By the end of the first chapter of Stewart O'Nan's new novel, an old woman has been killed after a bungled break-in at her house. The two burglars are behind bars. And the pregnant wife of one of those men is about to get the phone call from jail that will change the course of her life for the next 28 years.
O'Nan's The Good Wife is a story about life on the outside of the prison system — a story about patience and waiting.
O'Nan tells Melissa Block that in the beginning chapter, "I knew I wanted to have sort of the book in miniature right there. Something that would show her faith and her constancy, and the ability to get through the worst. And so as the book opens, she's waiting for [her husband] in the dark, which sums up what she does for the rest of the book in a way."
The first chapter of The Good Wife is excerpted below:
Book Excerpt: 'The Good Wife'
Patty's asleep when it begins, waiting for him in the dark.
She goes to Tommy's game to see him play. He scores his first goal of the season, but she's pregnant and can't drink, so there's no reason for her to go out with the rest of the team after. She's tired, her back hurts from work and sitting on the hard bleachers, and she uses that as an excuse. It's why she brought her car in the first place. She teases him in the parking lot, saying she might have a surprise for him when he gets home. "Be good," she says, and kisses him, the ends of his wet hair needling her cheek.
It's freezing in the Dart, the steering wheel burning through her gloves. The defrost doesn't work, and all the way home she swipes at the windshield, tries to breathe lightly. Farms sail by in the night, the snowy fields ghostly, chore lights showing a corner barn door, a skeletal pump. The muddy ruts of the drive under her tires, hard as chocolate. When she slides into bed the sheets are chilly on her skin.
The waterbed is huge and new, the one real piece of furniture they own. She lies propped in the middle, reading The Other Side of Midnight, a novel her mother has already declared trash. Instead of her flannel nightshirt, she's wearing a sheer black peignoir that shows off her impressive new breasts. She's brushed her hair out the way Tommy likes it, the strawberry blonde fan setting off her freckles. She reads with her mouth slightly open, showing the pointed canines he calls her fangs. She could almost pass for a sexy vampire, except she's wearing the gold-framed Ben Franklins she's had since high school, very Jan Brady.
In the book, two of the characters are f——— in a cramped airplane bathroom, something Patty — who's never been on a plane — finds impossibly glamorous and unlikely but which makes her even hornier.
It's been a while. The truest test of love, she's always thought, is making love, and while Tommy still comes to her now, he's too careful, too quiet. She misses their first crazy days together, when he'd come out of the bathroom naked and walking on his hands, as if daring her to knock him over or pin him against a wall.
She figures he'll be late. They'll close the Iroquois and he'll come in humming, bumping into things. She waits for the chug of his truck, the swish of the storm door, the shock of his hands on her, waits, warming, resting her eyes now, the book still propped on her stomach, until she slips all the way under, splayed beneath the heavy comforter.
For a while The Other Side of Midnight lies tented on her chest, then capsizes, her place lost, the Kleenex bookmark somewhere in the tangle of covers. She's snoring, a rhythmic click in her sinuses and then a long braying draw that would embarrass her if she knew.
The night-light is on in the bathroom, glazing the sink. In the kitchen the faucet drips into a sponge.
She has no idea that as she sleeps he's in another woman's bedroom; that a few miles across the fields he and his best friend Gary are with this woman, who's woken from her own solitary sleep and attacked them with the first thing at hand — a glass of water.
The phone sits on the floor by his side of the bed, alive inside its shell. Outside, the winter sky turns, Orion winking in the clear night air, a hunter's moon sculpting the drifts. Here, before it all begins, there's still time — time revolving along with the temperature on the display outside the Tioga State Bank in town, time ticking in the gears behind the lit face of the county courthouse belltower (quaint as a Christmas card), time circling like the sweeping red second hand of the dashboard clock in his truck, hidden in the turnaround down by Owl Creek.
