Patricia gathered her savings and took the number 58 bus downtown.
She held the bag in her lap, watching the city pass by. Their neighborhood had gone from nice to terrible, from kids smoking under a streetlight to kids shooting each other over drugs. But she had never suggested they move, and neither had Samuel. The church needed them, and God knew, the neighborhood needed the church.
There was a car sitting in the driveway and it had been sitting there a long time. Her brother told her she should at least start it once a week, to keep it fresh, but Patricia had trouble finding the keys. And when she did, she saw the keyring, she saw the name on it.
He’d written it himself. One weekend the grandchildren were staying over and her granddaughter wrote her name on everything she thought was hers. Patricia had started to yell, until Samuel put a hand on her shoulder and asked for the pen.
“Good idea,” he said, winking at their granddaughter. He took the pen and wrote his name on the keyring. “That’s mine.” And he and his granddaughter had taken turns marking whatever they wanted, with the granddaughter’s wants far outnumbering Samuel’s.
He had his name on his toothbrush — he’d made sure to mark that, while their granddaughter had claimed Patricia’s toothbrush as her own. Samuel’s toothbrush stood in a holder beside Patricia’s. She hadn’t touched it since he fell.
The bus bounced. It was cheaper than driving. Faster too, if you were headed downtown. Her brother had warned her of the people who rode the bus. People only take public transportation in big cities, he’d told her, and Norfolk isn’t a big city. That’s what he’d said. She knew what he meant: the law-abiding only take the bus in places like New York, and Norfolk is no New York. It’s Norfolk, a city on life support by the grace of the military bases every which way you turn.
Her brother was full of opinions. Especially about this. The bus chimed. It slowed.
She got her bag ready.
It was Kyle who’d suggested this place to her, and she supposed she should be thankful for that. With anyone else, she would’ve told them where they could stick their idea. Kyle, on the other hand, was a doctor. He’d done time in the Navy, here in Norfolk, and he’d gone to college, here in Norfolk, and on to medical school, here in Norfolk, and now he worked as a doctor . . . here in Norfolk.
Two young men let Patricia off the bus first. A rainstorm had passed through last night and the air was thick, the daytime heat just gearing up. The house had no central heat and air, their window unit enough to combat Norfolk’s summers. It was a luxury they could do without. So was the satellite dish, but her brother hadn’t let that stop him —
She crossed the street.
She moved down the sidewalk. Across the street was the waterfront, facing Portsmouth’s waterfront on the other side. The Naval Hospital. Where she and Samuel had seen their first grandbaby come into the world and it somehow got more special each time.
She turned down a small street and stopped at the building, identified only by four numbers: 1741. She tapped the bag. She tapped it again.
Then she rang the bell.
She spent a few minutes in the waiting room before Mr. Johnson came out and shook her hand and led her to his office.
“I have it all,” she said. “Every last dollar.”
Mr. Johnson nodded. “Something to drink?”
“No thanks.” Her mouth was dry but her brother’s voice still rung in her head, and she wanted to be out of here before it started to ring true.
“Very well.” Mr. Johnson laid the form out on the desk. He put a pen on top, turning it to point at a blank line at the bottom. “When you’re ready.”
She’d been ready too long now. Yet, as she picked up the pen, she could hear her brother’s voice as if he were right beside her.
It’s bullshit. They’re yanking your chain.
She started signing.
She was halfway through her name.
Don’t tell me you’re going to piss away your savings on something like this.
She finished her name.
A shadow, only a shadow of —
She dated the form and laid the pen down.
“It’s done,” she said quietly.
Mr. Johnson took the form. “You are very brave, Misses Baggett.”
“It’s done,” she said again, a bit quieter.
Back home she sat in the front porch swing. Samuel had installed it after the old one started to rot. Samuel was good at installing stuff. Aside from the church, he’d done maintenance work for a local factory, even selling his trade to people in the neighborhood who had broken faucets, faulty lightswitches.
And satellite dishes.
No one in their flock could afford cable television. Yet they had it. And the satellite dish . . . what was it her brother said? It’s cheaper was cheaper than paying for cable. Plus you got more channels. It
‘s a good deal
was a good deal.
That they could afford it wasn’t the question. Both of them had stopped working years ago, drawing on Samuel’s pension. They took no salary from the church — what little the tithing bowls brought went for church upkeep, and there was always plenty of upkeep. Would they use the dish? Samuel rarely watched TV. It was Patricia who watched the morning news from their small kitchen TV while Samuel read the newspaper, Patricia who watched it before they went to bed. And what was it her brother had said? With 400 channels
at this price? You can’t beat it
she would have plenty to watch. Plenty
a good deal
to choose from.
Patricia stayed on the swing. A car with tinted windows cruised by and swung into a driveway a few houses down. It was a good deal. For the money you paid, you really couldn’t beat it.
