Sunlight etched shadows of leaves into the emerald lawn. The rhododendrons and roses were in full bloom, pink, peach, gold, cream, richer decorations than the flimsy poles and ribbons that lined the path that I, the bride, would take. The hint of a breeze scented with May blossoms threaded through the warm air. I opened the gift from my groom, a heavy silver bracelet with a line of cursive writing. “A summer’s day… More lovely and more temperate.” And all the women around me, from teenage girls to gray matrons, exclaimed over its thoughtfulness. I had roses in my hair and citrus cologne and a lovely dress of pink silk. Everyone said I did indeed look lovely.
I gazed at myself in the mirror through the veil and the talcum powder revolving in the sunlight. The face that stared back was more late autumn than summer. Could they be right? Could I be adorable at my age? Could he really think me lovely? Could the fairy tale charm of the day so transform me? I wanted to believe it could.
I heard music. Someone must have turned on a tape or a phone. Aretha Franklin singing, “You make me feel like a natural woman.”
“It all happened so suddenly,” a young woman whispered. “I was just flabbergasted.”
Well, I was flabbergasted too. Just eleven months earlier I’d opened my husband’s closet, and been unable to make sense of what I saw. I had expected to see white and grey shirts, neatly pressed with frayed collars, brown suits with patches on the elbows, two old felt hats hanging on hooks, brown and black leather shoes, worn but well-polished. I’d expected to smell moth balls and hints of tobacco, bleach and old sweat. I’d expected a space where I could hang up the dry-cleaning.
But the closet didn’t look as I’d expected it to.
I stared, uncomprehending, my mind a blur. I couldn’t put the pieces together. I dropped the plastic wrapped jackets I’d been holding and collapsed screaming.
The next thing I remember was waking up in the dark. I heard muted voices of my son, Reggie, his wife, neighbors and others I didn’t recognize. Mrs. Kimmel from next door must have heard me scream and called the police, who would have found Brian’s body. The worst day of my life. No, the second worst.
At the funeral reception, Reggie’s wife and two grown sons passed around snacks while I sat on the sofa and accepted condolences from friends and family. I could see these polite people scrambling for things to say. Reggie had insisted that the details not be revealed in the obituary or at the service, and secrecy always makes you wonder. They wanted to know how he died, if only to know what comfort to offer. “At least, he didn’t suffer,” works for a head-on collision, while, “At least, his struggle is over,” works better for brain cancer. What comfort can you offer for suicide?
“I found him,” I said. “I can’t get that image out of my mind: my husband of fifty-five years, my Brian, hanging there between the tweed and the wool, neck twisted, eyes bulging.”
“That’s awful,” the pastor’s wife said, and put down her fork laden with carrot cake.
“Do you have any idea why he would do such a thing?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve racked my brains. Was he trying to hurt me? Was he trying to help me? What did it mean?”
“Did he leave a note?” asked another woman from the church, sitting on my left and leaning forward, eyes wide.
“That was – almost – the weirdest thing. I couldn’t find a note. I searched for it all over. I thought perhaps the wind had blown it off the dresser. The window was open, you know – but I couldn’t find it under the bed or behind the curtains or anywhere. Who kills himself without leaving a note? I even thought maybe an intruder had murdered him, but, no the coroner himself said it was suicide. I made up notes in my head,” I said with a little laugh. “Dear Marjorie, I love you dearly. But I cannot bear my life any longer. Please forgive me.’ ‘Dear Marjorie, I have an inoperable tumor. I can’t put myself and you through the agony of that.’ ‘Dear Marjorie, I’ve gone to be with our beloved Jack. We’ll meet again soon.'” I looked up and shook my head. “But there was no note. What does the lack of a note say about our relationship? That he despised me? That he was indifferent to me? That he wanted to escape and didn’t give a damn about what he left behind. I can’t forgive him,” I said suddenly.
Someone drew breath sharply but I just continued. “How could he do this to me? The bastard!”
The women exchanged quick glances and someone whispered something about the stages of grief.
After Reggie had shooed the well-wishers away, he came and sat on the sofa, leaving as much room as possible between us. “They’re just like rubberneckers at the scene of an accident,” Reggie pointed out. “Don’t wave our dirty laundry in their faces.”
