You know certain inexplicable things about what it means to live; you can read, you understand the difference between hot and cold, you watch images on television and laugh when they play the laugh track, you know when to eat, to sleep, to go to the bathroom. You need to go to the bathroom. You get up from bed, fully dressed, stumble instinctively into the hallway and without much trouble you find the toilet. Above the toilet is a note taped to the wall which reads, Time to take your pills? You don’t know the handwriting. You wash up and see yourself in the mirror. You are old, that is plain enough.
There are many things that you don’t know. You don’t remember. What are you supposed to do today? There is something important, you’re sure, on the edge of your memory. You go back to bed and try to sleep but you cannot. You must have slept well last night. The last time you remembered a dream was long ago. Sunlight from the window finds your age-speckled hand and lingers. You wear an unadorned gold ring and it looks strong on your finger. You rise from bed again and see a note taped to the nightstand reading, Make the bed. You tug and straighten, but the sheets won’t cooperate and you tuck at all the wrong places. You leave things crumpled.
The dining room has an organ against the back wall next to a window. Outside, you see an alley and a chipped brick building. There is a cartoonish hamper-man painted in orange and blue on the side of the building. He is waving and winking. Steam blows silently into the narrow slice of morning sky. Next to the organ is a dark-wooden hutch containing glass jars half-filled with colorful hard-candies. There is a small card table and two chairs with vinyl yellow-flowered seats. The table is set for two, one paper plate heaped with cold food and the other nearly empty. A tomato with a half-peeled skin sags in a dish next to a porcelain salt shaker.
You gather the food and walk out of the dining room, past a set of stairs, and into a small kitchen. You forget why you came in here and then see the old food in your hands. The dish goes in the sink; the salt shaker belongs above the stove. Near a window is a trash can. You set the paper plates in and see a note taped to the window.
Toss the trash out into the dumpster below.
The window opens easily, you feel your muscles harden as you drop the contents of the can out. The air is warm and you can hear birds over the hum of the Laundromat next door. You’ll go for a walk. There is a door in the kitchen. You open it and see canned vegetables and preserves on shelves. There is another door and it is locked. God knows where the key is. You think you hear movement on the other side so you press your ear to the door. Laughter? No, nothing. Maybe the wind. An animal or your imagination. Once there was a big orange tabby cat named Pinstripe or Pinetree and you were on a farm and red ants came churning up out of the earth faster than you could mash them with your sneakers and Pinstripe jumped high in the air and dashed around a green shed and disappeared.
“Pinstipe,” you say, and are certain.
You have a taste for coffee. On the stove is a kettle. Someone has already filled the kettle with water and you think this is nice but you don’t know how long it has been sitting there and you like your water fresh. You empty the kettle and begin to refill it in the sink. Where do you keep the coffee and sugar? You do take it with sugar, don’t you? A little sugar rings a bell.
First you’ll get the stove lit, and then you’ll locate the coffee and sugar. Nothing happens when you twist the stove’s knobs. You don’t smell a hint of gas. You open the oven and look inside though you don’t know what good this will do. The oven isn’t working either.
In the sink water spills down the side of the overfilled kettle. It has had enough. You turn the faucet off and carry the kettle to the stove. You’ll just heat the water and have a cup of coffee. How do you take your coffee? With a little sugar, for taste. When you try, the burners won’t light. The stove seems to be broken. You try all the knobs and check the oven. Nothing. On the counter, in the lazy Susan, are crackers and bread. The sugar could be in one of the drawers.
A clock startles you with its chiming. You know there is something important you need to do today. You follow the sound of the clock into the living room. There are colorful pictures all over the walls. The grandfather clock in the corner falls silent. Near the front door a couch rests and a recliner lounges in front of a television. Sit in the recliner for a moment. Your skin is familiar with the soft brown fabric. On the armrest is a remote control with a note; Push this button taped to it. When you do as instructed the television comes to life.
Large men and women are fidgeting in plastic chairs. They speak loudly and at once.
“You don’t understand,” one woman says, “it’s like food is our friend.”
“Do you want to stop?” you hear a female voice say, though you cannot see her.
