Black Mold
By Sarah Jean Alexander
(Illustrated by LK Shaw)




Jack laces his shoes and tightens his tie as he leans against the bathroom doorframe. He watches Jane bend her arms behind her back unnaturally in an effort to unzip her dress. She is on the eighth hour of the same coat of makeup she applied before she went out last night. Her face looks tired but still pretty.

They don't speak to each other this morning, but if they did, the conversation might have gone like this:

Jack: So,

Jane: Yeah,

Jack:

Jane:

Jack:

Jane: Aren't you going to work?

Jack:

Jane:

Jack: Yeah,

Jane:

Jack: Alright bye.


Jane struggles to reach the zipper while Jack slips his wallet into his back pocket and walks out of the bedroom.

He hears the bed creak as Jane climbs under the covers and he runs his hand through his hair as he stomps down the stairs. Not angrily, just heavily. He wonders where Jane spent the night before coming home this morning.

In the kitchen, Jack puts a ripe avocado, a banana, a plastic butter knife and a spoon into a brown paper bag. He had 3 rotted teeth pulled yesterday and would be unable to chew for at least a week. He refused the pain killers the dentist tried to prescribe to him. Addiction runs in his family. Jack already watches too much reality television.

Now Jack hears the bath water running and pictures Jane lighting candles and placing them on the edge of the tub. He imagines her thumb scrolling through the address book in her phone, trying to find a friend to keep her company while he is at work.

Jack pours skim milk into a thermos and walks out the front door. He works for a large warehouse twenty minutes west of Baltimore. He schedules events in the space and deals with pricing and entrepreneurs for 8 hours a day. Jack drives there now.


|||||


Jane sits in a steaming bathtub. She lights a joint and holds it in her left hand while checking her email on her phone with her right hand. After replying to an email from her sister regarding their mother's recent funeral, she exhales a small cloud of marijuana-perfumed smoke and rests her head against the cold ceramic wall behind her. Small block spots decorate the ceiling above the shower head and seem to dance as the smoke and steam twist through the air.

Jane looks at her phone again and sends a text message to her friend Seth.

Jane: What are you doing?

Seth: just went running. about to jump in the shower

Jane: Want to come over?

Seth: is jack there?

Jane: No he went to work.

Seth: it's kind of early

Jane: For him to go to work?

Seth: no for me to come over

Jane: Why does it matter if he's home anyway?

Seth: i don't know, it's weird

Jane: I don't know why you think it's weird.

Seth: it just is i don't know. i'm getting in the shower now

Jane: Do you want to come over?

Seth: i'll text you when i'm out


|||||


Jack takes off his jacket as he walks by the security office in the front of the warehouse. A young woman steps out and begins walking with him to his office.

“Hi Jack.”

“Hi Sara.”

“Do anything fun last night?”

“Nope, just fell asleep watching TV.”

“Did Jane go out?

“No she stayed in with me.”

“Oh. What are you doing tonight?”

“Probably a lot of the same thing.”

Jack unlocks his office door and steps inside. He sets his jacket on his desk and turns to face Sara. She stands in the doorway.

“If you’re not doing anything, maybe you’d wanna go out with me.”

Jack pictures Jane’s makeup washing off in the bathtub.

“I can’t tonight, Sara.”

“You know she’s not going to be home tonight.”

“Go back to work, Sara.”

“Don’t think I don’t know what she does every night. I probably see your wife more than you do at this point. At least she goes out.”

“You’re really helping your case here, Sara.”

“I’ve got no case, Jack. I just figured I’d help you not be miserable for once.”

“You’re wrong. I’m not miserable. I’m exactly where I want to be.”

“It’s not my fault you want to be miserable.”

Jack smiled.

“Go back to work, Sara.”

“I’ll just be two doors down.”

Sara raises her eyebrows and walks back down the hallway.

Jack stands next to his desk and remembers when he used to think Sara was miserable. He thought they could be miserable together. Sara seemed to like fun a little too much. Her misery only went so far.

‘My misery goes all the way’ Jack thinks.

Jack laughs and puts his hand over his eyes, feeling embarrassed and ridiculous. It makes him feel good.


|||||


Jane drains the bathtub, blows out the candles and tosses the burnt roach in the toilet. She walks to the kitchen naked and pour a glass of water, rubbing her temples. Seth hasn’t texted her back yet and she begins to feel antsy. She texts Jack now.

Jane: How’s work?

