Elliot’s wife has been dying for nineteen years, a rare adrenal gland affliction, one in two million. It makes her heart go too fast, then too slow. She is constantly tired. It’s hard to keep loving a woman almost dead but never quite. Elliot does. Though he’s anticipated her passing so long that he sometimes forgets she’s still alive, still a person, his wife even, not a pet or plant that simply needs hydrating, turned, affectionately patted, and left to rest.
Elliot is a part-time pastor’s secretary. The knees of his suits are thin. Church members call or stop by the office to make appointments with the pastor. They have problems they need help with right away, not next Wednesday at 6:45 pm. They tell Elliot these problems instead. He listens without speaking, just nods, and it helps.
He knows his problems, and theirs, are small in the wide, general nature of suffering.
His wife has an adjustable bed in their daughter’s old bedroom where it’s darker and quieter. She asks Elliot to take down the daughter’s poster of David Bowie. “The eyes, they look through me,” she says. “Make it hard to sleep.”
Their daughter calls one night. She is divorcing and wants to move back. “I’m bringing the Rottweiler and the baby,” she says. “See you a few days.”
“But your mother. Her condition,” Elliot says. She has already hung up.
After the call, Elliot feeds his wife broth, brushes her teeth. She’s just woken but is already tired. She wasn’t always this way. He misses the everydayness of her, how she was once big-eyed, big-worded. Sometimes she seems to come back to herself. She gets out of bed and walks slowly around the house, almost silent in her slippers. She touches all the furniture and frames and pillows as though she’s never seen them. “I’m committing it all to memory,” she whispers, though Elliot hasn’t changed anything about their house since her illness.
“Eileen is coming home,” he says.
“She will need you,” says the wife. “She will want her room back. She will want the David Bowie poster back.” She doesn’t know their daughter very well. She got sick when Eileen was only three, and slept through most of her childhood. They are as a dream to one another.
“No,” says Elliot. “She can have my room and I’ll have the couch. There will be a dog, and the baby.”
They haven’t yet seen either baby or dog. Eileen lives far away. Elliot is too poor to travel, his wife too frail.
Elliot goes to the attic and finds boxes of Eileen’s old clothes. Maybe some of them will fit the baby, whom he thinks is a girl. He isn’t sure. It seems only to have been referred to as “the baby.” He finds overalls, a purple-striped shirt, a gray jacket. These seem unisex enough. He lays them in a row on his bed.
His daughter isn’t a good person, he knows, not in the way he’s come to understand goodness as a part-time pastor’s secretary. She doesn’t do nice things for others unless it is to her benefit. Perhaps there is some of this in every person, but he is also sure she steals people’s identities and traffics them for money.
Like most parents of wayward children, he prays for life to humble but not break her, return her to him, changed. In the meantime, Elliot remains very aware of his own actions and whether or not they are good. He steps over ants on sidewalks. He doesn’t use the express lane with more than ten items in his cart. Once, in the park, he sees a homeless man washing his socks in the drinking fountain and walks him to the store, purchases him a bag full of new socks, even though Elliot hasn’t had new socks in so long and can, even then, feel his toe poking through a hole in the pair he’s wearing.
In the morning, after the call with Eileen, his wife has died, as has been expected for nineteen years. Elliot stays with her body and waits for the coroner. He paints her fingernails pale violet and sings “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” He sings the “Dinah won’t you blow your horn?” verse over and over. When he changes her into a fresh nightgown, her body is stiff but still pliable, like a bag of flour. He kisses her on the lips before they wheel her away, then goes to the butcher to purchase some meat bones for the Rottweiler. He buys a dog bed from the pet store and lays it next to his own bed, which he will still give to his daughter. He’ll donate his wife’s adjustable bed to charity.
He decides to wait for Eileen to arrive to tell her about her mother’s death. They can make funeral arrangements together. “It will be a small, lovely service,” Elliot says aloud to the empty room. “The pastor can conduct. Just Eileen and the baby and me. She would have wanted it that way.” Though he doesn’t know for sure. Besides removing the David Bowie poster, it seems so long since she’d wanted anything.
A few minutes later, the phone rings. It’s his daughter.
“I’m not coming after all,” she says. “Glenn and me are going to work it out. It’ll be better for the baby. Thanks for being a real champ though, Dad. Take care of Mom.” Again, she hangs up before he can speak. He calls back. She doesn’t answer.
The room is dim and sallow, its air thick. He lifts the window and sits straddling the sill, his back to the frame, breathing. The sky goes dark. Constellations appear, riddles asking Elliot to solve them. Not everything has an answer, he thinks. He feels it’s time for him to do something but sitting how he is now, he can’t remember if he was crawling out or crawling in.