Three days before Christmas, Mary slipped in the shower and cracked her head on the soap dish. I found her half an hour later. The water was long cold and her skin had turned purplish, like an overripe plum. Her speech was gone, and she gave me one of her impatient looks: what took you so long? I wrapped her in her favorite plaid blanket, then carried her to the car and drove to the emergency room. After all the tests, they told me it was brain cancer, four to six months to live. That was seven months ago.
Outside her hospital room, an old man pushes a walker. He wanders the hallways, lost. I call him Gary Cooper, not because he resembles the actor, but because he resembles Gary, the head mechanic at Cooper Automotive down on Fourth. Split yellow tennis balls cup the metal legs of Gary’s walker, like grinning Pac-men. The wheels, they squeak, squeak, squeak. Mary’s head twitches, keeping time with their mechanical rhythm: squeak, twitch, squeak, twitch. Inside her ravaged mind, she might be dancing.
We used to dance. Every Thursday night. She made me take lessons with her, to keep busy after retirement. We learned to waltz, swing dance, and do the rumba. Towards the end, we were pretty good. How she laughed; the twirl of her dress and swing of her childless hips, the staccato of her heels on the wooden dance floor. When she twitches, I like to think she’s enjoying the music of a ghost band, warm in my embrace, but maybe it’s just the gasp of drowning neurons, mired in a swamp of cancer.
There was a mass in the center of her brain. The doctors said it was hopeless, but they cut the thing out anyway. It was the size of a golf ball. I wonder what they did with it. Is there a place where they keep these things, or did they throw it in the landfill? Maybe there’s a little piece of my wife out there, feeding the crows.
Her bed sits next to the window. Outside, the patter of rain is gravel in a steel pail. She refused to drive in rain or snow, because the roads got slippery. Like a bathtub. I wish someone would make Gary Cooper stop his endless walking, tell him to go to bed, or put some grease on those wheels. I wish those grinning Pac-men would eat him up, walker and all. I wish I’d brought some WD-40. I wish a lot of things.
A couple argues by the nurse’s station. He forgot to pick up the kids. Her mother is dying. There’s something about a cat. I get up from my uncomfortable plastic chair and close the door, but five minutes later the nurse comes in and props it open again. She doesn’t want me alone with Mary, concerned I might speed her along the dark path she treads.
Big cushiony pads surround her bed, a dance floor for a broken ballerina. The nurses put them there because even though they tell her not to get up, she still tries, and falls. She’s stubborn that way. Bruises cover her arms, the same shade as the lilacs I brought. Beneath her, the mats are a deep ocean blue. If you squint just right, her bed floats, adrift in a sterile sea. A crash comes from the room next door. Someone weeps, and footsteps rush down the hall.
They call the place where the tumor once lived “the void.” It means there’s an empty spot in her brain, airless and dark, a vacant room echoing with the meaty sound of tortured brain cells. We planned a trip to Maine next month, but unless God changes his mind in a hurry, we’re not going. We looked forward to our Golden Years. We had three of them, and now this. She wanted to eat some Maine lobster. All she eats now is a glucose drip.
The TV news ticker scrolls red across the bottom, thunderstorms and tornado warnings. Hail the size of golf balls in Harris county. My car sits in the hospital parking lot, Row 4E, exposed to the storm, defenseless. I’ve forgotten to pay my insurance premium. Mary always paid the bills. Would one of those chunks of hail, those frozen golf balls, fill the void in my dying wife’s skull?
Some days are better than others, but every week is a bit worse. She opens her eyes at the sound of thunder. Her blue, blue eyes are muddy, pain-filled marbles, scared. Darling, I want to go home, those eyes say. Her once sunny voice has turned into a meaningless wet gurgle, a coffee maker down to its bitter dregs.
After forty-one years of marriage, I know what she wants, but I can’t do it. I prepare for another night of her absence. I kiss her cheek and step into the hall. The nurse’s station is empty. Gary Cooper and I are alone. I nod at his confused stare, but he turns away, pushing his walker before him. I close Mary’s door and walk to the elevators, towards the parking lot and the car that still carries her fragrance.
Kip Hanson lives in sunny Tucson, where his wife makes him watch Poltergeist while insisting clowns are not scary. You can find his work scattered about the Internet, including Foundling Review, Every Day Fiction, Inkspill, Bartleby Snopes, and a few other places, thus proving that a blind squirrel does occasionally find a nut. When not telling lies, he makes a few bucks writing boring articles for technical magazines.