She got up.
Samuel had fallen in the driveway and the spot where he fell looked darker than the rest of the driveway, a long asphault tongue unrolling from the garage in the back to the street. She hadn’t been watching him. She’d been inside, preparing lunch. If she’d kept an eye on him, then maybe she could’ve said something or maybe he would’ve been more careful or even earlier
no one pays this much in cable
at Thanksgiving, when her brother brought it up
you’re gettin screwed
she could’ve argued better but that was her brother. When you argued for a living, you tended to be better at it than most.
And her brother hadn’t stopped arguing. After she told him about her decision, he’d stared at her like a man waiting for the punchline. When the punchline didn’t come, he’d started arguing.
He won’t be your husband. I don’t care what that bastard promised you.
She was staring at the spot.
Even if it’s true, he’ll just be a shadow of your husband.
A spot darker than the rest of the driveway.
Just a shadow.
Patricia got off the bus and walked four blocks to the restaurant. Her brother was waiting for her in the lobby, and when he saw her, he put his hands on his hips.
“Did you get us a table?”
“Thirty minutes ago, when you were supposed to be here.”
The hostess showed them to a booth.
“Did you walk it?” her brother asked. The waitress introduced herself and handed them menus.
“I don’t know about you,” Patricia said, “but I’m in the mood for a good steak.”
“You didn’t take the bus, did you?”
“Or shrimp. They got some pretty good shrimp here.”
“Well did you?”
“Though there’s this place by the beach, they got the best shrimp in all of Hampton Roads.”
“What’ll you be having to drink?”
Her brother folded his menu and let it drop on the table.
“Yes,” she said.
“The shrimp here is wonderful.”
The waitress came and took their drink orders. Patricia ordered a margarita while her brother stuck with a Coke. The waitress left.
“Are your tags expired?”
“I told you the shrimp’s good, Walter.”
“But that steak’s still calling my name. If I win the lottery, that’s what I’ll do.”
“What will you do?”
“Order both. I’m tired of having to pick one over the other.”
Walter looked at her.
“It’s like picking your favorite children really.”
Walter clicked his tongue. He’d done that since they were children. He pushed his glasses up, squeezed the bridge of his nose, and with a sigh said, “You did do it. I fucking knew it.”
“Watch your mouth, Walter.”
“I just — ” The waitress returned, and took their orders. Patricia got the steak and the shrimp.
“Like pickin your favorite children.”
“Let me ask you a question. Do you believe in television psychics?”
“No, you know I don’t.”
“And why not?”
“Because everyone knows they’re full of it.”
“Full of it. My thoughts exactly. So since the people who claim they can communicate with your dead relatives are full of it, what makes you think a resurrection is more plausible?”
Patricia sipped her margarita. She’d heard it all before and she would hear it all again before dinner was through. She took another sip, a long one.
“To answer your question . . . ” She paused. “Because television psychics appear on TV. I don’t trust nothin on TV.”
“But you trust these guys.”
“I don’t trust you.”
“Great.” The waitress brought their food and went away. “Let me tell you something. Don’t you dare expect me to shake his hand.”
“How about a hug?”
“You . . . ”
“It’s not your fault,” she said.
“I know it’s not my fault.”
She took another long sip of her margarita. “Like I said, I don’t blame you for what happened. It was an accident.”
“Have you thought about how you’ll explain this to the kids? To the grandkids?”
“I think they’ll be happy to have their grandpa back.”
“He’s not their fucking grandpa,” Walter said, pounding the table with his fist. “He’s not even a fucking person for Christ’s sake.”
“Walter, your language — ”
“Fuck it.” Walter threw down a wad of bills. “Just fuck it.” He left his food untouched. The doors flung open and popped shut behind him.
Patricia finished her magarita and ordered another.
On the busride home Patricia thought about the bus itself. If you built another bus exactly like this one and gave it the same number, would it be the same bus? Or if you just took out everything inside, keeping the frame, replaced it, what then? She leaned her head on the window. Across the aisle a bearded man in a coat sat watching her. When time came for her stop, she stood up and met his eyes.
“I don’t trust nothin on TV,” she said, and got off the bus.
Late that night the doorbell rang. Patricia cinched up her bathrobe and flicked on the lamp by the door. She looked through the peephole, saw who was there, and opened the door.
Samuel was wearing the same clothes he’d worn the day he fell.
“Pat,” he said. “I had a dream that I fell.”
And when Patricia tried to speak, she choked on her words. She took him in her arms and cried.
Samuel drove them to the church. Faces new and old in the congregation. He preached to them, prayed over them, and a woman whose son had been hit by a car did not come to the pulpit during prayer. She usually did. But today she kept to the back.
It cost me my savings, Patricia thought, and resolved to speak to her after the service.