The men and women readjust themselves.
“Don’t you want real friends, friends who don’t disappear after you’ve finished eating them?” You see a svelte woman waving her arms amongst an applauding audience.
You would like to tell the big people that things will work out. It upsets you that one of the women has mascara on her blouse. If you were there you’d wipe it off. You’d try to put your arm around her and give her a handkerchief. You’d let her know that everyone eventually gets thin in the grave so eat and be merry now. But the big people are obviously upset. They slouch in their chairs and fold arms over their bellies. The camera zooms in on a man with a pensive face whispering. Then the host smiles knowingly at you and hopes you will stay tuned. The television is filled with a huge and twirling bottle of soda. “Are you thirsty?” someone asks. You might be. You can’t remember if you’ve had your coffee yet. Before you can think this through a man wearing a yellow hard-hat named The Anvil appears and asks if you or someone you love has been injured in an auto accident. Didn’t you lose everything you ever loved to a car crash? Maybe. The Anvil looks concerned. Where did you park your car? The keys are around here somewhere. If the weather’s nice this afternoon you’ll go for a ride, visit a friend.
Your eyes drift to the painting above the television. Inside the brown frame is a white church on a small hill with a blue sky. You were married in a church like this one. Your wife wore an ivory-colored dress and a veil. The minister had bad breath and you and your wife laughed about this on your honeymoon.
The show returns and the television drones and you drift off.
When you awake you have to go to the bathroom. As you struggle to get out of the chair you see the remote control on the armrest with a note taped to it. On the television something dramatic is happening. A woman says, “God, Scott, you wouldn’t!” in a way that makes you hope he doesn’t. You press the button and the television dies.
After you’ve done what you needed to do, you consider the bathtub. You’ll take a bath. The water runs, you find some soap and shampoo. You take off your pants and unbutton your plaid shirt. Naked, you notice you’re a mess. It isn’t enough that your face is burdened by age. Across your indented chest is a thick scar in the shape of an askew number sign. You finger the pink discolored lines and feel a low pain, the type of sensation that doesn’t cause alarm, instead it gives you a sinking suspicion there is something wrong with your heart. There was something wrong with your heart years ago, enough for a triple bypass, but you don’t have any way to remember this, you were well sedated. There is a dark pencil mark on your left forearm where someone has written the word “Tom,” and something more you can’t make out. Tom could be anyone. You don’t spend much time considering your genitalia so your gaze falls to the floor and your crooked feet. They are turned toward each other as if you had a magnet in one big toe and a piece of heavy metal in the other. There is a name for this, you know, you’ve lived with it, it kept you from the war: bird-footed? dove-heeled? crow-toed? Something like that. You never could keep up in these feet, children ran circles around you in your youth.
With effort, you draw the bath to a suitable temperature by keeping one arm in the water and using the other hand to adjust the knobs. Then you are in and it is so nice. This was a wonderful idea. You splash and lather yourself and blow bubbles and generally have a good time. When the water starts to get lukewarm, you turn a knob, the wrong one, that’s cold; you adjust the other handle which is right and the water comes out hot and warms you and eventually you start to prune. Then there is pounding from somewhere and it startles you enough to think maybe it’s your heart and then maybe it’s your imagination. Accompanying the pounding you hear a muffled voice.
Reluctantly, you step from the water, wrap a towel around your midsection, and shuffle into the living room and the front door. Someone is visiting. After fumbling with the lock, you open the door and see two young women at the bottom of the stone steps.
“Hello?” you say, moving out onto the porch.
“Every time,” a young woman with braces says, “like clockwork.”
“Come again?” you say.
“How many times have I told you to wear a shirt when you come to the door?” the young woman with braces asks. She is dressed in a baggy shirt-sleeved shirt and jeans.
“I’m afraid you have the wrong house,” you reply.
“You don’t remember us.”
“Sure, I do,” you say, because you don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.
“Good. Then you’ll remember that I’m Marcy and this is Sunny and I’m here to take care of you as always, and Sunny’s here to drop of your weekly medications. Like every week. Right, Sunny?”
