It is the 33rd year of a marriage that failed: her second, his
first, and I am imagining it all, still looking from the outside in and
bargaining. I can only bargain with what I see to be true, to be false,
but mostly I bargain for some kind of reality that I can accept.
It is an embryonic Spring day, a morning not quite born,
with birds, with the tiniest red nubs of tree buds, with an early bed
of purple and yellow crocuses, all converging to tease them at their
breakfast, the breakfast she is preparing and will soon set as a gift
for him on the aging, green formica-topped dinette that stares at
its own view of the backyard patio. His place faces the front of the
house, looks onto the street where the action, if there is any, will
occur. She will sit beside him, her view the wall that separates the
kitchen from the garage. She won’t notice the wall, will look past
the linen dish towel calendar that decorates it. She will see only him,
and over his shoulder, whatever the world provides as hints of Spring.
Before she sets the table, she carefully covers the partially
worked 1,500 piece interlocking jig saw, a puzzle that pictures in
its incompleteness a field of vivid flowers, perennials, I think, and
a barnyard of weathered wooden structures. She covers it with
yesterday’s news, but not before she pauses to review the previous
day’s progress and contributes to it by fitting into the framework a
single piece. The piece is blue, almost white but blue, and it fits into
a sky of similar blues, the fit perfect, bringing up into her throat an
almost humming sound. Not a significant enough piece to make the
hum more than a vibration, but she feels it and smiles; and then coughs,
ending the hum. Then the newspaper covering carefully applied.
Over the newspapers she places a tablecloth, flannel-backed
vinyl with oranges, rust, greens, all forming leaves and flowers in
patterned sequential squares; K-Mart, $1.99 on sale; earth colors,
her favorite colors remembered from the old farm kitchen of her
youth. Her mother’s favorites, also. She presses at the centerfold
mark to smooth it, presses down firmly with the heel of her hand,
stretching then in her smallness to run her hands along the edges
and down the sides, an extra gesture of wrinkle-control, ensuring
smoothness over the roughness that she knows is there.
This is all in my memory. I feel the warm sun through the
patio window, smell the new vinyl of the K-Mart cloth, and the
bacon lying ready to fry across the room. I hear her coughing away
her hum of pleasure.
He sits sunken down into the couch, a spot just his size and
shape has grown downward into the fabric of it, an inch at a time,
over the last twelve years since the time he bullied a beleaguered
salesman into delivering it on Christmas Eve, a story he still tells
whenever he gets the chance. He likes remembering that Christmas
Eve: going into the store late in the day, choosing the couch, telling
the salesman “Deliver it today, or the deal’s off,” making his purchase
seem many times larger than the actual price. He is a muscular
dwarf of a man, overstuffed like his couch, with his middle sagging
and his stocky legs just touching the floor. His hair is grey-white, a
flat-top with a GI ‘high & tight”, his hairstyle caught in the timegap
of his 30’s where everything important had happened, where
his life had been lived. His square jaws flex against the earthenware
coffee mug as he gulps the coffee, she has carried to him, gulps it
down and then, in a sputter, wipes his chin and lips with the side
of his right hand as he looks over the headlines of the paper she
retrieved earlier from under the shrubs at the front of the house. I
find some glory in the memory of the dampness of his paper and
the stinging burn from the hot coffee, little victories in memories
that otherwise are filled with defeat.
But, what do I know? I am looking into this marriage from
the outside. I hear the rustle of the paper, feel its soggy dampness,
hear him swear, calling her “Bitch” as he wipes the hot coffee from
She is small, everywhere. Petite. Her grey-white hair is rinsed
“Charcoal Dawn,” a concession to her years. There is always half a
smile here, ready to live or die away completely at the whim of the
moment, a half-smile that apologizes more often than not, but that
can greet neighbors, friends, and her grown-up and away children,
first with assurances and then with blessings. It’s her eyes that draw
them in though: the eyes that I remember and miss so much. They
are green, the shade of April greens, a shade, and a half darker than
lettuce, almost frivolously squirreled away among her wrinkles and
crow’s feet, and they look clear and alive and penetrating no matter
what her smile is saying. She hears him muttering now, and rushes
in with a towel, saying “sorry, sorry.” Always sorry.
On the table she places salt, pepper, margarine, two knives,
two forks, two spoons, two breakfast plates—smaller than dinner
plates, larger than saucers—and a jar of Smuckers Strawberry Jam.
She wishes she had her own mother’s strawberry patch and the
skill to whip up some of her own. She starts away, then comes back,
looks to see if he is involved with the news, and removes the salt.
His diet. She knows he will be irritated that it is not on the table,
and she will get up to get it for him, but she watches out for his diet
anyway. After all, if his heart….
