Miriam Day lies awake praying the emptiness isn’t real. She squeezes herself like a frightened child, her hands, liver-spotted, arthritic, clutching her thin ribs. It was only last week when she and Paul had watched their favorite Gospel singing on one of the Christian channels. Ever since the kids had given them the satellite, they’d been able to watch all kinds of shows – too many to count or keep up with. It took a week and several calls to Janice, their eldest daughter, to figure out how to turn the satellite on and how to change channels. Paul had gone outside in his green Carpenter’s coat, twisted the white disk and the strange poking antennae, peering up at the sky in bewilderment. It amazed them how they could watch all of their favorites: Westerns, old black-and-white movies–the ones without all of the language, and a sporting event for every time zone in the country. There were four or five trash stations they could pick up too. “My lands, Miriam. Can you believe this?” Paul’d said while scanning the channels.
In the dim glow of the nightlight, Miriam lifts her head high enough to faintly see her reflection in the dresser mirror. It is round and dark and poking out from under the covers like an ornament attached to the headboard. The space beside her is flat – not rumpled with the warmth of Paul. She rolls over and caresses the emptiness. If only he could magically reappear–jabbering about how he’ll build a really nice screened-in porch for the two of them to drink coffee on and watch the neighbors, how he’ll set aside enough money for them to drive and stay with the grandkids for a month or two, how he’ll finally retire from selling his pine cabinets at the flea markets.
The stillness is terrifying. No sounds of late night musings or crackled snores. Paul had the ability to fill any room with life and now the rooms feel lifeless. How will she make it without him? Her stomach turns in knots. She grabs his pillow where the scent of Brute aftershave lingers and presses it into her stomach. She curls around the pillow, fetal.
She wakes to the smell of charred bacon. Or is it ham? In either case, she is surprised the smoke detector isn’t her alarm this morning. She cracks open the bedside window and regrets not teaching her children simple tasks like how to cook a decent breakfast.
“Morning, Mother.” Jeffrey cowers, showing the evidence of a burned frying pan. “I was trying to make us breakfast. Sorry.”
“Ah, that pan was ages old anyway,” she says, waving a hand. She follows him into the kitchen and lowers herself slowly into the oak kitchen chair.
“I guess I need a wife who’ll teach me how to cook.”
“Well, your mother should’ve done a better job training you.”
He kneels in front of her and embraces her.
“You taught me more important things than how to cook. I’ll go out and get us something.”
Miriam waits for the door to close before she cries. The last time Jeffrey embraced and spoke to her like that he was a little boy. Paul would be pleased. They had worried about Jeffrey ever since he went off to college on the West Coast. As a boy, he was sensitive and a homebody. As a college student and adult, he was distant and self indulgent. He’d barely called them. Jeffrey didn’t even call when Paul had his first surgery–a heart bypass requiring a week’s stay. She was the one to call Jeffery to give updates of the family. Each time she calls, he has a different live-in girlfriend. She knows he is co-owner of a nightclub, but he never fully says what he is doing in California. “Managing,” he calls it. Many nights she and Paul would lay awake, praying he would turn from his sin–either leave or marry his girlfriend and find a respectable profession.
All she has ever wanted for any of her children is happiness. Surely happiness doesn’t mean not speaking or visiting? She can’t understand it. Why in the world would anyone not want to see about his family? Even though Janice and Daniel live nearby, they too seldom visit. She understands they have busy lives, but maybe her ultimate wish has driven her children away from her. Maybe happiness doesn’t allot time for visits or calls. Maybe happiness is found in their own children and spouses or live-in girlfriends. Maybe what makes them happy is at odds with what makes her happy. It shouldn’t matter. She is thankful Jeffrey is here.
She slightly rocks herself and turns to tell Paul how Jeffrey is acting like his old self. As she turns her head, she stops, shocked at her own gesture. For nearly fifty-two years she has told this man everything and now he isn’t there to tell anything to. His faded blue La-Z-Boy with the worn side arms sits near hers, without the foot rest kicked out.
By this time of the morning he’d snack on cashews while reading the morning paper. Before scanning the sports or editorials, he’d first flip to the obituary section. “Did you know John Epley died? I used to work with him in the coal mines,” he’d say. Knowing the people in the obituaries had happened more and more the last few years. If he weren’t reading his paper, he had the storm door open, nosing. He’d say things like “Looks like Randall’s got a new lawnmower. I wonder how much he paid for that.” Or: “My, I wonder what’s going on over at Johnny’s. There’s a slew of ‘em over there. I hope everything’s all right. Reckon we ought to call?”
