We’re pleased to present an excerpt from If or When I Call, the new novel from Will Johnson. We’re longtime admirers of Johnson’s work as a musician, including in the groups Centro-Matric and South San Gabriel. With this, his debut novel, Johnson deals with the lives of an estranged couple living in Missouri struggling to raise their teenage son.
I held it together for a long time. I was patient. At least I think I was. But we’d been out of step for most of those last two years. Orbiting around one another, gradually reduced to a couple of flatlining roommates. It got to where it seemed like any little thing could set us off. I’d pick on how he’d put the dishes in the dishwasher. He’d pick at my smoking. I’d pick back at his. He’d pick at how I drove. I’d pick at all his time spent in the garage hidden away, working on god knows what. Then he’d pick at my not dressing girly more often. We kept picking until there wasn’t much left. The fits had gotten more unpredictable, so Parker countered them with heavier drinking. He’d mix up a thirty-two ounce tumbler of Beam and Sprite and head out to the garage at night. Say he was working. Kept a dorm fridge of High Life out there, too. He’d fluff up the recycling container by the fridge with the cereal boxes and newspapers and junk mail on top, and shove his crushed empties under it all. I’d sit in the living room just a wall away, listening to all the clatter. He didn’t think I could hear him trying to cover his tracks, but I could.
We hardly touched by then. Even after he got a handle on the drinking, and even once he started going to the meetings, the fits carried on. I never got better at handling them. I tried to read when they were coming on, but I never could. They averaged about one every six weeks over these past three years. Maybe I could’ve asked more questions, but maybe he could have told me more, too. Instead it just all rotted right there in front of us. It’s like we stood there frozen, just watching a love slowly die. A beast once nurtured, steadily becoming motionless. The TV went on and on. It supplied a kind of static undercurrent. It was like a soundtrack for our denial. Suze Orman or Golden Girls or QVC. I’d lay there covered up in a blanket and Parker would pass through the room. Heading out. Coming back late. That TV drone became my company, and those days I made sure to keep it going. God knows when company’s droning on and on, you can dance around the quiet spaces that make you have to talk about things. So that’s the way we kept it.
The drinking was all the sneaking I could figure. I never found anything else suspicious. No perfume smells or earrings in the floorboard or suspicious hairs on the car seats. No strange calls in the night. But it’s hard to know. Especially once the mind goes there, picturing him seeing someone. With Parker it was always Shane this, and Leon that. It probably was only Shane and Leon. Maybe some of the other guys from work, too. But damn if my mind hadn’t already gone there, and I found once it does it usually stays in some way or another. I only felt more and more like shit about everything I ever was, and everything I’d come to be.
I called and told Maureen I felt like I was really undone. Finally coming apart. I was gaining weight and sleeping strange, and just driving around some nights smoking cigarette after cigarette. I bought stuff I didn’t need, and ate when I wasn’t hungry. I’d sit in parking lots for long stretches of time. Head out near sunset and just find a place to be. I’d come home at lunch and get in bed. I was closing off from my own mama and daddy and uncle Jerris and the few friends I’d made in town. And more than anything I worried about Ben. He’d hole up in his room just reading. I couldn’t blame him. He was like an islander hunkered down, waiting for a storm to pass over or just dissolve. I was closing off from him, and not sure how to tell him. Not even sure what to tell him. In my mind it was like being in a two-year long silent film. One where a bulldozer circled the house like a shark, slowly taking our whole world apart. Piece by piece and day by day. And all the while none of us inside could hardly move or even talk.