RONALD DIED.Emily had him cremated. She buried the ashes beneath the roses in the backyard.
Ronald had habits that Emily liked. They were outweighed by habits that she did not like. These habits broadened over time, like the pounds above Ronald’s belt.
Take the business about being at the kitchen sink, rinsing and scrubbing, while she still was finishing breakfast or dinner or whatever. Ronald got this habit from his mother, who died at ninety-six raking leaves on Emily’s front lawn. Ronald was especially fond of his mother, who cubed his watermelon and cantaloupe when he was a boy. “I like to make things shine,” Ronald’s mother said, fussing about Emily’s house with a dust cloth or a broom when what Emily wanted was to sit still and visit. Emily hid the broom in the bedroom closet finally and stuffed the dust cloths into the pantry behind the canned vegetables and the bag of flour. No matter what Emily did, there was Ronald’s mother, fluffing cushions in the living room, scrubbing the kitchen sink, straightening the towels in the bathroom. When she could do no more inside, she sat on the front lawn, stabbing at dandelions and crabgrass with one of those tools Ronald kept in the garage. How could Emily ever hide Ronald’s tools?
Ronald said, “Don’t I have to clean up anyway, hon?”
He couldn’t tolerate a plate or a pan crusting. He couldn’t tolerate residue firming in a pot. Emily, who could not eat as fast as Ronald, watched him and listened. He loaded the dishwasher. He ran the disposal. She pushed the toast or a bit of steak into her mouth. She chewed as fast as she could. She wanted to sit quietly, eat slowly, and talk with Ronald. But Ronald had to be up, scraping or wiping.
“We’re pretty old now, hon,” Ronald said. “And shouldn’t I help?”
Emily felt as though she ate in a cafeteria.
Then there was the television. Emily loved the situation things. She loved the half-hour series where everything hung in the balance. Ronald liked The Western Channel, black-and-white movies with Tim Holt or Tex Ritter. Emily could not stand Tim Holt or Tex Ritter. She sat complacently, looking at horses, wagons, six-guns belching smoke, and cowboys fighting in the dirt until she could stand it no longer and had Ronald set up a small television in the bedroom, where she could watch Lucy reruns or movies about people struggling to love each other and succeeding in the end.
They did watch the news together, though Ronald preferred Fox, while she liked CNN. There was some neutrality regarding the History Channel, except when Hitler came on, and the National Geographic Channel was fine, or one of those channels with animals. But if Ronald switched to American Pickers, or those things with scruffy men in plaid shirts cutting trees in British Columbia, or things with swamp people wrestling alligators, she retreated to the bedroom and the Cooking Channel, or Turner Classic Movies, or one of those fashion channels where they had so many nice things for sale.
None of this had been anticipated during their courtship. Something bright was squeezed into the corner of a cupboard, where it languished, hidden and unused, in the dark.
Then Ronald’s mother collapsed into the dandelions and crabgrass. Emily was frightened but relieved, not in some evil sense of being relieved, but in an existential sense, like seeing the doctor and discovering that there was nothing to worry about.
When Ronald died, Emily thought that she had made him take his pills on time, that she had done what she had to do. Ronald was not well those last years anyway. All that about lungs and heart and kidneys. He was through, like a rusty spring unwound. Emily was so old herself that a future was unimaginable. No polishing could make things shine again. All was simply, over and over.
One day, someone knocked at the front door. Emily moved the curtain. An old man stood on the threshold, pulling at a red cardigan sweater.
“Who is it?” Emily called through the door.
“Em, it’s Bert.”
Emily did not know any Bert, but she liked being called Em. She opened the door.
“Hello?” she asked at the old man.
“You don’t recognize me, then, do you, Em?”
She tried to see something. “No,” she said, “I don’t. I’m sure I don’t know you.”
“Well, maybe not now, of course,” he said, wanting to smile, “but you did then.”
“Then?” Emily asked. “What then?” She was becoming suspicious.
“Remember?” He proceeded to hum a bit of the old fight song from Brewster High. “It’s Bert Thalhammer. Now you remember? We went to the movies. Remember?”
“Bert,” she said.
