Corpus Christi, Thursday, October 25, 1973
Frank claimed to be sorting out his study. He spent whole days in this space he’d converted from their sleeping porch, his books overflowing out of the shelves he’d built, his desk a scatter of magazines, notebooks, legal pads. Three years ago they’d forced him out of the classroom—seventy-two years old and he should have been grateful. Time at last for all the projects he’d talked about. Carpentry. Gardening. Family history.
Hilda had tired of reminding him.
He’d huff at her and leave the room, sit at his desk on the sleeping porch, moving things around, scribbling notes. And if she asked to see what he was writing:
“Stop hounding me, woman.”
Then outside to his chair under the live oak in the backyard. He’d light a cigar, let it burn down, light another.
Yesterday, he stayed out there. Didn’t come in when she called him for supper. Wouldn’t budge when she went out to fetch him. Just sat there. Old. Sad.
At bedtime, she called Joe, her youngest. Like his father, he was quick to anger. Bullheaded. She didn’t care if the fire in one ignited fire in the other. She just wanted Frank to get up out of that chair and come inside, get out of bed in the morning and do something.
When their voices rose, she closed the door to the back yard and busied herself at the sink.
It was a mistake. Calling Joe. She didn’t know what had been said out there, but when Frank walked into the kitchen, he positively sagged. She offered a plate of spare ribs. He said he wasn’t hungry. A bad sign, perhaps the worst yet, from a man who loved to eat, who’d leapfrogged belt sizes over the years, patting his expanding stomach and reaching for another helping.
Frank went to bed. He didn’t wake at six and put on coffee, didn’t wake at seven when she got up, turned to face the wall when she tried to rouse him at eight. At nine he appeared on the front porch, dressed but disheveled, a smear of jam at the corner of his mouth, his hair a nightmare.
Hilda was at the flowerbed beneath their towering pecan, digging up her caladiums, separating the bulbs, setting them back into the freshly loosened earth. Frank parked himself on the top step. He didn’t offer to help.
“Waste of time,” he said. “Might as well leave ’em in the ground.”
Half an hour later, he hoisted himself and spoke. “Time for my morning appointment.” This was how he always announced the daily clockwork bowel movement.
When he returned, Hilda suggested he fetch a grocery bag from the kitchen and harvest pecans from beneath their tree.
“My back hurts,” he said, and sat back down.
At 10:30, he said, “My stomach is growling.”
At eleven, he asked, “Isn’t it time to eat yet?”
At 11:30, “Hilda, I’m hungry. Come on in and fix me something.”
“Fix you something?” Hilda stood and crossed to Frank, heat rising in her, a heat she hadn’t felt in years. “For the love of God, husband, get up. Whatever’s gotten into you, snap out of it.”
Frank looked like a starched shirt wilting on a steamy summer day.
“I’ve had it with you,” she said. “Moping around. Acting like a brat with a skinned knee. Stop whining at me. I will not wait on you another minute.”
“Oughtn’t talk to me like that,” Frank said, his words oozing the kind of self-pity that made her itch.
Hilda slapped him. And froze in the sudden stillness. The sparrows, the breeze, the street beyond—all quiet, all waiting. Frank sat there, a hand to his cheek where she’d slapped him. Patience had been her struggle. Raising their children, there had been times when her hand slapped a face before she knew it. And now this, her handprint in smudges of red on her husband’s cheek.
Frank raised himself up off the porch, his face a map of tears. He turned and went inside. She followed, assembled lunch, set plates on the table between them. She needed to say something. But what? She needed to mend things. But how? Frank sat there seeping tears. He didn’t try to hide them, didn’t take out a handkerchief and wipe his face, this man she’d known for fifty years, her husband who didn’t cry. At his mother’s graveside, yes, and once when a dog he’d let himself love was hit in the street.
When the silence between them weighed finally too much, Hilda grappled for words, any sounds she might make to bridge the widening break. She could find none.
Frank got up and disappeared down the hall. The bathroom door clicked behind him. Minutes later, he passed by the kitchen door, dressed in pajamas. The springs groaned as he got into bed. Hilda put away their lunch things. When she peeked around the door into their bedroom, he was sound asleep. He breathed as if he might sleep forever.
Hilda walked to the calendar she kept on the wall beside the percolator. Birthdays, doctors’ appointments, Altar Society meetings, her gardening days—she recorded everything here. Selecting a broad-stroke black marker from a cigar box on the counter, she gazed at the square numbered for today and marked a smaller square in the lower right corner, then picked up her red marker and inserted a bold X.
“This is a terrible thing,” she whispered. Did she mean what she’d done to Frank? What was happening to him? Or that she’d marked it on her calendar? A date to be remembered, observed, venerated.
She memorized the red X—day and date—a fulcrum between here and after. On hard days—and there were many to come—she held her breath until night time, then took up her knitting. Often, sitting on the living room sofa, her needles clicking against silence, she would puzzle over the day she’d ruined with a slap. It was like a bead in her rosary, her very own sorrowful mystery. Christ’s agony in the garden. Her trouble was bearable when she thought of it this way.
She took care of Frank as long as she could, stayed on alone after Joe moved him into a retirement center—the old folks home, Frank called it. By then their neighborhood was in decline. One night a bullet pierced the front bedroom window. She called Joe. He helped her move into the assisted living wing, three hallway turns away from Frank.
When the time came, she buried Frank. When a daughter, dearest to her heart, succumbed to cancer, she sat graveside with her rosary.
When her own time came, she slipped into a quiet place, the only sound her own breathing. Wherever she was, it was lovely and gray, just before dawn. Voices, her children, a room away. Not words. She was napping, and they were making their sounds. She wanted her rosary, but she couldn’t move her tongue and teeth, couldn’t even whisper what she needed.
Her fingers answered. Her fingers knew. The beads were in her, the prayers. And Frank was on the sleeping porch. He’d forgiven her. He’d be here in a moment. In a moment, they would say everything.
David Meischen is a Pushcart honoree, with a personal essay in Pushcart Prize XLII. Recipient of the 2017 Kay Cattarulla Award for Best Short Story from the Texas Institute of Letters, Meischen has fiction, nonfiction, or poetry in Borderlands, The Gettysburg Review, Naugatuck River Review, Southern Poetry Review, and elsewhere.