Samuel gave today’s sermon. While he spoke, Patricia kept her eyes not only on that woman, but others too. How many were thinking the same thing? She offered them smiles, getting none in return, and when she passed the collection plate around it came back with a few dollars and a shoestring.
Samuel ended that morning with announcements: a list of current job openings was on the table by the door. Workforce Development this Wednesday. Job interview skills. Patricia had done a passable job in his absence, but no one could command the church the way he did.
Patricia tried to talk to that woman. She’d gone out the door and Patricia went around back to the parking lot. She was getting in her car.
“Ma’am!” Patricia called. “Ma’am!”
The woman glanced up at her and a glance was all it took. The same accusing look, worse out here under the open sky. Patricia had told her to keep praying, that the Lord works in unexpected ways. It took a week for her son to die. The woman had no insurance.
The car pulled out and sped away and Patricia stood waving the remains of the car’s exhaust fumes from her face, wondering what she could do about the woman’s medical bills.
Patricia never saw her again.
The car was idling, public radio at a low volume. Samuel had both hands on the wheel, looking out at the building. Patricia had questions
do you know
her brother’s questions, the kind that would taint her mouth to even whisper.
After a while, Samuel said, “I remember this place.”
“We came here before.”
“They took some kind of . . . sample or somethin.” He was squinting. Patricia noticed. Samuel
the real Samuel
had never squinted like this before.
“You wanted to do it,” she said. “Do you remember?”
“Yes,” he said, in a voice that could’ve come from someone else.
“We can go.”
He turned off the car.
The returned people, as the clinic called them, needed three checkups over a twelve month period. Abnormalities were rare — in fact, Patricia couldn’t remember Kyle ever mentioning any — but it was best to be safe. Returning people was a fairly new procedure.
They entered the clinic arm-in-arm and Samuel checked in by himself, reciting his full name and social, just as they wanted. A young doctor came out and took Samuel to the back.
Patricia waited in the lobby.
She was the only one in here. The clinic kept the magazine subscriptions up to date and Patricia read one. Synthetic Biology: Humanity’s New Frontier. In the article they talked of resurrecting neandrathals, cro-magnons, mammoths and in the last paragraph they joked about bringing back dinosaurs. She closed the magazine and sat tapping it on her knee. Returning people, she had read no magazine articles on this. Kyle had brought it up over coffee one morning and told her that
the risks are huge
the risks were minor, for the price you paid. She rolled up the magazine. She waited.
Hours later Mr. Johnson summoned her and they sat alone in his office.
“How’s he doing?” Mr. Johnson asked.
“Good. He’s doing real good.”
“Did he answer all the questions correctly?”
The day she paid they’d given her a list of questions to ask Samuel. Where were you born? What was your mother’s maiden name? The same questions her email asked when she forgot her password. He’d answered them all correctly, all except —
She waited for Mr. Johnson to correct her, to tell her that no, he hadn’t answered all of them correctly. He was one day off, and what would happen then? The paper didn’t say.
“What we did,” Mr. Johnson said, picking up a folder, “was run a normal physical check on your husband.” He opened it, just slightly enough to peek through. “Doctor says he’s fine.”
“Nothing wrong with his heart?”
Mr. Johnson shook his head.
Mr. Johnson shook his head again.
“His back?” Patricia chuckled. “Sorry. I know what I sound like.”
“Understandable.” Mr. Johnson handed her the folder. “Do you have any questions?”
Mr. Johnson waited, hands clasped together.
“Does he know?”
“Not at all?”
“He believes this is a routine physical.” Mr. Johnson unclasped his hands and leaned back, resting them on his stomach. He did not take his eyes off her. “Did you tell him?”
“Did he say anything?”
and would they? They wouldn’t —
“Well then.” Mr. Johnson leaned up. “I believe your loving husband is waiting in the lobby. It’s rude to keep someone waiting.”
“Yes,” Patricia said, forcing herself to meet his eyes. “It sure is.”
Otherwise, life returned to normal. They ran the church. They prayed over the broken. Mornings were for the newspaper, evenings for their books. They sat together on the front porch swing. Before his fall Samuel had been halfway through a book, and he picked up this book, plucked out the bookmark and read it by the light of a wax candle.
Patricia kept glancing at the book. She couldn’t tell how much progress he’d made. If she asked, would he know the plot? The main character?
She tightened her grip on her own book.
He was just a day off, quit fussing
After their nightly reading they lay in bed. Streetlight reached through the blinds, cold bars splayed across the bed. Patricia got up to close the curtain.
“No,” Samuel said.
“You don’t want it closed?”
“No,” he said again, and that was all he said on the matter.
Patricia laid there, awake. Samuel snored. And Patricia still laid there, awake.
She went downstairs.
They kept books-in-progress on a shelf by the front door. Patricia grabbed the book. They’d bought this a month or so before his fall, on their last trip to DC. Samuel had just gotten started. Patricia skimmed the pages, noting the position of the bookmark.
