That time after day and right before dark, that’s my favourite. The magic hour, I think it’s called. Dusk is nearly gone, night’s almost here. Sit on my back porch with Murphy and a thin cigar and a cold beer and watch the world turn bluish. A navy kind of blue. Everything looks like it’ll sink. No noise. Even if there is noise, it’s softer somehow. And the moon’s all smoky bright. The circle of light around it like a halo against a big blue nothing of sky. Tonight, I stare at it a lot longer than usual. I don’t know why. Probably because it’s reminding me of Addy’s eye, her last seeing eye, before it shut tight for good.
She’s inside, Addy. I’ll admit I’m a little too shaken to head back in. The air’s cool, and the paddock beyond our yard lies still in the deep blue. I can just see it. The wind ripples through the tips of the grass.
I check my watch and see I’ve been out here a good 20 minutes. I wonder if Addy’s gone cold yet, but I think back to when my mother died, when I watched her go, and how it took some time before she stiffed up in a chill. I feel rushed, but remind myself Addy’s not going anywhere.
Addy’s passing was a long time coming. You prepare yourself for that. You know it’ll happen. But you have to tell yourself every damn day. What you can’t prepare yourself for is deterioration. Watching the body break down. First, she lost all strength. Then she was up in bed just losing body. Seemed like she was thinner every time I walked into the room. Then once the body’s lost itself, the mind goes. All the drugs in her system – I know they keep her out of pain, but watching her get angry for no reason, or talk to an invisible man, or the slackjawed drawls about crazy stuff – it just eats me up inside. Her last proper words to me were: Don’t let Murphy pay the gas bill. Murphy’s our damn stupid greyhound who can’t even chew up the bills, let alone pay them. When I think back on those words it’s kind of funny-sad. But what got me was Addy’s eye. Her mind, the rest of the body, all dissolving into death, except that eye. The left one was all covered with crap, but her right eye, a beautiful sea blue, was the last real, good-looking item she had left. Watching that eye weaken, swim up and down, and then finally close tight as if it was screwed shut, that was it. Then when it didn’t open again…Age is a bitch and cancer’s its evil brother. No, nobody knows how to deal with deterioration.
I’m rubbing my knees thinking I should call John. It’s sinful I’ve waited this long to tell him. Well, I needed a couple of minutes. A good 20 minutes. I check the watch again and see it’s been 40 now. Time flies, in more ways than one.
I finally get some courage and go back inside. Everything’s the way I left it. Lamp’s on. Bedroom door open ajar. I push the door open and there’s Murphy curled at Addy’s feet. He lifts his head and those are the saddest set of dog eyes I ever saw. I tell him Mama’s gone and he knows it. My mother always told me dogs were aware of death. And they were good with kids. They knew how to handle kids and they could sense death. Well, I’m no kid, but I sure wish I was one. Because that’ll mean I didn’t meet Addy yet. I still had all those years to go. And then I’d grow up and meet her, and we’d court, marry and have all those long, long years together. Years so long but looking back on them now they pass by in seconds.
The phone rings and it jolts me like electricity. I stand, go out to get it. I answer Hello, and it’s John’s voice on the other end.
How’s it going? he asks.
Yeah, not bad, I say.
There’s a silence. Then he says:
And I catch my mouth open before any words come out. I listen to everything: John’s held breath, my chin whiskers on the phone receiver, a slight rattle from the wind against the kitchen window I meant to fix. I don’t know why, but I tell him Mum’s fine.
Still the same? he asks.
Yeah, I say, half-turning to Addy’s room, but I don’t fully look.
Well, I’m gonna head over.
You eaten dinner?
No, not yet.
I’ll bring some leftover roast.
See you soon.
Then he hangs up and I’m left holding the phone to my ear. If John’s bringing leftover roast that means it’s Sunday. Can’t believe I forgot the bloody day. Staring at a dying face a lot of your time, you realise how silly the names of days are. Why’s a Sunday different from a Tuesday? What’s the difference between a second and an hour? It’s pretty much the same. Age just moves you forward, nothing else. Moves you forward until it stops and time sure as hell doesn’t matter then.
