My wife has gone. I can’t say that I blame her. After fifty years, Irene had probably had enough of keeping up my end of the conversation with family and friends, while I slipped outside to weed the garden or drove over to Pete’s for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee and talk that didn’t send my blood pressure through the roof.
She had probably had enough of my temper, my dark moods, my foul mouth, my all-around disagreeable self. She had probably had enough of me coming home reeking of turpentine and flecked from head to toe with latex or enamel. She had probably had enough of what most everybody wondered and some, over the years, were rude enough to ask: How in the world did a tall, thin, fair-skinned beauty and one of the most respected high school English teachers in all of Greenville County, in all of South Carolina for that matter, wind up married to a short, dark, fat-faced, jug-eared house painter—a high school dropout, who when he first heard about semicolons, figured they had something to do with digestion.
Not that she ever complained. Never once did she even hint at being sorry about that muggy July night back in ’52 at Pete’s, when it was still a drive-in, when she said yes to me between bites of a slaw burger all-the-way. Over the years, whenever she mentioned anything about us, it was always how glad she was she had married me, what a good fit we had been, and how easy we had had it compared to most couples. I could have said all that back to her and meant every last word, but I never got around to it. Maybe she’d had enough of that, too.
I don’t mean Irene wished for this. If she had had any say about her demise, losing her mind would have been about last on her list. It is hard on an English teacher to forget her words. It’s hard on a woman who prides herself on order to have the objects of the house mutiny against her, like the time she couldn’t find the iron, and I came across it days later in the freezer, or when her missing watch turned up in the sugar bowl.
The doctor agreed that the sudden death of our daughter-in-law might have brought it on, but he also said she probably would have come down with it eventually. He said it was hereditary, even though neither of her folks lived long enough to come down with it themselves.
Still, I can’t help thinking if I had not been such a cranky bastard, if I had taken her to the pictures or out to the S&W Cafeteria more often, if I had gone along with her on her evening walks, or if I had just sat around with her at night reading or watching a little TV, things might have been different. If I had worked harder at keeping her company, her mind might have not been so quick to wander.
The doctor prescribed medicine that was supposed to slow it. I managed to keep her home for a couple of years, when she was forgetting telephone numbers or where she set her glasses or how to sign her name. But it wasn’t long before she forgot bigger things like how to drive, how to cook, how to take a shower. One time I came home late from a job. It was already dark when I pulled in front of the house. I saw her through the window. The shades were still up and the lights on, and she was sitting in the living room watching TV in her underwear for all the world to see, like she had started to get ready for bed but forgotten midway. She would have been mortified if she had been in her right mind. That was when I hung up my brushes for good and shut down my little painting company. I was afraid to leave her alone.
Then in December, the day after Christmas, the phone rang at three in the morning. I felt for the receiver in the dark.
“Who is this?” I asked, keeping my voice down. Irene had had more and more trouble sleeping, and once she was awake, she was awake for hours, wandering the house.
“It’s Mildred.” Mildred Smeak had been a math teacher at Greenville High and was a friend of Irene’s. She lived up the street. Irene and Mildred had both retired five years ago.
“You know what time it is?” I whispered, reading the glowing numbers on the electric clock by our bed. Then I remembered she had called like this in the middle of the night once before, when her husband had his first stroke. “Is it Herman?”
“Irene is sitting at my kitchen table.”
“What?” I turned on the light, and my heart dropped when I saw Irene’s side of the bed empty. I hadn’t even heard her get up. “What’s she doing there?”
“Wants to borrow a couple of eggs, at least that’s what I finally figured out. She kept saying she wanted some of those things in which chickens are involved. Says she’s making a cake. Says it’s somebody’s birthday.”
“I’m sorry, Mildred,” I said.
“It’s all right, we have been having a good talk.” Then Mildred lowered her voice. “Except she might think I’m her mother.”
“I’ll be right there.”
“Bring her overcoat and shoes.”
