Could Haves

Could Haves

Savannah had watched the man come up the walk minutes before, noting his crisp strides, the way each foot landed on the instep instead of the heel-toe, heel-toe approach of most men. He had oddly put out his palm to press the doorbell, and Savannah knew she had to answer.

The man now sat across from her in her husband’s recliner, his back not touching the fabric. Savannah waited with her head turned slightly toward him, listening.

“I didn’t see it quite like this,” the man said. He had a navy-colored canvas fedora in his hand and spun it around by the brim.

“Didn’t see what?” Savannah sat on the couch across from the recliner. She squeezed her legs together, crossed them at the ankles.

“It’s just kept up nicer than I’d have expected. On account of you, I’m sure,” he said.

The man stopped spinning his hat. He hooked it on his knee and bobbed it up and down.

“So, I’m sure you know where your husband’s skipped off to.”

“He’s got a match. He didn’t say quite where.”

“Didn’t say quite where,” the man mimicked, like he was trying her on. This irritated her, and she glanced at the large bay window that looked on her yard and the houses across the street.

“He might have said specifically. I’d have to think about it. The cities he fights in, they blur.”

“Over here,” the man said.

Savannah looked at him.

“You look at a person when spoken to, is that not right? And you have no idea where he is now?”

“Clatskanie, maybe. I might have heard Clatskanie.”

“I can’t do much with might. Where did he fight last?”

Savannah touched her hair in thinking. “He was boxing in Dyersville three weeks ago and Thermopolis the month before. You know this already. I’m sure you do.”


Savannah didn’t like his nonresponse. She said, “I guess you better start looking south.”

The man stopped his leg. The hat went still. “South is where we heard he might be going. You can’t really bet on what people say, though, can you?”

“I suppose not,” Savannah said.

The man pulled open his suit jacket and reached inside. “I’ve left my cigarettes,” he said.

“Oh,” she said.

“I see you have a pack on the sill over there. Be a dear, and grab me one from the pack. These things always make me a little uncomfortable.”

Savannah smoothed her dress as she stood and walked to the window. She looked across the street at the breadbox houses, the swinging gates, the steep drives. She prayed for the Albees, the Richmonds, the Koschecks, for someone, anyone to get her out of this.

“Something more interesting than me out there?” the man asked.

Savannah darted her hand at the pack, squeezed it so she heard the cellophane crinkle under her fingernails. She turned from the window. The man wasn’t even looking at her. He was staring at the fireplace across the room.

“Here, have one. Take them all,” she said as she extended the pack. “I don’t care.” She’d smoked five of the cigarettes that morning. It bothered her when he took the pack from her. She thought it would feel all right, but it didn’t.

Savannah sat down on the couch again. She pulled the hem of her dress over her knees. The man jerked his hand upward, and a single cigarette shot from the pack. He opened his mouth wide, not even once looking at the cigarette, and placed the barrel of it in his mouth, pulling the pack away.

Savannah stared. She said nothing. She hated her husband for putting her in this position.

The man held up a hand and started snapping his fingers.

“A light,” he said. “If I’ve forgotten my cigarettes, I surely don’t have my lighter.”

Savannah stood. She walked over to the desk at the window. She opened the top drawer and pulled out a matchbook. “We only have matches,” she said. She seldom saw her husband now and wondered if there was even a we anymore. She thought of how everything in the house—the small boxing trophies with taut, gold fists and tucked chins; the oily wrist wraps; the tinking wind chimes; the sheets—seemed to belong only to her in his constant absence as she dusted these things alone, washed them alone, pulled the covers tight across her body in the night. She couldn’t shake the idea that he had chosen something as simple as punching another man over a life with her. Over a marriage. But she had fallen for him all those years ago because she lacked that kind of passion that gives spark to the eyes, and he hadn’t lost that yet. It was she who was changing, and Savannah didn’t know why. What she knew was boxing wasn’t as simple as she’d just thought of it, only bullish punch after punch. If she ever said that to him, oversimplified his passion with words like this, he would undoubtedly lose it and come after her, and sometimes she was afraid of how much she wanted it that way.

“Matches are fine,” the man said.

Savannah walked over to the man and leaned down, tearing out a match and striking it. She stared at the match, then at his eyes as they shifted behind the flame. She waved the match out. The man scoffed and leaned back in the recliner.

“Light it, for Christ’s sake,” he said. His words buzzed through the cigarette.

Savannah struck another match. She hesitated, then held the flame to the tip of his cigarette. The man closed his eyes. Once the paper was crackling, she waved the match back and forth, spit on her fingers, and pinched its tip. It was a gesture she hadn’t done before but had seen her husband do on occasion when lighting a candle in the dark house.

“I feel more suited to talk business now,” the man said, drawing back his chin.

Savannah set the extinguished match and pack on the coffee table and returned to the couch.

