When Vincent has to go out to a work site on Saturday, he asks his wife to come with him for the same reason he’s been coming home each night as early as he can: it means more time together. He rises before Lucy does and tugs on his shirt on his way to the bathroom. The faucet is leaking and the shower needs a good scrubbing. The filter on the showerhead, placed there to save Lucy’s skin from chemicals, needs changing. Vincent makes a mental note of all this as he brushes his teeth. He can hear Lucy stirring and he hurries into the kitchen next to get the trash hauled out. Dirty dishes are stacked precariously in the sink and the oven light is on again. He can’t figure out why it seems to turn itself on in the middle of the night, but he knows it’s using energy they can’t afford to lose. On his way out the door with the trash he gives the knob a rattle and the light flickers off, then on again.
His landlord, Rory, is also outside in the frigid morning, taking out the trash from his house which essentially sits in Vincent’s front yard.
“You going to put in that granite in my bathroom this weekend?” Rory wants to know, clapping the lid on a sturdy red rubber can that wears the word BRUTE. “I been waiting. You want that money off your rent, you gotta perform. Seems like it should be obvious. I know you’re getting that granite for free to begin with.”
Vincent nods, keeps on nodding as he talks: “Yeah, I can do it tomorrow. I have to work today but tomorrow I can finish the job for you. I’m sorry—we’ve had a lot to take care of.”
“I been waiting three weeks.”
“I’m sorry,” Vincent says again, tightening the lid on his trash can, an ancient aluminum thing rusted along the edges. “I’ll be on it tomorrow morning.”
Rory rolls his eyes and turns back toward his house. “I’ll bet.”
Vincent watches the back of the man’s rumpled paisley shirt, swallows back the urge to rush up behind him and shout something. He takes a breath, releases it, and hurries over to his work truck. It’s December in the mountains of east Tennessee, and the windows are choked with a thick frost that will take ten minutes to thaw out. In the cabin Vincent starts the truck and runs his hand lightly over everything Lucy might touch to check for nails or screws. He spreads an old fleece pullover over the dusty passenger’s seat and cleans off the headrest a little. From the patch of woods behind the complex, he makes an improvised bouquet of flowers with twigs and dead leaves, curling the leaves around the tips of the sticks so that they look like aged tulips. With masking tape he attaches a plastic juice glass to the glovebox and uses this as a vase.
When Lucy comes out of the apartment, her bones bundled in a winter coat three sizes too big for her, Vincent helps her into the front seat and kisses her forehead, hard. She smiles at the makeshift flower vase. “You,” she says simply, shaking her head. Vincent thinks, Today, I have given her this. It has been his mantra for many weeks and it falls flat every time.
“I was thinking Kroger for breakfast,” he says. “I owe you a treat, too, for coming out with me.”
“Oh, come on. I love to.” She reaches up to adjust the sky-blue scarf that does not quite cover her hairless and mottled scalp. Vincent sees her wince as she tries to pull one edge down to cover a patch of scorched skin. She says, “But you could get me some banana chips. From that wall with all the trail mixes and stuff in bins. If you’re asking.”
“I am asking,” Vincent says. “You got it: banana chips.”
The Kroger parking lot wears a veil of cold mist and Vincent tells his wife to stay in the heated truck while he gets their food. She nods, toying with the radio, and Vincent pulls on his battered knit hat and jumps out of the truck. The cold nips at his face in spite of the thick beard he’s grown in. He wants to slap it away. He has always hated winter and more than once fantasized with Lucy about moving to the Gulf coast, someplace with year-long heat and pecans and oranges. They haven’t had this conversation in a long time, though, and when Vincent spots the enormous display of clementines just through the Kroger entrance, he veers quickly away.
He wanders through the organic section to the wall of nuts and trail mixes in clear plastic bins. With a metal scooper he shovels a pound of banana chips into a plastic bag, then half a pound of cashews into another. He eyes the line of bins and memorizes the numbers for the cheapest options–salted peanuts and something called a “workout mix”–so that he can punch in those numbers at the self-checkout and save some money. Vincent doesn’t feel guilty about this. They don’t have much money these days. They don’t have much appetite, either.