He looked like his father, bald, black-eyed, hunch-shouldered, and like his father, he didn’t much see the point of me.
“Talking helps me deal with things. Saying them out loud helps me understand,” I murmured. “I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re not,” he said, more to himself than to me. This was his tragedy too. I had to remember that.
I reached out and touched his arm. “How are you doing, Sweetheart?”
“I’m fine.” His face drew into a scowl. “You know what people will say about your revelations, don’t you?”
I frowned, trying to understand what he meant, probably looking foolish to him.
“That it runs in the family.” He gave a quick glance through the window to where his sons were throwing a football with some friends. “That might not have occurred to you, since it isn’t your genes they’d be talking about. But they are mine and …” Again he gave a meaningful glance towards the window.
His meaning took a few moments to register. He was talking about his sons, whose red hair marked their genetic link to their uncle, Reggie’s brother, and my younger son. Jack, my bright, clever boy, always with a girl on his arm but never enough time to marry, successful in business, kind to his mother, and a little too fond of whiskey and soda.
I closed my eyes to steady myself as a storm of feeling pummeled me. “No. That wasn’t suicide.”
Jack’s sudden death at age 41, after seeming perfectly healthy two hours earlier, did cause some people to speculate – not out loud to my face but I could tell what they were thinking. I insisted that the death must have been due to heart failure. True, he’d never had heart issues before, but the human body is a mystery. Who can predict its sudden changes? He’d loved me. He wouldn’t do this to me. I knew that his emotional heart was more constant than his biological one.
“The doctors said it wasn’t.” I had insisted on an autopsy and my faith in my son had been vindicated.
Reggie rolled his eyes again. “The report wasn’t conclusive.”
“Yes it was. Doctor Walters assured me. I know it in my bones.” I would argue this point with him until I was blue in the face. I would never give up on Jack.
I am by nature a busy, cheerful talkative woman. “A chatterbox,” Brian used to call me, and worse, when I filled up the silences between us with frivolous talk. He didn’t help much with the silences. If I hadn’t said anything, he’d have sat for hours, reading or staring out the window, especially in the first few years after Jack’s death. I dealt with the loss by talking about it, explaining to whoever would listen, what a fabulous man he was, and how, although he’d had his troubles, he would never have taken his own life.
“Shut up about Jack,” Brian snapped one time. “They don’t want to hear it. They’re just humoring you. Don’t you have more self-respect? Do you really want to be the object of their pity?”
I see now that maybe my chatter about Jack was a constant reminder to Brian, hammering home over and over the awfulness of our loss. But when he made those comments, my eyes filled with tears against my will. I had no intention of stirring up his pity. My crying had long since lost its power to move him. “Stop whinging. It makes your eyes all red and puffy,” he would tell me. I could have told him that his silence on the subject caused me pain too, but there was no point in telling him. He wouldn’t hear me. Sometimes he walked away when I was talking. And perhaps it was for the best. He could grieve in his quiet way. I could grieve in my loud way.
And then he was gone forever. Without leaving a note.
We dressed up to go to the lawyer’s office. Me with my brother, and Reggie, with his plump, kindly wife and sweet-natured sons. Brian left me the house with the mortgage only a quarter paid (apparently he’d refinanced some time after Jack died and I’d signed the documents without understanding them). But there was almost nothing left in our retirement account. After paying off Brian’s credit card debt, and what with the 2008 collapse, the small monthly payments we had made for fifty years amounted to less than $10,000. I felt a brief flare of rage at this further betrayal. Leaving was bad enough, but leaving me destitute! I could never forgive him.
Reggie said that the shame and despair of financial ruin would explain his father’s death. So, at least the mystery was solved. But why couldn’t he have told me? We could have weathered the storm together.
Now the most pressing question was how to weather it on my own. I would have to keep working at my part-time job as a food demonstrator in grocery stores, if I could somehow manage to stand and slice Fuji apples and add peanut butter without scaring mothers and children with uncontrollable chatter about nooses and bulging eyes. But even if I could hold down a job, the pay was barely minimum wage.
Reggie drove me home. The details rang in my head. How would I survive? Where would I live?
Reggie and his wife had decent jobs as insurance broker and teacher. Two of the bedrooms in their home were empty now that his boys had graduated. I didn’t relish the prospect of begging for his assistance, but I had no other options.
