Hilda Dunley rolled up the paper she had been reading
and poised it over her head. "Darn you fly!" She got up from the sofa and
followed the insect around the room. "Darn, he's going in the bedroom."
She got as far as the bedroom door before she remembered something. Biting her lip, she retreated. She tossed the paper on the living room floor and raced to the back porch, where she grabbed the fly swatter.
Racing back to the bedroom, she muttered, "Shoulda used the paper. Maybe that'd put some life into him. Naw, I couldn't cross him. Not now. Ah, there he is."
The fly was resting on the bald head of her husband. Resisting an impulse to swat the fly, she waved it away with the swatter. It buzzed furiously around the lamp on the night table until it tired and rested on the shade. Hilda squinted and took aim. With one smack the fly dropped dead to the table. She reached the lamp in time to right it before it fell.
Hilda picked up the wastebasket, brought it over to the table, and swept the fly into the basket. Breathing through her month, she filed by her husband.
"Oh, Amos, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you." She held up the swatter so he could see it. "Fly in the house. I wanted to get it before we went to bed." He blinked at her with watery dark blue eyes. His right hand, as if by remote control, lifted from his lap and ran itself across his head and the fringe of hair around it.
"You wanna go to bed now, don't you?" said Hilda, glancing at the clock. It was past eight. She raised her voice a little and nodded. "I say, you wanna go to bed?"
Amos blinked some more and made a noise in his throat. "Speak up, Amos. I can't understand ya."
"Ehh, ehh," said Amos.
"Yes? You wanna go to bed? O.K., bed time. Time to go to bed." She walked behind the wheelchair and took firm hold of it, backing Amos to the side of the bed. Pulling the covers, she glanced furtively at her husband's crotch, looking to see if it was wet. Satisfied it wasn't, she began unbuttoning his shirt. "Ohhh, you were messy tonight. Look here, I missed some." Amos bobbed his head a bit in the direction of the spot of mashed potato on his shirt and the blotch of moisture around it. Hilda consumed the potato with a tissue from a box on the dresser. She tossed the tissue into the wastebasket.
After she had removed the shirt, she slipped his arms into a pajama top and buttoned up the front. Then she put one arm around her shoulder and said, "All right, Amos, ready? One, two, three!" She took a deep breath and lifted the top of his frail body onto the bed. Then she took hold of both ankles and finished the job.
"There now! Almost done." She unzipped his pants and deftly and lovingly inched them off without looking up. "Can you hold it a little longer? Sure you can. That's a good boy!"
Hilda tossed the pants and shirt into the clothes hamper in the bathroom, opened a door and pulled out the bottle. Returning to the bed, she opened her husband's shorts and put the bottle in place and began massaging. In a minute she heard the trickle. "That's good, Amos. Very good." She pressed her fingers and waited a little longer till the tinkling stopped. Then she removed the bottle and buttoned up the shorts.
"I guess we don't need any pajama bottoms tonight, do we Amos?" Taking his grunt for a "yes," Hilda pulled up the covers and kissed him on the forehead. "Good night, Amos. Good night." She turned off the lamp and returned to the living room, where she picked up the paper and placed it on the coffee table, which she moved to make room for the bed. After removing the cushions from the sofa, she pulled out the bed and went to the kitchen.
Returning with a cup of hot cider, she saw another fly buzzing around the room. Rolling up the paper, she blotted out its life.
The following morning Hilda got a call from her younger
sister. "Hilda," she said. "Can you leave Amos for an hour and go shopping
Hilda looked over at Amos, sitting in his chair. "I haven't fed him yet, Trudy. But I can go, I think, after I do."
Picking up a pair of earrings, Trudy tempted Hilda.
"Aren't these lovely, Hilda? Look at that--three pearls in each one. Why
not buy a pair?"
Hilda admired the earrings, turning them over in her hands, hesitating. "Oh Trudy, no. You buy 'em. They'll look fine on you."
"Oh come on. I've got plenty of these. You don't have any." Trudy's smile spread her red lipstick across her face.
"But you know how he feels," said Hilda. "He had a fit that Christmas you gave me some, made me give 'em back. Don't you remember? You had to exchange them for a belt."
"Yeah, I remember. There's nothin' about holidays he liked." Hilda's face clouded and Trudy knew she had gone too far, again. "I'm sorry, Hilda. I guess I'm unfair. But I can't see why a man doesn't want his wife to look pretty, that's all. Here, I'll buy them. You don't have to wear them in front of him."
"O.K.," Hilda sighed. "But I won't promise I'll wear 'em, Trudy. I'd die if Amos knew. I'd just die."
"Don't worry, honey. How's he gonna find out?"
When Hilda walked into the living room, Amos was
asleep in front of the television. Relieved, she disappeared into
the bedroom, setting the package on the dresser beside the photograph of
Amos and her taken five years before on their forty-second anniversary.
