Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.
It had been a solid three minutes. He knew; he’d counted.
Bev had been overturning every closet and cubby in the house it seemed, and then she had gone silent. For three whole minutes. She wasn’t exactly the most loquacious of people; then again, he reflected, neither was he. After the molten-mac-and-cheese-with-a-side-of-shattered-glass conversation, following the explore-the-secrets-behind-every-closed-door rampage, and upon the culmination of the conspicuous no-sign-of-life silence, Arthur was starting to think he had gone deaf. He had heard the scrape of the old door opening, the minuscule plastic tick of the light switch, and the soft clump of Bev’s boots taking a step onto the garage floor, but after that there was nothing.
He had waited and counted, practically itching with the embarrassment that every passing second seemed to gleefully drape over him like some kind of sadistic tinsel on a particularly pathetic and enervated tree. His left hand was covered in blisters; his side felt equally as burnt where the stitches had pulled while trying to lift the heavy glass pan out of the oven. There would be more bruises and aching muscles in various places, he was sure, after the less than delicate landing he had made on the floor to clean up. And he had snapped at the only person who hadn’t annoyed him since Becky’s death. He had behaved like a sniveling twelve-year-old.
She had mercilessly, albeit honestly, declared just how incapable he was of taking care of himself. Arthur’s stinging pride took some solace in the idea that his response hadn’t been completely unwarranted.
However, curiosity was getting the better of him. He decided that he could make it to the freezer and sneak a quick glance in that direction while only appearing to be searching for an ice pack for his throbbing hand, but upon turning, the trip across the kitchen was forgotten. Bev hadn’t moved and hadn’t spoken. She stood completely still, head turned enough to see her profile was completely void of expression.
There was no telling how long it had been until his screaming hand and aching side pulled his attention away from the completely motionless figure in his garage, Arthur realized. He hadn’t been counting this time around. However long it had been was long enough for his curiosity to turn into awkwardness. Seeing someone else in his workshop made him feel exposed. His woodworking was hardly a secret in the community, having taught a third of the population how to use one power tool or another over a lengthy career, but this was his home, his own private workspace, a room that even Becky had respected as only his and had only visited by invitation. Arthur knew specifically how he should feel. He waited for the anger, for the violation to settle into a sense of betrayal. But none of it came, and he was left without feeling much of anything, confusing him further. Not having a clue how to respond, he turned again, silently walking into the living room and leaving Bev to her own discoveries.
Another five minutes of settling and resettling himself onto the sofa, rearranging the piles of old catalogs on the coffee table, and pretending not to listen for the faintest sound that he was sure to miss coming from the direction of the garage had him wishing he had grabbed that ice pack after all. By the time Bev resurfaced, Arthur guessed that she would be just as frozen. The sloooosh-thwup of the weather strip sealing in the precious little heat his ancient furnace was desperately attempting to pump into the house signaled her return to the kitchen. He focused on each of the noises indicating her progress across the room instead of the pain in his hand. It certainly hadn’t been as nasty as the fall that hand landed him in the hospital, he told himself. This was nothing he couldn’t handle, he was sure. He could just continue to distract himself with whatever it was Bev was doing.
Until she wasn’t doing anything anymore, of course. Arthur looked up and saw Bev standing in front of him holding out two white ovals on one palm and a glass of water in the other. Neither said anything as he gingerly scraped the pills into his own hand then mouth, reached for the water and poured the whole glassful down after the tablets. He sat staring at the cup in his hand while his mind caught up with him. Bev just waited. Well, damn, he had been the idiot who had flown off the handle, might as well be him that ponied up and acted like an adult now. If only he could think of the appropriate thing to say.
“What were those?”
Not what he had been going for. Bev’s eyebrows were in her hairline.
“You’ll just take whatever pills someone hands you without knowing what they are?”
Arthur had never realized before how fascinating the stitching on his trousers was. He cleared his throat but kept his eyes where they were. So much for acting his age. His right shoulder shrugged itself into his ear as if to confirm the sentiment.
“No. Besides, you’re the one giving unidentified drugs to a senior citizen.”
