Bill woke up one morning and noticed he hadn’t quite realized how loudly his knees creaked before. He hadn’t noticed just how cold the hardwood floors got in the winter, hadn’t seen all the dirt on the windows. Had there even been any dirt, before Mae died? The stairs had been a challenge for a while, now. He kept meaning to buy a new cane after the other one broke a few days ago, but he never could bring himself to leave the house.
Soon, he knew, the food his son had bought when he’d been there two weeks ago would run out. Jack had bought him what felt like a year’s supply of food; Mae left the house constantly, so she only used to buy a few days’ worth of food at a time. And she was a wonderful cook, too. That’s what he’d first noticed about her when they started dating.
When he finally got down the stairs, Bill looked around at the living room. When had it gotten so dim-looking? Like an old folks’ home, he thought, that’s how it looks. And Bill always swore to himself he’d never let himself get stuck in an old folks’ home. He sat down on the couch, slowly. The dent in the cushion from years of sitting felt like an old friend. Bill always personified things. The therapist he’d once had had said it could be a sign of something serious. Bill didn’t know about that, much. Mae had said she loved his personifications, when he told her what Dr. Baxter had said.
He felt bad for the cushion that Mae used to sit in. He could relate to it. They both missed Mae. But at least Mae’s old cushion still had Bill’s cushion as a partner. Bill was on his own.
The phone rang, and Bill realized he should have listened to his neighbor and put a phone nearer to the couch. It was so hard just to stand up lately. And he’d only just sat down.
He groaned, feeling a pain in his back that he was starting to think maybe he should call a doctor about. “I’m coming,” he said to nobody in particular; maybe to the phone. “Hello?” he said, once he finally reached the other side of the room.
“Dad,” came the voice. “How you doing? How do you feel? Gone outside?” It was Jack.
“Yeah, I’m fine, kiddo,” said Bill. “Gone on walks, been to the…park.” It was all a lie, of course. But Bill had never been good at asking his son for help. And his son had never been good at knowing when Bill was lying.
“Great, great. Well, just checking in, making sure you’re doing okay. If you need anything, let me know, alright? I’m just a few miles away.”
“I’m sure I’ll be just fine, thanks. Tell Melissa I say hello.”
“Will do. Bye, Dad,” Jack said, and hung up. Back on the sofa, Bill turned on the television. He’d never watched it much when Mae was around. Now he could barely remember what he did when Mae was around. But it sure as hell didn’t have anything to do with a television.
He clicked the on button and the screen lit up, a man he didn’t like the look of yelling at him to “BUY USED CARS TODAY!” and holding a big blue flag. Bill changed the channel and another man he didn’t recognize, but assumed was famous, was being extensively talked about by a group of young men and women. All the people, all at once, unrecognizable, upset him. He didn’t know these people, didn’t know what they talked about, couldn’t even hear their voices clearly. And they made him feel so alone. He shut off the television in a hurry, ready to escape them all.
But what next? He really did need more food, really did need a cane. And he wouldn’t accomplish much by staying seated on the lonely couch forever. Bill barely knew where a person would go to get what he needed. Target, he’d heard Mae talk about. Target. She’d said there was one on every corner, it felt like. His stomach jolted when he thought about leaving the house, being in a room full of strangers. And he would need help, wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t he need help navigating what he assumed to be a big store? That meant talking to someone new.
Maybe I could have Jack do this, he thought. But worse than the thought of a room full of strangers was the thought of needing his son desperately. Needing anyone desperately. Bill had only let him buy the food because Jack hadn’t asked. Just showed up with it all.
The old man put his head in his hands. He’d known this would have to happen, sometime. Finding his way in the world without Mae, though…always seemed like it could never happen. And he never thought it’d happen this early, if ever.
His stomach growled angrily up at him. I can’t do this anymore, he thought.
And he felt like a coward. He felt angry.