On his way to the checkout he cuts through the candy aisle and is accosted by a memory from about eight months back, when he’d been wandering through the store just like this. He’d had the idea to bring Lucy home some dark chocolate. Everything was all right then; dark chocolate was just dark chocolate, not a consolation prize, not an exercise in futility. As he combed the stacks of candy he came across a sheet of notebook paper folded four times over, and he instantly recognized his wife’s tiny slanted handwriting; it was one of her grocery lists, and she had probably set it down for a moment while shopping and forgotten it. Vincent picked it up and read it. He pocketed it. He had a flash of losing his beloved stuffed koala, Bibbles, in a dollar store when he was a little boy, and how finding Bibbles again had been oddly more upsetting then realizing the toy was missing: it was the sight of him, a tiny stranger mute and lost among foreigners, lying there beside indifferent boxes of cookies and crackers.
The grocery list is in a shoebox of Vincent’s where he keeps old photographs and mementos. He reminds himself of this: the piece of paper is safe, his to guard. His breathing slows. He stops and turns around, with the idea of getting Lucy some plums, one of the few things besides banana chips she ever wants to eat these days.
As he bags the plums, he’s distracted by a faint chirping from somewhere above him. He stops and looks up. Focused, he realizes a bird is singing somewhere in the steel rafters of Kroger’s vaulted ceiling. He stays where he is until he spots the creature, who surprises him by swooping down right into the produce area and landing on the floor below the avocados. The bird hops around and stops to cock its head at Vincent, who now wishes Lucy had come in with him. She would love this. He looks around, instinctively wanting to share the moment with somebody: there is a bird singing in the produce section. There are several people milling about but every single one of them is on a cell phone, texting or doing whatever else it is people do on phones, all of it a mystery to Vincent whose phone is about fifteen models out of date. Nobody has heard the bird and nobody has seen it. Vincent is amazed by this, and yet the feeling is familiar: lately he’s been seeing a lot of things other people don’t.
He wants to see the bird fly right into somebody’s face and shock the hell out of them. But the bird only titters at him, then wings away into the rafters and out of sight.
Vincent pays for his food and again braves the cold of the parking lot. Nearing the truck, he is shocked as always to see his wife from even a short distance; her baldness, her impossible thinness and moon-pale skin, never ceases to stop his breath. He can remember how he used to have the opposite reaction in their dating years and the early days of their marriage. He would see her from afar–going into the gas station for coffee while he pumped gas, or coming out of the school where she taught to meet him where he waited idling by the sidewalk–and he almost couldn’t believe that he was intimate with her, that no one but him knew that she drew pictures in the condensation of mirrors or that she had a spray of sienna birth marks on her belly as though a tiny hand had skipped stones across the surface of her skin. Lucy wore her dark blonde hair short and full like a 1940’s diva, and she moved like one, too. She wore a size eight, was beautiful in the extra weight that meant hips Vincent could lose himself in, powerful legs he struggled to keep up with on their hikes in the national park. Men always looked twice. Now, they look twice out of alarm, sometimes pity, and Vincent wants to kill them for it.
To mask the tremor moving through him, he starts talking as soon as he climbs back into the truck. “It’s a hell of a project, these condos,” he tells Lucy, handing her the plums. “Two hundred fifty thousand dollars to start. I don’t know how anybody in Oak Ridge affords that, but somebody does.”
“Oh, plums. You didn’t have to do that. Where are they?”
“By the lake. Right on the greenway. I used to think it was going to be a retirement community or something, but it’s not. It’s all kinds of people moving in. Rich, but young people.”
“Huh. How many do we get to see?”
“I’m working in just one unit today. Didn’t have time to do the finishing touches Friday. Don’t have time Monday. All the other crews are finished in there but us.”
“I hope it’s a stone you like.”
“Pale with dark brown etchings. Makes me think of fossils in old rock.”
“Who’s moving into the place?”
Vincent hesitates. He’s been forced to converse multiple times with the woman who’s bought the place as her “artist’s haven,” and each time has left him close to screaming, his hands balled into fists deep in his cargo pockets. The woman, Muriel, is most certainly addicted to a slew of depression and anxiety medications; Vincent knows this behavior well. She speaks as though in a dream, a dream in which she is a character alone on a stage, someone all the world is fascinated by; she has kept Vincent for nearly an hour at a time, talking to him about her dog, her newest idea for a sculpture, her thoughts on local politics, all of it a one-sided conversation. She has called Vincent a dozen times to tell him how to do his job, based on research she’s done overnight on the Internet. Her fortune is inherited and she hasn’t worked a job in twenty years. And the last time she spoke to Vincent, she told him she had hired someone to create a miniature porcelain doll that looked exactly like her, for five thousand dollars. When Vincent mentioned that he was paid by the job and not by the hour, and needed to get home to his wife, Muriel spent another twenty minutes explaining how she’d also found someone to replicate her dogs in miniature.