“You’re just seeing things,” she whispered, the worst of her brother’s words rising like a serpent in the dark. She closed her eyes until they passed, and when she opened them, the book was still there. The bookmark too.
She stood there in her old houseclothes as outside someone honked their horn and someone else yelled a name. She tried to measure the distance a bookmark might have traveled in one day and she held the book like a sacred treasure and in the end she couldn’t do it.
She put it back on the shelf.
Kyle listened carefully, and when Patricia was done, he said, “And you’ve kept this to yourself?”
“I didn’t know what else to do.”
Kyle picked the wet stirrer up off the napkin. His coffee was halfway gone but he stirred it anyway.
“You don’t think I’m overreacting?” Patricia said.
Kyle set the stirrer aside. “It’s one day.”
“Yes, it sure is. One day.”
“Has he done anything else?”
“Well… ” Patricia tapped the edge of the table. This late nurses and doctors were putting up their trays, returning to their shifts.
“Listen Patricia, if it’s nothing serious — ”
“As long as you’re sure.”
“It’s nothing too serious. I swear, I’m starting to think like my brother.”
“Has he met your husband?”
“Not since he returned. Nobody has.”
“Are they going to?”
“Christmas is coming up. The grandkids’ll get to see him.”
Kyle took a sip of his coffee. “Do they know?”
“I don’t know. I mean, my kids ought to know.”
“No, what I mean is, are they of an age where they would understand?”
Patricia shook her head. “Oldest one’s five.”
“Do you still have all your papers?”
“There should be something in there about explaining it to young children.”
Patricia vaguely remembered seeing something like that. After reading about how Samuel might act, she’d skimmed the rest. The night Samuel had come home, she’d put all the papers in a safe in the back of the closet, hiding the key in her clothes drawer.
“I’ll go have a look at it,” she said.
“Good.” Kyle swallowed the last of his coffee. “Well, I had better get back. God knows the nurses need someone to tell them which hand is left.”
“Wait.” Patricia cleared her throat. “Sometimes, I, it’s just . . . sometimes I wish I had a time machine, you know? A time machine. Sometimes I think it’d be simpler if I could hop in it and go back in time and stop my brother from ever talking him into putting up that old dish. I know how it sounds, I know, but it’s just how I feel.”
There’s nothing wrong with how you feel,” Kyle said. He gave her a warm look. “If there was, you wouldn’t have brought your husband back in the first place.”
That afternoon Samuel did some carwork in the garage while Patricia made calls. She called their children. The calls went to voicemail and she left them identical messages, asking them to call back soon about Christmas and give the grandchildren hugs and kisses.
It was only after she’d hung up that she realized she’d said hugs and kisses from Grandma. Grandma. Not Grandma and Grandpa. She dialed the number and the phone was ringing before she hung up again, and sighed. Next time, she told herself. Next time.
This is still new to you too, she thought as she climbed the stairs. She went into one of the guest bedrooms. The one closest to their bedroom was for the grandkids, the farthest one for her kids, for their privacy.
She went to the farthest one.
She took the folder out of the safe and sat with it in the master bathroom. She turned the fan on. Samuel liked to get wrapped up in his garage projects, but she’d better be safe. No one had brought it up to him yet and she wasn’t about to let him find out about it on accident.
The folder opened with a creak. She pulled out the newspaper clipping — it was the only one she could find. She smoothed it out on the folder and read it.
‘Samuel Baggett, 67, of Norfolk, passed away on Sunday after . . . ‘
It went on to list his career and all the relatives he was leaving behind. It did not say what caused his death. She closed her eyes.
It has over four hundred channels.
A tear slid loose and crooked down her cheek.
Everyone else has got one, so —
She made a fist, squeezing so hard her fingernails dug into her palm. She tore the clipped into as many pieces as she could and stuffed the pieces into the folder pocket and took the folder downstairs, to the kitchen. The kitchen door was open. The drill was going. Patricia shoved the folder in deep, under the trash that was already there.
She dreamt of a bus.
They’d taken it apart piece by piece and put it back together. Before it was the 58 bus. Now it was the 68 bus and she tried to tell them it was the 58 bus it had always been the 58 bus, but they said it had been the 68 bus before it was 58 it had always been the 68 bus and she yelled and woke up with a raw throat.
Samuel wasn’t beside her.
She found him on the front porch swing with a coffee cup.
“Morning,” she said.
For a minute or so he seemed not to hear her. The neighbor across the street was out sweeping her front porch. Two of her windows were out, covered in two-by-four’s.
“Morning,” Samuel said.
“Need some coffee?”
“What? This?” He looked down at the empty cup like he was seeing it for the first time. He looked up at her. “It’s brewing.”