Bev removed the cup from his hands, and he could hear the slight smile in her voice as she returned it to the kitchen.
“You’re the first one to complain.” She reappeared several minutes later carrying a bag of frozen peas, a dish towel over her shoulder.
“I have an ice pack,” he stated unnecessarily.
Bev looked from Arthur down to the offending vegetables and back.
“I’ll buy you another bag.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
She crushed the bag slightly before wrapping it in the towel and handing it to him.
Arthur humored her. He hated peas, so that bag must have been ancient anyway. He figured Bev didn’t need that piece of information. He could be mature. Besides the bag fit nicely around his hand without him having to hold on to it.
“The pills were your pain killers.”
She watched him grind his teeth for a few seconds.
“I don’t like taking them.”
“I know you don’t.”
More grinding. More watching.
“They knock me out.”
One day he swore her eyebrows were going to lift themselves right off her face.
“Then I suggest you move your senior-citizen-self into that recliner.”
To hell with maturity.
“I hate peas.”
“You tell those bastards.”
As Bev maneuvered him around the coffee table and into the over-sized chair in the corner of the room Arthur realized that he might not have any molars left by the end of the day. She, however, seemed to be regaining her normal casual pleasantness, which seemed rather irksome under the present circumstances. He found himself further annoyed by the weightless feeling that was already starting to fill the empty space where he was certain his brain had been. One leftover thought still swirled around the drain, so he pushed it out of his mouth as the seat of his pants met cushion.
“Can a minister say ‘bastard?’”
Bev’s voice sounded slightly further away than he had expected when her answer came.
“Can a shop teacher?”
He had a response to that, but he wasn’t sure if he had actually managed to say it. A blanket was around his knees and feet that had somehow been lifted off the floor and his torso reclined without him noticing. The room was getting pleasantly darker, and the shushing sound in his ears was oddly comforting. Arthur started to wonder why he had complained about taking his medicine as he complacently listened to the noises that indicated Bev was putting the kitchen back to rights. All of it muffled upon reaching his brain which seemed to be hovering somewhere about six inches outside of his head. Following along with her movements was tiring. It was much easier to simply close his eyes which seemed to simultaneously kill any final attempt at thought. He might have imagined that she was saying something.
“I used the broom I found in the garage. I hope that was alright.”
The last thing he was aware of was the slight nod his head gave of its own volition before melting into the chair beneath him.
It had been a solid three weeks. She knew; she’d counted.
In the time between what Bev amused herself by thinking of, and never mentioned to Arthur, as The Mac Daddy of Disasters and the moment she knew she had to broach the subject of the garage, she had managed to convince him to take it easy. His body had responded to the lull in action. The burn on his left hand had reduced to scaly scar tissue, the stitches had been removed from his side, and he had recovered, if not gracefully, from the drug-induced hangovers following each of her visits. The only remaining physical limitations were his knees and balance.
Bev had seen a beautifully carved cane leaning among the finished projects in Arthur’s workshop; she had to make him understand the practicality of it from here on out. Arthur knew he wasn’t steady on his feet, but practicality wasn’t necessarily winning out at the moment. While the majority of his body had returned to health, his mood had steadily deteriorated just as the weather had begun to pull itself out of winter. Despite the return of the sun and the warming temperatures, Arthur remained cold and distanced. Bev rarely had a visit with him that didn’t include a snippy response to a question she had inevitably been forced to ask more than once, but she was remarkably grateful for the snarky quips as several times he had said nothing at all.
