Waving at Stevie Wonder
By Ted R. Larsen
Writing as Amy Bradigan
Hal would like to fluff his pillow, but it hurts too much to move. After considering it, he decides an unfluffed pillow will be just fine. Better than irritating the shards in his bones.
Evie would fluff his pillow for him, of course, if he asked. Thing is, he hates to ask. Helplessness is worse than physical pain.
He lays his head back, closes his eyes, and thinks. A man confined to his bed has plenty of time for that. Deep thoughts. Why does Saturn have rings? Who (and God bless them) was the first person to make coffee? Whatever happened to B cell batteries?
Mostly, though, he thinks about Jo. He wonders for the millionth time how she is coping. Being separated from her is the deepest pain he bears. It dwarfs everything.
“Good mornin’, darlin’.” Evie enters the room, flashing a smile beneath concerned brows. Her practical hoodie hangs loosely off her shoulders. On the front is a graphic of a kittens surfing. He has no idea why.
“Do you need me to open the blinds a little?” He shakes his head no, but she is already opening them. It’s fine. He nods, and smiles.
Evie is a good person. No question. She has always taken care of him. When he got a little cancer, caring for him didn’t knock her off her stride. Now, caring for his lots of cancer has simply upped her game.
“Can I fluff your pillow for you?”
He shakes his head, not exactly sure why he refuses the help. He can do it, but it hurts. On the other hand, lying here motionless hurts too. He slowly reaches up and fluffs it himself.
If he had to, if the house was on fire, he could get himself up and out of bed. Of course, if the house was on fire, he’d probably gratefully let the flames consume him.
He’s a sad sight these days. Maybe it’s better if Jo’s last memories of him are the things they did together, when he was still vital. The songs. The laughter. The walks in shared silence. He’s almost glad she can’t see him like this.
On second thought, no. He’s not glad at all. He wishes he could see her. He misses her.
He sighs. He knows he should feel guilty about lying to Evie, about his hidden life, but he never has. Does that make him a bad person?
Maybe. Does he care? Not really.
It’s not like he went looking for it. Before Jo exploded into his life, he had spent years contented, if not quite happy with his lot. She changed everything. How was his heart supposed to react?
He has been madly in love with her for fifteen years. There’s nothing he could do about that if he wanted to, and he doesn’t want to.
It has never, not once, felt like an affair. It feels like air, like water, like all the sustenance he ever needed. If he has any regret at all, it is only that he couldn’t spend more time with her.
Now he knows he will never see her again. She can’t come over to visit him, and he can’t get out. Evie answers the phone, gets the door, opens the mail, checks his texts.
She sits on the edge of his bed. “Do you want spaghetti for dinner?”
He nods. Spaghetti’s fine. Evie’s a pretty good cook, although her cooking has no sense of adventure. He has always been a decent cook himself, but he can’t really cook anymore. What she’s doing for him is fine. He doesn’t have much appetite anyway.
He does miss the sheer pleasure of good food, though. Misses it a lot.
She touches his shoulder. “Hal, we need to discuss something.”
He turns to her. What’s this?
“Remember that conference I used to go to? In Denver? Well, the boss has asked me to go again this year.”
He blinks. It will be hard for him, on his own. On the other hand, she deserves a break. He nods and smiles at her.
“I really want to go. I’ve been working so hard at keeping everything together. It’s only for one night.”
She smooths his hair. “I’ll make everything as easy as possible for you. I can cook meals for you in advance. All you’ll have to do is heat them up. I can even roll your bed nearer the kitchen, if you want? Do you want that?”
He opens his mouth to say no as she stands and starts to move him.
“Hal, don’t worry. You’ll be fine. Won’t you?”
He nods again, which hurts.
She turns and paces off, practical shoes clicking on the hardwood floor.
Jo sits in her darkened room. Her cat keeps her company, if you consider disdain with claws to be company kept.
Sadness is her symphony.
She wants to scream at God. How can Hal be dying?
She needs answers.
