Lift and Carry

by Leslie Maslow



Sophie watched her neighbor Bert tie a silver foil balloon to his mailbox. It was New Year’s Eve and the Freundlichs were having their annual bash. Every year she and Nat joked about ways to get out of the party, but this year there was no question of Nat’s going. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer nine months earlier.

“So, what are you wearing?” he asked.

“Yeah, right.”

All day long he’d teased Sophie, as if her attendance was somehow a given. In truth, she hated even joking about leaving him home. Nat was the one who loved parties. He would have gone if he could have rolled his oxygen tank in tow, as he’d done a few weeks earlier to teach his last history class at St. Edith’s College.

“C’mere,” he said, patting the bed.

Nat’s shoulder blades poked through his thin white T-shirt, making him look boyish, even feminine—a far cry from her huggable, white-bearded Santa, her great lover of food and drink and smoke.

Sophie sat down, kicked off her shoes.

“I’m not leaving you alone,” she said.

“Dawn’s around,” he said.

“We gave her the night off,” she said.

“She just texted me she’ll be here.”

“On New Year’s Eve? That’s sad,” Sophie murmured.

Dawn was their new helper, a nearly six-foot-tall college student who had been the only candidate strong enough to lift Nat without having to use the Hoyer crane. It was a device he said made him feel like an arcade toy.

On the TV, a trio of stranded astronauts stood at the mouth of a cave looking at hundreds of silver orbs. One of them stepped forward.

“You’re dead, mate,” Nat said.

Sophie pressed her face in his arm.


A few hours later, she watched the flames of the Freundlichs’ fireplace dancing on the curve of her wineglass, amazed that Nat had prevailed upon her. After his nap he’d turned serious. First it had been to bring back gossip. Then to get pot gummies from Dave Scher. When asked why Dave couldn’t put them in the mailbox, he’d said, “I just want you to have fun.”

In a small voice, she’d said, “I have fun with you.”

The Freundlichs’ “great room” looked like a mogul’s Montana ranch with massive furniture, soaring ceiling, and exposed beams. Sophie had forgotten that this party had always been fun for one very important reason: alcohol.

She found Dave at the kitchen island tapping an empty seltzer bottle against his strong, healthy thigh. People around him sucked on skinny vape pens. Hopping up on a tall stool, Sophie twisted from side to side with her feet dangling as Dave showed her the gummies in a fancy black metal container.

“Tell him one for nausea, two for appetite, and three to laugh his ass off,” Dave said.

He reached in the pocket of his blazer and pulled out a vape pen.

“And this is for you.”

“Oh god, no.” Sophie said. “But thanks.”

“You quit?” he said.

“I can’t handle it. I mean, I have fun but then it all comes back.”

“Aw, Soph,” Dave said, hugging her.

She enjoyed the feeling of his strong, warm body with no IV lines or ports to watch out for.

She had an odd thought. Nat, in sending her to Dave, had been matchmaking. She pulled herself away.


At 11:35 p.m., Sophie began edging her way through the crowd toward the front door.

“You’re not leaving, are you?” Bert called.

“Just going to check on Nat,” she lied.


A full moon beamed down on a windless, brilliantly cold night. Sophie bounded across the ankle-deep powder of the yard to the strip of woods that sloped down from the Freundlichs’ house to their own. From above, Nat and Sophie’s split-level ranch looked like a Monopoly piece. She descended with weightless strides and champagne joy, grabbing onto thin pine trees, punching through the crust of snow with her heels. She was excited to tell Nat about the party and thought about ways to embellish the utterly predictable things she’d seen. She would go straight to him, coat on, boots off, argyle socks, and the long, plaid ’70s skirt he loved. He’d smell the freshness of the night on her cheek.

As she bounded out of the woods, she saw the flickering blue light of the television in the gaps between the paper blinds of his room. She jogged to a halt in the yard and noticed a strange, Godzilla-like shadow against the blinds. She went to the window, cupped her hands against the glass, and looked inside.

Nat was riding Dawn piggyback.

