by Peter Obourn
The morphine had been increased to the point where she just slept. Bill took hold of her bony hand and squeezed it. It was limp but warm. “I’m here,” he said, even though she probably could not hear him. The nurse Bill had hired stuck her head in the door. “Mary, why don’t you go home tonight,” he said. “There’s no reason for you to stay.”
“Thanks, Bill, but I’ll be downstairs, just in case. I’ll keep the TV on low. Call me if you need to get some sleep.”
Mildred lay so still. They had spent the last month planning a cruise they would never take. The brochure was still on the bedside table—a small ship—eighteen days on the Mediterranean. She’d asked him if he’d made the required deposit. He lied and said he had. It would have been silly. He told her he’d reserved the best cabin on the ship.
At dawn Mary came back up the stairs. “We better call the funeral home,” he said. He stood and turned to face her. They put their arms around each other and wept.
* * *
Living alone was hard. He taught himself to cook a few things, but he did it just because he had to eat. He liked a clean house. Mildred had kept it spotless, but he didn’t clean. He didn’t know how, except maybe run the vacuum cleaner, so he had to hire someone to come in, but he hated it when she was there banging around. She didn’t seem to like him very much either. Mildred had always been clicking around upstairs, doing whatever she did. It used to irritate him, and now he would have given anything if he could hear it again.
* * *
What he did do was throw himself back into the business. In the little cubicle he had reserved for himself when he turned the business over to Steve, he found the contract he was looking for and printed it out. He walked into his old office, sat on the edge of his son’s desk, and waited for a phone call to end. After a full five minutes, his son hung up. “Everything okay, Dad?” he asked.
“Yep,” said Bill. “I have to talk to you about the new McPhearson contract. I thought we were going to talk about it yesterday, but you weren’t here.”
“I was working at home, Dad—fewer interruptions.” Steve turned in his chair so his back was to his father, then he turned back, as if for effect, faced him, and folded his hands in front of him. “Dad, I don’t want to talk about the contract.”
“Just listen for a minute, Steve,” said Bill.
Steve held up his hand. “Dad, we did talk about the McPhearson contract. You need to let go. Everyone worked hard on that contract, and I made the final decision. You need to let me succeed or fail on my own.”
Bill looked down at the contract in his hand. “I understand, Steve, and as soon as this transition period is over…”
“It’s been three years, Dad.” Steve came around the desk and put his arm around his father’s shoulder. “I decided we’ve transitioned.” He smiled. “You know what you should do? You should take a cruise. Why not? You and Mom always talked about doing it.”
Bill stood and walked back to his cubicle. He couldn’t take a cruise by himself.
* * *
He went fishing with his grandson Charlie, a sophomore at Holy Cross. “So how’s Jenny?” asked Bill.
Charlie didn’t answer right away. He was rummaging around in his tackle box. “That’s over, Grandpa,” said Charlie. “She met some guy.”
Bill looked out across the water as the rowboat slowly rocked on the waves. He and Mildred had thought that Jenny was perfect for Charlie. They’d started dating in eighth grade. “I’m sorry,” said Bill.
“It’s okay, Grandpa. I’ve already had some dates. I’m doing fine. How about you? Are you holding up?”
Bill could not tell his grandson how hopelessly lost he was—that this was the only pleasant day he had spent since the doctor had told them Mildred would die—that a few days before the bartender at the Hyatt told him to go home, and he woke the next morning in his car in the garage with the engine still running, not sure if he was lucky or unlucky that he hadn’t killed himself. “I’m doing great, Charlie,” he said.
