“Is it—wrong?” She paused, scarlet in a scarlet chair, before the last, wrenching word.
The doctor, her husband’s neurologist, didn’t laugh, though he wanted to. He clicked the top of his ballpoint pen and feathered the pages of the chart in his lap. “How long have you been married?”
“Fifty-two years. I was seventeen. Hugh was twenty-four.” She sat up straighter and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Coiled in a low knot on the back of her head, it was the same whitish-yellow of the hydrangea blossoms on the bush outside the office window.
The doctor smiled. “Older man.”
“Well, yes, a little. I was mature for my age.” Her bright blue eyes, like robin’s eggs in a nest of wrinkles, dared him to judge her.
“Fifty-two years? You go ahead. Hugh can take it.” He said that to make her laugh, but it didn’t, at least not right away.
She looked over at the tall man sitting next to her, the quiet one with the flat eyes who looked less and less like himself, as though his face were a balloon slowly deflating. The doctor saw two or three different women inhabit her face, flashing like cards in a rolodex (he’d never used one, although she probably had) or like faces in a photo album, distinct but clearly related—sisters maybe. The one that settled—practical but slightly embarrassed—met his gaze, which he tried to keep carefully neutral. It was, after all, a practical question she had come to settle.
“Thank you,” she said, then, “Come, Hugh.”
The very quiet man stood when she took his hand and followed her out of the office like a somnambulist.
The doctor sat at his desk for some moments, though he was needed elsewhere. A picture of his wife sat on the polished cherry. They had been married for eight years, and her skin was taut with muscle and memory.
* * *
They drove home through shimmering pools of heat.
Inside the house, she walked him slowly from room to room, putting his large, bony hand on the ship’s clock on the mantle, the stained glass shade of her reading lamp, the granite cutting board in the kitchen, the quilt on their bed, every door knob. Without this ritual, he would sit in his chair all afternoon repeating in an airless voice, “Take me home. Take me home.”
He was a makeshift compass, a needle floating in a saucer of water, that would only point north if stroked carefully and deliberately with a magnet from top to bottom two dozen times. Then he could hold steady. Otherwise, he would waver and spin and panic, unable to settle on a direction.
The new house was strange to him. It was like a place he had lived briefly as a small child, dimly recalled in dreamlike smells, sounds, but essentially unknown. Every step, every object caused him to ask, do I know this? have I seen this before? have I been here? Their previous house—long, low, dim, paneled in darkened pine—which flooded when the Perrin River overflowed its banks five years ago, was gone, replaced with the brighter, higher, showier thing her daughters had talked her into. A few artifacts from the old house remained, and those anchored Hugh into whatever sort of present he inhabited. It was amazing how an inch of water could ruin everything: mildew groped up the walls, books curled and swelled, floors buckled, mud filled cracks like cement. No amount of bleach or air freshener could remove the memory of what came up from the bottom of the river.
This was Thursday, and Patty and Peggy would be over to spend the afternoon. (What had she been thinking to name them that? They weren’t even twins.) They saw it as their duty, but already she couldn’t wait for them to leave, for the long shadows of the pines behind the house to slide across the flat lawn to the river, for the house to fold in on itself in darkness.
* * *
“How was the doctor’s?” Peggy said.
Patty repeated the same question in her higher-pitched voice, adding, “Any changes?,” as though the doctor would notice things that she, his wife who spent every day with him, did not. The girls had faith in experts; she realized that was probably her fault. She kept Dr. Spock within reach during their childhoods, not trusting her own intuition when it differed from his until it was too late to make any use of it. Her grandchildren (Patty and Peggy each had two; Bob, none) were all in college now, and even when they were younger, their days were packed with lessons, practices, performances, tutoring, and clubs. She never had with them the endless dim afternoons she remembered with her own children.
“Oh, fine,” she said. She realized she still needed expert opinions; that was why she asked the doctor for approval, instead of just going ahead. But she also just wanted someone else to know: she was going to try to make love with her husband for the first time in four years. She wondered what the girls would say if she told them. Actually, she knew what they would say, just not the exact tone and volume that their revulsion would take. She wished, a little, to hear it, to stand immobile in that onslaught.
Hugh squirmed in his chair. She held out her hand.