On a nineteen-degree December night, Irene had walked barefoot down to Mildred’s in her nightgown.
“It’s nobody’s birthday,” I had said as I drove Irene back home. This was when I still believed that as long as I kept the facts in front of her, she had a fighting chance.
“It feels like somebody’s birthday,” she said, looking out the van window. I had wrapped the coat around her, but her teeth were chattering.
“Even if it was somebody’s birthday,” I said, “and even if it wasn’t the middle of the goddamn night, we have two whole cartons of eggs in the frigerator.” I knew, because I had been doing the cooking for a good while. And what I cooked was eggs, so I made sure we had plenty on hand.
“Whose . . . residence is this?” she asked, as I turned into our drive.
I thought she was pulling my leg, the way she used to. But when I looked at her, her face pale and blank in the streetlight, I saw she didn’t know where she was.
“I want to go home,” she said, sounding lost like a child.
“We are home,” I said.
“This little . . . dwelling?” she asked, looking toward the house. “Where’s the big porch? Where’s the man who takes care of me?” She was talking about her father and the house she grew up in on Crescent Avenue.
“Mr. Blalock has been dead for forty-five years,” I said. “This is where you and I live, where we always lived.”
We passed nearly half a century in that house—alone together, with our boy, Newell, and then alone again. Its crumbling brick, sagging joists, and cracked plaster were the sum of us, and for Irene to not recognize it was like a plug had been pulled and our lifetime together was draining away.
When I came around and opened the van door for her, she didn’t move. “This isn’t my house,” she said.
“Of course it is,” I said.
“I’m not going in,” she said.
“You can’t just sit out here all night,” I said. “You’ll catch your death.”
“This is not . . . where I’m from,” she said, sitting back in her seat, folding her arms, and looking straight ahead. By the porch light, I could see her breath make little clouds in the cold night air. She looked like a lost little girl sitting there.
I felt a wave of tenderness toward my wife. “Now, Irene,” I said in a softer voice, “we need to go inside and warm you up.” I started to take her arm.
“Let go of me, you son of a bitch!” She slapped me.
I raised my hand to my stinging cheek. In all our years together, Irene had never hit me. Yet it wasn’t the slap that shocked me so. What really shook me up, what really told me we had entered a world I did not begin to understand, was her cursing me the way she did. Never in our fifty years had she cursed me. I’m not saying she hadn’t been aggravated with me plenty over the years, but never had she called me anything worse than a stubborn old goat.
I stood there in the freezing cold, wondering what to do. I couldn’t leave her where she was. I looked around the neighborhood, not a light on anywhere up or down the street. I didn’t want to have to wake neighbors; besides, I didn’t want them to see Irene in such a state. I could handle this on my own. I considered starting the van back up, turning on the heater, and waiting out the night with her, but I worried about carbon monoxide.
My ankle ached, so I sat down on the porch step. “What are we going to do?” I asked aloud.
Irene looked straight ahead, like she was traveling somewhere, keeping her eyes on the road.
“We can’t stay out here all night,” I said.
Irene didn’t budge, didn’t even blink.
I sighed and crossed my arms against the cold. I could drag her inside, but I hated to think of the struggle she might put up, and all the commotion might wake the neighbors. I wondered if maybe Mildred might still be up. Her house was too far down the street for me to make out if her lights were still on. Maybe she wouldn’t mind coming over to help get Irene inside. I started into the house to call Mildred and was in the kitchen dialing the number, when I heard the van door slam and footsteps cross the porch. When I went into the front room Irene was closing the door behind her. “It’s freezing out there,” she said, rubbing her shoulders. Then in a voice sounding like her old self, she asked, “Why’d you leave me out there?”
I looked at her. She wasn’t kidding.
“You didn’t want to come in,” I said, helping her out of her coat.
