It almost defied understanding, how something so beautiful could be allowed to rot before his eyes. How quickly something so sweet and nourishing as their life together could crumple and decay into something so bittersweet. He sat next to her as she lay in the bed that had seen so much love and laughter and held a hand that had once been strong and beautiful.
Medicine, heat, food? Their small savings had been devoured by medical bills, leaving them with a debt they would never be able to pay. What small income they had left was not enough, and over the past two years they had watched each other lose more weight than even age and illness should steal from them. There was no one left to help -- they had held each other and wept over the death of their only child twenty years ago. He held her bony hand in his and tried to understand how someone who had given him so much love and joy could be allowed to die like this, such a long and degrading fight, losing to hunger before even the sickness could take her.
Miriam turned her head slowly in his direction. It had been a long time since she had been able to see anything but light and shadow. The darkness and the chill were settling into the old brick walls of the house as the sun set. The electricity had been turned off -- there would be no more light for her to see. Still, she smiled at him, and it made him weep that there was something still so good left to them as her smile. "I suppose this will be it, Herb."
"I suppose it will, Miriam." There was a feeling of finality. He only prayed that neither of them would have to wake up without the other. The night would likely be too cold. That would be a final kindness, at least.
"Thank you, Herb," she whispered, tears wetting the folds of skin around her eyes. "It's been more wonderful than I had hoped."
"I wouldn't have missed a moment of it," he squeezed her hand and it was the truth. Even this end had been bearable because of her.
He was surprised when morning came, sunlight angling through the drapes. For just a moment, he thought he saw two blue-lipped old people lying peacefully and still next to each other in a bed amid the filth that had slowly amassed over the past two years of illness. But that was sad and ugly, and it was easier to look at the sunlight through clean drapes and a tidy room that smelled faintly of fresh linens and Miriam's perfume. His spirits lifted and he wandered out through a young house with hips that supported his weight.
At the bottom of the stairs, he paused for a moment. In the living room, the old TV set was back, gleaming faintly with furniture polish. The colors on the couch were bright again and his easy chair showed no signs of wear. In the kitchen, he could hear bustling sounds and -- yes, that was the smell of dinner. He wandered into a kitchen warmly lit with the afternoon sun.
"Hello, handsome," Miriam was pulling a bottle of milk out of a well stocked refrigerator. It must be Monday; she would have gone shopping today. It was the start of a new week, full of potential, a whole week of evenings to spend together ahead, culminating with two days to enjoy each other's company. Monday afternoons had been his favorite. "How was your day?"
They sat down and chatted over sauerkraut and dumplings, and he had a dim memory that she hadn't made them for years since the pressure cooker became too heavy for her to lift. Miriam had never stopped being beautiful to him, but she was the way he liked to think of her best -- just past forty, the extra pounds she was always fretting about adding a soft roundness to her figure that was a pleasure to hold, eyes dark and clear and sparkling once more with the wit and the affection he treasured so. He felt strong again himself, not with the brash energy of youth, but with the evenness of middle age, when he used to go to sleep tired but not weary and wake up again ready for the day ahead.
They talked and laughed about work and how their days had gone. He helped her clean up after dinner and they both retired to the living room and watched the television. Perhaps tomorrow he would sit in his easy chair, but for tonight it was good to sit beside Miriam on the couch, arm around her, and feel her soft flesh cushioned up beside him.
The Late Show was coming on before either of them directly addressed the situation. "Is it heaven, do you think?"
He thought about that for a moment. There was a creeping doubt as just for a moment the warmth and good smells of dinner were replaced by a shadow of a cold, dilapidated house and the lingering scent of sickness. Far easier not to see that. "I can't imagine anything better than this," he said with absolute sincerity and held her close. There had been no better time than those lovely, long Monday afternoons together.
Neither of them kept track of how many there were. Was it important that it was always Monday afternoon? It didn't seem to be. Perhaps it was the faint shadow of dimness and decay that crept in when either of them thought about it that made it so easy not to think about such things. That faint shadow taunted him slightly, tempted him to think this wasn't real and that as it had passed in life, it might pass now as well. He refused to think about it. It had always been this way and it would be this way forever.
But there were disruptions. There was a pounding at the door that sent shock waves of darkness and dust, shocking them out of their dinner. For a moment, there was someone at the door and they were in the kitchen as it was just before the end, grime that Miriam couldn't see and Herb had been unable to clean encrusting everything, a rat by the baseboards waiting as tensely as they to see if the pounding at the door would go away so he, too, could resume blissfully wandering through his own version of paradise. Instead, the door was opened and several people in uniforms entered, calling out their names. Miriam wailed as the Monday afternoon was shattered completely and Herb rose in anger to confront the invaders. How dare they!
