He sat in the stifling room wondering why his wife had assumed it would never get hot in Maine. He watched the breeze suck the sheers to the screen and puff them back out as if the house itself was laboring to breathe. “Let’s buy a summer house in Maine,” she’d said. “We won’t need any air conditioning there.”
He huffed and interrupted the silence, which he immediately regretted because it woke her.
She opened her eyes and looked at him. “Oh, hi. You’re still here.”
“Where else would I be?” He said drawing in a puff on his cigarette, and leaning further back into the recliner.
“We could hire a nurse you know.”
“Nah. If I need to go out I’ll take you with. Besides, there’s nothing I’d rather do than watch you sleep.”
“How sentimental. I’m sure you mean that,” she said rolling her eyes. “Look. There’s a book, a photo album, on the table. Do you see it?”
“Of course I see it, woman. Do you want it or something?”
“Yes, I do. Of course I do.”
“Then say what you mean.”
She rolled her eyes again. “That book is you and me.”
“What the hell are you talking about? You don’t make sense!” he said.
After fifty-two years together he hoped there’d be some sentiment he’d feel other than Lord, leave me be, but it had been too long since all the parts had worked on their farm. Plus, she didn’t seem to like having him around anymore. Nothing he ever did was good enough. You think me wipin’ her ass would be more appreciated, he thought as he stubbed out the Marlboro, appreciating the sudden breeze.
“I’d make sense if you’d listen,” she repeated when he made eye contact again.
Hating to admit he’d lost the thread of the conversation, he inspected a new cigarette. “I doubt that,” he said, flicking his Bic and inhaling before he spoke again. “Now what did you say you wanted?”
“Hand me that book you old goat!” she bleated.
“Which book, you old nag? There’s twenty books on the table.”
“Ughhhh!” she sighed. A long frustrated sigh that let him know he was on her last nerve. Good, he thought. Because usually she followed such a sigh with, “just leave me alone you old goat” and he’d say “fine, nag,” and the rest of the day would pass without him having to actually smother her with the pillow.
But something in her eyes wouldn’t let him alone. She was unusually alert today. Perhaps that doctor’s visit two weeks ago had something to do with it, but she wouldn’t tell him anything, even thought he’d been taking non-stop care of her for three months straight. The end of the season was coming in a month or so, and they’d head back down to Tennessee, where her sister could relieve him long enough for him to go to the bar and watch a football game.
“The photo album for God’s sake,” she huffed.
“Oh good grief, is it this one?” he snapped.
“No. Where are your glasses?”
“In yonder, I reckon,” he said shuffling through the books.
“Is this it?” He handed her a unique leather book with a lacy design embossed on it.
Jim had begun to regret bringing her the box down from the attic, filled with sentimental crap. Piece by piece Hazel had been going through everything in it. Books, cards, photo albums. It had been getting on his last nerve, too. He wondered exactly when folks began to shed their nerves and get down to that final one? Was there a medical term for it? It was obvious women got there first. They shed all their nerves and the men reacted by doing the same; a survival mechanism passed down from Adam and Eve. That was the real curse. Women did a thing and men had to suffer the consequences because deep down they knew they couldn’t live without them. Can’t live with them either it turns out. Jim smiled.
“What are you smilin’ at Old Man?”
“Nothin’. Just thinkin’”
“Well stop it, I’m sure it’s not that important,” she grinned when she said it though.
“Oh yeah? How do you know what I’m thinkin’? Maybe I was just thinkin’ up an invention to carry you around so I don’t have to, and soon we’ll be millionaires.”
Hazel smiled at him, which threw him off. It was hard to be piss and vinegar when she puckered up with sugar and honey. “Come here. This book is you and me,” she said, “I want you to look at it.”
Jim groaned as he got up out of the chair and sat on the edge of the bed. He noticed for the first time that her hands and arms had reddish-purple blotches on them. “Hazel, what’s wrong with your arms?” He pulled back the covers and looked her over as if it was a rash. “It’s on your legs too. I’m calling the doctor and takin’ you in.”
“No, it’s alright. It was there when I went to the doctor.”
“Yes, and why wouldn’t you tell me that he said? I knew I shouldn’t have gone to piss while you were in there.”
“It’s none of your beeswax that’s why! Now really, don’t worry. He didn’t tell me anything I don’t already know. Now pay attention, I want you to look at this. It’s you and me, see?” She said untying the leather cord binding.
“What do you see?” she asked.
“Nothing. It’s empty.”
“Aha! That’s what I mean,” said Hazel.
Jim stared at her. He believed in God. He did. Believed in Heaven and Hell too. Had to because this was Hell for sure. Hell was surely having only one good nerve left and being trapped in a hot room with a bedridden crazy woman; seeing your wife lose not only her body, but her mind too. Did they really used to dance? And make passion-filled love? God, what fun they’d had. If they’d had kids this might be bearable. But, today he felt as though he was already left alone in this world.