I started carefully. “That was disappointing.”
I fiddled a loose string on the passenger seat. “After we pay off the mortgage there will very little of the sale price on the house left.”
He looked like his father, hunched over the wheel, balding, thick glasses, nothing like his charming brother. “Well?” He wasn’t going to make it easier for me. He pulled into the driveway of his childhood home, examined me for a long time, and then started laughing, a harsh, joyless laugh, a sort of pantomime of absurdity. “You’re trying to suggest that I do what Dad couldn’t manage, take you in, support you?”
The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. “If Jack were here—”
“Oh, right, your precious Jack would have taken care of you. The wrong son died, didn’t he?”
Reggie kept on while I tried to wall out his words. He’d held these things down for so long and now he was unleashing them, the joy of it intoxicating him. He wanted to keep talking, yelling, emptying himself of his hate and his disgust. Even if it hurt him, he wanted to destroy things between us so that there was no going back, so that he wouldn’t have to bother with me ever again.
When he finally finished he glared at me. I stayed silent perhaps for the first time in my life, feeling my eyes filling with tears but not wanting to show how deeply he’d hurt me. I opened the car door. I would have liked to make one quiet dignified statement in response but I didn’t trust my voice. I pulled myself to a standing position and started to walk away. He didn’t call after me.
As I walked stiffly down the path and up the sagging steps, I tried to explain his words to myself. Had I hurt him by favoring his brother? I’d tried to treat them equally but my natural affection for Jack must have shown through. That would have hurt Reggie. And now he was afraid that if he didn’t make a stinker of himself he’d be landed with me for the rest of my life, taking up space in his house, soaking up his salary. He just couldn’t bear that prospect. And his father’s death was his tragedy too. Still his words cascaded over me with the same force as the image of Brian’s dead body.
I pushed through front door with its peeling paint and torn screen and then felt dizzy. I closed the door and leant against it. Reggie was right. I was nothing. Or worse than nothing, because nothing wasn’t a burden. I was a chattering crow and a dripping tap, wearing away patience, driving out happiness, better off dead.
Somehow with a little help from my brother and my brother-in-law, the revenue from the sale of the house, and the small social security payments, I was able to pay for a room in a shabby retirement home, The Shady Acres. My apartment was only two hundred and fifty square feet with a tiny bathroom and kitchenette, and I had to make most of my own meals, but the Shady Acres was clean and safe. The residents looked old, I thought, but I had to remember that I was no spring chicken either. Disappointed in the first, badly attended game night of my stay, I decided to make some changes. First I approached my church and asked for donations to purchase a better stock of board games, funds to rent movies, and even to purchase prizes. Then I sat with different groups of residents at morning and afternoon teas and encouraged them to participate.
On the first Thursday in October, I surveyed my options: bridge, bingo, Monopoly, and chose to join a Scrabble game. I consider myself a fine player — perhaps because I read a lot — but I soon found myself in a tight race with a tall, white-haired gent by the name of Rufus Galloway. I must have looked a little discouraged after the game because he assured me that his victory had been due to luck.
“Who ends up with a q and a z and a triple-word score? You would have crushed me otherwise.”
A gracious winner. Well, I could be a good loser. “Oh, no, Mr. Galloway. You are an extremely talented player. It will be my honor to challenge you next week.”
He nodded deeply. “I look forward to it.”
On the next Sunday, I came downstairs to watch television on the big screen, and was assailed by a sea of families – sons, daughters, in-laws, grandchildren, surly teenagers texting, rambunctious ten year olds, and cuddly toddlers, a bittersweet vision. Little ones have always charmed me, but the absences around me ached. I felt torn between staying and retreating to my tiny room with its tiny screen.
“Will you join us, Mrs. Turner?” The tall-white-haired scrabble champion asked. “My daughters brought a chocolate torte and we can’t do it justice by ourselves.”
“No, no. I couldn’t intrude on your special time with your family.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “It’s not special at all. They come every week.”
I hesitated still, but then the women, probably in their forties and fifties, attractive in a casual, seemingly effortless way, joined us and smiled so welcomingly that I relented.
“This is Virginia,” he said. “My eldest. And this is Charlotte and this Emily.”
“Very literary,” I murmured.
“Yes, my wife was an English major. After all her pain and trouble at birthing them, I thought it only fair that she should be the one to name them.”
