The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 21, No. 1

Chutes and Ladders

by Kathryn Harrison

My husband considers the bedroom shutters, all twelve of them closed, latched, taped shut around the edges.
     "You're the one who did that?" he says, pointing.
     The question's unnecessary. With all three children away at school, we are the house's sole occupants. If he didn't tape the shutters closed, I did.
     "It's all right," I say. "It's that special tape the painter left behind, the kind that doesn't hurt the finish."
     "I'm not worried about the wood." His arm falls to his side. "You did that?"
     "Why?" he demands.
     "That's what I said. Why?"
     "I wanted it completely dark."
     "You sit here in the dark?" he says. "Doing what! Crying? Is that what you do?"
     "I can cry in the light well enough."
     "What then?"
     "I was watching a movie, and I wanted the room totally black. You can't see it now, at night. But during the day the light that leaks in around the edges is very distracting."
     "How many?" he asks.
     "How many what?"
     "I don't know."
     "How many?"
     "Altogether, you mean?" I'm sitting in the glider that used to be in our children's room. Under the seat, a nut has come free of a bolt, and it is important to glide just so. Otherwise, the bolt slides out of place and the chair drops down on one side. The nut is on the mantel—or it was—part of the substrate of clutter that eddies around the framed family photographs. Instruction booklets for discarded appliances, chargers for long-gone phones, foreign currencies from forgotten trips, dry-cleaning tickets, taxi receipts, baseball cards, a miscellany of lost buttons, keys without locks. Removing the tape precipitated a fall of previously hidden checkers, most of them black, all of them still on the floor.
     "Come on!"
     "Maybe twenty. I don't know how much TV. It's not like I watch every episode. Broadchurch. Six Feet Under. Harry Potter movies."
     "How many Harry Potter movies?"
     "What difference does it make?"
     "How many?"
     "All of them. I watched them one after another, in order."
     "How many is that?" he asks.
     "That is eight. Plus all the Miyazakis. A.I.—"
     "That's what you do all day, watch children's movies?"
     "A.I. isn't for children."
     "Talking robots? Talking robots are for children."
     "It's not robots. It's Pinocchio set in an apocalyptic future. It's the quest for a soul. Redemption."
     "Oh, God," he says to the ceiling.
     "It wasn't all religious! It wasn't! Bewitched, a lot of Bewitched!"
     "Harry Potter's religious."
     "Whatever," I say. "I guess in a C. S. Lewis–y way." I glide a hair too far; the chair tips left and I go with it.
     "Were you drinking while you watched them?"
     "I don't know. Maybe a couple of times. What difference does it make?"
     I look up from the floor and see his face.
     "Well, what am I supposed to do!" I say. "I can't help what happens!"
     "It's the lying that makes me angry," he says.
     "I don't lie! When did I lie?"
     "I call you from work and I ask, "What are you doing?' And you say all your days are the same."
     "All my days are the same," I say.
     At his expression, I say, "OK, OK. But only by omission. Anyway, you know it's not you I'm faking it for, it's me."
     "It's you?"
     "Who else? Who needs the most convincing!"

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