It wouldn't be long now, the doctor said. With a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other, he announced the impending death of one of his patients. A grim smile and a few mechanical words were offered as solace.
Charlie took his wife's small hand in his, noting the veins that crept up, more and more pronounced with every passing year. They rested on the tiny bones of her hand, the skin drawn tightly over them. The beep, beep, beep, of the heart monitor told him that despite her lack of movement, she had not yet slipped off into oblivion. He watched her eyes, no sign of life. Her chest barely moved at all. Her body, which had once filled their giant kitchen, had withered away as the disease had taken hold. He squeezed her hand gently, more for his own sake than hers, for he was sure she wouldn't feel it.
Tonight. The doctor said that this would be her last night here. Charlie's decision to pull the plug didn't even come up. He didn't need to. The thought lurked in the dark abyss of his unconscious ever since the last doctor told him she wouldn't wake up. She would live, yes, for a time, but she wouldn't wake up. It took him many agonizing weeks to get up the courage to do it. Every time he told himself that it would be for the better, he would see her as she was before. He couldn't do it. But now the decision was out of his hands. He relaxed in his chair a little.
A smell drifted into the tiny white room, it smelled like meatloaf. She always made meatloaf.
He hated meatloaf.
And her mashed potatoes, all her guests would cry for more. Not him, he hated potatoes. He wondered if he had anything to eat back home. The thought struck him that today was the last day that Elissa would cook for him. In a desperate fit of helpless loneliness, he hired a maid to cook and clean for him. It was only a temporary fix, and he'd made it clear that he wouldn't need her for long. Tomorrow she was scheduled to return to her little apartment on Fifth Ave. and never return. Maybe she wouldn't even be there when he came home, after it was finished. Maybe she already left, tired of waiting for him. Tired of waiting for the old lady to die.
Hours passed. His arthritis had started acting up. He thought that he wouldn't be able to get out of this unconfortable metal chair if he sat here much longer. He would be stuck here, forever waiting beside his dying wife. He clenched his eyes shut, forcing those thoughts from his mind. In the hospital bed, something was happening.
The beep, beep, beep stopped, and the room went still. It felt as if she sucked in all the air in the room with her last breath and he was left sitting in a vacuum.
Maybe he imagined it… did she squeeze his hand?
He leaned in and touched his face to hers. He felt her last breath leave her lips and caress his cheek. It was over. He could go home now. A tear fell on her nose and hung there, suspended like morning dew on a flower. It could have been hers, he almost imagined that it was… but it wasn't. He kissed her lips. They felt like that paper used to make Origami. It was their last kiss.
He slid the key into his lock, but didn't turn it. He stood there for a moment on the threshold, not yet ready to enter their home for twenty nine years. Of course, he'd come home to an empty house all the while that she was in the hospital bed. But this was different, this time he couldn't tell himself that she was sleeping peacefully only a mile away. Where she was resting now was much farther away.
He pushed the old wooden door open and stepped inside. His feet dragged across the welcome mat and he shuffled toward the kitchen. He could hear Elissa humming. It was one of her African tunes, one that her grandfather had sung to her. He liked the sound of this one, it was his favorite. It sounded happy and reminded him of prairies. He wasn't sure why, he had never been to a prairie before. He couldn't have seen it on the television, she didn't approve of televsion. She said it was all a conspirecy of the government to "brain wash the population. Sheep with empty minds were easier to herd." He never mentioned that he figured sheep already had empty minds. Sheep didn't watch much televion. But he didn't say that either.
He stopped at her cabinet, right before the kitchen. He remembered the flea market where she purchased it. A crowded fair ground, filled with little stalls and tents. People's old things strewn about on tables for the passerby to examine carelessly and toss aside. The actual purchasers of the wares came prepared with back sacks and fanny packs.
His wife one of them.
It took him, the poor soul who was left to tend the stall, and his two teenage sons to lift the cabinet into their old pickup. The truck was long gone, but the cabinet remained. Now it leaned against the hallway wall, grand in stature, but old and decrepit. Filled to the brim with her things; little dolls, old china, cat toys, wind chimes that she never hung up. He never understood why she kept this crap. He opened the cabinet, it was unlocked.
She never locked it.
She knew he wouldn't touch anything that belonged to her, he wouldn't dare. His fingers reached out, wanting to grab one of the little dolls, but they stopped. He took them back and closed the cracked glass doors.
It was half past midnight. A little clock above the entrance to the kitchen told him that. A motorcycle roared by, the deafening sound of the engine felt deadened slightly with his old age, but it still sent a shiver down his spine. He had never ridden a motorcycle, but what he wouldn't give… She wouldn't allow it, it was too dangerous she said. She couldn't have her husband out there risking his neck for a few cheap thrills. She equated the experience to a hooker. He supposed she might have had a point, but hadn't yet figured it out.
They would come this weekend. The people who would help him "take care of business" as they had put it. The funeral arrangements. It was ironic. The last time all the members of his family were gathered together, it was for his wedding. Now the person they'd all seen him drive away with in a rented white Cadillac, they would see laid to rest in a black coffin. He figured that his family would have visited a lot more often if they had children. It was planned, but somehow, it never happened.
His meal was getting cold, Elissa's sing-song voice informed him from the kitchen. She glided by him, her beautiful full face all smile. She'd see him, maybe, some day. But she had to be going, it was late.
Then she was gone and the house was empty. Empty, except of course for him, but all his years of marriage had taught him that his presence never amounted to much.
He crawled upstairs and slipped into bed, his meal lay forgotten in the kitchen.
It was meatloaf.
He hadn't slept with his clothing on since he was a young boy, but he didn't have the strength to strip them off.
She stole the last of it with her death.
He cried a little more, but found that he didn't even have the strength for that. It took only a few short minutes to slip off. As he faded away, he was reminded of her. The way she died peacefully, in sleep.
Morning came and brought with it a terrible sense of loneliness. He moped around the kitchen, poring himself some stale cornflakes and munching on them in somber silence.
She loved bacon.
She almost always made them both bacon and eggs in the morning, it was one of those things that he thought he'd miss most. It was also one of the most probable reasons for his dramatic weight gain he suffered after marrying her. He replaced his entire wardrobe every three months for a long time after they moved in together. Most of the weight had been lost. A byproduct of depression, and a maid who didn't cook nearly as well as his dearly departed.
On his way out to the morning paper, another motorcycle roared by. An idea slipped into his head like a trail of exhaust fumes. An idea that had him smiling as he clambered into his car and drove out of his yard, running over the abandoned newspaper. He almost hummed as he drove, this idea was so exhilarating. It danced about in his head and pushed all other thoughts roughly aside. He was almost crazed with excitement as he rolled the old minivan into the parking lot.
The idea put a little bounce in his step and took away the shuffle that married life had given him. He almost ran up the steps into the large gray building. Inside, he sat in one of the blue plastic chairs lined up in neat little rows and patiently waited for the lady behind the desk to notice him.
She raised her head and smiled at him, and he felt his heart fill with a childish joy unfelt for years. He marched up to the counter and bravely voiced his query.
"How much for a riding permit?"