She yawned. “I’m exhausted,” she said, and headed back to our bedroom. I followed her, helped her into bed, and pulled the covers over her. She fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. Now I was the one who was wide awake. I went back to the kitchen and fixed a cup of instant coffee and sat there till dawn, hearing again and again an Irene I did not recognize call me a son of a bitch and mean it. That was scary enough, but then to have her come inside a couple of minutes later like nothing ever happened—well, that shook me to the core.
The doctor put Irene on an antidepressant, and it did even her out some. She didn’t become as frustrated, although every now and then she still cursed me. More than once, she scratched me when I was trying to get her out of bed in the morning. A couple of times she drew blood. It wasn’t her temper that finally did us in. It was her wandering. I had put in dead bolts so she couldn’t roam the neighborhood at night, but short of strapping her to the bed, I couldn’t prevent her from wandering through the house. One night, I woke to a loud crash and found her sprawled on the living room floor. She had tripped over a throw rug.
I took her to the doctor the next day. He said she hadn’t broken anything but that she might if we didn’t take more precautions. He said it was time to consider a “facility.” He said this to me and to Newell, who had come down from Asheville, which was sixty miles away, for the doctor’s appointment and was now sitting on the other side of Irene.
“I’m keeping her at home,” I said.
“Daddy, we’ve been over this,” Newell said.
“It’s going to become too much of a strain,” the doctor said.
“Are you saying I couldn’t handle it?” I said.
“Not at all,” the doctor said. “I hope I’m in half as good shape as you are when I reach seventy-five.” Bill Chandler, our family doctor, a young man about Newell’s age, leaned on the corner of the examining table.
“Mrs. Marshbanks’s condition is deteriorating gradually,” the doctor said, “and it has been my experience that it’s best for the patient and their family if the patient makes the transition to a facility earlier rather than later.”
“Listen to him,” Newell said. He glanced at his watch, and it wasn’t the first time. I knew he was in a hurry to get back to Asheville.
The doctor took Irene’s hand. “Mrs. Marshbanks, how would you feel about living somewhere else?”
A worried look crossed her face. “Are you going to . . .” She paused. “Are you going to leave me out in the woods?”
The doctor shook his head. “It would be a place where people can take care of you. I don’t think Mr. Marshbanks can care for you by himself much longer.”
“I see,” she said, squinting at me, like she saw some weakness she hadn’t noticed before.
“How would that be for you to live somewhere else?” the doctor asked her.
She kept looking at me, but something in her eyes changed like she was seeing beyond me.
“She doesn’t need to live anywhere else,” I said. “I can take care of her at home.” I jumped out of my chair and, having nowhere to go in the tiny examining room, stood there, pissed off.
“She needs to be in a place where somebody can keep an eye on her twenty-four hours a day,” the doctor said. “What if she falls again, and you’re not around?”
“I’ll hire somebody to sit with her.”
“What if she wanders out of the house?” the doctor asked.
“I’ll put in one of those alarms.”
“It’s not just Mrs. Marshbanks I’m concerned about,” the doctor said.
“He’s right,” Newell said. “You need to take care of yourself.”
I turned on Newell. “You just don’t want to have to worry about her!”
“I don’t want her to get hurt again,” Newell said, looking at Irene, then back at me. “And I don’t want you to get hurt caring for her.” He glanced at his watch again.
“Why don’t you go on home, Newell,” I said.
“It’s just that I have a class to teach later today,” he said. “But I still have some time.”
“The thing to keep in mind, Mr. Marshbanks,” the doctor said, “is that the patients are usually pretty content.” The doctor smiled at Irene, who smiled back at him. “It’s hardest on the family members who have to watch it.”
My ankle ached, a sure sign it was going to rain. I sat back down on the stool. “I’m not putting her in one of those homes as long as I live,” I said.
“It will be all right,” Irene said, looking me in the eye. She didn’t know what we were talking about. She just saw I was upset.
“There are some good nursing homes in town,” the doctor said.
“I’ll help you find a good place,” Newell said.
“You can visit her every day,” the doctor said.
