SHORT STORIES: ‘New Tricks for Old Dogs’

The night the lights went out in Weehawken, Frank and Beth had been living together in their little one-bedroom apartment on Boulevard East for about two years. It was the end of March, April 1st was only a few days away, and when Beth’s alarm clock woke her up at six a.m. the power was still on, so it just seemed and felt like another Tuesday.

Beth worked days and Frank worked nights, so Frank was asleep while Beth was in the shower wondering where their relationship was heading. Beth wasn’t angry with Frank; she just missed the man that he was when they decided to move in together. And once she was dry, dressed, and ready to leave, she slipped a check for her half of the rent into the right pocket of Frank’s pea coat so he wouldn’t forget to pay the rent on time again, and quietly closed the front door on her way out.

Beth was non-combative like that. And she was aware that whatever she said or did to help Frank remember anything of relative importance was, for the most part, a complete waste of her time and energy. But Beth always tried her best to tolerate Frank’s absent-minded behavior, because she loved him. I mean, it wasn’t like Frank had Alzheimer’s; he just worked too much and needed a vacation, so Beth was kind enough to chalk up the majority of his scatterbrained antics to complete and utter exhaustion. But later that afternoon when Beth returned home from work, she flicked the light switch on the wall beside the front door and the lack of current to each and every switch and socket in their apartment forced her to let out a blood curdling scream that raised the ruff on the backs of every dog and cat within earshot.

“That’s it—I can’t take it anymore—I’m gonna kill you, Frank!” She screamed, and she stomped her right foot so hard she cracked the heel right off her shoe. But as Beth fell down to her knees and into the darkness of Frank’s negligence, she held back her tears as if one tear would sway her from leaving him. Enough was enough, and as far as Beth was concerned, this was one grand scale faux pas that Frank wasn’t going to smooth over with another bouquet of flowers and an awkward grin. Nope, in her mind, it was over between them, and as soon as she could figure out where she was going, she was gone.

***

It was four thirty and the sun was still out, but Frank and Beth’s apartment was in the back of the building, so the light that beamed into the living room windows through their venetian blinds was as dull and dreary as their relationship had become. As usual, Frank was still at work, and he didn’t get home most nights until a little after eleven. Beth was still at her wits’ end. But instead of quickly packing up all of her belongings and booking a room at the Weehawken Sheraton for the night, she decided to sit down on the couch in their living room to calm down a bit and consider her options.

Beth didn’t hate Frank; she just wasn’t sure if she could be with him anymore. But the more she thought about leaving, the more she felt she should stay, because after years of maneuvering in and out of one failed relationship after the other, she was afraid that if she left Frank that she’d spend the rest of her life alone.

A poor reason to stick it out and give Frank a shot at redemption perhaps, but Beth was forty and divorced, and her ex-husband had cheated on her, so considering that all Frank really did was forget to pay the electric bill, his bad behavior was at least forgivable.

It wasn’t only that though, because aside from his shortcomings, Beth truly loved Frank, and from the moment they met, something inside of her told her that he was the one. But Frank was a forty-two year old workaholic, and Beth knew that unless he decided to pick her over his job, that it was only a matter of time before the funk that their relationship was in would sour them to the point where it would take a miracle to revive it.

But miracles happen everyday, some large, some small, and some are so minute we don’t even bat an eye. And when Beth’s cell phone rang in her purse that afternoon, the voice on the other end wasn’t God, it was Frank, but as soon as she held her phone to her ear and he spoke, she blinked her eyes and as if by some miracle all of her anger and fear disappeared.

“You there, Beth?” he said. “Surprise! I’m on my way home, Hun.”

“Oh my God, seriously, Frank? You have no idea how happy I am to hear that. How far away are you?” Beth said, and a few of the tears that she’d held back trickled down her cheeks.

“I’ll be there soon, Hun,” Frank said. “I’m just at the store picking a few things up for us for dinner. You didn’t eat yet did you?”

“No, to be honest, I wasn’t that hungry before you called. But I will be.”

“Ok, well…any requests?”

“Nah, I don’t care. I’m just happy you’re coming home, Baby.”

“Yeah, me too, Sweetie. Ok, well, I guess I’ll see you soon then. Love you.”

“I love you too,” Beth said, and as soon as Frank hung up, she scrolled through her contacts to find the number to PSE&G to try to get the power turned back on before he got home, so that it wouldn’t ruin their evening alone together. But once she found the number and made the call, the hold time to speak to a representative was thirty-five minutes, and Frank was only about twenty-five minutes away—so Beth hung up the phone and took a deep breath to calm her nerves, and by the time she exhaled she was up on her feet rooting around for candles.

***

Now in most instances, twenty-five minutes or so isn’t that much time to weave a web of deception. But for Beth, it was long enough to conjure a bit of a smokescreen and get into the shower to lure Frank into her trap. So when Frank opened the front door of their apartment and stepped inside, he didn’t find it odd that all of the blinds were shut and that there was a candle flickering in every room, he just assumed exactly what Beth wanted him to assume; that she was trying to be romantic.

Of course, when Frank walked into the bathroom to say hello, his first instinct was to put the two bags of groceries that he had with him down, so he could get undressed and join her. But Beth squashed that idea as soon as she heard the bags hit the floor.