“Hand me your cup. I’ll get us some.”
But when she went to the coffee maker, she saw it was off. She checked the inside. Samuel had put coffee in, he had put water in, he’d just forgotten to turn it on.
Patricia pressed the button. It brewed.
She returned with two cups of coffee and there was a boy in the front yard, on his bicycle. He was talking to Samuel.
“Good morning,” she said, smiling.
The boy did not smile back.
“You’re up pretty early this morning,” she said, trying to place this boy. One of the neighborhood kids. She thought she should know them but they came and went so much, it was —
“What’s he doing here?” the boy said.
“Enjoying himself a cup of coffee.” Patricia handed her husband his cup. She sat down beside him and took a sip. “You had your breakfast yet?”
“What’s he doing here?” the boy repeated, a nasty look on his face.
“We’re sitting on the swing,” Patricia said. The morning had become oddly cold. She was about to suggest that they go back inside, when the boy spoke again.
“What’s he doing here? I saw him fall.”
Quiet for a few moments. What Samuel might say to this. What he might do. Patricia forced a smile and said, “And I saw him get up. Did you?”
The boy didn’t say anything, that same nasty look on his face.
“Run along now,” Patricia said, “before I tell your parents.”
The boy turned his bike around and almost as an afterthought said, “He fell.” Then he took off, down the street and around the corner.
“Samuel have some of your coffee before it gets cold.”
“What did he mean, I fell?”
“Oh you know these kids around here. No parents raising them, no telling what comes out of their mouths.”
“Is he talking about the dream?”
“He’s not talking about anything. Hey, let’s get inside. I’m getting kinda cold.”
As they were heading inside, Samuel said, “I dream every night.”
Patricia held the door. “Most nights I don’t.” The swing softly creaked in a morning wind. “What do you dream about?”
“I’m falling.” He was close to tears. “I’m falling, and you’re screaming.”
Thanksgiving morning she managed to get her son on the phone. They wished each other a Happy Thanksgiving.
“Samuel got us a good turkey this year,” she said. “It’ll be frying up till lunchtime.”
“How about ya’ll? What kinda turkey ya’ll got?”
“Something we bought from Publix.”
“Publix? The heck is that?”
“A grocery store.”
“You mean like Kroger?”
“Yeah, but nicer.”
“Well it must be pretty nice then.” She cleared her throat. Samuel was in the living room watching the pregame show. She’d swear they got longer every year and it wasn’t even the Super Bowl yet. “What are ya’ll doing for Christmas?”
A pause. “Not sure yet.”
“What do you mean? You’re off work aren’t you?”
“Well, to be honest, I’m not sure.”
“Oh really? What kinda boss makes you work on Christmas?”
“If it’s important enough…”
“Alright honey,” she said. Samuel had come into the kitchen. She smiled at him. “Alright. You just let me know, okay?”
After she hung up she waited for Samuel to speak. He looked like he had something on his mind. But when he didn’t, she said, “What is it?”
His mouth was hanging open. Black circles under his eyes. He looked confused.
He looked scared.
Samuel turned, and went back to the living room.
It was up to Patricia to remember the Christmas tree. She let Samuel drive, noting his turns carefully. She’d never driven the route before, but she did remember making a left back somewhere. She made herself keep quiet. If not for her sake, then for his.
It turned out to be the long way. The dealer greeted them like they were strangers. They picked out the tree and loaded it into the truck.
Samuel took the shortcut back.
They put the tree in the living room and spent all day decorating it. Patricia didn’t need to buy decorations. Earlier this morning they’d gotten the boxes out of the attic and Samuel had not said anything about them. Patricia opened the first one and pulled out a paper Frosty the Snowman, covered in glitter.
She held it up. To Grandma and Grandpa was written on the back.
“A grandchild made it for us,” Samuel said.
Patricia heard it as a question. But it wasn’t a question. It was a statement. Samuel was just stating what they both already knew.
His eyes narrowed. He hadn’t talked much since Thanksgiving. His second check-up was next week, and Patricia found herself hoping that the holidays might bring him up more. She didn’t know if his behavior was normal or not. She hadn’t looked at the papers. She hadn’t even taken them out.
“Our grandson’s a good boy,” she said.
They decorated the tree, Patricia remarking on every decoration. They had a lot, from their own kids, from their grandkids. The last decoration was the oldest. A paper-mâché Rudolph that her mother had made after her stroke. Patricia held it up for Samuel to see.
“This is the last one,” she said. “Doctor said Mom’s brain needed to be occupied by something. I think she did a pretty good job.”
Samuel eyed it over. Even in his eyes there was nothing to see. Keeping down a sigh, Patricia hung it on the tree.
“All of the other reindeer.”
Patricia turned to him so fast the tree shook.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s how it goes. Remember the rest?”
Samuel looked away. “I’m hungry.”