“And I’ll come down more often,” Newell said, “and bring Jackson.” He yawned, his eyes had big circles under them.
“I’m not putting her away,” I said, taking Irene’s hand.
“Mr. Marshbanks,” the doctor said, “you will be no good to her if you’re laid up with a bad back or a broken hip or some other injury that you’re sure to get if you continue to care for her.”
“You will do fine,” Irene said to me, patting my hand, like it had been me we had been talking about. “You will do just fine.”
Rolling Hills had wide halls with nice carpet, fancy little chandelier lights outside the rooms, gold-framed old-fashioned English prints of dogs, cats, and children. For weeks, Irene thought she was in a fancy hotel, that is when she didn’t think she was on a cruise ship. Most of the residents were dressed, clean, and shaved, and seemed content enough. Unlike most of the other places Newell and I looked at, it didn’t smell of urine. The nurses and aides didn’t seem so down in the mouth.
I stayed with Irene every day from midafternoon till bedtime. Some days I took her to ride or to get ice cream, but I always had her back by four-thirty, when they started getting them ready for supper. Every day I rolled her into the dining room. Her walking had become less steady, so we had had to buy a wheelchair. She sat at a table with three other residents. Dot was a quiet old woman who mostly fiddled with the buttons on her blouse but would run away every now and then, sometimes making it several blocks before the aides caught her. Decatur Dixon was a smart, alert man in his sixties, wore an eye patch, had had two strokes, and liked to joke, “Doc says three strikes and I’m out.” Mr. Greathouse was a ninety-year-old retired peach farmer who always wore a tie and who whipped out his harmonica each night after supper and played “Oh Susannah” or “Turkey in the Straw.” Decatur and the old man usually did most of the talking while Dot fiddled with her buttons.
After supper I would roll Irene back to her room, and if she wasn’t too tired, we would sit and watch TV for a while. It was a little like old times or how old times should have been. Irene often put out her hand for me to hold, as she used to do when we first went to the Carolina Theater downtown.
The hardest thing was leaving at night. I waited till she was tired, then I would ask an aide to help her into bed. Every night she would ask, “Are you going down to work in the shop?”
Every night I would say, “Just for a little while.”
“You come to . . .” She paused. “. . . to the place where we lie down.”
“I’ll come to bed soon,” I would say. She had usually closed her eyes by then. I would slip my hand out of hers and stand there a minute wanting to crawl in next to her. But an aide would come in to check on her or one of those bed rail alarms would go off down the hall or Dot would click by on her walker, in training for another escape attempt.
One evening, about five months after Irene went into Rolling Hills, I was late getting home. Irene had had trouble falling asleep. Being the end of May, it was still light on my drive home. I had stopped by the Kentucky Fried. I didn’t eat at Rolling Hills. I was too busy helping Irene eat. She couldn’t feed herself too well. Her hands were so shaky she couldn’t get the fork or spoon up to her mouth.
I had seen those dining room ladies eye us. The rule was that you could eat in the dining room as long as you could feed yourself. Otherwise, you had to eat in your room, and that was an iffy proposition. If you ate in your room, they would bring your tray sooner or later, but if the aide had too many patients, she might spend five minutes trying to get you fed when you needed someone there an hour. I was beginning to see that this was the way of a lot of things. The less you could take care of yourself, the less you were taken care of.
Part of the problem was George Mercer, the sorry excuse for an administrator. Mercer, who always wore a coat and tie, was a pale, big-assed fellow with praying mantis arms. Decatur Dixon called him The Mercenary. He didn’t do a damned thing except stroll the halls, smiling, and saying how he liked to keep in touch with the residents, but he never stopped to speak with them.
I had thought about moving Irene to another home, but stories about other nursing homes made Rolling Hills sound like a stroll in the park. I also considered bringing Irene back home, but I knew Bill Chandler was right. I couldn’t manage her at home. She didn’t have many angry outbursts anymore. But with her walking deteriorating, it made it tricky just getting her in and out of the car to take her for a ride. Some days she could walk just fine. Other days she could hardly stand.
