Here’s a poignant, playful little piece, a variation, as it were, in the old sense of the word, a school exercise (think: Bach’s Goldberg Variations) that caught the wind under its wings and took off and now glows with wit, imagination, and feeling. The story is based on the writing exercise at the end of the essay “How to Write a Short Story: Notes on Structure and an Exercise” in my book Attack of the Copula Spiders. As such it is genetically related to the two stories by Casper Martin also published on Numéro Cinq. All three are based on the same algorithm (form), but all three develop along startlingly divergent lines. There is a lesson here about the zen of form; and my delight is both as a reader and as a teacher—it’s amazingly cheering to see a student suddenly achieve lift-off and create a self-sustaining world.
Old boy, I’m certain that you know all, but I need to address you today because I believe I’ve finally gone on and lost the last of my marbles. Have you listened to my thoughts of late? Are you aware that I’ve contemplated murder?
May, May. It’s true.
Well murder may be too strong a word. Of course, I could never kill May. Not with my bare hands or with a weapon. And yet every time we’re parked up on a big hill and I’m helping her into her wheelchair, a piece of me wants to present her with a little push, to watch her roll away.
I know this is wrong, old boy, and I worry I’ll surely go to Hell for such feelings. The truth is, though, my existence crumbled the day May’s hips confined her to that chair. My devotion to her care has rendered me a servant, nothing more. She has grown cruel and demanding, a gray curmudgeon. And, yes, there was a time when I loved my May more than I’ve ever loved anyone else; and, yes, we once shared happiness. But those years have long passed. At eighty-four, old boy, I assure you Joe and May are mainly together out of habit. Two wrinkled roommates. Nothing else.
I think about pushing her, and I say to myself: How much time do I have left on this Earth, anyway?
She zips down that hill, and I think: Now I can live.
At an age when I should be forgetting, why do you, the Almighty, keep my mind nimble?
I’m so packed with misfortune. Joe, you can’t be thinking these things.
We stop for ice cream after her doctor’s appointment. As I taxi her toward a picnic table, I contemplate my sick vision. My grip on the back of the chair loosens. It feels nice to see May roll on her own, a cone in each hand, with no knowledge of her would-be doom.
“I just let you go,” I say, grabbing the handles.
May holds up the two cones. “Which one was yours, Joe?”
“Did you hear me?” I ask, parking her and taking the butterscotch. “I said I let go of your wheelchair, May. On a hill and everything.”
“You forgot napkins,” May says. “I’ll drip all over my new slacks. Go get us some napkins, will you?”
I hobble over to the window—Joe’s no spring chicken, old boy! It takes me time to move—and pull a handful of napkins from the dispenser. My twisted thoughts make me want to weep.
“What’s this about letting go of my chair?” May asks.
I say, “I’ve considered letting you roll down a hill. A big, tall hill.”
She takes a bite of ice cream and chews until it melts in her mouth. “If you did that,” she says, “everything we share would be gone with me.”
“That’s true, dear,” I say.
We eat our cones in silence after this, old boy. I watch the cars zoom down on the road and May admires the flowers sprouting along the edge of the parking lot.
No ice cream drips on May’s slacks.
As I help her into the passenger seat, May laughs. “I’m imagining myself rolling down a steep hill, Joe,” she says. “My hair in the wind, my saggy skin pulled back. Oh, what a sight that would be.”
“You’re right,” I reply.
May buckles her seatbelt. “Good thing you’re a moral Christian man, Joe,” she says.
Collapsing the wheelchair and wedging it into the trunk, my arms tremble. The effort leaves my heart thumping and my brow moist.
Joe, take a few deep breaths.
The next day, old boy, I help May out of bed in my usual way. I wake her, bathe her, feed her, dress her, and pull her pants up for her after she finishes on the toilet. At lunch, I fetch her a sandwich and a glass of milk. As you’re aware, we eat most of our meals in the television room, so we can watch our game shows and news programs.
“You haven’t thought about poisoning my food, too, have you, Joe?” May asks, peeling back the top slice of bread.
“Of course not,” I answer.
She takes a bite. “Of course not,” she repeats. “How silly of me. Then you’d have to do something with the body.”
I carry my sandwich plate from the kitchen and ease in next to May.
“It was a harebrained thought,” I say, “nothing more. A flight of fancy. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
May says, “It’s best to keep the victim in the dark so she doesn’t suspect anything.”
Remain calm, Joe.
