First published in Marion Zimmer
Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, Summer, 1989
Subsequently published in
Phantastische Wirklichkeiten, 1992
Life’s a bitch, Helen thought, staring at Howard
in complete disbelief, and then you die.
You work from nine till five every day. You go home
and cook for three kids and a husband. Then try to keep
house, pay bills, deal with each of the crises the kids
bring home and dodge the house pets that are everywhere
except where they’re supposed to be... .
Helen desperately needed to go on a retreat—and stay
for about twenty years. Instead, who was going?
Howard, who hadn’t had a steady job in something over
Howard, whose idea of a really hard day’s work was
when the clicker broke on the TV, and he had to get up
and change the channel manually.
Howard, whose most stressful moment had been when NBC
had scheduled "V" opposite "Dallas."
Howard, who would step over a puddle of dog puke for
two weeks rather than clean it up.
This same Howard had taken one hundred and fifty of
Helen’s hard-earned dollars to go to some meditation
retreat and listen to a guru.
"It will be an enlightening experience, Helen,"
Howard had informed her with a smug, superior smile.
"Let me get this straight," she’d replied, making a
valiant attempt to keep from reaching for his long neck
and strangling him. "You want to go and sit cross-legged
with a bunch of other people and listen to some guy with
a beard tell you what life’s all about?"
Howard had nodded his head yes.
"And you won’t eat anything but fruits and nuts and
"Curds," Howard had corrected.
"And this guy won’t let you talk?"
Howard nodded yes again.
"And you’re going to go a full ten days without TV?
You’ll get behind on your soaps, you know." Laughter won
out over anger, and she was unable to control it.
Howard was not amused; he stiffened.
"It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to have an
out-of-body experience," Howard said haughtily.
To tell the truth, Howard, the last few years I
haven’t been at all sure you were ever in your
Finally, though, after considering all the angles,
Helen gave in.
"You’re going to go a full ten days without TV." She
snorted and handed him the money.
"This I’ve got to see."
Helen expected Howard to come home after the very
But he hadn’t. He stayed the entire ten days.
And it was absolute heaven.
She learned within twenty-four hours that it was not
her three boys who trashed the house on a regular basis,
but their father. Actually it made sense when she
thought about it. After all, the boys were in school
most of the day while she was at work. That really left
only one possible culprit: Howard. Unbelievably, it must
be Howard, a grown man, who left the potato chip bags
everywhere. Howard, a mature adult, who ground Cheetos
into the new rug. Howard, surely old enough to know
better, who tracked mud through the kitchen, then made a
sandwich and left everything out....
Howard, whose habits apparently were worse than the
youngest of the kids.
Helen told herself to stay calm.
She did enjoy being able to make decisions
without having Howard put his two bits in. It was
generally nice to have her own space. She had forgotten
just how—civilizing it was—to be able to read a book, or
watch TV without waiting for him to holler at her.
Usually he picked the moment when she’d just gotten
comfortable. And it was always something stupid, like he
wanted a beer and was too lazy to go to the kitchen for
it himself. Or worse yet, when he’d ask some stupid
question that common sense could have answered.
The kids knew better. Howard either didn’t know or,
more than likely, didn’t care.
But the thing that she enjoyed most about Howard’s
leave of absence was not having to go on seek-and-find
Helen was sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that Howard
could not find his ass if he used both hands. He was
always looking for something, and he was always
sure that Helen knew right where it was—or could find it
a lot easier than he could. After eighteen years, Helen
was running out of patience. A grown man ought to be
able to remember that his shorts were in the same drawer
as his socks.
Especially when they had always been there.
What really ticked her off was that he didn’t ever
look. But in a way that was partially her fault. It had
gotten to be easier for her to go and get what he
wanted—whatever it happened to be this time—than it was
to clean up the mess he made looking for it. And it was
increasingly hard to put up with the bitching that went
along with his throwing things around.
Too soon the party was over, and Howard was back.
A changed man.
He had been enlightened—or so he told them at great
Helen did have to admit that she saw the change in
him. Now instead of sitting around in the living room
all day watching TV, he sat around in the living room
all day meditating. From Helen’s point of view it was
not much of an improvement. Still, she tried to be
optimistic. At least this saved some electricity.
Helen was doing the dishes and trying to ignore the
fact that Howard was meditating in the living room—
Because he was not to be disturbed, the boys
couldn’t watch TV. This made them very unhappy, and they
all chose to convey their unhappiness to her. All at the
same time. Which made her more than unhappy. In fact, it
made her damn near suicidal.
Weep, wail, and whine—
"The ‘A Team’ comes on in fifteen minutes!" Jim (her
eleven-year-old) complained. "Is he going to be doing
whatever it is that he’s doing until then? Because I
don’t think that’s fair!"
"Mom, what’s Dad doing?" the eight-year-old asked.
"And how come…" Bill, fifteen and very earnest,
added, "…he has to do it in the living room?"