Bev had wondered consistently if she had done or said one thing too far, but since he never openly admitted anything one way or another, she continued to assist him as best she could. Perhaps she was more distracted than she had originally thought. Her visits were definitely less frequent. Arthur was more and more capable of taking care of himself, and she was in the middle of Lent. The mounting troubles within the congregation’s leadership were drawing far more of her attention with every passing Sunday and showed little promise of a resolution before Easter. The council meeting the week before had lasted three hours and left her with a strong desire for an exceedingly stiff drink. Half of the council was pressing for a building renovation “to make the church more exciting to prospective members,” and the second half pressed back, with hands and heads full of bank statements, maxed out budgets, and an over-developed sense of the-way-it’s-always-been. Bev had trouble convincing either camp that neither was allowed to excommunicate the other and that perhaps they could agree for now to replace the smashed window pane in her office. The council didn’t respond to her argument that even in the event of another baseball being hit into it, at the very least she could have the sound of shattering glass to warn her to duck. She had been half-tempted by the size of her migraine following that particular episode to partake of one of Arthur’s pain killers. It would be one less dosage that could be inflicted upon him. But that would have meant explaining to him some of the minutiae that was ruling her life at the moment. The last thing she wanted to do was trivialize his grief with her tales of woe.
Though, when she considered it, other than the understandably lousy aspect of his mood, Arthur didn’t seem to be portraying many classic signs of grief. He was quiet and removed, but Bev assumed he pretty much always had been. He didn’t socialize, but from what Becky had always told her, he had never seemed inclined. He was annoyed and short with her but no enormous outbursts of anger. His health was showing no outward signs of depression or anxiety. His mood continued to stay in the dumps, but it was consistent. The man had lost his only family. If anything, his mood wasn’t bad enough. With the exception of the occasional snap when, Bev admitted, she had been more than a little persistent, Arthur was giving the indication of everything being under strict emotional control. All in all, Bev decided greater understanding would have to wait until she had more data to go on. At least, she considered, she might have the chance to collect a bit by bringing up the cane in his garage. She wasn’t a conversational genius, so she was sure she would end up saying something trying at some point that would give him a perfect opportunity to produce a telling reaction.
The two of them had managed to negotiate the Sunday lunch time routine with more success since the mac and cheese incident, a process that was aided by the depletion of the frozen meals from the do-gooders and mean-wellers. Arthur felt less secure in his abilities to prepare food for two from scratch and, therefore, allowed Bev to assist more freely. She had waited three weeks, and with lunch safely on the table, she steadied herself for the delivery. A sip of water, a fortifying breath, and –
“Well, you’d better get on with it.”
The shock at hearing Arthur speak voluntarily seemed to momentarily take the air out of the room, inconveniently also stealing what had been in her lungs. The delay gave Arthur the opportunity to give her a look that was so similar to Becky’s calculating gaze that Bev began to wonder who had originally learned it from whom. Bev could only stare back.
“You should see your face,” Arthur murmured as he lowered his eyes and shifted in his seat. He cleared his throat and started again, “You’ve had something to say for weeks now. God knows why you’ve been holding it in, but you look about ready to explode.”
Bev had thought out a whole conversation opener, a series of, well, yes, rather leading questions to get him to acknowledge the sense of what she was saying. All of it seemed rather irrelevant now. No, she thought, he’s provided the opening; best dive right in.
“Arthur, I’m worried about you.”
She couldn’t tell if he appeared more exasperated or embarrassed.
“That much has been obvious. I suppose you’re about to be more specific?”
“Well, yes. You’re healing really well, but your knees aren’t what they used to be. I’m worried about you walking.”
“What do you mean?”
This was the sticking point, and without her carefully planned introductory review of his limitations, there wasn’t going to be a gentle way to break it to him.
“There is… equipment that can make your balance less of an issue.”
It was Arthur’s turn to have the wind knocked out of him, it seemed. An ill-disguised look of horror covered his face while the lines of his neck stiffened above the collar of his plaid button-down.
“Arthur, just -”
“No!” His palm hammered the place-mat, making the tableware around him jump. The force of it silenced the room. Arthur paused, and when he spoke again he had regained his usual quiet, gravelly tones. “No. Absolutely not.”
Bev was sure she had jumped as high as the forks and spoons. She had expected resistance but not an eruption.
“You said my health was better.”
“I did. It is. But I didn’t -”
“Then, why,” he bit off her words with more force than he had used on the meal in front of him, “do you think it won’t continue to?”
Things were not going as she had hoped, and she grabbed at the chance to turn the conversation around.
“To get better? I think it could! If you take care of yourself now.”