Now, Miriam has to be the nosy one or worry unaccompanied. It isn’t as if she doesn’t have enough to worry about. She has never worked a day in her life. He handled all of the mail and bills, allotted her money to spend on groceries, and drove her everywhere. She hasn’t been behind the wheel since Janice was born. The thought of balancing a checkbook or asking someone to drive her to the store makes her feel as if the lid off of a pressure cooker has exploded.
Why didn’t she ask to learn how to do any of these things? She was seventeen when she married. It was practically a handoff from her parents to him. The cooking, cleaning, and diaper changing seemed like enough work then. She hadn’t wanted any more tasks. God knows she couldn’t have handled anything else. She felt like she aged twenty years in the first three years of marriage. There were times when she called her mother, sobbing. Like when she washed her lipstick with a load of whites, which just so happened to include one of Paul’s dress shirts. While she was busy in the kitchen, scrubbing his shirt with a bleach and water solution, Janice woke from her nap and crawled into the dryer. Once Miriam realized she couldn’t save the shirt, she went into the living room to check on Janice. The baby was gone. Nowhere to be found. Miriam threw cushions off the couch. Looked behind the sofa and under the coffee table. Called out her name, Jan-ice. Circled the living room. Raced in and out of the bedroom and kitchen calling Jan-ice, Jan-ice, louder and louder, her hands shaking, the sense of loss choking her. It was nearly thirty minutes before she heard the dampened cries.
The story might have been a cute one to retell if it hadn’t been for the charred chicken. During the thirty minutes it took to find Janice, the egg timer had long chimed, and the house began filling with smoke. Miriam thought she was going to lose the house in addition to dinner. Two hours later, her mother stopped by to survey the damage, which resulted in routine “pit stops,” as Miriam liked to call them. Each session ended with a one-sentence, crossed-arm summary evaluation. After inspecting the remains of dinner and Janice chewing on her own hands, her mother said, “You’re lucky you only lost the pan.”
The side door creaks. Has she been daydreaming this whole time?
“I didn’t realize the town store had burned down. When did that happen?” His voice appears before he does. The plastic Pantry bags dangle from his hands. She wonders why he doesn’t cuddle them to his body–holding them tightly under his arms. It would have been easier.
“Oh, I guess it’s been about two or three months ago.”
“That’s a shame. I always liked going to that store.” He begins portioning out the meal before she rocks herself out of the chair. She falls back into it. Sighs.
“It happens. Dad used to say ‘Facts of Life.’ Things change.”
He doesn’t speak as he hands her a plate. There is an awkward silence – the type when she has said something she shouldn’t have. She thinks about what she said again. Is she wrong? She doesn’t think it is wrong. She mentioned Paul, but she can’t stop talking about him. He has only been gone for six days. Is she supposed to forget about him now he is gone?
Miriam decides this can’t be it. She scans his face for clues. He is sitting on the edge of Paul’s chair, staring intently at his breakfast plate. Either he is overly concerned how he cuts his biscuit or something else is bothering him. Has he been drinking again?
“Are you all right?” she asks.
He looks up as if she catches him in a lie. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You haven’t said anything.”
“Mother,” he begins, dropping his knife on his plate. “There’s no easy way to tell you this.”
“Tell me what?” Now she is perched at the edge of her chair, waiting for his confession. His business is illegal. His girlfriend’s pregnant.
“I wanted to wait until the others were here.”
“Dad didn’t have burial or life insurance, Mother. We’re not sure if you can keep this place.”
On the day of his surgery, Miriam had waited all morning. The doctor stopped his hourly updates of the surgery after the third hour. By the fifth hour, a nurse called her to the phone. “Mrs. Day, it’s not looking good. There was a lot of bleeding. We’ve tried this and we’ve tried....” Miriam asked if there was anything they could do and the nurse said, “Pray.” She collapsed into the arms of Janice like her legs had been kicked out from under her. She hurt all over – her head pulsated, her heart stung, and her stomach felt as if someone were filleting it with a kitchen knife. She had Paul’s hospital bag packed for a week’s stay. His room was ready for him when he returned. This was supposed to be his last surgery. He had made it through others. Heart bypass, cataracts. Why couldn’t he make it through this one? Of course they knew the risks. Every surgery had its risks. Still, she had felt like God had blessed them. Stomach aneurysms usually burst instantly, without warning. They had caught Paul’s early and scheduled the necessary surgery. She had thanked God. Why would He let him die now?