The daughters looked after them with sharpish eyes. They were listening: to his shuffling steps, the door closing, the overloud sound of urine hitting still water, the flushing, and the business of pulling up, zipping, and washing. She wondered why. Did they want to be the first to hear the sounds of incompetence? The stumble, the spill, the accident. They were ready to discard this man at the first provocation.
She resettled her husband in his chair and went for a walk.
* * *
When she came back in, the house was colder. Peggy always turned up the air conditioner. Both of them were sitting on the couch across from their father. They looked up, startled.
“How was your walk, Mom?” Patty asked.
The girls were only fourteen months apart, lived next door to each other, and were busy in the same social circles. She thought they were essentially interchangeable. There must have been a time in those long hallways of childhood when she could have helped each sister open a different door, when she might have noticed the same object reflecting light off their smooth faces in different ways, but it was easier to treat them as one child. They thrust their plastic people, their dolls, their crayons at her and said, play. And she either said no and busied herself with something else, or hopped a toy up and down while she thought about something else. By the time they were six and seven, they stopped asking. Their play—such as it was—became invisible and unknown, behind doors, locked away from her. There might have been nothing behind those doors, just pop music stretched thin over silence, paper dolls propped up, looking as though they listened.
Was it her fault they were as shallow as the river outside her back door? Being a mother doesn’t make you God, thank goodness, and coloring and conversation and proper use of Fisher-Price people do not invest a body with a soul. Would she take those days back again, to live in them instead of regarding them as a waiting room to something larger?
Maybe very happily married people were always secretly disappointed by their children, she thought. She and Hugh had been so in love for so many years—and had enjoyed the creation of those children so much—that she was surprised by what they produced. Three kids who got acne, C’s in algebra, never won races or scored goals or made speeches or performed solos at school concerts, all needed braces, and grew up to do conventional things not far from home. She thought that their love made flesh ought to look less—ordinary.
Peggy was a realtor; Patty did the books for her husband’s plumbing business and sold things at house parties—kitchen gadgets, organizing totes, diet drinks. Bob moved around a lot, though he’d never left the state. Currently he lived an hour away, near the beach, with a woman who had long legs and a foreign accent. He owned a mobile computer consulting and repair business that he operated out of the back of his Lexus. They were busy; they seemed happy, though she couldn’t imagine any of them being happy in quite the way she and Hugh had been.
She remembered how she would stand in the closet, surrounded by the soft shoulders of Hugh’s shirts, breathing him in, even if he was just reading in the next room. She remembered making love on the beach in broad daylight, their bare legs and heads sticking out from behind the cover of a beach umbrella. She remembered the feeling she got when she recognized his tall, narrow form in a crowd of people. Happy wasn’t even the right word: she saw him each time with something like a shock of joy.
She remembered the night they’d had some of his old coworkers over for a dinner party, and she walked in on Hugh alone in the kitchen. He’d been forgetting things for months—names, directions, and quite ordinary words, which could stop conversations dead—and had seemed perpetually disoriented and irritated, like a man woken abruptly from a long nap on a hot afternoon, but she’d kept her concerns to herself. That night he’d held a wine bottle opener in his hand as though it were a postcard of an archaic tool, two-dimensional, not something that could be turned, understood, and manipulated by sensitive hands.
The look in his eyes made her feel as though she had walked into a room to find her two-year-old child dead on the floor.
She wanted to scream but instead reached for it with a laugh papered on top of panic.
“Let me do it,” she’d said. He pushed her hand away and stabbed the opener into the cork, screwing it in with something approaching fury.
He’d planned that dinner party himself—that was a year after his final flight, Richmond to L.A. and back—and none of the other captains or their wives seemed to notice anything wrong. But he never mentioned them again; it was as if they had fallen off the edge of the Earth.
In the slowly dimming years after that night, things became lost between one room and the next: the glass of iced tea on the dining room table went missing as soon as he walked into the sitting room. The house vanished when he walked around the first curve of the lane and the thick stand of pines hid it from sight. The swallowtail on the rose bush fluttered to the crepe myrtle five feet away; his head no longer swiveled to follow its path—it was simply gone.
At first she’d said to herself, “He’s losing his mind,” as though it would become funnier and more ridiculous with each repetition—except it didn’t. He’d looked out the window, and she’d asked, “What are you thinking, Hugh?”
“There is a perfect silence in my head.” When she’d asked him what he meant, he was unable to elaborate.
