Deirdre, seated on the cracked and crumbling porch steps on the edge of her tiny town, brought a cigarette to her lips. The smoke, somewhere between pure white and grey, swirled up in miniature alabaster plumes, forming whorls and swirls as it blew away on a crisp lake breeze.
The breeze, ever-present this time of year, sent volleys of leaves jumping, skittering over the cracked, lopsided sidewalk that stretched out before the haunted woman, short as her ambitions.
At the end of the short walk, crisp brown flowers shriveled and quivered in the breeze, some hanging by the thinnest of tendrils, clinging to a life that slipped ever further from their grasp with each smoky inhalation and exhalation that passed Deirdre’s lips.
Her eyes stared, glazed and blank, at the world before her, old, boxy houses like her own. No children played on the swings and slides across the road; the late October chill, too cold even for the town’s hopeful residents, forbade any but the most ardent outdoorsy folks to venture into its clutches.
Deirdre didn’t see the old man sliding his way down the sidewalk, hunched against the cold, or the wiener dog across the street, two houses to the left, who sat on the white porch like a burnt-red bun on a white tablecloth. She didn’t notice when a single petunia shook and fell to the sidewalk below her dented mailbox or hear the creak of the next-door neighbor stepping onto their porch to sweep, sweep, sweep their boredom away.
And Deirdre, flicking a tuft of ash down to the faded ashtray beside her, certainly didn’t notice the final few sailboats bobbing in the marina with their vibrant sail covers, or behind them, the roiling lake, part of the Mighty Mississippi River itself, grey and vengeful, dotted with whitecap blips. If she’d noticed the bobbing sailboats, she would have fixated on the rectangular windows on their sides, black and narrowed like sad eyes; the hulls’ bobbing motions would have been nods of agreement: Yes, this is a mighty sad world. A sad, sad world, they’d say to her. What a damn shame, this last statement, heard in her husband’s voice.
That’s what he’d said to her last week, sitting in the industrial hospital in the room with the splatter-painted horse on the wall: ‘What a damn shame.’ And at the moment, she’d thought, Yes, it is a damn shame, isn’t it? Cancer is a damn shame.
Last night, she’d lain awake staring at the yellowed popcorn ceiling to the empty sound of a needle scraping over a record before it stopped ringing out in the silent room. She’d lain alone in the bed made for two; Timothy wanted to stay on the sofa, watching his nature documentary, some local story about nineteenth-century clam harvesting or some such thing. And so, she’d lain alone, thinking just how much of a damn shame it all was, a damn shame that he couldn’t put down the Lucky Strikes, and now look at where we are! That night, she’d sworn to quit her own habit, but the numbness the little, red-dotted box brought beckoned her.
Yesterday afternoon, she’d pulled on black pantyhose, slipped her feet into too-narrow, low-heeled shoes, and wrapped a wool jacket around her, the fabric matching that of the damned wiener dog across the street. At the Family Grocer, she’d walked beside Timothy, her fingers wrapped around the bend in his elbow, so familiar to her fingertips; they knew where to rest on their own. And at the checkout counter, they stopped behind Ms. Elrod, the sole widow in town, her basket filled with only the barest essentials: a box of pasta, a can of beans, and a bright white vitamin bottle.
Deirdre had studied the older woman, who had to be in her seventies by then, noticing the way her liver-spotted skin stretched across her thin hands, the four tendons sticking up like the dirt rows Deirdre passed in the fields on her way into the city. The little pale blue veins, the same color as the lake on a calm day, pressed up against the woman’s pale skin. She, a woman who’d lived far longer than Deirdre had, lived through far more adventures alongside her Herald than Deirdre had her Timothy.
She’d looked at Timothy as Ms. Elrod counted out her coins, taking in his still-youthful face with its few lines—laugh lines—framing his full lips. His greying blonde-red hair showed his age the most; they approached their forties, much too young to part. She’d looked between Ms. Elrod and her husband, and as the older woman left the store to the tune of the little tinkling bell, Deirdre was caught in a sudden wave of fear, fear because she didn’t know how to be a widow, didn’t know how to navigate the world without Timothy’s presence there to soothe her, and how would she ever remember to pick up the antacids or the low-fat yogurt he favored, even though she said it tasted like sour candy? Then she’d realized she wouldn’t even need to buy yogurt, and an image of the yogurtless fridge stopped her from approaching the cashier. The purple yogurt containers sat in her basket, taunting her, and Timothy had to pry the basket from her hand and pay for the groceries himself while she watched him, taking in every little movement and sound, trying to remember it all.