Jack: It’s okay. Client problems already though. I think Sara saw you out last night.

Jane: Probably did.

Jack: Did you have fun?

Jane: Yeah, of course.

Jack: Nice.

Jane: Had a good bath this morning.

Jack: Good to hear.

Jane: Are you going out tonight? With Sara?

Jack: Nope. Haven’t since that one time. 3 months ago.

Jane: Alright. Well if you want to, go for it.

Jack: Right. I’ll just see you at home.

Jane: I might be out.

Jack: Okay.

Jane finishes the glass of water and pours another. She thinks of Sara sitting in her office by Jack’s, writing him love emails. She hopes Jack replies.


|||||


Jack presses the sharper edge of the white, plastic knife through the skin of the avocado and imagines for one second that he is mutilating a small, fat toad. He drags the knife around the entire circumference of the pit and twists the avocado apart. He spoons out the green avocado meat and eats it for lunch.

He had spent most of his morning on the phone, booking a flea market for every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the upcoming two months. Mary, the woman in charge of the flea market was very adamant about lowering the rent prices of the warehouse. Jack gave her a daily break of $50 because he thought her voice was soothing. It was like a trick. He regrets the discount now that he can't hear her voice anymore. His boss would never approve of it. He thinks about Jane in the bathtub. He would call the woman back after he ate his banana and renegotiate a new price.

Sara had emailed him as soon as she got back to her office. She wants to come over tonight after Jane leaves. Jack likes that people in his office know how fucked his marriage currently is. He replied with “Thanks, but no.”

|||||


Seth: hey what are you doing? i'm done showering

Jane: Just reading some magazines.

Seth: want me to come over still?

Jane: Sure

Seth: is jack there?

Jane: No he's at work, I told you.

Seth: ok

Jane: It really doesn't matter, you know.

Seth: i know you say that, but still

Jane: Still what?

Seth: come on jane

Jane: Just come over.


|||||


"Hi Mary, I wanted to call you back and tell you that I talked with the property manager and he didn't approve the discounted rate."

"What? I don't understand. I didn't realize it was up for question. I've already budgeted the flea market's books with the $50 discount in mind."

"Yes, I'm very sorry Mary, I shouldn't have agreed to the price without first talking to my supervisor."

"I'm very disappointed that you are going back on the price we agreed on, Jack."

'Mary's voice is so nice' Jack thinks. 'I wonder what she looks like'.

"I'm really, very sorry Mary. But I can't give you the discounted price."

"This is very unprofessional. I feel that the $50 per day wasn't much of a discount in the first place, and now you are telling me you can't even give me that?"

'Mary's kind of an asshole' Jack thinks.

"Jack? What do you think? Do you think this is good customer service? To agree on a set price with a new client and then take it back three hours later?"

"No, Mary, again, I'm very, very sorry about how I've managed the situation. I am a wreck."

"What?"

"Nothing. I'm sorry, I can talk to my supervisor again when we get off the phone and see if I can manage to give you the discount."

"I don't want to get my hopes up, Jack."

"Mary, life, life is no good right now."

"What?"

"Nothing, Mary, listen, let me talk to my supervisor and I'll call you back."

Mary sighs and agrees, mumbles something about customer service and money and men and hangs up the phone.

'I wonder what color her hair is' Jack thinks.


|||||


Jane buttons the second and third buttons of her cardigan as she walks to the door. She checks her reflection in the small bathroom at the front of the house and puts on lip balm before opening the door and letting Seth inside.

He unties his shoes and leaves them on the rack before walking to the living room and sitting on the couch. Jane joins him a minute later with two glasses of cabernet. She hands one to him and he takes a small drink.

"I heard a funny story today."

"I can't wait to hear it."

Seth clears his throat.

"Well this woman in North Dakota runs a daycare. She's got about 5 or 6 kids she takes care of each day. In the afternoon, she takes the kids on a walk to the playground to help them wind down before their parents come and pick them up."

"Mhmm."

"Well yesterday, she took the kids on their walk, but completely forgot about a baby she had put in a crib upstairs for a nap. This baby was less than a year old or something, and she completely forgot. She took the other kids to the playground for half an hour and didn't remember the baby until they got back home."

They each take a sip of their wine and Jane nods.

"Okay so she freaks out when she remembers and runs upstairs to check on the baby. It's not in the crib."

Jane nods again.

"The woman looked everywhere in the room, in the closet, underneath the crib, inside the drawers. She runs into the hallway and checks the other rooms but can't find the baby anywhere."