“Are you okay, Jim?”
“Heh? What? Oh yeah. Yeah. Just tired, Hazel. Didn’t sleep well. Do you have a point with that empty book? If so get on with it. I got big plans today. Gotta reorganize my sock drawer, and you’re interferin’."
She smiled at him again. “You are so funny! I guess we couldn’t have lasted this long without your sense of humor. But, here’s what I was thinking about. I bought this right after we were married. I thought it would become our “best of” family album and journal. A sort of scrapbook we could pass down to our grandchildren.”
“Well, we don’t have any of those, so let’s pitch it. That’s what we’re doin’, clearin’ stuff out, right?” Jim reached for his pack of cigarettes and put them in his pocket. Hazel patted his leg.
“See that’s the difference between you and me. This photo album and journal you see as empty and pointless—like my whole life right now. You’d throw it away. Me? I look at it and see possibility. A way to still pass something on and remain. I could give it to my niece Christine. You see only emptiness. I see possibility. It could still be filled.”
Jim put his hand on hers. Even though it was hot and she was covered in blankets, her hand was still cold. He noticed her fingernails looked almost blue and frowned. “So the old glass half full half empty debate? That’s what’s so important that I have to put off my sock project?”
“No. Realizing that the empty glass is still filled with something tangible.”
“With what, woman? Your hot air?” Jim laughed.
Hazel picked up a throw pillow beneath her arm and swatted at him feebly. And in that instant Jim saw something he hadn’t seen in awhile. She giggled and her eyes twinkled, like she used to when intoxicated by laughter at his outrageous antics. Like the time he faked a bear growl into a piece of old pipe, scaring off another couple from eating at “their” picnic table, the one they’d specifically hiked to in Woodland Park.
His mind’s eye saw her grey curls unloose into long blonde waves and her figure morph into the youthful one she’d had before the stroke. He picked up her hand and pressed it to his lips. That’s all it took and there she was, his beautiful, green-eyed bride looking back at him.
“Jim,” she said with tears in her eyes, her voice wobbly. “Help me, won’t you? Fill this book? Find some pictures for me? I—I don’t—I don’t have much time left.”
“Oh now, hush that…”
“Jim,” Hazel raised her chin. It was easier than raising her voice. “The doctor said. That’s what the doctor said. He said to call hospice, but…But I only wanted you.”
“Oh.” Jim looked at the floor, not letting the tears overtake him. He was a strong man. He swiped at his eyes, sniffed then took out a cigarette and sat leaning forward, elbows on his knees, unconsciously inhaling and exhaling with the curtains. He wiped sweat off his forehead. “Why’d you wait to tell me?” He whispered. “Ahh, hell it don’t matter, pretty woman! Let’s fill up this book! Where’s them pictures?” Jim stood abruptly.
He gathered some photos and a pen, then opened up the album.“Now, my writing ain’t as pretty as yours but it’ll have to do. It says to put our names here, which ones do you wanna use? We could make it interestin’ and put names like Nag and Goat or King and Queen?”
Hazel gave him a loving look and touched his elbow. “What about Romeo and Juliet?”
“Why, hell no! They both die in the end,” he scoffed.
“Yes and without children. But on second thought, he dies first, and I don’t think I like that.”
“Nope. Me neither,” Jim grunted.
Hazel play-slapped him and they both laughed. “But, she could always kill him instead!”
“Ha! I’d like to see you try.”
Jim suddenly laid down his cigarette and wrapped her up in his arms, sobbing; and she cried with him. They stayed wrapped around one another for a long time. When he gathered himself the sun was low and bright, blinding him in the last hurrah of the day. He closed the curtain. The cigarette was now a long line of ash.
Jim wiped his nose and cleared his throat. “Okay, now, let’s get this here book done with.”
“Okay, go on and fill in our names.”
“How about Adam and Eve?”
“’Cause you said this is the book of you and me. And we’re gonna pass it down, right?”
“Right. So, really don’t you think it should be Jim and Hazel?” she asked.
“Nope. Adam and Eve ‘cause it’s us. Hell, it’s all of our story,” he said thumbing through pictures.
“What do you mean?” asked Hazel trying to straighten up.
“Think about it. She wants stuff she can’t have and finds a way to get it. He’s amazed at her bravery, so he doesn’t stop her. This woman. Her insanity and brains, her beauty and her denial. If she’s going to Hell, he’s going with her. God knows he can’t live without her.
“When did you get so wise?”
“Snakebit, I reckon,” Jim grinned, kissing her hand again. Then on the cheek. Hazel raised her good hand and put it on his face, smiling at him. Then he kissed her on the mouth, just like they used to, back in the garden.