by Vince Barry

     “Nervous,” my wife goes, I think, ’cause she’s in the laundry room, which comes off the garage and is narrow and low beamed; so, if somebody says something, let alone mumbles, you don’t always get it. And she mumbles, my wife does, when unsettled. ’S why garble is what I get, ’cause even worse, I’m standing in the kitchen, which comes off the laundry off the garage and I’m in the middle of secreting contraband, . . . and there is, to boot, unaccustomed distant thunder.

     So, naturally, I say, fidgety, Queeg-like, “‘Nervous’? Whose nervous?,” and she goes, “‘Service,’ not ‘nervous,’” in a prosecutorial sort of way, cold and sharp, from the laundry room, and I, showing her the back of a hunched shoulder, cache the Pressed Juicery bottle into the pocket of my black, packable WearGuard windbreaker, which I’ve donned ’cause rain’s threatening, TG, and I’m headed over to the campus like a man walking the last mile, were it not for my tonic.

     “‘Service’?” I go. “Whaddya mean, ‘service’?,” and I wonder if to her as to me my voice sounds damp and dreary?

     “Oh, it’s—,” she goes before breaking off, leaving me to finish the track of her thought: “nothing.”

    She starts to unload a bag of Trader Joe’s . . . or is it Whole Foods? . . . I don’t know, but definitely not Vons. She doesn’t like Vons—the market, I mean, not the pharmacy. The pharmacy she likes, especially the pharmacists, as do I. “Caring and cordial,” we call them, after picking up, she her L-Thyroxine and alprazolam, the former for thyroid the latter for sleep; and I Lisinoprol, Amlopodin and Metoperol, for high blood pressure, all. Oh, right, alprazolam also, for sleep. Neither of us sleeps well, you can tell, but what you can’t, never together. I sleep in a Relax the Back zero gravity recliner. She? Well, she has Sam. . . . But  I meander.

     It’s something, not nothing, is the thing. I know, ’cause I know my spouse—her Friday face, her sullen tone, her played out posture, especially do I know her aposiopesis that means nothing is something. . . .

     Don’t get me wrong—she’s no Eeyore. It’s just that—well, picture in the kitchen a sullen noir Gloria Grahame after flinging a dish towel, snapping, “Oh, it’s nothin.’” You get the picture—of nothin’ that’s somethin’? Right. Only she’s not flinging anything, my wife, just flustering in a subdued tone, “Zack,” before breaking off again.

     “What about him?” I ask, of her brother, the one who lives—oh, I don’t know, some miles or so above us somewhere or other above “Fog City.” Then I think, “This ‘nervous/service’ business probably has something to do with Lolly,” ’cause, y’know, Zack just had her up there visiting. Otherwise, she’s down here, at what’s called a “unique retirement campus.” I visit Sunday afternoons.

Lolly is my wife’s mother. Just turned ninetysomething and is well into the territory of the enemy. Senility. . . . Okay, “dementia,” as my wife corrects me insistently as a toothache. “Not senility, George,” she decrees, like a rasped Charlotte Haze, throwing in for good measure, her long-fingered hands on large, loosely hung hips,“not even ‘senile dementia’!” “Whatever, my love,” I concede, like the nymphet-obsessed Professor Humbert, mentally subjoining, “marcescent, nonetheless.”

     Mind you, I don’t object to the nomenclature— I get it, I do. She’s under a lot of stress, my wife is, what with Lolly, and Sam’s never finding enough work. Did I mention Sam? No matter, to end it, when we get to caviling about senility, or one thing or another, I say, “Oh well, youth must be served.” And—here’s the kicker!—she doesn’t know whether to mind or not. Whether to take it as choked with sarcasm or a-choke with first love-longing. Y’know what I mean? . . .

     Anyway, there are, besides her and Zack, two of them—Barkleys, I mean, my wife’s blood. Well, I take that back—one now, though he’s also far-flung. ’S why it’s fallen mainly to my wife, and she’s about worn to shreds.

     I know, you’re probably thinking: “But Lolly lives in a comfortable senior community.” Well, believe me, there is still a whole lot of—what? well, “secret debts” owing is what I call them. . . . Oh, I don’t mean reparations. No guilt and regret and self-recriminations, no vulgarities like that—except of the youngest, I s’pose, but not my wife. . . .

