Dorothy R. Rice
Mary Jane settled on the couch, her legs crossed under a worn terry-cloth robe. The calico cat sat beside her. Peanut, a scrappy poodle mix, lay coiled like macaroni on top of the over-stuffed chair by the front window. The cushion sagged beneath his accustomed weight. One lamp cast a neat circle of yellow light in the darkened sitting room. The clock on the bookcase chimed once, for the half hour.
It was four thirty, in the morning.
Beyond the shuttered windows the gravel drive snaked down to the rural road below. A waning moon rested near the horizon, over the scrubby forest and the rolling hills beyond. Long black shadows from the tall, waving poplars that lined both sides of the driveway down to the road, stretched across the gravel. The tops of the trees made a creaky, whooshing sound as they brushed against the inky sky.
“Well, well,” Mary Jane whispered. “Another morning and here we are.”
The cat’s thick coat, a variegated blend of white, orange, black and gray, undulated under her hand. Butter had a feminine, black face with a thin white stripe that ran the length of her impertinent nose, ending in two white spots, one beneath each nostril. Butter turned her head to her master, her green eyes flecked with gold, the pupils wide and translucent. She blinked lazily, once, twice, three times.
“Yes, yes. I know. You want me to scratch behind your ears. Don’t you, girl?”
Butter’s raspy purr deepened as Mary Jane found the cat’s favorite spot, just behind her upright, triangle ears.
With her free hand, Mary Jane took a sip of coffee. She exhaled with a sigh, set the mug down and reached for her day planner on the coffee table. She left off petting the cat, picked up a pencil, and tapped it on the calendar page. Her lips poked in and out, in and out, with an unconscious, convulsive tightening of the muscles around the mouth, like little air kisses.
“Another busy day. Dr. Randall in Santa Rosa at ten for his monthly blood work, Meals on Wheels at noon, and Ramon at three for physical therapy. I don’t suppose there will be any time left for the things we need to do?”
She glanced towards the window to include Peanut in the orbit of her whispered monologue. The dog, sensing the attention, lifted his eyebrows and thumped his bushy tail.
Butter stretched, arching her back like a Halloween cat. She stepped daintily onto Mary Jane’s lap. Her claws extended and retracted with rhythmic intensity, piercing the fabric of the blue robe, and pricking Mary Jane’s thighs. With each sharp jab, the old woman twitched. She bore the discomfort as an inevitable consequence. A droplet of drool fell from Butter’s black lips to her robe. Mary Jane dabbed at the moist circle with a tissue.
“One of these days you’ll draw blood, you silly girl. Mind you don’t trod on Andy. He’ll have you for supper.”
Warmed by the coffee and the weight of the cat, Mary Jane let her mind drift. She still had ten Dutch girl candleholders to finish, by far the most popular item, and five hand-painted garden gnomes. Yes, at least five. She had finished thirty already. They were boxed and ready to go. Gnomes were such fun, to tuck under a bush or beside a tree. The young people seemed to like them. And a new item this year, picture frames rimmed with the pretty little seashells she’d found in a basket in the tool shed. Her mind flitted, contemplating the logistics of the work that remained to be done. Did she have enough wood, glue and paint, and the preformed clay gnome figurines that only wanted painting?
The Bethany Church craft fair was less than two weeks away. It was all arranged. Melissa, who sometimes did the heavy cleaning, the windows and floors, had agreed to mind Andy for the day, eight to three. Not that it was necessary. He would be perfectly fine alone. But since that last tumble, when he’d lain on the linoleum between the toilet and the sink, helpless, waiting for her to come home, well, it wasn’t worth the risk. Mary Jane sometimes wondered whether he’d fallen on purpose, to make her feel bad for the bit of time to herself. He was like that, Andy was.
No one came round to visit anymore. Why would they? Andy had scared the last of her friends away with his nasty fits of temper and that sarcasm. He thought he was better than most people and that folks didn’t know when he was making fun of them. But they sensed it. He’d been brilliant, once upon a time. With his books and papers about dead languages, his lectures and theories. But what did it matter now? When he’d had to retire after the strokes, his colleagues at the university had dropped by the wayside fast enough. And now, so many of them were dead.
Her mother and sister had warned Mary Jane against marrying an older man. But she hadn’t listened. He was so sophisticated then, so respectful, holding doors and bringing flowers. What a relief that was after her brutish first husband. Andy had cut quite the handsome figure too, with those lovely cashmere sweater vests he used to wear and his neat beard and moustache.
Mary Jane sighed and shifted Butter off her lap. “Well, I can’t be sitting on my hands all morning, now can I?”
