That’s what the man called it, when she was bugging him to do something. He’d say, “Quit shrewing at me, I’m doing it!”
He knew that he was accessing old memories – when they used to date in high school, when they kept at it on and off through college, that’s what she’d say about her mom, man, I wish she’d quit shrewing at me.
Once they were married, her mom quit shrewing, and would instead bite her tongue, having developed a knowing, tight-lipped smile that said, I tried to tell you about this guy. And so resentment began to develop within her like a pearl forming around a grain of sand, and he knew about the pearl of resentment, but she didn’t.
She’d ask him about the lawn right when he walked in the door, didn’t you say you’d mow the lawn yesterday? Using a conversational tone, like she was just gathering information on the subject, out of curiosity, and the dishonesty of it all, the accusation dressed as an innocuous inquiry – it enraged him.
So he would ignore her, literally. Try jumping out of bed at five o’clock in the morning, lugging crates of ceramic tile around job sites for ten hours, then come on home and see how interested you are in passive-aggressive lawn inquiries.
He could do passive-aggressive, too. He’d use a jovial tone, like they were in on the same joke. “Quit shrewing at me, damn! I’m getting to it.” Winking at her, so she couldn’t get mad.
Then he wouldn’t mow the lawn. He wouldn’t do it until it occurred to him without someone shrewing at him about it. Until he had time to do it without feeling like he worked for a flooring company, and also for his wife.
Sometimes she’d ratchet it up to real shrewing, and that’s when he’d really hit her with it. “Quit shrewing at me, you sound like your damn mom. You ain’t my mom!”
The way he saw things, there was a lot about their marriage that wasn’t equal. She had a job, but it wasn’t no fifty hours a week, and she didn’t come home covered in grout dust. She didn’t have to wear a back brace and Teflon kneepads, crawling around on the concrete with a trowel.
She dealt with the kids most of the time – he knew that was work, but it was the kind of work where you’re in charge, and you can watch TV and take a nap. It wasn’t equal work, and she didn’t pay the bills with it. She used her money for her own things, and for gymnastics classes and 4-H. What was equal about working fifty hours a week, and barely having enough for a decent bar tab on Friday night?
So when she told him she was leaving, that she had a new guy who sold insurance across town, that she was taking the kids with her but she’d drop them off on the weekends if he wanted them, and if they wanted to be dropped off – when she told him at the kitchen table with the phone in her hand as if he might attack her or something, he was genuinely excited, and told her so.
He said, whatever. I can’t wait to hear what my head sounds like when all the shrewing stops.
I know, she told him, and she left, leaving eight years behind her like a contractor walking off a job site.
And it was quiet, that’s how it was. The man had a blast. He’d have his buddies over after work, and they’d play cards and crank the music and later if they felt like it, they’d go out. And he had plenty of money left over – the grocery bill was so much smaller with three mouths out of the house.
He’d fall asleep on the couch with the television on, and not have to hear about it while he made some eggs in the morning, leaving the pan in the sink. It didn’t take long to clean up, either, when he got home, and everything was where he’d left it. No one picked up his stuff and “put it away” for him.
But as time went by, little things began to creep into view, things he didn’t know how to deal with. A gray ring began to form around the toilet, for instance, at water level – what the hell was that? He’d try to blast it off of there with his urine stream every time, and spit the mouth wash in before he flushed. It was blue, why not?
There were groceries he had completely forgotten about, groceries like coffee filters and salt and even the same mouthwash he’d been spitting into the toilet. You had to go to the store and buy those things. And although he could empty the trash cans and replace the bags, do the dishes and put them away, he realized that he had never mopped a floor in his life.
Had she been mopping? The man didn’t think he’d ever seen her mop a floor, but there sure was something wrong with the floor, now that she was gone. It was developing a film that wasn’t quite sticky, but was certainly no longer smooth. And evidently dusting was a real thing that added up over time, if you didn’t do it.
The man told himself, who cares. I’d rather see a little dust and learn to mop a floor, than listen to all that shrewing. But there was something forming around the idea now, like a mysterious black pearl from story books, forming around the grain of sand that used to be his wife.
When the cable went out one day, he realized that not only had he forgotten to pay the bill, but that the first two months she’d been gone were the only two times he had ever done so. And because of his rocking parties with his pals and his generous bar tabs, he realized he wouldn’t have the money to pay it for a while, and had to watch old DVDs like Get Smart and Lord of the Rings.
When the kids came over, they were bored, and told him so as he lay on the couch. The wanted to go to the pool or the park, and he didn’t have the energy. Also, just leaving the house with them made money fly out of his pockets. He’d tell them, if I can entertain myself around here, then so can you.
The black pearl grew as the months went on, and one day he fell ill, and had to go to work anyway, and plowed through the day with his sinuses sealed shut, and there was no one at home to make him any soup or anything. He was determined to take care of himself, though, and he stopped by the grocery store to buy some Campbell’s and tissues, on the way home.
Once he was there, he realized he’d forgotten the crackers, and when he went to the pantry, he couldn’t find any. He yanked open a decorative wooden box labeled tater bin, and leaned it toward himself to look inside, as it was the last place he hadn’t looked for crackers, and then the lid snapped off of it, and he fell backward, spilling the bin all over his feet and onto the floor.
It was full of rotten potatoes, exploding with maggots, potatoes that had been festering for God knew how long, and the tiny white worms clung to his socks and the hairs of his shins, and wiggled in an expanding cloud toward the walls, and under the refrigerator, and the man threw up on himself, there on the floor with the worms.
It was then that he experienced his cathartic black pearl of realization – that perhaps his needs exceeded his merits, and that there were so many things the woman had been doing all this time, things he had never noticed.
That he’d never be able to count them.
That he’d never be able to simply do the things that she had been doing, to take care of him and the house, in a way that would make things the same again.
That the world was quiet now, without her around, but that it was empty, too.
That she’d taken with her many things that he’d never valued, even though he should have, and that it wasn’t as simple as he thought, to fill her shoes.
The worms began to wriggle up his pants legs, and he had to jump to his feet, nearly slipping in his own vomit, to shake them out again, and the man had his first non-selfish thought in many years.
He thought, damn, I wonder if this was what she was shrewing about, all along?