     Love? Love certainly figures in, inasmuch as love—what? bears, believes, hopes, endures all things?  . . .  But for me, I don’t know why but “secret debts” has always captured  it— the unknown owed, I mean, or, perhaps, the owed unknown. Whichever, I’m talking about what can never be repaid, though we blister against the tackled task and-and we—well, Sisyphean though it is, we dree our weird— exhausted but exalted. . . . Surely, you know what I mean. Surely. . . .

    “All I know is she keeps marveling,” goes my wife, of Lolly of me of my visits, “‘that husband of yours! That husband of yours!’”—Lolly’s not good with names anymore— “‘He sits right here’”— pointing so theatrically to an imaginary chair that I can almost see the senescent line of Lolly’s back — “‘and we have so much fun!’” “’M glad it helps,” I muster like weak tea, and add with a touch of asperity, “’S no big deal.”

     Of Lolly’s well-meant flummery: Credit it to the precaution I take on my excursions. That Juicery bottle I mentioned? with the motto I didn’t: “Get back to your roots”? Truth be told, for its aloe vera and water I substitute vodka—always “The City’s” SKYY—and a shot of Canada Dry. Thus my tonic on the sly.

   So armed it’s not so bad, going over,— though, grantcha, a tad tiring for pressed to view, time after time, pictures of Pop—that’s Lolly’s second husband—and the family photos that multiply like rabbits and substitute for words before, their image fading, leaving silence our only conversation.

     The worst part is traversing the long, close-smelling corridor to the apartment, which happens to be number thirty-three. I mention that, the room’s number, only because I always summon, upon arriving, my go-to conversational icebreaker: “Thirty-three is a sacred number. It appears thirty-three times in the opening chapter of Genesis. Jesus died at age thirty-three.” Like that, but with, of late, something inchoately whizzing around in my head—or something inchoate whizzing or-or some inchoate something whizzing. . . . Anyway, my head aside, Lolly, for her part, listens with no answering light in the crags and straths of her wizened face, her jaws working on a word. It is, “Thachew?” It is, me.

     Oh, I almost forgot, “Some say,” I keep on, dandling my foolish head from side to side, “we will exist eternally in a state of being at the age of thirty-three.” Then a pause till I detect, in their shimmering dot reflection, a humorously puckering of red-rimmed hollow eyes, before adding, “Of course, pure conjecture, that.”

    There follows a noisy silence before, from Lolly, as if cued, a solemn requiescat in pace, “Rest his soul.” To which I respond, like an altar boy at a Mass for the dead,—no, no, more like The Armed Man of “A Mass for Peace”— “Who’s that, Lolly?,” and from Lolly, antiphonally, “Jesus.” Then a respectful pause for the deceased before entering room thirty three, careful to shut the door behind me, as I would have my mother would have me do were she— But let us not dwell on what is past, albeit not gone beyond grief. Agreed? Good.

    Once inside I let—what? auto—auto—what’s that high-priced word once memorized in the dim past for some standardized test or other?. . . Ah! Yes, auto-auto, yes, it was that ages ago committed-to-memory Greek-rooted barbarism “autoscheadiasm” that I then let carry us along, Lolly and me, like the adage flotsam and jetsam on the hushing river that secretes no secrets in its flow, for an hour or so before—

     She passes her arm through mine and clings to it like lagan to a buoy, a blue-veined bony hand now and again tightening its hold at the dull growl of gathering thunder behind a bank of serried clouds. We pause before birds of paradise . . . garden sage. . . bougainvillea, gold and orange, purple and blue. . . . All the while, that-that, well, that inchoate something or that something inchoate—whatever, it nags, inchoately, it does. . . .

     And as I,—much like her devoted swain Lou did Grace along the “Always Turned On” boardwalk—, as I Grandisonize Lolly back to room thirty-three, I make a mental note to tell my wife of— of what? Hmm, of what I’m not certain. . . .

     “Doesn’t something smell funny over there?” I begin. Then enlarging, “Sour … rancid . . . fetid?,” omitting, for being befogged, I suppose, the inchoate mental note of the inchoate, but tempted to say, “a budding rose above the rose full blown,” though why, I couldn’t say—though, did I say I once taught English briefly? Oops! I mean, briefly taught English. Sorry. . . .