“It’s a young family moving in,” Vincent says. “Two daughters.”
Lucy nods. Vincent watches the road. He hates lying to her and isn’t sure when he started. He only knows that he doesn’t want to waste their time talking about anyone or anything ugly. He crams cashews into his mouth and drives on, chewing hard in an attempt to ward off the cigarette craving that always creeps up on him right about this time, even though he quit back when the doctors told him secondhand smoke certainly wouldn’t help Lucy’s situation.
At the site, Vincent parks as close to the unfinished condo as he can and tells Lucy to wait while he unloads what he needs from the cab. She climbs out anyway and stands there shivering as he drags out a canvas bag crammed almost to bursting with supplies. To Vincent’s left are two other trucks he recognizes as belonging to some guys on the paint crew. He knows them only vaguely–young guys, mid-twenties, always drinking on the job and trying to get Vincent to follow them to a bar or to one of the strip clubs in Knoxville after a day’s work. Their work is sloppy and careless, and they’ve mocked Vincent before for his fastidiousness on-site. They whistle at women in the parking lot and flirt with the women who live in the finished condos a few doors down. They disgust Vincent, but the worst part is that he has caught himself envying them. He is just thirty years old, and yet they seem like high school jocks to him, utterly carefree, thinking only of food and drink and sex. Their futures blank and white and softly roaring like the inside of an enormous shell.
He is glad they will not be in his unit today. He hefts the canvas bag, pulls Lucy close with his other arm, and leads her to the front door, where he punches in his access code. But the door handle is immovable under his hand, and he has to tap in the code again. A tiny red light flashes at him from the console.
“Hang on,” he says. He shifts position so that his back is to Lucy and tries a different code. He thinks he’s got the last digit wrong—just the one digit. 5372. 5379. For a moment he wonders if he’s putting in a code from a completely different building at some other site. On the fifth try, he gets it- 5374. With a jerk he opens the heavy wooden door and ushers his wife inside. The hallway is warmly lit, the carpet a deep rich red, the walls lined with gold-framed prints.
Lucy breathes in. “It smells good in here,” she murmurs. “Like Christmas potpourri.” Vincent doesn’t smell anything, but he says nothing. He guides her over to the elevator and presses the button for the third floor.
“What’s with this?” Lucy presses a finger into the blue padding lining the walls.
“It’s to protect the wood underneath while all these guys are hauling stone and wood and stuff up and down.”
“It’s like a boxing ring in here.”
Vincent eyes her carefully as they rise. She is having one of her better days. No slurred speech, no piercing headache, no stumbling. These are the days that have fooled them both for months. The days Vincent has come to find more heartbreaking than the bad ones where Lucy is vomiting from pain and stuttering as she tries to tell Vincent what she needs.
“We don’t have to do this,” he says suddenly as the elevator comes to a shuddering stop. “We can say screw it. Go into the national park and just walk for a little while in the trees. Go to the Little River. It’s Saturday.”
She turns her large green eyes on him. In them he can read how much she wants that, and how much it hurts her to know that she could only walk for a few minutes at a time. Their last visit to the woods left them both desolate. “It’s okay, Vincent. I want to be here,” she says.
The doors slide open. “Number 309,” Vincent says, hefting his bag. “It’s huge. You won’t believe it.”
The door to 309 is unlocked, and a doorbell button glows amber on the wall. Lucy reaches out and presses it, and it is not a single note but a ripple of low chimes that sounds through the empty unit behind the door. Lucy looks at Vincent with surprise. “God, that’s beautiful. I love doorbells.”
He thinks, as he pushes into the entryway with his wife, that illness has a way of paring people down to the innermost selves, to the qualities that make them who they really are. When Lucy had begun to truly suffer, he’d feared for a time what they would find beneath the layers the pain was peeling back: rage, spite, bitterness, resignation. What they’d found was sweetness. It was, for Vincent, unbearable.
