One sticky afternoon, early in his marriage, Nat and his crew mates were gutting a tall-windowed lecture hall in the old chem building when, prying apart sections of lab table, he dislodged a long-hidden globule of mercury, which plopped into his bare hand. For an instant, he was stupid with wonder. The thing rolled around his palm like a tiny under-filled water balloon, as shiny bright, he guessed, as the day it disappeared down the crack. He turned to show the others, but then the mercury came into contact with his wedding band, coating the gold in a nano-second. His finger hadn’t built the hard ridge of callus it would later acquire, so the ring came off almost too easily—no tugging, no Vaseline. The other morning, embarrassingly, he’d sent it pinging across the floor tiles of a coffee shop. Now, once it was off, he saw that even the inside was mercury-glazed. Must be some chemical reaction, he thought, like electroplating? That shit’s incredibly toxic, you know, one of the frat boys said. Mercury poisoning hadn’t crossed his mind, actually. What he was thinking was, Two months, two months and I ruined the goddamn ring— The fleshy hand of one of the old-timer’s descended on his shoulder, a Buddha-shaped black man named Prince. Less see that, he said, holding it up to the daylight. You never knew with the old guys—sometimes you got wisdom, others times a withering scorn disguised as amusement. Prince returned the ring, said the buffing wheel in the metalshop would do the trick. Nat tried to read him. Prince looked back, almost gently, said, Be fine, passing up the chance to describe the deep shit Nat would be in with the wife.
So, later, as people were waiting to punch out, Nat hit the metalshop, tightened a flannel wheel onto the buffing machine, toggled the switch, then edged the ring down toward the blur.
A first drizzle of sick-taste leaked down his throat. Then he was sure he was being watched, but when he whipped around, he was still alone. The shop’s crud-caked windows thinned the afternoon glare to a dingy half-light. He let out a slow breath. He found a slightly sterner wheel on the bench, and as he was bolting it to the spindle, noticed a box full of what looked like half-used bars of Lava soap. Black emery buffing compound, one said. So he tried again, with buffing compound, and pretty soon the gold began to re-emerge. When that was done, he wound double-aught steel wool around a rat-tail file and unveneered the inside, ran the ring back and forth on his shirt a few times, returned it to his finger, and held his hand out for inspection.
Good as new, he told the empty room.
He went back out into the Michigan heat and headed home on foot, up Huron to Otsego, picturing himself stripping down, letting a cool shower wash away the sweat and grime. He crossed the mill race, took the dirt path through a lot overrun by ragweed, and came out on his own street. He saw himself in fresh clothes, popping a beer, telling Marcy what happened at work. His wife. When would that stop sounding so fucking weird? Anyway, he’d tell her the ring-and-mercury story . . . because that’s what you did when you were married, told each other everything, right? Moments later, though, he found himself thinking, But suppose I don’t? And this thought felt every bit as startling as the mercury dropping into his hand. What if the day’s true message was that despite being married, you were still separate people, you’d always have things you kept within you? That’s what he was pondering as he loped down the walkway and started up the wooden leading to their apartment, taking them two at a time.
David Long, author of three story collections and three novels, including The Inhabited World, is at work on Bonfire, a book of short fictions. He lives in Tacoma, Washington.