“You’re acting cruel,” I say. “As if you never had a single off-putting thought in our marriage.”
May replies, “We all have fantasies. But fantasies don’t usually end with a corpse. I’m not the one thinking about murder, Joe. Boy, had I known you felt such passion for violence…”
“Passion for violence? Come now,” I sputter back.
“I’m surprised I’ve made it this long, to be perfectly honest,” she says.
Try to hold your tongue, Joe. Oh, old boy. Sometimes I can’t contain myself.
“Would you stop, please?” I shout back to May. “Would you please let it go?” My breath fires out in short bursts. I can feel the wetness forming in my eyes. “Don’t you see how my entire life has been dedicated to you? Don’t you see these things?”
“Oh, Joe,” May says. She drops one of her wrinkled paws onto my forearm. “Oh, my little Joe.”
I take refuge in the basement. Quiet here. May can’t reach me. She doesn’t like it when I leave her like this, but I need some time. Her badgering has worked me over.
I ask you, old boy, architect of Joe’s body and channel of his blood, why did you fill my head with such terrible thoughts? May is my wife! We have shared our lives for over sixty years! I cannot harm her, can I? Even if our love has faded, even if I welcome death as an alternative to being her nursemaid, even if I only have a few years left in the tank, I must remain faithful to my marriage vows, right?
And yet I meditate on that brief moment at the ice cream stand, of letting go, and a chill runs up my aching, bowed back. The air tasted sweet, old boy. It may have only lasted a second, but I remember the flavor of syrup caressing Joe’s dulled tongue as he inhaled. It sounds crazy, I know. Freedom rang over those two, maybe three steps across the pavement. And here I am, crouched in our dank basement, sitting on a folding chair. To my right lean a small lamp, my spy novels, my mysteries, my adventure stories, my magazines, my letters, and my empty flask. This nook is all I have left. In this great big world, the only place Joe can call his own, free from interference, is a musty, pathetic chair in the basement.
Death may point his cold, bony finger at me tomorrow. Then again, you may allow me to hold on another year or two. And I wonder if this is how I want to be found. A dead man already underground?
None of these things should be taking place, but they are.
May’s screaming. I can’t recall drifting off, and mounting the top step, I find her splayed on the kitchen floor. I notice that the sun has set. The entire house is dim. The edge of my existence is so very near.
“See what happens when you abandon me,” she yells.
I yank her chair over to her side. “I’m so sorry,” I say. “Are you hurt?”
“I believe I’ve torn my slacks, Joe,” she snaps. “If you were here, I wouldn’t have had to do this on my own.”
With my help, she crawls back into the wheelchair.
I say, “How did this happen?”
She waves me off. “How do you think this happened? My wheels went out from under me when I tried to get some crackers out of the cupboard. You may be able to get by on ice cream cones and sandwiches, but I need supper.”
“I was downstairs,” I say.
May shakes. “I need to eat to get my strength back. When you decide to roll me down that hill, I’d like to think I’d have enough muscle to stop you.”
I open the cupboard and hand May the box of Saltines. “It was a harebrained thought,” I answer.
“Harebrained or not, a stiff breeze would send me to my maker,” she nods. “I wouldn’t blame you for doing it, Joe. Not one bit. I see how tired you are. I know how long it’s been since you went out to play cards. Don’t think I don’t notice these things.”
“Oh, no, no, no, no,” I say, wheeling her to the kitchen table. Steady, Joe. “Please don’t talk that way, dear. I wouldn’t ever do such a thing.”
May shrugs. “I notice these things,” she says.
I microwave a frozen pizza. Vegetable. I keep my eyes on the glowing door. Maybe radiation will do us both in. The whir of the machine is loud enough that I don’t notice the change in May’s temperament until it clicks off.
“All my wrinkles, my saggy skin, pulled back by the wind,” she says.
I smile. “Your hair flopping about,” I add in.
“What a sight I’d be,” she says.
You send me a message in a dream, old boy.
It’s winter and I’m with May atop a mountain. We’re outfitted in skis and our regular clothes; only we’re not cold. May’s hips are better, too, because she stands without any help. Hooting and hollering, she kicks up powder. Joe loiters at the summit and watches her disappear into the white. She’s nothing more than a pinprick in the distance; then she’s not even that.
There’s something in me that won’t let my legs crest the slope. It surprises me to know that a part of me still fears death. No offense, old boy. Nobody lasts forever, but some of us try our best to think otherwise.