* * *
Before Bill met Mildred, there was Flora. When he had met Mildred, Flora was at Michigan, hundreds of miles away, and, anyway, he was afraid to face her in person, so he had broken up with his high school sweetheart over the phone. She had kept saying, What? What are you saying? It wasn’t a bad connection. The connection was clear, but the message wasn’t. Finally she said, Don’t tell me it’s over. I’ll decide when it’s over, and then he kept talking, but she hung up. This was all fifty years ago. Bill never saw her, never talked to her in all those years, but he kept track, friends kept track and told him. Bill knew she married and had kids and all that and then her husband died and her kids were kind of jerks. She’d had a pretty good life, but it was kind of sad. Anyway, he never thought of her. Well, he thought of her but it was always Mildred. But when Charlie had told him about Jenny, Bill thought of Flora again. Then, after that, it took him six months to work up the nerve to call her.
Flora lived less than a hundred miles away, in Bristol, in a big white house with a lot of lawn. The house was amazingly clean and neat. “What took you so long?” she said.
It was noon, so they went to lunch. They ran into a friend of Flora’s who said, “So this is Bill. Well, I’m so glad you are here,” as if he’d been expected.
It was awkward. All he could think of was Mildred. All he could feel was guilt. He’d forgotten how Flora was coarser than Mildred—rougher. Mildred always made him feel in charge—at ease or something like that. With Flora there was some kind of tension, like they were in some kind of contest.
But then he realized that they were back exactly where they had been before Mildred, an intimacy they recaptured almost without effort. Of course it was not the same as Mildred, but better than the loneliness. He stayed three days.
* * *
Flora came to stay with Bill. A week before the wedding, he came down to breakfast. Flora set a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him, served herself, and sat down across the table. “I’m picking your tux up at the dry cleaner’s today,” she said. “I found your tie, cummerbund, and studs, right where you put them, and I’ll wash and press your formal shirt myself with all those damn pleats. How much starch?”
“The studs were where Mildred put them, which is why I couldn’t find them,” said Bill, “and no starch. Boy, what a lot of fuss for nothing.”
“Nothing?” said Flora. “Your granddaughter getting married is not nothing. It’s a milestone and you are so lucky, Bill. You are blessed.”
“I know. I know,” said Bill, who had been playing the wedding down. He didn’t want Flora to get all maudlin again over her family.
* * *
Bill could not believe the outfit—a dress to go fishing.
Charlie was waiting for them down by the dock, and he wouldn’t care what she wore. Flora looked nice, and it was a chance for her and Charlie to get to know each other.
It was not dawn yet, although there was some light. The whole sky was red. The sun would be coming up any minute. It would be a hot day, but it was still cold before the dawn. The only noises were the birds. Bill was in his bare feet—old khakis. In addition to the dress, Flora wore a yellow silk scarf and matching yellow shoes. The shoes would be filthy before she got to the boat.
As they walked onto the dock from the muddy shoreline, suddenly a flock of birds rose in unison from a sycamore tree, dipping, then rising like a wave, and the sunlight from below the horizon bounced off them like a thousand blinking lights. “Did you ever see anything so amazing?” said Flora. Bill and Charlie made no comment. After more silence,
Flora spoke again. “Am I overdressed?”
“You’re fine,” said Bill. Charlie smiled.
“Where’s the boat?” she asked.
“Right here,” said Bill.
“This thing?” said Flora, looking down at the rowboat with the old ten-horse Evinrude. As they set out across the water toward the dawn, Flora talked more about the birds and about how she’d never been fishing before, but she didn’t get a response and then she kind of shut up.
An hour later Bill said, “How’s college going?”
“Great, Grandpa, just great. You bet,” said Charlie.
The day seemed longer than usual, but actually ended early, because Flora “had to pee.” While Flora was in the wooden shed at the dock called the bathroom, Bill and Charlie stood together pissing on the roots of a willow. “Does she always talk so much?” asked Charlie.
“No, she’s real nervous. The family makes her nervous. You were real nice to her today, Charlie. Real nice. I appreciate that.”
“I wonder if she got her wedding outfit and her fishing outfit confused.”
Bill laughed. “Be interesting to see what she shows up in. Might be fancier than the bride.”
Charlie laughed. “So, she’s coming?” he said.
“Why do you ask?”
