When she arrived at the hospital, Arthur was already hooked up to an IV. She sat with him once the stitches were in his side and watched the first two pints of fluid drip slowly into his system. Hip and ribs were slightly bruised, and the knees were going to take some time to recover. The doctors assured that as long as he was careful he could be almost back to normal in a matter of weeks. Bev wasn’t overly confident in her understanding of Arthur’s personality, but she was fairly certain that taking care of himself was going to sit relatively low on his list of priorities. So she stayed next to his hospital bed, helped him home when he was released, and made the phone call to the funeral director when Arthur had authorized her to proceed with the interment without him.
The freezer had still been stocked with meals from before Becky’s funeral. Bev had made a few calls to the usual suspects to spread the word that Arthur wouldn’t need any more casseroles or breakfast burritos for another week or two and managed to redirect their good intentions to work outside of the house. Those usual suspects had enthusiastically started a rotation of dog walkers only to be redirected again when they realized the Fenns had been pet-less. Fortunately, within forty-eight hours of Arthur’s return home the weather managed to salvage the situation by dumping inch upon inch upon inch of heavy, wet snow on every sidewalk and driveway in the county. Good intentions had a purpose once again; the pavement around Arthur’s house was shoveled every day, need it or not, and his laundry room and kitchen remained free of any benefactors.
Except for Bev. She had been given carte blanche by Arthur since the funeral, and as there was no extended family to help out, she ran with it as far as she thought he could handle. Neither of them were impressive conversationalists, but they managed to communicate enough to avoid catastrophe for the first week. He was well enough, though exceedingly sore, to take care of the most pressing of his needs and to survive alone at night, and she was absent enough with work during the day to prevent crowding him with altruism. He remained quiet, and she remained busy.
It wasn’t until ten days after the funeral that the cracks in the dam started to leak. Having finished the Sunday morning service, Bev had been delayed by a rampaging council chairman with a sexton in hot pursuit. She carefully navigated the latest chapter in the current building maintenance battle ground between the two for forty-five minutes before successfully making her excuses and escape. Arthur didn’t live far from the church; nothing was far from the church in the six-stop-light town, but by the time her rusting car door screeched shut in the pristinely cleared drive next to the Fenn station wagon she was over an hour later than her usual lunch-time visit. If the clock on her dash hadn’t made that clear on the drive over, her stomach would have. The pre-service crackers she still kept stocked in her desk drawer were always enough of a breakfast on a Sunday morning, but as soon as the candles were extinguished and the organist had started the postlude Bev could down an entire pot-roast in twenty minutes given the opportunity. At this point she’d be happy with whatever was left in Arthur’s freezer, no matter how many cans of cream-of-mushroom soup had gone into it.
The trudge up the back porch steps was treacherous with the patchy ice that still clung to the boards, but she managed to snatch the spare key from between the door frame and awning without her feet leaving solid ground. Letting herself in as Arthur had instructed her to do from day one, she was shocked by the smell of baked food wafting toward her from inside. In her two years in town, she had memorized over half of the names and faces of her congregation by the clock-work reliability of their preferred baked side dish. Her church directory resembled a cookbook index more than anything else. If she wasn’t much mistaken, Mrs. Denham had defied orders and dropped off another pan of macaroni and cheese. On the threshold Bev paused to stomp off her boots and took an extra sniff. Mrs. D’s creations were not her favorites thanks to the woman’s complete disdain for oven timers,and the scent she caught warned her that the octogenarian just might have surpassed herself. Burning potato chips were really an unfortunate casserole topping. But with growing desperation rearing its needy head, Bev figured she might be able to force it down anyway.
A faint string of curses rose from over the counter-top. Mrs. Denham had been a heavy smoker for almost half of her life, which Bev tended to think matched her cooking rather too well, but the gravelly voice that reached the back door was issuing forth a more… inventive array of slurs than Bev would have credited to Mrs. D.
The cursing immediately stopped. In its place came a fervent scratching.
Craning her head over the bar while keeping her sodden feet firmly on the mudroom linoleum hit Bev with a heavy dose of déjà vu. Before her was a, thankfully, less dramatic version of the same picture she had witnessed on the day of Becky Fenn’s funeral. Arthur was once more on the floor, struggling to get his knees under him, but concrete doves were replaced with blackened food splattered over the floor sprinkled with chunks of Pyrex. Instead of calling for his dead wife from a small pool of his own blood, Arthur’s hands were stuffed with paper towels dripping with cheese; his lips were pressed together into a thin white line, holding back any more colorful language. The first inkling of a laugh in Bev’s throat was squelched when Arthur looked up at her. The look on his face was almost a perfect copy of what it had been ten days before. Physical pain brought a shine to his high forehead, but the brokenness in his eyes was scarier than what could be produced by shattered glass or burnt fingers.
She moved around the counter and into the kitchen but stopped at his raised hand still clutching the greasy towels. His voice cracked when he spoke.
“’S glass everywhere.”
“I’ve still got my boots on.” Without waiting for further permission, Bev stepped over the molten pile of noodles and reached for the paper towels in Arthur’s clenched hands. His grip tightened, and he turned back to the mess in front of him.
“Arthur, let me see your hands.” The bleakness in his face turned to iron.