Jane finishes her wine and looks at Seth, waiting for the punchline.

"Then she went downstairs and saw that the backdoor was wide open and she called the police."

Jane stares at Seth.

"Is that it?"

"Yeah."

"That's not a funny story."

Seth laughs.

"That's not funny! So the baby was kidnapped?"

"Yeah, but it's funny because, she just forgot about a baby. Like, that's her job, her only job was to watch these 5 or 6 kids, and she completely forgets one of them, and then like, what are the chances that it gets kidnapped? That's insane."

"You could have phrased the beginning of that story differently. You could have said 'I heard an absolutely terrifying account of a daycare's worst possible nightmare actually happening.' You could have literally said anything other than 'funny' and it would have been more bracing."

Seth grins.

"I just thought it was funny."

Jane shakes her head but starts to smile.

"You're insane." Jane pulls her hair back into a ponytail.

"I know." Seth finishes his glass of wine, no longer grinning.

Jane reaches for Seth's belt buckle with her left hand as she sets her empty wine glass on the coffee table with her right. Seth leans back and looks at the front door, sighs and then closes his eyes.


|||||


'Red' Jack thinks. 'Definitely red.' He dials Mary's number.

"Hello?"

"Hi Mary, yes, it's Jack from Madison Warehouse. How are you?"

"I'm fine. Have you talked to your boss about the discount?"

"That's what I was calling you about. I'd love to offer you a special deal. It's great really, we'd like to give you another week at the warehouse in addition to your scheduled dates, free of charge. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, completely free, what do you think?"

Jack already had another event booked in the warehouse that weekend, a traveling knife show, but they were only going to be using about half the space. Mary's flea market could easily share the space with the knife show. Jack just wouldn't tell his supervisor about the extra tenants. He would never have to know.

Mary sighs.

"That doesn't work for me, Jack. Our vendors are only available for the dates I already have scheduled."

"Want to call them all and ask?" Jack chuckles pathetically.

"Why don't you take the costs of the free days you're trying to offer me now and take that off my total bill?"

"Well my supervisor seems to think this is a better fit, uh, better type, better type of discount. We really think this will be the easiest solution for, for you."

"This isn't a solution at all. It's not going to work. I am benefiting none from this offer."

Mary sounds exasperated and Jack pictures her throwing her arms into the air, or shaking a fist at the telephone, red curls bouncing around her face.

"Are you sure you don't want to call your vendors?"

Jack knows he sounds incompetent. He apologizes to Mary and says he will call back later after he has spoken again with his supervisor.


|||||


Seth flushes the toilet and pumps a dollop of orange hand soap into his palm. It smells like a vodka tonic. He washes his hand with cold water and watches his reflection. 'Is 24 old?' he thinks. 'Is 35?' His reflection begins to nod. '35 is old.'

He dries his hands on a bath towel hanging on the back of the door and steps into the hallway. He hears Jane call his name. She's not in the living room anymore. He follows her voice and sees her lying on her back in her and Jack's bed. Her feet are near the headboard and pillows and her head is hanging upside down over the end of the bed.

"Seeeeeth."

"What are you doing?"

"Come here."

"Jesus, Jane, I'm not coming in there."

"Oh come on, Seth, it's just a room."

"This is Jack's room. This is yours and Jack's room."

"It's just a normal room, with a normal bed, we're just a couple of normal people with normal wants and normal desires."

"What the hell are you saying? This is not normal. None of this is normal."

Jane lifts her shirt over her head and stops halfway. Now she is lying topless on her back in the bed, her shirt covering her face.

"See? Now you can't even recognize me. I could be any woman."

"The problem isn't you, Jane, the problem is this room. It's that bed. It's his bed."

Jane takes her shirt off the entire way and tosses it over her head and onto the floor near Seth's feet.

"Jane, not this room."

"I'm not moving until you're the one moving me. Come here. Now."

Seth feels old. He looks down at the shirt and touches it with his toe. He feels so old. Seth is 24. 24 isn't old. 35 is old. Jane is old.

Seth looks around the room and sees a closet door open on the left of the room. He can see Jack's suit jackets and ties and sweaters. He sees a dress on the floor near a laundry basket. On the right of the room he can see a bathroom. It has both a bathtub and a standing shower.

The bedroom smells like a rain forest and Seth suddenly feels hot.

"Can you open a window?"

"You open it."

