Countdown

by: Julie Howard1

A cautionary tale for those who live their life in constant judgement…

countdown-maxwell-dickson

She woke up to a “four-point-five,” showered to a “four-point-eight,” and ate dinner to a “six-point-three.” Sex could go as high as an “eight-point-five,” and her husband told her that if she tried a little harder, it might actually tally up to a “nine.”

Mark rated everything. It was an obsession of his. No movie or television show went unscathed. But it didn’t stop there. Highways, his mood, vacations, snowfall, colleagues, the pleasure of a hike in the hills, they all fell under his scale.

Ally was his personal favorite to rate. At first, she joyfully accepted his examination, seeing it as Mark taking an interest in her and an endearing quirkiness to his personality. Early in their marriage, she strove for that elusive “ten.” In those bright-eyed days, Mark would occasionally lob one her way. Later, Ally learned that this had been just foreplay, empty flattery.

“Nothing can be a ‘ten’,” Mark explained in a patient tone, “because something can always be better.”

By the same logic, nothing ever received a “zero,” though he was willing to use a “point-eight” or a “point-three” to show severe displeasure at a missed airport connection, his current boss, or a flat tire on the highway.

Mark browbeat those around him to use his rating system too. Friends were bullied into assigning a number to Ally’s cooking, the comfort of their sofa, or their neighborhood. In exchange, he enumerated their hairstyles, their business savvy and their taste in cars.

On their tenth anniversary, Mark and Ally enjoyed a “seven-point-two” dinner (marked down from a seven-point-six because of the short pours in their wine glasses). Ally wore the “eight-point-zero” dress Mark loved for how it accentuated her cleavage even though the shade of blue didn’t quite suit her. She had asked him, “How happy are you with your life?”

Mark’s eyes shone. This was his favorite kind of discussion. If there was anything he enjoyed more than rating others, it was assessing himself. Mark leaned back in his chair, tapped his fingers on the table and nodded seriously in thought. Ally enjoyed the silence it brought, the lull in talking about work and the many savvy judgments he’d passed on others.

After two long minutes, Mark picked up his second glass of wine and sipped appraisingly before finally proclaiming, “a four, or maybe a four-point-five.”

Ally’s mouth fell open.

“What?”

Mark smiled, openly happy at surprising her with the number. People often were taken aback by his calculated reasoning.

“You mean everything, right? Work, home life, you, me, everything? Yeah, I’d give it a sub-five rating. How about you?”

Ally stared at him.                  

“Sub-five,” she repeated. “That means you’re unhappy with your life. I didn’t know that.”

Mark shrugged.

“It’s a bit stale. Like I’m going nowhere. Stuck.”

The waiter thankfully descended and cleared their plates, offering dessert, which Ally declined.

“Go ahead,” her husband said. “It’s our anniversary.”

Ally shook her head.

“Lemon cheesecake,” Mark said to the waiter. “Bring two forks and we’ll share.”

They sat in silence until the cheesecake arrived. Ally turned the word “stuck” over and over in her mind.

“You didn’t answer,” Mark pressed. “How would you rate your own happiness?”

He dug into the cheesecake with gusto.

“I’m not sure now,” Ally said. “I would have said a ‘seven,’ I guess. But now…I don’t know.”

Mark laughed. For the first time, she heard the scoffing undertone that had always been there. Had he ever really heard her, or taken her seriously? Or was she just there to listen to his clever pronouncements?

“I don’t think you mean that,” Mark said. “We barely have any savings, we live in a three-point-seven house that needs more work than we can afford, and I have a two-point-nine job.”

Mark raised his eyebrows at Ally.

“And we have no kids.”

Those final words cut through Ally. She fought back tears. She would not cry in the restaurant, at their anniversary dinner. Nothing could wound her more than this. They’d been patient, stopping the birth control five years into their marriage. Two years after that, they sought medical advice. Nothing was wrong with either of them, the doctors said, but three years further down the road still found them childless.

“Hey,” Mark said, his voice softening. “It’s not your fault. Just one of those things. That’s a full point-and-a-half drop. I’m being honest here. Assessing everything. I think you’d say the same thing, am I right?”

Ally shook her head. She hadn’t lost hope. They were both still young – she was only thirty four, after all. Mark had ruled out adoption but Ally thought he’d change his mind after another year or two of trying. Lots of people adopted, even at age forty – that wasn’t a problem at all.

Their last discussion about adoption had occurred only the week before. Mark proclaimed the idea a “zero-point-two. Not happening. Can’t afford it.” Still, their talk had been after a rough day at work. Ally should have picked better timing, she figured. That would have changed his rating by a full point or two. A point or two increase a year would get him on board soon enough.

“The sex is ok,” Mark continued. “Better than I would have thought after ten years with the same woman. You could work out a bit more, though. Get yourself to a solid six.”

“Huh?”

Mark was fully lost in his assessment of his sad sub-five life and didn’t notice Ally’s ripening rage. The cheesecake disappeared as bite-by-bite he surveyed his internal miseries.

“You go now,” Mark said finally, his eyes sparkling and alive with the discussion. “Rate your life. Take your time. Do it right.”

Mark sat back in his chair, waiting, a satisfied look on his face.

“Still a ‘seven,’” Ally said, lifting her chin as she realized this was true despite the hurt he inflicted, despite a decade of living with his negativity. She was an optimist at heart. “But after our divorce, I think it’ll climb to a ‘nine’.”

Ally rose from the table and something inside her rose as well.

“Feeling pretty “seven-point-five” already,” she said, before tossing her napkin on the table and walking away.

No, she thought. No more numbers. I just feel good.

 

Julie Howard is a former newspaper journalist and editor who has covered topics ranging from crime to cowboy poetry. Her career was primarily spent with the Las Vegas Review-Journal, The Sacramento Bee and the bygone Maturity News Service. She has published short stories in Literally Stories, The Piker Press and Dime Show Review. She currently lives in Boise, Idaho where she is working on longer fiction.

  1. Header art by Maxwell Dickson. []
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