Almost seven o’clock. I haven’t made dinner and Maggie’s not home yet. Usually by this time she’s sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch with a glass of white wine.
But Maggie is busy these days, busy with appointments and consultations and, well, just thinking. Maggie’s thinking a lot these days, and, as her husband of forty-two years, so am I.
I want to surprise Maggie with a nice dinner, but I forgot to go to the store and so I find myself here, shuffling foot to foot, staring into the refrigerator and trying to figure out what to do with a wrinkled endive, a pint of half-and-half, pickle relish and an egg.
Fortunately, the pantry yields better results and I extract a box of rice, a can of tomatoes and a packet of dried mushrooms. I’m thinking risotto, though it’s the wrong kind of rice and there are other ingredients I should have to make a proper risotto but don’t.
It will have to do. When Maggie comes home I’ll pour her a glass of Chardonnay and shoo her out to the front porch and by the time my sorry risotto is ready she’ll be hazy and mellow and – if I’m lucky – hungry, too.
You see, my wife’s appetite isn’t what it used to be. It’s because of all the appointments and consultations and thinking, which are sapping her appetite, her knees as bony as a twelve-year old’s and her wrists as frail as birch twigs. There’s something Maggie wants to tell me, but I’m not ready to hear it. Not yet.
I put water into the pot with the rice and tomatoes and dried mushrooms, add salt and pepper, and crank up the heat. It’s after seven, and still no Maggie, though by now she must be on her way, probably caught in post rush hour traffic, or stopped by an accident on the road, fire engines and paramedics on the scene, sputtering flares set on the blacktop like birthday candles on a cake. But she’s probably humming away and picturing the two of us sharing a bottle of Chardonnay on the front porch where the last rays of the sun are pinking the stippled surface of the lake.
A burst of nervous energy hits me; there is work to be done, work that must be finished before Maggie gets home, any minute now, tired and distracted, as she so often is now. I race upstairs. The bed is unmade, sheets tangled, the quilt lying in a heap on Maggie’s side of the bed. I tidy our nest, square the corners of the sheets, smooth the quilt from top to bottom.
Then I patter into the bathroom. The floor isn’t tiled. When we built the house, we installed wood floors throughout, using antique chestnut boards rescued from a barn in the next town over. I see the stains on the old wood, a dark rust color, the color of a birthmark. I think I know what caused them, but I’m not entirely certain, and Maggie would be upset if she saw them, so I scrub the floors with a washcloth, though I’m pretty sure I’ve already scrubbed this same patch of floor with the same washcloth a dozen times already.
The rice is bubbling away now and doesn’t smell half bad and I’m feeling optimistic about the evening ahead, about the rice and the wine and the reflections of fire-tipped clouds in the lake and the feel of Maggie’s hand on my thigh as we sit on the porch.
Someone calls – one of Maggie’s friends – and we chat for a bit but she sounds odd and even a little teary so I ask her, concerned, if she’s okay but she hangs up without replying.
I notice the sink is filled with dirty dishes, and I rinse them and put them into the dishwasher. House-proud, Maggie is, the beds always made, not a speck of dust anywhere, the kitchen always so tidy, so well-organized, the rice and canned tomatoes and dried mushrooms always in their place, as are the herbs and spices, the baking chocolate and olive oil and cornstarch. In a big bowl with daisies painted on it there’s zucchini from the garden in summer and apples from the orchard in the fall. But with all the appointments and consultations, not to mention the occasional night away (sometimes at her sister’s, sometimes at a friend’s, so she tells me, and why, after forty-two years of marriage, should I question this need of hers to be alone and think?), Maggie hasn’t had the time to do much cleaning lately.
Standing out on the porch – it’s going on eight o’clock now, and I can just make out the first stars in the east and the surface of the lake is navy blue and flat – I realize I haven’t showered today and I’m wearing the same clothes as I did yesterday. If Maggie had been here this morning, she would’ve stopped me before I headed downstairs, would have wrinkled her nose and tilted her head toward the bathroom. Her head, Maggie’s head, identical planes of gray-blonde hair falling to her shoulders from a perfectly straight center part, framing her face like the priceless work of art it is. Which reminds me: I must remember to tell her about the pottery exhibit at the library. When she comes home.