“Do you need me to help?” she wants to know. “Or can I look around for awhile?” Already her eyes are roving the place. She loves to snoop in others’ homes, especially empty ones, rooms full of potential like blank sheet music waiting for the black hieroglyphs of notes. Each time they go a site, she has a way of penciling in those notes—chords and riffs sounding out an imagined future for the two of them.
“Go ahead and look around. You can go on the deck, too–just move that piece of wood holding the sliding doors locked.”
“Okay.” Her smile fires something in him. She has become so gentle, so compliant. He is the one filled with hate and frustration. Much of his hate is for the doctors who told them, after an eternity of treatments created in hell, that Lucy had no chance. That her downward spiral was unstoppable. Soon she would lose motor control, speech, vision. Other personalities would emerge; they spoke of Lucy’s brain tumor as though it were a demon possessing her body. They said she would become somebody Vincent did not recognize. It was inevitable, they reiterated; the treatment had never been promising to begin with. This was news to Vincent. He wanted to ask them why they had put her through the worst torment imaginable if they already knew the outcome.
But he has never been confrontational. Since boyhood, when his addict father would come home and pummel both Vincent and his mother, Vincent has learned to bow his head. At ten years old he knew it was better to lock himself in the bathroom, then let himself out through the grey window and into the scraggly woods behind the house, rather than try to defend his mother, who suffered harder blows and harsher words when Vincent tried to get between the two of them. At fourteen he learned to crush his mother’s sleeping pills into his father’s food so that he could have a few hours of peace and finish his homework under the bare bulb of the back porch light. At nineteen he witnessed a violent mugging on a back road in Knoxville and he stayed where he was, calling 911 from his cell phone as he slid down in the driver’s seat. At twenty-five he was punched in the mouth by a drunken college student at a football game who’d meant to hit somebody else, and he’d bought the guy a beer to patch things over, as though he’d been the one at fault somehow. His nickname at the last company he worked for was The Diplomat because the foreman had a habit of sending Vincent to talk with disgruntled customers who always ended up retracting their complaints.
Now, Vincent sets about the small finishing touches on this job, the tasks his crewmates have neglected as they often do: using a razor blade to scrape off the measurements and notations left on the granite in the kitchen and bathroom, notations made back in the shop with a white-out pen; leveling out all of the stone; cleaning off their surfaces with a special polish. He can hear his wife’s soft footsteps as she wanders the condo. He scratches at his white-out numbers and tries to imagine what she is seeing in the rooms. He misses the way she used to vocalize her imaginings when she’d come with him to a site.
“Okay, I’ve got it,” she’d say suddenly, startling him. “The little room, with the glass door? My study. The big extra bedroom? Your workshop. Tools on shelves lining the walls. And the bathroom with the huge tub is our private bathroom.”
“Who else’s would it be?” he’d want to know.
“Well, the other bathroom is for guests. That’s what I mean.”
She would hover by the windows, looking for the one with the view that got her mind working. She was a pianist and guitarist, taught and wrote music all day long, and she liked to work beside windows. Vincent can still hear her music in his mind, though she rarely plays anymore. Her struggle to hold onto it had been agonizing. For weeks the broken cadences of notes would stagger through the house and eventually bolt through the door the way a frightened deer once did when it wandered out of the woods behind the apartment complex and into their living room. One day she got halfway through a piece Vincent knew well, then lost her memory of the notes; she picked it up with her voice, singing the next line, and then lost that, too, the words dissolving into the air. Vincent stood frozen just outside the door, praying she would pick it up again, but there was only silence. No crying. Just silence.
Vincent needs to hear her voice. “What do you think?” he calls out into the empty condo.
“It’s a palace,” she calls back, from somewhere down the hallway to his right. “Those little girls are going to love it.”
He looks down at the stone beneath his hands, a piece that forms a small island in the middle of the spacious kitchen. It is a gorgeously bookmatched piece of granite, the rivulets of gold and brown moving like a swift river, reflections of black spindly trees darkening the surface. It is a perfect piece and only needs levelling. The stone’s name is Mayan Dance. He loves the name, loves the stone. He loves what he can hold in his hands. Paper, pencils, wood, wax. He loves the ivories of Lucy’s piano and loves it when she makes candles in their little kitchen. He is discomfited and afraid in this world that he perceives to be rapidly changing. The internet and the phones, the digital conversations, the men and women taken out of themselves by drugs that promise just the opposite. He is afraid that as the world changes, even emotions and memories will lose their claim to time and space. He has begun to write in a journal, to buy CD’s again, to keep newspaper clippings like Winston Smith in 1984. He has no living family to call except for a distant cousin, and he calls the cousin whenever he can now. He likes physical maps he can spread out over his dashboard and he likes tools. He reads book after book on the ancients, inspired by their incredible labors, their efforts to know the world from the constellations to the sands, their determination to make things that would last. Their place in history is so firm, so cemented, that to Vincent they define immortality.