Sunny says, “Right.” Sunny doesn’t have braces, but her teeth, which you see as she recklessly chews a piece of gum, are crooked and in need of some help.
You say, “Fine.”
“And,” Marcy says, “it’s your move, Sunny.”
Marcy sets a brown paper bag on the top step at your feet and withdraws a small notepad and a pen. The young women study the notepad.
“It’s going to be another cat’s game,” Marcy says.
“Why should I bother going?” Sunny asks.
“Because I’ll go if you don’t and have three O’s across and you’ll owe me five bucks.”
The day is bright and a car passes slowly on the street in front of your house.
“I knew he wouldn’t be wearing a shirt today.”
You ask the girls how school is going.
Sunny climbs the steps quickly, which makes you nervous enough to clutch the cinched towel around your waist and retreat a half step. She holds a small white bag out.
“Here’s your medication, Pops.”
When you cautiously take the bag Sunny leans forward and deftly slashes your chest with her rough fingernail. She jumps back down the stairs and sprints up the sidewalk yelling, “X for the block, X for the block,” between spurts of laughter.
You put your hand over your heart with the paper bag in a fist. Your towel starts to slip as you fall back into the house, tugging the door behind you, and slump to the floor. Your heart rattles the sack as you try to catch your breath. When you pull your hand away, you see the red X scratched above your left nipple and just outside the scar. The young women have been playing tic-tac-toe on you. Luckily, her nail didn’t break the surface of your skin and even as you rub the mark, it starts to fade.
Behind you the doorknob shakes and you lean everything you have against the door.
“Your food,” the young woman says, “don’t forget your food. Let me just put it inside.”
By lifting yourself slightly with your legs you’re able to pull the towel around and re-cover your midsection.
“Don’t be mad at us for playing a little game on you. You like checkers. We’ll play tomorrow or the next day when I have a little more time. Open up, now, please. Here, listen. Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy,” the woman sings softly.
You have never known how to hold a grudge. You were never strong-willed enough for it. And, truth be told, you like the sound of her voice. It is gentle, even through the door. Your breathing evens. The clock doesn’t startle you as it chimes toward noon. You haven’t been injured and you could handle a little company. The air fills your lungs and you feel confident enough to get up off the floor, inhaling deeply again, and face the music.
You open the door and see Mindy or Sherry or whoever it is that has the braces with a large brown bag in her hands.
“You girls should be ashamed of yourselves,” you say.
“I know,” the young woman says, pushing past you and into the house. “Forgive us?”
It is all you can do to get out of the way.
“Why don’t you put some clothes on while I fix your lunch?”
You stand holding the front door. The day is bright and a siren from a fire engine sounds in the distance and starts to get louder as it approaches you. You close the door.
“Hello? I’m talking to you. Get in here, please,” the young woman calls.
You discover her standing in your bedroom with arms crossed.
“You didn’t make the bed.”
Sheets are in disarray on your bed.
“Can you see this note?”
You blink a few times.
“It says, Make the bed. We went through this yesterday. This time, you’re going to do it by yourself. Pull down the comforter and straighten the sheets.”
You do as your told. For the most part, under her scrutiny, you get it right.
“My boyfriend never makes the bed. Do I need to tell you how inconsiderate that is?”
You fluff the pillow.
“It is such a simple gesture.” The woman opens drawers in your dresser as you smooth out the comforter.
“Dress, and come eat.”
You put on slacks, a plaid shirt, socks with red stripes at the toes, and brown shoes.
The dining room has an organ against the back wall next to a window. Outside, you see an alley and a chipped brick building. There is a cartoonish hamper-man painted in orange and blue waving and winking. On a small card table is a sandwich and a glass of milk.
“Sit down and eat.”
There is a young woman in the kitchen.
“It’s peanut butter and raspberry jelly. I pulled the crusts off.”
You sit and take small bites and chew thoroughly like you’ve always chewed.
“A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?” the woman sings from the kitchen. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll bring you an ivy sandwich?”
You have no idea what the woman is talking about so you say, “Fine.”