Christmas morning they had coffee and cinnamon rolls on the front porch, presents for the kids and grandkids beneath the tree.
“They get busy you know,” Patricia said. “John said he had to work. Can you believe that? Makin somebody work on Christmas.”
Samuel quietly bit into a cinnamon roll.
“It’s insane.” Patricia sipped her coffee. She ran her finger along the rim of the cup. “I need some more cream. Need me to top off your cup?”
Samuel shook his head.
In the kitchen Patricia left her cup on the counter and went upstairs. She’d tried the kids one more time last night. No answer, only this time she didn’t bother leaving a voicemail. After five or so, what was the point?
She pulled out the papers and flipped through them. The papers would tell her what he should be doing, she was sure of that, but would they tell her what to do? Did she want to read? Papers in hand, she closed the safe and turned to go.
Samuel was standing there.
He looked lost.
“Samuel,” she said. “Just getting some papers from the safe.”
But Samuel paid no more mind to the papers than he would an ant in the grass. He said, “Coffee’s gone cold. I brewed another pot.”
“Good,” Patricia said. “Cold coffee’s just terrible.”
They went downstairs, Samuel to the porch, Patricia to the kitchen.
“I’ll bring you a cup,” she called out over her shoulder. She hurried to the trashcan. She tore the papers up as best she could and let them flake inside. The papers were ripped but identifiable. She went about making the pieces smaller, until not even a champion puzzlemaster could make sense of them.
He had a dream that he fell, a voice inside her said, words halfway between thought and speech. It was just a dream and he’s my husband.
The coffee. If she didn’t bring it out soon, she’d find him standing behind her again. She went to pick up the pot. The water looked clear. “Oh,” she whispered, lifting the top of the coffee maker.
There was no coffee inside.
She poured the boiled water in and put in some coffee grounds and set it to brew. She waited, arms folded. When the coffee was ready, she took two cups outside with a fresh batch of cinnamon rolls.
“Took me long enough I know,” she said, setting the tray and the cups down, “but I had to wait on these cinnamon rolls to get ready.”
Samuel’s cinammon roll hung from his fingers like a forgotten toy.
The morning of his second check-up, Patricia was up early.
Christmas presents sat unopened beneath the tree. New Years Eve had passed without remark. They used to watch the ball drop and have champagne but after Patricia had gone to the trouble of chilling the champagne Samuel said he was tired. He had to take a nap. His nap turned into a good night’s sleep, and Patricia had lain beside him in the cold, uncut dark while the calendars changed and
her husband snored.
Sometimes when Patricia woke up from her dreams about the bus she heard him moaning, struggling to form words, and she knew. She didn’t need to ask. She knew.
He had fallen.
And he was hurt.
She had her coffee on the porch, thinking of all the years. Over five decades, examined in less than a minute. A sixteen year old girl thought she was going to do hair and makeup for movie stars. Maybe she would have, if not for the day she came out of the grocery and he nodded at her and she couldn’t help but give him a little smile in return. A cocky young man home from the war. He had a good job lined up and he’d ask for her hand a year later.
Patricia had started giving the sermons. A couple weeks ago, Samuel had stumbled mid-sentence. She told herself it happened to everyone — hadn’t it happened before he fell? Just like with his birthday, it didn’t mean there was something wrong with you, it only meant you were human.
Then he stopped mid-sentence.
He leaned on the podium in the wet sermon-hall, an old thing a few decades overdue on renovations. His mouth hung open. Patricia had seen this look before, on her own grandfather, and she’d hoped never to see it again. She put an arm around Samuel and helped him down.
They didn’t talk about that. They didn’t talk about much else either. Sometimes he made a remark, sometimes he called out her name, but more often than not he just went through his daily routines with that slack look on his face. He’d stopped working in the garage.
And this morning, she was supposed to . . . what? She cradled her coffee in her lap, a strong warmth covering her hands. She held on till it turned cold.
Then she went upstairs.
Samuel wasn’t in bed. She checked the kitchen. The living room. She pulled open the garage door and stepped from the smell of a summer morning to the smells of tools, grease, oil and engines. He wasn’t here either.
He was beside the house.
He was standing in the driveway, in the spot where he’d fallen, looking up.
“Where’s the satellite?”
Patricia swallowed. Closeby she could hear her brother’s voice. She took a deep breath. “It’s gone, honey.”
“Why are you asking about it?” she said, her voice breaking up.
“I need to adjust it.” He looked at her with all the confusion of a newly blind child. “My ladder’s missing too.”
“My ladder or the satellite?”
“What’d you do with them?”
“I got rid of them. Please. Come in, I’ll make us some breakfast.”
“What’d you go and do that for?”
She took his arm and he allowed her to lead him inside. Over breakfast he bit into a homemade biscuit and said, “I need to adjust that dish. Picture’s all fuzzy.”
