The mattress springs creaked overhead as he awoke and rolled over in bed. The coffee had just finished brewing, but the eggs weren’t done. I turned up the flame and stirred the eggs around in the frying pan even faster, keeping one ear attuned to the rasp of the springs and the creaking of the floorboards.
I grabbed a plate from the cupboard and scooped the eggs on. A gobbet of egg missed the plate and fell to the breakfast tray. Oh, I would hear about that — but no time to deal with it now. Plate on the tray, napkin, fork, knife, coffee cup, coffee. The carafe dribbled as I poured the fresh brew; I mopped the drops off the saucer, and the drips from his cup, then carefully carried the tray up the stairs.
Tom was sitting up in bed, his left hand just about to hit the little silver bell on the bedside table, the kind of bell you sometimes see at the desks of hotels. Tom had been a month in a convalescent home for intensive physical therapy after he’d broken his hip. When he was ready to be discharged, a young aide there had shown me how to buy the bell online. Like many things, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
“It’s about time,” Tom said as I put the breakfast tray on the dresser and waited for my breathing to slow to normal after the climb up the stairs. “My bladder is gonna rupture any minute now.” Tom despised bedpans.
His breath was wet and stale against my face as he leaned against me to climb out of bed. I could feel a twinge in my lower back as I took his full weight. I half carried him to the rest room, then wiped the spilled egg off the breakfast tray as I waited for him to finish. Then, back into the bed, for breakfast. Tom took a bite of his scramble, then slammed his fork on the tray.
“What the hell is this?! The cheese is still in chunks! How many times have I told you I want that cheese completely melted? Do you understand what the word ‘completely’ means?”
He began to dig through the yellow mass on his plate, excavating for the unmelted cubes of cheese. Whenever he found one, he flung it on the floor with a flourish.
The little splotches accumulated at my feet. Better to wait until he was through before I tried to get down there to clean it up. I’m not a young woman anymore.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was in a bit of a rush this morning. I must have cut the cubes too big.”
“You never could do anything right.”
He’d stopped flinging bits of the scramble to the floor, so I picked up my towel and lowered myself down. My joints cracked as I knelt, and a sharp pain shot through my kneecaps as I tried to put my full weight on the ungiving hardwood floor. Tom, in the meantime, had turned on the TV. As he watched, he shoveled the remains of the scramble into his mouth with a surly expression. I braced myself against the chest of drawers and slowly levered my way upright again. On the television beautiful happy silver-haired couples who were supposed to be our age ran along beaches and played tennis and hugged each other. I think it was an ad for incontinence medicine.
“Because these are the best years of your life,” the voiceover intoned.
Tom snorted into his coffee.
I went downstairs to have my own breakfast. I’d gotten about halfway through when Tom’s bell clanged. I climbed up the stairs; he needed the toilet again. I took him to the bathroom and then back to his bed and television.
When Tom had first returned home, I’d tried to get him to come to sit downstairs, or better yet, to try using his walker to travel around the house, and even outside. He got restive sitting on the sofa downstairs; he said watching me putter around irritated him. And he refused to try to walk, or to do any of the exercises that the physical therapist had given him. It hurt too much, he got dizzy standing, he was still too sick. And so he got weaker and weaker, and now he spent his entire day in the bedroom, with his television and his little bell.
Clang clang. The sound of Tom’s bell, demanding that I drop whatever I was doing, right now, and attend to him. Clang clang. The bathroom again. Clang clang. He’d dropped the TV remote. Clang clang. Where the hell was lunch. Clang clang.
The air rasped like sandpaper in my throat, my heart pounded against my ribs as I pulled myself up the stairs, then down, then up again. Clang clang. The sound, like angry hornets, slipped into my ears to sting at the base of my skull.
Today, though, I had a break. Today was grocery day, and a lovely one at that. The world glowed with that bright white light that we only get just before fall turns into winter, the perfect blue-skied clarity that comes with the crisp chill in the air. It was the kind of day that made you want to believe that everything is good in the world.
The supermarket is only a few blocks from our house. Twenty years ago I walked there, but now I drive. Still, with the window down I could feel the breeze and the sun, smell the ornamental rosemary bushes that decorated my neighbors’ yards, hear the sparrows that argued in the trees.
I didn’t notice that anyone else was on the road until a car roared by me from behind at a stop sign, just as I was about to enter the intersection. The driver made an obscene gesture out his window as he sped away.The encounter left me shaky. I no longer noticed the sun or the smells, but only the street and my speedometer and the few other cars on the road. I pulled into a parking spot at the supermarket, with a sense of relief. Put it behind you, I told myself.
