The Empty Hour

The empty hour—the glorious hour—was six-oh-five to seven-oh-nine. Foon would sink into the velvet wingback, his stiff suit removed and blown open on the floor, as he raised his damp feet to air out atop the coffee table. Faint whiffs of Windex cooled the hairs inside his nose, from where the housecleaner had clarified the glass. He called Mah. He  parked his car. Outside the garage door was sealed and—like Foon—finished for the night. Nothing more was required of him.

To this idea Foon filled a teacup of whiskey. He swiveled his head toward the sunset and saluted the dozing eyes of the garage. “Aye aye,” he said, and then, pondering, “Is that what they say? Eye? Yaye? Aye-aye-aye?” Foon watched the silk curtains, imagining the fat coils of his brain bunching up in concentration, and then gave up the thought entirely. Giving up the thought entirely: that was the pleasure of six-oh-five.

Through the doorway leaned his wife leaned in the doorway, a dishtowel hanging from her shoulder. Nine years later and still so pretty, Foon thought, admiring her strong arms, flexed and dotted with freckles.

“These fucking potatoes,” said Marcy said. “I can’t chop them anymore. That’s all I ever do. Chop, chop, chop.” She pointed her chef’s knife at Foon, beckoning him to join her in the kitchen. “Your turn. I’m begging you.”

“Cupcake, I would love to,” he said, his hand falling to his chest. “But I’m afraid I’m much too high.”

“Are you crazy?” she said, eyes wide. “Have you actually gone insane?”

“Don’t talk about insane people like that,” said Foon, gesturing toward the window.” He imagined himself a character in Masterpiece Theater, a show his boss had told him to download. Foon chuckled into this chin. On the coffee table he crossed one ankle of his pajama pants over the other.

“Don’t tell me you smoked in the car,” said Marcy, squinting. “Please.”

“I did,” said Foon. “I enjoy a head start these days.” He wagged an assured finger in front of his face, as if instructing a child on the ways of the world. “Same with Mah. Call on the drive home? Done. Say hello, I love you, gotta go? Done.”

“What if you have to pick up a client or something? Or if I go have lunch with Flora?” Red, blotchy territories were traveling up her face. “The smell, Foon. You never think about the smell.”

Foon shook his head and closed his eyes, leaning deeper into the wingback. From here Marcy’s voice sounded far away and light. Like delicate Styrofoam, he thought. Yes. Like a sprinkling of bright white packing peanuts.

“Look at you,” she said. “You are always, always high.”

Foon pondered this statement with a finger to his lip. “That’s true.”

Her high voice rattled, like an alarm straining to sound. “We said that we would alternate, but here you are,” said Marcy. “We have to eat, you know. Come chop for just five minutes.”

But five minutes lost in the empty hour were five minutes lost to hell.

“If they’re potatoes,” he said, “they why not use the food professor?” He paused, listening to his voice, and giggled. “The food…the food….” In his stomach an air bubble of laughter rose uncontrollably through his chest. Foon grinned, trying to hold his breath, but then gave up and bent forward, giggling into his knees. He couldn’t help himself. It was funny.

“Food pro-cessor,” said Foon. “Pro-cessor. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”

“I can’t believe I’m watching this.”

“Food professor. Oh my god.”

“You’re an asshole,” said Marcy.

Foon rested his face in his fleecy pajama pants, listening to the quiet made by his own not speaking. His wife was breathing angrily through her nose, and the sound of it crawled into this ears. His father, in moments like this with Mah, would have bowed his head in patience. He would have closed his eyes, composed himself, and waited for the cloud to pass. It was, theoretically, the correct thing to do. But Foon had always known that he was not quite his father. He was powered by a different battery—newer, more American. Foon had come farther, had reached higher, and he would go farther still. And when his wife called him an asshole he almost relished the moment that followed. To hurt her back, exactly the way he knew; it was a target revealed for which he alone had the arrow.

“But I’m your asshole, Cupcake,” he said. “I’m all you’ve got.”

Marcy fumed into the kitchen. Foon heaved up and stumbled after her around the large leather couch set. Only recently he’d encountered this sensation of being both angry and baked. Marcy threw her dishrag on the tiled floor, then lifted a pot from the stove and poured its brothy contents down the sink. She took the metal lid and let it clatter in there too. Steam rose up from the drain and collected toward the ceiling in a flat, expanding cloud.

Foon kept his gaze sighted on her swinging yellow ponytail, which thrashed like a caught fish as she pointed at each accusation.

“The dishwasher,” she said, staring him down like a bull. “You said you’d fix it. It’s not fixed.”

