Lewis Turco    

THE SUBSTITUTE WIFE

      When Bill Mahaney's wife didn't come out of the travel agency after an hour, he decided to go in after her.  He was tired of sitting in the car in the parking lot.  It was chilly, and every now and then he had to start the engine to warm up.  But when he went in, stood near the door and looked around for her, he didn't see her.  It was a small place and he ought to have been able to spot her immediately, so he approached the first desk and asked for her.
     "Did you see where Mrs. Mahaney went?" he asked the neat redhead who was sitting there diddling with the keyboard of her computer.
     "Who?" she asked.
     "My wife, Martha Mahaney.  She came in to buy a ticket about an hour ago.  A ticket to Philadelphia."
     The redhead got up.  "She didn't talk to me.  Wait, I'll ask the other clerks."  Bill admired the rear view as she walked away.  She came back shaking her head.  "Nobody by that name has been in here this afternoon," she said.
     Bill just stared at her.  Finally he said, "What are you talking about?  I watched her open the door and walk in."  He beckoned the young woman over to the window and pointed.  "That's my car there, that white Bonneville.  You can see it's facing your door in the first row." He looked at her and frowned.  "I watched her come in here, and I never saw her come out."
     The girl shrugged.  "Maybe she got past you while you were daydreaming or something. Why don't you check some of the other shops in the mall?  I'm sorry." She turned and walked back to her desk. Mahaney stared at her for a full minute and then left.  It was the only explanation that made sense — Martha must have gone into another shop.
     But she hadn't.  Bill went up and down the mall, walking into, around, and out of each of the shops, asking at the smaller places, pacing the aisles of the larger ones.  Martha was nowhere.  After about two hours he'd had enough.  "What the hell!" he said, the emotions of concern and irritation contending in him.  Could she have gone home without him somehow?  He found a public phone booth and called — the kids ought to have gotten home from school by now.
      And they had.  Billy answered.
     "This is dad, pal.  Is your mother home?"
     "I think so," his son said.  "Mom?" he yelled.  Bill could hear someone answer from somewhere else in the house.  Then Billy came back on.  "Yeah, do you want to talk to her?"
     Furious, Bill said, "No, I'll be right home."  He hung up.  Twenty minutes later the Bonneville rolled to a stop in his driveway and Bill Mahaney got out.  Billy was in the front yard playing catch with his pal Donny from up the street.  "Is your mom home?" he asked.
     "Yep," Billy said, but Bill was already through the front door.
      As soon as he was in the hall he called, "Martha?  Martha!  Where are you?"  He tossed his cap onto the hallstand.  "What's the idea of leaving me sitting there in the parking lot at the mall?"
     "What mall?"  The voice came from behind him and he spun on his heel.  "And who's Martha?"  Bill's heart skidded to a halt and then thumped loudly as he stared at the petite brunette who had just come out of the living room doorway.
      It was several seconds before Bill could get his voice to work.  "Who the hell are you?" he asked, "and what are you doing in my house?  Where's Martha?"
     "What are you talking about, and who's Martha?" she said, putting her hands on her hips and cocking her head.
     "Martha's my wife.  She left me sitting in my car at the mall, and now you show up."  Bill looked around to see if this was a joke or something.  Was it his birthday?  No.  "Is this a trick or what?" he asked.
     "Bill, stop it."  The strange woman approached him and put her hand out to touch his chest, but Bill stepped back.  "I'm your wife, and my name is Alicia.  You're the one playing a trick, aren't you?  Cut it out.  It's scaring me."
     "Mom, where's the grape jelly?" Bill's daughter Annie asked as she came out of the kitchen door at the end of the hall.  "I can't find it."
     Bill half-turned toward her.  "Ann, come here."  The twelve-year-old girl approached.  "Hi, dad," she said.  "Have you seen the grape jelly?"
     "Annie, who is this?"  Bill pointed at Alicia.  His daughter gave him a quizzical look.
     "Is this a game?" she said.
      "No game.  Who is this?"
     "Oh, for heaven's sake," Alicia said and started to leave.
     "Stop!" Bill said.  "Annie?"
     "That's mom, of course.  Quit it, dad."
     Bill strode to the front door, opened it, and called, "Billy, come in here a minute."
     "Hang on," Billy told his friend and came running to the stoop.  "What's up, dad?"
     Bill stepped aside and pushed his son into the hall.  "Who is that woman?" he asked pointing to Alicia.
     Billy looked at her then at his father.  "That's mom," he said.  "Naturally."  He hesitated for a moment before he turned and ran back out the door to resume playing catch.