Now Vincent loses his footing under the weight of the granite when he tries to prop it up with a wooden shim. The rock seems to fight him as he manipulates it into position. It’s still not level, and he’s wondering if it’s really the base of the island that’s off, or the floor itself. Or perhaps the entire condo is leaning to one side and nobody but Vincent can sense it. He makes another adjustment, checks his level a fourth time only to find the water bead still drifting left.
“Fuck,” he mutters. Without thinking, he heaves the granite up with his right shoulder, and has to bite back a cry that is more a reflex than the product of actual pain. It is the shoulder his father dislocated several times when Vincent was a teenager, and he has never gotten over the feeling that his arm could pop out of its socket at the application of any careless pressure. Slowing his breathing, Vincent slides out from under the stone, shifts its weight to his other shoulder, and adjusts the shim. It’s still not level. He looks up at the ceiling and counts to ten. He sets the level down and decides to come back to it later.
From the canvas bag slumped over on the kitchen floor he fishes out his caulk gun. He heads into the first of the two enormous bathrooms, where several backsplash pieces wait to be set in their places beneath the mirrors. He cleans off each piece and then pumps silicone from the gun onto their edges. It takes him several tries with each segment to thrust out the gummy spirals and he keeps rechecking the gun to make sure the silicone doesn’t need replacing. It’s full. But he’s having to throw his whole body into the act of pulling the trigger and coaxing out the glue.
Sometimes he thinks he is developing a brain tumor by proxy. He often fumbles at work, and his hands don’t do what he needs them to. He doesn’t remember having trouble with things like caulk guns in the past, and he’s been doing this work since he was eighteen. When at last he gets the last piece laid, he’s sweating, even in the chill of this condo whose thermostat is set at 50 degrees, somebody’s way of saving money while the carpenters and fabricators spent most of winter watching their breath puff silver over their worktables.
Ashamed that it has only now occurred to him, Vincent calls out, “Are you cold, Lucy?”
“I’m okay.” She seems to appear out of nowhere, wraithlike in her thinness. She hovers in the bathroom doorway. “I’ve got layers on. Can I help?”
“Naw. Almost done. You go look at the other part of the place.”
“I love when you do that.” Her smile is faint, an echo of the flirtatious grin he remembers from what seems like centuries ago.
“Tuck your shirt back in after you finish something. You just did it.”
“I like to be presentable,” he says, trying to match her mood. “I like to make an impression on my granite.”
“You make a pretty good impression on me.” Her eyes search his for a moment and he has the ghostly sensation, as he often does now, that she is memorizing him.
He listens to her footsteps as she passes into the western wing of the condo. It is an entirely separate world over there with another bedroom, bathroom, and living room, and more than once Vincent has wondered what this woman Muriel needs with two homes built into one, when all she wants to do is sculpt her crazy figurines with their limbs made from recyclables. He hears Lucy make a small sound of pleasure–most likely she is admiring the bay window in that other bedroom–and he wants to drop his caulk gun and go to her and tell her, do it. Imagine a future. Pencil in the notes.
But he can’t say it to her, because he can’t even convince himself. All of their old ideas and plans are behind them, the houses and the children and the travels. They are trying to make do with their past, trying to make it enough. Nights, they lie awake talking about their history together. Firsts. Adventures in the woods. Campouts. Making love in the crazy places young people make love when they are desperate for a place of their own. They recalled songs they hadn’t listened to together in years. They slow-danced to recreate a date nearly forgotten. They dug up a rose-scented candle stolen from the hotel where they’d honeymooned and fell asleep with it lit, waking in the morning to a softly smoking huddle of wax that was like a snowman who had melted in the night.