“Haven’t you talked to Aunt Susie?”
“She’s having a fit,” said Charlie. Bill did not respond. He looked at Charlie and Charlie shrugged his shoulders. “Grandpa, cheer up. Let’s just the two of us go fishing next time.”
“Great idea, Charlie—I’d love that. Next Saturday.”
“Isn’t that the wedding?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Bill. “The Saturday after that—for sure. It’s a date.”
* * *
Bill was in bed, reading the Wall Street Journal, waiting for Flora, who was in the dressing room. She appeared, not in a nightgown, but a flowing blue dress. “Well,” she said, twirling, “what do you think?”
He pushed his glasses down his nose. “You’re not sleeping in that?”
“No, silly, this is for the wedding. I got it yesterday. Cost a fortune. I’m so excited for Millie. I had such a nice long chat with her. And her Norman is such a nice boy. I’m so happy for them.”
Bill smiled. The dress was not bad. He went back to his paper, and she returned in fifteen minutes in a nightgown. Her smell filled the room. It had been so many years, but he thought he could remember it from before he met Mildred. Flora slid under the sheet next to him and put a hand inside his pajama top. The newspaper was on his lap.
“You okay, Bill? Is something bothering you?”
“Thanks for taking me fishing. I enjoyed that. Especially when those birds flew out. Wasn’t that something?” Bill kept reading. “Your grandson doesn’t talk much, does he?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” said Bill.
* * *
Bill’s daughter, Susie, and her daughter Millie, the bride, arrived Monday morning. Millie left with Flora to do “a little shopping.” Susie stayed to talk to her father. They sat on Bill’s patio next to the pool. “Daddy, we need to talk about Flora.” Bill drummed his fingers on the glass table. “It’s less than a week until the wedding, and she seems to be under the impression that she is invited.”
“Daddy, it’s less than two years since Mom died. Mom is going to be a very big part of this occasion. Her spirit will be there.”
Bill stood up and walked to the edge of the pool, his back to his daughter. “It’s been more than two years. And we discussed this, Susie. I asked your permission. Not that I need it, but I did ask.”
There was silence and Bill wondered if his daughter would say anything more. She’d just been warming up. “What you said, Daddy, was that you are having a terrible time getting over Mom. You asked me if it would be inappropriate if you talked to a friend—no, not even a friend—a widow going through the same thing. I didn’t realize it was your old girlfriend, and she was going to move in and sleep in Mom’s bed.” Bill turned and faced her. Father and daughter should not discuss this. They did sleep in the same bed and share the bathroom. It wasn’t sex. They touched. It was a relationship maybe, or something. He didn’t know what it was. It didn’t seem right that she should sleep in Susie’s room. “So, Daddy, just what are your plans with Flora?”
“Please let’s not go there, Susie,” said Bill, who had no plans.
“Okay, Daddy, we won’t go there, but just where is it we are going? I’m going crazy.
That’s where I’m going.”
“Susie, I’m your father, not your child.”
She sighed. He started to walk toward the house.
“Daddy, wait. We have to discuss this. We have to discuss the wedding. Nothing else.
Okay?” Bill turned back to face her. “Millie doesn’t want her there.”
“Susie, I find that hard to believe. And Flora has a new dress for the wedding. She showed it off to me. Twirled around like a schoolgirl. She’s all excited for Millie. And Millie likes her. I mean, you know, they just went off shopping together. You know I’ve told you that Flora’s own daughter hasn’t spoken to her in years. I’m sorry. I just can’t do this to Flora.”
“Well, Dad, I’m just telling you. You know Millie would never say anything to you. You know that.” Bill turned and walked into the house, leaving his daughter sitting by the pool.
* * *
In the bedroom the new dress was draped over the bed with some scarves of various colors that Millie and Flora had brought back from their shopping excursion. He began to pick up the scarves and, one at a time, trying to match them to the dress. He was amazed at how soft they were. They weighed nothing, like picking up air. Flora came out of the bathroom in her slip, and he turned with a pink scarf in one hand and in the other a scarf of some pastel color he could not name. “Which one do you like?” she asked.
