From Look Down, This Is Where It Must Have Happened, copyright 2011 by Hal Niedzviecki, reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.
I ring the bell and wait. I ring the bell again. There are things that happen that don’t have to happen. The intersection of people, the way one life collides with another. It all seems so simple, so obvious; we can’t ever come out and say what we want to say. I wiggle my toes, sweaty and trapped in a pair of thin gray socks.
Who is it?
Meals On Wheels.
Rose opens the door a bit. I push my way in. Blink into the old woman translucence, shadows on dust. It’s just the way I would have imagined it, if I had imagined it.
You’re not Meals On Wheels, she says.
I shrug, heft my wicker basket. Oh yeah, I say. What am I then?
She steps back into the gloom. Her mouth an oval. I savor the moment, lick my lips, taste sediment and hallway knickknacks. She jerks her head backwards, calculates the distance to the phone, a distance she’s forced to measure in her own tottering steps.
You’re Rose Dimano, I say, taking her arm. Special lunch today. Once-a-year treat. Fall equinox. Late-summer harvest. And it’s your birthday, lucky lady.
I pull a card out of my pocket, thrust it at her. She flinches, then grabs it. She works at the envelope with skeletal fingers. Happy Birthday. Love, everyone at Meals On Wheels. A clown holding a bouquet of—what else?—roses. She shakes a bit, holds on to wallpaper, blinks back tears.
Oh, she says, it’s so lovely. But I wish—
Yes? I say.
She looks up at me, surprised, annoyed. I’m ruining the moment. I’m rushing her big day.
I wish Truman could be here, she says.
Once a month I watch her creak out of the house and into a waiting cab. When I see her inching down the front steps in voluminous folds of funereal black I can’t help but think of crows circling one of their expired brood. They eat their own.
I wish he could too, I whisper diplomatically.
Well then, young man, she snaps. Let’s see what you’ve got in that basket.
Caviar. Foie gras. Pickled quail eggs. Crusty baguette. Poached salmon in lemon-dill sauce. A bottle of something sparkling white.
Oh my, she says, leading the way to the kitchen. I couldn’t eat all that.
A young lady like you?
It’s my birthday, she says, getting used to the idea.
I spread a cracker. Help her into the seat with the view.
Imagine my wife as sweet, calm, still. Think of her as night’s descent, as a gossamer veil of distance, possibility, ocean horizons, sunset memories, vacations. She wants me to wash my feet before getting into the bed.
I’m already in the bed.
She stands in the bathroom yanking unwanted bits of eyebrow from the no-man’s-land above her nose. She uses the tweezers from my Swiss Army knife.
Outside, a truck clears its throat.
Wash your feet, she yells from the bathroom. Wash your feet or I’m sleeping on the couch. Have you looked at your feet?
I try not to make a big deal out of things. But sure, I’ve got a temper.
Little invisible hairs rooted in unwanted places.
Why can’t it be enough for us to climb into bed, our arms around each other, our breath in hot, cheek-tickling wafts? People want it perfect. They think it’s going to be perfect.
Finally, she comes into the bedroom. Crosses her arms, looks at me.
I’m not washing my fucking feet, I say.
Okay, she says. I’m sleeping on the couch.
Don’t even try it, I say. I grab her leg and hold on.
She pulls free.
I hate you, she says.
She has soft, smooth skin. She has long legs.
Two minutes later I’m standing in the tub with the soap in my hands. In the bathroom there’s a picture in a frame, sand and seashells in some sort of pattern, a gift to her from a cousin who died before we met. I’m not sure of the protocol. Do I run the bar of soap against the soles, or do I rub the soap on my hand then use my hand to lather up the foot bottom?
I close my eyes, exhale.
Wet foam shoots between my fingers.
Sometimes she calls during the day. She almost always calls me during the day. On her lunch break.
I go out on the deck and stare across at Rose sitting in her kitchen. She sits there for hours, looking down at her garden. Minutes and seconds slip by. She doesn’t move, barely breathes. What’s she waiting for? C’mon, old gal, do something. She could go down there if she wanted to. I’ve seen her in the garden, a cape wrapped around her shoulders, a pair of old pruning gloves twisted onto her gnarled hands purely for effect—she’s too old to weed, and, anyway, what’s left to grow?
It’s not the garden she wants. She’ll get down there and stand next to the drooping bushes and wonder how she ever mustered the energy. She’ll pull her wrap tight around her stooped shoulders and eye the back door—the steep steps up—as if she’s assessing the bother: Is it worth it? Is anything?
I’ve been spending a lot of time with Rose.
I’m in her mind, I’m occupying the stale strictures of her brittle bones. What is it to grow old? My elderly neighbor longingly descends, and I watch her with keen interest because where she wants to go is the last place she wants to go.
Finally, the phone rings. It’s her, of course, my wife calling me from work. She wants to know what I’m doing.
Nothing, I say. I can hear her swallow. Rose drinks a cup of tea, sits with her back to me. I see the quaking of her shoulders, I feel the agony of impending departure, I’m sure she’s crying.