     I forget, she’s anosmiac, my wife is. Lost her sense of smell—oh, I don’t know, ’bout when she took up with Sam, s’pose. I’ve urged her to have it checked. “Might be something serious,” I tell her. “How does food taste?” She has no appetite, she says. . . . A shame, ’cause Sam’s a caterer—a “niche caterer,” whatever that is. . . .

    Cohabit? Oh, I don’t know if that’s—I mean she’s over here every day at our place . . . then spends the nights at hers, Sam’s.  So, do we or do we not cohabit? Do they or not? I don’t know, frankly. I mean, what defines “cohabit”?. . . Time of day? Day or night? Lightness, darkness?. . . To paraphrase the Prince: There is nothing but thinking makes it so. . . . And I don’t, honestly, make it so. . . . In any event, it doesn’t matter with whom she cohabits. . . . Now, whom she dreams of—well now, that is a different matter entirely, isn’t it? Of which, blessedly, we know nothing, one of the other. . . .

     Oddly, the arrangement has brought us closer together. . . more polished, actually, in the practice of marital courtesies, you could say. . . . We talk more.

About what? Well, about our daughter, of course, who’s away at college. But beyond her. . .  well, politics. Now there’s something we never used to—

     We’ve even invented a word game—well, a couple actually, for describing The Great Leader. The first—I’m not sure whose idea it was, but probably hers, since she used to teach English, as did I,—oh, I said that,—but not, did I?, before morphing into George Babbitt? or “Rabbit”Angstrom? or, of late, I think Gregor Samsa? . . . I think not.

     Anyway, the first game was to come up with words with the suffix “maniac” for the aforesaid Great Leader— y’know, like “egomaniac,” “megalomaniac,” “mythomaniac,” “monomaniac, “proditomaniac,” “theomaniac,” like that. Then she upped the ante, indeed said, “Let’s up the ante,” by which she meant, “recherche words associated with The Great Leader,” and fired off: “samfie,” “snollygoster,” and “jacktance” before I could break in with “droog,” which she instantly rejected ’cause, she said, “The Great Leader has henchmen but is not himself one.” “A technicality,” I objected, before conceding the point and firing off, “trombenik,” “numpty,” and “postiche,” all of which she trumped with “Punchinello,” “alazon,” and—

“Zack says Kyle’s planning a service for Jinty next Saturday.” And at once I unravel the mumble and garble.

     My wife, y’see, feels what I never do, the pinch of what the British call scrimshanking. On one hand, like me, she doesn’t care for memorial services. “Monstrously mawkish,” she calls them. Far prefers, does she, and has said as much: “Why not memorialize by sitting quietly alone in a room for ten minutes?” Indeed. But still, unlike me, she feels duty-bound to join in, in celebrating the life of still another wingless angel who once trod the earth unbeknownst to us. Not to would be, well, to scrimshank. . . . Did I mention she’s English, my wife? . . .

     And so she’ll go, her battle bowler a black pillbox hat, up the ladder and over the top, and I with her ’cause, like a good soldier, I tell myself she needs me to get by. We have, after all, shared a trench, so to speak. . . .

   Kyle’s my wife’s nephew. Jinty is, was, his wife. Diagnosed with cancer like—like yesterday, and then, before you can say Shepherd’s Pie, she’s dead. Of being a woman. “After losing his mother just two years ago,” I observe in the kitchen, as if thinking aloud, and the kitchen, for its part, bleeds in silence.

    Kyle’s mother, Catherine, my wife’s older sister, lived for years back east with a man of brag and bluster who spoke with swift greed and a dealmaker’s green-eyed, spot-on recognition, whom one day she grew to detest, and then one day caught a stubborn cold and inquired of a young internist one day why she couldn’t stop coughing, and the the young internist said, “You have lung cancer.” Just like that, one day.

Chemo, bald head, wigs, hope, despair—

      I was there the night she—well, actually the night before the morning she died.

It was raining, TG.

    Bending low and drawing close, I whispered, “You’ve brought the rain,” ’cause, y’see, at the time we were in the midst of an unforgiving drought, unlike now, TG. TG? Oh, ’s Irish short for “Thank God.”. . .  Catherine managed a smile, slow and dim, and a weak,—get this—, “TG.” Imagine that.