He looked at the scarves in his hands, then sat on the edge of the bed. “Flora, there’s something we need to talk about. I’m really sorry for waiting so long, but we’ve got to talk about it.” Flora had walked to the closet, her back toward him. She was holding three different necklaces, which all looked like they had diamonds in them, up to the neckline of her slip and looking in the mirror. She didn’t turn around, but she was standing right there so he knew she had heard him, so he kept talking. “Well, I’ve been thinking, Flora. I mean, you know, widows remarry all the time, and so do men. Whatever. It’s done. But no one gets another mother. You lose your mother and there’s just a hole—a hole you can’t fill.”
He looked up. Flora had turned to face him, hands on hips, a diamond necklace in her hand. “Is this speech about me and the wedding?” she said. “If it is, you can forget it. I’m not an idiot. I know what’s going on and it’s not about me. It’s about your daughter, who happens to be a spoiled brat.” Then she returned to her task, putting all but one diamond necklace away, laying the one she had chosen next to the dress on the bed, and then turned to Bill. “I suppose you were going to tell me that Millie doesn’t want me to come, which is a load of horse crap, and you should know it.” She took the pastel scarf from his hand and laid it on her dress. “And your son is no prize either.” He handed her the pink scarf and she walked away. “End of discussion,” she said from inside the closet.
* * *
The summer evening was so pleasant. They sat together on the glider on the screened-in porch. Cicadas filled the air with buzzing, and now and then a breeze came through with a breath of warm air.
“Baseball great Mel,” said Flora, “three letters.”
“Ott,” said Bill, “Mel Ott.”
“Here’s one I know that you only see in crossword puzzles,” said Flora, “Oriental nurse.”
“Amah,” said Bill.
“How did you know that?”
“Mildred and I used to do these puzzles, just like this, sitting right here.”
Flora put the puzzle in her lap. Bill felt a choking in his throat, and he didn’t know if he could even speak. He put his head down and sat quietly for a minute, and then said, “Give me another clue.” He leaned against Flora and put his arm around her, but he turned his face away so she couldn’t see it.
“Okay,” she said, “ancient city on the Euphrates—six letters—no, wait, seven letters.”
“That’s so easy,” said Bill. “Cleveland.”
“Good for you,” said Flora, filling in the squares. “I’ll just shorten it a little so it fits.”
“Let me see that,” said Bill, grabbing the puzzle. “Babylon? You sure it’s not Cleveland?” He handed it back.
* * *
Bill set the Wall Street Journal on his pillow, put his hands on his knees, pulled himself up, and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. When he came back into the room, the lights were out. Flora was lying with her back to him. He slid under the covers next to her but kept to his side of the bed.
“Bill,” she said, “I’ve decided, after the wedding, I’m going home.”
He shifted onto his back and stared up into the darkness.
At 3 a.m., on schedule, he got up to go to the bathroom.
In the bathroom, lit by the nightlight, he stared into the mirror, seeing only his dark silhouette surrounded by a soft glow. He wished he had taken Susie in his arms and told her that he understood how much she missed her mother. Why couldn’t he tell Flora that she should not go to the wedding—for Susie’s sake? Why hadn’t he told his son that he needed to be involved in the business, just involved? Why couldn’t he tell anyone how lonely he was? When he used to be afraid of things at the office, he would tell Mildred and she would hold him, and the sound of her voice was all he needed. She held everything together. He thought this metaphorically, but now it was real, and he half expected the walls of his home to come apart and tumble into the street.
Now the wedding was two days away, but, really, it wasn’t too late.
“What on earth are you doing in there?” said Flora from the bed.
He came back and lay quietly next to her, just breathing. “Flora?” he said.
“May I come with you?”
“Of course you can. Now go to sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.”