“You still like that song, right? I play it for you sometimes?”
When you get thirsty, you drink some milk. Although the sandwich tastes good, it is tricky, a few nagging raspberry seeds get trapped in your teeth and you try to unlodge them with your tongue. The young woman joins you in the dining room.
“I put some cold meatloaf and a salad in the refrigerator for later. Again, you didn’t eat the tapioca pudding. Your wife told us it was your favorite, why don’t you eat it?”
“I’ll eat it,” you say.
“Have it after dinner.”
“Fine,” you say.
“I put your pills in the medicine cabinet, remember to take them later.”
“Fine, yes, everything’s hunky-dory. It won’t be fine if you don’t start trying to take care of yourself a little harder. You can’t count on me for everything.”
The woman raps her knuckles on your head.
“If you go outside, fasten yourself and don’t wander into the neighbor’s yard again,” she says.
“I won’t,” you say.
“Have a good day and I’ll see you tomorrow. And, I’m sorry if Sunny scratched you. Next time wear a shirt.”
The raspberry seed will not come loose so you work on it with your finger.
The young woman walks into the kitchen, returns with a toothpick, hands it to you, pats you on the shoulder and leaves. You hear the front door open and close.
You tell yourself to remember a shirt. You wonder who the young woman is in relation to you. She is a nice girl, you think, a bit bossy, but friendly. She has a nice voice, like your wife. Your wife, Francis. You call her Francis-June because she has a birthday in June and it is your secret way of remembering.
You are grateful for the sandwich and the toothpick. The seeds come free and you swallow them down.
In the bathroom you find water in the tub that is not clean, it is not hot. You unplug the drain and listen to the water complain as it circles away. The window in the bathroom looks out into your neighbor’s side yard. Against the house is a tomato garden. The vines are heavy with the burden of fruit. Or vegetable. You can’t remember if a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable. Vegetable makes the most sense somehow. When you leave the bathroom you remember that you didn’t do anything while you were in there and decide that you didn’t need to go after all.
The dining room table has an empty plate and a glass. You gather these things and move into the kitchen. The glass goes in the sink, the paper plate in the trash.
Toss the trash out into the Dumpster below.
The window opens with a little difficulty. You feel your muscles strain as you drop the contents of the can out. The air is warm and you hear traffic over the hum of the Laundromat. You’ll go for a drive, see your friend Calvin. You remember Calvin. The two of you could have a beer and talk baseball. You can’t recall where Calvin lives or how the Cubs are doing, but you’ll figure that out once you’re in the car and on the road. The radio might have the game on. Listen to the radio first and then give Calvin a call and meet him at Ronny’s for a drink. You open a door in the kitchen and search for the radio. Canned vegetables and preserves. There is another door and it is locked. You think you hear music on the other side, but the radio’s upstairs, isn’t it?
The stairs are just around the corner. You take them slowly and with your arms splayed to the sides for balance. You know better than to hurry up stairs. If you fell, who would pick you back up? Francis-May, you guess. Francis-June? Your wife. You don’t know when she’ll be back, don’t know where she went. Probably the beauty parlor with one of her friends.
Upstairs the front room has model airplanes suspended in flight by fishing line attached to the ceiling. You see propeller planes with fancy tiger-striped wings or cockpits streaked with flames, and elaborate bombers angled in slow-banked turns, their exposed bellies weighted with oblong missiles. You identify a Helldiver, A Curtiss P-40, A Piper, a Taylorcraft, and a Douglas B-19. These are your planes.
Against the back wall, on a bookshelf, you see a black and white photograph propped in a cracked frame in a patch of dust. The shot shows two men smiling with arms around each other; one man in uniform with a chin like a brick, the other dressed in civilian-wear and a baseball cap. For a moment you are the airforce pilot who fought in World War II; you imagine the smoldering city below and the tiny tanks engaging each other as you maneuver the skyway above. The many war films with the jet-fighting scenes have left a convincing imprint on your memory. You are not the uniformed man in the picture, however. That was your brother, Alexander. Your Dad called him Alley Cat because he had been tough. You used to rumble with him, he was older, that’s what he wanted to do. Once, you broke his pinky finger and it changed your life. You shouldn’t have focused all of your strength on that one weak finger, it was a malicious thing to do. Alexander was fine, he had a splint for a while, but you snapped his trust. He stopped horse playing with you and found his calling in the war. Your arm around his shoulders was a pose for the picture.
