There’s this: “May hope sustain you, / Friends surround you, / And love give you strength.” Flowers. Scrolls. Soft watercolors. Subdued shades of gray. This: “When someone you love becomes a memory, / The memory becomes a treasure.” And this: “Those we love don’t go away, / They walk beside us every day, / Unseen, unheard, but always near, / So loved, so missed, so very dear.” All these notes I’ve opened and read. I’m taking care of business. I’ve emptied your closets. Clothes and shoes. Your razor, your comb. Your papers and your books. What’s left behind here in the house are empty places, blank spots that I will have to find some way to fill. People tell me: “Don’t forget to eat.” “Go out, now that you can.” “It’s time to get on with your life.” It’s not like your death was unexpected. It wasn’t a tragedy. We knew what was what, and I was waiting for it, you were hoping for it. Today? Will it be today? The crush of the anticipation almost killed me, but in the end there was no drama. It was quick and easy. An accident, that’s all. Nothing to do with me. You were angry. You tried to get out of bed on your own. You couldn’t wait one second for me to finish what I was doing and come help. So you fell. An ambulance. The hospital. A choice: surgery or not? Afterward it just got worse and worse. And now you’re gone. Forgive me, Darling. I’m sitting at the kitchen table. Sipping coffee. Staring out the window, swimming in the stillness. The clock chimes the half hour, but time means nothing to me anymore. I can do whatever I like. I can stay fixed this way all day long, and no one will know or complain or ask what are my plans. I’ve disconnected our phone. I don’t want to hear from anyone. No more condolences. No more invitations. I’m alone and free and maybe this makes me happy. Maybe I wake with joy. Maybe I sleep with joy. Maybe I go about the business of my day with joy seeping in like a light under the door in a darkened room with the walls all painted gray. Maybe there’s no pain in here. Maybe the silence emboldens me, and maybe I will sing. But now there’s come a notice in the mail. It’s a letter from the bank. They want money. A payment is overdue. So I pretend to be a normal person. I plug the phone back in and clear my throat and place the call to work things out. They give me thirty days and I’m grateful for that. Thank you and good-bye. Seconds after I’ve hung up, the phone shrieks and maybe it’s you, calling me from somewhere. I close my eyes and cover my ears. I could ignore you. I could put the poor phone out of its misery by yanking the cord from the wall. The day is gloomy and dark with storms, and a knot of fear is tangling in my gut. I haven’t enjoyed my breakfast. I’ve skipped lunch altogether. I’ve made a pot of coffee and then let the cup grow cold. In the end I give in and answer, but anyway, it isn’t you. Oh Duckling, of course it isn’t. He says he knew you well, although when he speaks his name, it’s not familiar to me. You never mentioned it. But he says, you grew up together. Childhood friends. Old chums from way back when. Bicycles and the creek in the gully across the street. Games of football in the yards. Sledding on the hills. Secrets shared. A tree house. A train set in the garage. “Your husband was a fine friend,” he tells me. “You must miss him now.” The silence on the line is vast as he waits for my response. Our breathing is faintly in sync. “He didn’t suffer,” I say at last. And: “At least there’s that.” And: “Thank you.” And: “Good-bye.” Well done, Cupcake. Well done. When the phone calls out to me again this morning, I can’t say I’m surprised and I know who it is and I guess I’ve left it connected on purpose because maybe I am lonely after all. “You knew him?” “He never mentioned me?” When I say no, he supposes you must have forgotten about him. If so, he understands. It was many years ago. When you were young. Before I was in your life. Before I was even born. The two of you were boyhood friends. Pals, buddies, thick as thieves. “Your husband was a joker, did you know that?” This is news to me. “He liked to play pranks.” I hold the receiver to my ear and listen to this man’s voice. It’s deep and slow, with a bit of a lisp and a slight twang that’s just enough to make him sound wholesome, even young. The way he hesitates. The way he stutters a bit, searches for a word, is careful in his expression. This makes him seem gentle somehow. “He was fun. A clown. A barrel of laughs, your husband, when we were boys. Always up to no good.” But what he’s telling me, I can’t quite believe. He says, “You must miss him. I know I do.” I say your name, just to be sure we’re talking about the same man, in case there’s been some mistake and he’s referring to somebody else. People