By Heidi Nibbelink
My husband is dead; I can finally tell the truth.
Endings have always been hard for me. The end of this story, my telling of what happened, how it unfolded like the wings of an origami crane and then kept unfolding until it was nothing more than blank paper too wrinkled for use, will probably go awry. I’ll be compelled to tidy up, professionally gift-wrap a resolution that fails to satisfy exactly the way the florist’s formal arrangement of funeral lilies fails to satisfy. It would be better to have a handful of purple thistles stuck in a mason jar. Rodney always loved the dangerous look of those thistles. Now I see this entire affair should have been a tribute to hay fever. The casket should be banked with urns of goldenrod and ragweed. People should leave church with their eyes streaming and noses running with something more than grief.
Rodney’s hay fever was a factor. He had one of the worst cases I’d ever seen, even with all the years I’ve worked at the Public Health, and he was stubborn about holding out until he absolutely couldn’t stand it before starting the Allegra. After the first year of marriage, I exiled myself to the guest room during hay fever season, his nightly sneezing, and mucousy, choking snores were too eventful for rest. I’d try to count the seconds between his rattling breaths, but could never establish a steady pattern. Somehow I still think if I could have counted, one . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . over and over, I could have settled to sleep in the crook of his arm and nothing would have happened at all.
“What’s this for?” Rodney asked, waving the MasterCard bill in front of my face as I stood at the sink washing the pans from dinner. Thursday night was bill night, so we could go into the weekend knowing what we could spend. The answer was always, “not much.” I wonder why Rodney bothered, but he was a man who took great comfort in routine.
“Snow tires,” I said, with a pang of guilt. The guilt was for spending $480 dollars without checking with Rodney first, not for letting Sean at the Tires Plus push me up against the tool bench and slide a hand underneath my second-best dress.
“Snow tires? What in the world do you need snow tires for?”
“I’m planning a trip. To see Claire.” Claire was my sister who’d moved to Vail, Colorado eight years ago and hadn’t come home since. She was the one who’d got away. The rest of our friends stayed right here, as if railroads and airplanes and interstate highways had never been invented. We went to community college, got jobs one click up from our parents, married the first boys who’d come around. At least Rodney and I didn’t have any kids, I’d avoided that trap. The Public Health gave me enough exposure to squalling infants, thank you very much.
“This is the first I’m hearing of it,” Rodney said, frowning at the bill in his hand, frowning at me, frowning at the soap suds clinging to my yellow rubber gloves.
“It’s not my fault you don’t listen,” I said, using annoyance to mask the flush creeping up my neck, spreading across my face, starting to steam up my glasses. His face began to turn red too; it was our same fight, the one we’d been having for twelve years. I talked. He acted like he was listening but he never tuned in to my station. Ergo, he heard nothing. Ergo, I’m the sound of one rubber-gloved hand clapping, the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it. If no one listens, do I even exist? “You want me to be safe on all those mountain passes, right?”
“There are ways to stay safe that don’t involve spending money we don’t have,” Rodney said.
“Oh? “I smeared some soap suds on my upper lip, like a moustache. “We haff vays of keeping you safe?”
He didn’t laugh. He didn’t even smile.
“Just check with me before you spend more than a hundred dollars out of our account,” he said.
“Roger that,” I said. “Will do. Sorry.”
He grunted, then sneezed, and wiped his nose with a well-used blue handkerchief, the kind you could only find at the Feed Store these days. They didn’t even carry them at Wal-Mart—twenty different kinds of iPhone covers and no handkerchiefs for sale. Rodney pocketed his hankie, and drifted back to the kitchen desk to finish the bills.
The thing is, we had loads of money. Rodney, in addition to being highly allergic to the leaves and flowers of Ambrosia artemisiifolia, was a frugal man. He was small-town famous for being orphaned at age ten when a faulty railroad crossing gate led to bisection by train of the family station wagon. Right after we got married, old women would stop me in the Piggly Wiggly to squeeze my hand and say, “Bless you.” When we met with the banker to inquire about the merest possibility of taking out a loan so Rodney could buy the printing business he’d been eying, the banker asked how much we could put down. I started doing mental calculations about grocery bills and savings account balances, but Rodney pulled out a passbook for an account different from our joint account and suddenly there was $40,000.
Who keeps $40,000 secret from their wife?
