Herschel Kriege pretended he was John Wayne. He looked nothing like John Wayne — Herschel’s shoulders were rounded, and he walked with a stoop — but he was able to pull off a convincing swagger and he almost had the voice down. Miriam thought he sounded just like Wayne, but Herschel knew better.
“Mind if I ask what seems to be the trouble, ma’am?”
Miriam lay in bed with the covers pulled up to her chin. “There’s some bad men in town, sheriff.”
“Are they botherin’ ya, ma’am?”
“Oh, Miriam, don’t be scared.”
“Herschel! Stay in character.”
“Sorry. I just — ”
“Please. Don’t ruin it tonight.”
Herschel gathered himself. In his best John Wayne he said, “I’ll make sure nothing happens to you, ma’am.”
But Herschel did almost ruin it when the tears came. Miriam held him. After a while they started role-playing again. Miriam wanted John Wayne tonight, and Herschel found the fortitude to give her John Wayne.
Afterwards, lying in bed with the covers pulled up, Herschel asked Miriam how she liked it. She said it was fine. He asked her if she was okay. She squeezed his hand and smiled at him. Herschel had trouble returning the smile.
Miriam whispered to him that it would be all right.
They had been married for almost 43 years, and for 43 years both had slept on their own sides of the bed. That night they slept in each other’s arms.
Herschel woke and watched his 64-year-old wife; her mouth open, snoring softly, the morning light erasing all the wrinkles from her face, making her look as young as when he first met her at the soda shop by the hardware store where he worked. He watched her for a long time.
She opened her eyes. They looked at each other, not saying anything, and tears slid down Miriam’s cheeks.
Herschel held her close. “Don’t apologize. I’m here.”
She cried and Herschel cried with her and they both tried to comfort each other.
Herschel said, “Maybe we should wait and see. Maybe the chemo will work — ”
Miriam shook her head. “We agreed.”
“But this can be beat, Miriam, this can — ”
She gave him The Look, and any argument withered and died on that look.
“I need my John Wayne.”
Herschel’s anger surprised him. “I’m not John Wayne.”
“I know.” She kissed him. “And I’d like my Herschel Harrison Kriege to make me breakfast.”
For a moment, he couldn’t find his voice. He cleared his throat. “I’ll bring it upstairs.”
“I’ll come down.” She started to get out of bed.
Herschel stopped her. “Breakfast in bed this morning.”
“I’m not an invalid just yet.”
“Please. I want to do this.”
He gave her a kiss on the cheek. He put his robe on and walked downstairs into the kitchen. He put the coffee on. He scrambled the eggs (adding just a dollop of sour cream to them, just the way she liked), microwaved the bacon, and buttered the toast. He put the eggs and bacon and toast on the plate. He put the plate on the breakfast tray. He put the gun in the pocket of his robe.
He walked upstairs, the arthritis in his hands not bothering him this morning, and placed the tray in front of her.
She made a big show of the breakfast in front of her. “Oh, this smells wonderful.”
Herschel watched her eating. He debated with himself.
She said, “Aren’t you eating?”
He busied himself by the dresser, looking at family photographs. “Maybe later.”
When she finished eating she said, “That was wonderful. Thank you.”
He moved closer to her. His hand went into the pocket of his robe.
“I love you, Miriam.”
“I love you, too. Thank you. For everything.”
He smiled. “Can you reach over there and grab that magazine? Just put it on the tray. Thanks.”
“This one?” She reached across to Herschel’s side of the bed. Her back was to him. He pulled the gun out.
She grabbed the magazine. “Oh, did you read the article on gardening?”
Herschel shot her in the back of the head. The sound of the gun was very loud.
He took a step back. He looked at the picture on the dresser. It was of Herschel, Miriam, and Henry, their only son who’d died in 1987 in a car accident. They looked so happy together.
He briefly wondered if he had done the right thing.
Herschel put the gun underneath his chin and pulled the trigger.
Richmond Weems is an all-around nice guy who moonlights as a superhero on a far-flung planet. Or maybe not. He really can’t remember.