On the porch steps, she blew out another stream of smoke which the wind carried away, the little curlicues of alabaster-grey drifting past the sweeper and the wiener dog, invisible as it continued its journey to disappearance.
Deirdre snuffed the cigarette in the ashtray, the crumpled instrument lying dejected, crooked as a slinky in its cracked ceramic dish with its faded floral border, the pink carnations as dead to Deirdre as the shriveled petunias beyond the cracked walkway.
A sigh drew out her breath, drifting out as her cigarette smoke drifted on the breeze. A sigh of weightlessness, emptiness, all the white and grey areas of her life coming to fruition as two fading lives lay in the house behind her, constant reminders of the approaching loss; in the recliner, Timothy’s father, Richard, watched another ancient football game, from the days when football footage came across the screen in grainy images, the ball an elongated brown blur over the pale green field. Occasionally, a little faint whistle sound reached Deirdre, followed by, sometimes, a thud on the armrest, some muted comment grumbled in anger about a team entirely different than the two that played on TV.
To Richard, every player that made a good play was Archie Manning. His mind could understand no different. This sometimes extended to Deirdre and Timothy as well.
Sometimes, Deirdre was Charlotte, a British woman Richard once courted back in his show jumping days. Other days, she was Iris, Richard’s late wife, a woman whom Deirdre bore no resemblance to, save her bushy brown hair. When he clasped her hand and asked her to make some of Iris’ famous Snickerdoodle cookies, she could only oblige his wishes, going into the kitchen and whipping up a batch just for him, of which he’d later take a single bite and furrow his brows, asking her if she changed the recipe on him again.
Other days, when she passed his recliner, he’d smack her on the bottom and shoot her a sly grin; she never thought anything of it—she knew he thought she was Iris. She’d never told Timothy, even before his diagnosis. Richard didn’t know better; to him, it was still 1973.
Out on the porch, Deirdre ran a hand through her windblown hair and stared at a diamond-shaped paint chip on the stair below before squeezing her eyes shut. After all these days, she still refused to let the tears fall. She knew they’d make their grand entrance one of these days, when the pain built up, expanding to reach every cell, ventricle, and synapse, and then the floodgates would burst in a cascade of wild torment. But today, she could postpone them a while longer, just a while, enough time to bring Timothy a container of low-fat yogurt, enough time to press a kiss to his cheek, and later, kiss tiny smears of yogurt from his strawberry-sweetened lips.
As the final smoke curlicue fizzled out, a single vanishing puff drifting to nothingness like the final spurt from a steam engine, she stood on stiff legs. A joint popped in her knee and the steps creaked beneath her.
A foghorn blast echoed across the lake’s churning water. If she cared to look at such trivial things as trains, she would’ve noticed the red streak speeding in slow motion along the Wisconsin side, past the tiny town across the water, the faded Canadian Pacific blurring on the engine’s side. If she’d cared to look, she might’ve noticed how the train rolling along seemingly to infinity was made up of faded red cars and nothing else; some russet and some rusted, more coppery. If she’d cared to look, the flashes of red might’ve reminded her of the love within her heart, little glimpses of passing memories, her full life of love with Timothy. As the screen door banged shut behind her, the final train car disappeared beyond the distant shore.
Timothy’s eyes snapped open and creeped shut, quivering. Deirdre watched his eyes, the little flashes of green—green like the final living leaves on the Wisconsin bluffs—and caught glimpses of their russet-brown flecks.
She sat in their wide armchair, the one with the scratched cherry wood frame that ended in four clawed feet. She sat with her legs draped over Timothy’s and her arms around his body, one behind his neck, supporting his head, and the other resting in a lazy slump against his forearm.