Mary Jane stared expectantly into Butter’s glassy eyes. The cat blinked. Mary Jane leaned over the coffee table. Her hands fluttered over the bottles of pills on a silver tray. She took up the transparent pink plastic organizer. Her lips poked in and out.
“So many pills to remember. It’s a wonder I don’t make a fatal mistake one of these days.” She winked at Peanut. “Pills to help him fall asleep, and then to wake up, laxatives, water pills, ones to keep his heart beating, blood thinners, vitamins, and pain killers. And here’s the Prozac. What do you bet he’ll refuse to take it?”
She opened the little plastic windows and dropped the pills in, restocking the small squares for morning, noon, evening and before bed, Monday through Sunday. Mary Jane held the small bottle of Coumadin and squinted at the tiny print. “Dr. Randall says to be extra careful with this one. Only once a day, at bedtime.”
She shook the bottle, rattling the pills inside, twisted off the childproof lid and counted seven notched white pills into her palm. Mary Jane glanced sideways at Butter and narrowed her eyes. “Do you suppose he’d notice if I put all seven in one slot?”
Mary Jane hesitated, looking speculatively from Butter to the pills in her outstretched hand, before she carefully dropped the seven Coumadin into the right spots, one in each open slot along the organizer’s bottom row. She snapped the lids shut.
The clock chimed five times.
Just past five thirty headlights swept the front window. The wheels of the newspaper van crunched on the road. A slice of jangly music slipped out as the new man rolled down the window. What was his name? Jacob, Joseph, something like that. Mary Jane imagined the creak of the mailbox hinge as he yanked the metal door down, shoved the paper in and slapped the door shut again. The van’s red lights receded over the rise.
“I’ll bet you a dog biscuit he didn’t shut it all the way and it’s flapping in the breeze. We’ll have to go check, won’t we?” Peanut jumped from the chair and pranced in excited circles. “Shush, be quiet now. We mustn’t wake Andy. Not yet. It isn’t time. You know how he gets.”
She leashed the little dog and walked down to the mailbox. It was still dark outside. The wind blew her fuzzy hair into her eyes and drove Peanut frantic. He pawed at the gravel and snuffled in the dirt beside each bush as though all the smells were new ones since the day before.
In the quiet house again, Mary Jane knelt down to unleash the little dog. “Well, I was right, wasn’t I Peanut?” she whispered. “Mailbox door wide open.”
She set the newspaper down and fetched Peanut a bone-shaped dog treat from the jar on top of the television cabinet. The little dog crunched the bone to bits on the worn carpet and then hoover-ed up the pieces with his snout. Peanut gazed up at Mary Jane, brown eyes bulging. His little paws beat the floor and he bared his teeth, his upper lip taut over blackish gums. Peanut sneezed convulsively, three times in rapid succession.
“Is that your smile? What a clever boy. You want another biscuit? Is that it? You know the rule. If you hear Skip’s truck before I do, I’ll give you another treat. Yes I will.”
Minutes later, Peanut hopped down from his roost and chased his tail in circles. Mary Jane peered through the shutters as a pickup truck bounced past, its headlights dipping and rising with the road. It was Skip, the neighbor from around the bend, on his way to work. Mary Jane gave Peanut another cookie from the jar.
An edge of pale gray rose over the dark forest and slowly widened, as light crept into the day.
The clock chimed six times.
Mary Jane tensed, listening, waiting for the clock’s last resonant bong to fade. At that precise moment a bell tinkled, as it had every morning for almost ten years, quiet at first and then louder, clanging with rude impatience. With a resolute sniff, Mary Jane clicked off the lamp and rose, cinching her robe tightly around her waist.
“Where the hell are you, Mary Jane? I need to pee, now,” Andy shouted, his voice still crusty with sleep.
“I’m coming, Dear.” Unawares, her lips poked in and out. Fine wrinkles circled her mouth, like the spokes of a wheel.
Andy lay on top of the mattress, the rumpled covers thrown back, his pillow on the floor. He clutched the shiny brass bell. Mary Jane unwrapped her husband’s stiff fingers from the dark wood handle. Holding the clapper so it wouldn’t jangle, she returned the bell to the bedside table. She smoothed Andy’s hair from his forehead and planted a kiss just below the hairline.
“How did you sleep?” she asked.
“How do you think?”
The oxygen pump’s tubing dangled alongside the bed. Mary Jane picked up the pillow and set it on a chair. She positioned the wheel chair beside the hospital bed and, after lowering the bed, helped her husband throw his withered legs over the side. Mary Jane shouldered his weight and settled him into the chair.
While he was busy in the bathroom, she straightened the bed, turned off the oxygen pump and went into the kitchen.
“God damn it,” Andy shouted from the bedroom.