Inside the air was more chilly than outside. It was a weekday afternoon, and the store was mostly empty, so the man in the dress shirts and slacks stood out. He pushed his cart through the produce section with one hand and barked into the cell phone that he held in the other. Soft instrumental music played behind the hum of the freezers and refrigerator cases. I hummed along as I rolled my cart through produce, then down the canned goods aisle, then on to the milk and the eggs.
The man with the cell phone came up the egg and dairy aisle as I inspected my carton of eggs. The eggs get bumped around a lot before they end up in the case, and I always check each individual egg for breakage, before I buy the carton. The man pushed between me and my cart for a carton of the free-range Omega-3 eggs without excusing himself and jostled me as he straightened back up. I dropped my egg carton. It landed with a smack on the floor and several eggs burst. The yolk splashed onto the floor, onto my shoes, and a few drops landed on the man’s slacks.
“Jesus Christ, look what you did, you clumsy bitch!’ the man yelled as he looked down at his pants.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, “it was an accident.”
“You better fucking pay for the dry cleaning! Look at this.” He spoke into his phone. “Yeah, sorry, some senile old biddy just broke eggs all over my pants. Why the hell don’t they lock these people away in the nursing home?”
My cheeks were burning. I tried to apologize again but I couldn’t speak. Instead, I fumbled in my purse for some tissue to mop everything up. A hand fell on my shoulder. It was the manager.
“Don’t worry about that ma’am, I’ll call someone to mop that up. Here, sir,” He guided the man with the cell phone away. “It was just an accident, the lady didn’t mean it. You don’t have much on your pants.”
The two of them walked away as the manager offered to pay for the man’s eggs. I picked up another carton of eggs and put it into my cart without checking it. The egg yolk was drying on my shoes, stiffening the leather, but it would take too long to bend down there and wipe it off. I just wanted to get my groceries and go home. I waited for the man with the cell phone to leave before I went to the checkout counter.
The sun was lower in the sky as I walked back to my car. We were coming towards the golden hour. I tried to admire the pinkish gold tinge that was coming into the light, but as I opened up the trunk of my car to load the grocery bags I burst into tears. My beautiful afternoon, my hour to myself, ruined.
At home, I opened the door to the din of Tom’s bell, angry, impatient.
“What the hell took you so long?”
He threw the plate of spaghetti across the room. It crashed against the far wall, a wet, slimy, red splash. The mess made me think of someone’s brains, dashed out against concrete after a jump from a tall building.
“Pasta? Again? Can’t you do anything besides open up jars and boil water? You’re useless! You always have been.”
He continued to explain, at length and in detail, exactly where, how and when I had been useless, down the long, long history of our marriage, as I mopped up the spilled pasta and broken china, and wiped the stains from the wall as best I could.
In the kitchen, I fished a slab of salmon from the freezer and a bundle of broccoli from the vegetable bin: tomorrow’s dinner. I would fall short before next grocery day, but there was no time to worry about that now. I popped the salmon in the broiler and the broccoli in a pot of water, then ate the remaining pasta while I waited for his dinner to cook.
“About time,” he said when I put the plate in front of him. “Now get me some salt. And a glass of water.”
I gave him the salt and the pepper, poured him a glass of water. Then I went back downstairs to the front room and lowered myself into the easy chair in the corner. A low buzzing came from the corner of the room. A fat black horsefly had blundered in somehow, and now it slammed into the walls and the ceiling, trying to escape. I was too drained to get up and let it out.
Upstairs, Tom shouted down to me. I could tell from the muffling of his words that his mouth was full.
“Overcooked, goddammit! Why the hell —-“. The sentence broke off abruptly, in a gargling sound, as if someone had stuffed a sock down Tom’s throat. The horsefly had discovered the window. It flung itself repeatedly against the pane. I felt my body sink into into the cushions of the chair. I watched the horsefly the way I would have watched the Animal Channel on television: the fly wasn’t here, it wasn’t now, whatever was happening to it wasn’t real, not to me.
Clang. The bell sounded upstairs. Clang. Clang.
Outside, dusk turned into night, and the streetlights on the sidewalk came on. The horsefly circled the room once, then threw itself towards the distant point of lights, only to get stopped by the glass. Bzzz-slap! Bzzzz-slap! Clang clang clang. Clang clang clang.
Over and over the fly flew into the window, faster and faster. I marveled that a fly could emote desperation so clearly. Bzzz-slap! Bzzz-slap!
Crash! A few more clangs: the sound of the bell falling to the floor. Another crash, with the tinkle of broken glass. Then only the fly, buzzing and slapping.
I pulled myself out of the easy chair and opened the window. A few waves of my hand, and the horsefly found the opening. It flew out into the cool night air.
Image: Insects by Theodor Severin Kittelsen. Sourced from WikiArt.