On the TV, Archie Manning threw a touchdown pass that culminated in grainy cheers bellowing from the speakers. Richard, as usual, yelled—as loud as he could at his age—and smiled, showing a mouthful of yellowed teeth between thin, wrinkled lips. Tufts of sparse stubble sprinkled his chin and cheeks.
Deirdre remembered the hope she’d felt when she’d brought up Archie’s sons to Richard, the hope that resounded in her at his snappy response. She’d offered to turn on a Colts game, claiming Archie’s sons were pretty good players by her standards, but he’d shook his head, said no, no. Those punks don’t have a clue what they’re doing! She’d smiled and reminded herself not to get her hopes up, told herself he’d make some comment that revealed he wasn’t improving. Sure enough, later that day, when she’d joked about switching the channel to the Giants game, he’d furrowed his brows when she’d mentioned Eli Manning. She’d tried to ignore the sudden stab in her chest, wondering why she continued to let herself hope when it did nothing.
Richard cheered as a grainy orange streak whizzed across the field.
Deirdre studied Timothy’s face, searching for any visible sign of sickness. His face had always been gaunt, his cheeks hollow whenever he wasn’t smiling, which was often nowadays; this, she’d noticed. His angular face remained familiar to her in its clean-shaven state. His nose, straight and slim and sharper toward the tip, she could recognize even without a glimpse at his other features. His eyebrows, thick like the checkmarks he made on grocery lists, always bothered him; he claimed they made his eyes look too hooded and angry. All these features, the same as they were when they’d married, excepting the faint lines that showed on his forehead and framed his mouth. She noticed the change in his smiles most. He smiled to reassure her often, but the smiles were shorter and looked more like grimaces at times.
As Archie threw a touchdown pass in a brown blur across the fuzzy green turf, Deirdre leaned toward Timothy’s gaunt face, its thinner frame an almost imperceptible change, and let her lips do the rest, let them find his smooth cheek, the jawbone sharper, more pronounced under the soft plane of skin. The kiss lasted long after the player left the endzone, and two or three plays later, her forehead met his when he turned to face her, eyes closed in near-sleep. Hers stayed open until the winning team celebrated with energetic leaps on the field and fell shut as the evening sun retreated from the stained windowpanes, back across the sidewalk and the wide lake, and beyond that, another red train whizzed along the shoreline in an ever-present, infinite blur of color.
* * *
Marmalade lamplight spilled across pretzeled legs and flush bodies. A pair of smooth legs with curves along the thighs and calves wrapped around a hard body, and another, straighter pair of legs wrapped around the smoother legs and the smoother body, holding that body in place along with firm, flat palms, and long fingers that rested on angular shoulder blades: Deirdre holding her husband together, and he reciprocating, though they both knew it was more the former.
Her head tilted back. Hair fell across her shoulders when Timothy tugged it free of its bun and tossed the ponytail holder to the floor. A sigh, long, drawn out, like stress releasing itself in an audible breath, masked the sound of the little elastic hairband hitting the floor.
His heated lips, soft as the skin beneath her breasts, brushed against her collarbone, tracing the little, angular edge, leaving little damp traces of saliva on the skin. His face moved lower as he pulled her into his lap, arms still strong enough to carry her weight and the sorrow she carried within herself. His lips grazed her sternum, a whisper, and then his cheeks, eyelashes, nose, and lips pressed, hard, between her small breasts; barely an A-cup, she’d always been ashamed of them until these moments when his face met her sternum, fitting between her breasts like they were made for his face alone.
His breath tickled the peach-fuzz hair along her breasts as he sighed. His eyes, half-shut, met hers, clear but dreamy. “Oh, Deedee,” he breathed, twisting her hair around his fingers, “you’re gonna be the death of me, I just know it.” He grinned, his sharp canines indenting his bottom lip.
She froze, rigid against his loose body. “Stop it.” She pushed against him, and he relented, letting her slip from his grasp and his lap at once.
He rested his cheek against her back as she turned away. Her feet hovered just above the hairband on the floor, the little circle a slight shadow against the floorboards.
“You know I hate it when you say that,” she said, the words strained. She crossed her arms over her breasts.