Don’t let this upset you. Sit down and collect yourself in the rocking chair in the corner.
On the floor beside the chair is a book, The Odyssey, creased at page twenty-five, probably where you left off. You pick it up from there, but you are lost and go back to the beginning. You rock and read and nod and nod until the book succeeds in slipping to the floor.
When you awake you are disoriented by the unsteady rocking chair. Your shirt collar is moist with a circle of drool. You need to use the bathroom.
You choose the wrong way to the stairs and step into the small loft in the upper corner of the house. The room is filled with light from the many windows and the bright colors on the walls hold the sunshine inside. Short containers of paint are stacked in neat rows among canvases and brushes. Rolling fields and turgid ocean waves and delicate winter streets adorn the many paintings leaning against the walls, some framed, others unbound. You know better than to think this work is yours.
Close to the window is a canvas clothes-pinned to an easel. There is an oval-shaped mirror hanging from the wall in front of the painting. You look at yourself, old with deflated cheekbones and insignificant eyes among the pinches of soft skin, in need of a shave.
On the canvas is a portrait of a young woman from her collarbone up. You recognize her as your Francis-June. Her brown eyes are sharp with flecks of gold and the way they gaze back at you makes you wonder if she is about to reveal a secret or laugh out loud. She is like that. She makes you want to guess what she is thinking, makes you care what is on her mind. Her hair touches her shoulders and has a tinge of red you don’t remember. Her lips are perfectly reproduced, you half expect her to speak. You can see a little teeth peeking out between them. You wife takes great pride in her teeth. When you were first married she had a ritual of flossing and brushing every night before bed and she visited the dentist more often than you thought necessary. Regardless, you felt a comfort in her dental care, as if she were cleaning for you too. Her chin and forehead and cheeks are painted an alabaster-white that is paler than you remember. You recall a flush of olive in her skin that has been extracted in the portrait. You don’t mind, though. The lighter shade makes her look crisp and new, perhaps like she looked the first time you saw her.
You wish your wife were here so you could tell her that this picture is beautiful but not as beautiful as the real thing.
Through trial and error, you locate the bathroom and relieve yourself. You look out the window into your neighbor’s side yard where he or she has planted a tomato garden against the side of the house. The vines are heavy with the burden of fruit. Or vegetable. The blinds in a window next door part and you step away to avoid being seen.
Time to take your pills?
You don’t know how to answer that question. It could be time to take your pills. Behind the mirror is a medicine cabinet. On one of the shelves is a small water glass with a set of teeth resting in old water. These are not your teeth, yours are still in you mouth. You take the glass out and shake it. Bits of orange and red food swirl in the water like a globed Christmas-thing. Tomato skin. These are your wife’s teeth and those are pieces of tomato skin. Francis-June loves tomatoes, always has. Ever since her dentures, though, she has had trouble with the skin. It would be nice of you to pick a couple of tomatoes for supper tonight from the garden outside. You’ll leave a few dollars for your neighbor, they won’t mind. Where did you put your wallet? Probably in the bedroom, on the nightstand. First, though, put the cup of teeth back in the medicine cabinet.
You walk into the dining room. There is an organ against the wall. You sit on the small bench in front of the organ and try to play but no sound comes out. You spend several minutes trying to turn it on and then give up. Your wife used to play a song, you don’t remember the words, but you remember the tune. Where is Francis-May, Francis-June? Today could be her birthday. That’s what you’ve been forgetting all day. You better get her a gift, bake her a cake. But maybe it’s not her birthday. If it isn’t, you’d look silly with a birthday cake, egg on your face. No need to overdo it. Something simple would be thoughtful even if it isn’t her birthday. Go get her a book or a new paintbrush.
