The tomatoes are bleeding on the kitchen sill, the skins wrinkling around the fruit like deflated old balloons. Coffee grinds muddy the sink and an extraordinarily large black fly buzzes on its back on the stovetop. The place is a mess. No denying it. His daughter is due any minute and he knows she will be shocked by the state of things. He pushes his glasses up his nose and scratches at a strange stiff stain on the thigh of his khaki pants. The fly suddenly rights itself and pings against the window screen, sending itself tumbling into the sink where it spins upside down amid the coffee grounds and a scattering of crusted knives and forks.
It has been three weeks since his wife died. In the last few days he has taken to calling her my sweetheart. Every time he says it, he becomes more used to it. It feels more right. Even though he had never in all of their sixty years of marriage referred to her that way. It was always Donna, just Donna, and sometimes, Damn It Donna. But only if she was driving him a little crazy, driving home a point that had already settled with him, for instance.
Donna is gone. And the weight of it is a boulder around his neck, bringing down his shoulders and thudding without warning against his chest in a way that can suddenly knock the wind out of him.
Even so, it is hard to reconcile her absence when all the evidence says she is still here, her pocketbook wide open on the kitchen stool, her rings in the tiny dish next to the kitchen sink and her address book, secured with a rubber band, the binding frayed from years of use, spilling out of a basket of pens and paperclips next to the phone.
Three weeks, and he can’t say if they have dragged on endlessly or gone by in a flash.
The first two weeks after Donna died he had spent at his daughter’s house, unable to come back to his own home and face the things his sweetheart had left behind. The things she had discarded from her hospital bag while packing the night before the surgery, for instance; two graying pairs of panties, a spare pack of batteries for her hearing aid, her ratty slippers, her flannel robe that she had decided would be too warm in an overheated hospital.
He is thinking now that he should have bought her a new robe to take to the hospital, something light and silky, maybe a soft pink that would have cheered her some. No matter now. But he would have surprised her. He would have given it to her the night before. I wanted you to have something to make you feel pretty during your recovery, he imagines having said. But it wasn’t like him. These are only the things he thinks of now. But it would have made her happy if he had. It would have been a nice thing to do.
At the moment he feels a touch queasy with a sourness in his stomach and the task ahead is daunting.
He had come home once from his daughter’s house, three days after Donna passed, to retrieve important things. His computer, his cell phone charger, photos he wanted for the wake, papers he needed to prove she had lived in order to prove she had died. He had intended to stay. But it hadn’t worked out that way. He had turned on the television to keep him company and because it was in the den while he fished through things in the bedroom, it had made him feel better, like she was just in the other room with the sound turned up too loud because she obviously didn’t have her hearing aid in again. But the truth kept hitting him from behind and he saw holes everywhere he looked, places where she should have been but wasn’t. He walked into the den to turn off the television and couldn’t help but look expectantly to her favorite place on the sofa, where the cushion sagged a little more than the others and her spare glasses lay on the side table next to a pile of pens and a wadded tissue. The sight of the sagging cushion brought up a tenderness in him and he couldn’t help but touch it with the flat of his hand, foolishly hoping for warmth, but it was as cool as the October breeze that swept through the house. He let the tears fall, in some small way glad that Donna was not there to see him crumble again. He stood taller, brought back his shaking shoulders, drawing the boulder of grief up over his sternum, and walked firmly out the door, scooping the pitiful box of a lifetime of ephemera with him, and headed back to his daughter’s home.
This kitchen. It’s a wreck, papers all over the place, boxes and envelopes of photos, the carnage in the sink. He’s only been back a week and he doesn’t understand how it got like this or how he could have failed to notice. He isn’t helpless in the ways of housekeeping. In fact, Donna was a terrible housekeeper and he was usually the one tidying behind her.
He’ll start by clearing the kitchen island and so begins stuffing photos back in their paper envelopes, trying to match the loose photos with the strips of negatives and wondering if it is important or not. He can’t let his daughter see the clutter, can’t let her know he has let it get so bad.