“I know.” His nose brushed against her mussed hair, his whispered breath hot against her goose-bumped skin. The bed creaked as he reached behind him and tugged a fleece cat blanket to him, draping it across her shoulders, tucking it beneath her chin. A gentle hand turned her face toward his. “I won’t say it again, baby. I promise.”
Her dark irises reflected the upside-down lampshade against the far wall when she looked at her husband’s face, every inch of which she’d come to know so well over the years, the features more familiar to her now than her own mother’s. And then: “I don’t know how to do it without you,” she said. Her voice broke as she broke, collapsing into him, convulsing with dry sobs that shook her tired limbs and Timothy with them, wrapped around her as he was, holding her together.
As they shook, somehow remaining whole, she found she couldn’t cry true tears; her dark eyes rested against his chest, as empty as the future that stretched out before her.
* * *
Snow flurries swirled in tiny tornadoes beyond the window. They obscured the lake in the distance, though Deirdre never noticed it, even on the clearest days.
Her hand shook like the wild flurries outside, the spoon in her hands full of a dollop of vanilla yogurt, just a bit darker than the falling snow.
The scent, something halfway between burnt cream and fresh cucumbers, wafted toward her nose each time she scooped another dollop for Timothy’s waiting mouth.
His lips, still full despite his sunken cheeks, grasped at the spoon. His eyes had seemed to recede further into his face with every week that passed, and his teeth, still the same as always, looked much too large in such a slim face.
A tear-shaped drop of yogurt dripped to his shirt and Deirdre clutched the container until it collapsed in on itself. “I’ve got it, sweetie,” she said, forcing a shaky smile. “Don’t worry.” She dabbed at the shirt a few too many times, finally tossing the tan cloth napkin onto the bedside table, forgotten.
She scraped the final spoonful of yogurt out of the container and cursed her inability to keep her hands steady. Steady. Strong. Steady and strong. You’re so strong, the doctor always reassured Timothy; you need to stay strong, he told Deirdre. Where had the strength gone?
She stared at the spoon in her hand. She’d thought she might do this for her children, the children they’d never had—she’d thought they might spoon-feed their children together—but she’d never expected her husband to be on the receiving end of the spoon.
His hands grasped hers, which were still clutching the yogurt container, and which now released both the container and the spoon, sending a white vomit-splatter across the floorboards.
She glanced down at it, stricken, and then down at their joined hands. A long exhale brought her forehead and body down, limp, and her head came to rest against their hands. “Oh, God,” she whispered, audible only to herself. “Oh, God.” Her hands clasped his tighter.
And then his went limp, falling to the bedspread, falling, and rising, also, in short movements.
She glanced up at his face, relaxed, loose, as loose as a bony face could be: peaceful and painless in sleep.
Strength didn’t matter any longer; this was what Deirdre understood. Now it was all about keeping Timothy comfortable.
From the glider chair beside the bed, she watched his stomach rise and fall, rise and fall, wondering, as always, what she’d do when the breaths paused. These thoughts never stuck around long; she pushed them from her mind, focusing instead on his face, his hands, trying to memorize every inch of him, every hair and freckle, for a day when she could look upon them no longer.
He spent more time asleep than awake now. When he awoke, she spoon-fed a few soft foods to him before he fell back asleep.
She held his hand sometimes, the tendons as prominent as the exposed roots in the lawn outside, poking through on this warmest of winter days, the melting snow as heavy as Deirdre’s heart. She’d offered to bring him outside earlier that day. She’d stood with one hand on the wheelchair in the corner, the other clutching a thick, fleece blanket, hoping he’d say yes; he loved the outdoors, or used to, when he still had the strength to bring himself outside.
Now, he wanted nothing more than to lie in bed, to sleep away his final hours, a choice Deirdre understood, but one she hoped would change, nonetheless. She wanted him to see the lake and river one last time, the sailboats wrapped in their thick, tight blue tarps for the winter, waiting to slip into the waves again come springtime, when she feared more than the snow would leave her.
His eyes fluttered in the weak winter light.
Her wedge of sunlight barely warmed her, but she sat straight, ready if Timothy requested food, water, anything.
Outside the room, Richard’s quiet snores drifted through the cracked door.
