Remember How We Were
by Jonathan Vollinger
She’s early today.
I get out of bed. I put on my robe and slippers, then I’m moving slowly down the hallway. At the end of the hallway I pass the kitchen. I think to stop. I have to remind myself where I’m going. I move on.
When I get to the front door, I peer into the peephole. It’s Martha, all right. But she isn’t wearing her nurse clothes. She’s got on dark slacks and a white blouse, the kind with the lace on the collar, and her hair is done up. She looks nice. Like she’s going somewhere.
“Good morning, Mr. Maddux,” Martha says when I open the door. She is standing very straight with her purse hugged to her chest, both arms wrapped around it.
“Good morning,” I say. But I’m not done. “Listen,” I go on, “I’ve told you before, you can let yourself in. That’s what the key is for.”
“Yes, Mr. Maddux—” but I stop her.
“I mean it,” I say. “You know how we like our mornings.” I don’t want her to get the idea.
“Yes, Mr. Maddux.” She understands. She wants to say more, but I’m already walking away.
Martha closes the door and follows me into the house, but she doesn’t get past the living room. “Mr. Maddux,” she says. “We need to talk.” She sits down on the sofa. I don’t invite her to, but she sits down anyways. We are going to talk.
I’m in the kitchen now. Martha is still carrying on from the living room. I’m not listening though. I’m pouring the coffee and milk, and putting some cheese on a plate. And I’m thinking about my wife. I’m thinking maybe she’ll eat today if she’s feeling up to it.
I put all of it on a tray and walk back into the living room holding the tray. I look at Martha. At first I don’t say anything. I’m not trying to visit. But I can see the wheels turning.
“Big day?” I say.
“Sir?” Martha says.
“Your clothes,” I say. “Big day?”
Martha looks down, evaluating herself. “Oh, yes,” she says awkwardly, then, looking up at me, “I really need to talk to you, Mr. Maddux.”
“Okay,” I say, nodding and looking down the hallway. “I’ll be back out soon,” I tell her. “She just woke up. You know she likes her routine.” Then I’m off down the hallway.
Martha gets up and wants to follow me. “Mr. Maddux,” she calls after me, speaking louder now. But when she gets into the hallway I feel her get quiet. I’m at the bedroom door with my hand on the knob. I turn around. She stops. Her silhouette is all I see in the dark hallway. She is standing completely still, waiting. She won’t say anything now.
“I’ll be out soon,” I tell her. I go into the bedroom and close the door behind me.
I haven’t put down the tray when I hear the knocks. Three knocks. Soft ones. She wants to talk all right, but she’s still being polite about it. I put down the tray and go to the door. I open the door and put my head out.
“Not right now,” I say. “Go on and get started out there. I’ll be out soon.”
She’s talking quietly. “Please,” she says, “It’s important.”
I purse my lips, shake my head. “Let us have our morning first, please.”
Martha looks back down the hallway. Then she looks at me very seriously. “Please,” she says, pausing long enough for her eyes to get wide. “Enrique is waiting in the car,” she says. Then she steps back, out of the doorway, to let me out. She’s looking down at her shoes like she’s embarrassed. Like she’s done something wrong.
I look back at my wife. Then at Martha. “Let me tell her I’ll be right back,” I say. “I’ll be out in a minute.” We are being polite now.
Martha is on the sofa again. Her purse is in her lap. She’s going through it with one hand and with the other hand she’s twisting her hair all kinds of ways around her finger. When she sees me she zips up the purse and puts it on the floor between her feet. Then she puts her hands together in her lap. I walk past her to the window. I push my fingers through the blinds. There’s an old El Camino parked in the street and there’s a man leaned against it. A young man, smoking a cigarette. This is Enrique.
I walk back and sit down in the leather recliner. I dig my elbows into the worn-out holes in the armrests, pressing my fingers into the leather. I’m looking at Martha, and I’m thinking. I’m thinking she’s going to ask for more money. She’s done it before, so I know how to handle it. But she should know better. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe she’s going to tell me she stole something. Her conscience has got the best of her, so here she is, all dressed up for the reckoning. You stole something? I’ll say. I don’t care, sweetheart. Take it all. It’ll save me some time. Don’t waste your best clothes on me, sweetheart. That’s what I’ll say.
But that’s not what she tells me. What she tells me is this –
“Mr. Maddux, I’m leaving.”
Martha is a young Mexican girl, maybe twenty. She is not beautiful and not ugly either. A little heavy, but she gets around. Really she is very plain to look at, if I’m honest. Except she has this long black hair. Powerfully long black hair. So long it’s hard to look away. There’s so much of it and I always think how much time it must have taken to get it there. That powerfully long black hair. It really is something.
Now I’m sitting across from Martha, staring at all that hair, waiting for her to say something. I can’t remember what it is she just told me. But she won’t speak. And she won’t look at me. She is looking at the floor. She won’t look at me.
I start. “Listen, Martha,” I say, “I can’t pay you more. I’ve told you before. I haven’t worked in almost a year.” This is what I tell her before she’s said anything. I want to get to it before she does.
She looks up at me. Her legs are moving too much and she’s turning her thumbs over in her lap. “No,” she says, “It isn’t that.”