She wants to cry. She wants to throw her empty wine glass at the wall. She wants to slap Hal for being sick. She wants to howl, to punch. . . something.
Of course, if Hal walked in, if he was magically here, she’d simply hug him, all else forgotten. What wouldn’t she give for that? For just one more hug?
The cat jumps into her lap. She brushes him back to the floor, less gently than he deserves. He struts away, indignant.
She shrugs. “Sorry, bub. Not in the mood.”
How long has it been since Hal told her about the diagnosis? Five months? Six? A decade?
Surely a decade.
And when he’s gone, how long will this emptiness last? How many lifetimes?
She supposes she should feel blessed for having found this crazy perfect love, and she does. It’s just that right now, she feels only the loss of a limb, the crumbling of a mountain, the entropic universe’s end.
How can this be happening? It’s not like she ever thought life was fair, but did it have to incinerate her with its cruelty?
She pours herself another wine and blows out the lone candle in the room. Right now, she prefers the dark.
Evie has written a list of everything she did to get him through the next two days. Meals are prepped, the dog is at the kennel. Here’s the book he was reading. Water bottles are in easy reach on the refrigerator door, toothpaste and toothbrushes ready to go on the counter.
He nods, listening but not listening. Is she bragging, or simply reminding him?
“I know you’re going to be fine.”
He nods again.
“Will you be fine, darlin’?”
He takes a deep breath. “You worry too much, Evie. I’m not concerned about a single thing.” She opens her mouth as he continues. “I am an adult, after all.”
“I know. I just. . .”
“Thank you for all you did for me. You know I appreciate it.”
She hands him the list. He sets it on the table next to the bed.
“Go, Evie. Go get on your plane. Enjoy your conference.”
She stands. He gestures at the paper. “Thank you for this. It will help.” He doubts he will need it or even look at it, but she did spend hours putting it together.
She goes to the closet and takes out her warm plaid jacket. She slips it on and turns back to him. “You sure? I want you to be okay.”
Closing his eyes, he nods one more time.
He lays his head back as she leaves, the door closing behind her with a gentle thump.
He always loved Jo’s sense of adventure, her ability to have fun wherever she found herself. She found beauty in everything. Where he would curse the winter, damn the sleeping forest, she would see fierce beauty, diamonds of snow lining stark branches.
She made him see what had always been invisible to him. She saw everything.
Countless times, he had watched her get down on her knees, camera in hand, waiting for a breeze to lift a flower’s petals ever so gently, waiting for the clouds to filter the light just so. Beneath her boundless energy, she could wait in serene patience for exactly the right moment, as still as cave water.
Her laughter was infectious, her energy lit every room she entered.
They had once, only once, been able to get away together. A weekend in Detroit to see Stevie Wonder.
A few hours before the concert, they walked the path along the river, just killing time. Seagulls hovered above them in the warm insistent breeze. Looking up, they watched one hover while barely moving, adjusting his flight with subtle grace. It seemed so simple. Flexing a single feather here, barely stretching a wing there, master of the air itself.
Jo had laughed in glee. She stood beneath it, mesmerized. He was convinced she could have stared at it for fifteen days without losing one amp of energy.
Walking the boardwalk back to their room, they saw him. Stevie Wonder, with a few friends, was strolling on the other side of the street. Hal gasped and pointed. “Look!”
She hooted and started waving at him.
Hal put his hand on her shoulder. “You know you’re waving at Stevie Wonder, right?”
Her mouth flew open and she sat down and started to giggle. He sat down next to her, and they laughed for what seemed like an hour.
Jo is surprised by the amount of mail in her mailbox. It’s enough for a week. After a moment, this makes sense. She probably hasn’t stepped outside to get her mail (or anything else) in about a week.
She shrugs, and tosses it all in a heap on her kitchen table.
She feeds the cat something redolent of fish and vomit. The cat perks up and digs in. Cats have no pride.
She looks at the pile of mail. She should probably go through it. Tomorrow, maybe.
