By Maggie Nerz Iribarne
Now, there is no Fred.
Now, I am no longer obese, incontinent, hairy, stained, paralyzed, starving, thirsty, sunburned. I am no longer sleeping on the floor, my face pressed into the toilet base.
Now, I am free, but I am still here.
Leave it to Fred to live until 97, skin and bones and still driving around in that Lincoln, his head barely reaching over the dashboard.
Leave it to Fred to be counting his change at the grocery store and hunting for bargains, even when he was as good as dead.
Even when his time was pretty much washed up.
Even when his millions were slated to be given away.
Leave it to Fred to be hauling his crusty self up to the club for cocktails.
Leave it to Fred to even acquire a girlfriend, Marlene. She got his number soon enough though.
I decided his time had come, so I simply appeared above him. I hovered there, observing his sleeping- sack- of- bones body and regarded him for a time. Then, I affixed my lips to his dry sleeping ones, not relishing the feel of his thin, chapped mouth, still with crusty food from his dinner dried around its edges. At contact, he realized my presence and his eyes shot open and he gazed forward, recognizing me. Always fearless, he began to smile, that cocky expression I knew so well. I inhaled an unnaturally huge breath, a tidal wave. I gulped him in, enduring his garbagey spirit, accepting the maggots that swished inside my mouth, ingesting him, dark memories flicking across my mind.
Finally, he deflated and was gone.
When I met Fred, I thought he looked very cute and sounded very clever. He hailed from a wealthy- but- not -showy family. My mother always said that the classiest people don’t appear to be rich at all. So it didn’t trouble me that he always wanted to go to the cheapest places, the most reasonable restaurants. Once, as I observed him scanning a menu for the lowest price, I teased him, saying, “Penny wise, pound foolish.”
His face shifted to Very Serious. “You need to know it’s the pennies that make the pounds. You can’t waste anything.” He uttered this passionately, I blushed. That night, wearing a taffeta skirt and satin heals, I ordered hotdogs and beans, even though I wanted the filet.
On the October afternoon Fred proposed, we walked between a lake and the site of a dead campfire. Ashes blew in the wind. The angles of his face twisted my way and his grey eyes glanced at me, and then down. He reached his ungloved hand into his pants’ pocket and produced his grandmother’s Tiffany engagement ring. A 1.65 carat with tiny diamonds on the sides, a platinum band. Understated, beautiful, brilliant, like the intense red and gold leaves contrasting with the sky.
“Don’t lose it,” he said, and we were engaged.
The long end.
I succumbed to stroke on the boat. We were docked at the Cape and I went to clean the kitchen. I began scrubbing a pot, everything after that went dark. I revived to a cloudy view of their faces, Fred’s and our grown up son’s, gaping at me, blabbering, discussing me. Their backs turn away as they vacated the room. Understanding I was in the hospital, I itched to move, to talk.
The wheelchair became my home. My bottom burst with sores from sitting so long. Fred spoon-fed me food from a can, mostly stew, disgusting, but I had nothing else to do and no way to express myself, so I ate it. “Thata, girl,” he said as I choked it down, gasping and wheezing, attempting to remain calm. His sturdy hand hammered hard on my back, jarring me forward, water streamed from my eyes.
On nice days, Fred wheeled me out to the driveway and stranded me there. At first, it felt good to be out. I studied my overgrown flower beds, noticing how my cornflowers and tiger lilies and lupines somehow managed to survive. They gave me hope. But then the heat would start creeping up. The sun blazed down on my unprotected head and face. Stuck in the chair, without the use of my hands, I wagged my head left and right. Sweat dribbled down my forehead, seeping across my cheeks. I wanted to cry out to the neighbors, Peggy and Mitch, but they peeled off inside when they saw me. Fred lingered inside the dark house, never bothering to check on me. My husband just let me sit and sweat and burn in my food stained sweater and polyester slacks. We were millionaires, mind you, but he bought his paralyzed wife polyester from the thrift store. I was beautiful once, but that doesn’t matter now.
Fred often dropped me when transferring me from my chair to the toilet or the bed. He weighed about 90 pounds to my 190, it was a strain. Every night I never knew what would happen. He’d lean in and position his arms around me. I smelled my husband’s own filth when he came near, closed my eyes, prayed. Sometimes, just by the sheer force of will, he’d hoist and heave me and I’d end up flat on my back on the bed. Then he’d straighten my legs and and tug off my pants, sit me up and unbutton my top, unhook my bra. Throughout this process, he’d talk to me in a baby voice. OK, Lizzy, time for your jammies. When I did fall, or rather when he did drop me, he’d just abandon me for the night, shoving a pillow under my head and covering me with a thin blanket before shutting out the light. I’d lay there frozen, peering into the darkness. He’d call the firemen in the morning to lift me -no need to disturb them late at night.
Years passed this way. I knew because of the holidays. On New Year’s Eve Fred hauled me up to the club in my dirty clothes with my filthy fingernails and hairy chin for all my old friends to scrutinize, to pity. Their expressions would say it all. Poor Lizzy.
One of the secrets of the dying: total awareness. Every thought, your own and everyone else’s. Every sound. Every passing emotion.
That final night, the night of my liberation, I noticed Fred’s annoyance that my arm was stuck like a log in the towel rack. I sensed his frustration trying to loosen it. I endured the weight of my body pressing down, heeded Fred’s grunts and heavy breathing, my moans. A dull ache in my other arm inched up slowly, my heart pounded, exploding in my chest.
I can’t quit this place, my home.
Even with Fred lugged out dead on a stretcher, I am still not satisfied.
Even with my son’s dry eyes and middle-aged hunch, his cleaning out of my closet, his tour of the house with the estate sale person, his final exit out the front door.
Even with the cars lined up and down the street to buy all of my things, my mother’s silver sold to strangers for a song.
Even with the house totally empty of things, strangers entering and exiting, opening and closing, pointing, commenting, criticizing the uneven hardwood, stained carpet, unfashionable and sticky linoleum.
Even with the echo of silence, the deep darkness, total solitude at night, I linger here.
My hands can still touch. My fingers sweep the mantle where I used to arrange my Christmas greens every year. They brush the dusty drapes hanging in the living room. I sit on the patio in the one rusty chair left behind. My eyes, obviously, can see.
I peek into Peg’s window and behold her, my old neighbor. I absorb her guilt and fear, her innocence, too. My eyes rise up like fire, reflecting in hers. Her mouth drops, agape in horror. Despite her alarm, she can’t defy her urge to look through the window, to see me.
She witnessed what happened here.
She knows I remain.