Jeffrey’s voice pleads on the other side of her bedroom’s locked door. Janice and Daniel must have given up, gone home. She refuses to come out or to let anyone see her so shaken. She needs a moment. Why won’t they give her a moment to collect her thoughts?
I thought he would take care of me. Why didn’t they tell me? Who paid for the funeral? Of course she had helped pick out the casket, the music, and flowers, but the children had taken care of the business details. They’d insisted, hadn’t they? Yes, and why should she have refused? Paul always took care of things; it only seemed natural to pass it off to someone else. But will things be taken care of? If Paul didn’t have life insurance, she didn’t think there was any other money. She would continue to draw off of some of his checks, but it wasn’t enough.
She looks around the room where she has cradled her babies. The wedding ring quilt that her mother had quilted at the foot of the bed. The children’s high school portraits hanging on the wall. The porcelain dish filled with straight pins and one of Jeffrey’s baby teeth. She has held them all in this room, sat in a chair with a green pillow in the small of her back and held them and looked out the square-paned window at the tall oaks and yellow roses. She fears her days of calling this her home are numbered. She can’t live with Janice – too much of a burden. Janice is busy enough working full time and raising her own twelve-year-old and a one-year-old grandchild. Daniel has too many of his own health problems to worry about taking care of his aging mother, and Jeffrey has his managing to do in California. She doesn’t want to live in an apartment. The thought of a cramped, yardless space makes her feel stripped of life. Where will she transplant her mother’s roses? The only other options are retirement villages or nursing homes – either of which have to be too expensive.
She’d spent the time in her room trying to write thank you notes for the dozens of flowers people had sent to the funeral home. She’d relented and allowed Jeffrey in with the pulled off cards before his meeting with the bank. She figured it was something to do about a loan, but the only thing Jeffrey had said before leaving was “We’re doing everything we can.” We. She wasn’t included in this we, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to be either.
Jeffrey had summoned Janice and Daniel after he’d slipped up and told her about the house. It was sickening how they’d sat side by side and across from her, all united in a front. She felt as if she were the little guy going against a giant like on those board room meetings she and Paul had briefly seen on reality shows. They did all of the talking, while she listened. “There isn’t any money...Dad didn’t save...The house isn’t paid for due to the second mortgage...The surgery is $40,000 and it isn’t likely Medicare will pay much....” She never knew any of the finances, but she hated the way her shock was treated with pity. “Don’t worry, Mother. If we can’t keep this place, you’ll come live with one of us.”
It wasn’t what she wanted. No one asked what she wanted, but then again, no one ever did. She sat across from her three children, wanting to rip her Kleenex into little strips of tissue. Didn’t they know she wasn’t a child anymore? She was their mother. She was the protector, not the other way ‘round. Even Paul was acting ridiculous and he wasn’t even there. He should have known that young, naive bride she had once been had long surpassed her. She could’ve handled their financial situation, but it was too late. She could’ve helped, but no one had given her that chance. Instead of leaning on their support like she’d suspected they’d wanted, she resigned herself to her bedroom.
Miriam chews on the end of her pen. She looks down at the stack of blank cards in front of her. Paul would have been touched by all of the people who sent flowers or money, but what can she say? Thank you for remembering my Paul? Thank you for only now thinking of Paul? I wish he would have known your true thoughts. Or can she write how she wished she’d known a few things too? She tucks the cards under her apron, and puts the pen on the side table.
Their black-and-white wedding picture still sits on this table, beside their bed, beckoning. Paul’s long face, his heavy eye brows shading almond eyes, and his smooth skin pulled to a round cheek presses her heart-shaped face with full lips framing a toothy grin. The one arm wrapped around her waist was the one that had pulled her to him, causing him to lower his towering frame to even reach her face. He looks handsome, gentle like he had for every day and year they’ve had together. He was a good man, never wanting to go anywhere unless she were with him, never raising his voice to her, and always reminding her how much he loved her. Why Paul? Why didn’t you tell me? Why couldn’t you have taken me with you?
Miriam doesn’t want to live as someone’s burden. For her whole life, she has allowed another person to take care of her, but when it comes to the home, she takes care of that herself. She can’t live in another person’s house on someone else’s terms.