She thinks about his anger and puts the salt back again in
the center of the table.
A piece of the puzzle catches the hem of her apron and falls
from her chair to the floor, a center piece with notches on all sides.
It lands upside down, and when she reaches over and picks it up,
she finds she is holding the face of a small child. She remembers
from the picture on the box that the child is in the lower left of
the puzzle hiding, peering out from behind a rusted wheelbarrow.
I hear her chuckle very softly as she puts the piece into the huge
pocket of her apron.
The bacon begins to sizzle, showering grease onto the range
top from the cast iron skillet. She feels guilty about the bacon, and
about the eggs she is about to fry for him. She knows he shouldn’t
have them, that she shouldn’t be frying bacon ever, but then he loves
it so, has been used to eggs and bacon all these years. They are a part
of him the way he is a part of her, she whispers, a habit that starts
the day, that almost makes you afraid if it’s not there. She drains the
bacon on the paper towels and breaks the eggs into a cup. Maybe
if she switched to safflower oil instead of bacon grease? Maybe he
wouldn’t notice the difference.
He finishes frowning at the headlines and the picture
captions in Section A, nodding disapproval but reassured that
the sonofabitchin’ world hasn’t changed overnight. It’s a world he
understands, has a name for. This is a moment she studies, watches
him as he reaches for the sports section. This she understands: if his
world is the same, hers will be also. Maybe his team won yesterday.
She refills his coffee and pats his knee to let him know, looks across
to see that he has smoked three cigarettes already this morning and
another one is burning in the ashtray. Lung cancer scares her at his age.
I have not gone away. I am still watching, smelling the bacon
draining, the cigarette smoke. I hear the paper crinkling against
itself, burying the news into its own archives. I see so much; I think
sometimes I know so much when really, I know so little.
The eggs were so perfect this morning. Spring eggs: brown,
large, and soft-shelled. Early Spring eggs, maybe even, yes—doubleyolked. He’d be surprised, pleased. Well, she wouldn’t scramble them
even though he asked for scrambled. Double-yolked, basted gently.
A happy surprise! No broke yolks, please, she willed, squeezing her
eyes tight in child’s prayer for just that flickering second.
I blink and rest my memory, storing the data. I pick them
up later in the day, and the sun is around the house and low in the
western sky, streaming in the front window past his couch. This
moment they are both at the kitchen table. The dinette is uncovered
now, with the puzzle between them and the overhead light glaring
down over their work. The frame is finished, the sky filled in, and
the barn and sheds with their beds of autumn mums begin to tell
a story from their childhoods. It slows them both a bit to see this
lazy scene and not be able to connect it exactly with the proper
memory. Looking now, over their shoulders, I shudder expecting
that someone will appear to disturb this peaceful pastoral beauty.
Again, she sees that his cup is empty and moves to fill it,
brushing her hand against her apron pocket with a smile as she does
so. It is the smile of a kid with stolen candy, apprehensive maybe,
but naively secure. As long as she has stolen candy school will pass
quickly and the homework will be easy.
I see now that this is a game.
While she has her back turned to the coffee pot, he reaches
into the very center of the puzzle and removes a piece, wipes it
against the side of his trousers, and slides it into the pocket of his
olive-green cardigan sweater. It is clear to me that he now also has
stolen candy; he also has a sly smile that he hides by wiping his
mouth with a wrinkled handkerchief.
Hours pass. It is a large puzzle, and they work outside in,
surrounding it’s story. They like the suspense of knowing they do
not know something for certain. They work long into the evening.
The sun is continuing its journey elsewhere and they have pulled the
curtains and lighted the living room also. They still sit in the favorite
kitchen spots: he, facing anticipated action; she, with a view to the
puzzle and to him. They are almost finished now, have filled in the
framework piece by piece during this long day. Each piece seemed
a victory of sorts, but confusingly so. Her victories seemed more like
his defeats; his progress for them both. They work in silence, the TV
playing in the background has no drama that draws them from this
theater of action. His piece, her piece, his piece, her piece…
I remember it all. Memory, too, fills in the picture for me:
suspense, anticipation; putting one piece into another until I think
I have it figured out. It closes in on me, always on me. Now I am
the puzzle, a puzzle framed in the afternoon of another day, waiting
long into this cricket-filled night. And there are these two missing
pieces, staring back at the world as two green eyes, empty, and the
soul, my soul, escaping through the emptiness. She is dead now,
died on another sunny, embryonic Spring day just after breakfast,
her fingers curled as if to shelter stolen candy. He lives alone, sitting
deeper into the couch with each passing year, too blind now to work
on puzzles. His fingers, curled in arthritic anticipation.