At first, Sophie thought maybe Dawn was just transferring him from the bed to his easy chair. But she kept walking around the room while Nat clung to her. From time to time, Dawn gave him a boost, or turned so he could see his reflection in the mirror.

He had an expression Sophie had never seen before. His eyebrows were arched, his face a mix of pain and rapture. Beneath his navy-blue terry-cloth robe, he wore only boxer shorts and Gold Toe socks, pulled neatly to his emaciated calves. Sophie had bought that robe for him at the Four Seasons in Washington. It was open and loose. The belt dragged behind them on the carpet like a tail.

Nat said something. Dawn lowered him onto the bed and settled him against the pillows. A damp curlicue of his hair was plastered to his forehead. He looked exhausted. As Dawn pulled the sheets up, Nat, eyes still closed, groped for her hand and kissed it. Honoring her, as if she was some sort of goddess.

Dawn suppressed a laugh. With her free hand, she pointed the remote control toward the TV and began channel surfing.

At a momentary loss, Sophie started back up the hill toward the Freundlichs’, then turned a circle and went back to her own front door. She would stomp her snowy boots on the mat, make a bit of noise. Hang up her coat in the closet. Take off her boots. Go to her room and change into her pajamas.

She would not, it seemed, go to Nat all dressed up and show off her skirt and funny socks. She would not, this night anyway, share the loot from Dave or generally shoot the shit. Nor would she, it struck her, unless she wished to rouse him from sleep, ring in the New Year with Nat. Not tonight or ever again in this lifetime.

She sank down on her knees in the snow. The air was so dry she didn’t feel the cold. She lay down on her back and looked out at the infinity of stars. It was almost like being on the beach.

She might have fallen asleep that way if not for a few people outside at the Freundlichs tooting faintly on noisemakers. She got up and ran to the window again. Beneath the blankets, Nat’s unmoving body looked like a child’s. Dawn sat in the easy chair impassively watching the celebration on TV, texting no one. Sophie could see the fireworks on TV reflected in Dawn’s glasses.


Sophie woke the next day to the smell of bacon. It was still disorienting coming to each morning and seeing her old law school textbooks between the shiny coal bookends gifted to Nat by some mining history students.

A merry scene presented itself in the kitchen, with Nat leaning up against the counter whisking eggs while Dawn lowered strips of cooked bacon on paper towels.

“Well, look who’s up!” Nat cried.

He waved Sophie over and kissed her with fond, dewy eyes. She gave him a pleasant, dry look.

“Good morning,” she said.

A pixel of merriment seemed to go out of his eyes.

At the table as they ate, Dawn chattered about her crop of chili peppers. Sophie didn’t notice anything different in her.

“With cold frames I could conceivably have enough habaneros to use half for hot sauce and half for deer repellent,” Dawn said.

“You could call it ‘Near Deer,’” Nat said.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Dawn said.

“‘Deer Away’? ‘Hot Hoofs’?” he asked.

She thought Dawn’s laugh sounded a little forced. But then, so did hers.


In the afternoon, Sophie joined Nat as he was watching a documentary. He didn’t even feign curiosity about the party. She tried to work up the nerve to say something. As the camera panned across grainy black-and-white photographs of stern-faced settlers, a somber voiceover described how members of the Donner party had learned to cut strips of flesh from the deceased.

“Ugh,” Sophie said.

“I’d do it,” Nat said. “I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

“I’ll bet you would,” she said.

“I’ll bet you would,” he shot back.

“Why?” she asked coldly.

He began nibbling her arm like a cob of corn all the way to crook of her elbow where it tickled. She shrieked.

“Stop!” she begged. She was afraid she was going to knock him over.

Nat made voracious eating sounds.

“Stop!!” she screamed.

She thought of Dawn hearing them, and how it might feel, and then hated that she was worrying about that. She twisted away from Nat. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

“I hope you’re not bothering Dawn every night,” she said.

Nat froze.

“What?” he said.

“I know what you do with her.”