She had once liked a linebacker or guard or whatever it was on the football team. She remembered him squatting, one fist against the grass, the other fist on his leg.
“Bert Thalhammer,” she said.
“It’s Bert. Now you remember, Em.”
She remembered him from one or two classes, social science or biology or maybe even Spanish. The boy was tall and strong. He had very wavy, black hair. Before her now was a bald man, so shriveled and stooped that there was nothing to remember except, perhaps, the eyes. Bert Thalhammer’s eyes were gray, so gray that she had not seen such eyes then or since. She looked. Behind the wrinkled lids and pouches, the eyes were quite gray. There were no other eyes like those eyes.
“Bert Thalhammer,” she said.
“Yes, Em. It’s me, all right. It’s Bert. I read about Ron in the paper. I’m sorry about it and sorry I couldn’t come by sooner. Barbara died about a month before Ron.”
“Barbara?” Emily said.
“My wife, Barbara. We met in college. She died.” His face puckered. He turned to look at the sycamore tree that Ronald had planted all that time ago. The sycamore was forty feet high.
“I’m sorry,” Emily said.
“Of course, and I’m sorry too about Ron and everything that happens. Barbara and I were married fifty-six years.”
“We were fifty-eight,” Emily said.
“That’s a lifetime,” he said, turning back. “Two lifetimes.”
She remembered exactly the gray eyes and how she had liked looking at them. She remembered the lights above the stadium and the grass, greener than green. She remembered singing about running the ball clear round to victory.
“Bert Thalhammer,” Emily said. She smiled.
“Hello, Em,” he said. “It’s me, all right.”
“Would you like a cup of coffee, Bert?” she asked.
“Em, I would love a cup of coffee.”
They went into the house. Bert sat on the sofa. She got everything ready in the kitchen and brought the cups of coffee on a tray with a few oatmeal cookies she had made the day before. Bert drank the coffee. He ate two cookies.
“Have you lived here long, Em?” he asked.
“All our lives,” Emily said.
Bert nodded. “Nice,” he said. “It’s really a nice place, Em. Really homey and comfortable. I like the curtains with the roses and the chest over there with the TV on it. Is that walnut?”
“Teak,” she said. “Ronald’s mother gave that to us when we were first married.”
“It’s a beautiful chest,” he said.
Emily sipped from the coffee cup. Bert reached for another cookie.
“So,” he said, “you have children, I suppose.”
“No,” Emily said. “I couldn’t have children. We thought of adopting for a while. We never did. It would be nice to have children.”
He nodded. “Me too. No kids. No brothers. No sisters. No anybody, for that matter. Just me, myself, and I, Em.” He tried to smile.
She tried too. They sat. A few cars went by on the street.
“I don’t hear any of that,” Bert said. “Out where I am.”
“Any what?” Emily asked.
“Traffic, I mean. I’m out in the country. Two acres, right at the intersection of two dead-end roads. Only farm trucks and tractors. I go for my morning walk and don’t often see a car or pickup I haven’t seen before. I walk a half hour sometimes and don’t see anyone. Alfalfa fields, orchards, grape vineyards. That’s what I see. There is a dairy about a mile away, but it’s to the southwest, and I don’t even know it’s there.”
“Sounds very nice,” she said. “And quiet.”
“The quiet is fine during the day,” he said. “But you know, sometimes at night, the quiet gets a bit too quiet. Know what I mean, Em?”
“I know about quiet,” Emily said.
“There can be so much,” he said, “that quiet sometimes becomes like silence. Silence bothers me sometimes, Em.”
“I think you know what I mean.”
“I think so,” she said.
He set the half-finished cookie on the edge of the saucer.
“You like to cook, Em?”
“I don’t mind cooking,” she said. “Ronald was easy to cook for.”
“Barbara was a good cook too. She liked fixing different things. I never knew what I was going to have for dinner. It was always a surprise. I liked her surprises. You know what I mean, Em.”
“You don’t cook much nowadays, I suppose,” he said.
“Not much,” she said. “There’s not much reason to do a lot of cooking.”