     Then someone—I don’t know who—but someone or other in white asked if she wanted to see a priest, ’cause Catherine was a Catholic, technically. All of ’em were, the Barkleys, Catholics. Kennedy Democrats, right up to the papacy, y’cud say. Anyway, I guess it sorta stuck ’cause Catherine just sorta nodded. But the priest someone or other summoned wasn’t on duty. I know, where’s a Father when you need one, right? But, presto, a man of sixty or so with a loud wildrose face and wispy pork-fat-colored hair is inviting us all to form a circle holding hands. Then, with a cloudless smile and little pink-lashed piggy eyes, he intones, “‘What a friend we have in Jesus. All our sins and griefs to bear. And what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.’” Indeed, what a friend—

     The thing is, y’see, I love Jo Stafford. “You Belong to Me,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” especially “No Other Love.” But Jo’s “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” makes me shiver with irritation, the way “The Old Rugged Cross” swells the vein in my temple. Still, clerical plagiarism aside, I had the good sense to hold my tongue and to follow the sage advice: “In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.” The stolen words, after all, seemed to comfort Catherine, not to say the other three—Kyle, Catherine’s husband Alf, and Billy, her beatdown, beat up brother, who, Alf kept reminding me of what I well knew, had addiction issues. . . . 

    Afterward, Alf stuffed a sawbuck into the chaplain’s breast pocket, which Billy thought graceless, I guess, ’cause he said, as if a hopped-up Hopper around a campfire, pointing, y’know, with nerves in wild clamor, “The pocket-square Jackson! The pocket-square Jackson! It matches the green silky squares of his tie!” He was right— they did, Jackson and tie, match.

     Shortly thereafter they wheeled Catherine off to— well, another room is all I know, ’cause I left, walking out in the rain, TG, like the good Lieutenant Frederic Henry, thinking over and over, “The dying room, the dying room.”

     Sure enough, the next morning Catherine née Barkley died.

     But here’s the thing, the big thing that’s since set me to thinking—“dying room.”

     I mean, I don’t know, but maybe Jinty’s legacy to me, to us, is—what? Catherine redux? Dying room. . . . I’m talking about China’s dying rooms. You know, where babies were left to die?

     Oh, of course, that was years before they died, Catherine and Jinty, and a lifetime ago, y’cud say, before I thought, “If I don’t do this now I’ll regret it the rest of my life.” Of adoption I meant, being at the time middle-aged and azoospermic.

     Of dying rooms, mind you, I knew nothing. Nor did she, my wife, who back then, I like to think, I do, with typical Celtic bathos, was like me, still a-choke with first love longing, even as I traverse the long, close-smelling corridor like a man walking to his own—but not today, not—

     This rumbling Sunday I walk the last mile, not to an execution, but— to another person’s misery. . . . And with that the inchoate, like the fog with little cat feet, moves on, and in moves,
clear, plain, and simple, from one or other of memory’s hiding places covered by the drift of time, before thirty-three to thirty-three, in giving life to me, a secret debt owing, . . . and, naturally,—and who wouldn’t?— I make a mental note, then double down, to tell my wife. . . .

    But once back, I’m not sure, for being fuddled I guess, of what else to tell her—besides, of course, of banter and bougainvilleas, fetors and pongs, territs and frights. . . . But, by George, certain I am of making a mental note, squared at that, much like— Freddy Malins, y’cud say. Y’know, Joyce’s indecorous but thoroughly decent fellow given to drink and palilogy? Right, right—that Freddy Malins. . . . Like Freddy might. . . . recall making, I mean, of something a mental note of a mental note of something to tell his spouse, had he one to make his way to through a narrow, low beamed room of garble and mumble, and just enough thunder to drown out a sob.

About the Author:

After retiring from a career teaching philosophy, Vincent Barry returned to his first love, fiction. His stories have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad, including: The Saint Ann’s Review, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, The Broken City, Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Kairos, Caveat Lector, Terror House, The Fem, BlogNostics, The Writing Disorder, whimperbang, and The Disappointed Housewife. Barry lives with his family in Santa Barbara, California.