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Fiction: Where to Begin

Fiction: Where to Begin
Photo by / Illustration by Kate Miller

(page 1 of 4)

Louise died, things changed.

The dying part started with a stroke and ended a month later at the Muskego Rehabilitation Center. Her husband, Harry, told the neighbors she would be home in no time. He would nod when he said this and continue nodding, as if he never wanted to stop saying yes.

Then he would show them the earmarked article from Modern Maturity, the one about Kirk Douglas and his miraculous recovery. “Get this,” he would say, “Kirk wasn’t doing so hot at first, but now he’s good as new. A little bit of slurring, of course, but otherwise, as I said, as good as new.” At this point, he would clear his throat and read out loud: “Stroke victims generally heal in one-, three-, and six-month increments.” He would adjust his glasses and study his audience down the length of his nose. “I figure by the end of the year, Louise will be as good as new.”

Optimism came easy, especially during the day, when there were distractions—his meals and his newspaper, the TV that he hated as much as he loved, constantly yelling at the screen, criticizing the tennis players and the politicians, the music that wasn’t music at all but racket.

But when night came—when there was no more racket, no sunshine, no neighbors ringing the doorbell to hand him peach pies and hamburger casseroles—crying came with it. He called this blubbering. Crying was for pantywaists. Blubbering he could deal with, somehow.

In the month before her death—after his breakfast of tea and Cream of Wheat, after he paged through the Journal Sentinel—he would change from his slippers to his loafers, get in his Lincoln and turn the key, waiting five minutes as the engine warmed up.

The drive was long and winding and he never thought about anything except avoiding the black ice and how he had to take a right at the dairy even though the receptionist originally told him left. He didn’t know why she told him left but she did and when he made that right turn he felt irritated. Maybe she had done it on purpose, he thought. Maybe she was one of those young people who got a kick out of mistreating old people.

His irritation grew as he considered the Latino girl who popped her bubblegum. She was probably an illegal, he thought—she and her whole family, breeding their way into this country, hooked on drugs and welfare. By the time he arrived at Muskego, he felt so angry that when he stormed past her desk and down the long buttermilk-colored halls and into room 193, he hardly recognized his wife lying there, slack-faced, with tubes running into her body.

It was easier that way. It was easier to pretend she was permanently in the bathroom or the kitchen, tending to things. That was why, when somebody rang the doorbell and handed him a hotdish, he would think, why in the world? And then, oh.

But when he was forced to acknowledge her condition, to see her small chest rising and falling under a white sheet, something would crack open inside him and all at once a great bunch of sadness would bubble up from his chest so he couldn’t breathe. He would cross his arms and study her from a distance, his lips trembling with the want to scream I-love-yous in her ear. But instead he brought her up to speed on the news, the kids, the neighborhood.

All this in an ammoniac room, where everything was white, especially her skin, and the fluorescent lights buzzed like a thousand flies he wanted to swat with a rolled-up newspaper. When he was done talking, he would kiss her on the forehead, and on the lips, and then he would shut off the lights and leave her in darkness.

No visit lasted more than ten minutes. Partly this was because of the way she looked, limp and doughy, with drool sliding down her cheek, her lazy eyes not recognizing him. But mostly he couldn’t stand the way it made him feel.
Like his wife of sixty-three years was already dead.

When his daughter and son-in-law—Susan and Peter—drove an hour from Madison to visit, they would bring homemade cinnamon rolls and crab quiche and pasta salad, magazines and videos, too many hugs.

“Things to keep your mind off stuff,” Peter said.

“Yeah,” Harry said and turned up the volume on the TV.

They would watch a few programs and maybe Harry would complain about Bush and those crooks in the District of Corruption, that secretary of defense in particular—old what’s-his-face—how they bombed the heck out of Sadman Insane only because Dagbad was full of Texas tea, not that he cared a whole heap about the towel-heads, mind you, but this country had already gone to hell in a hand basket and war was just the icing on the cake.

He talked like that.

Susan would say, “Don’t talk like that.” And then, “Did you talk to the nurse about bringing Mom in a TV to watch?

Would that be okay? I think she’d like to watch her soaps, don’t you?”

He studied her a moment with his mouth hanging open. Then he closed his mouth and replied, “Like I said, I don’t know anything about it. If you’re so curious, you ask.”

After a while they piled into the Lincoln and waited for the engine to warm up. While they waited, Peter said in a resigned tone, “I read an article that said January has the most deaths of any month.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Harry said this quickly, as if the words tasted bad on his tongue. Then he checked his watch and saw that February wasn’t for another two weeks.

Susan changed the subject to a joke she had heard. The joke was about an atheist in heaven and how he kept tugging on God’s beard to see if it was real. Everybody laughed, but once Harry started, he couldn’t stop. His laughter went on and on until it became a choking sound.


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