Vincent reaches into his bag for the cleanser and a rag and starts polishing the bathroom pieces one by one. He scrubs hard, bringing the stone to a glittering finish. What he feels most every day now is guilt that he did not give Lucy more, before all this began. He can see now that he was lazy. Slothlike in his contentedness. He got comfortable. He allowed her to do too much, to carry too much of love’s burdens. If the ancients were watching him, they must be ashamed. Those men studied the stars and learned the signs. They built fortifications against invaders, predicted the moon’s dance and the arrival of fires and floods. They sensed the ever-nearer apocalypse that would punish man for his complacency. Vincent had missed all the signs. The music in the next room that stopped and sputtered like a dying engine, long before the first headache came. The soundless crying which she dismissed as moodiness. The objects that would appear in strange places–a book in the cereal cabinet, floss in the refrigerator. Those things, a source of hilarity between them: are you losing your mind? The night she gave a speech to open a recital for her students, and stumbled three times over the word performance. Bells were ringing everywhere and Vincent did not hear them.
“If you’d only come in earlier,” one doctor had said to Lucy over and over. Vincent had wanted to punch this man, too, put his head through a wall. Why say such a thing to a dying woman?
The vibration of his phone in his pants pocket jolts Vincent out of the memory and he digs down for it. Its buttons are rimmed with granite dust and the sound is poor when he lifts it to his ear. Muriel is talking: “Hello? Are you even there? Hello?”
With an effort, he keeps his tone level: “This is Vincent. What can I do for you?”
“I asked you to send me some photographs of your work in progress. Remember? You haven’t sent them.”
“It’s Saturday,” Vincent says.
“I need those photographs.”
“I can assure you everything is going fine. There are no problems. It’s going to look exactly like you want it to.”
“It better. But that’s not my concern. I need the pictures for my blog. I have a lot of people reading my blog, you know, and they expect updates on this. Can you send them today?”
Vincent carefully sets his caulk gun, his bottle of cleanser, and his rag down on the granite in a straight line. “I don’t have a phone that takes pictures. You’ll have to wait til Monday when Terry is out here. He has a better phone.”
“Are you kidding me? What kind of phone doesn’t take pictures?” She waits a beat, then says, “I’ll tell you what. Use a digital camera. Do you have one of those? Just take some on a digital and email them to me. You have my email address, right? You still–”
“I don’t have a digital camera.”
“You can’t be serious?” Another pause. “Look, you people are getting paid like it’s gold you’re installing. You can at least take care of this.”
Vincent closes his phone and pushes it down deep into his pocket. He opens and closes his fist. Gold. Back when he was still smoking, he used to walk out to the stream behind their apartment building and smoke there, watching turtles and the occasional bit of debris from somewhere upriver float by. One day he saw something glimmering in the stream, something unmoving. It sparkled bright gold whenever the sun slid over it. He watched it for days and toyed with the idea of walking into the water to retrieve it. He permitted himself the insane fantasy that it was a slab of actual gold. Gold appeared in the mountain rivers all the time. Why not? He thought of experimental treatments, of flying Lucy to hospitals in Europe. Rooms filled with sunshine and bright-eyed doctors exuberant with hope. He saw life blossoming open for them again. Then one day he splashed through the rapids and reached down for the gold. It was the lid of a can.
He never told Lucy. But he cut himself with the metal lid, deliberately slashing the edge of his palm, craving some act of defiance. Lucy wrapped the cut and suggested he start wearing gloves when he worked. They went to bed, his hand throbbing, and he dreamed of fire. He was a little boy and his house was on fire, and he was trying to pack all of his stuffed animals into a tiny backpack–there was Bibbles again, once more in terrible danger–and he was frantic, unable to save them all, watching flames consume the ones he could not reach.
His phone vibrates again. He pulls it out, walks into one of the bathrooms in the eastern wing, and drops it into the toilet bowl. It makes a tiny gurgling noise like a drowning man before it sinks. Then Vincent steps into the master bedroom, a beautiful room gleaming pearly white in the winter sun. He stands there with his eyes closed and breathes in the smell of a new home, a home open to endless possibilities: fresh paint, fresh carpet, fresh wood. He slips into reverie without meaning to. He sees himself and Lucy walking through a white house with a wide sweeping porch and live oaks growing in their mad vitality past the rails and up to the second story where they caress the windows with their emerald leaves. Lucy kisses him and then walks barefoot across the yard, moving backwards, facing him, beckoning. Her hair frames her face in gold; her skin is honeyed and damp with the humidity. She steps on a pecan shell and lets out a yelp. She grins at Vincent, standing with the leg drawn up into her white dress like a flamingo’s. “We’ll rake them all up and have a pecan stand on the roadside. Ten cents a nut,” she says. He descends the porch stairs behind her and takes her into a twirl; the pecans crunch beneath their feet. She turns slowly beneath his arm. When she again faces him, he can see the wild limbs of the live oak reflected in the wide green pools of her irises. She opens her mouth to speak.