He takes the Windex out of the pantry and sprays it on the glass doors of the wall oven, stopping short of where Donna’s fingerprints are smeared around the oven handle. He finds himself wiping carefully around them.
He picks up her sandals from the floor and walks them back to the bedroom closet, unsure of where to go with them once he opens the door. Turning on the bright closet light makes his head swim. Truly, he doesn’t feel well in a way that has nothing to do with his grief. He brings the sandals back to the kitchen and sets them on the mat by the door—but then can’t bear the sight of them—the impressions left by her toes and the dried strands of grass feathering from the heel of one of them. He picks them up again and shoves them deep into the kitchen trashcan, making sure to bury them under the wads of tinfoil and plastic shopping bags.
He pulls the tomatoes from the sill, examining each to see if it is worth saving. He had planted every single tomato plant that spring but Donna had selected and tended them. She had helped in the mixing of compost and soil and he had put them in the ground and surrounded each with its own sturdy cage.
Even in the last few weeks before they really knew how sick she was, even before they had stared each other in the face and wondered aloud how they could have not known, even before he had suspected that she had known all along (and he would find a way to forgive her and only be sorry instead) and in spite of the fact that she was nauseated and fatigued, that her back ached incessantly and she sometimes didn’t quite make it to the bathroom and was embarrassed by her wet underthings, even then, she still managed to get into the garden every morning and fill a worn canvas garden bag with a plethora of tomatoes.
There were nearly a dozen plants, two heirloom varieties, one a beautiful aubergine and they had marveled at the color, but not so much the taste—a little sweet to their liking. The Green Zebras looked like unripe pumpkins and had been interesting but also not as tasty as he had hoped, lacking the acidity he favored. The yellow currant tomatoes were her favorite and she ate them right out of the garden as she worked. They couldn’t possibly eat them all and so he had dutifully delivered to neighbors and his daughter and even the lady at the post office who complained that the produce stand down at the corner of Jake’s Liquor Mart and Subway had closed this year after more than twenty-two years in business. Had it really been that long, he said and she said yes, that it really had.
In the last few weeks, without Donna to tend to them, the plants have exploded in a prolific and rotting fit, riding on the last legs of autumn. The cages are tumbling from the weight of it all and the bed is littered with a riot of fall color from those that have fallen to the ground.
He will have to get in there and clean things up but for now he inspects the tomatoes from the sill, saves just one huge Beefsteak that is still firm and hefty in his hand, and tosses the others in the trashcan. He wipes down the sill and still, of course, there is so much more to do.
An old teabag crisps on the counter next to the sink. She had taken to drinking green tea the last few months, said it set better with her than the coffee she had always relished in the morning. He had reminded her that tea was also a diuretic, maybe more so than coffee (he thought he had read that somewhere), maybe that was the problem. She had agreed, maybe so, but continued to drink it anyway.
The teabag has to go in the trash, obviously, but he leaves the open box of teabags out on the counter next to her favorite mug, the one that says I’m Not Afraid of You—I’ve Raised Children. It had been a Mother’s Day gift from him a few years back. He had struggled over the purchase of it. Given that they only had the one daughter and the cup was plural. But raising her had been a bit of a rough ride and she might as well have been an army of children as opposed to just one irreverent smart-ass daughter with a bit of a drug problem and a bad attitude. Somehow or other she had made it into adulthood unscathed and she and Donna had either repaired or chosen to ignore the tough years behind them.
He hears his daughter’s car coming down the long drive and glances around the kitchen, acutely aware that he has made little progress. His gut gurgles and he is passing torrents of gas. He grabs a newspaper, still in its blue plastic delivery bag, and waves it around the kitchen.