Next to the organ is a dark-wooden hutch containing glass jars half-filled with colorful hard-candies. You open the cabinet doors and dig in. The candy is clumped together and impossible to break into pieces. You keep at it, though.
Then the phone rings, you think. You hold steady, with your hand in the glass jar. The phone rings definitely. It takes you some time to untangle your hand from the candy jar and close the glass hutch and since your hand is sticky you don’t know how to answer the phone. You don’t even know where the phone is. Follow the ringing into the living room. On a small table next to the couch you see the phone which has gone silent. You pick it up anyway, with your left, non-sticky hand.
A dial tone answers.
You were hoping it was Francis. Put the receiver down and rest on the couch for a minute, catch your breath. You have a clear view out the front window into the front yard and street. Outside, cars pass, and you lean an inch forward with each passing one by one until your chin is at your chest and you’re under.
Twilight is a difficult time. You stiffly wake into it for no reason. Nothing particular pulled you from sleep, no urge and no distraction. You don’t know why you fell asleep, but it is more bothersome that you don’t know why you woke up. As you rise to stand at the window your mood dims. The tree in your front yard is green and full. A squirrel fidgets near the sidewalk and the crimson light holds for a moment on its tail before it flits back into shadows. A porch light goes on at the house across the street and a few doors down you see a thin woman in a suit shade her eyes as she leafs through the mail at her mailbox. The cars don’t know whether to turn their headlights on. A red fire hydrant at the curb is ablaze in sunlight. You don’t like this. The light doesn’t seem to be your light at all. You have half a mind to run out and shout the sun away from the curb. Hell, why not do this?
You fiddle with the lock on the front door, which isn’t locked, but you lock it and then unlock it and when it is open part of your gusto’s gone and the steps you take onto the front porch are tentative ones. You’ve forgotten how intimidating the sky can be spreading away as it does. The cars are louder than you remember. Somewhere a lawnmower chokes and starts and it sounds so much like a machine, you think, you can picture the motor grinding, the blades indiscriminately churning forward. By the time you get to the curb, the sun is down and you forgot what you rushed out here for in the first place. A man holding a baby waves to you across the street and asks you something you can’t really hear.
“Fine,” you say, waving back.
Then the phone rings, you think.
“I’ve got to get that,” you call to the man, who is actually carrying a bag of groceries, and he seems to think this is a good idea, you answering the phone, he bows slightly and nods. And then it is important for you to get inside the house and assume the responsibilities that come with owning a phone and receiving a call.
If the phone was ever ringing, it is not by the time you return inside. The clock is making noise, like it has all day, marking the hours. You grab the phone anyway and notice that your hand is sticky, somehow.
A dial tone answers. You put the receiver in the cradle.
In the bathroom, you wash your hands with soap. When you see your face, your heart skips a beat. You don’t remember yourself so old. The stubble of your gray beard looks hideous. You need a shave.
After some adjusting, you find the proper water temperature; a hint of steam begins to fog the bottom of the mirror. You roll your sleeves up and look around for shaving cream and a razor. Above the toilet is a note which you don’t bother reading, and behind the mirror, in the medicine cabinet, you find a cup of water with dentures in them. There are flecks of red food that stir when you move the cup, like an unsettled snow globe, and you know the teeth aren’t yours, they belong to Francis, bits of tomato, she loves tomatoes but has trouble with the skins. Behind a wall of amber-colored pill vials is a razor.
You lather your face with soap and start to shave. Francis doesn’t think you are as ugly as you do. In fact, she claims you resemble a Greek god, or somebody mythical. She loves myths. The name she calls you is her Hercules? her Achilles?
Next door somebody turns on a light and it distracts you to the window. There is a garden in the neighbor’s side yard and in the semi-dark the tomatoes have lost their color.
You finish shaving and wash the soap away. The face in the half-steamed mirror looks younger without the whiskers; bearable and wearable, you suppose. Adonis. That is the name Francis-June calls you sometimes, her Adonis.
Time to take your pills?