* * *
Patty was watching her like a hen, head cocked to one side, and she realized she’d been asked a question, then followed the shiny pebbles of her thoughts back until she recognized it.
“Oh, fine. It’s a bit hot out, though.”
The girls nodded, their lips saying hot and their mouths turning down because hot was a grief they all had to bear. The weight of a Virginia summer lay across them like a feverish child who wouldn’t be put down.
“See anybody to wave to?” Patty asked.
She shook her head. All the houses she passed looked the same: shades drawn, doors shut, garages closed. They were barricaded against the heat, against the metallic buzzing of a hidden army of cicadas, against the silent snakes.
She didn’t tell them that most of the water in the shallow pond where the dirt road met Highway 87 had evaporated in the heat. At the deepest part was a squirming, jam-like mass of tadpoles stranded in mud. She wasn’t quite sure why she kept silent—perhaps because it would horrify them; perhaps because it was something they would pass by a thousand times and never notice. She didn’t tell them that she walked through the dappled shade of a beech tree only to look up and see instead a pine strangled in poison ivy. Her eyes traced the hairy vine back to the ground where tentacled fronds unfurled like whips.
“Daddy was fine,” Peggy said. “He seems to perk up when we’re here.”
“Yes,” Patty said. “Definitely perks up.”
The girls looked at each other quickly, peripherally. She wondered what they’d been up to while she was gone.
“Did you take him to the commode?”
They looked at each other again.
“It’s all right,” she said, then, “Come, Hugh.”
She took him to the toilet every hour, like a toddler fresh out of diapers. She laughed to herself—maybe it was a laugh—as she eased his trousers down over the wings of his hip bones and the bulk of his padded briefs. She’d had three babies, and they all progressed the same way: sitting up, crawling, pulling to a stand, walking, talking, potty training, running, going to kindergarten, and right out of the house into their own lives. Hugh was doing everything in reverse. It was the same long hallway all over again, an endless waiting for something to happen. Can you really live here? she thought.
She held him in her hands and looked around his side to aim for the bowl. The top of her head reached his shoulder.
* * *
“Anything you need help with today, Mom?” Patty asked.
“You could finish getting in the laundry,” she said. They ignored that, as she knew they would, because they were embarrassed that even after the new house had been built and a brand-new stainless steel dryer installed, she still used the clothesline that hung between beech trees in the side yard.
“We could help you go through some things, maybe,” Peggy said.
“Like what?” She wondered if this was related to their guilty looks.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Peggy. “Papers, clothes, jewelry?”
“Do you think I should get rid of some things?”
They both nodded and smiled like she had made a brilliant suggestion.
“What do you girls suggest I start with?”
Patty put her head to one side, thinking. She had always done that, even as a child: tipped her head to the left as if the answer was on a tiny slip of paper that would slowly sift down into her ear where she could pull it out and read it.
“Maybe jewelry?” She darted a glance at Peggy, as though looking to see if she’d chosen correctly.
“Is there something you want? You can just ask, you know. I don’t wear very much of it anyway.” There were few special occasions anymore.
“Oh, no!” They sounded shocked.
“Well, what about your dad? Should we bring him in there, too?”
“Sure, he can watch,” said Peggy. “It might bring back some memories.”
So Hugh lay on the bed, stiff and grim, ruched up in his khakis and blue polo, looking like he was staging a mute protest over being laid down in his clothes in the middle of the day.
“What’s this? It looks old,” said Patty, picking up a gold cross pendant, filigreed, flowered, with a red oval stone in the center.
“That was Grandmom’s,” she said, then turned it over and pointed with her thumbnail to the word written on its brushed, silvery back.
“Oh, Avon.” Patty put it back in the jewelry box.
“Tell you what, girls. I’ll just take out the things I really like, and you two can divvy up the rest.”
They nodded, but she could feel a change in the atmosphere. What they wanted, she knew, was for her to take each piece out of the box one by one and tell them where she had gotten it, the parties and special occasions where she had worn it, what it was made of, what it was worth. They wanted this to be an occasion. They still thought she had the power to make the toys come to life. And she did—even she knew that; she just didn’t want to. She knew it was a choice she could have made differently, even now.
The things in this box meant almost nothing to her anymore, and she was too tired to pretend otherwise. They were stone and metal; their history was poised on the edge of oblivion, and most of the time she felt like that was fine. Wasn’t it better to carry nothing, to snip all the trailing threads of memory and desire? These things mumbled and whispered; their murmurs interrupted the growing silence of her house.
