Fiction: Where to Begin

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 ï¬rst, 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 ï¬gure 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.

 

Later that day, at the rehabilitation center, Harry and Peter stood off a short distance, their arms crossed, watching Susan comb Louise’s hair and rub her hands with cream. Susan said—more to herself than to the men—how Louise looked healthier than ever, how the right side of her face wasn’t so limp and maybe her eyes seemed a bit more focused.

“Don’t make so much noise,” Harry said. “You’re disturbing her. She needs her rest.”

“All she does is rest,” Susan said. “What she needs is for us to make some noise and touch her and stuff. You know, stimulation.” She blew on Louise’s face and it twitched a little.

Harry said, “Says you,” and gave his eyes a theatrical roll and said to Peter, “Who gave her a medical degree anyway?”
All of a sudden Susan jumped up and screamed a happy scream and did a dance.

Harry hurried over and grabbed her by the hand and said, “What? What’s wrong?”

“She winked at me,” Susan said and clapped her hands. “Did you see that?”

But he hadn’t seen a thing.

January ended and Harry took this as a sign. “She beat the odds,” he said to Susan on the phone. He imagined her hopping out of bed, maybe tomorrow, with a yawn and a stretch, yanking the tubes from her arm and stomach, complaining about how hungry she was. He would take her to the London Grille, their restaurant, and order a bottle of Cabernet—an expensive one—plus caesar salads, New York strips, bananas Foster, the works.

But the next day, Louise contracted pneumonia and the doctor listened to her heart and to her lungs and scribbled something on a piece of paper. He said there was nothing he could do. She was going to die. It was only a matter of time, maybe minutes, hours.

“I don’t pay you to say things like that,” Harry said.

Everybody came to see it happen, Susan and Peter, some cousins, a sister, and Harry—that was everybody. The nurse watched them with bored eyes, as you would a film seen a dozen times already, and touched Harry on the elbow and said, “If there’s anything I can do.”

“Don’t bother,” he said.

“No bother,” she said and smiled in a way that made him hate her. “Anything?”

“No,” he said. “Nothing.” He wished she was the one about to die.

She took her hand off his elbow and said, “Doctor is on his way.” She said doctor like it was his name. His name was Paolo and Harry had had enough of him. He couldn’t tell if Paolo was Mexican or Indian or what. But he was definitely something. He worked for Aurora Health Care and a year ago put her on warfarin, which Harry blamed for her deterioration over the past few months: the thinness and dizzy spells, high blood pressure, and finally the stroke.

When Paolo walked in wearing a stethoscope and a concerned expression, Harry called him a border-hopping witch doctor who ought to be put in the can for monkeying around with people’s lives like he did, and said that if he knew more than a crap about medicine he would have realized that warfarin was originally used as a rat poison. “That’s right, I’ve been doing my research. Now you chiselers repackage it as Coumadin. Call it a blood thinner. Anything for a profit. The thing of it is, my wife isn’t a rat and she sure as hell didn’t need to be poisoned.” This went on for another minute and Paolo nodded the whole time. This made Harry even angrier, so he told Paolo to take a hike and Paolo said, “Of course,” and left the room.

Louise’s breathing had gone ragged. It sounded like a straw seeking out the last bit of milk in a glass. Harry stood off to the side with his hand over his mouth while everyone else hovered, combing her hair, touching her cheek, saying, “It’s okay.” They smiled to show her it was okay, even as her face twisted in pain. Eventually she stopped breathing and the room filled up with quiet.

Right there they decided to have a memorial service. She hadn’t wanted a funeral—said they were tacky—had only wanted to be cremated and forgotten, so this was their best shot at closure. They made a circle and held hands and cried in a gulping way. After a while they gathered the strength to say something, a memory or a prayer.

When it was Harry’s turn, he could think of nothing to say—he could only think how a stroke sounded like such a safe, good thing.

A strange time began.