There was a crash. Peanut yipped, a sharp squeak that Mary Jane recognized as pain. She ran into the bedroom.
“What is it, Andy? Are you all right?”
“It’s these damned rag rugs everywhere. They get balled up in the wheels of my chair. Are you trying to kill me?”
Mary Jane lifted Peanut and gingerly examined his paws. Andy had tossed the small tufted rug, another of her projects, and it had hit the dresser, knocking down a framed photograph and breaking the glass. She knew she should pick up all the rugs. On her last visit the county caseworker had said as much. Mary Jane set Peanut down. She rolled up the offending rug and laid it on top of the dresser.
“Your damn dog is a menace, always underfoot. You’d think he’d learn to stay clear of my chair.”
Peanut bared his gums and sneezed.
“He loves you, Andy. See him smile? Peanut wants to be near you.”
“Well, if little Peabrain isn’t careful, I’ll have him put out of his misery. He’ll hardly feel a thing. Just the slightest pinch of the needle.” Andy leered menacingly at the little dog. Peanut wriggled his behind and hovered near the wheels of the chair.
Mary Jane lifted Peanut to safety.
“And stop that,” Andy said.
“That awful thing you do with your lips. It makes you look like a nattering old woman. Are you exercising your wrinkles?”
Mary Jane covered her mouth with her hand, self-consciously smoothing her lips.
“I don’t smell coffee. Isn’t it ready yet? What have you been doing? Talking to yourself again? Don’t think I don’t hear you chattering away.”
Andy wheeled himself into the kitchen. The tray of pills labeled Monday sat on a ruffled placemat with a matching cloth napkin and his silverware. Mary Jane popped the morning slot open and emptied the pills beside a glass of cranberry juice.
Andy poked at them with a gnarled finger. With some difficulty he lined them up in the order he would take them. He flicked the green and white Prozac capsule to the floor. “You know I won’t take this. When will you stop pushing these infernal happy pills at me.”
“Don’t, Andy. Peanut will eat it.” Mary Jane retrieved the pill and slipped it into the pocket of her robe.
“Good, maybe it will calm the neurotic mutt.”
“Dr. Randall says it will help with your,” she hesitated, searching for the right word, conscious of her pursed lips, “outlook.”
“I know damn well what it will do. I’m half dead already. I don’t need any help from a pill.”
Mary Jane raised a discreet eyebrow at Peanut who sat on the lemon wedge rug at her feet. She parted the curtains over the kitchen sink. The fruit trees in the backyard were spindly as sticks. Across the valley, up against the hills, smoke curled from the Anderson’s chimney.
At the cutting board, she held a knife over a perfect strawberry. Her hands tensed around the wood shaft. She buried the knife in the meaty flesh, slicing it into neat, symmetrical rounds. Mary Jane rinsed and dried her hands and brought Andy his breakfast of black coffee, scrambled eggs, wheat toast and a bowl of the sliced berries. To make more room for his elbows, she carefully scooted her craft supplies aside.
“God, these eggs taste awful. What’s that dreadful spice? I wish you’d stop experimenting. What’s wrong with plain old salt and pepper?” Andy’s pale face screwed up in irritation. Wayward white hairs twitched over beady, dark eyes. The stretched out neck of his white t-shirt gaped, exposing bony shoulder blades. Pale bruises, brown and purple, shimmered on his papery arms. “This place looks like Santa’s goddamn workshop. Damn it Mary Jane, why is all this necessary? My pension provides for us perfectly well. There’s no need for you to spend your time making all this, this, tasteless garbage.”
Andy sputtered and waved his hand in frustration at the cluttered table, knocking over a half-painted gnome that wobbled before it rolled to rest against a row of its silent, staring brothers.
“There’s enough of this cheap crap coming in from China. Surely, you don’t need to make more. Just for once, I’d like to have my breakfast without fear of sticking my elbow in a bloody jar of paste or drinking paint instead of juice.” He paused, his chest heaving. “And, Good Lord, what have you done to your hair?”
One by one, careful not to smudge them, Mary Jane moved the gnomes to the counter. “It’s a perm,” she said. “I did it myself.”
“I mean the color,” he said. Egg dribbled onto Andy’s chin. “What is that?”
“The box said strawberry blonde.”
“I don’t know why you bother. No one looks at you, you know. I hope you don’t have any ideas about Dr. Randall. He’s young enough to be your grandson.” The glob of egg dropped from his chin to his lap.
Mary Jane wiped her husband’s face with a cloth napkin, carefully removing bits of egg from his moustache. She smoothed his eyebrows with her thumb while Andy swatted her away.