“Hey,” she murmured, sliding her hand between Timothy’s. His fingers moved along her skin the slightest bit. “Are you hungry?”
“Mmm,” he hummed.
“Yes?” She moved to stand up from the glider’s steep-angled cushion, but his fingers tightened.
“No.” His voice caught in his throat, scratchy. “Stay.”
“Okay.” She settled back into the aqua cushion, sliding forward to clasp his hand tighter. She watched his eyes shut again, noticed the tiny grimace on his tight features, the way his lip twitched and lines showed beneath his brows. Her hand tightened, though not enough to hurt, never enough to hurt.
Overcome by a sense of protectiveness, she picked her away across the bed, careful not to bump or knee him. She sank down on the other side. Now level with his body, and her eyes level with his, which now moved to meet her gaze, she smiled, sliding her hand into his under the covers.
“Timmy,” she whispered.
His chilled fingertips grazed hers, cold, like metal railing in winter.
“Do you remember when you took me to see the lights?” She spoke into his shoulder, remembering their second anniversary, walking and driving under the glow of Christmas lights in every color and shade, blinking, flashing, twinkling, ever-changing bulbs welcoming visitors and locals alike to one of the largest Christmas light fests in the Midwest. Black, ice-cold Lake Superior had stretched out in a gaping expanse of nothingness beside Duluth.
His fingertips pressed against hers, an answer.
“God, it was cold.” She emitted a wry chuckle. “But you were so adamant about seeing as much as you could—you didn’t drive all that way for nothing.”
His lips moved against her hairline, a smile.
“I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel, but you wanted to go down to the damn lakeshore.” She remembered the untouched snow blanketing the cream-colored lighthouse, the top, where the light was, black, blending with the night sky, but the pale world around her seemed to gleam from the glow of the far-off city. Snow had covered the jagged black rocks where they’d both picked their way across, careful not to slip on hidden ice. She remembered how they maneuvered to the pebbled shore and gazed out across miles and miles of thick ice. She’d stood shivering on the shore, bundled in her knee-length coat, her mitten-clad hands stuffed in her armpits, until Timothy joined her, and they stood at the shoreline, at the boundary between land and water, present and future, and watched the blue-black stillness for hours or minutes or no time at all, seconds reaching ever closer to morning.
“I never thanked you for taking me,” she said. She cleared her throat as hot pinpricks stung her eyes. “I never thanked you for taking me, but I want you to know it was the best night I’d had in a long time, maybe my whole life, and I want to thank you for it now . . . thank you for taking me to see the lights.” She lifted her head the slightest bit, gauging his reaction.
His lips curved upward. “You’re welcome . . . Deedee.” And then nothing. He went silent, and his breaths slowed to the steady rhythm of sleep.
Beside him, she sighed and laid back against the covers, staring up at the black ceiling, her physical world dark, though in her mind, Christmas lights danced in a whirlwind of rainbow flashes, enough light to brighten her world.
* * *
“C’mere,” Timothy whispered to her, the room dim. He lay in shadow and Deirdre sat in the light, silhouetted for Timothy against the frozen lake world beyond.
She scooted to the edge of the recliner and held his thin hand, pressing a long kiss to it, the waxy skin growing wet with tears. She hadn’t cried in weeks, the shock turning everything numb, but in here, the sterile, chemical scent that permeated everything, the whiteness that surrounded, whiter than the snow outside, reality and loss hit her in full force.
She’d begun wondering when it would happen, the loss she dreaded most. Any day now, she knew, but how would she be ready? How could she live without him, never needing to pick up his special yogurt, his preferred razor brand, or surprise him with a new tie at Christmas, some outlandish cartoon print that made her chuckle, which he always wore to humor her. She’d never lived alone, and sure, she’d have his father, but for how long? Richard hardly recognized her anymore; she lived as a figure of his past. She wouldn’t ever be Deirdre, at least not the Deirdre she was with Timothy.
He turned his face to her, his eyes watching her lips on his skin, closing at her touch. “Deirdre.”
She glanced up.
“I don’t want you . . . to stop living.”
