Harlan Ellison

The Silence of Infidelity

WILLIAM: thirty-one years old, five feet ten inches tall, weighing one hundred and seventy-seven pounds. A slight bulge just under his belt due to an affinity for pizza with pepperoni. A man who once considered elevator shoes, though he didn’t really need them. A man with heartburn and a bank account of $612.08, jointly entered in his wife’s name. A thin scar that runs from his wrist to his inside elbow, which he got in his early twenties, in a threshing machine on an Iowa farm. William was happily married to

Madelaine: twenty-nine years old, five feet six inches tall, weighing just over one hundred and twelve. A woman with rich chestnut-colored hair, and friendly brown eyes. A comfortable woman, who kept a clean home, and worked part-time in a shipping concern, as ledger recorder. A woman with definite tastes in reading matter and the type of breakfast cereal kept in the apartment. She had two children, both girls, named Roxanne and Beth, whom she treated fairly, impartially, and lovingly. She had seen her husband rise from stock clerk to manager to district advisor for a group of cooperative grocery stores. She felt deep within herself that she had aided his climb by being a good wife and an understanding companion. They had been happily married for ten years.

There was a third person.

The Woman.

“We’re out of ketchup, Bill,” Madelaine’s voice reached him in his chair before the television set. The smell of lamb chops filled the five-room apartment, and the kitchen seemed a magical country composed of nothing but delicious odor.

“Want to send Roxy down?” he asked, turning his attention from the news.

Madelaine’s voice was ever so lightly tinged with worry. “No. Bill, would you mind running to the corner to get some? The neighborhood’s getting pretty wild, and you just never know. We’ll be eating in a few minutes … would you?”

He swung up out of the chair with a short bemused half-chuckle. “Sure, honey. Be back in five.”

He didn’t bother to slip on a topcoat, it was the end of October, and though the nippiness was in the air, still it was warm enough for a stroll to the Puerto Ricanbodega on the corner for a bottle of ketchup.

He rang for the elevator, and lit a cigarette as he waited. If the blankness of a mind constantly thinking can be called blankness, then blank his mind was. No thoughts surged to the top, yet a vague feeling of security, of relaxation, ran through him.

On the street, he walked briskly, stepping in and out of the shadows without conscious awareness of them. Yet his thoughts agreed with what Madelaine had said. The once-wealthy neighborhood had deteriorated. Stately apartment buildings had been cut up into single rooms and rented out to Puerto Ricans, fresh from the boats. And though he had no malice in his mind, though he did not dislike a people for its race, still they were new to American New York, and their habits were not the most sanitary.

Madelaine had been wise in not allowing Roxanne to walk these streets, even at seven o’clock.

In the bodega he said a friendly hello to the Puerto Rican owner, a drooping-moustached fellow named (inevitably) Juan. They exchanged cursory pleasantries over the counter as Juan slipped the ketchup into a bag, and accepted the coins.

William stepped out of the bodega and crossed the street against the light. Far down, at 80thStreet, a stream of cars double-eyed brightly toward him, and he stepped to the curb rapidly.

He walked up from the corner, toward his apartment building, passing the bus stop. The Woman was there, at the bus stop, waiting. He saw her as he approached, and even then his interest rose.

It was that simple, without fanfare and without preamble. She was tall, slightly taller than he, wearing black patent-leather high heels that seemed a trifle higher than any he had seen before. Her legs were slim and well formed, what he could see of them below the tweed of her skirt. The wedge of skirt that showed beneath the thigh-length leather car coat was tasteful, and matched perfectly, somehow, with the steel-gray leather. She had the collar up, and it collided with the shoulder-length blond hair that fell in soft waves.

Her face was half-turned away from him, and he only caught a sheer glance of uptilted nose, blue eye, and full mouth. It was, more than anything, the way she had her feet set, that made him stop.

As he passed, he looked back over his shoulder, and saw she had one foot turned outward, the way the fashion models do it when they are being studiedly fashionable. He stopped and there was something about the street light that cast a sheen across those few inches of nyloned legs. His eyes rose to her face; she stared at him fully.