read obituaries and prey upon widows. Or so I’ve been told. “We didn’t call him that then,” he says. “He was just Mr. Fox to us. As in crazy like a… We all had nicknames. Mine was the Rover because I had a wandering eye.” He pauses. “But that’s been fixed now. For years. My eyes are fine. My memory is good. I remember everything, clear as a bell, like it happened yesterday. It’s right here, all of it, in my head. Nobody calls me the Rover anymore. Did you ever call him Mr. Fox?” No. Of course not. I never called you that. I used your name when I had to. Your endearments were old-fashioned. Darling. Angel. Button. Lambkin. Duckling. Cupcake. Dear. I might just end this right here. All it will take is a brisk, “Well it’s been nice talking to you.” And, “I have to go now.” And so, “Good-bye.” Maybe even, “Thank you.” Then that will be the end of that. But I say nothing. I stand at the big window, looking out at the lawn that needs mowing, through the glass that needs washing. How am I supposed to manage all this on my own? The storm windows and the screens. The gutters full of leaves. A lawn to mow, then rake, then mow again as the seasons turn. A walk to shovel and sweep. For the first time it occurs to me I might sell our house. Move into an apartment, say. Simplify, pare down, find a place just big enough for me. He’s still talking. “I sort of dropped out of sight,” he says. “I went away.” He pauses, waiting for me to be polite, pretend I care, ask him, “Where did you go?” And, “Why?” But I only say, “Oh.” Or something. Not even that. Just, “Uh-huh.” As if I’m not really listening, so he can imagine I’m holding the phone to my ear with my shoulder, doing something else with my hands as he talks on. Rolling out a batch of dough, say. Or filing my nails. “There was an accident,” he explains. “Someone was hurt. Someone was killed. It might have been my fault.” He’s lying, Buttercup. “We were only just kids. Twelve and thirteen. But I was more mature, maybe. Because my mother… See, she had problems of her own and my father was gone and I had no brothers or sisters, so it was just me and her for a long time. But then she married again and he was all right. He had money, anyway.” I wait. “My mother was a beautiful woman, see. So she needed to have beautiful things. That’s just the way it was.” I nod. “We took a car, Mr. Fox and me and another kid. We didn’t steal it. Just borrowed it for a while. I thought we might take her for a drive, but that never happened. Instead, we missed a corner and there was a fence and we rolled and this kid… Nobody wore seat belts then. We had the windows down. It was summer. First we were flying, then we were rolling. When I opened my eyes, I was on the road and Mr. Fox was in the ditch, but that other kid was gone, thrown so far afield it took some time to find him on the other side of the fence. Strings were pulled and a deal was made, so Mr. Fox didn’t get sent off to the reformatory. Boarding school for him, see. He swore he wasn’t driving anyway, so it wasn’t all his fault. I was in the hospital for a month. And then I was in rehab. And then I was in jail.” What a sob story, Lambkin. I’ve stopped paying attention. I’m thinking about that apartment instead. I’ll call a Realtor. Get on it right away, before something comes along to change my mind. I tell the Rover I’m sorry. And then, “I have to go. There’s someone at the door.” “Okay,” he says, though he sounds disappointed. “I’ll call you later then?” It’s a question I don’t answer. I hang up. The line is dead. Later, when the phone starts screaming at me again, I jump on it because I think it might be the Realtor calling me back. But no, it’s just the Rover. That friendly twang and the depth of his voice, rattling in his throat. Low and deep and ruined. “It’s me,” he growls. I snarl back. “What do you want?” He says, “I don’t want anything.” But that’s not true. He wants me to listen. He wants to be sure I know all about who you were and what you did, once upon a time. He tells me that when they let him out and he came back home to live with his mother, she was divorced again. She was a drunk. She was on her own. She experienced blackouts. He’d find her on the floor, and she wouldn’t be able to explain what happened. She had a closet full of beautiful dresses and an address book full of friends. Cocktail parties and clubs. Probably there were men too, but he says he paid no attention to that. She had the big house all to herself, and he took the rooms above the garage. I’m worried that the Realtor might be trying to call and will find the line busy and won’t call back. But the Rover won’t stop talking. He just goes on and on. He says he was only home for the summer. He was working downtown at the newspaper, filing subscriptions