The bank trip didn’t go well. He said it went “okay,” but by the way Jeffrey is acting, Miriam knows otherwise. He speaks in choppy sentences, stares at the TV expressionless, and grips the armrests. He reminds her of Paul after a bad weekend at the flea market. There were always the customers who tried to negotiate the prices, but the ones who made the snide remarks reduced the hours of cutting, sanding, and staining wood furniture into a worthless hobby and not the love and passion it was. Three days of the comments equaled a week’s recovery for Paul. Maybe Jeffrey can take after his mother and recover quicker.
Never before has she been curious about mundane things such as finances, and now she knows why. It is too depressing. Isn’t she sad enough without having to worry about how she’ll pay for everything or worse yet, where she’ll live? She has heard on one of the channels that humans have three basic needs. Perhaps there should be four basic needs instead of three: money, food, water, and shelter. If she doesn’t have money, she can’t have anything else.
She’s seen on another program that in African countries children take care of their parents. Families live near one another, if not in the same house, and each family member cares for all the others. People don’t move across the country or move a few cities over to visit only on holidays or funerals. Families are units–communities. When mothers send their children out, the children come back to help, to say thank you for raising me.
Not here. Not in her house. For this to happen now would be a case of “having to.” It isn’t natural. Miriam doesn’t want to live as someone’s burden. For her whole life, she has allowed another person to take care of her, but when it comes to the home, she takes care of that herself. She can’t live in another person’s house on someone else’s terms.
She lightly dusts the counter with flour before rolling out the dough to make biscuits. Minutes earlier, the crackle of bacon in her new frying pan created just enough juice to go in her gravy. She smiled at the thought of Jeffrey’s mishap in the kitchen. No need to ruin any more pans, even though none of the kids would want them anyway.
By 9:00, she has breakfast on the table. Jeffrey isn’t awake yet, the three hour time difference still affects his sleep. She opens his door enough to see him: pillow wrapped around his head, feet kicked out from under the covers, and the blankets mangled around him. Jeffrey or the linens are the winner of this fight, though she can’t declare a clear winner. She knocks twice on his door and waits for a reaction. His body wiggles, making his blue blankets look like moving water. Jeffrey’s face then emerges from under the covers, confused and compressed with pillow lines. Even though his adolescence is a distant memory, he still manages to look like a young boy.
“Breakfast is ready.”
“Huh? What time is it?”
“A little after nine. You had better get up. You can’t miss your flight.”
He is now bent forward, trying to smooth down his stray hairs.
“Actually, I was thinking of staying a little longer.”
“Jeffrey, I’ll be all right. You have your own life to attend to. I need to face this.”
“It’s the end of this discussion. Now, let’s go eat. You have some packing to do.”
She stares at the untouched biscuits on his plate as he pleads with her. If she was Paul, Jeffrey would never bring it up again. He wants to stay a bit longer to help the others with the business details...he wants to make sure she is settled somewhere...he has others filling in for him back in California....
“Aren’t you going to eat?”
“Quit trying to change the subject. I’m tired of asking, Mother. I’m telling you I’m going to stay.”
She picks up his plate and glass and carries them to the sink.
“What are you doing?”
“If you are so intent on staying, you can stay with Janice. I’m not asking, I’m telling.”
His bottom lip drops enough to expose his teeth; and his pose, one hand on hip, the other free, emphasizing a plea, becomes motionless. She is a little saddened by it, but she doesn’t know how else to get him out of the house. But what if her change of demeanor has an undesired outcome: he’ll not relent and stay even longer. When he stands and walks past her without speaking, she knows this isn’t the case. In little over thirty minutes his bags are packed and he is on his way to the airport.
Watching him leave without embracing him sends her to her chair. She massages her temples, trying to coax herself out of having a crying fit. You won’t be a burden. She picks up her Bible and flips to the passages where Esther goes before the king, risking her life to save others. Miriam wants to be selfless too. There were times in her life when she thought it natural for a mother to carry this characteristic. It isn’t as easy now. She’s prayed for her children to come back to her, but not like this, not under these circumstances. Had she brought on Paul’s death with her praying? God isn’t that mean. He is trying to teach her something.