I put the phone down, look about the house. Our old house. Old folks in an old home. I’m looking at everything – the lampshade, a chair, a fork askew on the kitchen bench, an empty cup atop the television, my coat over the back of the couch – and all I can see in them is Addy’s eye. They all start winking at me like they’re all possessed.
Then I remember I’ve lied to John. Well, not really. I could always tell him Addy died on his way over here. Let him enjoy the trip back here thinking his Mum’s still sleeping soundly.
I shake my head a little – kind of coming back into reality – so I stop seeing Addy’s eye everywhere. The first thing I take a proper look at is my tin of Wee Williams on the nightstand. I get the tin, pull out a cigar and pat my pockets for a lighter. I look around and it’s nowhere. I then go to the kitchen to the stove and put the cigar in my mouth and lean down whilst I twist the knob on and I can’t help but linger staring at the stove’s blue flame. Addy would have killed me lighting a cigar inside. I almost break down knowing she’s not here to tell me off.
Outside on the back porch I draw on the cigar, taking in huge mouthfuls of smoke. I let the smoke trickle out of the corners of my mouth, like it’s bleeding, like I’ve bled out all the blood I got and what’s left is bonedust and smoke. Everything’s turned dark. The fields are nothing but black under a big sweep of stars. An image of Addy comes back to me: she’s walking up the long dirt driveway, slouched, kind of listless. It’s summer, and her legs are bare, but they’re shaky, timid. She’s got sunglass on. I remember this image, now. Decades and decades old. It was when our first child, Helen, died two weeks after birth. That killed Addy. We’d been trying for God knows how long to have a baby. Then when we were lucky, Helen left in a flash. A click of fingers. Gone. I remember now – that day, after we’d come home from hospital, I made a pot of English Breakfast, and Addy and I sat on the couch, in total silence. After a long while, I said: We’ll try again.
She was shaking her head. No. I’m not going through that again, she said.
Addy would tell me, years later, in bed one night with all of the lights off and us awake on our backs gazing up at a blank black ceiling, about how she would never forget seeing such a tiny, helpless baby stiff in a sterile hospital crib. I never saw Helen like that, because men didn’t do that in those days. Babies, Addy said, are meant to wriggle and writhe. Even when they sleep, they’re still moving – a constant motion. It’s new life figuring out what the hell to do. And as we lay there, I saw my own horrid recollection of Helen up on the blank ceiling. It’s an image I’ve created that I’ll never forget. But Addy, she saw the real thing. God only knows the ways in which that’ll live in your mind forever.
I didn’t say anything else. That was that day. Then there were more days and finally, a few years. And then she’s crying one morning after a visit to the doc’s, saying she’s pregnant with John. And he came along, and he was beautiful. And he grew up and became a good and honest man. Addy cherished that boy, and even though I had wanted a couple more kids, she refused. A pain was born in her that day walking up the dirt driveway in summer. It never went away.
And like a lot of things, the image goes as quick as it came.
I finish the cigar, stub it in the peach can ashtray on the porch ledge. I lean on the ledge, savouring the taste of smoke. I can’t get over how dark it is. The whole world could have disappeared and I wouldn’t know it.
Inside Murphy is sooking. Around this time, after dinner, Addy would take him for a short stroll around the back paddock. I’d watch them – these tiny little things in the distance. One time, there was a thunderstorm. Addy and Murphy were so small underneath a sky shaking with mean blue clouds and lightning. Addy had stopped and watched the storm. Me watching her watching the storm. Serene, somehow.
Murphy sidles into the room, and I pick him up and we sit together on the couch. His tail slowly wraps itself around him as he lays his head on the arm of the chair. I hold his flank. The more time I spend away from Addy in the bedroom the harder it is to go back in there. I’m not really worried about crying. Crying’s what we do. All my life I was told men shouldn’t cry and that’s bull. I’ve always thought if your body feels like doing something, then let it. Swear, laugh, cry. It’s all the same. And every part of my body wants to go into that bedroom and lie next to Addy for what will probably be the last time, but I just can’t do it. I’m not scared of death, or the dead. I know she won’t wake. Maybe that’s what it is. Knowing that eye will never open up to regard me again.