All I could do was see that she was bathed, had clean clothes, and ate a good supper. Even though I was only out there four or five hours, I drove home as beat as if I had been stripping paint from dawn till dusk.
When I pulled into the drive and heard the phone ring inside, I hoped it wasn’t Rolling Hills. Sometimes Irene would wake up after I left, and I would have to drive back across town. I made them agree that if I would come sit with her, they wouldn’t give her sleeping pills. The pills kept her groggy the next day.
I grabbed the box of chicken and hurried inside, flipped on the light, and answered the phone.
“Everything all right?” It was Newell, calling from Asheville.
“I thought you might be the nursing home,” I said, catching my breath. “Your mother is having a hard time falling asleep.”
“I tried calling earlier,” he said. “You should get an answering machine. You’re probably missing a lot of calls.”
“If it’s important, they’ll call back,” I said.
“How is Mama?” he asked, deciding to change the subject.
“Fair to middling.”
True to his word, Newell had helped me pick out a nursing home, had helped me get her moved in, and had visited when Irene had first gone into Rolling Hills. His visits had petered out, and he hadn’t called in a couple of weeks.
“I meant to get back down there,” he said. “But I’m teaching four classes this semester, plus two studios, we’re just finishing exams, and I have a stack of a hundred and fifty art history papers to grade. I had a commission due a month ago I haven’t even begun, and Jackson is playing soccer this year, so I take him to practice twice a week, then to a game on Saturdays.” He paused. “You know how it is, with all you have to deal with.”
“To tell you the truth,” I said, “it’s easier since she went in the nursing home.” I tried to think of something else to say but couldn’t. I had never liked phones.
“One reason I’m calling,” Newell said, “is that I’ve been invited to be artist-in-residence up at Penland this summer for six weeks.”
“An art school outside of Spruce Pine. They would give me a place to stay and free meals. And I could just paint.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
“There’s one catch.” He paused. “Jackson can’t go with me.”
“Where’s he going to stay?”
“That’s why I was calling.” He paused again. “I was wondering if I could impose upon y’all.”
Irene’s two cats, a black one and a gray tabby, rubbed my pant legs. Like me, they were probably hungry as hell. I nudged them away with my leg. “Go on, get out of here!”
“Bad idea?” Newell said, like I had been talking to him.
“I’m talking to your mama’s goddamn cats! They won’t give me any peace.”
“What do you think?”
“About what?” I asked. The cats rubbed my pant legs hard. I kicked at them and sent them tearing out of the kitchen and down the basement stairs. Irene would have had my hide for that.
“I wondered if Jackson could spend the six weeks with y’all?”
“No ‘y’all’ to it,” I snapped. “It’s just me now.” I was astonished that Newell would want me to take the boy. “Doesn’t Jackson have friends up there in Asheville he could stay with?”
“None that I feel comfortable asking for such a long period,” he said. “I could come down from Penland and visit him now and then. And maybe y’all could come visit up there.”
“He was always more partial to your mama,” I said, doubting the boy would want to spend the summer with me. I never knew what to say or do with him. He was a solemn, quiet boy, and he had become more that way since his mama died. “He’d be bored,” I said. “I’m at the nursing home most of the afternoon and part of the evening.”
“Mama would understand if you didn’t come every day.”
“Irene doesn’t understand dirt at this point.”
“Jackson could go with you,” he said. “He’s good at entertaining himself. Maybe a little too good.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“He has been quiet lately,” Newell said.
“The boy has always been on the reserved side.”
“He’s quieter. I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time or energy to try to get him out of it. I thought it might be good for him to be around you and Mama for a while.”
The cats were back at my legs. It was all I could to do to keep from drop kicking them to Timbuktu. The truth was I had gotten used to living alone and didn’t want a nine-year-old boy around.
“I don’t think it’d work,” I said.