Right now, she is more consumed with her hardest decision. Red wine or white?
Her phone dings, which surprises her. No one texts her. This has got to be a mistake.
Moments later, it dings again. She sighs and looks at the text. Anonymous. Great. She rolls her eyes but reads it anyway.
“Evie will be in Denver for the next 24 hours. There’s a key under the mat.”
She stares at it and reads it again. A smile grows on her face, for the first time in a thousand years. It was brilliant of him to set up an anonymous text.
Thank God she actually viewed it.
Her heart springs. Time to take a nice long shower. Time to smell good again.
Jo stands in the doorway, having let herself in. He stares at her. A smile, a field of sunflowers, slowly blossoms on her face.
He stares, and smiles back. “Jo. You’re here.”
Taking off her jacket and letting it fall to the floor behind her, she rushes to him. She gently sits on the bed. “Hal. How are you?”
He closes his eyes. “Have I died? Am I in heaven?”
“Maybe we both are.” She strokes his forehead.
He takes her hand, his breath shuddering, heart pounding. “I never…I didn’t think…I would ever…”
She shushes him. “I’m here now, baby.”
Lying next to him, her head still fits on his shoulder. He is glad she is here; glad she doesn’t treat him like spun glass. Yesterday, it felt like 10 years since he had seen her. Right now, it feels like no time at all has passed.
“I’m so happy.” He runs his fingers through her hair.
Jo nods. “Me, too.” She puts her hand on his chest, feeling his heart beat. Her touch, warm as it ever was, has stolen his pain. “I was so surprised to see the message. I couldn’t wait to see you.”
He completely understands. “God, I know. I’ve missed you so much.”
“I never abandoned you, Hal”
He nods. “I never doubted you.”
They lie in silence. Hal closes his eyes. Life has given them a gift.
She sighs. “This is awful. I spend every moment of every day thinking about you. I just couldn’t figure out how…”
She sits up and gently kisses his eyelid. “I didn’t think I would get to say goodbye.”
He knows. God, he knows. He never thought, never even dreamed they would have this one last moment. Had he allowed himself to imagine it, he would have imagined unbearable sadness.
To his surprise, it is not that at all.
Outside the window, a robin sings “cheerio.” It is both welcoming and grace. They both listen, worshipers in a cathedral.
After a time, he feels her breathing lengthen, deepen. As the light outsides fades to night, he smiles into the darkness. Before he, too, falls asleep, he wonders how she found out that Evie would be out of town.
The view through the hotel window is glorious. Craggy peaks, soaring eagles. An early snowfall. Denver really is beautiful.
Evie sits on the edge of her bed. She wonders how Hal is doing. She hopes he is comfortable.
She also wonders how Jo is doing. She hopes she is all right.
Evie is at peace. She and Hal had come to level ground long ago, and having had no children, they had comfort in each other.
They were friends.
Several years back she had found out about Jo. It hurt, of course, but after a while she also saw how it changed Hal. For years their marriage had paddled along, neither underwater nor soaring above the clouds. Hal had been steady, reliable, deeply unhappy.
Evie had always known this. What she didn’t know was how to make it better.
It could be said that Hal’s relationship with Jo had saved their marriage. He had found happiness, and in that they had both found serenity. He has been a good husband, and she knows he stayed with her out of kindness.
They would never know Evie had sent the anonymous text to Jo. It might be the last act of kindness she will be able to show Hal, and she was glad to do it.
There is as much to be said for friendship as there is for love.
She turns out the light, and is quickly asleep, dreaming of distant sundrenched mountains, stable and steady.
Ted Larsen lives in Northeast Ohio. He is an author, actor, director, playwright, composer, and avid bicyclist. His fiction has been published in The Broadkill Review, The Storyteller magazine and Literary Yard; and his story “Only the Stones” placed third in the international Aeon Award contest and will be published in Albedo One magazine. In addition, his non-fiction articles have been published in Computers in Healthcare magazine.