Bats must be swooping, I can just hear their high clicks. Murphy’s dead asleep on me. Getting up while an animal’s asleep on you is somehow a sin. It’s also good enough reason right now to not go in and see Addy. She’s gathering the chill and that’s okay, I keep telling myself. It’s a selfish thought, but I want John to take care of all this. I want him to call the people you have to call who deal with the dead. Lord, people do that for a job. Now that’s beyond me. But I want John to do everything. I want him to take over this part of my life for a while. Just until all the bits and bobs are finished. Then I’ll come back.
There was a nurse – Gloria. God sent down angels in the form of nurses, that’s for damn sure. She was young, I think 22, 23, but she was warm and humble. Doctors (and this is when we were still living in hospitals) would come into Addy’s room and read her chart and then say: Well, there’s not much we can do. We’ll make her comfortable, they’d say. Then they’d leave. Gloria, she would come in and pick up all of the doctor’s leftover pieces. She didn’t just make Addy comfortable. She spoke to Addy. Touched her hand. Gloria cleaned Addy, bathed her, fed her. I was too frightened to do any of that. I just watched. This young woman got so intimate with Addy. I don’t believe in anything superstitious or the like, but that nurse breathed some extra life into Addy. And myself, probably.
I’m thinking about Gloria now because Addy’s life was ending just as Gloria’s was beginning. She’d left us a week ago, because she fell pregnant. Timing could not have been better. Get out now, Gloria, don’t see this woman die. Leave that to me, that’s my job, not yours. And once, I made coffee for the three of us. I came to the doorway of Addy’s room, but stopped. Gloria was in tears, but she was smiling. Addy’s eye – I could see it glitter in the slatted shade of the blinds – looked like it was smiling too, in that magical Addy way. I brought the coffee in. Gloria apologised for crying, but Addy touched her arm and said: Don’t ever apologise for that. She’d just told Addy she was pregnant. Later, on the porch, Gloria told me Addy spoke to her sagely about life with and without children.
I had asked Addy exactly what she’d said to Gloria that day. Addy said: I gave her private advice from an old mother to a new mother.
That was the last time Addy was ever fully lucid.
My leg’s gone to sleep. Murphy’s paws dangle over my knee. I sob a little thinking about Gloria, and how I must have her over for afternoon tea. Not tomorrow, maybe the day after. The day after that. Murphy lets out a long, heavy sigh and I do the same right after him. I ruffle his ears, and then his old, thin head slowly rises, he whimpers. He knows Addy’s not coming for him.
Murphy shoves off, and I stand. He trots about, then comes close by my legs. He’s terrified. He always loved Addy more than me, and I don’t blame him. She kept his coat in good nick. Fed him all these old remedies – eggshells, ginger-baked goods – that kept his coat a dusty, smoky blue. Like the sky I watch.
Headlights pan across the walls of the house, and I take a deep breath. John’s here. The tires scratch the dirt. The engine halts, then ceases. A car door opens, closes. Footsteps on the gravel. Then on the boards of the porch. Why are these sounds so bloody definite? It’s like torture. There’s a brief silence before he knocks.
Come in, I say.
John tries the door, but it’s locked. I don’t remember locking it. I quickly scan the room to make sure my absent-mindedness hasn’t obstructed anything else. The blue flame of the stove still burns, I see.
John knocks again. I’m halfway between the door and the stove. Finally, I choose the door.
John’s face is dour, but gentle. Tired, but warm. Like he’s done a hard day’s work but has just felt the warmth of your childhood home and the smell of your mother cooking your favourite meal. In his hand is a plate covered with tin foil. He smiles.
I take the plate, show him in.
How is she? he asks.
I don’t say anything. I turn my back to him and take the plate to the bench.