Yes, it is time. You should take your pills. They are in the medicine cabinet. First turn off the water and put the razor away. In the medicine cabinet, the cup of teeth. Francis loves tomatoes and today might be her birthday and it would be a nice gesture if you picked a couple of ripe ones from the garden next door. Behind the stack of pill bottles is an eyebrow pencil. Francis paints her face on every morning. You have the presence of mind to write the word “tomato” on your exposed left forearm, although you forget exactly how to spell the word and just write “tom.” You’ll know what you mean. From a pill bottle with your name on it you palm a couple of pills and swallow them dry.
In the dining room you return to the organ and, with a little luck, find the button to click it on. You have to wait a few moments while it warms up, and in that time you thumb through a music book and try to remember something to play. If you ever knew how to read music, you have forgotten. After a while, though, by toying with the keys, your hands rediscover the tune, “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,” an easy song to remember. “His name is my name too.” You sing it a few times, nice and loud. The grandfather clock backs you up with its chiming.
When you have had enough of “John Jacob” you try to get “Mares Eat Oats” out, but you cannot. Francis-June knows that one best. She should be home soon, it must be suppertime by now. When you think about it, you’re hungry. Also, there was something you were supposed to do other than play the organ.
Today is Francis-June’s birthday, and you were going to bake her a cake. Unless it isn’t her birthday, and you look like a buffoon giving her a cake when she hasn’t aged a year yet. Why don’t you give her something smaller and play it by ear when she comes home? She would like it if you fixed dinner tonight.
There is a salad and meatloaf in the refrigerator, paper plates on the counter, and if you wash the glass in the sink, you can get something for Francis to drink. The date on the milk carton expired in May and if today is Francis’ birthday, you’re already into June and even though it smells fine, you’d better get rid of it.
Toss the trash out into the dumpster below.
You can only manage to open the window halfway, for some reason it seems to be stuck. There is room enough to fit the can out. The air has a bit of a chill to it, refreshing, really, and you can hear the crickets over the hum of the Laundromat next door. You wonder if the stars are out. You can’t see them from your kitchen. Maybe later you’ll take Francis for a stroll down the block to the Dairy Queen for a Dilly Bar. She will enjoy it, especially if it is her birthday. Supper before dessert, though.
You divide the salad and meatloaf onto the two plates, there is enough, and you carry them into the dining room and the table. You’ll need utensils, napkins, and something to wash the food down. Back in the kitchen, you find a glass in the sink. After rinsing it out, you look in the refrigerator but cannot find anything to drink. You thought you had milk. Water will have to do.
When the water is cold you fill the glass, carry it into the dining room and have a seat. You forgot utensils. Outside the window the hamper-man is giving you a knowing wink. You wink back, you’re a fine winker, then you laugh; here you are, sitting down to dinner and winking at a painting on the wall. You belong in a nuthouse. Sometimes you tease your wife by singing, “If I had a face like Francis had, I know what I would do. I’d take myself to the county park and there I’d join the…”
What would you join? Start again.
There is a ring on your finger, strong and gold. Someone has written the word “tom” on your arm. Food is heaped on plates in front of you. You take deep breaths. Soon, you are aware that you need to use the bathroom.
Outside the bathroom window, in your neighbor’s light, is a tomato garden. A tomato is a fruit and you like to eat them although you have trouble with the skin, it gets caught in your teeth.
Time to take your pills?
This note is for you although you don’t recognize the handwriting. The pills are in the medicine cabinet, behind the bathroom mirror. Your face startles you. In the cabinet are teeth resting in a glass. Shake it and see the flecks of red. These aren’t your teeth, they are your wife’s, she is the one who loves tomatoes, not you, she can’t eat them with skin. Where is your wife?
“Francis?” you call out.
No answer. You have a feeling you’re forgetting something important. Concentrate.
It is your wife’s birthday. You didn’t get her anything. She isn’t a picky woman. It’s too late to bake a cake. If you cook dinner, maybe snatch a tomato and peel it for her, she will be delighted.
Go get a tomato from the garden next door.
It is dark. You find a switch and light your living room. Your wife could be home any moment. Hurry, now, get a tomato, then cook dinner.