May reappears by my side, smiling. “It isn’t bad at all,” she says. “We could go together if you’re afraid.”
I wake from this dream and look over the nightstand at May in her bed. She wheezes in her sleep. Her hair catches the moonlight.
She might enjoy a push too much, I think. Then I consider sharing the chair with her. Perhaps, in this fog, I’m trying to justify my sinful thoughts.
Joe is so packed with misfortune.
You allot us a quiet morning, old boy. Gratefulness from both May and I.
We drive to the park to feed the ducks.
“I dreamed of mountains last night,” I say.
May wipes her nose with a tissue. A bag of bread heels crinkles on her lap. We circle the tennis courts and pass the gardens with their young flowers. Joe and May. They’ve seen so many flowers bloom.
I say, “I won’t roll you down a hill, May.”
“You’ve announced this so many times,” she replies, “you sound like you’re trying to convince yourself.”
I push her up the slope toward the duck pond. “I don’t want to give you the satisfaction.”
May nods, “You’re a moral Christian man.”
One of her wheels squeaks as we reach the ducks. The chair complains. It is ready to stop. May removes the bread heels with her shaky hands and begins to break them up on her lap.
She says, “I could roll myself if I wanted. Nobody says you need to push me.”
These words should not be said, but here they are. I lose my breath! This is something new. I’ve never thought that May could let herself go.
But why? Why would she want to leave Joe?
Sorrow fills my heart. I feel heavy, rooted.
The ducks swarm and bite at each other for dominance.
“But you’re a moral Christian woman, May,” I whisper.
“Moral or not, I can’t stop picturing myself lost in the wind,” May replies. Is that a whimsical tone I hear?
I latch onto the handles of her wheelchair. “But everything we share would be gone,” I add. “You’ve said so yourself.”
“Did I? My, Joe, that memory of yours is better than mine.” May laughs.
“I won’t let you do it,” I announce. All of a sudden, our wedding day floods my mind. Old boy, you make me remember the vacation to Niagara Falls. Decades roll by as I inhale and as I breathe out. My eyes fill.
May reaches up and pats my hand. She says, “Oh, my little Joe.”
We empty the bread onto the ground and I walk us back to the car. May slides into her seat and waits for me to stuff the wheelchair in the trunk.
I start the engine but do not drive.
May says, “You know, we could go together if you’re afraid.”
“You said the same thing in my dream,” I confess.
“Is that so?”
“You held my hand,” I add.
May nods. “We could find the biggest hill in town,” she suggests. “I could sit on your lap and we could feel the wind together.”
Old boy, I look up at the sky and see a pair of cardinals fly by. They mate for life, you know. Oh, of course you know. You made them, after all. Just like you made Joe and May.
“Which hill should we drive to?” I ask.
Wonderful, sad and scary. You have great dialogue and such empathy for your characters. I look forward to seeing your name more! Keep it up.
Wow….this was engrossing. Rarely does a short story grab my attention the way yours did. Kudos.
This is a tender and compelling story, Ben. I’m glad I got the chance to read it.
This story touched my heart. I love Joe and can understand the thoughts that are not allowed to be spoken. And I love that May understands them, too. Such a beautiful story, Ben.
Thanks, everyone, for the kind words.
Wonderful, ghostly, lovely. Good job, Ben! I kept thinking about my grandparents, who were married 70 years when my grandmother died. Powerful story.
Ben, thanks for the chat yesterday. An as I said, I am lucky to have such excellent writers for friends. This is excellent. Quiet, in your ominous, engaging way. Well done.
I left a comment yesterday morning, but it doesn’t look like it took. At any rate, I think this story is AMAZING. I was so engrossed, I somehow lost track of my iphone while reading it. Seriously, I was on my phone, then started reading this, then when I was done, the phone was gone. And it’s still gone. I blame Joe. No, I blame the old boy.
I, too, read this on my iPhone, which I have not lost. Someone came up to me and asked if I was looking at the news. I said, nope, a story my friend wrote. They were amazed. So was I.
Sarah, I’d check the nearest hill; I bet someone pushed that bad mother-iPhone down a hill. Without wheels it couldn’t have gotten far.
Breathless read. Really enjoyed it. Thanks.
Ben, completely engrossing. And, in addition to everything, I really enjoyed your use of exclamation points. (Never thought I’d say that before.) Mary
Thanks for this lovely, powerful and engrossing story!
Thank you all for the support!