His daughter’s timing has always been impeccable. Twenty years earlier she had shown up with the grandchildren out of the blue only to catch him and Donna skinny-dipping in the pond. The oldest boy was nine at the time and just sat in the car with his hands over his eyes, but the youngest, only five and the more exuberant of the two had thrown himself from the car, shedding his shorts and barely disentangling himself from his T-shirt as he propelled himself right down the bank and flopped into the water with screams of delight. They had all laughed about that. That was a good memory.
His daughter comes in the side door, through the laundry room, also a mess he now thinks, and stops at the threshold for the length of a breath before hefting a bag of groceries onto the counter and then moving to him, putting her arms around him. Her head tucks under his shoulder and he smells smoke on her. She claims to have quit years before, but he knows it isn’t true. When he stayed with her she would regularly slip out onto the deck, saying she had to water the potted geraniums and he would watch the smoke drift past the kitchen window.
She lifts her head from his shoulder and looks him in the eyes.
“Okay,” he says. “I’m doing okay today.” She is pretty, this daughter of his, even in her fifties, fifty-four, fifty-five, he isn’t exactly sure. He lost track at some point and there is a momentary flash of panic, as if he must figure this out right now, but he can’t and so he will shelve this worry and come back to it later. Everyone says she looks like him but he clearly sees Donna in the wet of her eyes and the way she twists her head on her neck and lifts her shoulders when she has something on her mind. She is a talker, like her mom, and when she calls on the phone now he sometimes imagines it is Donna with the same precise way they speak, delicate but precise, enunciating the consonants to make a point.
Want some lunch? There’s some meatloaf.”
“You made meatloaf?”
“No, your mom did.”
She looks to the refrigerator and back at him, her eyes widening. “My God, Dad! It’s got to be at least three weeks old! You can’t eat that. You didn’t eat this, did you?” She swings open the refrigerator door and pulls out a loaf pan covered in foil, peels back the foil and sees that three-quarters of the loaf is missing. There is a thin strip of mold sprouting blue-green fuzz along the edges of the pan. “Please for the love of God, tell me you haven’t been eating this?”
He’s had a slice every afternoon for the last week, a thick slice between two pieces of white bread and globbed with catsup. He noticed the mold yesterday, but he was very careful and cut it from the edges, even the crusty part, which was usually the best of all.
Donna always made meatloaf on Sunday nights and they ate sandwiches from the leftovers on Monday. He hadn’t been eating it all week because he was hungry, because, in fact, he wasn’t. And he hadn’t eaten it because there was nothing else to eat even though there wasn’t. He ate it because Donna had made it and he didn’t know how to make meatloaf. Never thought to watch.
“Oh, for crap sake, ” she says, sounding just like her mother.
He waves his hand through the air to dismiss her.
She gets a spatula and scrapes and chisels the remains into the trashcan.
Everything is going in the trashcan these days. She pulls the can to the refrigerator and begins to go through everything one by one, squinting at tiny sell-by dates and huffing with each toss and clink into the bin.
“It smells like ass in here,” she says. “This refrigerator is rotting from the inside.” She talks like that sometimes. He doesn’t mind. “I brought you milk and eggs and those Vanilla Wafers you like, but I didn’t think to get cream. I’m not even going to ask you if you’ve been putting this cream in your coffee. Oh, my god.” She pinches her nose as she dumps it in clots down the sink.
He excuses himself to use the bathroom.
Returning to the kitchen ten minutes later, feeling only slightly better, he thinks he will start on the dishes and he grabs a plate and a coffee mug from the island and takes them to the sink where he begins to hose the cream, coffee grounds and the dead fly down the disposal. The silverware will require a good scrubbing, but before he can get to it he eyes Donna’s rings in the dish next to the sink and picks her engagement ring from it. The diamond isn’t especially large and probably isn’t even a very good one. Heck, he was only twenty-two when he bought it for her, but he thinks now that his daughter should have it and he holds it out to her in the palm of his hand, not saying anything.
“It’s beautiful, Dad.” she says, turning her head from the refrigerator to stop and look at it. And then, because he suspects she doesn’t know what else to say, she says “I know Mom loved it.”
