Curse of the Magi
Jim Dillingham Young carefully slipped the new axe handle out of the bag. He ran his gnarled 72 year-old hands along the smooth surface of the wood. He felt its heft and tried out a practice swing. Nice. It was two a.m. and he had a sleeping wife to hack up.
Silently down to the basement, where the steel axe head lay waiting on the workbench. He wondered if Della would wake up. In some of his daydreams she did, either fighting back viciously or accepting her fate with dull (maybe grateful?) eyes. Sometimes she didn’t wake up at all and never knew what hit her. He didn’t know which he preferred — he always seemed to flip flop — but one thing was consistent: the feeling of release he’d feel when she was all hacked up. He liked the way that sounded. “Hacked up.” Shooting, poisoning, even smothering would have been easier, but the hacking up had been the centerpiece of his fantasy so long there was just no other way. He’d even sold his pistol on ebay, using the money to buy the axe handle. The only decision left was whether to kill silently, or, during that first dramatic hoist, to say something clever like they do in movies now “Mind if I cut in?” But maybe that would be too–
A loud creak. Jim froze on the steps, holding his breath. He couldn’t afford to wake her up now.
Jim didn’t always want to kill his wife. Fifty years ago, when they got married, they were desperately in love. Finances were tight, and their first Christmas together looked bleak. Jim, determined to present his wife with something worthy of her, sold his prized watch to buy her a set of combs, only to find that Della had sold her precious locks to purchase a watch fob for him. When they realized what had happened, they laughed and cried and held each other, and laughed and cried some more. Never were two people more in love than Jim and Della on that morning. The story was told and retold over the years, becoming family legend, and the very symbol of love itself.
All of which would have been fine, if it never happened again. But it did. A lot.
A few months later, Jim swapped their bicycles for a record player. He lugged the bulky machine three quarters of a mile and up two flights of stairs before he learned that their meager record collection was gone, traded for matching bike horns. Della laughed and hugged him. Jim laughed too, but not as hard. (He couldn’t help noticing that her hair was growing back and he still didn’t have a watch.)
Some weeks after that, Jim traded their coffee mugs for cat food. Della closed the circle by trading the cat for a coffee maker.
It got to be so Jim couldn’t take a step forward without his wife taking him one step back. It didn’t help matters that for all his hard work, he and Della barely managed to keep their heads above the financial water. Often, they had to rely on bartering to get by, which only played into the couple’s freakish chemistry.
The circle didn’t always close neatly, but (like a noose, Jim thought) it always closed. Once, in an effort to get out from behind the eight ball, he sold the piano left to him by his parents. He socked most of the money away and spent the remainder on a motorcycle. He promptly wiped out, shattering five bones. Of course, there was no health insurance, because Della let it expire, planning to funnel the money into piano lessons. This time there was no laughter or hugging.
And so they went through the years, their marriage becoming increasingly strained. Having children might have helped, but they were unable to conceive. The doctor spent a lot of time explaining the technical reasons for this, but Jim knew the truth: His sperm and her eggs canceled each other out. It had been crazy to think their union could be productive. It could only spin around in its merciless circle, burning up effort and youth, only to keep arriving at its point of origin.
Jim sold their used car to buy a satellite dish. Across town, Della sold the TV to buy tires.
Jim hocked their computer to buy a carpet cleaning system she wanted. By the time he got home, the floors were bare, but they had high speed internet service.
“Why don’t you just talk to each other?” This was a therapist, Dr. Last-Ditch-Attempt-At-Saving-Our-Marriage. “Tell each other what you’re planning to do! Wouldn’t that solve everything?”
By now, Jim could barely stand to look at Della, much less talk to her. Still, over the next few weeks he gamely tried to tell her whenever he was planning to do anything that might result in irony. Invariably, she’d pick the same instant to tell him what she was planning to do. They’d both start to talk, then pause, waiting for the other to continue. Then they’d both babble again. Perhaps years ago they could have managed it, but not now. The circle had gotten too tight.
“Like trying to get through a mirror,” Jim thought. “Is it really the glass that stops you, or the other person pushing back?”
Jim turned on the light over his workbench. This was it. In a few minutes, he’d hack his way out of the god damned circle forever and feel that long-lost sensation of forward motion. Even if he went to jail it was worth it. If he went to the chair, he’d go a happy man. Maybe he’d even have some clever line like in the movies. “Thank God it’s Fry-Day!” His eyes settled on the spot where the head of the axe should have been. A small part of him that had never gotten its hopes up cursed the part of him that wildly looked all over the bench and through drawers.
A frustrated “God damn it!” from the kitchen. Della. Her words were a puff of air, blowing out the last flicker of Jim’s hope. Living death settled back into his eyes as he saw his future. He would trudge up the stairs and find his wife, looking for the pistol. She’d be clutching bullets, paid for by the sale of the axe head. Their eyes would meet in dead acceptance of the facts.
And there’d be nothing left to do but go back to bed, each of them fated to live in equal and opposite reaction to the other; each of them half of an eternal zero.