“Em,” he said, “I can’t boil a pot of water. I never could. I never learned anything about it. All my life I couldn’t boil hot dogs. I’ve been going to the restaurant so often for dinner that people there know me. I sit at the same table. They know what I’m going to order before I order it. Em, I have an idea. See what you think of this. Now, I wouldn’t want it to be a bother, of course, or anything with a lot of time, but I’m tired of eating alone, and I wonder if you are too. Why don’t we just sit down and have dinner together? I’ll buy everything, Em, everything you need to fix anything you want to fix. I don’t care. Make a list. I’ll go to Safeway and get it. I’ll drop it off in plenty of time, in the morning, say, if that’s when you want it. I’ll buy a bottle of wine, any wine you like. I wouldn’t want it to be something with a lot of work, Em. Just to sit down together and have some dinner and talk. What do you think?”
“Wine,” Emily said.
“Sure. Any wine. You name it. What do you think, Em?”
“Well, I haven’t thought about anything like that before. It would be nice to fix something again, though. It would be nice to talk.”
“That’s it, Em,” he said. “That’s my girl. Anything you want. Name it.”
He looked at the cookies arranged in a semicircle on the plate. He sat back in the chair and crossed his legs.
“I mean,” he said, “wouldn’t it be nice, just to talk about everything we can remember?”
“It would be nice,” she said.
“That’s swell,” he said. “When, do you think? Saturday night? Would that be too soon? I’ll come by that morning for the list.”
“All right,” she said. “Saturday night, then.”
Bert picked up the list Saturday morning. It was a list for two filets, two potatoes, a bag of mixed vegetables, and a fancy dressing she had heard about on The Food Channel. On the list were things she needed to make a pineapple upside-down cake and those little appetizers with the creamed cheese and red pimento. She wrote down Pinot Noir for the wine because she had never tasted Pinot Noir. Bert bought everything and a few extra things he saw on the shelves, like whole wheat crackers, avocado dip, and a wedge of cheese with tiny specks of blue.
Emily was glad in the kitchen that afternoon. She set everything out, took her time and put everything together. She wore the green dress and the tiny pearl necklace Ronald had given her. She wore the open-toed shoes that were for sale on the Fashion Channel and so comfortable. She wore a hint of the perfume she had saved from Macy’s. She wondered why she went to all the bother, except that it was pleasurable to be bothered again. Bert came promptly at six. He wore gray pants and a blue cardigan exactly like his red cardigan.
Bert poured the wine. They remembered a few things. “It’s funny,” Bert said, “how everything so long ago seems only yesterday.”
“Yes,” Emily said.
“Life happens,” Bert said.
He ate slowly. He sipped the wine. In no time, they had been at the table an hour before she served the pineapple upside-down cake and the decaf coffee.
“Listen, Em,” Bert said, “I want to help with the dishes and things. I’ll rinse things off.”
“Oh, never mind that,” she said. “That’s what the dishwasher is for.”
He laughed. They went into the living room to talk some more.
“Listen, Em,” he said, “now I want to take you out somewhere next time. Some nice restaurant. You pick it, and we’ll go there.”
“That’s very nice, Bert.”
“Em, hasn’t this been great, though?” he said. “Let me tell you, it’s so good just to talk and have so much to talk about, the old times and how everything was. I wonder where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. There’s a whole lot more to talk about.”
“I think there is,” Emily said. “If I can remember.”
He laughed. “Well, we have lots of time to remember anything we can remember. Don’t we, Em?”
“I guess we do,” she said.
Two nights later, he took her to Alustizas, an Italian place in the middle of town. The waiters wore black shirts, black pants, and white bow ties. Everything on the menu was twenty dollars and above. Candles were on the table. Emily was embarrassed to order something, but Bert said, “Order whatever you like, Em,” and proceeded to choose a bottle of wine that cost seventy dollars. Emily felt a catch in her throat at spending such money just to eat. It all came, with the tip, to one hundred seventy-five dollars.
In the car, Bert said, “Em, I want you to come out and see the place. You’ll love it out there. It’s beautiful all around. Trees. Open fields. Coyotes and pheasants. Geese fly overhead. People ride by on bicycles. Crop dusters zoom just above the ground. Everything’s slow. I know you’ll love it.”
“Coyotes?” she smiled.