Patricia called her children about an Easter visit and left more voicemails. She didn’t mention Christmas.
Spring left, summer came. Samuel grew quieter. Sometimes he’d mumble something. He didn’t sleep well and neither did Patricia.
She often dreamed of the 58 bus. It pulled up but no matter how fast she moved, it always pulled away before she could get in. No worries, said someone else at the stop, another bus is coming.
The 68 bus pulled up. It looked identical to the 58 and the passengers boarded and the doors stayed open. They were waiting for her. They were waiting for her and so was Samuel.
“I fell,” he said. “Pat, help me. I fell.”
She woke up with his words on her lips.
“You look like you’ve seen better days.” Kyle smeared some jam on his toast. “Before long you’ll have the doc’s look.”
Patricia smiled grimly. “There’s folks who’d trade their sleep for your money.”
“And there are people here who would trade their money for minimum wage, with the lifetime guarantee of a good night’s sleep.” He bit into the toast. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“I could make myself have a bite.”
He waved her off. “Not if you don’t want to.”
“But you paid for it.”
“No worries. It’s not like this is high-class dining.”
He drank his coffee and wiped his mouth with a napkin. The napkins the hospital provided were too thin for Patricia’s liking, but Kyle didn’t seem to have a problem with them. Maybe after working here for so long, you figured out how to use them. She was staring at her own napkin when he asked his question.
“How fares your Samuel?”
“Some little bumps here and there.” She took her eyes off the napkin.
“What did they say at his second checkup?”
She glanced at the napkin. “I don’t know.”
Kyle hummed, chewing some toast. “Well. Perhaps they thought you wouldn’t understand. If I were you, I wouldn’t take it too personally.”
“I didn’t go, Kyle.”
Kyle stopped chewing. He swallowed. Slowly.
“And what happened then?”
“No phone calls?”
“Nobody came over?”
“No one did.”
Kyle set his toast down. “Have some coffee.”
“No. You could use some. It’s not poison. Just caffeinated water, really.”
Patricia took a sip. She licked her lips clean. Then she took another.
“Okay,” Kyle said when she was done. “How bad is he?”
“He’s just hit a few bumps in the road, that’s all.”
“And yet, you skipped his second checkup.”
“We…” Her words left her.
“Did you read the paperwork they gave you?”
“I looked at it some, yeah.”
“Returning people is a very new science,” Kyle said. He had forgotten his coffee. He had forgotten his toast. He sat with his hands together, elbows on the table. “We still don’t know everything.”
Patricia had her arms folded. A napkin lay halfway off her plate. “You said it was safe.”
“I never said that.”
Kyle sighed. “Where is your husband?”
“I left him in the car.”
Kyle nodded slightly, and slightly was all it took. Patricia turned and saw what he saw.
Samuel was wandering the hospital cafeteria, thumb in his mouth.
“Samuel!” Patricia ran and put her arms around him. “What’re you doing in here?”
Samuel was sucking his thumb.
“Come on and sit down. Sit down.”
Samuel pulled his thumb wet from his mouth, and moved his lips. No sound came out. He put his thumb back in his mouth.
Patricia got him into a chair, where he sat stiffly, thumb still in his mouth.
Kyle said, “Patricia.”
“They told me it was safe,” she said. “They told me he’d be the same as my husband. They told it to me out of their own mouths.”
“Was this before or after they took all your money?”
“Don’t you start that.” She pointed at him. “Don’t you start.”
“You need to call the clinic.”
“Maybe they can help him.”
“Maybe they can put him to sleep like a dog. That’s about how they’ll help him. My husband — ”
Kyle slammed his hands on the table. “He’s not your fucking husband.”
Patricia swept her arms across the table. Coffee and food spilled and her fork clattered, dinging like a dying bell.
“Patricia,” Kyle said.
She took Samuel by the arm and helped him up.
“Patricia,” Kyle said again.
“Your husband is dead.”
Patricia took the pulpit, Samuel in the back. She gave the sermon as best she could, pausing now and then to wonder what Samuel would have said. She lost sight of him and after the service she found him outside by the car. He had a hand on the driver side door.
“I lost the keys.”
“It’s okay . . . I found them.”
“I’m sorry I lost em.”
“It’s okay.” She put her hand on his cheek. “Come on.”
Samuel cut a slow, aching path around the car. Patricia got in and started it and as Samuel got in he said, “Did you remember to fix her room up the way she likes it?”
She backed out of the spot. “Sure did.”
Samuel said nothing the rest of the ride home, until they pulled down the driveway.
“You know what?” he said, his voice like that of a little boy meeting Santa Claus.
“What is it honey?”
“We need to get us one of them dishes.”
She shut the door.
“I heard you can get over a thousand channels.”
Nodding, Patricia took his arm and led him to the porch. He dropped down into the swing and looked at her, confused.