Harry couldn’t sleep, nor could he stay awake. So he shuffled around in a half-dream, Louise’s face emerging from shadows to smile and then to show her teeth, retreating back into shadow as quickly as she had appeared. Muddled voices babbled in his head and he more than once mistook the sound of his own heart as a threat—as one of those hungry old widows knocking at the door, as horse hooves stampeding toward him—and was seized by a terrible panic where the air felt too warm and thick to breathe.

He missed meals—hardly noticed or cared. Milk and quiche and everything else in his fridge and freezer went bad. The washer broke and he didn’t bother calling a repairman. He wore the same dirty clothes and began to stink as bad as the fridge. When Susan and Peter told him as much, he dismissed them with a wave of his hand and said he’d been cooped up too long, is all. He didn’t want to tell them what was wrong with the washer or anything else. He wanted them to think everything was fine. Otherwise, they’d likely ship him off to one of those retirement farms, he thought. For this same reason he kept his grief bottled up whenever they came to visit, smiling too much, talking too loud, hating how his voice sounded.

When the latest issue of Modern Maturity arrived, he tore it up, along with the endless parade of Hallmark cards that marched through his mailbox and said things like “We’re here for you.”

Sometimes he walked into a room or drove to the store and couldn’t remember why. He was like a ghost: someone who could travel through walls and find himself someplace else in the middle of a sentence or thought, and not know what doors had brought him there. One cold night he woke up to discover he was walking down the driveway in his pajamas, bare feet blue in the moonlight. He was carrying a shovel.

Sometimes—when Peter and Susan came to visit, for instance—he wanted to be alone more than anything in the world. But once he was alone, he felt he couldn’t have stayed that way another second.

All at once, he got angry. He blamed the warfarin and he blamed Paolo the witch doctor and he blamed himself: if I had only called the ambulance sooner, Louise would be alive right this minute—he thought—up to snuff and probably yelling at me to take a bath. And then his anger faded as he was overwhelmed by a crushing indifference, and then a dark sadness, touching a finger to his wrist and willing his pulse to stop thumping—for it all to end, quietly.

And then one morning he woke up and felt a little better. Just like that.

That morning he began to clean. He started with himself, shaving off the gray beard that crept across his cheeks, standing for close to half an hour under a shower so hot it left his skin red and ticklish. Then he washed a few shirts and boxer shorts in the kitchen sink and in a little while was rummaging through the fridge and the cupboards. Some things had gone rotten. Others he would never eat since they were Louise’s treats. The sweet pickles and freezer-burned strawberry ice cream, for instance. He filled a garbage bag and got out another and dusted and vacuumed and by mid-afternoon everything sparkled like you wouldn’t believe.

After he had finished, he walked from room to room with his hands behind his back, enjoying the freshly vacuumed carpet, how he could follow his footprints right back to where he began. He felt like celebrating, so he poured himself a drink—Christian Brothers Brandy mixed with 7Up—but when he tasted it and smacked his lips, he felt guilty:

Louise would have never let him drink before dinner.

He slowly brought the glass to his mouth and took another sip. Nothing happened. A second later he took another drink, and another, and before long the glass was empty. He filled it up again. He looked at the telephone as if he expected it to ring. He went over to the coffee table and deliberately set the glass down without a coaster. Then he took off his slippers and his socks and put his feet up on the table right next to the glass.

It felt good.

He noticed his reflection in the sliding-glass door that led to the patio. He looked like an old man. But he soon discovered that if he squinted his eyes just so, the wrinkles and the gray hair faded, and it appeared he was sliding backward, into his seventies, his sixties, all the way to fifty.

Fifty years old, just a kid with plenty of life ahead of him, Harry picked up his brandy and toasted his reflection, grinning, his jowls gathered up like curtains.

He remembered hearing a girlfriend of Louise’s say, “How does Harry tolerate such feminine surroundings?” The question had given him some pause, but he soon forgot about it and for a long time had lived in a pink house, so long that he forgot about its color, until now.

He lived here, he had lived here for years—in a house of many shades of pink and lavender. Porcelain cherubs stared at him from every corner. Lamps, clocks, chairs they had owned for thirty-odd years suddenly looked ridiculous to him, with their floral designs and gold trim.