Foon crossed his arms. “Did I say that? I don’t remember saying that.”

“The washing machine, the leak upstairs. Why live in a house like this if you let it fall apart?” She picked the rag off the floor and started wiping the splashes of broth on the counter.

“What do you imagine I do all day?” said Foon. “Go to the office and twiddle my thumbs?”

“It’s been three months, Foon. Three months, and no dishwasher.”

“And what, you can’t call them yourself?” he said, talking to her back. “Are you physically handicapped? Do you not speak English? Do you have a clinical phobia of phones?”

“Don’t you talk to me that way,” she said, yelling now, but he’d learned long ago to yell over her yelling. Reliably his voice was larger, full of force, and it would cancel hers neatly like a soprano leading a choir.

Foon said Marcy was uptight. Marcy said Foon was an addict. Foon said that she had no spine. Marcy said that he would die alone.

“Die alone?” said Foon. “Me? So I’m the one who will die alone.” He lifted his arms and swung them around the wide expanse of their marble kitchen. “Where do you think all this came from, Marcy? This is what you get when you have a thing called a job.”

“Thanks for that,” said Marcy. “Here’s what I think of your huge, important job.” And with that she grabbed hold of her wedding band. She twisted and pulled it over the thick of her finger, as if working the cork from a bottle of wine. Foon watched the slow concentration of her hands, unsure if what he was seeing was confused by the haze of his high. Marcy yanked at the ring until it finally popped over her knuckle, and for a moment she watched the ring glint in the palm of her hand, almost smiling at the feat of it. Then she pried open the sliding door of the kitchen, a cold gust fogging her glasses, and pitched the ring out over the railing of the deck, where it disappeared into the waters of their twenty-foot, saltwater pool.

“Are you crazy?” said Foon, but Marcy slid the door shut in triumph. She marched past him and into the foyer, where he heard her heaving the straps of her purse over her shoulder and messing with her keys. With one more door slam the house went silent, as the cell of cold air from the front door made its way to Foon’s unmoving face.

He wandered back to the wingback chair. Foon adjusted the drawstrings of his pajama pants, which has loosened as he’d chased after Marcy. He settled back into the reliable chair, lifting his legs back onto the glass coffee table. Already it was smudged white from his heels and his toes, which the housecleaner would have to get next time.

“My wife,” he said, lifting his teacup to his lips. “What a riot.” Foon grinned and shook his head, but the pupils of his eyes spread and faded, as they wandered over his softly ticking watch, out into darkness of the yard, gnats swarming the porchlight.

He tried watching television, but the blinking colors made him tired. He tried reading his book, a journalistic bit about some teenagers climbing Everest. But his eyes kept wandering to the blankness of the margins, as he replayed scraps of Marcy’s words: Just five minutes, Foon. Look at you. The smell.

He stood up. Quietly he rinsed out this cup, placing it into the sink with the wayward pot and pan, and went upstairs to bed.

*

Morning came. From the weight of the mattress beneath him, Foon knew that his wife had not come home. He pulled the phone across the pillow and called her best friend, Flora, listening to the rings echo through Flora’s house. Perhaps nobody was home. Or perhaps everybody was home—Flora immobile under a homemade banana face mask, her husband weighing portions of granola, and somewhere, somehow, Marcy, who seemed at ease with these people in a way that Foon despised and envied. Perhaps they were now pausing from their teacups, circling the buzzing phone, waiting for Foon to record his desperation. But he would never give them the pleasure, those vultures.

From the drawer of the nightstand Foon fetched his pipe. No matter what else Marcy threw in there—half-read novels, jars of cocoa butter, her retainer rattling in its plastic case— the glass pipe was always waiting, tucked in the front-right corner and wrapped in a navy wool sock. He didn’t even have to look anymore, and in fact that was part of the pleasure. Rolling out the drawer on its smooth steel gliders. Detecting the warm scent of yesterday’s puffs. Reaching for the soft wool, along with the plastic bag of goodness, which Foon pressed to his nose to breath in its layered qualities. As a boy he had owned a hundred of those navy socks—they were part of his school uniform, worn six days a week in Taiwan. When his family left Foon kept just one sock of one pair, and hid the matching one in bedroom he might never see again. Cheesy? Totally. But no one had to know about that.

He leaned against the pillows, enjoying his morning puff. It warmed his fingers and coated with velvet the hollows of his throat, his lungs. Foon thumbed a single notch in the pipe from when he had dropped it in the middle of the Apple store. Marcy had screamed at him, everybody turning to watch. After that he only smoked in his home, and lately, by extension, his car.  

