You’d think doing time would age a person, but it was the opposite with Ned. He came out shrunk, both shorter (prison is bad for your posture) and skinnier (he’d lost twenty pounds). His skin had the pale, almost see-through quality you often see in children, and the eyes in his thinner face were wide and round and habitually unfocused, the eyes of someone dreaming on his feet. He got carded by the new waitress at Lords & Ladies. He was a twenty-eight-year-old ex-con who looked like a helpless dumb kid. Worse, he acted like one.
Rosario had promised to wait for him, a promise that, as she liked to remind everyone, she had kept. But after a year of having to do everything but wipe his butt for him, she’d had enough.
I got a right to life, she said. No point asking her to be more articulate since it was only too clear what she meant.
Shena didn’t blame Rosario. She figured that, in Rosario’s place, she’d probably be dumping Ned too. Not that Rosario had ever been anything like Shena’s favorite person. In spite of everything, Shena still thought Ned was too good for Rosario. And right now she hated Rosario to death. Right now she wanted to snap a picture of Rosario and send it to all her friends so they could see how disgusting she looked in that top. Every guy in the diner was finding some excuse to walk past their booth. One even pretended to drop his baseball cap.
It was at the wedding that Shena had first noticed, because of the dress—more like what you’d wear on the honeymoon than to the church—that Rosario’s breasts and Rosario’s ass-cheeks were exactly the same shape and size. Now, as Rosario leaned forward so that her breasts literally sat down on the table, Shena had a hard time not seeing something more obscene. Also, the cross she was wearing had got embedded in her cleavage. It looked like she’d been stabbed in the chest with a teensy dagger. Or—
I’m not saying I won’t still be there, Rosario said. I’ll always be Ned’s friend.
Shena looked away from Rosario and into the future. Rosario would still be there. She and Ned would stay friends. But soon Rosario would start finding excuses, and they would see each other less and less. Then a new man would enter the picture, and one day Rosario would explain that this man, the one she was hoping to start over with—and how could you hold that against a woman with the best of life (motherhood) still ahead—was the jealous type. Also the macho type: if she didn’t stop seeing Ned, he’d kill them both. After that, whenever Ned ran into Rosario, which would happen cruelly often, he’d torture himself by mentally measuring her stomach. One day he’d sit staring blankly at some papers that had been shoved under his nose until an impatient finger tapped on where to sign, and he’d sign. Then he’d lay down the pen, and he’d lay down his head and sob.
Fuck her, Neddy. You were always too good for that cunt.
Minus the last bit, which went unsaid, this was exactly how things turned out.
If he was going to live with her, she’d better make some rules. No sleeping half the day away, no hours and hours binging on games or TV. Of course she knew how hard it was going to be for him to find a job (even before his arrest it’d been hard), but he’d have to make more of an effort. Meanwhile, there was plenty of work to be done. Not that she was expecting him to help with the rent just yet, though God knew she could use some of that. But how about cleaning the house. How about picking up the litter passersby threw on the lawn and sometimes even as far as the front step.
Since Scottie had moved out, a lot of things had piled up. The truth was, she wouldn’t have wanted anyone but flesh and blood to see how far matters had got out of hand. Her bedroom door had lost its knob, and the window was covered with plastic. More of her clothes were on the closet floor than up on the hangers. The fridge and the kitchen cabinets held stuff with sell-by dates from the Stone Age. The microwave was totally broken. Actually, quite a few things were broken. Some things (microwave) had broken all by themselves. Others (bedroom window, bedside lamp, kitchen chair) had been part of the damage from Hurricane Scottie, during which two of Shena’s fingers had also managed to get broken, which was a big deal not just because it hurt like hell but because it meant ending up behind the counter at the discount jewelry store in the same mall where up till then she’d been happily (enough) cutting hair.
Not that this part of the story was something Ned needed to know, because it would only complicate things should Scottie realize what a mistake he’d made, what a fool he’d been, and come a-riding back and a-begging her (she tried to picture him on his knees but it wouldn’t work because she wanted to be looking up at him) to forgive him and (maybe here down on one knee?) to be his bride.
Actually, it wasn’t anyone’s goddamn business. At the salon she’d told them she’d slammed her hand in a door, and the way Jackie looked at her and then down at the floor made Shena want, broken fingers or not, to punch her lights out.
So the point was, the house needed repairs. (It was the roof that needed the most repairs, but that was the landlord’s job, and finding him, well, good luck with that, and she-who-is-often-late-with-the-rent can’t exactly be she-who-demands-her-tenant-rights.) Ned was nowhere near as handy as Scottie but at least he could—
Hey! Yoo-hoo, over here! Focus, Ned, focus. Did you even hear what I said?
His caseworker said it was a kind of PTSD. That was not a good thing for the caseworker to have said. It made him feel like crap. How many people could he name who’d served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or both, and who weren’t doing so hot since they returned? Including his old buddy and brother-in-law (ex-brother-in-law), Cooper. Though, come to think of it, Cooper, now far away in blue Hawaii with a new girlfriend (what was that word again?) and his own little surf shop, seemed to be doing okay.
Wahini. Man, do not say that word in Shena’s hearing.
Yes, to answer the caseworker’s question, he knew exactly why he felt like crap. He didn’t feel like he had any right to have PTSD. Because he hadn’t exactly served his country, had he. All he’d done was seriously fuck up.
But that’s what Mrs. Wilson said too, remember? Shena reminded him.
Mrs. Wilson was their old social worker. Ned remembered that it was a long time ago, when he and Shena were still in school.
It’s not just for soldiers, Shena said. She said you and me both had PTSD.
Medication had helped Cooper, as Ned recalled, so when the caseworker sent him to a doctor who gave him a prescription—a bunch of prescriptions—he was okay with that. Shena was okay with it, too. She didn’t know about the other pills, but it could not hurt at all to have some extra oxazepam around.
She had to feed him the pills herself every day, or he’d forget to take them.
This is an excerpt. The full text of Sigrid Nunez's "Innocent Mistakes” can be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 2.
Sigrid Nunez has published six novels, including A Feather on the Breath of God, The Last of Her Kind, and, most recently, Salvation City. She is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. Her seventh novel will be published in 2018.