Robin Lewis
Lips on Silence

    Downstairs, Mr. Altobelli was nearly finished convincing Ms. Dayton to make love to him on the kitchen table while upstairs, his wife's body grew grayer and stiffer on their king-sized mattress.

    "Why can't we just use your bed?" Ms. Dayton giggled. She hadn't had sex on a table since high school and even then, as a spry young girl, her back had been tender for days. She remembered griping to her friends about the discomfort, and they nodded knowingly, all glowing examples of the women's liberation movement.

    "Doesn't doing it in odd places turn you on?" Mr. Altobelli said, countering her reasonable question with one nearly as reasonable. She smiled, but didn't answer immediately. "It'll be fun. I'll make it worth your while." Through his insisting, he had strategically slid his hands from Ms. Dayton's waist so that each now cupped some of her substantial backside. He squeezed and simultaneously raised his eyebrows.

    Not the most creative lure of seduction that had been used on Ms. Dayton but she relinquished nonetheless, secretly enjoying the extra attention Mr. Altobelli showered upon her.

    They began feverishly kissing, tugging off clothes, rubbing body parts, and inching toward the table. Mr. Altobelli pushed aside his morning juice glass and cereal bowl, placing his bottom right where his wife's plate would have sat had she not been dead.

    Ms. Dayton was not a naïve adulteress; she knew Mr. Altobelli had a wife and Mr. Altobelli did nothing to hide this fact from her. She had been the other woman three times before Mr. Altobelli, reveling in the role, owning it, and certainly never apologizing for it. Those friends of hers that thought her immoral for her adultery and unforgivable for her impenitent attitude towards it had long ago been deleted from her address book. The ones that remained either quietly accepted her choice (habit?) or openly awed it, wishing they had the brazenness (lack of conscience?) to follow in her footsteps.

    Mr. Altobelli was her most famous bedmate and she never failed to mention this, even to girlfriends who had heard her summary of his occupation five times over. When she wasn't looking, they rolled their eyes at one another, knowing full well that famous meant within the Milwaukee metro area, not the United States or world. He owned a chain of discount beer, wine, and liquor stores, the kind whose sheer volume and diversity of product encourages overconsumption. Mr. Altobelli could indirectly be linked to the deaths of nearly 45 people in the ten years his business burgeoned from one to six stores. Ms. Dayton had been working as the liquor-section manager of his downtown store for two months when the affair first began. It was a job she'd most likely gotten because she'd had the biggest breasts and brightest lipstick of all the other candidates (no man even made the second round of selections). And really, those two things mattered more than any other qualification or characteristic, at least in the alcohol industry. It was ridiculous, borderline sad, that men even applied for the position. She liked her job because it consisted of arranging neon-colored liquors on shelves, telling others to help her with the task, and often sampling drinks so she could inform and enlighten customers. Being a bit buzzed was probably what prompted her to engage Mr. Altobelli that day, two months into her job, as he strolled around checking prices, stock, and cleanliness.

    "How is work today, Ms. Dayton?" he had asked. The limited interaction they'd had before normally consisted of short, simple dialogue, but on this day, her answer tumbled into a gushing monologue about why she loved her job and his stores and, "Well," she said with a giggle, "I guess you." Mr. Altobelli stared at her a moment before asking her to join him in the back room to sample the latest vodka they had gotten in: Smirnoff Starfruit. She followed obediently and after taking a shot with Mr. Altobelli, promptly performed oral sex, her orange-red lipstick the only giveaway that she had even been there.

    He came back the next day to talk pleasantries in the liquor aisle, mainly letting her go on about his greatness and then she turned him orange-red again behind a case of 40s.

    "I've got some errands to run this afternoon," Ms. Dayton said after they finished, grudgingly sliding off the table and tidying up her clothes. Mr. Altobelli didn't object, and a small part of her wished he would grab her waist and whisper, "One cup of coffee before you go?" But while they engaged in an extramarital affair, they were not lovers–too much romanticism was implied in this term. They left their relationship undefined and nameless, the way they wanted it ...well, most of the time, in Ms. Dayton's case. Sometimes she yearned for more and then checked herself. Who was she kidding? Wanting more gets you nothing– it had taken her a lifetime to realize that unpalatable truth. Obeying her own conviction, while that remained a struggle, was getting easier with every affair she partook in and with every divorce she witnessed her friends go through.

    She found her keys, grabbed her jacket, placed an orange-red peck on Mr. Altobelli's cheek, and left the house without another word. Her black Jeep sat unassuming in Mr. Altobelli's driveway, a car he in fact paid half on because it made Ms. Dayton feel richer than she actually was and because he thought she looked awfully good speeding around in it.