“What business?” she asked, as if unaware.

“The business of your husband.”

“I thought that was only my business,” she said. She smiled, hoping she could make light of the situation.

The man didn’t smile. He closed his eyes with the inhale of the cigarette, rolled it down his fingers and back. He momentarily bounced the hat on his knee, then stopped it with a finger and opened his eyes. “He owes us a good deal of money.”

“I know a little about it,” Savannah said.

“He owes a good deal.”

“How much is a good deal?”

“Twenty grand and change.” The man pointed an accusatory finger at Savannah. Smoke spun upward from the reach of that hand.

“Well, Jesus,” she said.

“Jesus is right,” the man said. “You need all of him you can get.”

“I knew he owed some money but not so much. Never did I figure so much.”

“They never do figure.” The man studied the burning tip of his cigarette. He was concentrating so hard that Savannah thought he might do something crazy like stick her with the bleeding tip.

She had stuck a lit cigarette into her husband’s forearm years ago. He had gone through her underwear drawer, pulled out several packages of her cigarettes, and threw them into the garbage, telling her she needed to stop. That people were dying from those things. She dug her nails into his wrist and took the glowing cigarette from her mouth and stuck it right into the ridges of him, twisted it like a key in a faulty lock. He jerked her to her knees. Savannah stared at the white ringlet imprinted on his forearm, waiting for a fist to strike, a touch, something to happen between them, but nothing came of it. Her husband simply left the kitchen and turned on the faucet in the bathroom. Savannah knew he’d never understand how she stood at the window every morning and afternoon when he was away fighting, how she watched the neighbors hauling their children to swimming and piano lessons, elaborate cookouts, basking in the pruning of small trees. She watched life move around without her from the living room window, saw it all through a thin pane of glass with only the company of blown and rising smoke.

“Regardless of what you do or don’t know, he owes,” the man said.

“What for?”

“I’m sure you know.”

“He’s been on a bad streak. He’s talked about it for months. He’s been teetering, I know—”

“Don’t act like you don’t know when a boxer’s taking dives.” The man scooted forward. “He’s been betting on himself to lose and taking dives. This isn’t the first you’ve heard.”

Savannah remained calm. She knew the man might be trying to work her up for something, but she didn’t know anything about her husband’s boxing scam, and her mouth wasn’t going to get her into any trouble unless she wanted it that way.

“He didn’t tell me anything,” she said.

“They usually don’t.”


“It happens a lot. Boxer doesn’t tell his wife, thinks he’ll come home some evening with a grocery bag full of cash. No more coupons or thrift stores or under-the-table deals. Boxers are dreamers like everyone else, they’re just not so smart about it. Too many knuckles to the brain.”

Savannah considered the times she ran her fingers over her husband’s knots—smooth orbs that she pressed with her fingers and iced with frozen bags of peas. She had stitched his running cuts with dark string and bit the fibers with her teeth to tie off the ends, and for what?

The man stared at her. His cigarette almost chewed down to the filter.

“About the money,” he said.

“We don’t have the money. I mean, I don’t have it. There’s nothing here,” she said.

“That so?”

“Yes,” she said. When she saw the man look at the ashes, almost falling, she scooted farther down the couch, away from him. He put his free hand under the cigarette and tapped the ashes into his palm.

“Tray?” he asked.

Savannah rose and moved toward the kitchen, thinking only of a dinner tray, plate stand, the little wooden platter with fold-out legs that she would offer her husband when he preferred eating on the couch in the spare room, flipping through old magazines with articles about punching technique and setting combinations while she ate alone at the kitchen table.

“Ah-ah,” the man said. “I see it over there. On the mantel.”

Savannah turned and walked to the mantel over the fireplace. She picked up the glass ashtray, pitched the cold ashes into the fireplace, and walked back. On her way over, she gripped the edges tight. She thought of bashing the man’s head, but where? Where could she strike him that would knock him cold?

Her husband had tried to teach her to box once. He’d taken her to the backyard on a morning after a heavy rain where he’d wrapped chains over a thick oak branch and attached a heavy bag with an iron clip. He tried to explain the movements of the feet, how you had to keep on the balls and never the heels. Never. He had her put her weight on her heels just to show her, and he shoved her with the base of his palm, knocked her to the ground. When he pulled her up, it was by the wrist, and she felt the wet back of her dress sucked to her skin. He moved her feet apart with the push of his boots, then grabbed her by the shoulders and squeezed them in, forcing her into a shrug. He told her to hold it there and fanned out his fingers to push on her clavicles, rolling her shoulders back. When she was balled tight, he told her to hold the position, keep it snug but hang loose. She didn’t understand a demand like that. Then he had her coil her fingers into fists and stepped back for a second, his hand over his mouth in thought. And then he stepped forward and very lightly, delicately pulled each thumb out from under the fingers, telling her, I won’t see you break a hand. Then he put her fists, offset, up to her chin, laid his hands over her hands, covering them, directing her arms as if they were the gears to heavy machinery. But even the straight punches she could not understand, the mechanics having everything to do with things he could not say to her, could only physically try and adjust. He grabbed her hips and jerked them to pivot along with the back leg, but his exertions on her body, the berating he gave her when she did it wrong, made her shut down, drop her hands, and refuse to listen anymore.

