Pondering Norm by John McDonough

Sitting across from me at the dinner table two weeks into our marriage, my husband Norm scrutinized Popular Electronics, grinning as if he’d found the secret to happiness. Must’ve been 1959. I asked if he wanted more cauliflower and for the first time noticed a small birthmark shaped like Iceland on his prematurely bald scalp. He looked up slowly and stared at me through thick, black-rimmed glasses, held up by a nose a tad too large for his face. I remembered why I’d married him. His eyes were tender.

He went back to reading his magazine.

I was appreciating an uncomfortable habit I had largely ignored through our brief courtship—Norm almost never answered. He let the questions hang. And hang. And hang.

Why had I ignored this uncomfortable habit? I salted my cauliflower and pondered. I wanted an enduring love relationship. Norm came along, told me I was like no other woman, and we cut the wedding cake. But I failed to consider Norm’s knack for lip compression.

The debt collector next door became attractive. Prayed about it. Decided to wait it out. Waited for years.

“You coming to bed?” I stood in the doorway of the garage. Must’ve been the early sixties, when I was still trying to figure out my rocket scientist husband.

Leaning over his work table, his back to me, Norm kept working. I could hear the sound of some tiny tool hobnobbing with some tiny metallic part. I wondered if I should break dishes over the washer. Smash his work table. Run nude.

The metallic hobnobbing stopped. “Tomorrow,” he said. His voice was soft.

“It is tomorrow, honey. It’s one in the morning.”

The metallic hobnobbing started again.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know loneliness can kill you.” I wanted to say it. But didn’t.

In the bedroom, I started a grocery list. The advantages of divorce began to outweigh the disadvantages. Prayed about it. We needed laundry detergent. Prayed some more. Added “laundry detergent” to the list and decided to give it time.

Sunday was laundry day. Whenever I walked out to the garage to dump laundry into the washer, Norm was sitting at his work table. Week after week, we worked in the same room in complete silence. It was kind of romantic.

Must’ve been a Sunday afternoon in 1967 when the dryer dropped dead.

“Norm? Honey?”

He turned from his work table and stared at me.

“Sorry to disturb you, dear. Something’s off with the dryer.”

He got up slowly and walked over to the dryer. He turned the large knob on the control panel and pushed the start button. Silence. He stood there. Staring. Suddenly, he was pulling the dryer out from the wall. With each pull, his body strained, his hips jerked to the right. Then to the left. Then to the right.

I suppressed giggles and pulled off my cardigan. Ran behind the dryer and started pushing it. As Norm pulled and I pushed, I tried to make eye contact with my husband of eight years. But his eyes were fixed on the dryer’s control panel. I could have been an air molecule. I kept pushing.

When we’d gone five feet, Norm suddenly dropped to all fours, opened the dryer door, and peered into the drum like a Basset hound watching a squirrel. I dropped down next to him, and our shoulders bumped. Inside the drum, one of my pink socks lay on top of the pile, the only pink in sight. Norm got up, walked around to the rear of the dryer, and stood there pondering the machinery. I felt raw envy.

Norm took weeks to repair the dryer. So every Sunday I hauled wet laundry out to the clothesline in the back yard. And something very bizarre began to happen. Hanging laundry one afternoon, I heard him yell inside the house.

“Barb?” He sounded panicked.

“I’m out here!” I shouted. Silence.

“Barb? Are you in the house?”

“I’m right outside!” I stood there. Clutching a pair of his undershorts.

Norm threw open the screen door. He walked across the lawn, gripping a tiny orange screwdriver, then stopped near the opposite end of the clothesline.

“What are you doing out here?” His eyes were wide.

I held up his undershorts.

He stared at me awhile. I stared back. He walked across the lawn and into the house, leaving the screen door open behind him.

This happened, with minor modifications, over the next twelve Sundays. Did I mention anything about divorce? I pondered murder. Prayed about it.

The following Sunday, a warm spring day, the roses were in full bloom. I was ready. Hanging laundry in the back yard around two-thirty, I heard Norm yell inside the house, right on schedule.

“Barb?” He sounded panicked.

I let the silence hang between us.

His voice rose to a higher pitch. “Barb?”

I hung.

The screen door flew open, and Norm, holding a pair of pliers, walked across the lawn, then stopped under the opposite end of the clothesline. He stared at me, bewildered. I smiled back.

“Barb,” he gasped. “Why didn’t you answer me?”

“I did answer you. For eight years.”

He looked down at the pliers. I scrutinized the top of his head. Iceland was still there. And I remembered. Something I had never once told him. “I love you.”

He looked up at me, his eyes less bewildered and more sure. “I love you, too.” He walked inside, saw he had left the screen door open, came back, and slid it shut. Then he opened it.

In the 48 years since then, I’ve often remembered Norm in that moment. Staring at me. Alive. Growing up. And I often remember why I married him. His eyes are tender.

John McDonough
JohnJohn McDonough has studied creative writing at Stanford University and has written poems, stories, and plays. His work has been featured in Vox Clara, MUSE Literary Journal, and elsewhere. John is grateful to Ammi Keller for her editing work on “Pondering Norm.”