“Don’t even think about it buddy,” she said, and she giggled. “We have all night, right? Let’s just wait a bit, ok?”

“Sure babe, whatever you want,” Frank said, and he hung his head a bit disappointed. “Well, I guess I’ll just start dinner then. I got us some lamb chops if you’re wondering.”

“Um, that sounds great, Frank, but…”

“But what? What’s wrong?” Frank said. “You love lamb chops. Don’t you?”

“Yeah, of course I do, but the power’s out, and we have an electric stove, so I guess we’ll just have to wait until it comes back on to cook.”

“What do you mean the power’s out? I just spoke to you like 20 minutes minutes ago. What the hell happened?”

“I don’t know,” Beth said. “The lights flickered a few times and everything went black, so I lit a few candles. What’s the big deal?”

“It isn’t. It’s just weird, that’s all. I finally get a night off and now this.”

“Oh c’mon, Frank, would you just relax and forget about it. It’ll be back on sooner or later,” Beth said, and she turned off the shower, and reached her hand out from behind the shower curtain and grabbed a towel. “Besides, this could be good for us, babe. Maybe now we can actually sit and talk for once without any distractions.”

“Yeah alright, whatever, sounds like fun,” Frank said, and Beth slid the shower curtain open and looked him dead in the eyes.

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing, Hun, I was just kidding around, take it easy tiger,” Frank said, and he put the palms of his hands up. “Look, I’m unarmed.”

“Oh yeah? Well, so am I,” Beth said, and she smiled and opened the towel that she’d wrapped around her body and dropped it on the floor. “We can talk later, if you want.”

“Alright, yeah, later sounds good to me,” Frank said, and he took a few steps toward Beth and she wrapped her arms around him and kissed him.

Of course Beth didn’t like lying to Frank, but she knew that as long as she played dumb and kept him occupied he wouldn’t bother to investigate, and with a bit of luck she could just clear things up in the morning and her little secret would be safe.

But after their romp in the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room, and finally in the bedroom, Beth and Frank fell asleep, and a few hours later when Frank woke up, all of the candles had burned out, and aside from a thin beam of light reflecting off a tile on the kitchen floor their apartment was pitch black.

Beth was still sound asleep, and that beam of light was curiously out of place, because as soon as Frank woke up he tried the lamp on his nightstand to see if the power was back on, but it was dead. So Frank got up to check it out, and when he stepped into the kitchen, he noticed a little hole about the size of a dime in one of the slats near the bottom of the blind covering their kitchen window— so he pulled the cord that raised the blind, and light poured in from a floodlight in the alley, and as Frank gazed into an illuminated window in the apartment building directly across from their kitchen window, he experienced an overwhelming feeling of doom and gloom.

“Oh no, Jesus Christ, I forgot to pay the electric bill. She’s gonna kill me!” he thought, and the floor in their bedroom creaked, so Frank quickly let the blind down and he paused in the dark like a startled animal trying its best to blend into its environment.

“Frank, where are you, Baby? Are you ok?” Beth said, and Frank winced. “Frank?”

“Um yeah, Hun, I’m in the kitchen. I was just thirsty, so I got up to get a glass of water. You can go back to sleep now, Sweetie, all is well,” he said, and Beth didn’t answer, but the floor in their bedroom creaked again, so Frank snatched a coffee can off the counter and he placed it in front of the hole in the blind to block out that little beam of light, because he figured that if Beth found out what he had just found out, that it would ruin their evening alone together. And when he turned around and looked up, Beth was standing right in front of him.

“Wow, the power’s still out, huh? I can’t believe it,” Beth said, and Frank bobbled his head up and down.

“Yup, unbelievable, right? Well, I’m sure it’ll come on sooner or later. You know?”

“Yeah, I’m sure it will,” Beth said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“Worried? Me? Not at all, Hun, it’s not that big of a deal,” Frank said, and he rubbed his stomach. “Hey, you know what? I’m hungry. How ’bout you?”

“Yeah sure, I can eat,” Beth said. “What do we have?”

“Well, there’s a loaf of bread and some cheese in one of the bags that I left in the bathroom. How’s that sound?”

“Perfect,” Beth said. “You know what? There’s a bottle of wine in the fridge and some more candles in the closet, we can have a little picnic on the floor in the living room if you want.”

“Ok sure, Hun, that sounds great, let’s do it,” Frank said. “You only live once, right?”

“Exactly,” Beth said. “Oh my god Frank, this is gonna be so much fun, I’m so excited right now you have no idea. Ok, you go get the bread and the cheese and cut it all up, and I’ll set things up for us in the living room.”

“Alright, sounds like a plan,” Frank said, and Beth took off before he could say another word.

Of course Frank didn’t like lying to Beth, but he knew that as long as he played dumb and kept her occupied she wouldn’t bother to investigate, and with a bit of luck he could just clear things up in the morning and his little secret would be safe.

But after their little picnic on the living room floor, one bottle of wine morphed into two, and Beth and Frank talked and laughed by candlelight until they finally decided to go to bed, and by morning whatever it was that they were lying to each other about didn’t matter anymore, because when they woke up beside each other all of the lights in their apartment were on, and Frank and Beth were both as innocent as their intentions.

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