He gripped the ketchup bottle tighter, for she didn’t turn away, as a woman should, who is being stared at by a stranger on the streets. She watched him intently, and there was an arch to her well-formed eyebrows. Her eyes said something to him. William was by no means a deeply perceptive man. His blood speeded up, and he felt a quivering in his legs. Thoughts flashed in and out of his mind like bright fish in a clear stream.

Then the Woman smiled.

Her full, rich red mouth curved upward, and her hands, which had hung at her sides till now, rose to smooth her hips. At that moment the thought crossed William’s mind that she was a prostitute.

But as her hands moved, he retracted the thought. No, not a prostitute. A Woman, yes, but not a whore.

Hardly without realizing he was moving, he stepped back toward her. Very close they stood for an instant, and he saw the swell of the car jacket over her breasts. Her figure was hidden by the bulk of the steel-gray coat, yet he was certain it must be magnificently proportioned.

He could smell the faint muskiness of her, and it filled his head with an aphrodisia that made him stagger mentally.

As he stood next to her, staring into her symmetrical, unlined, sensuous face, she wet her lips. It was a slick, quick, razored movement that abruptly brought to mind pictures of women lifting their skirts, showing their bodies. It was a completely sexual movement, and the pale tonguetip slipped out and in again in an instant.

He knew then that she wanted him to come with her.

Not a word had been spoken, yet he knew what her eyes said, knew what the positioning of her feet meant, knew what that wicked little tongue had ordered in its journey.

She turned away and walked back down toward the corner, looking over her shoulder once, to let him know she was leading him. He started after her, and the thought of Madelaine and the kids and the dinner scurried out of his way. He watched the fine taut line of movement as her legs scissored inside her skirt, and the pain hit him in the deepest, most remote area of his belly. The Woman was reaching him.

She turned up the steps of the one brownstone apartment house, and he followed quickly. She opened the door with a key, and led him up three flights of stairs, to another door.

She opened this one with the same key, and reached around the inside of the jamb, flicking on the lights.

He stepped inside, and she shut the door, locking it quickly.

The apartment was tastefully furnished, without being either ultra-modern or period. It was a conglomeration of furniture, the kind of assortment a person collects having moved many times in many cities.

She took his hand then, and removed the bottle of ketchup in its brown paper bag, setting it on a table near the door. She led him to a sofa, where he sat down, unbuttoning his jacket and jerking up the creases of his pants leg as he sat.

She walked quickly to the portable radio plugged into the wall, and turned it on. It warmed as she stood there, and a newscaster’s voice broke in. She turned the dial rapidly, bringing in a program of quiet dinner music, but the sound of the newscaster’s voice had started him back along the track of the past ten minutes. It had been no longer than that since he had left his apartment, left Madelaine with the lamb chops, and Roxanne spoon-feeding Beth.

Yet he didn’t seem to care. He was making as big a decision as he had ever made. He was changing the course of his life, and he knew it. He was settling a barrier between himself and the life he had led with Madelaine, as surely as he sat here, yet he didn’t care.

He knew this was the way it was,because it was.

He did not consider the idea of sin, and he did not consider the idea of adultery. This was real, it was true, it was the way he must live.

Then the Woman turned away from the radio, and unwound the belt that knotted her car coat closed. She stripped off the jacket and hung it carefully in the closet.

At that instant he wondered where she had been going, to be waiting at the bus stop, and if it could have been so unimportant an engagement that she could break it to bring him here like this, a stranger.

But he also knew, in that instant, that she had wanted him … not just any man, not anybody, but him

Him, pure and simple and direct and true. The way it should have been. The way it was meant to be. The way the world saw it and the way it was going to be. The way it was.

She faced him, and he was assured of her beauty. It was not a cheap or a superficial beauty. She was a handsome Woman, right through and down as deep as anyone could wish. She was not ashamed, for there was nothing to be a ...

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