Back upstairs, I shower and shave and pull on a pair of khaki shorts and a long-sleeved green striped shirt, because it’s getting late, and the air has cooled and so it’s likely to be chilly on the front porch. I make sure my bare feet do not touch the rusty stain on the bathroom floorboards.
Then I’m standing at the stove and there’s a curl of smoke coming from the pot and an acrid smell and I throw more water into the pot to try and save my sorry risotto but I know it’s no use. It’s black and ruined, and why I even bothered in the first place, I can’t really say.
There’s something Maggie wants to tell me, but I’m not ready to hear it. Not yet.
But there’s still the wine, and I fetch it, together with two glasses, and I settle myself into the wicker rocking chair on the covered porch to wait for Maggie. There’s a matching wicker side table where I placed the flowers that arrived earlier that day, though from whom I have no idea because I threw away unopened the card that came with it. But I did trim the stalks of the flowers – a mix of lilies and iris – under running water in the sink as Maggie taught me, then arranged them in a cut glass vase that once belonged to Maggie’s grandmother, a formidable woman who once shot a tiger in Jaipur.
Which makes me think of guns. More specifically, the gun I bought years ago after we moved into this house, and that I keep in a shoebox at the top of my closet. Not that I ever intended to use it, God no, but our nearest neighbor is a half mile away on a dirt road and Maggie gets skittery at the thought of burglars and intruders and escaped convicts and so I purchased the gun for Maggie. For her peace of mind.
Part of me wants to go and make sure the gun is where it’s supposed to be, where it’s always been, untouched, unloaded, the seal on the box of bullets next to it undisturbed. Instead, I tip another two inches of wine into my glass, but my hand is shaking and my mouth is dry, because now that I’ve thought of the gun there’s no turning back.
An image of the Smith & Wesson flashes into my head, except this time the gun’s not in the shoebox, and my heart thuds in my chest and my guts are twisted like a rope, as if I’m watching a horror flick and dreading what’s coming, the axe or the butcher knife or the rope. Or the gun.
I never liked Maggie’s doctor. Always wore a hangdog, apologetic expression on his face, like he felt guilty for the cancer that led to the appointments and the consultations and the plastic vials of pills on the bedside table. That led to the faraway look in her blue, blue eyes, the long silences, the thinking, thinking, thinking … though when I ask her, gently, lovingly, to talk to me, she starts as though awakened from a dream.
That reminds me – I had a kaleidoscopic dream last night. Fragments flit around inside my brain: a panther circling the house on taloned paws, a blue bowl overflowing with bullets, floorboards suddenly popping their nails and rearing up like soldiers in their tawny uniforms.
There’s a slick knot of nausea in my belly now and a horror flick is unspooling behind my eyes, frame by frame. A hand, its wrist as frail as a birch twig. A gun lying next to it on the honeyed wood floor. A pale face framed by blood-soaked gray-blonde hair. Blue eyes the color of rubbed denim looking straight at me, except that the faraway look is gone and there’s nothing behind them at all.
A nightmare. Nothing more.
There’s something else, though, in this soup of emotions sloshing around inside me – something that makes my eyes sting and the knot dissolve into a greasy plug at the base of my throat. Something nameless, or rather something that has a name, but one I will not name.
I want to describe this feeling to Maggie. She’ll know the word for it. She will put a name to it and it will be something impossible and incomprehensible and inescapable. And the two of us will laugh at the idea of a word so mysterious, so … preposterous, that it could even begin to explain why I’m sitting in a wicker rocking chair with two glasses and a bottle of wine beside me instead of my wife.
I should get up. Scrape the burned rice from the pan. Make a grocery list. Sort through the cards in their pastel envelopes on the dining room table. I do none of these things. Instead, I tilt my head back, close my eyes and imagine the slow tread upstairs to the tidily made bed next to the bathroom with the scrubbed stain on the floor and I’m so tired now, spent, empty, like the wine bottle next to me, as I sit under a sky filled with sequins scattered across a swath of black velvet. Waiting for Maggie.
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