She stared at the package for awhile and then, impulsively, she opened
it, took the earrings out of their box and clipped them onto her ears.
In the mirror she saw the pearls framing her face, a plain, wrinkled face with soft brown eyes and tinted brown hair--the one indulgence her husband allowed. A hint of powder covered her cheeks. The earrings added a touch of glamour that made her blush, and she removed them, put them in their box, and hid it in the bottom left drawer of the dresser.
Back in the living room she saw Amos lift his head. "Have a good nap, Amos?" she asked. "Want some sun now? Huh? Sun will do you good." Amos looked up and summoned a smile. "Yeah, you'd like that, wouldn't ya Amos? Be back in a minute, O.K.?"
She returned with a wide-brimmed straw hat, worn but sufficient to its purpose. She placed the hat on his head. "There, all set. Ready?"
On the side of the house was a small porch leading to the sidewalk which lined the driveway. Hilda wheeled Amos though the kitchen toward the porch. "It's a beautiful day out, wait'll ya see," she said. She opened the screen door and rolled him onto the porch and locked the wheels. Standing behind him, she rested her hands on the chair. "There we are."
"Oh look, Amos. There's Robin." A man of about thirty was watering his garden across the driveway. Hilda shouted, "Say hello to Robin, Amos."
Robin heard the familiar command and, stopping the water, turned around. "Hi Hilda," he said.
"Hi Robin," she said. She bent down and shouted, "There's Robin watering his garden, Amos. Say hello."
Robin said, "Hello Amos," and stood patiently.
The old man grunted, "Ehhh."
"That's it, say hi to Robin, Amos."
Amos became agitated. He opened his mouth and strained. A faint sound came out: ". . . lo, lo."
"That's right, Amos. Say his name now. Rob-in. Hello, Robin."
Amos strained some more. ". . lo, Rin."
"That's good, Amos. Very good!"
Awkwardly, Robin responded, "Hi Amos. Nice day, isn't it?" He looked at Hilda.
"Oh yeah, beautiful. Your garden's doin' so good this year. Just look at those tomatoes!"
Robin turned around and picked up a large tomato and held it out to her. "Here, have one."
"Oh, thank you," said Hilda. She stepped down and over to accept it across the fence. "Amos loves these. I stew them for him."
"Here," said Robin, handing her another, "have another one."
"Oh, thanks. Amos used to love to garden. These are just like the ones he used to grow. Isn't that so, Amos?"
Amos blinked. Embarrassed, Robin said, "Is that right? Well, I better finish my watering. I have some other work to get done too."
"O.K., Robin. You have a nice day now."
"Thank you, Hilda. You too."
Hilda took the tomatoes into the kitchen. Amos blinked, wide-eyed, looking content. In an hour Hilda took him back inside."
Three or four weeks later Robin was again watering
his garden on a Saturday afternoon. Rain had not fallen in Southern California
for weeks, yet everything he had planted--the tomatoes, the peppers, the
squash, the onions, the potatoes, the strawberries, the marigolds, and
the roses,--all were thriving, demanding as much care as he was willing
Robin saw Hilda coming up the driveway. She stopped the car and got out. "Hi Robin," she said.
"Hi Hilda." Something was different about her. He thought he knew what it was and waited for her to explain.
Instead of saying anything, she opened the garage door and drove her car in. After she locked the door, she turned around to see Robin with a zucchini in his hand, ready to offer it to her. "Amos died last Monday."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Hilda."
"I am too," she said. "We had the funeral Wednesday."
"I guess it had to happen sometime, but that doesn't make it any easier, does it?"
"No, you're right. It doesn't." Her voice cracked, and she was unable to continue. She went inside, leaving Robin with the zucchini in his hand.
Hilda wiped her eyes with tissue from the box on
her dresser. She looked in the mirror and dabbed the mascara that was running
down her cheeks. Having wiped her face, she removed her earrings and set
them on the dresser.
She looked in the mirror again. "Oh damn," she said out loud. She went over to the far side of the bed and pulled the sheet and the cover up, smoothing them out to match the other side, where her husband used to sleep. "There. Shoulda done that this morning."
Something else bothered her. The earrings. She put them in their little box and placed the box in the top drawer of the dresser, sighing as she turned and looked at the photograph of Amos and her. She sat on the bed and waited for something to happen, what she did not know. When nothing happened, she got up and went into the living room, sat down on the sofa, and picked up the paper.
Within seconds she heard a familiar and irritating sound. A fly buzzed wildly about the room until it alighted on the lamp shade. Without a moment's hesitation, she rolled up the paper and followed the fly to the lamp, striking the fly dead in an instant. But she struck too hard, and the lamp dropped to the hardwood floor and broke.
"Damn," said Hilda. "Damn you fly!" She stared at the broken lamp and wept.
This story was first published in the Mt. Aukum Review, April 1986. This is a slightly revised version.
--Copyright © Clifton Snider, 1986 and 2001. All rights reserved.