Outside is too much. The clouds are knitted above forever. You stumble from the porch down into the lawn and drop. Your hands keep you from falling to your face. The grass is moist and marks your pants at the knees. This was a bad idea, you think, this was a bad idea. What are you doing here? You came out for something, maybe fresh air, and the air feels wicked against your skin. You find it hard to swallow. On your arm; “tom.” This is short for tomato.
A few feet in front of you is a chain. Crawl to it, find its end, fasten the clasp to your belt loop for safety. You won’t get lost. The chain is tethered to a tree and the tree is right there, in your front yard. Stand and be strong. You are a grown man. You used to fly planes, for God’s sake.
The distance the chain lets you travel is to the sidewalk, short of the street, and halfway around the house. The tomato garden is illuminated by light from your neighbor’s window. You march toward it, remembering Francis-June and supper tonight. Get her a tomato for her birthday. It’s not a big deal, you’ll tell her, she should enjoy.
The chain nearly rips your pants off as you stride ahead. You are short of the garden by fifteen feet. Where you stand, in the side yard, it is dark and the wetness at your knees gives you a chill. You are aware of your heart. “Tom,” on your arm, is an old friend. Tom and Francis-June. Unfasten yourself for them and cover the distance to the garden on your own.
By the time you get to the tomatoes, you are confused. You crouch in the light, rest in the dirt. You hug your knees and rock yourself. A dog barks in the distance. You used to have a dog named Pinwheel or Pinstripe. That was a big orange-colored mutt and you were on a farm and red ants came churning up out of the earth faster than you could mash them with your sneakers and Pinstripe jumped high in the air and dashed around a green shed and disappeared.
“Pinstripe,” you say, and are certain.
Your neighbor opens a window and calls out. It is an elderly woman, you see her face, but she cannot see you. You don’t answer.
“I’m calling the cops,” she says.
Stay calm, control your breathing. She will go away soon. When she closes the window, you relax. On your arm someone has written the word, “tom.” You wrote that, it is short for tomato. Grab a tomato and peel it for Francis-June, it is her birthday.
You snag the sweetest tomato and scramble like a soldier back into your house.
Inside, you lock the front door in case anyone is after you. The tomato is huge, Francis-June is going to love it. The dining room is already set with food.
“Francis?” you call out. “Did you make dinner?”
She doesn’t answer. She’s probably in the bathroom. Prepare the tomato before she gets out. You search for a light switch in the kitchen. It is around here somewhere. Forget it, just wash the tomato, grab a bowl, and start peeling.
“How was your day, dear?” you say, over the sound of the running water, as you wash the tomato.
You can’t be sure, but you think she says, “Fine.”
“Great. Mine too.”
After you dry the tomato, you find a bowl and move back into the dining room.
“You made meatloaf, great, honey,” you say, sitting with your back to the hallway and the bathroom. If she comes out, you don’t want her to see what you’re doing.
You pull the stem from the tomato and set it aside. Then, very carefully, with your fingernails, you begin to peel the tomato. The skin doesn’t come off in easy strips, you have to work for each little piece. After a while, you expose the fleshy fruit, with the small greenish seeds and veins. That’s the part your wife can handle.
You’ve forgotten the salt. Francis likes it with a little salt, for taste. Hurry into the kitchen and grab it; there it is on the stove.
She is still in the bathroom, you still have a lot of tomato to peel.
You start to sing “Mares Eat Oats” while you work, but you don’t remember all of the words. You can hum it, though, so you do. You peel the tomato, one fingernail full of skin at a time. When you need to use the bathroom you repress your urge because Francis-June is still in there. Inevitably, you must, and you’re polite enough to knock on the bathroom door even though it is not completely closed. When you see that your Francis-June is not in here, it worries you for a moment, you swore you heard her washing her hands a second ago. No matter, she’ll be home soon; you relieve yourself and wash up, hating the old face looking back at you in the mirror.
You find your seat in the dining room and eat the cold food in front of you with your fingers. You don’t know how supper got here if Francis-June didn’t make it. After you have eaten, you lift the tomato from the dish. It is already turning soft, but the weight of the thing is substantial.