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A Process

By Maggie Nerz Iribarne


On her way through the familiar lobby, Margaret passed Superintendent Kevin, or K-man, as Phil used to call him. He twisted in his swivel chair, his blubbery hips loose, flowing with the subtle movement. He looked her right in the eye, said, Good morning, but did not produce her name. She forced one confident glance before moving with purpose to the stairwell.  No worries about  K-man, she thought. K-man didn’t remember or notice anything special about her. K-man hadn’t moved from his perch in all the twenty years she’d lived in the building, except to plod across the lobby to shovel doughnut holes down his throat at the occasional coffee social.


The alarmingly flesh-colored paint in the stairwell caused a slight anxiety creep.  Margaret tilted her head to scan the zig zag of railings to the rooftop seventh floor, remembering how as a young graduate student, a newlywed, this building stood as a brick symbol of hope and promise, straight and steady like a bookmark holding a page in a favorite novel. It said, I’ll keep you safe, far away from your silly drunken mother and distant father and perverse brother. In the beginning she believed herself safe within this building, with Phil.


She approached the first floor where the lingering scent of some unknown person’s body odor overcame the space. Phil’s smell, Margaret thought. In the beginning, he was a firefighter, hunky in his black boots and flame resistant jacket. He responded to another of her mother’s small fires, holding court in their linoleum nightmare kitchen and smiling at the sweet sadness of the scene. On their fourth date, he shared how impressed he was with her smarts. He held her thin body in his powerful arms, whispered into her hair, I’ll take care of you, protect you, forever. His smell wasn’t repellent then. It was juicy, real, a comfort.


The place Phil punched in the second floor stairwell wall remained, a spider of cracks emerging from a dented center.  That first time, the time Margaret said she’d like to make Thanksgiving herself to avoid their respective families, she was shocked by Phil’s eruption of anger. As though there was no choice but to knock her senseless if she remained near his rising fist, he pushed on her shoulder with his left hand and punched the wall with his right. Later, after apologizing and enveloping her in a stifling hug, he asked her to read to him from his high school copy of Romeo and Juliet, which she did, although she was a nineteenth century gothic person, not a Shakespeare person, but it was all the same to Phil. At the end of their plodding, plundering sex, she gazed past him, feeling a numbing sadness at the sight of their wedding photo propped on the television stand.


On their old floor, the third, her legs lagged, remembering all the times she didn’t want to return home. She dragged her feet each day, finding one more thing to research at the library, walking one more circle around the block, running one more errand. Phil grew a beard, finished his degree, became a science teacher. His scent turned sour. At four o’clock each day, he held court at the dining room table, a constant, marmoreal presence, his blood red pen hovering above quizzes and tests. At dinner he’d regale her with stories of his prowess in the classroom, how the kids adored him, how someone of his caliber was so necessary. Watching Jeopardy he’d sit tense and upright in his chair, yelling over Margaret’s answers and saying that’s what I meant when the correct answer was called. He’d developed opinions, commented on the wastefulness of Margaret’s endless research compared to his useful profession. After dinner he rose behind her at the kitchen sink, a thick horny tree, bare and breathing, his limbs scratching, entrapping her.


On a whim, Margaret opened the sixth floor door to check for the black cat, but a look to the right and left proved fruitless. Its owner, Mrs. Oponski, had died. Mrs. Oponski’s dead husband had also been angry and unfaithful, so she enjoyed rehashing their unpleasant years in a steady stream of stories. Margaret had once visited her every day, sipping the sweet wine and tasting homemade soups and stews and salads. Mrs. Oponski possessed quite an indoor garden and had a way in the kitchen.

Mrs. Oponski makes things taste good! she said with her thick Polish accent.

Why don’t you leave him? she asked.

I’ll never finish my dissertation if I leave, Margaret said. I can’t support myself. Not yet.

Why can’t you finish?

I don’t know. I want to. I just-

Mrs. Oponski held both Margaret’s hands in hers and recited the Hail Mary in Polish.

Zdrowaś Maryjo…​It was Mrs. Oponski’s idea, what happened to Phil.


Margaret burst through the seventh floor door onto the roof and into the fresh, sweet May air.

She unlocked the defunct greenhouse door with the key Mrs. Oponski gave her, of which she promised there was only one. In a corner she pulled back the tarp laid one year before and there he was, blue-grey Phil, smelling only of dust. He had said he wanted to donate his body to science. Yes, he was coming along nicely, Margaret thought, the skeletonization stage well underway.  She needed to share this day with him. At the worst moments of their marriage, she believed he would never change, she could never change him, their circumstances. Now, look at us both, utterly transformed, she thought. She’d put on a few pounds, colored her hair red, a skeleton tattoo etched on her right shoulder.


Margaret replaced the tarp and locked the door. Her academic gown fluttered as she flew down the stairs, spiraling down the building’s weathered spine, like vertebrae bulging, bursting beneath her hurried steps.


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