    That day, her errands consisted of a stop at Barnes and Noble and then meeting some girlfriends for happy hour at TGIFridays. More than once on the way to the bookstore she checked her hair and makeup in the mirror knowing full well that both were in proper order. During her first affair, whether because she was wearing a cheaper lipstick then or the man had been an overzealous and sloppy kisser, her lips were always a bit smudged after a rendezvous. At first, it deeply embarrassed her, but Ms. Dayton quickly grew to enjoy the envious looks she got from soccer moms and women stuffed into business suits. It was these looks that erased any and all guilt Ms. Dayton initially felt towards her behavior. She saw in their eyes the simple truth that if they could get past their pile of kids, their fear of getting caught, their arbitrary morality, and their contrived selflessness, they'd be having affairs, too.

    The sales girls smirked at Ms. Dayton's tube-dress and jean jacket as she strolled into Barnes and Noble, and they noticeably cringed at the blonde hair piled high on her head like a modern-day Marie Antoinette. While she was certainly not book smart, her social adeptness was above average and therefore she did not miss these confused and amused appraisals. But in a way she agreed with them; her place was Wal-mart, the liquor store, Mr. Altobelli's table. Which was why this visit was not, in fact, for her; she needed to get a book for her niece's birthday. Ms. Dayton racked her brain for what she had liked as an eleven-year old. Smiling, she remembered eyeing lacy bras with envy, watching the neighborhood boys playing pick-up baseball right in front of her house (their placement was not a coincidence), and reading her mother's magazines that told of all things womanly. She played with Barbies, but only because she liked dressing them in cute outfits and making them kiss the Ken doll as they sat in his plastic convertible. She did not read, besides those magazines. But she wanted her niece to have something more intellectual than a leopard-print shirt or glittery hair accessories. Those were the gifts Ms. Dayton's sister expected of her. And while she'd slip her niece something to that effect next time they visited Milwaukee, this gift would expand the girl's worldly curiosity.

    She strolled the aisles for a good two hours, often drifting back to the magazine shelf when she got bored or felt uncomfortable. She finally settled on a book about South America, a place Ms. Dayton secretly desired to go to someday once she learned Spanish and lost enough weight to look decent in a bikini. Bright colored pictures speckled each page along with summaries of famous places in each country. Ms. Dayton looked at the book a long time before buying it, confident in her purchase's ability both to pass her sister's inspection and to delight the imagination of her young niece.

    Satisfied, she could finally get onto the exciting part of the afternoon: drinks and appetizers with some friends at one of her favorite restaurants. The small town in Wisconsin where Ms. Dayton was originally from had a handful of restaurants to its name, one being a TGIFridays. She had waitressed there for all of high school and the year that followed graduation, finally saving up enough money in tips to buy a junker of a car and high-tail it out of there with her then boyfriend, Jimmy. They moved to Milwaukee and while she thrived, content with their shabby apartment in a primarily black neighborhood and her jobs as a cleaning lady and diner waitress, he did not. A year to the day after they got there, Jimmy went back to the same small town he'd been born in so he could live and ultimately die there. She was glad Jimmy left and even gladder he didn't knock her up before her 20th birthday.

    So Fridays held a soft spot in Ms. Dayton's heart because that job had provided her with a leg up in the world, something no one or nothing else had ever done. For that, she loyally bought fruity drinks and fried food once a week from the Milwaukee restaurant and shared it with an ever-changing group of girlfriends. The women she had invited to this get-together were all at the restaurant when she arrived, waiting for her expectantly with an empty chair at the head of the table. She sat down, ordering her usual drink from a young man whose vest, like all the others, held perhaps a hundred buttons with pithy phrases scrawled across them. She still had her buttons from her uniform in a box or drawer somewhere, a relic of the past and something she would likely pass on to no one. They would get thrown into the trash along with most of her other worldly possessions when she died.

    The women squawked about their jobs, men, children (if they had them), the drinks they had ordered, and so on. And so on. Ms. Dayton eagerly joined in, often the loudest and most dramatic of them all, as she wanted it to be. She griped about her sister and the tacit rules she had imposed regarding her daughter's birthday present.

    "I mean, c'mon, right?" Ms. Dayton insisted. "When you were that age, makeup and boys and clothes and friends were on your mind, not fractions and Biology." The women nodded knowingly, proving with their solidarity just why they were all friends.

    "Hey, there's your boy-toy, on the news!" Cynthia, one of Ms. Dayton's oldest friends, motioned to the monitor. Ms. Dayton turned around, and sure enough, old footage of Mr. Altobelli opening his newest and biggest liquor store flashed on the screen. He was thinner then, she noticed, and had fewer age spots. The picture cut to a female reporter standing across the street from his house, where an ambulance waited out front.

    "Moments ago, two paramedics entered the home of John Altobelli, a prominent Milwaukee businessman, whose wife died early this morning. In an accident officials are calling strange but not suspicious, Mrs. Altobelli, who had been suffering from a cold, fell asleep with a cough drop in her mouth. The cough drop lodged itself in her throat and she suffocated. An autopsy has been issued to rule out foul play. If Mrs. Altobelli died of natural causes, as it seems, the body will promptly be released to the family. Mr. Altobelli issued a statement to the press fifteen minutes ago saying simply, 'I am saddened by the sudden death of this woman whom I have known for twenty-two years. Her memory will live on in her volunteer work and business successes.' At this point, this is all we know, more will be coming in as the afternoon progresses, with a full report at ten. Back to you in the newsroom, Mike."