The walls were suddenly the ugliest yellow he’d ever seen; the color of rotten mustard and dirty teeth. The carpet was too thick. He hated how he could see the little spills of coffee, or maybe tea. He hated how the kitchen table had to have a thin plastic-y tablecloth because he couldn’t trust himself with a normal, cloth one anymore.
And Bill hated himself. He felt nauseous, disgusted with himself and his old age and his horrible house. It was never a horrible house back when Mae lived in it, even though he assumed it must’ve looked just the same. But it couldn’t have looked just the same; Mae changed it.
At least the nausea meant he lost his appetite. With a grim smile, he thought that if only he could stay disgusted with himself, he would never have to eat again.
He pushed himself up from the couch, aching as he did so. He immediately regretted his decision; he realized he didn’t have a plan for what to do after he stood. But there stood Bill, head rushing from standing up with what didn’t used to qualify as speed. They had a guest room on the first floor of the house, so Bill decided to go to sleep. Maybe it was about time to move into that room permanently. His hunger was back.
He hadn’t wanted to touch the canned foods that Mae had left in the cellar. He didn’t want to disrupt anything Mae had made with her own hands. He would figure it out when he woke up.
The bed was softer than the one upstairs. This was a relief; it gave him an excuse to switch bedrooms. Not that there was anyone he would have to give an excuse to. But he almost felt like he had to give Mae an excuse for why he left the bedroom they’d shared for so many years in exchange for one that Mae had barely touched.
Bill’s eyes shut, his stomach crying out one more time. Eventually he would have to disrupt the cans of food.
He awoke when a shout came from the street. He turned his head and saw a little girl running past his window, chasing a little boy. The trees aren’t happy with the children’s noise, Bill thought. Neither am I. He wished he could let the trees know he understood, let them know they weren’t alone in their feelings.
He laid there for a moment, surprised to find himself in the guest room. “What the hell?” he muttered.
And then he got hit with remembrance, at the same time feeling a pang of hunger.
He decided he wouldn’t let himself starve; besides, Mae made that food for a reason. Why let all her hard work go to waste?
Slowly, he went downstairs, eventually reaching the door. It was heavier than he remembered, but it had been years since he’d tried to open it. It creaked loudly, and the smell of dust came through the doorway. The light flickered on once he managed to make the stiff switch budge upward. And there were shelves and shelves of jars and cans.
The jars were full of what looked like pickles, olives, blue and red and purple jams.
There were cans of peaches, raspberries, pineapples, and pears. Mae had also kept paper towels on the lower shelves, though Bill wasn’t sure how well he could bend to reach those. He was so relieved to see how well Mae had prepared for a storm. But it saddened him, knowing that she would never know how helpful she’d been. And his pride in her only made him miss her more.
With a sigh, Bill pulled down a can of peaches and a jar of pickles. He hoped he made the right decision. He didn’t want to upset the other foods. “Goodbye,” he said, as he flicked off the light to the cellar and made his way upstairs. He would be back for dinner.
The stairs groaned sadly as he stepped on each one, the wooden planks unused to his heavy feet.
When he reached the kitchen, Bill found the can opener and a bowl. He dumped the peaches in, only realizing afterward that he didn’t even like peaches much. But then again, he didn’t like anything, much, anymore.
He sat in the chair and ate the peaches quickly. He barely even tasted them, but smiled as he thought of Mae’s careful hands slicing the peaches what must have been years ago.
The window watched him, feeling his loneliness. The old man felt bad and, with a great deal of effort, shut the blinds. He didn’t want to cause any sadness to anyone else.
When the peaches were done, he didn’t want the pickles. He left them on the table, figuring he could use them for dinner. He rinsed out the bowl and placed it on a towel to dry.
He had a headache; he could feel it coming on. He walked to the bathroom and forgot what he went there for the moment he saw his reflection. He looked like the dogs with sad eyes and droopy ears. Bloodhounds. He used to have a bloodhound named Georgia. He missed Georgia, now, too. When had his eyes gotten so bagged and wrinkled? When had his hair become so thin? He used to be a handsome man, he knew. In high school he’d had many girlfriends, but hadn’t liked any of them much. He’d never been in love till his sophomore year of college, when he met Mae.