"He’s exploring a plane of higher consciousness," Jim
answered, pronouncing the words with care, then ruining
the effect with a giggle.
"In the living room?" Tom said in disbelief. "But he
doesn’t go anywhere. All he does is sit there."
"Mom, I think Dad’s on drugs," Bill said in a
thoughtful, apprehensive voice.
"He’s not on drugs," Helen assured him. "He’s just a
"Mom!" Bill giggled in gleeful, if scandalized,
"Well," she said, feeling oddly defensive about her
Why am I on the defensive here?
"I…" she raised her voice to something just a little
less than a scream, hoping Howard would hear her. "I am
sick and tired of busting my butt while your father
takes extended trips to LaLa Land!"
When this brought not so much as a murmur from the
occupant of the living room, she was oddly disappointed.
She decided to get mad, something she did very
This thing has gotten completely out of control.
She dried her hands carefully, put the dish towel away,
and turned away from the sink to face her brood.
"Okay troops, let’s just go see what we can do about
getting our living room back," she said, with a tight,
"All right, Mom!" Jim cheered.
She marched out of the kitchen and into the living
room, the three boys hard on her heels. They waited
behind her expectantly as she stopped and glared at the
lump sitting in the middle of the floor.
"Let him have it, Mom," Bill whispered.
Howard was planted like a turnip in the middle
of the living room, legs crossed, hands resting on his
knees palms up, thumbs and forefingers touching, staring
blankly at the wall. Helen had decided that she was not
going to hold back; there were a lot of things she’d
wanted to say for a long time.
So she let him have it.
"Howard, Howard, you can this phony act!
She didn’t look right at him; if she did, she knew
she’d never be able to say all she had to say.
She took his silence as a sign that he didn’t know
quite how to respond, and continued to bombard him for a
good fifteen minutes. She was finding it very
Jeez, this is great—like throwing off an anchor.
It was so—liberating—that Howard was being so quiet
and letting her get it all off her chest.
But when she started in on how lousy he was in
bed—and the only sound she heard was Bill’s gasp of
shock—she finally looked at her husband, the human
potato. And she realized that he hadn’t heard a word
He was locked up inside his own skull, in a trance.
"It didn’t work, Mom," Bill said slowly. "Not even
the last part. He’s vegged-out."
Helen stiffened. "Miserable, low-down, mother-"
"Mom!" Tom shrieked. "That’s the Bad Word!"
Helen ignored her children, rage boiling up in her.
"Damn you, Howard!" she screamed at the top of her
Howard still didn’t respond.
She reached down and shook him—with no result.
She pushed him and he fell over, still in lotus.
"Mom?" Jim gulped.
"No such luck," Helen replied grimly, but she checked
his pulse, anyway.
"Mom?" Bill asked.
"He’s fine." She sighed again.
"I can’t believe it. Now he’s even sleeping when he’s
awake. Now that is lazy."
The phone rang.
It was trouble at the shop, and she was only too glad
to go in. The non-confrontation had exhausted her
emotional reserves. As she was getting ready to leave,
Bill stopped her at the door.
"Is it okay if we watch TV?" he asked, tilting his
head towards Howard.
"Sure," she growled. "Use your father for a coffee
table if you want. He might as well be good for
Bill blushed in embarrassment, and she stomped out
She managed a boutique for a fancy owner, in a fancy
shopping mall, in a fancy part of town. It therefore
followed that she had fancy problems. As she worked on
getting the fouled-up shipment orders straightened out
she told some of her troubles to Susan, a fellow
employee and a very good friend.
Finally Susan asked the inevitable.
"So how’s the fruit basket tonight?"
"Don’t call Howard a fruit basket," Helen admonished.
"After all, a fruit basket is useful and decorative."
Both of them laughed.
"Do you know what he’s doing tonight?" Helen asked.
"Praying to garbanzo beans?" Susan guessed with a
"Worse. He’s sitting in the middle of the living room
in a trance. Susan, I screamed at him until I was blue
in the face, I shook him, I knocked him over. Nothing.
He didn’t even move." She paused. "For a wonderful
moment I thought he was dead."
"Spooky," Susan replied. "So what’s he doing this
"Driving me crazy."
"Well, he says he goes out of his body and goes to
other planes of reality. Whatever that’s supposed to
Helen shrugged, and Susan patted her shoulder
"Why don’t you just divorce him?" she asked. "And
don’t tell me, ‘because of the kids.’ Hell, he’s as
lousy a father as he is a husband. It’s bad enough you
have to support your kids, you shouldn’t have to support
him, too. You’re still young; you’ve still got your
looks. That nice, good-looking salesman makes eyes at
you every time he comes in, and don’t say you don’t look
back, because I’ve seen you do it."
"See, I knew it. Come on, Helen, everyone has the
right to be happy, to enjoy their life. Especially
someone who works as hard as you do."
"A divorce is so...well, messy. You know me, Sue. I
don’t like hassles. And I don’t handle stress well."