Seth cracks his neck and walks into the bedroom. The windows are near the bathroom, so he walks to the right side of the bedroom and opens a window half a foot. He turns and looks at Jane.

"You did it! See? That wasn't so bad. Now come here and hold me."

She extends her arm and reaches for Seth's belt buckle but misses.

"This is insane."

"Can you stop acting like a child? Come here."

Jane is old. Seth feels hot.

"Jack is going to beat my ass."

Jane bursts out in laughter. She slaps both hands over her mouth but doesn't stop laughing.

"Jack? Is going to beat your ass?"

Seth feels sick.

"Jack is almost 40. Jack is fucking his coworker."

"I know, I know."

Jane reaches for his belt buckle again and makes contact this time. She pulls Seth over to the bed until he is standing in front of her face. Her head is still hanging upside down.

"Hi there."


|||||


Jack sits in the beginning of rush hour traffic on his way home. The woman on the radio has a raspy voice and he wonders how she landed a job on air. Her voice sounds nothing like Mary's.

Jack had considered asking his supervisor again about the $50 discount. He really did feel guilty about offering the discount to Mary and then taking it back in the same day, even if she was kind of an asshole.

'She has a point' Jack thinks.

Jack called Mary before he left the warehouse at the end of his shift and told her that his supervisor had agreed to the discount. He hadn't. Jack never asked him. He was too embarrassed to mention this and decided to pay the $50 out of pocket as a means of providing her with the price cut. Mary would never know.

The radio DJ hands the air over to a song as Jack pulls into his driveway. He sees Seth exiting the house. Seth pulls the front door closed behind him as Jack steps out of his car and also shuts his door. They walk towards each other and meet on the front stoop. Seth stands 2 steps above Jack on the porch.

"How's it going?"

"Hey, Jack, how's work?"

"Oh, nothing too interesting to report. Things are all right. How about you?"

"Yeah, I'm good, things are okay."

Seth stares at the step that Jack is standing on and bounces slightly on his toes. He laughs nervously and walks down the stoop.

"Alright have a good one."

Jack doesn't watch Seth walk to his car. He walks inside.


|||||


Jane closes her eyes as the steam from the hot water fills the bathroom.

"Two baths in one day?"

Jane opens her eyes, startled. She sees Jack leaning against the bathroom doorframe like he was this morning. He loosens his tie now.

"Yeah, they help me relax."

"Relax from what?"

"I don't know, everything. How was work?"

"Work was okay. I saw Seth leaving"

"Oh yeah? Did you guys hug?"

Jack pulls the tie over his head and shakes his head to himself. He walks into the bedroom.

Jane calls after him.

"It's not cheating if you know about it."

Jack doesn't answer.

"And if it is, well, this was your idea in the first place."

Jack sits on the side of the bed, unlacing his shoes. He calls out calmly.

“I never said I wanted you to start having sleepovers with other men while I’m at home sleeping.”

“Well you can’t start making rules new, Jack.”

“If there are rules, we might as well call the whole thing off.”

“Exactly. So no rules.”

Jack pulls both of his shoes off and sets them neatly on the floor in his closet. The room smells like marijuana. He calls out again.

“You know, the only reason you smoke those joints is because you think it’s romantic. I know you lie there in the tub every morning, obsessing over how desolate and romantic it is to lie in a candle-lit tub, smoking a joint while your husband is at work. You want someone to walk in on you, catching you in mid-drag while the air smells like blood oranges and pine and shit. You think you’re beautiful in there. I bet you daydream about rose petals. Rose petals in the water, a stranger delivering rose petals to the door. You think you’re beautiful in there.”

“You got me, Jack.”

“I know I do. You know you’re beautiful.”

“I know I am.”


Jack reenters the bathroom a few minutes later with two glasses of white wine. He hands one to Jane and sits on the edge of the tub.

"You're drinking?"

"I think I deserve it."

Jack takes a small sip of his wine.

"You know, I don't trust people who don't cry when they're sad."

Jane laughs.

"This was never about trust."

Jack raises his glass in a toast to his wife, to their lives.

"You're happy, right?"

"I'm not crying."

As they drink their wine, they both stare upwards. When they bought the house four years ago, the mold was already on the ceiling. They figured if they could survive black mold, they could survive anything. And if they couldn’t, well, that would be okay too.

*

sarah jean alexander lives in baltimore

*

@sarahjeanalex
www.sarahjeanalex.tumblr.com