He nearly walked away without the aspirin, but the dull throbbing in his head reminded him once more.
He opened the bottle but couldn’t pick which pills to take. He felt that if he offended one it would surely not work the way he wanted it to. “I’ll dump the bottle and take the first two,” he said. He felt that this satisfactorily explained the situation to the pills.
Bill poured two pills into his hand. “Sorry,” he said into the rest of the bottle, and shut it. Swallowing the medicine, he hoped he’d made the right decision. He didn’t want to hurt anyone.
He was suddenly tired again. It was four o’clock. He walked into the guest room and laid down again, on the other side of the bed this time. He decided to spend an equal amount of time on each side of the bed, so that both sides felt useful. He would do his best to make the bed feel as if Mae was in it, too.
He couldn’t fall asleep as quickly, this time. He just sat in the bed, thinking that maybe he should read. Or maybe he should try the television one more time. He might as well get used to it. Maybe he would learn to like it, even.
After what felt like hours, Bill decided to leave the room and read. The bed was unhappy that he hadn’t slept, he knew. It felt like it hadn’t done its job. It probably wished he was Mae. He couldn’t blame it. He would wish the same.
When he reached the bookshelf he realized he hadn’t read since before Jack visited. It’s been too long since I’ve used my brain, Bill thought. He shut his eyes, randomly choosing a book from the shelf.
Reading felt good. It felt like he was himself again. He didn’t know why he hadn’t done it in so long. Time felt faster when he read. Until he remembered that he was alone in the room. Then he could barely read the words, so he shut the book and stared out the window. The worst thing about missing someone, he thought, is that the only thing that could ever make you feel better is being with them. He couldn’t escape. He said, “how could you do this to me?” And the pattern on the rug swirled and he swore he could see Mae’s face for a moment. She was disappointed, he knew. He wasn’t living well enough without her. And she had always taken such good care of him.
The phone rang, distracting him momentarily. He picked up. “Dad!” said Jack.
“Hey there,” Bill replied. “How are you, son?”
“I’m fine. You know I’m calling to ask you the same thing.”
“I’m doing alright. Read a book, ate some peaches, took a nap. Took a walk. Went to the grocery store. Learning to like the television, even. I’m doing great.” Bill was lying through his teeth, praying the bit about the TV wasn’t too far-fetched for his son.
It wasn’t. “That’s really great, Dad. So good to hear. Do you need anything? Mel and I are on our way to the mall now, anyway, and it’s not that far from your house.”
“I’m really fine. Don’t worry about a thing.”
“Alright, if you’re sure. Bye, Dad.”
“See you.” And he hung up with a click.
Bill had never been a religious man. He wasn’t disdainful of religion; he just hadn’t felt that he could use it in his own life. But lately he’d been praying.
When Mae started looking worse and worse, he prayed that she would live.
After she died, he prayed that he would be able to live without her.
And now he prayed for this again, but with a little less hope.
He also prayed that his son would never realize the poor shape his lonely father was in.
He was embarrassed. The walls were seeing him in a way he’d hoped they never would. He felt that Mae could see him through the walls. He wished he could be somewhere empty, somewhere where there were no walls or cushions or pills to be saddened by his inability to live without Mae.
The floor wished it could help him, the empty can of peaches he had thrown out earlier thought it deserved something more than just being tossed in the garbage. It deserved a monument. The burned-out lightbulb on the ceiling was upset that Bill had been ignoring it for so long. The whole world pitied Bill. And he hated being pitied.
He felt trapped, but didn’t want to go outside. He couldn’t bear the thought of opening himself up to more people’s sympathetic eyes. The sadness of his own house was bad enough.
So there he was, standing by the phone, praying as best as he knew how. He hoped it would be enough.
“I know I don’t pray a lot,” he said out loud. “I hope you don’t hold that against me. I just…things aren’t going so well.” He cringed when he heard himself say this. “I’m fine,” he decided, unable to leave his previous words just hanging in the air.