    "I'm surprised they even covered it," Glory, a more recent friend of Ms. Dayton, remarked. "I mean I know he's kind of a big deal, but death is such a private matter. And really, is there a story to tell here?"

    "Glory," Cynthia said sharply, "Mr. Altobelli is the owner of six thriving stores and a big financial supporter of community outreach programs. To have such an important man's wife die suddenly and at a young age, well, it's certainly worth noting."

    "It's a slow news day anyway," sniffed Bernice, a woman who Ms. Dayton was close to but who had always grown rigid and disassociated whenever Mr. Altobelli came up. She fell into the category of Ms. Dayton's friends who did not condemn her behavior, but certainly did not encourage it.

    All this time Ms. Dayton continued to stare at the television, piecing together in her mind the information that the news reporter had failed to mention. Mainly that she had been fucking a man while his wife's dead body began the process of decomposition upstairs in the bed that they couldn't use because she was in it.

    Disgust turned to curiosity as she cleaned the meat off of her last buffalo wings. She hoped Mr. Altobelli hadn't murdered his wife. Jail wouldn't suit him, especially those orange jumpsuits. The news piece and her own common sense had convinced her of the impossibility of this option. He was not a violent man and, besides, the death sounded too erroneous and difficult to stage. A cough drop? Hollywood couldn't even invent that.

    The death would certainly occupy his time and thoughts, but Mr. Altobelli had not been close to his wife, which his statement suggested and her time with him the past several months confirmed. Mrs. Altobelli was never mentioned in a wishful manner, just in passing, like the weather. The couple times that she had been in the store, she had struck Ms. Dayton as restrained, quiet, and mad. She did what her husband asked, answered his questions, kissed his cheek when she left, but none of the actions suggested love and they barely passed as like. Her unnaturally thin pale lips were especially problematic to Ms. Dayton. Too much building up behind them, pushing them closer together until they nearly disappeared. She didn't like it and would force herself to focus on Mrs. Altobelli's large nose or burnt toast colored hair instead.

    Despite their obvious lack of closeness, having sex with your mistress hours after your wife's passing was an odd way for Mr. Altobelli to grieve. Ms. Dayton found this more interesting than questionable. Not something to mull over with the TGIFridays girls, but she could share it with her best friend, Candice, who had plausible theories for everything, especially odd sexual acts.

    Perhaps Mr. Altobelli would now take her to the Milwaukee Fine Business Association's annual dinner gala. While Ms. Dayton had never felt bad about her adultery, now she could feel good about it. It wouldn't even be adultery anymore. She liked the image of her cascading into the hotel convention center main room, pouty orange-red lips smiling out at everyone. No more thin-lipped bitch faces worn next to Mr. Altobelli. But he probably would not invite her, and besides, what would she wear? A hot pink tube-dress and her faux-fur coat didn't quite mesh with Milwaukee's upper echelon.

    Her last thought, before paying the bill and heading for home, came as a surprise because Big Things and Ideas rarely crossed her mind. Death had swooped up Mrs. Altobelli randomly and without warning, and produced such inconvenience and upheaval for all involved. No, Ms. Dayton decided. She would choose death, it would not choose her. Not now, not soon, but in the future, she would make the call.

    Her conviction, while strong, was most certainly naïve.

    "I'm going to head home," Ms. Dayton told her friends as she signed the bill. "I'll give you gals a call next week, once this all settles down."

    They murmured goodbyes and she left the restaurant. That evening, to take her mind off the afternoon's events, she watched a marathon of The Real Housewives of Orange County on Bravo TV. Before falling asleep for the night, a familiar thought entered her mind: wanting more gets you nothing. Next time she met up with Mr. Altobelli she would not mention the death or wonder, at least aloud, what it meant for them. Would they formally date? Would she accompany him to the funeral? Would he pay the full lease on her Jeep? Asking questions, wanting more, would ruin a good thing. Or what, for now at least, worked. Just like death, aloneness was something Ms. Dayton believed she had the right and the ability to chose. The upheaval of that day's events had caused her to choose the obviously best options: company and life. That night, happy to be done with such a dramatic day, she chose silence and sleep.

    Mrs. Altobelli certainly chose sleep; the permanent kind, Ms. Dayton thought, chuckling at her harsh cleverness. She pulled the blankets around her shoulders, and slid into a semi-conscious state. Here, her brain sat relaxed but active as life's filters and barriers slowly eroded away. Here, her last, and perhaps best thought of the day formed: silence had killed the wife, too. A curious chill flashed through her body and she allowed the covers to overtake her neck, barely grazing her full, orange-red lips.