Sunlight inched around the curtain and cast little stars into the full-length mirror. See? There was beauty in this quiet; Marcy never understood that. Foon stood up, stretched, and went about his day.

Lately Foon had been talking to himself, which troubled him. His father had done it in Taiwan, usually when he was anxious, and it irritated the whole family. “We’ll be fine,” his father would say. “First the visas, then selling the furniture, then selling the clothes. Just one step after another. No big deal—is that what they say? No. Big. Deal.” Foon, a skinny nine-year-old, couldn’t stand his father talking to thin air. “Say it to Mah, say it in the telephone,” Foon told him. “Just say it to anybody.” But his father would only smile, mess up Foon’s thick head of hair, and continue the self-mumbling no matter the room or street corner.

That was thirty years ago, and Foon had worked so hard to be better than that. He had moved out of Indianapolis. He had earned two degrees. Yet here he was, in the bright yellow morning, speaking to the dining table.

“I picked you out,” said Foon. “I purchased you. You’re mahogany. Well done.”

He circled the table, hands clasped behind him as if inspecting a war memorial. “Such a fine table,” he said. “And from a single tree, too.” The grain made a ghoulish, genderless face that repeated itself across the surface and down the legs.

Only once did he glance down to the surface of the pool. It looked just as it did yesterday: a smooth stone rectangle, the water deep and still as cement, with some nicely varied shrubbery curving around the edges.

 “I’m in my house, I’m an engineer,” he said. “I’ve got a beautiful house. I made all of this happen. I did it myself.” He spoke the truth. It was—in the words of his colleagues and even Flora—quite a house. The driveway out front was curved in an elegant horseshoe. At parties Foon would crank up the heated tiles of the bathroom, each guest emerging with glee and beckoning others to take off their shoes to try it. Foon and Marcy would watch them and grin, him squeezing proudly her by the waist.

An accomplishment: *that’s what he was. “You’re the proudest thing I’ve done,” Mah would say. “You are simply *the reason I don’t leave your father. So lazy, and yet look at you! It’s if you’ve looked to him to learn how not to be.” She would pat his shoulder warmly, adjust the straps of his apron. “You love to work—you never stop working. Even now, your hands are twitching! It’s like your fingers *long *for more to do. Your grandfather would be so proud. ” Foon’s chest would swell with meek pride, but blink confusedly at his shoes.

Foon’s father seemed lazy. But to Foon’s mind his father didn’t hate work—he feared it. He wanted desperately to be esteemed, respected, accomplished, “like a man.” But small failures depressed him. “The other drivers get more business,” he’d sigh, after not even bothering to move his taxi from the garage. “I’ll never be the best at it. Or at music. Or even at fathering.” And he’d press his mouth into his hands, to hold back a cry or even a burst of anger, scaring Foon into the kitchen, where he’d start cooking dinner to forget all about it.

Foon had even had a found a beautiful girl and married her, which his Taiwanese friends knew was next to impossible. “So you say American girls don’t like Asian men?” he’d written to them. “Well, look what your Foon has done,” and enclosed a photo of them kissing on a lifeguard stand, her long blond hair snaking prominently down her front.

Shouldn’t that have been enough? Enough for everyone to be satisfied?

Didn’t he have a right to relax? After all he had been through? The life he had led?

In Taiwan, crawling children would infest Foon’s home. Three chubby cousins from Taipei, his sticky-fingered sisters and his ever-wailing brother, whose favorite activity was to open Foon’s toy chest and throw its contents around the room with the glee of haggard gravediggers. On these dreaded weekends Foon was forced to sleep with Yu, his baby brother, as the aunts—“dear guests” that they were—laid claim to Foon’s bed. Yu’s bony elbows jabbed through the blankets. The boy snored loosely, ferociously. Once Foon woke up amid damp sheets, thinking that he’d been sweating despite the cold of the night. But no: Yu had wet the bed. Foon couldn’t stop himself from beating his pillow on the boy until he came awake.

When he couldn’t bear the crowdedness any longer, Foon would go to the wicker couch in the living room. He pulled the couch from the wall—one foot was all that he needed—and lowered his body into the space behind it. Clumps of dust and tangled hair would startle under his breath, but he happily swatted them away.

Foon would drift asleep, in the quiet valley of his own creation. Let me accomplish myself away from here, he’d pray. Let me accomplish my way to a fat bed, dry sheets, and a marriage that needs no tending at all.

*

Around lunchtime Foon began to worry about the pool. Somewhere down there the saltwater might be tarnishing the ring, or eroding it into something brittle, thin, easily snapped. Sure, he was no chemist, but isn’t that why Marcy removed her rings before a swim? Or did that have to do somehow with the filtration system? Why didn’t he know these things? Was this not his pool, the one he had saved for for months?