Savannah returned to the ashtray in her hands, looking over this man in the recliner, wondering from what angle would be best to hit him.

“Right there, dear, on the edge of the coffee table.”

Savannah hesitated, unsure if she could strike him or not. She decided to set the ashtray down.

“All right,” she said.

The man leaned forward and poured the ashes into the tray, then dabbed out his cigarette. He sat upright again, stiff. “You may sit down,” the man said. Savannah was staring out the window. “I said, you may sit down.”

Through the bay window and across the street, Savannah saw Morty Carmichael. He was a door-to-door vacuum salesman who showed up on the block every few weeks to clean one room of each house and try to sell the vacuum off his back, which he carried, harnessed to dark shoulder straps. He was wearing his usual suit, flame-red with black outlining on the cuffs. He had once told Savannah he thought the suit would give him more authority, like a firefighter, like the vacuum was his spray hose and the dirt that was eating through the carpet was a fire that needed putting out. She had always let him in, always appreciated him cleaning without a charge and how he would offer it every time, knowing full well she couldn’t afford to buy the vacuum he so heavily lugged. Savannah saw Morty as a lonely man who went door to door to hear his own voice, to be reminded that he did in fact live, exist, appear in this unforgiving world. She appreciated his company, how he would tell the same stories each time as if she’d never heard them—the one about the mime who shadowed him as he sucked insects and dust with a flat triangle extension from a narrow hallway baseboard or when he accidentally sucked up a family mouse as they both, the mouse and the double-wide shovel head, went for a spec of browned apple skin. And once, last month, when she saw him through the bay window, one arm swinging and the other bent behind him, securing the weight of his harnessed pack, she pulled the shades and lay on the couch. Her husband was somewhere outside of Macon, Missouri, and Savannah rested the back of her neck on the arm of the couch, let her head tip over the arm and back so a stream of blood filled her brain, and she put a hand down her waistband and worked her fingers around, thinking only of Morty Carmichael and how soon he’d be at her door.

Savannah watched Morty now as he knocked on the Richmonds’ door across the street. If he was still selling in a zigzag pattern, she knew her house would be next.

Savannah felt a tug at her wrist. “Sit down!”

She stood fast and waited for the man to let go. Only when he had, when she earned the small victory of standing over him for a few seconds, enough to try him, enough to see that he might not be capable of what his demeanor promised, did she take her seat on the couch. This gave her a bit of confidence.

The man pushed the ashtray, and it skidded across the coffee table, spilling some of the ashes.

“I told you already, I’m not comfortable with these things.”

“It won’t happen again, dear,” she said, knowing it might be a push too far. She looked out the window. Morty was pitching his vacuum to Esther Richmond, running it over a patch of grass near the porch. He’d shown Savannah the same trick several times, how the vacuum, on “power retrieve,” could suck blades of grass from the ground, white roots and all. He picked them out of the clear canister and displayed them on his palm like fine diamonds, a look in his eye.

“It shouldn’t happen at all. I’m a guest here. Now, treat me that way, dammit.”

“You’re right,” she said, turning back. She couldn’t think of anything to say, so she folded her arms under her chest. The man now eyeing her with intentions she hadn’t fully seen in him before. She felt uneasy and unhooked her arms and wiped her hands on her dress.

“You said something about south,” the man said.


“Your husband was heading south?”

“He could have been.”

“Could have. I told you, we don’t work in these kinds of ways. We don’t work in ‘could haves.’ If you’re fucking with me, I’ll—”

Savannah nodded.

“I don’t think you understand the severity here. Sometimes when the money doesn’t come through, when the slob boxer doesn’t come through, we have other ways of settling things. Do you understand? Sometimes it’s just like interest, get it?”

His knee was moving again.

“I think,” she said. She looked across the street. Morty was tilting the canister for Esther Richmond. She stuck her hand in and sifted through the grass. She let Morty come inside.

“We wouldn’t want to default to that,” the man said. “Not today. Not any day. We just, sometimes, have to.”

“Oh. Sure. If you must,” Savannah said. She was in a far-off haze. She knew Morty wouldn’t be across the street for long. Couldn’t be. Esther Richmond was just amusing him.

“Don’t talk like you’re patronizing me.”

When Savannah didn’t respond, the man leaned forward. He banged his hand on the coffee table. Savannah shot up. The ashtray rolled around.