Louise had referred to the figurines and tassels and antique perfume bottles as her foo-foo. Well, Harry decided, starting right this minute, he refused to be surrounded by foo-foo.

He parked his Lincoln in the driveway and swept out the garage and began to fill it with furniture and clothes and vases, everything he no longer found any use for—until the house was no longer hers but his alone.

When Susan saw what had happened, all she could say was, “What on earth?”

Peter told her to be quiet but she put up a finger and he went quiet instead. She fixed a sharp look on Harry, who shrugged and played dumb, fiddling with the change in his pocket. “What’s that you say?” he said.

There were dimples and squares in the carpet where the ottoman had been, the Victorian end table, the pump organ. She walked over to the bare china cabinet and ran a finger through its dust. “I just can’t believe it.” Her mouth pursed around her disgust like a word between words that told him he had done something wrong.

His eyes shifted back and forth, settling on everything but her face. “Thought it was time for a little spring cleaning, is all.”

She squeezed the bridge of her nose as if she had a headache behind her eyes. “What was wrong with the way things were?” she said.

 

Plenty, was what he wanted to tell her. Instead he said, “A man gets used to things and maybe he shouldn’t.” He nodded at Peter. “You know how it is.”

Peter smiled as if he knew how it was.

Susan said, “Oh, is that how it is?” She pinched her husband’s belly, hard enough to make him jump. “Are you just going to throw all my stuff in the incinerator once I croak?” She flinched at the word. “Pass. Once I pass?”

“Of course not,” Peter said. They looked at each other a minute and then Peter sighed to show he was tired of her game and went over to the window. Outside, a skeletal tree shook against the force of the wind.

Harry aimed his thumb at the garage and said whatever they wanted, they could take. The rest he was going to sell. And that, he said, was that.

Susan made a sound like some little bird. Then she drew in a sigh and said how unhealthy it was to push things away. “You’re pushing Mom away. You’re trying to forget about her.” Didn’t he realize that by doing so, he was letting poisons build up, like the pus inside a boil? And we all know that a boil can’t heal unless you lance it open every once in a while and let the pus drain.

Harry made an irritated gesture and said, “I don’t appreciate people who don’t talk straight.”

“Okay,” she said. “Then get this. You need to sit down.” She pointed to his chair. “So sit down. Let’s discuss things.” She had a determined way of talking that reminded him of Louise.

For this reason, he stepped close to her and made a big production out of how he was a good foot taller and said, “You seem to think you’re the boss of me.”

She didn’t say anything.

He said, “Crapo,” and refused to sit down right away. He didn’t want her to think she had that power. He went in the kitchen and emptied the dishwasher and then studied the TV Guide a second, though he knew it inside out. When he finally sat down she began to ask him questions—about Louise and the life they had shared, about what he missed most, and did he remember that killer potato salad Mom used to make? “I made some last night,” Susan said, and it was out in the car, along with some pictures they wanted him to have. Oh, and what about last Thanksgiving? When the cat got into the turkey, did he remember how she screamed and raised such a fuss? What about the ornaments she made for Christmas? The gold shoes she wore to restaurants? Those shoes made her shiny all over. And how about her feet, how they were always cold?

He listened and laughed a little and answered as best he could and tried not to cry but that didn’t do any good.
Harry got on a sentimental kick. He decided to hang on to a few things after all, and designated the living room as a memorial. Here he put the foo-foo, though not all of it. The porcelain cherubs, for instance. On the couch he laid some of her dresses and blouses, and photographs, such as the one where she leaned against their old Plymouth roadster with her lips parted, her hand shading her eyes. Then he walked through the room and examined everything, carefully, quietly, like you would in a museum.

This made him feel like holding hands made him feel. Like a kind of conversation was taking place.

He dug through his desk until he found the gold pocket watch Louise had given him so many years ago. It had a picture of her and Susan in it, framed by the inside cover. For a long time he had worn the watch with his avocado-green vest, which frayed and faded and went out of style, and so Louise snuck it off to Goodwill.