“Beautiful names,” I said. “And you must call me Marjorie.” I resisted the temptation to apologize for having so mundane a name.
The daughters, clever, professional women, teased Rufus for his old-fashioned ways but obviously adored him. When they asked me about my family, I told them my son was an executive in an insurance company, and was currently travelling on business. He did that a lot, I said, keen to explain this and future absences. I didn’t mention that Reggie didn’t visit me – whether he was in town or out. I’d learned to cut and paste my story to match my listener. Happy people got the happy version; sad people, the sad. No deception, just careful editing.
Shady Acres sheltered enough sad people, and I soon found little pieces of my wretched life spilling out. One evening they showed Casablanca and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Even Rufus Galloway touched a handkerchief to his eye. After the show, four of us sat together sharing a night cap and tales of our own lost loves. Each of the other widows in the group told how their husbands had died, Rufus talked about his wife’s breast cancer, and then, ever courteous, he turned to me, inviting me to tell my story.
The old urge to loosen my mental bodice, relax and let it all hang out returned. “Brian killed himself,” I said. “I found his body hanging in the closet. And later I found out that we were financially ruined. He’d wasted most of our retirement fund and taken out a second mortgage. I can never forgive him.”
Rufus was quiet for a few moments. Afraid that I had said too much, I was tempted to say more, to try to soften my criticism of Brian.
“Nor should you,” Rufus said finally. “He treated you appallingly. What a cad!”
I stared at him. Could this be sarcasm? Could this virtual stranger really be taking my side so ardently? Yes, he meant it. I laughed; he laughed, we laughed together.
That evening Brian’s ghost appeared. He did that sometimes when I wasn’t vigilant. Talking about me is getting you attention, I see, he muttered.
It could backfire, you know. They’ll figure out soon enough that you’re disloyal.
I didn’t know what to say.
Another Sunday, I saw Rufus again waiting for his girls.
“Are you expecting someone?” he asked me.
“My son. I think I’ll wait outside.”
“I hope you have a splendid day.” He beamed.
He looked so innocent, I couldn’t lie to him. “Well, actually, no. The likelihood of my Reggie turning up is probably less than snow in July.”
He frowned. “You just have the one child?”
I stared at him, suddenly unsure how to answer his question. “Yes and no… I had…” The tears started with a soft moaning that drew the gaze of other residents. I should have been embarrassed but I was past caring.
“Oh, Marjorie,” he murmured, and took me in his arms. The gesture was totally surprising — our hands hadn’t even touched up to this point. He stood and held me as long as I needed to be held and let me know that he understood.
It’s just pity, you realize. Brian’s ghost told me later that evening. That Galloway fellow. He’s only kind to you out of pity.
“Perhaps,” I said. “It’s nice though, whatever it is.”
Rufus and I started spending more time in each other’s company, taking our afternoon tea together or going for walks in the grounds or taking the bus into town. The other residents of the Shady Acres remarked on our friendship — some of them a little jealous, I suspect. Widows are so much more plenteous than widowers in these places. I didn’t care.
He’s only after you for your money, Brian carped in my head.
“What money?” I retorted. “You didn’t leave me any money, remember?”
He’s ancient — probably a little demented. He thinks you have money and will be furious when he discovers that you don’t.
“He’s not demented. He’s a Scrabble champion.”
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
One afternoon, it must have been around Thanksgiving, I slipped on the ice and would have fallen hard if Rufus hadn’t caught me. He pulled me close to his side and held my arm tight.
“Rufus,” I said, “Why do you…I mean, why me?”
He stopped and turned, looking into my face. “I could ask you the same question.”
I was tempted to scold him for this foolishness. But instead I made a joke of it. “Well, men are so rare around here.”
He laughed. “Women are not rare, but you always stood out amongst them as very special. I’ve been struck by your courage and optimism, particularly in light of the very difficult life you’ve had. The way you rallied the troops around this place with games and movie nights and sing-a-longs has been amazing.”
I cocked my head slightly. Part of me wanted simply to thank him for the compliment, but another part was sure I didn’t deserve such praise.
“Oh, those were just silly womanly games,” I said, feeling myself blush like a girl sixty years younger. “I was just trying to have a little fun.”