"Get out!" he stood in front of them and shouted.
"Oh my god, look at this place," a girl with a clipboard was saying, looking around with disturbed eyes.
"Ugh, smell that. How long has it been since anyone saw them?"
"Thank god it's winter."
They began trooping upstairs, carrying death and darkness with their every step. Miriam sobbed in anguish at their intrusion. Herb tried to block the girl with the clipboard, his face inches from hers as he railed at her to get out. The girl rubbed her arms as if chilled. "This place is creepy. Do you think it's haunted?"
"Aw, god, they're still here," called one of the men from upstairs.
They fled upstairs to a room that was soiled again, wallpaper peeling, reeking of rot and sickness. The two old people still lay in the bed where Herb had managed to crawl beside her that last evening. "Don't touch her," Herb threatened as they collected the remains and zipped up the plastic bags. "Leave us be, damn you!"
They followed helplessly as the bags of bones and remnants of flesh were carried down the stairs and out to the waiting, silent ambulance. A sense was upon them of being at a crossroads. "Herb," she whispered as their remains were loaded into the vehicle, "what do we do?"
Move on or stay? Herb was consumed with jealousy at the thought of giving up their Monday afternoon together. "They'll be gone soon, Miriam," he put his arm around her and watched the living drive away. The bond to what had once been their bodies slipped into unimportance and they returned to their home possessively.
People came and boarded up the doors and windows, and after that no one came for a very long time so that the lazy sunshine returned and they resumed their simple pleasures. Occasionally someone would break in. Looters came to steal what little there was of value. Vagrants tried to find shelter for the night. Kids or lawless youths came to drink or inject themselves with drugs. Only the very thickest-skinned, self-absorbed living were able to stay long in the face of his rage and her sorrow at the intrusion.
There came a time, however, when the Monday afternoon began to be threatened, and the sense of eternality slipped away. People were coming, not into the house, but around it, with more and more frequency, and their attentions were focused this way. Conversation over dinner between Herb and Miriam became more and more strained as both of them listened to the sounds of the living nearby, and it became harder to see the sunshine and block out reality. The harder it became to ignore the living, the harder it was to resume their Monday afternoon and to fool themselves into thinking it was anything but a beautiful illusion.
"What do we do, Herbert?" Was there food on the dinner table at all? The light had grown cool and dim.
His jaw clenched. He was determined to enjoy the apple pie she had baked. There was no broken out window, no trash piled against the walls. "About what?" His tone signaled that it was the end of the discussion.
The wrecking ball was not so considerate of his wishes as Miriam, however. They could not even be angry as it came through and shattered what was left of their peaceful Monday afternoon for all time. They held each other and watched in sorrow and silence as their house was destroyed and the living crawled all about the remains. Big yellow machines came and cleared it all away, then more came and lay down pavement. Bright lights were put in, flags were hung, a giant inflatable gorilla was erected.
They lingered in the used car lot together for a meaningless stretch of time, holding hands and watching people pass through where they had lived and loved and been happy for so many years. There was no question now of recreating the Monday afternoon. They lacked the peace to create such an illusion. Miriam's question lingered between them, though she was kind and did not ask again.
"I am afraid," he said finally, by way of answer. The lot had been quiet for a few days in the wake of some rude sale that had profaned their restlessness with bands and hot dog vendors and pushy salesmen. Even death had been determined to degrade them, and it was causing an element of bitterness in him that he had not been able to give Miriam better than this, even in death. "I am afraid, Miriam." He grew choked with emotion. "I loved you so much. I loved our life together so much. How can I let that go? Everything has been stripped from us, one shred of happiness at a time, first while we were alive and now while we are dead. Where is the peace?" he was shouting, not at her, but at the unfairness of it all.
"Peace has never been something the world gave to us," she reminded him, slipping her hand into his. There was a faraway look in her eyes, and he knew she was remembering the death of their son, and how they had grieved together. He remembered how they had, after a time, been able to find happiness again.
"But we always found peace together," he held onto her hand tightly. "How can I let that go?"
"We never stopped loving Roy, even though we had to let him go." They sat in silence for a time, watching families examine cars. Soon the sun would go down, but the blinding lights of the lot would preclude any peace. "When you were away at work, and I was at home, were you ever truly alone, my love?" She was right. He clasped her hand more tightly. After a few moments, she spoke once more. "You believed once that we would all see each other again. Is it that you don't believe that anymore?"
They sat quietly for a while longer. As always, Miriam was content to wait for him to answer when he was ready. She had always been content to wait for him. He looked over at her with a welling of regret. It was unfair of him to keep her here like this.
"Miriam, I will always love you," he said.
"I'll see you soon, my love," she smiled at him as he let go of her hand.
Originally appeared 2002-11-11