and keeping his nose clean. Staying out of sight, mostly. In September he’d leave for college and get back on track. I can’t get a word in edgewise. At night he saw the lights on in the house. Cars in the driveway. Music. Laughter, conversation, shadows. It was more than just the booze. There were pills too. And she couldn’t remember everything. He didn’t ask. He didn’t want to know. That’s when you show up. You come around one summer afternoon, with a case of beer and a head full of good times, but the Rover isn’t home. You sit out by the pool to wait, and his mother comes out in her blue kimono and her black bathing suit and silver sandals on her feet. She’s fooling around, dancing a little, singing a little, but she’s been drinking as usual so she slips, but you’re not there to catch her yet, so she falls and rolls over the edge, into the water. You play the hero and jump in to save her. What was she then, in her forties? A beautiful woman, he says. Diamonds and gold and that black bathing suit. Her long red hair. I feel something turning in me. A beast, working. Its eyes open. It moves in me, this beast. Scaled. Slant-eyed. Oh, it’s huge, and it turns in me. “What else?” I ask. “What else did Mr. Fox do?” Nothing, Button. “Nothing,” he says. His voice is soft now, almost a whisper. Then, “I’m sorry.” Then, “That’s all I’ve got.” Then: “Good-bye.” Mr. Fox says, Cupcake, it’s just as well. For days now, I haven’t been able to sleep. It’s like he’s in me somehow. On my mind, in my heart, pounding in my veins, turning in my stomach. I have no face to put to him. Only the voice. And the words, the lisp, the twang, the stutter, the growl. And that one eye, wandering away. Sitting with the phone, in the kitchen, at the table, I am calm and cold and clear. I’ve caught him with caller ID. I punch the number, wait. Hear the ringing and his mother’s house blooms in my mind. A wide street, with a long lawn, many rooms, and through them the howling of the telephone, with me on the other end, as patient as the hours. I figure it will take him some time to get to it. His mother has been dead for years and he lives alone. So the howling goes on and on until I’ve about had enough, until I’m about to give up and click off and move on, when there he is. Not, “Hello?” But, “What?” So I say your name. He’s silent, then, “What do you want?” I don’t know. What do I want? He waits, then hangs up. You’ve done the right thing, Dear. It’s later in the day. The sun has set. I’ve spent some time cleaning the house, prepping it for sale. I started with the oven. Then I got down on my knees and scrubbed the kitchen floor. Now I’ve had a bath and poured myself a drink and nibbled on crackers and chocolate and cheese to steady the tremble in my hands. A diamond on my finger. Pearls at my throat. Emeralds in my ears. A blue kimono. A black bathing suit. When I call back this time, it only cries out once before a woman answers in a lilting tone: “Hello?” And I say, “May I please speak to him?” I don’t say his name, but she knows what I mean. “He can’t talk to you.” “Why not?” She snaps: “Stop calling here. He has nothing more to say. Leave him alone, all right? He isn’t well.” She’s hung up on me. There’s the silence, then the scolding: “If you’d like to make a call—” I slam the receiver down. I’m pulling at my hair. I’ve taken off my rings and thrown them across the room. I kick the cabinet. I knock over a chair. I’m about to tip the table onto its back when Mr. Fox whispers, Calm down now, Duckling. I stop. I will not call again. I don’t need him or you or anyone. I can go about my own business now. I’ll sell this house. I’ll move into an apartment of my own. This morning there’s a For Sale sign in the yard and I’m out here clearing the garage. I’d like to tell the Rover what I’m doing. That I’m getting on with my life now, and all because of him. I’d like to thank him, I think. Now your gray hair is red. Your chin grows a beard. Your teeth gleam. Your eyes are dark and darting. My Mr. Fox. I could almost fall in love with you all over again. Mr. Fox sighs, You are my Angel. The Rover told me you were Mr. Fox, you were clever, and you played tricks. He said he was the Rover and he’d moved on. He said you came knocking at her door and she let you in. You sat with her. You held her hand. You poured another, added ice, watched her fall apart. You made her be beautiful, but she let you be sly.
-- Susan Taylor Chehak is the author of several books--most recently The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci and It’s Not About the Dog--and her short stories have appeared widely in journals. She grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, lives occasionally in Toronto, and at present calls Colorado home.