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.
Looking in the want ads, I say.
She says: Why don’t you walk over to the store and get some pasta or something for dinner?
It’s raining, I say.
It’s clearing up, she says.
Thank you for watching. Stay tuned. Be right back after this.
The couch is hard and dark. Rose is happy, laughing. Guilty! she says. She’s in on the game, knows the rules for one last glorious moment. We get a little carried away, giggling at daytime TV. Who can blame us? It’s the judge shows, mostly; acts of petty recrimination, smoldering ambitions, dreams that never take root. I take the liberty of switching channels. Judge Judy. Judge Mills Lane. People’s Court. To save you the trouble, I explain. You’re so kind, she says. She dunks a chocolate cheroot in a mug of strong tea.
Suddenly, it’s the six o’clock news. I rush out to the car.
She’s waiting on the curb in front of her office. She gets in, frowns. She isn’t talking to me. I stab buttons on the radio. Rose’s laugh, a murmur cackle, knowing, not knowing.
She orders the taco salad.
I say: How can you eat that?
We have to be on guard against conformity, against theme parks and plastic palm trees and cellular phones and deep-fried artificially breaded frozen snacks. You pay $5.99 for six but they get two hundred for twenty bucks. The waiter says: And for you, sir?
While we wait for the food I suggest we get rid of the car. I announce plans for a holiday. Cross country drive through. And then, at the end, a symbolic good riddance, a shedding. Over a cliff, we jump out on my count, laughing, free, synchronous. There’s a picture on the wall behind her head, blue water and white beach and giant hotels—looming vultures—Acapulco.
What are you talking about? she says. She blinks her limpid brown eyes, wants to say something other than what she said, wants to get right to the heart of the matter, and so do I, believe me, so do I. Her leg, her hand, her cheek. I suppress the urge to touch, run my fingers through my bangs instead. Regret it immediately. Feel my hair poof up like a threatened porcupine.
Shall I come over? I ask Rose.
I can see her soft mouth open in a wrinkle. From the patio, the phone pressed to my ear, I can see everything.
I’m in the area, I persist.
Rose, breathing. Hesitates.
What is it? I snap. Another engagement?
The light shifts, the kitchen in shadows.
Yes? I prompt.
It— she manages. It wasn’t my birthday.
I’ll be right there, I soothe.
The police arrive with a complaint. They make quite a scene, with their handcuffs and their pompous questions and their red flashing lights.
Seems that Truman, regular Meals On Wheels fellow for going on five years, put two-and-two together.
I think about how making love is like watching something on the screen. It’s entirely two dimensional. There’s the groaning and all of that, the soundtrack to some movie, simultaneous moans dubbed over the image, the wrong voices not quite in time with the action.
Be strong, I tell myself. They don’t understand. But Rose needs you.
I want to be inside. I want to be alive all the time.
I say: Am I under arrest, Officer?
You went to her house? she asks.
A treat, I explain. An act of compassion. I just wanted to—
Oh my god. That poor woman. Oh my god. You told her you’re from Meals On Wheels?
Well, not exactly from, but with. Part of, that is. I didn’t want to scare her, you see.
You didn’t want to scare her? Oh my god.
She turns away from me, looks up at the framed poster we have on the wall of the kitchen. Sunset in black and white. Gray beach, bleached gold sky.
I’ve got an idiot for a husband, she says, throwing up her arms. I follow the curve of her back to the place where she swells out. She isn’t the kind of woman who appears beautiful to total strangers. You have to get used to the flaws that make up what’s perfect about her. They say it’s wrong to stare, but doesn’t it depend on what you’re looking at?
It was perfect, I say. I know that if she could just picture it, if I could have taken a snapshot of Rose’s lopsided smile, of the way the dust kicked up as we moved together up the carpeted stairs. You see, I say, I just wanted to—you have to understand: I held her hand, I peeled her a kiwi. It was her first kiwi.
Goddamn you, she screams, covering her ears with her hands. What’s wrong with you?
She doesn’t even try to think about the magnitude of each passing temporal circumstance. This way or that way.
It matters, of course, but maybe not as much as we think it does. What’s in a name? To get answers you have to listen. You have to climb into someone else’s skull. You have to be willing to visit.
I don’t understand, she says. What’s happening? she says.
A t the funeral I keep a low profile.
After, I go into a dingy diner, order a cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie. In the back, I use the pay phone. I dial her cell and listen to it ring.
I think of the way her thighs stretch on pale beaches. I think of the little dance she sometimes does when she gets out of the shower.
I’m not one of those people who is afraid to admit they were wrong about certain things.
Rose is dead, I say. I’ll call back.
I hang up the phone. The poster on the wall ripples. Sunset, tan beach, teal ocean.