This is news to him. He doesn’t think they’d ever mentioned it in their whole long marriage. He nods to the ring in his hand and up to her again, asking her to take it.
“I don’t know, Dad.” She picks up the ring. “Oh, damn” she says. “Look, one of the little chips in the band is missing.” She hands it back to him and they both look closer. “How did that happen?”
He looks at the ring now pinched between his own fingers, noticing the little dark pit in the row of tiny baguettes that run to either side of the band. He shrugs. He wonders if Donna had known, if it mattered that she knew or didn’t.
He takes a plastic baggie from the drawer and slips the ring into it and hands it to her.
“I’ll take it to the jeweler next week when I have a little time, see about getting it replaced.” She puts the bag in a zippered pocket on the side of her purse that sits on the counter, pats the side and turns to him. “Dad?”
He is leaning over the trashcan to gather the liner together and a wave of wooziness is coming over him, forcing him to take in a slow breath. He is sweating. He can feel the dampness under his shirt and down his back.
His stomach is cramping, locking him in a bend over the can. “Just need to use the bathroom,” he mumbles. He steadies himself with his hands to the edge of the can before righting himself enough to leave the kitchen again.
Twenty agonizing minutes later she is knocking softly on the bathroom door. “Occupied,” he says.
She wants to know if he is okay, she’s sorry, she is worried about him.
He is just a tiny bit angry about it and has to stop himself from saying, Damn it, Donna, can’t a man take a crap without being pestered? But he doesn’t say it. He doesn’t say anything at all. He is trying to gather the strength to stand and buckle his pants.
He hears her footsteps head back to the kitchen. When he comes out of the bathroom he can smell his visit trailing behind him, even after he shuts the door behind himself.
His daughter is on her phone to her husband. She thinks maybe she will stay the night. Nothing to worry about but he seems a little off. There is a load in the laundry that will need to be changed. The shirts still need to be picked up at the dry cleaner’s and she is expecting a delivery from eBay that he should remember to get off the porch. She loves him too.
“I’m fine,” he says. But he feels a searing heat around his eyes and when he squints it stings to open them again.
She puts a cool hand to his forehead. “You’re burning up. How long have you been feeling like this—where’s the thermometer?”
He tells her she doesn’t have to stay with him, that he will be fine, just fine. It will pass, but he knows she isn’t listening to him, and really, he doesn’t want her to. She isn’t one to run out on anybody. He knows that about her now.
The day after Donna died, he and his daughter had gone together to the funeral home to make the arrangements. Protocol required that a family member identify the body. He hadn’t expected that.
He would have done it if he had to. But his daughter volunteered without hesitation. She was led from the room by a thick woman in a tweed skirt and navy low-heeled pumps that he noticed were just like a pair that Donna owned. But her ankles were thicker than Donna’s, and she had a wider gait that reminded him of the nuns from his childhood.
He had sighed and stood up from the chair, pushing up from the varnished armrest, and walked to the wall in the office where two-hundred-dollar memory books were displayed behind a plexiglass wall and lit like ancient tomes.
He would let his daughter pick the right one. He knew she would pick one without words on the cover. She wouldn’t want Mother or Beloved or The Lord’s Prayer. That was okay with him. When she came back there were no tears. She could be tough like that.
She nodded to the wall of books. “I can get these for $19.95 at Michaels,” she told him. “And they wouldn’t be half as ugly.” He smiled at that. She shared Donna’s irreverence for such things.
Now he tells her again that she doesn’t have to stay with him but then turns from her quickly and mumbles that he will need a minute. He barely makes it to the toilet, cursing his belt that snags on itself. This time, when he comes out of the bathroom she is just starting to strip the sheets from the bed.
No, no, please, he says, or thinks he says. He doesn’t want the sheets changed. Not yet.