Mary Jane helped Andy undress for bed. She massaged his cold feet, kneading his toes and arches through white cotton socks. It had been a long, quarrelsome day. There hadn’t been a moment for crafts, or for a decent walk for poor Peanut. The quick one down to the mailbox for the daily post didn’t count for much.
She kept her thoughts to herself, but she suspected that if Peanut had had his usual walk and not been quite so full of energy he wouldn’t have raced around the wheel chair like a maniac when they got home from Dr. Randall’s. He’d gotten his paw trod on, again. It had bled this time. The crimson drops had stained the worn beige carpet in the entryway.
When Dr. Randall had asked Andy about his level of pain and discomfort, on a scale of one to ten, he had said a six or maybe a seven. For months it had been four and the occasional five. The doctor had adjusted his medications. Hopefully, that would help. And, thankfully, Andy had agreed to take his sleeping pill. Already Mary Jane could see it taking hold.
She pulled the blanket up the way he liked it, folding it over and smoothing it across his chest.
“What the devil.” Andy wrestled with the pillow and pulled it out from under his head. “Smell this.”
Mary Jane blinked.
“That damn cat of yours has been on my bed again. My pillow reeks and look, there’s hair all over it.” He thrust the offending pillow at his wife. “Change it. I won’t sleep on her drool.”
Mary Jane carried the pillow from the room and returned with it encased in a fresh pillowcase. “There now, that’s better,” she clucked. “Lift up and I’ll scoot it under.” She turned on the oxygen pump and adjusted the tubing in his nostrils. Mary Jane leaned down to kiss Andy’s forehead. She squeezed his flaccid hand and tucked it under the covers. “Good night, Andy.”
He blinked. His pupils were black pinpricks beneath half-shut lids. A tight smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.
Mary Jane waited until he closed his eyes before she moved to the doorway. She startled when he spoke.
“I’ve about had it with the cat and the dog,” Andy said, without opening his eyes. “You’d better see about finding homes for those two or I’m calling animal control. Don’t think I won’t.”
Mary Jane clicked off the overhead light.
She woke the next morning, like clockwork, at four twenty-five. She climbed from her bed, slipped on robe and slippers and, crossing the hall, looked in on her husband. The oxygen pump thumped and gurgled. The bell sat on the bedside table, undisturbed, next to the glass of water she’d left the night before. Again, his pillow had fallen to the floor. She picked it up and held it pressed to her chest as she looked down on him.
How peaceful Andy looked in sleep, like the man she remembered. His brow unwrinkled, his face with a slight sheen in the glow of the nightlight. His hands rested on top of the covers.
Her arms tightened around the pillow, squeezing the smooth cotton cover and feeling the bunched feathers beneath. How tenaciously he held to life, his damaged heart stubbornly pumping and the mind still so pointlessly sharp.
Her fingers tensed, aware of the weight of the down pillow. Andy wouldn’t fight. He didn’t have it in him, not anymore. How easy it would be. And how kind perhaps. To them both.
She leaned over the bed, poised, the pillow inches from his face.
A shadow moved in the doorway.
Mary Jane gasped, her heart beating fast. She hugged the pillow to her chest.
It was only Butter, impatient for their morning chat.
With shaky hands, Mary Jane set the pillow down on the end of the bed.
Mary Jane sat on the couch in the front sitting room, Butter at her side, purring contentedly. Peanut waited patiently for the newspaper.
The clock struck five. The poplars dipped and waved. Their long shadows moved like dancers in the moonlight.
Mary Jane reframed the broken photograph in one of the shell-encrusted frames she’d made for the craft fair. The photo had been taken at the Arthur Murray dance studio where she and Andy had once gone for lessons. He looked so debonair, so pleased with himself, in his good suit and shiny black shoes. He used to say she made him laugh and that she was beautiful, with her blond hair and cornflower blue eyes. Mary Jane held the frame to her breast.
She walked with Peanut to the mailbox for the newspaper and then gave him his cookie. She checked the day planner. No appointments. Perhaps Andy would let her read to him today. He used to like that, before he got so cranky. She knew he hated most that his eyes were bad. Books had been his life. But it would be a better day. Mary Jane was determined that it be so. Yes, she would read to him and she would trim his moustache and beard, if he’d let her.
Skip drove by and though she heard the truck before Peanut did, she gave the dog a cookie anyway.
The clock struck six.
Mary Jane waited for the clock’s last bong to fade. She tensed, listening for the tinkle of the bell. The clock ticked, the wind rustled the trees and beside her, Butter purred. She sat forward, fingers knotted in her lap, waiting for her summons. Mary Jane watched the slow, inexorable advance of the second hand.
At five past six the bell still hadn’t rung.
“Andy,” Mary Jane called. “Andrew!”