He opens his eyes.
Her voice is high and trembling, and he bolts. In a second he is at her side; she’s standing in the hallway in the western wing, completely turned around, lost. She’s crying. “I got confused,” she says. “I forgot where I was. I’m sorry. I’m sorry–”
To stop her from apologizing again, he clasps her head to his chest and holds it there. He waits for her breathing to settle. He has heard these apologies a thousand times for all of the strange things she’s done under the twisted guidance of the growth in her brain. But he knows that she is really apologizing for vacating their life, for leaving him, for denying him all they had planned together. He also knows that she is terrified of being forgotten but is not selfish enough to ask him to be true to her after she is gone.
“I wish I could come with you,” Vincent says quietly into her hair. Once he’s said it, the air in the room seems to rush at him and then vanish, sucked out through the door, as though a silent bomb has detonated.
Lucy is absolutely still in his arms. He feels her gathering her breath. “I’m a bad enough person that I wish you could, too.”
And for Vincent it is all too real, what is coming to them. The rift. The chasm she is about to cross without him, the one it may take him fifty years to cross behind her. He can picture neither what is waiting for her on the other side, nor what will be left for him here, once she’s gone. There is only a paralyzing blackness.
“You’ll be all right,” Lucy tells him. She has always been able to read his mind. “You can do this.”
He shakes his head. He opens his mouth to reply but the words are caught deep in his throat, and they aren’t words he wants her to hear anyway. Finally he says, “I think we should go home. I need to just lie down with you for awhile.”
On their way out, Lucy presses the doorbell again. Vincent listens to its warm music, flinches when it stops. He puts his hand over Lucy’s and together they ring it again. To the soundtrack of the chimes Vincent kisses Lucy’s forehead, hard enough to leave a mark. Today, I have given her this, he thinks, but it is not enough. In the dimly-lit hallway, they bump against each other as he tries to hold her close and carry the swollen canvas bag at the same time.
They enter the elevator and start to descend. At the second floor, the elevator stops and the doors glide open. Vincent’s jaw tightens; it’s the two young guys from the paint crew, carrying their supplies, and he can smell beer on them. There is an infinitesimally brief moment in which they register both Vincent and Lucy, and then they step into the elevator beside them and are oddly silent as it resumes its descent.
Vincent looks at his wife. Her head is down, where it always goes when anyone besides Vincent is around. And he doesn’t blame her. In the cruel fluorescent light of the elevator, she looks even sicker than she is. She looks like someone with a rare disease, one of those maladies that age small children into old men and women in the space of months. Her skin is a cold grey against the blue of her scarf and the scarring on her skull is showing around the edges of the fabric. Her collarbone juts out like a balcony, her chest a ravine below the rails. Vincent moves closer to her and wraps one hand around her arm.
One of the painters notices this and Vincent thinks he hears him mumble, “That’s not the wife.” The other one’s response is only partly audible: “. . . ugly as a dying dog.”
Lucy shrinks back. The elevator doors open and Vincent calmly propels his wife forward, out of the elevator, and drops his canvas bag on the carpeted floor. Then he steps back. He pivots hard and with a crushing power drives his fist directly into the man’s face, sending him sprawling across the floor of the elevator, knocking his head against the padded wall. Vincent hits the Doors Open button so they’ll stay open, so Lucy can see this. He puts up both fists when the other guy makes for him. He smiles to encourage him, ducks the ring-studded fist that swipes at his jaw. He wills the first one to get up and try to land a blow of his own. They come at him together now, drunken and stunned and furious. Vincent swings again with all his might. He connects with bone. Where have these guys been? He’s been waiting forever.
Elizabeth Genovise is a graduate of the MFA program at McNeese State University and her fiction has been published in The Southern Review, Pembroke Magazine, Southern Indiana Review, Cimarron Review, and many other journals. Her first collection of stories, “A Different Harbor,” was published in 2014, and her second collection, “Where There Are Two Or More,” was published this past spring. She just had a story selected for a 2016 O. Henry Award.