Once again he called Flora. It rang and rang, without even a simple automated message to greet him. He wondered if her phone was broken, or if she was conspiring against him. Foon spun the phone on the countertop and watched it slow to a halt. Then he held his breath and looked up the outgoing calls.

Flora.

The Office.

Flora.

Mah.

Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy, Marcy.

The Office.

The Office.

Flora.

Only The Office had answered his calls, as they did every time, his colleagues chuckling over his tales of being sick. It occurred to Foon that no woman all day had picked up her phone for him. He stood by the refrigerator and ate leftover macaroni and cheese, fingering each cold noodle around the tines of his fork. He stood for a long time. Finally he pulled a thick sweater over his body, dug his feet into sheepskin slippers, and descended the stairs of the deck.

Autumn was starting to infringe upon the pool. Dry leaves ambled down to the surface. Matted tufts from cottonwood trees amassed into a blanket, floating in one corner. He chastised himself for not having the housecleaner deal with this, but then again he didn’t know the Portuguese word for “filtration,” and at any rate he could barely communicate with her as it was.

Foon circled the tile edging as if it contained a dozing shark. The water— usually so clear and regularly filtered—glinted back no sign of the ring. He knew it was down there somewhere—they had both heard the splash of it, the little plop.

“Were you really that bad?” he said out loud.  “No, no. You couldn’t have been. She’s ridiculous. She’s always been angry. Look at all you’ve done for her. Look at this pool. Eight months it took to construct this thing. Doesn’t she notice it anymore?”

He removed one foot from its sheepskin slipper and stood it on ground.  The concrete was cold and embedded with smooth, colder pebbles. Angling forward his foot, Foon dipped his large toe into the pool, a single ripple disturbing the surface. “Good god,” he said. The water almost seemed to bite him.

He looked around the yard, ridiculously, since the wooden fence was eight feet all around. He unfastened his belt, working quickly. He bent to remove his corduroy pants, and pulled off his sweater, the neck catching on his fattening chin.

“You sick thing,” he said. “You rat.”  He sat on the concrete, lowering his legs into water. He let them go numb.

It would be a thin glint of gold. And a small square emerald, for Ireland, for her.

“Why a pool?” he said, ignoring the breath crystalizing in front of his mouth.  “Nobody even swims in it. Why not a cocker spaniel? She always wanted a cocker spaniel. Just a cute, little, fucking cocker spaniel.”

Foon braced himself, counted to three, and plunged himself into the water. The salt stung his eyes and he should have put on goggles. Ice water slipped into the deep crevice of one ear, then the other. He’d have a headache later.

Down, down, down he pushed, moving the water away in frantic, heavy motions, as if pushing himself through Jell-O.  He kicked his legs to keep himself propelled along the bottom of the pool, the tiles coated thinly in a layer of slime.  One time, two times, three times he came up kicking for air.

On the seventh plunge he spotted it, clinging to the mesh of the center drain. The ring’s gold was muted in the murky water, wrapped in a bird’s nest of hair and tiny bubbles.

He kicked himself to the surface and didn’t even hurry himself into a towel. His skin was numb and oddly refreshed. “Well done,” he said, proudly, eyeing the ring in the sun. Water dripped from his elbows, and down the hairs of his legs to the concrete. “Never again. I’ll get her a cocker spaniel.” He went upstairs to sleep.

Everyone had their means of fighting, he knew. Everyone had their expansions and contractions. When Mah would kick his father out of the house, he would come pleading his way back. Even in Indianapolis, even in the dead of winter—there he would be, lowered at the doorstep, not like a man but like a beggar. Around him the layers of snow absorbed the incessant calling of Mah’s name. How could his father kneel on the ice like that? His panicked heart was what kept him warm.

When Foon woke up, the sky was turning pink, and the shadowed of trees had darkened his bedroom. For a moment he didn’t know what time it was, or if hours had passed, or days. He moved to the living room as if checking for burglars.

Evening dimmed the house. Reluctantly Foon switched on the lamps, as if each lighted one reminded him that his wife was still not there. It was nearly six-fifteen, time again for the empty hour, except that today didn’t need one: the empty hour was the whole day.

Foon removed the ring from his pocket and watched its glassiness in the setting sun. He pushed it onto his pinky, holding out his hand to admire it.

He lowered stiffly into the dark wingback chair. Until she returned, he would wait, as unmoving as a dog. “Whatever you want, just name it,” said Foon, his head leveled to the driveway, watching hazy curtains of the window, talking to himself.