We bought the printing business and settled into a routine. Me at the public health from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm, giving out birth control and drawing blood from mothers and babies so they could stay qualified for WIC, Rodney at the print shop from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, and sometimes going in on Sunday if he had a big job due. I always waited dinner for him, and we watched Law and Order together before heading to our separate beds. Saturdays he did the yardwork, even though it always gave him a flareup, and I did the housework and the grocery shopping. Back in my community college days, I spent a summer working for the college grounds crew. I mowed every day, knew how to change a sparkplug, sharpen a dull blade. I brought it up to Rodney once, but he kept his hands firmly on the mower handle.
That was the middle. But now we come near the end and this is where I don’t trust myself. That spring, the temperature ascended into a sudden heat wave. The air felt malevolent, the sun was the indifferent eye of a copperhead. A flattened squirrel on the sidewalk, killed in some terrible error of miscalculation, disappeared in two days, industriously disassembled by ants and beetles and other agents of decay. My snow tires sweated in the garage, unused. Sean transferred to a bigger Tires Plus across the state line, losing my number in the process. I dragged myself out the door to work in soupy dimness and returned just after 2:00 pm to crank up the AC and lie on the living room floor under the ceiling fan. Too much work to go to the grocery story, to put a load of laundry in, to do more than the most desultory poking around in the refrigerator looking for leftovers and condiments to combine in new ways for dinner. It was too hot to turn on the oven, to boil a pot of water. Too much.
Rodney came in from work, smelling of ink and dust. We ate tomato and sweet-pickle sandwiches in front of The Weather Channel. The pollen count was predicted to be unseasonably high through the weekend. “I think it’s getting better,” Rodney said, then horked something into his handkerchief.
“Doesn’t sound like it,” I said.
“How about you coming back to the bedroom tonight?” Rodney asked.
“We’ll see,” I said. I flipped the channel to Law and Order: SVU and watched Rodney slowly forget his question and the impulse that raised it.
When the heat wave broke, I roused myself to make a real dinner. I fixed pork chops, string beans, even made homemade macaroni and cheese, stirring the roux for twenty minute at low heat until tiny bubbles formed on its surface and clung to the sides of the pan. At 6:10, everything was ready and on the table. At 6:20 Rodney didn’t answer his cell phone. At 6:40 he didn’t respond to my text. At 6:45 I covered the food and tried to watch TV. At 7:00, I uncovered the food and fixed myself a plate and ate in front of a Family Guy rerun.
At 8:00 I started calling hospitals. I found him on the first try. St. Mary’s. Asthma attack while he was driving plus concussion and contusion when he’d stopped the car, got out and then passed out, knocking his head on the curb. They were sorry, they thought I’d already been contacted—-a snafu. Rodney was sulking. He thought I hadn’t shown up on purpose because he hadn’t refilled his inhaler prescription like I’d told him to.
It’s not a sickness, these other men. It’s just a life preserver—-a sodden styrofoam pool noodle that keeps your neck above water, barely. I met the next one at my co-worker Arnelle’s candle party. Jonas was demonstrating clean-burning soy candles with natural scented oils. He had potpourris. He had plug-ins that slow-released. He had all the women giggling and elbowing each other with his good looks and charm. We had too much wine, and I ended the night with him smearing lavender oil on my throat by the side of Arnelle’s garage. I pressed my number into his cell phone and didn’t let him kiss me that time.
But a few weeks after that I was at Jonas’s condo searching for my earrings, figuring out if I’d put my shirt on right-side out, calculating if I had enough time left to make the dinner I’d planned before Rodney got home, or if I had to switch to plan B—grilled cheese and sliced pineapple. Jonas was lying on the unmade bed, arms folded behind his head, extolling the virtues of his new line of essential-oil air-purifying plug-ins. “A condo this size,” he said, “four plug-ins, five max, would totally do the job.”
“What about air toxifiers?” I said.
That stopped him mid-stream. “Do what now?” he asked, letting his country upbringing slip past his salesman exterior.
“If plug-ins can purify the air, could they also toxify it?” I asked. “Could you, for instance, put in ‘essence of carbon monoxide’ or ‘cat dander’ and turn the air toxic?”
“Theoretically. Maybe,” Jonas said, looking at me in a way he hadn’t before, especially not thirty minutes ago when he’d been devouring me like a meal. “Why would you want to?”
“No reason. Just curious. The news has me jumpy, I guess.” There’d been another string of terror attacks. Everyone was waiting for the other shoe to drop. London? Paris again? New York one more time? Why not right here?
“Can I borrow your key?” I asked.
“Sure,” Jonas said. Eagerness was his natural state. It took him a moment to remember to ask, “Why?”