“How is resigning myself to a chair taking care of myself?”
Bev blinked. Something had gotten away from her. “A chair? Wait, what?”
Arthur looked like he was about to strangle her for having to explain what was clearly so simple. The way this was going, Bev was tempted to let him.
“How would it help me get better to have to push myself around all the time? Or worse, be pushed. My legs would just get weaker. How could I still live in my own home? There are stairs everywhere. How -”
“Arthur, just hold on a second,” Bev leaped in. “I wasn’t thinking about a wheelchair at all.”
The entire conversation was seriously challenging Arthur’s narrow range of facial expressions. The blankness he was exhibiting gave the impression that his supply had been maxed out. She waited from him to reanimate, but after several seconds ticked by with no change, she decided to forge on.
“I do think your health can still improve, and I also think you’re right. A wheelchair wouldn’t really help you at all.” She hesitated to see if that had sunk in. His features showed a slight thawing, and his mouth was just slightly open.
“Then, what did -” was all that came out. The color returned to his skin while the hand that still rested on the table began to fidget with the edge of his plate. He didn’t make a move towards the food on it, but Bev hardly blamed him for that. The meatloaf hadn’t been fabulous to begin with, and going cold didn’t improve its appeal. Bev glanced around her for a more inspiring sight. The meal was the only unappealing thing in the entire house. There was nothing fancy about any of it, but it was so beautifully lived-in that the lack of anything expensive or flashy made it incredibly relaxing. Had this place been Bev’s home, she knew she would have gone ballistic at the notion of having to leave it. And had it been a foul-smelling hovel, it still would have remained the home Arthur had shared with Becky.
“Arthur, three weeks ago, when I was looking for a mop to clean the – well, I wandered into the garage.” She noticed that the emptiness had been replaced by a look of confusion in his eyes. Keep going, she told herself.
“There was a cane with your finished projects. I think that if you used it for a while, well, maybe you could have a faster recovery. And a cane would still let you go anywhere,” she reached for his hand and waited until his eyes met hers. “And stay in your home. I would never want to suggest that you leave it.”
The room was so quiet that Bev could hear her pulse banging about in her head. She imagined a million thoughts were racing around in his brain, but she couldn’t identify any of them. After a short eternity, Arthur closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Bev could swear they were shinier than they had been a moment before, but then Arthur pushed himself away from the table and walked into the kitchen. She heard the slow clump of each footstep and felt the small swirl of cooler air reach her a few moments after he opened the garage door. She sat motionless, unsure of her welcome in a private moment. She would let him be, no more interference.
His call was faint from two rooms away, but it had been enough to get her standing beside him on his workshop floor in five seconds. He was holding the cane she had seen before. Painstakingly carved to resemble the bark that would have covered it, the length of dark wood ended in a similarly formed silver handle that was enclosed in his hand. A green and yellow floral bed sheet was crumpled in the other and trailed on the floor.
In front of them stood an unfinished settee. The tall slats at the back extended from floor to a high rail, curving along the sides to form sloping arm rests ending in plain square posts. The design was so simple, so clean that Bev hardly noticed that the entire piece still required a thorough sanding. Resting on the seat were two large cushions made of a deep rich tapestry and wrapped securely in a heavy plastic. Arthur’s gaze didn’t leave them for a moment.
“Been saving this cherry for ages. I was making it for her. For our next anniversary.” His voice broke, and he swayed slightly. Bev grabbed his elbow and maneuvered him down onto the bench, laying the cushions gently on the row of finished bar stools behind them. Arthur watched her, and when she had sat beside him, he turned to place a careful hand on the cushion nearest him. “Never could surprise her. Becky found out, of course. And then she had to help. Always drove me crazy.”
His fingers traced the pattern in the fabric, lingering on the plain, straight stitching holding the pieces together.
“Did Becky make these?”
Arthur’s chin tightened, his brow wrinkled, and the breath he took rattled. His head lowered over the cane in his lap, and the moisture building in his eyes spilled over.
Bev sat next to him, silent, and watched as Arthur Fenn finally began to mourn.
Continue with Part V.