She waited for more, but when he stayed silent, she nodded. “I won’t,” she said. “I promise.” But she didn’t know how she would. She’d only ever lived as a component of a partnership; she didn’t know what it meant to navigate the world alone. She squeezed his hand, sniffling, trying to keep the tears at bay, and then met his eyes, which were still as vibrant and bright as the day she met him.
He glanced down at the blue terrycloth sheet, and then his eyes creeped to something over her shoulder, out the window where tiny skaters on the lake skirted across ice under a cloudless cobalt sky. “I’d like it . . . if you stayed.” His eyes met hers. “I don’t want . . . to be alone.”
She nodded, trying to force words through the tightness in her throat. “Mmm” was all that came out at first, a single heaving sob choking off the rest, and then: “Yes.” She nodded, kept nodding, convincing herself, of what, she didn’t know. “I’ll stay.” She exhaled, shaky. “I’ll be here u—” She shut her eyes, clasping his tissue-paper hand tighter. “Until the end.”
* * *
A week later, their room stood empty. Creases in the fitted sheet hinted at a life there and gone. On her side, the sheet was smooth, untouched, un-lived in.
She spent her days on the couch now, or in Timothy’s recliner, wondering if her scent would someday overpower his, if someday, she’d no longer detect his musky man smell.
Silence permeated the house. Richard had since moved into an old folks’ home where other elderly citizens welcomed him with wide smiles and open arms. Deirdre, with dead eyes, visited him every morning, dressed in a light jacket of Timothy’s, which dwarfed her thinning frame, and sat with Richard while he regaled the residents with stories of his past, and Archie Manning, and asked who she was at random intervals, other times referring to her as his wife, which she’d expected, but which jarred her still; the reality of her widowhood hadn’t sunk in yet. Maybe it never would.
“Have a good one!” The front desk nurse dressed in carnation-pink scrubs waved at Deirdre on her way out the door.
Deirdre returned the wave with a forced smile. When she got outside, the smile dropped, and she drifted down the sidewalk to a place she hadn’t been in months, drawn on a phantom wind to a place of her past.
* * *
A month later, Deirdre’s feet traced the path she’d followed daily for weeks. She descended blocky limestone steps and stepped up onto the pier, pockmarked with smooth little stones embedded in the cement, and stepped over the knee-high cleats that dotted the pier every few feet.
She walked to the end, where the lake stretched out, waves crashing against the cement wedge beneath her in a great wet whoosh, a few of the ice-cold droplets hitting her fevered cheeks.
Out on the water, eager sailors heaved their mainsails higher, the billowy fabric catching the wind, sending the boats heeling at steep angles. She imagined the spray of water, the hissing sound it made as the boat bobbed over waves and crashed back down, the white frothy droplets exploding in white fireworks along the hull.
She imagined herself at the helm sometimes, leaving her town behind on a temporary excursion, imagining what Timothy would think if he saw her out here, whether he’d be surprised or shake his head with a lazy smile, used to her antics, plans, and ideas, never doubting any of them.
She breathed in the aroma of seaweed and freshwater, cool and crisp, the calm breeze bringing warm hints of summer, which waited around the corner to bring the world back to life.
As she stood on the pier, she looked across the steady, rolling water and saw it all. She took in the sights she’d refused to notice, couldn’t notice, for hazy, grief-ridden months. A pelican soared with his neck crooked, his yellow beak bright against the budding bluffs behind him. He soared with black-tipped wings over sailboats and rolling water, heading to his species’ favorite fishing spot offshore from the marina; this she knew from the days she spent here, a silent observer in this world she’d never taken the time to see before.
Across the water, a long, rusty streak pulled ahead of the tree line, speeding along its track, straight and steady. The horn blasted, loud, metallic, echoing across the water. And Deirdre lifted her arm in a wave, knowing they likely wouldn’t notice her at this long distance, but knowing it didn’t matter regardless. As she let her hand fall back to the railing, the engineer rang the horn twice in quick succession. Hello, goodbye, and everything in between.
Rachel Drenckhahn is pursuing her BA in Writing at Winona State University in Winona, MN. In 2021, she had an essay featured in the feminist anthology, Chapters from Venus: Breaking Stories, Breaking Silences. She is currently at work on her first novel.
© 2022, Rachel Drenckhahn