“I understand,” Newell said, and from his tone I could tell he did. I could also tell he was disappointed.
Then I imagined Irene saying, Look how hard Newell works at his job and raising a boy all on his own, and it hasn’t been that long since he lost Sandy. Irene would have pointed out that Newell wasn’t asking for a summer vacation, that he would work as hard at his paintings as he did at everything else. She would have also said how much she would love having Jackson around her at Rolling Hills.
I sighed. “Tell the boy it won’t be summer camp around here,” I said.
“Are you sure about this?”
“When you bringing him?”
“Penland starts in two weeks,” Newell said, suddenly sounding excited. “That Friday would be his last day of school. What if I bring him Saturday?”
“I was wondering if you might like to get out. You could meet us at Jones Gap.”
“I haven’t been up that way in years,” I said.
“I’ve been telling Jackson about how we used to fish. I would like for him to see the place, if you think you’re up to it.”
“I’d have to be back at the nursing home by four-thirty.” Jones Gap was a state park at the tail end of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about forty-five minutes north of Greenville. Irene and I used to take Newell up there when he was a boy, and we would picnic, fish, and swim in the Middle Saluda. Irene and I had continued going up there until she got sick, but I hadn’t been with Newell since he was a teenager. I was surprised that he remembered the place.
“Jackson could ride home with you, and I’d go down to the nursing home, visit with Mama, even get her fed supper so you wouldn’t have to go over, then would head up to Penland.” He had thought this through.
“You could spend the night at the house,” I said.
He hesitated. “We’ll see,” he said. “What do you think?”
“I reckon that’d work,” I said, warming to the notion of getting up into the mountains. “I’ll bring the fishing gear.”
“I’ll bring the food,” Newell said. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”
“Don’t,” I said.
Newell paused for a moment. “Noon okay?”
“Good night,” he said.
“Night.” I hung up, wondering what in the hell I had gotten myself into. What would I do with a solemn nine-year-old boy for a whole summer? I almost picked up the phone and called Newell back, but the cats were at my legs again.
“All right, all right!” I opened a can of cat food and spooned it out into the tin pans Irene had always fed them in.
Irene took in strays. At one time we must have had ten or twelve around the place. Outdoors mostly. I never cared for cats. Still, they kept the moles and the rabbits out of my garden. And since Irene was always asking about the cats, the least I could do was feed the two we had left.
I sat down at the kitchen table to my Kentucky Fried meal. Though the chicken was cold and nowhere near as good as Irene’s, it wasn’t bad. I took an apple out of the bowl of Granny Smiths I kept on the table, peeled it with my pocketknife, and cut it into wedges. It was an old Case knife my daddy gave me before he died. It was worn on the sides, but I kept the blade oiled and sharpened. I never went anywhere without it. In fact, I had cut Newell’s umbilical cord with it.
I thought about my boy. He was a real painter, not a housepainter like me, but the artist kind. At six years old, he could draw a bird or a dog or a tree better than I could. By the time he was ten, I had him working afternoons and summers painting trim and doing detail work. He could lay down a truer line than most of the men I had working for me. Brilliant was the word his art professors at the University of South Carolina trotted out. After he graduated, he made a real living painting pictures of the outdoors mostly, landscapes. Folks sometimes paid him as much for one of his little paintings of a meadow or a field or a forest as what I charged to paint a two-story house.
Newell met Sandy at an opening of his at a gallery in Charlotte. An emergency room nurse, Sandy was smart, levelheaded, and the first girl who could compete with Newell’s first love—painting. They married. Newell was offered a good job teaching art up in Asheville at the college, made a very good living, had Jackson, and was a good father. Sandy and Newell tried having another child, but it wouldn’t take. They went to several of those help-it-along doctors, even drove down to Atlanta to see some world-famous doctor at Emory, but none of it did any good. A couple of years later, long after they stopped trying and after they had stopped seeing all those doctors, guess what?