His daughter rushes to his side where he stands at the doorframe and walks him towards the overstuffed chair in the corner of the room, the one they never sit in but that has become instead a repository for laundry waiting to be folded. She takes the pile of dishtowels and cloth napkins from the chair and drops it to the floor before easing him into the chair.
“Must have been something I ate,” he says.
He smiles weakly. “You’re ridiculous.”
She spies the thermometer on her mother’s side of the bed and pulls the cap from it—commenting that she hasn’t seen a glass thermometer in ages—shakes it fiercely in her hand and slides it into his mouth. “Be quiet please,” she says, and she stands in front of him with her arms crossed, waiting.
He aches, he will admit to that. His bowels are settling, maybe, but he knows the fever is going up and a headache is making his vision swimmy. The world has become a watercolor that he doesn’t quite understand the meaning of.
She leaves the room with a pile of dirty sheets and he hears the washer begin to slosh.
He pulls the thermometer from his mouth and squints to read it, unable to find his glasses in his breast pocket. He gives it up to her when she comes back to the bedroom.
“Hundred and one.”
“I think I’m sick.” Even without his glasses he can see the concern on her face, the way her brows knit in the center and her mouth draws a grim line.
“Into bed, Dad.”
“Not on your life,” he manages to say. He has never crawled into a bed when the sun is still in the sky and he isn’t starting now. He tells her he’ll just rest on the sofa a bit. He pushes himself up out of the chair to make his way to the den and his glasses slide from his lap to the floor. They were there after all and it confuses him. He doesn’t bother to pick them up and his daughter retrieves them as he passes and follows him into the den. He puts his head at Donna’s end, pulls a throw pillow under it, and draws his legs up to the sofa. He imagines for a moment that his head is in her lap, but he isn’t so sick he doesn’t know the truth.
He must have slept, an hour, ten minutes? When he wakes his head feels hollow and where his backside meets the sofa he is damp with sweat. The phone is ringing. He thinks he sees smoke drift past the picture window and up into the turning pink-orange leaves of the sugar maple tree outside. Confetti-like, the leaves flutter and it seems inappropriate to him, as if there is a celebration underway.
He is chilled and his skin hurts to the touch as if bruised, but his stomach is quieter. He thinks if he can lie very still, if the phone will stop ringing, and if he can try not to think of anything he can slip away again. Here is the thing about trying not to think anything—you think of everything. He thinks of their last trip to the Outer Banks and the way she had danced in the surf to pull in a fourteen-pound blue—best catch of the week. He thinks of the way he had hurt her feelings when he told her the dress she had worn to her own daughter’s wedding wasn’t especially flattering, and it wasn’t, but that was beside the point. She had never looked good in sleeveless. He thinks of her eyes. Now they were amazing, the shape of them, deep and round and dark, like freshly turned soil. In the hospital her eyes had been closed that last day, not even a flicker, and he had begged to see them one more time. He thinks of the way she laughed, sometimes too loudly and sometimes inappropriately and he wishes he hadn’t let himself be embarrassed by it. He thinks of the way she had said I love you when they wheeled her into surgery and he wishes, really wishes, he had said it back. Instead he had said, you, too. He knows she knew how he felt about her, feels about her. It was obvious, of course. They’d been married for so long, seldom spent any time at all apart, never forgot birthdays or anniversaries.
He always used to say, Damn it Donna, you know how I feel.
He opens his eyes to a glass of very slightly bubbling ginger ale his daughter is now holding out to him. He lifts his head and drinks slowly at first, and then, when his stomach doesn’t protest, he drinks to the bottom of it. He puts his head back down and closes his gritty eyes again.
Hours later he wakes a second time with a throbbing in his lower back from sleeping on his side. He slowly swings his legs to the floor and sits up. The television is on softly and his daughter is sitting in the chair with the nubby gold fabric, the one Donna always wanted to recover. She mutes the television to talk to him. It is dark outside the window. The tree now a mottled gold against a darkening sky.
“Well, Rip Van Winkle, how do you feel?”
