TENNYSON HESS • by Wilma Bernard

Tennyson Hess poured leftover water from the green-bean pot onto the blue hydrangeas outside his front door. Back in the kitchen, he set the empty pot on a cooling burner. He turned toward his supper and pulled out his chair, leaning a little into it for support. He sat to eat and found himself staring once more at the Christmas photos on his refrigerator. The pictures were old now, curling and yellowing. In them smiled children he scarcely recalled, here and there accompanied by a parent. The adults he knew better, although they had changed. Old friends and cousins wore lined faces and sagging bodies, decay drawn like a veil over the vibrant and happy people he had known. He flexed his own stiffening fingers.

Supper never took long, anymore. Without the din and disorder of companionship, it was a tidy ritual of perhaps ten minutes in length. Tonight when he had finished, his dinner dishes nearly filled the washer, so he started the machine and stood listening while the water hissed in. It would stay a while, working, cycling before it drained. Perhaps you could never step in the same river twice, he thought, but if you were a dollar-fifty plastic bowl you might more than once feel the same dishwater current’s caress.

After a moment he pushed off from the counter. He went through the living room, where a beginner’s songbook lay open on the piano. The teacher he had dispensed with after a handful of lessons — she had been a retired schoolteacher, too chipper and too garrulous for his tastes these days — but in her absence he had continued with the music and could by now play each simple piece by heart.

On the back porch, he sat on the bench swing to rock a while and watch the sky turn pink behind the neighbor’s house. A slender black cat struggled from under their porch, through the latticework, then slunk up their steps, leapt onto a woven-bottomed chair, and settled to stare back at the man.

“We had a cat, in the old neighborhood,” said Tennyson. “Prettier than you. I suppose she was really June’s. I gave her away, first time I moved.”

A car pulled up on the other side of the neighbor’s house. Car doors opened and slammed, youthful voices shouted. The cat startled and fled. In a moment, perhaps, the family would flood around the house. Tennyson could meet them if he liked. The young man, the father of all those children, had waved to him from time to time, coming and going. Tennyson had pretended not to see it. But he could change all that: they could talk about the Red Sox, or the state of their patchy little gardens, and the boys could play the piano.

He went inside, instead, and upstairs. When he snapped on his bedroom lamp June was there, smiling silver-framed from the bedside table — her face at fifty, almost as old as she got.

She had made fresh oatmeal cookies often, she’d had a knack with animals and roses, and he had thought for a little while that not even death could do them part. But she had stared up at him more than once with those eyes — gray now, stilled and protected behind the glass but blue, moving, vulnerable then–searching his face for the inevitable traces of age multiplying in it and had told him, “Don’t you understand, Tenny? We’re drowning.”

He could see it the way she told it, time tugging skin into wrinkles like water distorting clothing, the swirling eddies of years pulling people inexorably from each other, pushing them under and away. “We’re drowning so slowly,” she’d said. Reaching through the depths toward each other, maybe, or looking up for oxygen, the sun, the slim possibility of rescue. But whatever they reached for, bloating and changing and drowning all the same. “Look how wild people’s hair gets, if they keep it at all. It’s always flowing away from them. You can see the currents just get stronger farther on.”

Remembering, he reached one time-twisted hand up to touch his own hair, thin and uncooperative, standing out from his head like riotous seaweed. He chuckled, coughed, and scrubbed saltwater from his eyes. “How right you are, my dear.”

It was she who had told him, in that last love letter, “Don’t try to follow me, darling. You know you can never leap in the same river twice.” He had gone and stood on the bridge all the same, wishing down toward the water. But in the end, knowing her to be past his grasp, he had driven home to the pretty cat and the newly-cavernous house.

He had answered the questions of the police, let them see the letter, and endured the ugly terms they used (victim, suspects, and finally: suicide.) He had shrugged against prodding, too-helpful family and friends of hers, of theirs, and against suddenly interested colleagues’-wives. He had finished the requisite years of his work and had moved three times since his retirement, seeking peace.

It can be a difficult thing to find, when you carry your beloved’s ghost with you.

At the very least, he had reasoned once, when leaving what he knew: a man should be allowed to grieve and to die with a little privacy. And over the years the privacy he needed had expanded around him bit by bit until it was a kind of quiet sea.

But now, when a baby’s gurgle came with the summer twilight through his open window he looked down at a pair of small boys running and at their father on the porch’s step, bouncing in his arms a little one in pink blankets. And even though he knew the despair of drowning, he shuffled down the stairs, pulling at his disordered hair. He stood behind the porch door a moment to take in a deep, wet, rattling breath before he stepped out into the dim and fragrant evening.

Wilma Bernard has previously had work published by Metro Moms and Youth Imagination, as well as here at Every Day Fiction.

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