Sandy was seven months with child when they had come down for an Easter Sunday visit with us. Irene had an Easter egg hunt for the boy, and I had never seen the three of them so happy, like they were getting ready to start a whole new part of their lives. On the way back to Asheville, a confused old Florida bat driving a Lincoln Continental turned the wrong way down an exit ramp and ruined it all. Sandy and the baby were killed instantly. Newell and Jackson walked away with hardly a scratch.
We worried Newell might fall apart. Sandy had done most of the work of keeping house and home together. But he threw every ounce of what he had left into the boy, who was broken up about his mother. He had always kept a lot to himself, which made it hard for Newell or anybody else to read him. Newell took him to a counselor. The counselor played cards with Jackson and had him draw pictures and went on walks with him. A hundred dollars an hour to play cards and go on walks with kids. Nice work, if you can get it. Maybe it was the walks or maybe it was time, but after a while, the boy seemed better, at least as far as anybody could tell.
Irene worried so much about the both of them and was always trying to get them to come down for the weekend. She spent long afternoons with Jackson, having tea or reading to him or just sitting on the front porch. Sometimes he would help me in the garden or around the house. Mostly he liked to be with his grandma. I didn’t blame him. Who in their right mind wouldn’t rather be up in the kitchen, eating homemade ginger snaps and listening to stories about Cuba and China and other exotic places with a pretty, sweet woman like her, than down in the garden on their hands and knees, wrestling crabgrass and dandelions out of the ground with an old coot like me?
Wasn’t long after Sandy’s death that Irene started forgetting where she set her sewing basket or what book she had been in the middle of or the names of neighbors we had known for fifty years.
After supper, I went out to water the garden, walking up and down the rows with the hose, soaking the corn, the tomatoes, the okra, the lima beans, the mustard greens, the broccoli, the peppers, and what all else I had planted. Every year I planted a large garden, and Irene and I enjoyed fresh vegetables deep into the fall. This spring it wasn’t till I had the garden planted and the sprouts were pushing their bowed heads up through the broken ground, that it hit me—who was I growing all this for?
“How was Mrs. Marshbanks today?” I looked up to see my neighbor, Billie Athens, leaning on the split-rail fence that ran between our backyards. In her early thirties, she was a dark, strong-jawed girl with thick eyebrows and bright, watchful eyes. Hers was a face full of feeling, and one that, for me, had always been hard to look into.
“Irene is having trouble sleeping,” I said, setting the hose down among the tomato plants and kneeling to pull a few weeds.
“I’m planning to go by on Sunday,” she said. Billie had been visiting Irene ever since she went into Rolling Hills. She had moved next door a little before Irene’s illness really took hold. She would come over, and the two women would discuss books or art or other educated things. Billie even took her to the symphony. When Irene became sick, she shopped for us at the grocery store or kept an eye on Irene if I needed to run an errand. Billie and I had never had much to say to each other. Seemed all we had in common was Irene. Ever since Irene had gone into the nursing home, Billie had made a point of talking to me. I couldn’t help wondering if Irene, in one of her lucid moments, had asked her to look out for me. Or the girl felt sorry for me. Either notion irritated me.
“What’s Newell working on these days?” she asked. Billie was a first-grade teacher and a potter on the side. Before she had ever met Newell, she had noticed his painting over our mantel. It was of early dawn on a pond somewhere around Clinton, South Carolina—mostly water and grass and sky with a few clouds. She said she had a painting of his, and the way she went on about his work, I realized she knew more about him than I did.
“He’s spending his summer at some art place up above Asheville,” I said, pinching back the new shoots on the tomato plants and pulling off the dead leaves.
“Penland?” she asked.
“Is his son going with him?”
“Jackson’s staying with me,” I said, unable to keep the irritation out of my voice.
Billie had spoken with Newell and Jackson a few times, when they came to visit, and had even run into them out at Rolling Hills.
“You don’t sound excited,” she said.
“Not sure what I’ll do with him.”
“You’ll think of something,” she said confidently, which for some reason flew all over me.