He tells her he feels okay and what time is it anyway. He combs his fingers through his hair, reaches for his glasses and pushes them up his nose to watch the world snap into focus. He thinks maybe his fever has broken. His head is airy but the ache behind his eyes has subsided.
“Nice of you to stay,” he says.
“No problem. You look wiped,” she says, as she leans to her side to slide her phone into her back pocket.
He looks at her now, seeing the way she leans back in her chair, her legs stretched out long in front of her as if she has all the time in the world, has nowhere else to be right now. She takes yoga. She is always shifting her body into impossibly long liquid stretches.
“How are the boys?” he says suddenly, realizing she has not mentioned them at all and then in the next moment realizing that he never asks about them. Never had to ask because it was almost always the first thing out of Donna’s mouth. How are the boys, how are my grandsons?
His daughter looks at him, clearly as surprised by the question as he is. “Fine, good.”
He tries to think of something more to ask. The oldest, Josh, is married. He likes the wife well enough. She was kind to him at the wake, fetching him a coffee and strangely knowing that he took it with cream and sugar. But she kept running her hand up and down his back as he sat sipping the coffee, asking him how he was doing. It was a stupid question, and he thought now, not really hers to ask, sitting there next to him with a mourning face, eyes downcast, shoulders drooping pathetically, and her breathy questions. It was all too much.
“And Miranda?” he asks, feeling more generous about his granddaughter-in-law now that he thinks about it, now that it occurs to him she was just doing what she thought she should do, trying to be part of the family, trying to inject herself into a loss she wasn’t fully invested in.
Maybe, he thinks now, he will give her something of Donna’s. He thinks he will parcel out bits of her—not her charm bracelet or her pearl necklace—of course. Those things will go to his daughter. A brooch, perhaps. Something small, a trinket, but something that will make her feel like a part of this tragedy, as he sees it.
“Alex called while you were sleeping. He was worried about you.”
He waves his hand through the air, nothing to worry about. “How’s he doing?”
She warms to the question this time and tells him he is great. Her youngest son is doing well, is finally finishing his degree after all, only two more classes. He was the one they always worried about, Donna especially. That kid had grabbed her heart and never let go. Always a little wild, always veering off course, college, jobs, girls with issues. Drugs, maybe. He wasn’t sure.
“He has a new girlfriend. This may be the one, Dad. She’s adorable. She’s a nurse.”
“I like her,” she says.
“You’re still smoking, aren’t you?
“That’s not the answer I was looking for.”
She scowls at him. “It’s been a rough month, Dad.”
“Tell me about it.”
She scowls harder, aims the remote at the television and turns it up, loud.
He shakes his head. “Your mother and I never smoked. Never. We always tried to set a good example for you.”
She doesn’t look at him, stares at the television instead. In a flash he imagines her gone. He imagines she might decide he is just fine now and she thinks she will head home after all.
“You know I love you, honey,” he says, a statement with just the barest hint of a question hanging at the end of it. He has never called her honey before.
She says she never doubted it.
He doesn’t believe her but is grateful for the lie. “You weren’t easy,” he says suddenly and just as suddenly wishes he hadn’t said it.
“To love?” Her eyes flash from the television to him.
“No, no,” he says. “No. I didn’t mean that.” But he’s not sure what he meant. “You know, with the drugs, and the boys and all that stuff.”
“I was a teenager, Dad. It wasn’t about you.”
She turns the television up louder and stares at it again, gulps air as if she has something important to say, but then, looks to think better of it and just shakes her head side to side.
“Jesus,” she finally says under her breath.
They are quiet for the length of a commercial break, both watching the television as if it is important, as if they are both in need of car insurance and better laundry detergent and a device that turns regular water into a healthy sparkling drink.
He is at a loss as to how to make things right with her and angry that he should have to. Eventually, she lifts the remote to the television and softens the sound, just a bit, drops the remote to her lap and then lifts it again and lowers the sound so that now he can barely hear it.