A blush crept up his neck to the roots of his hair. Something ticklish and wild stirred in Sophie’s chest. She wanted to hit him and hug him at the same time.

“What would you like me to say?” he asked.

“‘Sorry’?” she suggested.

“She doesn’t mean anything. Not in that way.”

“Obviously, or you wouldn’t risk making her wanna quit,” she said.

Nat turned an even deeper shade of red.

“Ask her. I promise you. I gave her the choice, I promise you.”

“We pay her. We house her. She isn’t at liberty to choose.”

Nat hung his head.

“Right,” he said softly. “Okay.”

The humidifier hissed in the silence.

“You know,” she said hoarsely, “I could carry you.”

Nat looked at her with a defensive smile like a teenage boy who didn’t know if he was being flirted with or made fun of. His eyes darted toward the TV and then back again.

“I could,” she said.

“I might just take you up on that,” he said.

Sophie had heard him say the same thing recently to someone else, in that same tone of voice. It had been Dawn, in fact. When she’d offered to read Nat’s palm.


The next day he developed a slight fever. The question of antibiotics came up again. This time, he didn’t want to take them or, for that matter, one of his medications. The visiting hospice nurse coached Sophie and Dawn on how to manage it.

Then an odd thing happened. A few days later, he seemed to improve, moving about the house more easily. He even had a glow. The hospice nurse told Sophie this often happened because, without some of his medications, he had improved a little. She was warned it was only temporary.

“How temporary?” Sophie asked.

It would be best not to think in terms of months.


One night when Dawn was out, Sophie knocked on Nat’s open door.

“Hey,” she said.

“Look at these morons,” he said gleefully at something on the news.

“I’d like to help you,” she said, her voice catching.

His smile froze.

“Look,” she said, flexing her bicep. “I’m using your TheraBands.”

“Jesus,” he said, his face tight and cheerful, “It’s a grapefruit.”

“Feel my leg,” she said.

He patted it.

To be humored like that. She sat, watching the eternal television with wide, unblinking eyes. There were cars on fire, women wailing, Viagra commercials. She couldn’t move. Neither of them spoke. As the minutes passed, an intense desire flared up in her that he would die quickly. Better that way.

In the periphery of her gaze, she saw Nat raise an arm. The TV went dark. His legs whispered across the sheets as he pulled himself to the edge of the bed. He gestured for her to stand in front of him and turned her to face the windows. In the glass she saw his ghostly image wobbling on the mattress behind her.

“Come a little closer, honey,” he said.

Piece by piece, he lowered himself onto her back, first gripping her hips with his knees, hanging his arms over her shoulders. His weight pressed down on her.

“Use your legs,” he cautioned.

She was petite, Nat a good thirty pounds heavier. Still, it was possible for her to carry him. With a staggering jerk of one leg forward, she began to walk around the room. She lurched toward the dresser, over to the TV, and back along the windows to the bed, making a circle. She felt ridiculous, but it was real. It was happening between them. She tried not to let her voice sound strained.

“Should I do anything else?”

“No, you’re doing fine,” he replied.

In a far corner of the house the washing machine began thudding softly against the dryer.

“Want to go out in the hall?” she asked.


She carried him down the corridor and into the guest bedroom, fighting her buckling knees. She bet Dawn had never taken him out of his room. She probably wouldn’t even have thought of it. Sophie could take him anywhere he wanted. The kitchen. The backyard, even. Thinking he might enjoy the adventure, she carried him into the guest bathroom and opened the cabinet doors so he could see himself reflected endlessly in the mirrors. As she opened the cabinet, she glanced at his face. His eyes were sad and aware, not closed in rapture. His expression was patient, as if he was enduring a game he didn’t want to play.

The energy drained from her. The full force of his weight made her almost sink to the floor. She turned away. Now the mirror reflected only their receding image: him, clinging, slowly slipping down, and her, limping, hoping to make it to the bedroom before his toes touched the carpet.

She settled him on the pillows and pulled up the covers.

“Thanks,” he said.

“Whew!” she said lightly.