The wooden cat on her bureau, for example, she had bought in Jamaica years before. It was black and white, carved wood with glossy paint, slightly cross-eyed, with an improbably long and erect tail. The last inch of tail had been glued back when it had fallen to the floor and been stepped on. But the little cat, silent as it was, called up a tumbling array of conversations and thoughts. It was more expensive than it looked; Hugh hadn’t wanted to buy it, but she had gone back down to the gift shop anyway the morning they flew out. The cat whispered about the feeling she’d had being waited on by smiling people whose cinderblock homes she’d driven past on the way from the airport to the resort where daiquiris and plates of melon appeared almost magically. It reminded her of arguing with her husband in paradise. It reminded her of how they continued arguing about that cat for a decade without saying a word, except for when she had broken it.
Hugh had said, “I told you that tail would snap off.”
“I’ll glue it,” she’d said. “You’ll never know it happened.”
He snorted. “Damn right.”
She knew if the cat was gone—if she finally conceded that argument—those feelings would be gone, too: they wouldn’t continually jostle with the peace she remembered on that white sand beach, the cool dark room with its high bed where she and Hugh had made love every evening before dinner.
If she had a history, she didn’t want it to be a history in trinkets. Everything in her house whispered to her of things that were gone; they could all draw blood. But what would be left when you had discarded everything?
She extracted three pairs of earrings and two necklaces, the only ones she ever wore, all things that she had either bought for herself or that Hugh had given her. He usually bought presents for her that were also things he wanted himself, so he had only ever given her one ring, which she was wearing atop her wedding ring, and one pair of earrings.
“What do you want us to do with the things if there’s something neither of us wants?” asked Peggy, as they sorted the rest into Ziploc baggies.
“What about Mireya?” said Patty.
She thought Bob’s latest would be able to spot a mail-order trinket without having to flip it over to check the back, but she shrugged.
“Sure, if you think she’d like anything.”
She knew nothing would end up in Mireya’s jewelry box; they both just liked saying her name. Perhaps they felt like its slightly exotic sound and the allure it carried of long, silky black hair and skin-tight capris rubbed off on them.
Iced coffee was part of their Thursday afternoon routine in the summer. She poured three cups with ice and one without. (Hugh could no longer navigate ice cubes without choking.) Peggy and Patty sat at the polished kitchen table and helped themselves to cream and sugar. While their spoons clinked against the glasses, she led Hugh to his chair at the head of the table and put his glass between his hands. He slumped. Bitterly, she thought that the man who used to fly airplanes would soon have to be tied into his chair. She got up and busied herself at the counter, putting breakable things away with perilous emphasis.
The girls left soon after, clutching their baggies of jewelry. At the door, she put her arms around Patty, who smelled of lemons. A brooch on Patty’s blouse pricked her in the neck, a small bite that somehow felt like the chastisement she deserved. She gave a little yelp.
Patty squeezed her shoulder, pulling her closer, misunderstanding both the yelp and her resistance.
“It’ll be okay, Mom,” she said, then trotted down the brick walkway to catch up with her sister.
* * *
Bob had visited twice in the months after his father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and had asked questions his father couldn’t answer until Hugh became confused and combative, reminded of his deficiencies. Soon, though, the blank spaces grew, and the fear and anger that his losses aroused were replaced with a stillness like the clearest blue sky on a winter’s day. She imagined him wandering in empty woods, under that blank sky, lost.
The words people used made it seem that to be human was to be located in a particular spot. Bob would say, He’s too far gone, as though his father had traveled to a terrible closed country bordered with barbed wire and an endless bureaucracy. And she would retort, He is still in there, as if the bright flame that was Hugh wandered bewildered through a labyrinth of joints, vessels, and muscles, his feet trapped by ghost tangles, choking on the dust of neurons. She longed to look into his eyes and see an answering blink and know that he had found a way out, that he was emerging, squinting, from long days in the darkness.
Later, she had just wanted him to say her name. Now she just wanted him to keep living, though she knew that a time might come when she wouldn’t want that anymore.
* * *
She cooked dinner, chopping carrots, boiling pasta, popping open a jar of applesauce. In the pauses in her industry, she could hear Hugh humming from his chair, a low tuneless sound. She laid a tablecloth, lit a candle, and found herself running her hands across her collarbones and neck, then feeling foolish and swatting her own hands away like she was a teenage boy trying to get to second base.