Helen shrugged helplessly, and Susan nodded.
Yeah. Sue. You’ve heard it all before, haven’t you?
"Have it your way, Helen, but I still say you’d be
better off to put up with a whole lot of stress all at
once than to put up with a little bit, day-in, day-out,
week after week, year after year, decade after…"
"Okay, I get the point!" Helen interrupted.
"So I’ll shut up," Susan said, then laughed. "Who
knows—maybe Howard will get out of his body and then
won’t be able to find it again. You’re always saying he
couldn’t find his head if it wasn’t glued to his
…then stopped. Her eyes shone with a new light. An
idea was beginning to form.
It was nine at night before she got the mess sorted
out and got home. Howard was in the kitchen making a
tofu sandwich. She got herself a glass of orange juice
and sat down at the kitchen table.
"Helen, where’s the mustard?" Howard asked, poking
around in the cabinet.
"In the refrigerator where it’s always been," Helen
Howard opened the refrigerator door, and peered
"Where at in the refrigerator?" he asked.
Helen counted to ten, then got up and found it for
"Thanks, honey." She sat down again.
"So what happened at work?"
"They misplaced the shipment," she said. "Some idiot
stacked it on the wrong dock."
"You shouldn’t call someone an idiot just because he
makes a mistake," Howard said with superior disapproval.
Why not? Helen thought. Who else could be a
better judge of an idiot? I’ve been living with one for
But she just smiled at him, and asked, "So how was
your meditation today?"
Howard grew animated. "I’m glad you’re finally
showing some interest," he said, "It went very well.
He got a bewildered look on his face. "Something very
strange happened, though. When I descended back into my
body, I was lying on my side, and there was a bowl of
popcorn on my hip."
Helen kept a grin off her face only with an effort.
"Howard," she said, in a voice that she kept
carefully enthusiastic, "When you say you leave your
body, what exactly do you mean?"
He got that superior look on his face again. "My soul
ascends from my body and travels, astrally, through
time, through space, past the bounds of reality."
Helen looked at him curiously. He was excited.
Too bad it took something like this to get him
excited, she thought sourly. It would have been
nice if he’d gotten excited about a job, just once.
"But what about your body?" she asked reluctantly,
curious in spite of her annoyance.
"Huh?" He looked at her blankly.
"Well, if you’re out of your body, who’s taking care
of it for you?"
"Nobody takes care of it. What could happen to me
sitting in my own living room?" he asked.
"I suppose you’re right," she said. "But if you’re
out gallivanting across the cosmos and through time and
all, however do you find your body afterwards?"
"I’m held to my earth-body by a silver thread. I just
follow it back to my body. Besides, I’m always in
the living room, right where I put me." He laughed at
her. "Even I can find my own body, Helen."
"I suppose you’re right," she said again.
Howard went back to his sandwich.
"Helen, where’s the salt and pepper?"
Helen smiled broadly as she got up and got it for
The kids were all in bed. Helen walked out of the
kitchen and there sat Howard, still meditating in the
living room. He had been there for over two hours this
Helen swallowed. Now was as good a time as any.
She took hold of Howard under his arms. He didn’t
She started to pull him up the stairs. He was a lot
heavier than she had thought he’d be, but even as she
hauled him up the staircase he didn’t come out of his
"Like moving a dead body," she mumbled to herself.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Up the stairs she climbed, dragging Howard after her.
Helen jumped at the call, and almost dropped her
It was Tom. He was still in his room, so he couldn’t
have seen what she was doing.
"What?" she asked in an irritated voice, trying to
"What’s that noise?" he asked.
"Someone lost a hubcap out on the street," she said.
"Go back to sleep."
"Okay. Goodnight, Mom."
She heard the door to his room close, and continued
her ascent. Her ascent! She almost laughed.
She made it to the top of the stairs, a little short
of breath. But she didn’t take time to rest. She pulled
Howard laboriously into their room and closed the door.
Then she dropped him and walked over to the closet.
She opened the door; she had already cleared the
She pulled Howard over and shoved him in. She covered
him with a blanket, then slammed the door to the closet
with every ounce of strength she possessed, and all the
malice and frustration in her soul.
Would it be enough? Had she severed this "silver
thread" thing that held Howard to his body?
"The hell with it," she muttered.
She took a shower and went to bed—and surprisingly
enough had no trouble going to sleep.
Some time during the night, a presence entered her
She smiled. It was Howard, a pitifully terrified
Howard. His face floated in the air, hovering like some
"Helen!" he cried. "Helen, where did you put my
Helen just laughed at him.
"Helen, it’s not funny! I can’t come back! I can’t
find my body. Where did you put it?"
Helen just smiled. "Do you really want your body,
Howard?" she asked sweetly.
"Yes! Yes, please!" he pleaded.
Helen continued to smile.
"Then look for it, Howard. Just look for it."
She laughed heartily, and blotted him from her dream.
And she slept peacefully for the first time in