The eyes that widened and stared directly into mine were a vivid blue, a first day of summer blue. “Don’t do that,” he said fiercely. And then more softly. “Don’t put yourself down like that.”
“I…” I stammered.
“I’m sorry. You must be sick to death of men telling you what to do and what not to do.”
I laughed, recovering. “I’m not sick to death of men telling me to think well of myself or men telling me I’m courageous and optimistic.”
“And joyful and kind,” he added.
After that we had no more arguments. We rarely spent more than an hour or two apart during our waking hours. And after a couple of months, very few of our sleeping hours either.
If I had thought a romance possible at my age I would have assumed it would have been platonic. I hadn’t enjoyed sex much for the last thirty years. After my change of life, my libido had declined and I’d become self-conscious about my thickening body. But until shortly before his death Brian had claimed his marital rights once or twice a month, with the fierce single-mindedness of a burrowing mole that bore no relation to the rest of our life together.
With Rufus, sex was a natural extension of our conversations. He saw me; he listened to me; he was sensitive to my vulnerabilities and keen to give me pleasure. I felt no need to go to another place in my mind when we were intimate. We didn’t make love often, and we needed drugstore assistance, but we were as romantic as any teenagers.
You look pretty ridiculous, you know. I look down from above and see his ancient buttocks–
“Leave,” I said suddenly. “I’m done with you, Brian. You’ve brought enough misery into my life. Go and be wretched somewhere else!”
Lying beside me at three in the morning one night, Rufus told me more about his life with Vera. I felt a little jealous. She’d had Rufus for so much longer than I would; they’d been together in the prime of their lives; she’d given birth to his three daughters. He would, I guessed, be buried beside her when he died, their relationship being the central one of his life, while ours was just an addendum.
But since we had so little time together, wasting it on mean-spirited comparisons would be foolish. I chose to focus on being happy. I had much to be happy about and I realized I should be grateful to Vera. She’d helped make this man into the giant oak that would hold me up and shelter me and absorb the gentle rain that poured out of me.
Rufus proposed in March. I accepted without hesitation and then rushed around sharing my good news with my fellow residents and calling my brother and brother-in-law. They were all surprised but very pleased for me. The conversation with Reggie was more difficult. He felt it was a betrayal of his father. I could have said that his father had betrayed me, but I bit my lip and endured the lecture.
After I put the phone down, I reflected that I’d needed to inform him and I’d done so. I would send him an invitation to the wedding and he could refuse to attend. We were both adults.
Initially I assumed that the wedding would be a small affair with Rufus in a dark suit and me in a sensible skirt and jacket and low heels and just a few family members in attendance. Rufus didn’t object. But his daughters insisted on something more flamboyant. And somehow their interference was very different from Reggie’s, with no malice in it, only gaiety and playfulness, qualities I understood. These women were better fitted to be my children than my son was. They did my hair and my make-up, and dressed me in satin and lace with pearls and roses in my hair. They wanted to give us a day to remember.
At 3 o clock, Aretha Franklin was snapped off. The band outside struck up a Bach piece. “All right, Marjorie. It’s time to go,” Virginia said.
I paused to peer at my image.
“You look perfect,” she whispered.
I gathered my train around me and set off. Downstairs, on the threshold I heard a voice.
“You look ridiculous!”
For a second, I thought it was Brian, returned to haunt me one last time, but no.
“Reggie. Goodness. You sound just like your father.”
“What’s that?” He touched my dress. “Satin? Pearls? Lace? You’ll be a laughing stock.”
“Nonsense,” I countered. “I look lovely and temperate.”
“What are you doing here?” I asked, glancing down the avenue between my happy friends and relatives towards the altar where my handsome groom waited. Everyone I loved except my darling Jack.
Reggie held out his arm. “You need someone to give you away.”
I examined him, trying to discern what had prompted this gesture. Was it a clumsy expression of love or simply a grudging nod towards convention? He tapped his foot and held out his arm again — wrapped in dark wool that must be making him sweat.
“No thanks,” I said. “You cannot give me away. I don’t belong to you.” I moved past him out of the shaded doorway and into the dappled sunlight.
Frances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy at Western Washington University but prefers to explore ideas through fiction. She has published several stories at Halfway Down the Stairs, The Magnolia Review, Oxford Magazine and other places.
© 2016, Frances Howard-Snyder