She pressed her hand onto his ankle, turned on the TV, and pretended to watch with him for a moment, long enough to save them both from embarrassment as the weatherman lectured about the weather tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that—a whole row of smiling suns, puff-cheeked winds, and teardrop clouds.


For the last six weeks of Nat’s life, Dawn slept on the easy chair in his room. Most of the time, Sophie left them alone, and when she did go downstairs, she made sure they heard her coming.

She helped Nat organize his papers, then began searching through things, not sure what she was looking for. She took books from the shelves and turned them upside down, hoping a receipt or forgotten piece of paper would flutter down. She had no patience for their photo albums and the all-too familiar images: Sophie muddy in a garden on all fours, weeding. Nat, perpetually chunky in a cap and gown at a lectern. A blurry couple, newly wedded, waving from a chairlift, unaware that they both weren’t that into skiing anymore.

One day she caught Dawn standing at the office desk looking at one of the albums.

“I’m sorry!” Dawn said, stepping back and blushing.

“That’s what it’s for!” Sophie said.

She took the page Dawn was closing and opened it again. There was a picture of Nat at a party talking to a thin, elderly man in a light blue jacket. The man held a voice-generator to his throat.

“That’s Nat’s Dad,” Sophie said.

“Was he a coal miner?” Dawn asked.

“Actually, yes.” Sophie said, looking at her.

“My grandfather had an electrolarynx too. From the coal dust. And cigarettes.”

“Horrible sound,” Sophie said, shivering.

“I mean!” Dawn laughed. “Actually, to me it was just Paw-Paw.”

Sophie showed Dawn more pictures of people and places until they got to the last page, a photo of Nat giving his final speech at St. Edith’s. The rest of the album was empty.

After Dawn left, Sophie turned the empty pages. It felt wrong to show Dawn that the album ended with a picture from three months ago. As if Dawn had never existed, as if the life they were all living together right now didn’t count.

Nat and Sophie had been together for only fifteen years. They had been joyful years, said the pictures. After gloomy first marriages, each had found this new great thing—a life spent together, busy with loving. Being freed into this new thing, loving, had made them compatible. But Nat was dying now. Something else was called for. She could, of course, just go on with the pleasure of loving him. There would be no shame in that.


One night, toward the end, a Nor’easter slammed the Mid-Atlantic. There had already been seven inches of fine, dense snow. Another six to eight were expected. Sophie put on a winter coat, boots, and a hat and stepped outside. Pellets of snow blew sideways against a glowing, tangerine sky. She went to Nat’s window, knelt, and put her mittens against the glass.

Dawn sat on the bed cradling Nat. His hand rested on her collarbone, splayed and relaxed, like an infant’s. She gave him sips of water from a light-blue child’s spill-proof cup shaped like an elephant.

Sophie felt like boiling water was pouring down the inside of her chest. Nat was as far away from her as one person could be from another. Had Dawn shopped for that cup at the Walmart? Was it her idea or had Nat asked for it? Had he explained his desire in his calm, rational way? Had he blushed?

Dawn was into it this time, rocking Nat gently, sometimes whispering things to him. His death will be a shock for her, Sophie thought. A total, devastating shock. For herself too. It was a comfort to think she could ask Dawn to stay. It was a comfort to think she could sit at the window for as long as she wanted. There would be time enough tomorrow to be with Nat in his dying, holding his hand and petting his hair and whispering in his ear.

Sophie took off her mitten, touched her face, and grew afraid. It was impossible for her to remain outside. She managed to get on one knee and rested there like someone proposing, bracing her hands on her thigh, readying herself for the final effort.

“Goodbye,” she whispered to the peeling paint, the window, the hole in the snow burnt by her body, to Nat, to Dawn. “Goodbye.”

With a small groan, she pushed herself up, brushed the snow from her coat and made her way inside.



Leslie Maslow is a freelance editor. Her short stories, essays, and review pieces have appeared in Tin House, Open City Magazine, Medium, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other journals. She has an MFA in fiction from Bennington College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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