She pulls out a sheet of paper and begins writing a note to Jeffrey. Her coaxing hasn’t helped. She uses the back of her writing hand to wipe at her eyes. She mouths the words as she pens them. She wants him to know how glad she is he stayed with her and how his gentleness has touched her. She also writes how proud Paul would have been of him. She then says she is sorry for making him leave, but she has to learn to do this on her own. This is what she wants.
She walks into the bathroom, but walks out when a thought occurs to her. She eases herself down by the birch chest at the foot of her bed. It creaks softly. She finds the album with the yellow, gold, and green flowers. Its pages are filled with each child’s pictures from infancy to adolescence. She’s scribbled notes beside snapshots. In one, Daniel, leg half on the bike, half off, smiling for the camera. Beside it, in her handwriting, “Daniel’s first ride February 1960." She turns each page slowly, noting her children’s expressions – a proud grin to show off a first tooth or a shy smile while arm-in-arm with a first date. The pages stick together in places. She has not looked at this album in years. She closes the book and holds it against her chest, as if she can transport herself back to the days of the pictures to relive those moments. She inhales deeply, closing her eyes.
Miriam draws the bath water and sprinkles her favorite lavender bath salts. She thumbs through her closet until she finds the red and white floral dress – Paul’s favorite. Miriam gently places the dress on the bed. The skirt spreads out prettily. The padded hanger sticks into the bedspread. She makes her way to the warm bath. The soak slowly begins to rejuvenate her arthritic joints. She’s thankful she can still do simple tasks like bathing. She wonders how long she’ll be able to live without help. More than likely, baths will eventually consist of a damp sponge on a bed given by one of her children or a young orderly. She’d rather her children not have to do such an embarrassing thing, but then again, she doesn’t want a complete stranger bathing her either.
The air is cool as she emerges from the water. She shivers and pats the droplets streaming down her body and legs. Her legs are bigger now, with bluish purple squiggly lines. When she was a newlywed, she had thin, smooth milky white limbs. Paul loved her long legs, especially when she wore her heels and a shorter skirt. What does Paul look like now? What will I look when I meet him? Will she be the younger version of herself? Will she have an even better body than she did back then?
She uses a hand towel to wipe away the fog from the mirror and picks out her curls from an old perm. She chuckles – she thought she could have been in an episode of I Love Lucy and then cries because she and Paul watched old reruns on Nick at Nite. With her head limp and toward the floor, her tears fall into the sink. She holds onto the edges of the basin until her knuckles turn white. She then shakes her head as if trying to shake off her sadness. Her face appears before the mirror again, and she applies the yellow stick under her eyes. She uses her middle fingers to apply the foundation. The light motion straightens the folds in her skin as her fingers pass over every area, wiping away another year from her face. After a touch of eyeliner, eye shadow, and mascara, she completes her look with the fire engine red lipstick and two rosy patches of blush over her cheeks. She can faintly see a younger version of herself, looking back from the mirror before her.
Miriam squirms to get into the dress – it has been a few years since she’s last worn it. She is more accustomed to pant suits than to dresses. Pant suits and slacks tend to be more comfortable and require less effort. She can get away with not wearing any type of panty hose. She rummages through the closet to find a pair of heels, something else she hasn’t worn in years. Once she finds a suitable pair, she slips them on over some knee highs, and stands before the long mirror on the back of the bedroom door.
The reflection looks good, but not quite right. Something is missing. Jewelry. She opens the tiered jewelry box and chooses the strand of pearls and the earrings to match. Now, she looks complete.
Her stomach feels strange, but it isn’t the sharp pains she has felt recently. It is more like a cross between butterflies and nausea. She closes her eyes, calms her breathing. Her fingers slide over the smooth material of the dress. She feels the strength of her bones and muscles. Solid. She sits down on the bed, pulls a card out from under the phone, and dials the number written on it.
“Yes, Pastor. This is Miriam. I was wondering if you could take me to a few stops today. I need to get my house in order. Thank you. See you in a half hour then.”
She puts the phone back in the cradle. Crosses her legs and folds her hands in her lap.
Swings her foot. Looks out the window at the oak tree, swaying, blue sky stretching behind it.
Jamey Temple is the mother of three children under the age of six, who not only keep her Facebook statuses entertaining, but also help to co-create bedtime stories. In her spare time, Jamey utilizes her MFA from Spalding University, life experience as a patient and mother, and career experience as a publications coordinator by teaching writing and public relations courses at a small liberal arts college in Kentucky where she also acts as managing editor of its literary journal, Pensworth.