“I was not a bad kid, Dad.”
“I mean, in the whole scheme of things, I was not that bad.”
“No,” he says. “You were a good kid.”
She laughs. “Well, maybe not, but I wasn’t a bad kid either.”
“You were just finding your way, is all.” He tells her it was easier for him. So much easier than it must have been for her. He just did what was expected of him because that’s the way things were. There wasn’t so much to think about, so many choices. You did what the nuns told you to do or you were going to hell, and that didn’t feel like an option. After high school he and most of his friends signed up. The war was over but it was the thing to do and they were still riding a victory wave and wanted to be a part of it. He did a clean-up tour in Italy, saw a bit of the world—enough to make him feel like he’d seen something other than his own backyard—and went to night school courtesy of the government while he looked for a wife.
“You looked for a wife?”
“Well, sure. I figured it was time to get married. Met your mother at a VA dance.”
She says she can’t wrap her head around that, around looking for a wife. Things really have changed, she supposes.
She is no longer angry. He will be more careful about the past. Like Donna, she is sensitive, maybe reading too much into things.
“You should be in bed,” he says. It would feel good to know she is in her own childhood bed. It still has her Grateful Dead posters curling on the wall, a purplish tapestry for a bedspread and a dusty lava lamp on the bedside table but he doesn’t mind that so much anymore. Donna never wanted to change it anyway and he understands that now.
She says she is not tired yet and does he need anything, crackers maybe, Vanilla Wafers? He shakes his head, no.
They talk, mostly remembering, but planning also. Maybe a grief group would be a good idea. They need to go through some of her things. There are thank-you notes to write.
He leans back deep into the sofa as they talk. He thinks his fever is returning with a vengeance but doesn’t want to say so. She notices anyway and takes his temperature again.
“Still a hundred and one,” she says. She leaves and returns with a bottle of Tylenol and a refill of his ginger ale. She sets the glass down to shake out two tablets and palms them to him, hands him the glass. He swallows dutifully as she rotates the bottle in her hand. “Damn it. They expired six months ago.”
He shrugs and tilts his head back to swallow them.
Thirty minutes later he thinks the Tylenol has done its job. He feels cooler, chilled even.
He tells her he will go to bed and she should do the same.
He is weak and tired, of course, but showers anyway, splashing away the sweat and stink of it all. He likes the way the water beats angrily on his bruised skin. He climbs into the bed that is now dressed in fresh sheets and fluffed pillows. He breathes deeply and wishes for the smell of her in spite of the fact that he can’t recall the nuances of it.
Some time in the very early morning, before sunrise but still before the night has fully washed away, he wakes to what is surely a raging fever again, but he has surrendered to it over the night in a way that has detached him from his body. It’s useless anyway. His limbs have sunk into the bed and his arms are flaccid and gummy as overboiled noodles. He knows it would hurt to move, if he could, and so he doesn’t. And then there is nothing to feel, so long as he doesn’t move. His groin aches but he detaches from that as well. It isn’t his, isn’t part of him. He thinks of it now as just a dank, sweaty place between his legs, flesh tucked in flesh, deflated. What is sleeping in the crevices of his thighs is only a fat slug. It has nothing to do with him. He is only in his own mind and with that, without the burden of his body, there is a kind of clarity that allows him to line up his thoughts like smooth pebbles on a ledge, each one perfectly oval with its own distinct and precise weight to it. Donna was my wife. Donna is dead. I am alone.
He wakes again just as the sun is spreading morning through the tree trunks on the east lawn. He tests his limbs slowly, stretching, fingers and toes accounted for. His stomach is quiet. His head is clear. Another day is behind him.
In the kitchen he finds his daughter making him a breakfast of pancakes. She asks if he can eat and he’s surprised that he thinks he can.
The kitchen is clean, sparkling, the lone tomato a splash of red on the sill.
He watches her pour batter, wiping a spill from the edge of the stove. “Go easy on the butter,” she says, setting the butter dish and a jar of maple syrup down on the table.