Until now — until the phone rings — she's been happy grateful to have him, and a place of their own. Their marriage, her first improbably successful campaign against her mother, is everything she wished for, and while her mother still considers him wild, with Casey on the way that topic's off limits. Now all her mother can complain about is Eileen with her no-good boyfriend and Shannon not visiting. By default, Patty's the favorite again. She's the one their mother calls when she needs someone to bring extra chairs or make dessert, someone to drive her to the doctor. Except for marrying Tommy, she's reliable.
Miles away, the glass is broken on the carpet, the front of Tommy's shirt wet, though he doesn't notice.
The phone — no, not yet.
It's her bladder that wakes her. She mutters, surprised at the brightness. She gives up on her bookmark, sets the paperback on the headboard and clicks off the light. Her bottom sinks into the soft as she swings her legs free and levers herself out, pushing the frame to lift her own weight. She's never been so ungainly — ugly, she thinks, and his stabs at reassuring her only make it worse. She doesn't turn on the light in the bathroom, just sits in the warm yellow glow, head bent, one elbow resting on the cool sink.
When she pads back to bed, she could trip over the phone, kick it open so the call will never come. But she doesn't. She goes all the way around, as if it would be a jinx to get in on his side. She lights the vanilla candle on the headboard, the flame doubled in the built-in mirror, then adjusts her peignoir and the covers to her advantage, but in a minute she's asleep again, snoring.
In the house on Blodgett Road, Tommy and Gary stand over the old woman, who's not moving.
"Jesus Christ," Gary says.
"I thought she was supposed to be gone," Tommy accuses him. "I thought the place was supposed to be empty."
But this is invented too, a scene she doesn't want to watch yet is drawn to over and over. They could be saying anything to each other, or nothing, stunned by their own violence and bad luck. It's like watching a nightmare, the rising helplessness before the disaster she knows is going to happen.
It's happened. The two of them grab the state's evidence they've come to steal — the dead woman's dead husband's guns: a pair of beautiful his 'n' hers Ithaca ten-gauges with carved stocks, a vintage Colt buffalo gun, a brace of muzzle loaders. Gary has his hockey bag, and old towels to friction tape around the barrels. They go ahead as if the plan is working. At some point they'll have to stop and talk about the body, but not yet, not yet.
A draft snakes through the room and the flame wavers, dangerous. It's nearly two and she has to get up at six to be at work. It's supposed to snow tomorrow; she needs to leave time for the drive. She's been tired lately, nodding off over her circuit boards, the magnifying lens making her eyes go weird, the hot solder gagging her. She's been good, not smoking for the baby, only drinking Sanka. When she gets her leave, she'll make breakfast for Tommy in her bathrobe, kiss him goodbye, then crawl back in bed again, the morning sun warming the room.
By this time the call has come in on the truck. A neighbor on Blodgett marked it driving by with its lights off, dark figures walking out of the trees. A car from the sheriff's department is gliding cross-county to investigate the complaint, code two, silent approach. It's a slow night and the roads are empty, the traffic signals clunking unseen. The deputy slides through a red light. The bridge over the East Branch is slippery.
Gary's decided they have to burn the house down, and starts by lighting the drapes. The sheer fabric flashes, taking a snapshot of the body on the floor. Tommy can't stop him, and joins in. There's kerosene in the garage.
The fingerprints are his, she won't try to deny it. But she knows him too. She can't picture him sloshing the can around the house out of desperation, the carpet wet underfoot, fire leaping onto furniture, climbing the walls. She's imagined it happening to her, traded places with the old lady a thousand times. She could be the one picked up and repositioned under the covers, the one whose pillow burns, whose eyelashes curl.
Instead, she sleeps by candlelight — sleeps deeply now, plowing the hours toward dawn, work, the cold car again, scraping snow off the windshield while the tailpipe chuffs out clouds.
From The Good Wife by Stewart O'Nan. Copyright © 2005 by Stewart O'Nan. To be published in April, 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.