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BOTHER

Perry and I met him coming in as we were going out, at our adjacent apartment doors, and Saul's pallor shocked me. He had prostate cancer—too old for an operation—and kidney problems. But something else obviously bothered him now. His lined face glistened almost as white as his sparse, unkempt hair.

 

He grimaced at me in lieu of a smile. Then he rubbed at his chest with his fingertips, and grimaced again when my handsome husband gently gripped his shoulder in a buck-up gesture.

 

"You don't look as if you should have been out running around," I chided. "Is there something we could do for you?"

 

Shaking his head, he fumbled with his key, nearly dropped it, moaned when it didn't scrape into the slot. Perry and I exchanged looks. This wasn't our Saul, all shaky-limbed and tense.

 

"Want some help there, Sonny?" Perry offered jovially, calling Saul by Saul's pet name for Perry. He extracted the key from Saul's trembling fingers, and the old man backed around against the wall to give him room.

 

I hated the suffering in Saul's watery eyes. I longed to have a magic touch that would make it all go away, but the best I could do was touch him with affection. He leaned against the wall, so I couldn't hug him properly; I cupped his face and kissed his cool, whiskery cheek.

 

"We're going out to dinner, but we could order a pizza in, instead," I murmured to him.

 

"No, no, ahhh, Meg," he whispered.

 

"Have you eaten? Can we bring you something back from the restaurant?"

 

Saul waved both questions aside, rolling his head against the flowered wallpaper of the dim hall. Perry had finally succeeded in releasing the uncooperative lock. Saul stumbled inside and threw shut the door without thanks or good-byes.

 

"Poor old guy," Perry said, when we had gone down two flights out of hearing. "I hate to think of someone new moving into his place."

      

We discussed Saul out the front door and halfway down the block, agreeing how much we would miss him, avoiding the word "death."

 

"P.T.'s?" Perry asked.

 

"Of course, P.T.'s. We're almost there." I bumped shoulders with him playfully, shamefully glad to change the subject.

 

We were regulars at P.T.'s Buffet, because they served good, cheap food and were in easy walking distance. We had to drive to work at the university every day in the worst kind of traffic. We tried to walk everywhere else.

 

While Perry saw to the entry fee, I peered around the black walnut dining room, choosing where to sit. There were plenty of empty spaces—we were early—so I homed in on a table for four by the tall, gold-draped front windows. I didn't know any of the other regulars by name, but I nodded at a few familiar faces as I walked to reserve our spot. I parked my red sweater on one of the chairs.

 

Perry waited for me at the salad bar, and we loaded our plates with a little of everything. In a moment, we were seated across the table from one another, napkins in our laps, forking up greens and orange ambrosia.

 

"Does this taste as good as usual?' I asked. "Maybe I'm not as hungry as I thought."

 

"You're still feeling bad about Saul."

 

Perry and I have been married twenty-one years, and we've been staunch friends the whole time. A houseguest once remarked we seemed more like twins than lovers, which she might not have considered a compliment, but which I found a delightful perception. Books, movies, hobbies, foods, home furnishings, on and on—we've been completely compatible. So compatible, I've felt twinges of fear that we're growing complacent in our middle years, losing our edge on living.

 

A woman pulled out the chair next to mine and sat down at our table. Startled, I twisted to look full at her. No one I knew, she was about my age, with a dark cap of hair and protruding eyes.

 

She spooned up soup before saying belatedly, "Do you mind if I sit here?"

 

"Not at all," I said, minding a lot. The room wasn't crowded, there were plenty of tables, so why did she have to intrude on ours?

 

She sipped from her spoon before adding, "There's my husband. Watch. He won't join us. He never sits where I want to sit."

 

The man she nodded at was, indeed, studiously ignoring her, stalking across the room to claim a little booth in the farthest corner. They'd had an argument, obviously, and now she would spoil my meal by whining the details to me. I glanced at Perry for acknowledgement of our bad luck, but he stared out the window at the brightening lights in the darkening street.

 

My unwanted companion broke crackers into her soup, enough to alter it into forkable stew. "He blames himself, you see. Charles, my husband. So he doesn't want to share my space."

 

I sneaked another look at her face. The bulging eyes fascinated and repelled me. "Have we met? Before, I mean."

 

"Maybe. If you live around here."

 

"At the block party," I said, satisfied I recalled her in white shirt and shorts which hadn't done a thing for her pasty skin.

 

"When was that?" she asked without much interest, not making a move toward the mess she'd made of her soup.

 

"The first week of July." Perry had baked a spice cake and I had frosted it like an American flag. Everyone admired it before and after tasting it.

 

"No, I died before that," she said.

 

Of course her husband wouldn't sit with her. He'd be embarrassed by her. Whether she was crazy or simply eccentric, he'd naturally be embarrassed.

 

"I told you," she said, peeved. "Charles blames himself. Which he should. It was an accident, him cleaning the infernal gun, but he did kill me. I know he hated it." She lifted her napkin to dab at each eye. "Hated it so much, he killed himself, too."

 

Across the room, Charles hunched over his plate, mopping up something with a roll. His eyes were deep-set below wild eyebrows. His balding head, freckled with liver spots, swayed in slow circles. I jerked my attention away.

 

Another face flashed across my mind—a stranger's; unfocussed eyes rushed at me, closer, closer. For a disorienting moment, I felt a terrible panic. Something horrible had happened and my life—our lives—would never be the same.

 

"Perry, let's skip the meat and potatoes tonight," I said as firmly as my nerves would allow. "I want to go home."

 

"Sure, Meggins," he said promptly. Maybe he'd been listening to the madwoman beside me after all. He stood and helped me scrape back my chair.

 

We pushed through the heavy oak door into a night that smelled of exhaust fumes and approaching rain. The omnipresent shrilling of an emergency vehicle unwound into the distance. We linked arms and set off for home.

 

"Did you hear her say she was dead?" I squeezed my husband's elbow close beneath my breast, feeling chilly and sad.

 

"Do you believe in ghosts?" He smiled down at me.

 

This time, Saul's pale face and quivering hands floated into my thoughts. I hurried Perry onward, afraid we'd been gone too long.

 

We reached the concrete steps leading to the entrance of our apartment house. At the foot of them, Perry turned me toward him, locking his arms around my waist—our ritual embrace at homecoming, as if it were a date and we would have to separate here.

 

"What a gosh-awful day," he whispered before the kiss. His lips felt as soft and liquid as tears.

He tipped his head to study me by the street lamp. I studied him, too, and my budding suspicion burst into full, ugly flower.

 

"You have glass in your cheek," he said as he delicately picked it out.

 

Unable to speak, I ruffled his too-red hair, scattering its diadem of shredded windshield.

 

We slipped into the building and up the stairs—quietly, quietly—so as not to bother Saul again.

 

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