“Where did he go?”

“I said south. Somewhere south. That’s all I know. South of here. Not here.”

“We know he’s not here. What did he last say to you about where he might be going?”

“I don’t know.” Savannah twisted her hair.

“Think. Our partners lost a great deal betting on those fights. He owes us. It goes up and up until he comes back.”

Through the window, across the street, through Esther Richmond’s window, Savannah could vaguely see Morty running the heavy-duty vacuum across the living room carpet. He moved in ebbs across the window. The half of him did.

“Where?” he demanded.

Savannah came out of the haze. “Nogales,” she said.


“I heard him say it on the phone. I don’t know if he’s fighting there. I don’t know anything about it. I only heard somewhere outside Nogales, and that’s all I know.” She breathed heavily and looked down at her chest. It was covered in pink and white splotches.

“There’s no good fighting around there. What’s he doing there?” the man asked himself.

Savannah looked out the window. She pleaded with Morty, with all of her body, to have him zag to the house. If he could only make it soon.

“There’s just no good boxing down there. I can only figure he’s gone because it’s near the border. I think your man has run for good.”

Savannah couldn’t comprehend, after all this time, after all the trips and attempts Morty had made to sell these vacuums, why in the world Esther Richmond was keeping him like this. In that moment, she wanted to destroy her, to stand in her place across the street and feel the vibrations of Morty’s vacuum, hear the hum of it. To be surrounded with the damp-denim smell of him, feel his short fingers on her elbow.

“Did you hear me? I said your man has run.”

Savannah had seen Morty on so many occasions. Laughed at his swooping hair, his firecracker-red goatee, the way his neck stuck out so high and narrow that she thought of him as a chicken stretched out.

“Dammit, listen to me,” the man said.

Savannah looked at the man. She had never seen a face so linen-white, mostly absent of features except deep grooves around the eyes, down from the nose, and at the sides of his mouth. It angered her, his violation of this space she had been forced to own for so long, someone always telling her to do one thing or another, and now here he was, a stranger in her home, demanding things of her, threatening her with his movements. Another man who wouldn’t understand the way she polished the space and kept it warm, waiting each night for a phone call, for the voice of her husband to come over a thin line, to tell her he was all right, that everything was all right, and if things worked out, life would get better. But her husband knew nothing of her life, how all of this—the boredom, the hollow waiting—gave her no real life to speak of.

She turned sharply from the man. If he came to claim something of her husband’s debts, to make her pay for his wrongs, then maybe he should get to it or get out.

She thought this. Then she said it.

A moment passed—a blip, a tick of time—and then a hand grabbed her by the hair, flung her at the coffee table so her stomach caught it straight on, knocked the wind from her, scooted the table off its place. As she bobbed for air—the pressure of a hand at the back of her head—she thought of the freckles on Morty’s knuckles, the way they looked when he wrapped his fingers around the neck of the vacuum hose. She felt the weight after that, the rush of wind from her dress thrust forward, heard the scuffing of shoes, the panting, like a starving animal. She could hear the shuffle of his suit, the wisps of his inseams as he lugged the brushes, the extensions, the cords, the shampoo formula, the heaviness of this hollow canister. She felt him put a clump of her hair in his mouth and suck on it until it was heavy and wet. She reached over her shoulder and yanked on the little rope of hair, forcing him to spit it out. She took a blow for it, but where, she couldn’t say. She pulled the thick strand of hair in front of her face to see it for herself—the bristles of a damp paintbrush.

Then the hand became her husband’s. The one that dragged her around the backyard, that held an unfamiliar phone to an ear each night, that left her scraped-together money in an old coffee can, that waved goodbye on hundreds of mornings when walking toward the bus station, her never knowing if this was the last she’d see of that hand, the final movement.

After some time, she was finally loose of the man and put her forehead on the coffee table, felt the smooth dry of the wood, the cool. She heard a click, a belt maybe, and reached for her clump of damp hair, held it tight to her red cheek.

In a few moments it would be calm. She would recognize the air filled with the smell of fried cigarettes and the metallic rubbing of wet skin. When she would roll over to regain something of herself, she rub her eyes, causing light streaks to shoot behind the lids. And she would hear the gradual tread of feet, unsure if they were the hard steps of feet coming or feet going, but she would know, either way, that she must get up now.


About the Author

Jonathan Starke is a former bodybuilder and boxer. He's harvested seaweed in Ireland, given free hugs in Spain, and flipped pancakes in Denmark. He loves riding trains and wondering about the lives unfolding outside the window. He's the founding editor of Palooka and has published essays and stories in The Sun, Missouri Review, Threepenny Review, Greensboro Review, North American Review, Brevity, and others. You might find him watching old pro wrestling matches on a Sunday night. You might not.