“Oh, they never come around. You just hear them out in the fields. They howl when the train goes by a half mile away. Not every train, mind you. Just the ten o’clock freight at night. Something about the whistle, I think. They howl, and you’d swear you were hearing children whining alone out there in the dark. It’s really something, Em. You’ll get a kick out of it.”
“They howl, you say?”
“Only around ten,” he laughed, “for this one train. They’re like children, Em.”
“Do you ever see them?”
“Only a long way off sometimes, running through the fields. How about Friday afternoon? We’ll get some Chinese takeout, and I’ll show you around. You’ll love it, Em. I’m telling you. I couldn’t live anywhere else.”
“All right,” she said. “That sounds nice.”
It was a lovely place. Lots of floor-to-ceiling glass and redwood trim, and a lawn larger than her entire lot in town, and pine trees he had planted around the perimeter. Except for the bedrooms, there were no curtains on the windows. The darkness painted the windows black, but she was surprisingly unafraid, looking from a room into so much night.
“Sometime, maybe,” Bert said, “we could have dinner here, Em. You wouldn’t believe how peaceful and quiet it is, having dinner at night. You could make one of your swell deserts. We’ll have coffee and listen to the crickets. Can you hear any crickets at your place?”
She tried to laugh. “Only once in a while,” she said. “When I wake up at night.”
“It’s like singing, in a way,” Bert said.
There were so many nice things with Bert that Emily decided it would be fine to prepare dinner at his house. She used Barbara’s pots and pans. She used Barbara’s oven and burners. She served with Barbara’s plates and silverware. She used Barbara’s napkins to wipe her mouth. She poured coffee into Barbara’s cups. The pound cake was made with Barbara’s mixer and things from Barbara’s refrigerator. She loaded Barbara’s dishwasher.
There was Barbara’s furniture and Barbara’s bathroom and Barbara’s hand soap and Barbara’s towels and Barbara’s little trinkets here and there, on the mantel and the end table, and Barbara’s magazines in the slatted rack. She went through several dinners with Barbara’s things.
Then, one night at her own place, Bert had something more to say.
“Em,” he began, “this has all been so grand, hasn’t it?”
“It is nice to talk about so many things, Bert,” she said.
“I mean, we really enjoy just being together, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes,” Emily said. “I would say that.”
“Em,” he said, “let’s sit over on the sofa. There’s another thing I want to tell you.”
“Em,” Bert said, “you have your place. I have my place. It seems kind of silly. I mean, we have dinner here. We have dinner there. We kind of bounce back and forth.” He cleared his throat. “Em, why not stay with me? Why not stay together, like friends? Wouldn’t it be great to be together and just talk whenever we want to? There’s only you, after all, and only me. I have nobody. No family. No children. No brother. No sister. No cousin or anyone else. You’re alone too. Why not sell this place, Em? Sell it and be with me. I’ll look after everything. I’d make a will, leaving it all to you. Why shouldn’t we be together? There’s nobody else. What do you say, Em? For the rest of those tomorrows.”
Emily did not know what to say. Bert was different in so many pleasant ways from everything that was the same.
“Think about it, Em,” he said. “Think about how nice, how very nice, if we just had time together.”
Emily spent several days thinking. She understood perfectly about Bert, about how everything with Bert was as it was because of everything about Ronald. Bert needed a companion while he walked slowly through the dry grass to someplace beyond the hill, and she discovered that it was possible to lose again what she never knew she had.
After a time, Bert did not come by. He was elsewhere, she thought, knocking on another door with an offer someone could not refuse.
Emily bought a cat. She did everything for the cat. She got rid of the television in the bedroom. She sat on the sofa with the cat, watching the big screen. She watched the things with men in scruffy shirts and men who swore while hunting alligators. She watched Fox News. One afternoon, sitting on the front lawn, working with Ronald’s tools, she felt something peculiar in her chest and fell forward into the dandelions and crabgrass.
This isRICHARD DOKEY’S fourth appearance in Southern Humanities Review. He is a former winner of SHR’s Theodore C. Hoepfner Literary Award. His stories appear regularly in literary journals, and he has a number of books to his credit, including Pale Morning Dun: Stories and the novel The Hollywood Cafe.