I hear him jangle a set of car keys as he removes them from his pocket. Then I finally turn and look at him. He’s wearing a deep blue jumper, jeans and slick black boots. His hair’s a mess of salt and peppered grey. His face is smooth, slightly brown. I think he’s ageless. Stuck out of time. A figure from a painting. Forever beautiful and unaffected. The keys are in one hand, he’s got a puzzled look on his face. Then I realise I’m staring at him like a madman and when he clocks on, he knows what’s happened.
John launches for Addy’s room. I close my eyes and imagine everything: John weeping, perhaps kicking the bedside table, falling at the edge of her body. But none of that happens. There’re no dramatics. Only quiet. The door creaks, though, like a soft cry.
The next thing I know I’m standing beside John as he looks down at Addy.
Did she go on my way over here?
Yeah, I lie.
Then we’re staring at her together. In the soft colour of the lamp. The dome of her bald skull. Her chin pointing at the window. Ears crumpled into the pillow. A thin outline of her body underneath the blanket. I’m about to tell the truth, but John says:
She’s so thin. Thinner than when I was here yesterday.
I don’t say anything.
It’s hard seeing Mum like this. She was always so strong. I don’t know if you remember that time we went to Halls Gap? To the mountains. I was about four or five. It was raining. There was mist around the tops of the mountains, and it scared me. We were going for a hike, up to the Pinnacle I think. I didn’t want to go, but I remember Mum just lifting me up like it was nothing and propping me on her back. She carried me the whole way up the track. I held on to her so tightly.
I can’t recall John’s memory but it shatters me.
Do you remember that?
Yeah, I lie again.
We’re silent for a while. Then John leans down, right to Addy’s ear. He whispers Goodbye, then kisses her gently on the forehead. As he moves away, he stops. He notices her one good eye – it’s opened, now, just a little. The glaze of her sea blue iris hangs below the heavy eyelid. I was positive it was closed. But maybe it wasn’t. Just like locking the door, I forgot. The stove is still burning too.
Then, with one finger, John slowly shuts Addy’s eye. The blueness is gone. I’m aware now that my back is against the bedroom wall, and I’m shivering something fierce. Slowly, I slip down the back of the wall, until I sit, my knees drawn up to my chest. John hasn’t noticed. I can see tufts of dust underneath the bed. Then I close my eyes.
John’s holding my arm as he leads me back into the lounge room. He sits me down, then gives Murphy a pat. Don’t worry, says John. I’ll call everyone, take care of it.
Do you want to stay with me tonight?
I’ll be right.
I think you should pack a bag. Come with me.
Was Gloria here?
No, I say. She’s having her baby.
John smiles. That’s right, he says, fondly. Then his smile goes away.
I’m sorry you were alone, he says.
I nod again. Then I say, without even thinking: I lied, John.
Mum went before you called. I just didn’t tell you.
Well, he says, that’s okay.
And I don’t remember that story about Halls Gap, either.
That’s okay too.
John pats Murphy. Go see Dad, Murph.
Murphy, in all his tired energy, lumbers to me. I help him up on the couch. He rests his head on my lap. We’re a couple of sad old things.
Dad, says John, I’m just going to get my phone from the car. You get a bag ready, okay?
John leaves and I’m cold again. Part of me wants to go back into Addy’s room. Part of me wants to open her eye again and leave it open, so I can just stare into it. What a strange thing. But it makes sense. I don’t go back into her room though. I find myself in the kitchen again, at the stove. I turn it off. The blue flame is gone. It’s strange, but the house feels like it’s moving. Breathing. Just waking up, or something. John’s at the doorway, waiting. Dad?
I nod at him. I look into his eyes, and exhale.
Finally, I follow him.
Jack Forbes is an Australian writer based in Melbourne. His work has appeared in Tincture Journal and the University of Queensland’s peer-reviewed journal, LiNQ.
His work reflects a minimal, Southern Gothic-like style, reminiscent of Carson McCullers and Kent Haruf.