When he learned about this, he threw a fit, and tossed the watch in a desk drawer. He felt—the same as his need for tea and Cream of Wheat at breakfast—that only this particular vest could do the watch justice. It had stayed in the drawer until now. He took it with him to Sears and told his story to a clerk, who said, “I’m sorry, sir, we don’t carry that vest, but perhaps you’d like to take a look at some of our more contemporary designs.” Harry grew angry and said, “Listen, kiddo. There’s nothing contemporary I’d touch with a ten-foot pole. And if you don’t have that vest, then I’ll go to the next joint and give them my dime.” So he went to the next joint, and the next, and was told the same thing.

On a whim, he decided to check out Goodwill, and hanging right there, among the tweed pants and corduroy jackets, was an avocado-green vest—four pockets, just like the one he had worn back in the day. For all he knew, it was the same vest, only now it was three sizes too small and he could only fasten the top two buttons, his respectable belly hanging out its front.

The next day he wore the vest to the grocery store, where he told the cashier all about it. “Five bucks was how much this cost,” he said and made a show out of checking the time on his pocket watch. “Once in a blue moon you’ll actually run into an honest price and here it is.” The cashier—Hello My Name Is Brian, his name tag read—listened to Harry talk. When Harry finally stopped, Brian said he was sorry to hear about his wife and that the vest was great, real cool.

Harry was tickled. He had planned on complaining about how they were robbing him blind for a carton of milk and a lousy flower bouquet, but he didn’t complain. He paid in exact change and when Brian told him thanks, Harry hesitated a second, before dropping a quarter—two bits, he called it—on the counter. “Some Coca-Cola money for you,” he said and turned to leave.

He wasn’t sure, but he thought he had made up for something.

When he got in the car he examined himself in the rearview mirror. Cool. He tried on the word and liked the way it sounded. His vest was cool. He was cool. He wondered what kind of music Brian listened to and hoped it wasn’t the racket kind.

Without really thinking about it, he drove to Aurora Health Care, ignoring how people honked their horns when he switched lanes without looking, when he ran a stop sign and zipped up an exit ramp and nearly collided with some knothead in a Jaguar.

Another five minutes and Paolo the witch doctor was walking toward him in a white lab coat, looking tired and depressed, dark around the eyes, and not all that excited to see that Harry was the one who had paged him.
Harry thought: someone died today, one of his patients, a beautiful young girl who dreamed of being a movie star. When he told the parents, “I’m sorry, but—” the mother slapped him, the father began to cry.

“Here,” Harry said and shoved the lousy bouquet in Paolo’s face.

Rain fell, carrying with it a headed-for-summer smell, and the world slowly turned warm and green. Buds broke, pollen dirtied up the windows, and Harry spent a lot of time in the garden, which had always been Louise’s thing. It felt good to do something with his hands, even if they were crooked and clumsy and ached with arthritis. He watched Louise’s daffodils sprout and bloom, and after that her tulips. He trimmed hedges and mowed the grass and turned over dirt with a shovel to discover earthworms, bright as bubblegum, twisting under the sun. A long time ago someone had told him that one earthworm was like a million other earthworms, all packaged into one slick container. If you tore one in half, it wouldn’t die, but would go on living as two earthworms—and so on.

He thought what the heck, he’d give it a try. So he tossed one on the pavement and used the shovel to split it down the middle. The worm that was now two worms twisted and knotted into hieroglyphic designs. One part found the other part and for a time they looked to be wrestling, or violently hugging. Eventually one of them slowed down and then stopped moving altogether. The other soon followed.

Right then Bert—the fortysomething divorced guy from across the street—came outside whistling, carrying some rags and a bucket. He wore a white T-shirt that hung outside his denim shorts. The shirt clung to his sagging belly and Harry thought, that’s why I don’t wear T-shirts. Bert backed his car out of the garage. It was brand-new, one of those maroon PT Cruisers that look like 1950 roadsters all over again. He uncurled the garden hose, attached a spray nozzle, and turned the spigot. The water hissed, splattering across the driveway to strike the hubcaps, where it made a shrill metal noise. A second later the noise faded into a gentle pounding as water ran across the hood and windshield. The air got misty, and the sun made a little rainbow around Bert.