“What is it, then?” I say and I adjust myself in the chair.
She looks down again, talking. “It’s Enrique,” she says. “He says I should find another job.” Then, as if she’s ashamed, “He says I need to quit and find something else before it’s too late.”
I hear what Martha is saying, but I’m not listening, not really. I’m wondering if my wife is okay. She likes her routine.
Martha is looking up at me now. She’s found some courage. She says, “There’s another job coming up. I’m going to take it.”
For a long time there’s only silence. I’m looking past Martha at the painting on the wall. There’s a whale coming up through the water against a ship. The whale is very big and the ship is very small. It’s funny how much bigger the whale is than the ship. I remember asking my wife the meaning of it, her telling me how the whale symbolizes how all of what matters in people and in life is below the surface, how we’re all better off if we focus on what we can’t see. We used to have people over to the house. I’d show them the painting and I’d tell them what it meant best I could remember how my wife had told me.
After a long time Martha says, “Do you understand?”
I pull my eyes away from the painting. I’m seeing Martha again. I’m seeing her big hair, then her eyes come into focus. I’m trying to remember what it is she was saying. “I understand,” I say. And I think that I do.
“Okay,” she says.
I look off at nothing, pulling on my chin, thinking. Then I look back at Martha. I look at her closely. Martha’s put us in a bad spot, and presently I feel like giving it back. “Don’t you like it here?” I say. I tell her, “You can’t just put people out like this.”
But Martha won’t play. Instead she looks at the floor again, and in a low voice she says, “Your wife is very sick.”
I look at her big hair, pulled back and twisted in every way imaginable. How long it must take to get it there, I wonder. And I look at her hands folded in her lap, and at her feet pointed together on the floor.
“She has been very sick for a long time,” Martha tells me.
I don’t say anything.
“The last time,” Martha starts slowly, “it all happened so fast. I didn’t have any notice at all. I was lucky to find you so fast.”
I think about it, remembering the day Martha showed up. It must have been about six months ago. A friend from work, Bill Walters, his wife had been through it. Martha had come to help after the diagnosis. She had been a big help, Bill said. But one day Bill didn’t have any more work for Martha. It must have been about six months ago.
“Sure,” I say, nodding.
“I’m sorry,” Martha says. “I didn’t mean it like that.” She goes on shaking her head back and forth and really thinking on it. “I just meant…you remember what the doctor said.”
Martha waits for me to say something. But I won’t say it. She won’t either. Instead, she looks at the floor again. This is the only way she can talk to me. She puts her hands in her lap, pressing them tight between her thighs, rocking back and forth, talking. “It’s too sad,” she says. “All of it is just too sad.” She’s shaking her head as she talks, and rocking. “I can’t do it again. You’ll have to find someone else. I’m very sorry about it all.” I think that maybe she’s crying now, but I don’t know. I don’t want to know. She keeps talking. “All of it,” she says, pausing to look at me, “all of it is just too sad.”
I can see she’s upset by it all, so I don’t keep it going. “I understand,” I say. “How much time do we have?”
She looks away at the door, wiping her eyes with the ends of her fingers. Then she looks at me, her eyes watery still. She says, “Enrique is taking me to meet the other family now.”
I don’t say anything.
“I really am sorry,” she says.
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” I say. “It’s really all right,” I tell her.
Martha tries to smile. “I know another girl,” she says. “Jessica.” She picks up her purse and puts it in her lap. “She might be able to help,” she says, “at least for a little while.”
“Jessica?” I say. “All right. Send her over.”
Martha is gone. I’m walking around the house, taking inventory. I go into the kitchen. I see the dishes piled high in the sink. I have some thoughts about Martha leaving behind a pile of dishes, but I go in after them. I stand at the sink staring at the pile of ceramic. I turn on the faucet and let the water run for a bit, so it heats up, then I get going.
While I’m washing, I’m thinking what I’ll do. I tell myself, tomorrow I’ll call about some jobs. That’s the first thing I’ll do. I’ll call a few people. They’ll know of something. I’ll find something pretty quick. I’m not too worried about that. Of course, we’ll need another girl. That one Martha mentioned. What was her name? I can’t remember. Maybe she’ll show up tomorrow. Otherwise I’ll have to call Martha. Jesus. I wish I’d been more polite.
When I finish the dishes, I pour a glass of water and walk back to the bedroom. I take off my robe, put it across the chair, leave my slippers at the foot of the bed and get in. Before I lie down, I kiss her on the forehead. She smiles. Then I roll over and open the drawer in the side table. Inside it there’s a note. I take it out and unfold it.
“Remember how we were…”
I read it. I read it a few times. Then I fold it up and put it back in the drawer.
Now I’m lying on my back. I’m listening to her breathing. And I’m thinking about things. I’m thinking of everything how it was. This is my routine now. I tell myself, tomorrow you’re going to do something. And for a moment I really believe it.
Jonathan Vollinger is an emerging fiction writer living in Dallas, Texas. He is currently working on a collection of stories involving a central character, Mark Maddux. “Remember How We Were” is the second story in the collection. The first, “Papa,” was previously published in the Saturday Evening Post.