White Boulders + Husbands

by Stephen Mortland

White Boulders

They drove to the coast where they booked a room at a motel near the port. The room had green carpeted floors and a pink porcelain sink protruding from the wall next to the bed. They lay together and, after some time, he rolled toward her. Bored and anxious, she received him. They made love on top of the bedsheets. When it was finished, he cleaned himself at the sink which was only a few paces from the bed. 

Hours passed and night turned gray in morning. The world out their window took form and she stirred him. She hadn’t slept at all, or if she’d slept, she slept lightly, never leaving her body, aware, through the night, of morning’s approach. 

They walked to the docks and sat watching, not sure what they were looking for, knowing they would know when they saw it. When nothing changed and no provocation dotted the horizon, he left her to buy a bag of fried, twisted pastries from a German woman manning a cart on the corner. They sat and ate the pastries from the bag until the day was hot and they were joined by old fishermen and young crabbing professionals preparing long boats with cages. 

They returned to the motel room and made love again. This time it was more hectic than before, and a little cruel. She wouldn’t look at his face and he finished before she felt anything like pleasure. 

Coming out of the bathroom, she saw that he had taken the letter from his bag and was rereading it. He set it on the mattress when he was finished, and she took it up. Her towel fell, bunching around her ankles. She read the letter again for herself. 

“It could be that the dates are wrong,” he said, while she was still reading. 

They didn’t make love that night but sat on the bed watching the television. The black box was bolted at an odd angle in the upper corner of the room. He kept the remote balanced on his bent knee as he clicked back-and-forth between channels. 

The dome of her head pressed against his hip, and before she was asleep, she was thinking about the port, performing lazy mental math with dates. She was prepared to sleep and dream about the waters rising, separating, the waters around the port lifting to swallow everything below and a figure—terrifying and wonderful—riding on the crest of those waters. But when she did finally fall asleep, she didn’t dream at all, and she woke often in the night, afraid the sun had risen without their realizing it.

He bought pastries from the German woman on their way to the water the next morning. They sat at a different dock this time, at its furthest edge, dangling their legs over the side. She broke her pastry and dropped the crumbs in the water for fish or seals to come and grab, but nothing came, and the crumbs grew soggy and sank. He watched the crumbs and looked at her scornfully, but he didn’t say anything. 

Before they left for the coast, they had considered selling their few remaining possessions. Neither of them owned very much worth selling, but it would have secured for them a meager reserve while they waited. At the time this felt faithless and besides, they figured, it would have taken too long to orchestrate.

“We can go to your mother’s if we need to,” he said. “It’s not so far.”

The next morning—their third at the water and nothing changing—she approached one of the men at the port. She had noticed him glancing sometimes in her direction while she sat waiting. 

Going with the man, she didn’t feel like she was losing anything at all. She didn’t yet fully understand her circumstances. What was most unclear to her was why nothing had happened. Time was a little broken now, and her body was a thing that had outstayed its ending. What she did with it, she reasoned, mattered hardly at all. 

The man from the port kept wiping his nose with the back of his hand. The money he gave her felt like pretend money. 

She remembered something she once read about the white boulders of heaven—or maybe it was words from a song. 

When she returned to the motel room, he was watching television again. There was an apple and a banana on the bed beside him. 

“We should eat something healthy,” he said, nodding toward the fruit. 

“Why?” she asked.

On the fifth day, the sky was cloudy and it looked like it might rain. The gray water was nearly the complexion of the sky, so that it looked like one was mirroring the other, but the two were only coincidentally aligned. 

They sat on the dock and studied the currents, or watched movement in the clouds, or stared at the fine line where the water met the sky. It was the fifth day, they thought. And they thought other thoughts like this as well. 

After some time waiting, he went to buy more pastries from the cart on the corner. When he returned with the bag in his hand, she was no longer sitting on the edge of the dock. He stood where she had sat and stared into the water below. The only movement in the water was the water moving against the thick wooden legs of the dock. 


I have seen how mother’s husband looks at me. When I am in the kitchen mixing a salad, or when I pass as he is lounging on the couch, he stares, tight-lipped. He watches my hands as if to see what they’re up to. I pretend not to notice, because that’s how I was raised, but I notice.

When mother is around, it’s a different story. He does husband things for her. When she is in the room, it’s almost as if I don’t exist. He rubs her shoulders, he orders the mess she’s made. He never interrupts. When she returns from the store, he carries her bags inside. 

Mother’s husband practices respectable hobbies like wood-cutting, playing scales on a 12-string guitar, or fiddling with an amateur radio. He is often ready with little surprises. When mother’s in the mood for it, he does other husband things too. 

In other words, he is a good husband and he is, by appearances, mostly dependable. 

Father’s husband never notices anyone but father. He is always following father around, cupping father’s elbow or holding onto the hem of his Oxford. Father’s loafers are always shined and there is never an absence of fresh pressed tobacco in his pipe. Father’s husband is as dependable as mother’s husband, but he never stares and he takes up less space. 

I have two husbands for myself, but no one knows about the second. They know about the first husband because he has been with us for nearly as long as I can remember. The second I keep behind the house. The two husbands look almost identical, so I sometimes let the second husband masquerade as the first so long as he is careful not to speak or do anything that would warrant unwanted scrutiny. I have the two husbands, and I might have a third with the way mother’s husband looks at me. 

Sometimes mother feels the need to pull me aside and have a talk. She has a colossal sense of duty and it extends to her love for me. When she pulls me aside to have a talk, she quizzes me about my friendships or asks if I am happy in my current situation. If she can think of nothing to say or ask me, she tells me to play my clarinet and listens to hear how I am progressing musically. Inevitably during these pulled aside talks, I catch her staring past, looking out the window into the yard where maybe her husband is standing staring back. I notice that she is no longer listening to my answers or to my playing on the clarinet, but I don’t say anything because that’s how I was raised. There are other ways of getting her attention, like hitting a sour note or brushing her knee with my own.

I could say something to mother during one of these talks. I could say something about the way her husband stares. Even if she didn’t believe me, saying it would make her look closer and then she would notice for herself. But mother is old and she has only the one husband. It would be cruel for me to make her suffer.  

Stephen Mortland‘s writing has appeared in NOON Annual, New York Tyrant, Fence Magazine and elsewhere. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

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