After dinner, and the wiping and sweeping and washing, both of Hugh and of the kitchen, she read aloud in the living room. There was no way to tell if he heard, but the humming ceased, replaced with the cadences of the psalms. King David knew about waiting, about affliction, about wilderness and nights with no end. He cried, too: Will you forget me forever?
The rest of the evening was long in front of her and the night beckoned, almost terrified her. Maybe it would never come. Maybe it was too late for such things. She could always change her mind.
At dusk, she went out to the clothesline and tumbled the rest of the laundry into the basket waiting in the grass. Through the front door, she could see Hugh sitting in his chair. In daylight he was a bleached, shipwrecked thing, washed up on the sand, blinking at the glare and the strangeness. By lamplight the lines and shadows on his face seemed like they could contain thought.
The air, heavy and humid, clotted her mouth; she couldn’t decide whether to breathe or swallow. The summer grass crunched under her feet. To her left, the river flowed thickly to the near ocean, sweet, salty, rotten. Maybe somewhere back in the mountains it was a quick bright stream throwing light into rills and pools, but here in the tidewater it was brown and thick, without noise or motion.
She hoisted the basket to her chest, breathing in the warm clean scent of the clothes, and carried it inside. She set it on the floor by her chair. They’d watch “Jeopardy,” maybe something else, while she folded. Then bed. Her heart beat strangely. Bed.
First, she took Hugh to the commode again.
When they returned, he balked in the door to the living room. She pulled on his hand. Out of the corner of her eye, something stirred.
A thing brown and sinuous flowed without flowing out of the basket, up the side of the cushion, and coiled in the seat of her chair.
She and Hugh grappled in slow motion, each trying to hold the other back from entering the room, breathing hard. She didn’t know where to look: at the snake or at her husband seeing the snake. The head was broad and copper-colored, the golden eyes slit by vertical black pupils. Its patterned skin stirred as though something alive lay under fallen beech leaves. It was altogether silent.
Sharply she twisted her hand from his and grabbed the broom beside the refrigerator. Pushing Hugh back into the hallway, she rushed at the snake. It drew up its head to strike, but she knocked it sideways with the broom and hit it, over and over, until it stopped thrashing and lay limp on the floor. She carried it draped over the handle to the trash, knotted the bag, and threw it into the garage. She heard raw, gulping sounds and wondered, Who is crying? She stood with one hand on the wall and the other on her chest, unable to get a breath. Tears fell off her nose to the varnished floor; through her hair, which had come loose, she could see the brown tips of Hugh’s shoes, standing where she had left him.
After a few minutes, she tipped the basket of clothes on the floor and stirred it around with the end of the broom, then said, “Come, Hugh.”
He followed her into the bedroom, willingly.
* * *
He stood at the end of the bed, his shed clothes wrinkled in a pile at his white feet. She turned off the light and opened the windows wide to catch the breeze. To her surprise, their bodies behaved in familiar ways, and the trammeling of her heart shifted from disaster to desire.
“Beloved,” she thought as she came with a little bright quiver. Hugh made the same noise, mmmmmm, in his throat that he always had, followed by a low chuckle. She gave back an answering laugh, haltingly. Was this funny? Could it be?
What was the alternative?
They clutched each other’s bodies, bones draped in skin, laughing.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” he said. “Beautiful.”
She remembered suddenly that those were the words he had said on their wedding night, had breathed out, like she was some sort of miracle. Fifty years later she was new again, just glimpsed for the first time. He hadn’t said her name for a year: that would be her name now.
* * *
Hugh slept beside her, his mouth open, jaw slack. Her hand brushed the silver stubble on his cheek, then rested on his chest. She’d shave him tomorrow, smoothing each wrinkle to get the bristles buried within. Outside, she could hear a breeze in the leaves of the crepe myrtle, a mockingbird off in the pines, distant cicadas. The air was the same temperature as skin, and somewhere under her hand, deep in his muscles, memory survived.
He had seen her.
Laura Freudig was a 2019 winner of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers for her short story, “Mother and Child,” which appeared in The Sun in April 2018. She has been published in Volume 1 Brooklyn and has written a children’s book called Halfway Wild (Islandport Press, 2016). She lives on an island in Maine with her husband and six children.