Harry didn’t realize he was staring until Bert laughed and waved and said, “Come on over here, will ya?”

When Harry was halfway across the street, he said, “That’s some jalopy.”

Bert stopped spraying the car. “Say again?”

 

“Like I said, that’s some jalopy you’ve got there.” By this time Harry was standing next to Bert and could smell the soap in the bucket. Smelling it was like remembering something—a lot of things—he couldn’t put a finger on. “Slick as a whistle.”

“Isn’t she?” Bert said and aimed the spray nozzle at Harry. “Hey! Stick ’em up.”

Harry put up his hands like a good sport, but his voice was serious when he said, “Don’t monkey around with that thing. I’m wearing my good vest.”

Bert said, “Oh, I was only fooling.” The nozzle made a tick when he set it down on the pavement. He wiped his hands on his shorts and gave Harry a thoughtful look.

Harry knew what was coming. He didn’t want it to come, but then it came.

Bert drew in a long sigh and said, “Heard the news.”

There was nothing to say to this, so Harry cleared his throat.

“You know how it is,” Bert said, “neighborhoods.” He laughed in a sarcastic way. “Anyway, I heard the score and I’ve been meaning to come over, but you know how it is.” He cocked his head. “Don’t really know what to say, Harry.”
Harry studied the neighborhood, as if remembering. “Yeah.”

Bert said, “You holding up okay? Because if you ever need anything, you know.”

Harry took off his glasses and wiped at an imaginary spot. Then he walked over to the car, which was dappled with a thousand drops of water—one for every dozen things he missed about Louise—all shrinking under the sun, soon to vanish. He pointed at the door handle. “May I?”

Bert did a butler thing with his hand and said, “You bet.”

Harry opened up the car and looked inside and whistled. “All the trimmings,” he said. “Seat warmers even. You weren’t kidding around.”

Bert said, “Hey, you only live once,” and Harry turned around in time to see him flinch.

They did some more talking, but mostly they looked at the car.

Bert said “Hey, how about we take her for a spin?”

Right then Harry made believe he was Bert. He made believe he could put on a T-shirt and drive away in a brand-new car, windows down, warm wind in his face, not a concern in the world except the cheapest gas, the next hotel, and would he throw a piston as he rocketed across the cornfields of Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, up and over the Rockies. And maybe he would make a pit stop in Vegas and play the slots, but soon enough he’d be on his way, all the while staring into the rearview mirror, watching the world slip away at a hundred miles per hour, nothing to lose.

For a second he wanted this so bad he could taste it, but only for a second.

Bert punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Harry?” he said. “Hey, what’s the matter?”

Harry started to say something, but decided against it. He wouldn’t have known where to begin.


TAMARACK FICTION

The Story

“Where to Begin”

The Author

Benjamin Percy teaches writing at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife and son. His latest short-story collection, Refresh, Refresh, will be published in October by Graywolf Press; filmmaker James Ponsoldt has optioned the title story. Other short fiction by Percy has appeared in The Language of Elk (his debut collection), Esquire, the Paris Review, the Chicago Tribune, Best American Short Stories 2006, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. “How to Begin” is an expanded version of a finalist selection for the 2006 Minnesota Monthly Tamarack Award. To learn more about the author, visit www.benjaminpercy.com.

The Inspiration

“Every story draws from experience,” says Percy. “Though an author who writes about a gruesome murder probably has never wielded a butcher knife, he or she is familiar with the rage and the grief that can arise out of such a situation. In ‘Where to Begin,’ I drew more closely from life than I ever have before. Which is not to say that everything in the story happened just so—but it is founded in truth. My grandmother and grandfather were so close for so long that when she died, a part of him died with her. Telling their story, his story, was a very painful experience, the equivalent of lancing a boil. When writing, I was aware of the subject matter and how easily it could have ventured into Hallmark territory. What I hope to have accomplished here is sentiment without sentimentality.”

The 2007 Tamarack

Minnesota Monthly

will begin accepting entries for the 2007 Tamarack Award competition on March 1. Check here for guidelines.

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