“I want to surprise you,” I told him. He had a candle party scheduled for tomorrow night so we wouldn’t see each other. He handed over the key and I gave him a kiss full of promises before I let myself out the back door.
It’s a common mistake to confuse Solidego virgaurea with Ambrosia artemisiifolia. They bloom at the same time, grow in the same ditches between the water tower and the Piggly Wiggly and in the empty lot beside Rodney’s print shop. When I stopped the car on the gravel shoulder, the engine ticked, keeping me company as I harvested some of each. At home, I put the goldenrod in mason jars and hid them in the garage. The ragweed I left to wilt in the trunk of my car.
Rodney didn’t say anything about the grilled cheese and pineapple dinner, or notice that it was the second time we’d eaten it this week. We watched Law and Order, talked about the pollen count and that he needed me to pick him up an inhaler refill at the Walgreens. I showed him some of the plug-ins I said I’d gotten from Arnelle’s party, and made him smell the vials of essential oils. He didn’t like the lavender, but said the orange-vanilla was nice. I gave him a kiss when we parted ways in the hall, and he patted my behind with affection. Sometimes it was like that. I stayed up too late, scrolling through articles on essential oils by the light of my Ipad.
What’s the difference between loyalty and inertia? Why it takes me so long to learn some truths, I don’t know. But now I try to do better, to pay attention to that sense of aversion, the circling round and round, refusing to look, to touch, to acknowledge. That’s what guards the fear and underneath the fear there is desire and desire is what is truly volatile. Every afternoon I let myself into Jonas’s place and worked on extracting essence of ragweed. I tried steam distillation and alcohol extraction. I tried soaking the flowers and leaves in warm water and collecting the steam on a plastic cover. In the end, I ended up with four vials of oil of indeterminate strength and purity. I always washed the dishes I used, cleaned up my mess. Sometimes I’d stay and surprise Jonas with ice creams sundaes and afternoon delight, then I’d race home and get a dinner on the table for which I had no appetite.
In the end, my sister came to me, making those snow tires more useless than ever. I got a frantic phone call from Claire that morning at work. She was halfway across Nebraska already, had stuffed both kids into the car in the middle of the night. I shouldn’t act surprised when I saw her black eye, she didn’t want to scare the kids all over again. I called Rodney.
“Claire and the kids are on their way here. Joe went too far one time too many.”
“That’s a real shame.”
“They could be at the house as early as 1:00. Can you run home and put clean sheets on the guest bed? She’s been driving all night.”
“I suppose I can slide out. Remind me what the kids’ names are again?”
“Ava and Alma. I can’t get out of here before 2:00. We’re doing diabetes screening over at the senior center. It’s all hands on deck.”
“I’ve got it. See you tonight then.”
“Tonight then. I owe you.”
I owe you. I owe you. Imagine you could know the last words you would ever say to your spouse. The last time you would touch their hand, study the familiar outline of their face in profile, hear the particular tambour of their voice calling your name from another room. What would you choose to be the last words they would ever hear from you?
He thought he was helping, that much is clear. He changed the sheets, set out fresh towels. Even gave the downstairs toilet a quick swish with the brush. He found the shiny gold bag of plug-ins Jonas gave me for free that I’d tucked away in the linen closet. He remembered the vials I’d showed him. He didn’t know about my wanderings, my experiments, my vacillations of heart. He filled the reservoirs and plugged them in. His inhaler refill sat in the glove box of my car, baking in the heat of the senior center parking lot.
I wasn’t ever going to use them. I want that to be unambiguous. You have to believe I hadn’t even let myself know what I was thinking. Why was there goldenrod in Mason jars in the garage? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
Rodney had a long history of allergies. Of asthma. It was documented. Such a tragedy. Such a shock for that poor family from Colorado, fleeing one disaster for another. So terrible those little children walked into the kitchen and found their uncle expired like a carton of milk.
Claire relished having something worse than her own troubles to focus on. She was the one who talked to the pastor, who wrote the obituary, who made the arrangements for those awful funeral bouquets.
I blocked Jonas’s calls, eventually they stopped coming. Ava and Alma have the guest room, Claire is in the study. It’s just temporary. Maybe. After work I go for walks in the vacant lot by the old print shop with sun-faded For Sale sign in the window. I let my hands brush the tops of the Ambrosia artemisiifolia. I run my fingernails up the stems, popping off the seeds in one satisfying zip. “It’s okay to . . .” I tell myself, but my eyes stay dry as the dirt that shows my footprints when I turn, leading me back out the way I came in.
Copyright Nibbbelink 2016