it.

Sarah smiled, turning it under the lamp. "When will I be old enough to stay home by myself? You know Gram's just going to try to feed me the whole time."

"Soon enough. Take it easy on your Gram, all right?" He felt the same way. His mother used food to work through her sadness for them. Simon loved her for it, but there were only so many sweets one could guilt-eat. He patted his jacket as if his stomach were full. "Ready to go?"

Sarah was quiet in the car. Simon fidgeted, hoping she would say something while not thinking of anything himself.
"Did you go on dates before Mom?" she asked.

"No, she was the only one. We started dating in high school, like I’m sure you will.” She rolled her eyes at him.

“Does it bother you that I'm going out?" he said.

Sarah looked out the window. "No. I was just wondering."

Simon wondered what she remembered of her mother. She asked a lot of questions about her at first, but hadn’t brought it up in a while. He had never felt comfortable talking about his own loss, even to the counselor. His mother told her he was on a date, and he’d explained that it didn’t mean anything important to their relationship. She reacted to this with nothing more dramatic than the typical preteen disgust. It pained him to recognize his early maturity instead of Nancy’s free spirit. 

It was selfish of him to be doing this, he thought. He should turn around and call the whole thing off. He didn't feel like doing it anymore anyway. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. The urge to turn it built, and then faded. He deserved a night to himself, he decided. It wasn't as if he were doing anything wrong, at least nothing to harm them.
His mother met them at the door with a plate of cookies. Sarah rolled her eyes, and he wiped his lip to hide the smile. He took one to break the ice.

Sarah tried to pull him inside. He leaned down and kissed her head. “I’ll pick you up first thing in the morning. We’ll go out for pancakes if you want.”

She pushed him away and scrunched up her nose. “You smell like Grandpa Bob too,” she said. She grabbed a cookie and pushed passed his mother.

Simon hugged his mother. “Thanks Ma, you know she’s actually happy to see him.”

“I know. He’s had the Parcheesi board out for hours. By the way, I happen to like that smell,” she said, smiling and holding his face in her hands. The cologne was all Simon could smell, and it added to his uneasy stomach.

At the stop sign, he shook out his tie and laid it on the seat. He drove to Livermore, the next town over, and parked in the back corner of the Milltown Variety lot. He walked two buildings down to Milltown Video. He pulled his shirttails out before he walked in. 

Simon walked with his head down toward the back of the store. A woman and two girls about Sarah’s age met him at the end of the aisle. He turned to a shelf and picked up a box. He walked around the store while they got their movies. Once they left, he walked directly to the curtain at the back.

Simon didn't browse the titles. The first time he'd done it, he looked around enough to pick out the normal stuff. The curtain barely settled behind him before he grabbed a random box and walked back through it. He had his card and money out before he reached the counter. He hadn’t been able to do it at first when the woman worked behind the counter. It took multiple trips and thirty dollars in Disney movie late fees, before he found the shift that the high school boy worked. The boy took his money—the exact amount. He looked too bored to care or make any comments. Simon covered the movie title with his card and left.

He left the car in the rope factory parking lot and walked the one block home. He had picked up a six-pack of beer and a pack of cigarillos at Milltown Variety. He snuck around to his back door, and let himself into the kitchen. Standing on a chair, he took the ashtray and plastic cup from behind the fern on top of the cupboard. 

He took his suit off in the bathroom. He stacked it, folded, on the floor beside his shoes. Avoiding his reflection, he slipped on his bathrobe. From a new roll of toilet paper, he made two piles of sheets on the sink. His ring went into the medicine cabinet.

The beer was ice cold. He rubbed the bottle on his forehead before opening it. Simon had never been a big drinker, but it helped him deal with his conscience. The cigarillos he did enjoy, and had always smoked them when he mowed or worked outside. Nancy had let it pass, insisting only that he brush his teeth when he came in. Simon had never had any desire to be with another woman after, but this was out of his control.

The dates started when Sarah stopped needing him so much. The less dependent she was on him, the more Simon needed something to fill the void. The good conscience he inherited from his parents kept him from the whorehouse on Water St. The date idea came to him fully realized one morning at breakfast. Simon piled the vice items on his arm. The cheating feeling would come on days later, but that would soon be overpowered by his monthly obsession.
The hall light was still on and he had closed the blinds before leaving. He laid everything on the table beside his recliner and circled the room, turning all the pictures face down. Her favorite vases, porcelain dolls, and her grandmother’s antique lamp went into the kitchen. Simon slipped the tape in, and turned the TV so the glare wouldn't light up the window blinds.

He took a sip of the beer and pressed the play button on the remote. He sat forward when the movie stopped playing and the screen turned snowy. Simon sighed and got up. He worried that he had grabbed a faulty tape, but the last customer hadn’t rewound it. He pushed the tape back in, and pressed the rewind button.

The phone rang. Simon froze. The answering machine picked up on the third ring. When he heard Sarah's voice, he pressed at the buttons until he found eject. 

"Hi, it's me." She was whispering. He pictured her standing behind the louvered doors of his mother’s pantry. "I hope you get this when you get home. I just wanted you to know that it's okay that you have a date, and I think Mom thinks so too. I love you, Dad. See you in the morning."

Simon rocked back and forth on his knees. The corners of his mouth twitched and his shoulders followed. "I miss you so much, I just miss you so much," he stammered. He cried hard for minutes, and then wiped his eyes and stood up. He didn't feel ashamed or dirty anymore, but he couldn't go through with it, not tonight. He put the video back in its box, and walked to the table. He took two gulps of the beer.

He walked around the room, cleaning dust off the pictures with the toilet paper before turning them up. He stared at each one for a long time, running his finger on the glass. He put the room back together, and then went upstairs to the bedroom. The box of Nancy’s personal things still lay open on the floor. He placed the pearl comb and hand mirror beside the brush, and left her jewelry box open on the dressing table. He ran his fingertips over her rings and the emerald earrings, her last birthday present. He shoved the empty box back under the bed and went downstairs. 

Simon dumped the beer out in the sink, washed the cup, and replaced it with the ashtray and cigarillos on top of the cabinet. He didn’t know how long he could hold it off, but that didn’t matter. All he wanted to do now was bring Sarah home and be with her, talk to her about Nancy. He put the suit on, and drove back to Livermore.

The boy was returning videos to the shelves. He looked up when Simon dropped the tape into the slot and smirked. You could be the same some day, but I honestly hope not, Simon thought, and waved. The boy shook his head and turned back to the stack of videos. Simon got in the car and drove back toward his mother’s house.

Justin Crouse lives in Mid-Coast Maine with his muse, Angie, and four-year-old Wild Thing, Max. Justin is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel. His work has appeared, or is scheduled to appear, in Heat City Review, Powhatan Review, Salt River Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Pebble Lake Review, Foliate Oak, Spillway Review, The Story Garden, River Walk Journal, The Angler, Lily, Thunder Sandwich, Flashquake, Verbsap, Unspoken Dreams, Prose Toad, and 3711Atlantic. “The Comfort of Home” originally appeared in Pebble Lake Review.


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