     "That does it," Bill said. He brushed past Annie and went into the kitchen.  He was dialing 911 when Alicia caught up with him.
     "What are you doing?" she asked.
     "Calling the cops," he said.  "I don't know who you are, and I don't know what you've done to Martha and my kids, but I'm going to find out."
     She didn't try to stop him.  "Oh, Bill," she said.  "What's happened to you?"  She began to cry.
     "Send a squad car to 56 Soter Road," Bill said into the mouthpiece.  "Domestic dispute."  And he hung up.  The police were out in front and knocking on the door inside six minutes.
     "What's going on, folks?" the sergeant asked.  He stood in the kitchen with his partner and looked around, puzzled.  "Doesn't seem to be much action here.  What's the matter, ma'am?"
     "Ask him," Alicia said wiping her eyes.
     Bill pointed at her where she sat on the tall stool.  "She's done something with my wife.  She's missing.  I think she's been kidnapped."  Annie stood by the sink staring at him.  Billy was in the doorway to the hall doing the same.
     "I'm his wife." Alicia said.  "I don't know what's going on."
     The sergeant hesitated.  "Kids?"
     "She's our mother," Annie said.  Billy nodded.
     "She's done something to them, too.  My wife's name is Martha and she says hers is Alicia."  Bill was trembling with anger, deeply frowning.
     "Time for some I. D." the sergeant said.  "We'll start with you, mister."
     Bill took the wallet out of his hip pocket and passed it to the officer who held up his hand.
     "Take out your driver's license and pass it to me," he said.  "Where's yours, Missus?"
     Alicia went to get her purse.  She came back with her license and a framed photograph.  She gave both to the policemen who passed the articles back and forth between them.
     "You're William Mahaney?" the sergeant said to Bill.
     "Yes."
     "These your kids?"
     Bill nodded.  So did Annie and Billy.
     "And you're Alicia Mahaney?"
     She nodded.
     "No way!" Bill shouted.  "She's no Mahaney."
     "Then how do you explain this?" the officer asked and passed Bill the photograph.
     He looked at it and boggled.  It was a wedding picture of Alicia and himself standing in front of the family's church.  "It...it's fake," he said at last.  "It's got to be fake."  He put his hand to his forehead and found he was sweating profusely.  What was happening to him?
     The sergeant handed the picture and her license back to Alicia, and the other officer gave Bill his license back.  "Listen, mister, you need some help.  This is your family."  Turning to Alicia, "I'd get him to a doctor if I were you.  Come on," he said to his partner, "we'll write it up.  See you folks," and he headed up the hall tousling Billy's hair on the way by.  The other cop followed as did Bill.  After he had closed the door behind them he went into the living room and sat down in an armchair.  How could he disbelieve the photograph and his own children?  But he missed Martha something terrible.  He was filled with anguish for her fate.  He moaned and began to weep.
     His family gathered around his chair to comfort him.  "It's okay, dad," his daughter said.  His son patted his arm.  Alicia stood behind him, put her arms around his neck and kissed him on the ear.
     Bill sighed, but there was something funny about Billy's hand resting on his arm.  Bill looked up.  He didn't recognize the boy who was standing there, and the girl beside him was a stranger, too.  "Annie!" he said in a strangled voice.  But the girl just looked at him with her big blue eyes.  "Billy!  What's happened to you?"
     "My name is Joe, dad, you know that," he said.  "And that's Elizabeth," pointing to his sister.  "Lizzie the lizard. You're scaring us, dad.  What's the matter?"
     Bill could only sit and listen to his heart racing.  "Come with me," Alicia told him.  She came around and took his hand.  "Let me put you to bed.  Take it easy."  She smiled.  "We love you and we want you to get better."
     "Maybe you've been working too hard, right, mom?"  Elizabeth said.
     "I'm sure that's it."
     Bill sat looking at them.  He sat like that for a long time.

Copyright © 2009 Lewis Turco


Lewis Turco (right) receiving from Dana Gioia the Fitzgerald Prosody Award at the West Chester (Pennsylvania) University Poetry Conference, “Exploring Form and Narrative,”  Friday, June 6, 2008.


Lewis Turco, is the author of The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics.  His book The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories was published last
year by www.StarCloudPress.com and reviewed on-line in www.PerContra.net. He is also author of The Book of Dialogue: How to Write Effective Conversation
in Fiction,
etc., www.UPNE.com, 2004, a new edition and expansion of
Dialogue, Writer's Digest Books, 1989. His stories can currently be found
on-line at www.PerContra.net and  www.nightsandweekends.com. His latest book, Satan’s Scourge: A Narrative of the Age of Witchcraft in England and New
England 1580-1697
, has just been published from Star Cloud.