After breakfast, after the cleaning and washing of dishes, the wiping of counters, after the Bisquick box is slid back in its place in the pantry, the milk stowed in the refrigerator, she tells him he looks better, that she will be leaving soon.
He has no idea what to do with the rest of his day.
Weeks will go by and he will muddle through it, tidying the house, finally throwing Donna’s toothbrush in the bathroom can, setting aside her jewelry for his daughter, a small brooch with tiny seed pearls for Miranda. The holidays are coming. Perhaps he will give it to Miranda as a gift, wrapped in a nice paper. Though he has no idea how to wrap a gift. It can’t be hard, he thinks. He will ask his daughter to show him how to do it.
Friends call. The lady at the post office, whose name he now knows is Alice, no longer sighs with sadness when she sees him, but instead fills him in on the latest neighborhood news. The McGuiles are splitting up. The Davis girl is finally getting married, after three kids, for God’s sake. Matt Dover has put his house on the market, way overpriced, and Terry Levenson is opening a gift shop in the old florist’s space that never did well anyway but hopefully she’ll have better luck with it.
He has joined a grief group. They have lunch together on Tuesdays. He expected their compounded pain would only make things worse and has been pleasantly surprised that just the opposite has happened. There is even laughter among them and he loves to tell the story about the time the grandsons caught him and Donna skinny-dipping. It’s a good one and he has told them more than once.
In the mornings he notices the way the frost filigrees the windowpanes, the bareness of the sugar maple, the squirrels skittering through the pines. He watches the tomato garden tumble in upon itself.
December has arrived and with it has come a week of unseasonably warm weather. He feels good enough to take a rake and a pitchfork from the shed and finally get out to the tomatoes, now a tangled mass of sepia vines and toppled tomato cages.
He begins by raking the vines. The grief is still there, the massive boulder that has hung around his neck since autumn. But he has figured out a way to move with it, sometimes heaving it out of his way in order to make a great effort to stand or move forward. It always swings back at him but he is adjusting to the weight of it, accepting that it is as much a part of him now as the ache in his knees or the stiffening of his fingers.
In the garden under a sunny winter sky he leans into his work. He breathes deeply and suddenly there is a tightness in his chest. It’s the kind of thing that comes and goes lately and he knows to just breathe through it. He tries to stand tall and steady himself on the handle of the rake but it is snagged on a vine and he can’t pull it under him. He trips over a tomato cage and sends himself sprawling, catching himself just at the last moment with his chin only inches from the tines of the pitchfork. As he works to right himself he spies a flash of red, a jewel of a tomato, the size of a golf ball, not actually buried in the spoilage but surrounded by it, resting on a bed of decomposing foliage, exposed to the full hard sun. He plucks it mercifully from the rotting vine and finds it a marvel, bursting with perfect ripeness. He gets to his feet slowly, cradling the tomato in the cup of his hand, and checks himself for damage. There is a small tear in his trousers but nothing has broken the skin.
The tomato will sit on his sill for the full day and a night. On the second night, watching the darkness fall around the house, he will think to himself that he doesn’t want to live without his sweetheart, but he does want to live. Two very different things. He will lift the tomato from the sill, breathe in the bitter scent of it, and put the smooth taut skin of it to his lips before opening his mouth to bite deeply into it. It will taste of earth and a sweet acidity, of too short summers and long winters. It will dribble down his chin and he will draw the precious juice back up to his mouth with his finger. He will bite again, and again, swallowing, tasting the days behind and the days ahead. He will devour all but the tiny tuft of green where the fruit meets the vine and he will set that back on the windowsill where it will dry to skeletal remains and leave a tiny stain that he will not wash away.
Shawn Nocher is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Scribble, Crazy Talk, and she won an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Contest 2018. She has a novel currently in submission at publishing houses. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband and an assortment of sassy rescue animals. Connect with her on Twitter: @shawn_nocher.