“I don’t want to think of something,” I snapped. “I don’t have the energy to think of something. I have gotten used to the way things are. I have gotten used to being alone.”
“I’m not sure that’s something one should get used to,” Billie said.
I started to say something else, something I would probably regret. Instead, I jerked up a big milkweed plant growing next to the fence, knocked the dirt clod against the post, then tossed the plant onto the pile of weeds in the garden path. Then I pulled up a couple more. When I finally looked up again, I was relieved to see the girl was gone.
I worked a little longer, pulled a few more weeds. As I turned off the water and rolled up the hose, I saw the light on in Billie’s little pottery studio. She and a couple of her women friends had built it in the back of her yard. Irene had me help hang the windows. Sometimes now if I got up to get a drink of water I would look out the kitchen window and see her working over there.
I glanced at her shed a couple of times, feeling a little guilty for the way I talked to her. When she first moved here from Atlanta, she had come off a messy divorce. Irene said the fellow had not treated her right. She told Irene she had had her fill of men. Now here I was snapping at her. Irene had been right—I was a son of a bitch.
Back inside, I eased myself down on the couch in the den and propped my leg on the coffee table. My ankle ached. I had broken it seven years ago, when I fell from a ladder, painting the eaves on a two-story house. It didn’t bother me, except in rainy weather or if I was on it all day.
I picked up a worn copy of Jude the Obscure, a book I had read more times than I could count. I had always been a reader. When I was a little fellow I startled my folks by being able to recite every single nursery rhyme in Mother Goose. In church, there wasn’t a Bible quote I couldn’t throw right back at those Sunday school teachers. All I ever cared about in school was the library and getting to read biographies about Robert E. Lee or Davy Crockett or Teddy Roosevelt. By the time I had grown and married Irene, about all I read were dime-store novels and the sports section of the Greenville News.
Irene introduced me to Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and the long-winded Thomas Wolfe. Writers like those made me see the world in a little different light. Ever since Irene had gone into the nursing home, I found myself rereading Thomas Hardy, especially Jude. I read it to keep from feeling pitiful. I mean how could anybody feel sorry for himself after reading about the miserable life that poor boy led?
I read until my eyelids started getting heavy. I went to the back door and called the cats and they came running up through the dark garden. The light was off in Billie’s studio. Some nights I would watch her through the big window, sitting at the wheel, hunched over it like she was protecting something. As I started inside, it hit me how dense I had been this evening, how quick I had been to take what she said so personally. When Billie had said to me she wasn’t sure living alone was something one should get used to, she had been talking about herself.
I thought of Irene alone in Rolling Hills. She hadn’t been calling me by name as much. In the past couple of weeks, when I walked in her room now, she wouldn’t smile right off, like it was taking her longer to place me. She had called me “Daddy” a few times, and the other day she had sat on her bed, kicking her legs like a little girl, and asked, “When’s Daddy coming home, Mills?” like I was her brother. Slow but steady, she was pulling away from me. All she seemed to know for sure was that I fell within that circle of men who had mattered in her life.
I hauled myself back to the bedroom, got undressed, brushed my teeth, took a couple of ibuprofen for my ankle, and crawled into bed. I lay there for a good while, worrying about what I was going to do with Jackson. I guessed he would sleep back in the guest bedroom where he and his father and Sandy used to sleep when they visited. Then I had the idea of fixing up Newell’s old room upstairs, a room that hadn’t been used in years. It would be a lot of work, but maybe the boy might like to stay in his father’s old room. I thought about that a while. It would need to be painted and fixed up. I had a couple of weeks.
A car screeched by outside. Some kids out too late. Then the house was quiet. Irene would be asleep in her narrow bed with rails to keep her from rolling out, and her door would be open onto the hall, and the shaft of light would cut across her sweet, gone face.
I turned out the bedside lamp. As on many nights, I had to remind myself I could scoot on over, that I didn’t need to leave room.