by Steve Coughlin
Decades before he folded her sweaters into a trash bag, placed them on a curb in front of the house, his youth rumbled with desire as she washed dishes in a yellow dress, sunlight crawling across the kitchen floor.
It was trips to the beach in his Ford convertible, the scent of salt water, radio blaring–the parking lot melting beneath their feet.
At 27 he woke beside her in the coldness of morning, their clothes discarded on the floor, stifled a yawn as he dressed for the factory. There were the cement stairs he bounded two at a time, the shifts when he worked the machine that produced an endless stream of miniature gears for boat engines.
It was him in the spotlight of the break room certain no one doubted his words. He repeated the same jokes to men whose names he never learned, predicted this was the year the Sox would win the Series.
And maybe a few minutes before the whistle blew he walked to the payphone in his grease stained shirt.
Maybe he deposited his only quarter just to hear her voice.
Years before his DUI, it was him stumbling drunk into bed, the darkness spinning him wildly to sleep.
At 31 he could not explain to her how his youth, its relentless demands, was the restlessness that kept him driving alone into the night.
Was there an affair in a cheap motel room? Was there whiskey and cigarettes, fast food wrappers on the nightstand–his need to touch another woman’s body?
Did his wife, hours later, her own youth lost to depression, her body grown fat, allow him to wrap his arm around her? Did she ignore the perfume on his skin as he pulled her like a doll against his chest?
Before he was left to wander the empty rooms of his house, there was the embarrassment she felt when he revved the car’s engine in the church’s parking lot.
There was the eternity of minutes she waited in the car while he, 45, flirted with high school girls working at Dairy Queen.
And what if his youth became the shadow in front of him at 54? What if it turned the corner a few paces in front of him–him running five miles a day–his lungs burning with exhaustion?
There was the hopelessness of aching knees at 66, the years he had gone since sleeping beside her in the same bed.
But still, after she told him of the cancer, there were those final flares. It was youthful naiveté that convinced him she could get better. It was him insisting she eat a salad each night with dinner. Him helping her into the used car for a drive to the ocean.
Before her heart stopped beating. Before her body cooled in front of him. Before he walked the lonely streets, legs too worn for running, eyes squinting, searching in the distance for its shadow.
How he grasped her tired hand.
About the Author:
Steve Coughlin’s poems and essays have appeared in several literary journals and magazines, including the Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Willow Springs, and Slate. His book of poetry, Another City, was published by FutureCycle Press. He teaches creative writing at Chadron State College in northwestern Nebraska.