Watching him sweep ruined food and dish closer to him, she decided that a dehydrated and delirious Arthur had been far easier to manage, not to mention when she had a pack of EMTs to back her up. Any injuries he was hiding didn’t seem life threatening, but she wasn’t above a little manipulation to get him out of a room scattered with gooey shrapnel. It wasn’t exactly the high-road approach, but it would have to do.
“Okay.” She drew out the word as she reached for the phone handset in its cradle on the kitchen wall. “You can wait ‘til the ambulance gets here. I’m flexible.”
The look he gave her made it abundantly clear how low he thought she had just stooped. Bev watched him relinquish the towels and hold his hands out for inspection like a chastised toddler. Only a few slivers of glass sparkled on his palms, and none appeared to have stuck themselves in too deeply. A few swipes with a damp dishcloth were all that was required until she noticed the wince he gave upon making contact with his left hand. He didn’t resist but certainly didn’t assist in turning his arm over. Cheese stuck to the tender skin between thumb and index finger and spread across the back of his hand. Underneath, angry red and white skin stood out in contrast to the darkened leather of his fingers and wrist.
“Come on. Let’s get you out of this room,” she said, hoping she had succeeded in straining away any trace of emotion in her voice. “I’ll clean this all up in a minute.”
“I’ve got it.”
Bev barely caught herself before rolling her eyes heavenward. Instead she narrowed them and spoke in the tone she had used for years on the most unruly of students, what she considered a perfect combination of logic and snide that usually resulted in an appropriately humbled show-off exhibiting acceptable behavior and a suitable apology.
“Arthur, the room’s covered in glass and cheese. Not a good combination for a man with bruised ribs and a tendency to trip on things.”
The stubborn lines on Arthur’s face deepened as his gaze grew stormy. Bev couldn’t decide if the effect made him look terrifying or comical. Sitting in the middle of his spilled lunch, the impression of a small child was pretty strong, but the set of his shoulders and tension around his eyes were practically murderous. Apparently, she reflected, Arthur was immune to the Teacher Voice; after all, the man probably had one of his own after God only knew how many years in his own classroom. She should have seen that coming.
“Okay, I could have said that better. Seriously, though, just let me help.”
Still not the right thing to say. The image of a boy in the midst of a tantrum promptly vanished when his voice came out slowly in a low growl.
“I’m not an invalid.”
“Not a total invalid, no. But you’re not exactly in peak condition, are you?”
“Well, are you?”
They remained crouched in the ruins of Arthur’s kitchen and glared at each other like two cats waiting for the other to blink. Bev was beginning to believe her knees would ever forgive her, but it was Arthur’s eyes that finally broke contact and rested on the blisters already forming on his skin. His fierce posture deflated and his lined face turned pale. The effect aged him twenty years, and her heart wrenched at seeing him so defeated. Silently, he put his uninjured hand on the counter above him and levered himself upwards at a snail’s pace. Bev could hear his joints creak from across the kitchen, but she didn’t dare attempt any further unsolicited assistance. Once completely upright, he turned his back on her without a word and gingerly reached for the tap.
Being the one to bring down this proud tower of a man made a rush of shame close Bev’s throat on any further words. Her mind threw several phrases of apology out for her to try, but what eventually came out in her choked voice was none of them.
“Got a mop?”
Arthur’s silver streaked head lowered infinitesimally, but no other reply was forthcoming. Bev figured that was the best she was going to get from him and unglued her boots from the crusting floor. She’d just have to investigate on her own. Nothing in the laundry room. Or the hall closet. She knew the bathroom had no storage space whatsoever, so she didn’t even bother to look. There was a door on the west wall of the kitchen that appeared to lead to either a pantry or broom closet. That would have to be her last chance before having to ask again. An apology would have to wait until her mounting guilt plateaued long enough to form a coherent one and for the dust around Arthur’s crumbled pride to have settled enough to allow him to listen; both could have a chance while she peeled cheese off the floor. Yes, she decided, she’d try her luck with door number three first.
Her hand found the light switch inside the door off the kitchen. What she had assumed would be a closet opened out into the garage. All of the apologetic thoughts lining up for inspection in her brain came to a halt and smashed into each other behind her eyes. Any connection between brain and tongue was completely severed.
The spotless floor was only blocked from view by several large pieces of aging machinery. Bev recognized a band saw and a drill press, but the rest were foreign to her. Industrial shelves lined two of the walls and held everything from planks showcasing a rainbow of wood grain to jars of nuts, bolts, and dozens of indistinguishable tools. An old farm-style table and chairs sitting in one corner was the only untidy thing in the whole space. It was cluttered with coffee mugs, scraps of wood, and, teetering close to the edge, a sloppy pile of documents barely weighted down with an extremely improbable, over-turned peep-toe sling back shoe, complete with its spiky heel skewering a few smaller sheets of paper. The shared wall between garage and kitchen was partially obscured by the door, and she didn’t notice it until she took a step onto the cold slab floor. A mountain of completed projects were wrapped and stored on shelves or stacked on hanging racks. A few spindle chairs dangled from the exposed roof beams and an army of small carved and polished creatures stood at attention along the upper tiers of a gleaming bookshelf. A dark, rich headboard, a massive cedar chest, various candlesticks, and a few rolling pins were distinguishable amongst the striking cache. Only one item was covered even though larger and aging pieces were gathering dust among the collection. A green and yellow floral bed sheet gave the vague shape of tall backed bench.
Bev had been close enough to Becky Fenn to know the woman hadn’t been a woodworker. Clearly, she had just stumbled into Arthur’s workshop.