“What time’s she supposed to be here?”
And Patricia couldn’t help herself. She sighed. “What time’s who supposed to be here?”
“Susie. Don’t tell me you forgot.”
“Just hang on. I’ll bring us some coffee.”
Patricia went to the kitchen and got the coffee started. As she hunted something to eat, she thought over what he’d said. Susie’s supposed to be here. Susie had spent a summer with them, when she was eight years old.
She was now thirty-eight, with two kids of her own.
Patricia slammed a can of cinnamon rolls on the counter and started the oven.
Spring and summer passed, and Samuel talked less. Sometimes he just mumbled. On occasion he’d hold conversations with someone else, man or woman or animal, someone from his imagination or his past and at this point she had to wonder if there was any difference.
She dreamt of a fleet of city buses, innards swapped but the numbers the same. She’d wake up with her brother’s voice in her ears. She tried to call her children. Sometimes she left voicemails. Mostly she didn’t.
Autumn, and the third checkup came and went and no one said a word. Not long after, Samuel quit talking. She woke up one cold October morning to find him hauling a ladder out of the garage. He didn’t tell her what he was going to do, nor did he utter a word of protest when she took the ladder from him. As she was carrying it to the garage, she stumbled.
Her jaw struck the ladder and her teeth rammed her tongue. She dropped the ladder and spat blood.
Samuel didn’t notice. He was looking up, mumbling.
That night, after Samuel had fallen asleep, she put a padlock on the garage and hid the key in her clothes drawer. She laid back down, her tongue throbbing.
Just a shadow, she thought, turned facedown on her pillow, and started to cry.
Samuel didn’t get out of bed.
She helped him stand. She led him in his pajamas to the porch and set him on the swing and went back in the house. She thought about what to do.
She told herself it was a phase. He’d get over it by afternoon. But come afternoon, he was still in the swing, still in his pajamas.
The boy on his bike was doing circles in the front yard.
“What’s wrong with him?” the boy asked.
“Nothing’s wrong. Go on.”
“Your husband’s dead,” the boy said, a bit uncertain, and wheeled out of the yard.
“Samuel.” She put her arms around him. “You haven’t fallen again. You hear me? You fell once, and that’s all. You aren’t going to fall ever again. Samuel. Samuel.”
She put her face on his shoulder and cried.
When she was out of tears, she went back inside and picked up the phone. It was Kyle who’d gotten her into this mess, so he’d better get her out.
He picked up on the fourth ring.
Kyle pulled up to the curb. He stopped just short of the porch.
“What’s he doing out here?”
“What? We always sit out here.”
“Get him inside. Before someone sees.”
Patricia took one hand, Kyle the other. They led Samuel inside, to the couch.
“This is bad,” Kyle said, pacing back and forth. “Pretty fucking bad.”
Patricia had not left her husband. She was still holding his hand. “So help him.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?”
Kyle stopped. He faced her. “You should have taken him to the clinic. They could have done something.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Well it’s better than — ”
“Stop,” she said, speaking no louder than usual, but her voice cut through him all the same. She held Samuel’s hand with both of hers. “I know what I need to do.”
“Okay,” Kyle said. “Well, if you don’t — ”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Alright.” Kyle opened the front door. “They’re closed now, you know.”
“You’ll be okay tonight?”
“I said I’ll be fine.”
“Just making sure.” He smiled a weak smile. “You’re very brave, Patricia. They’ll find a way to help him. They want their program to work. Trust me.”
Patricia set Samuel on the swing and went upstairs. She returned with his pillow. She sat with him all night, talking. She talked about their children, the trouble they’d gotten into when they were young, what great people they’d grown up to be. She talked about their grandchildren, and all the ways grandparents could spoil their grandchildren because that’s just what grandparents were for. She talked about the last Christmas everyone was together. They’d bought Caitlyn that watergun even after their daughter said not to and Patricia could not say which was better: the look on Caitlyn’s face or the look on her mother’s. She talked of these things.
At sunrise, Patricia said, “You fell, Samuel.” She squeezed the pillow. “You fell too far.” She looked right at him, moist eyes capturing the day’s new light. “You just fell too far.”
It took all morning to fill the hole. On her way to the church she dumped the shovel and gloves in a restaurant dumpster. She was late for the service. The few people left listened to her respectfully, putting nothing in the collection plate.
On another morning, on another day, in another season and another year, she got off the bus and the first thing she noticed was the door was locked. Next she saw the sign in the window. For Lease.
She took the next bus. Number 58. She sat in the back, a man in rags sat across the aisle. Small bugs crawled in his beard and he smelled like a landfill’s bowels. He kept looking over at her, and eventually she favored him with a smile.
“This bus seems new,” she said.
“It is new.”
“Why do you say that? Number’s the same.”
“They got new seats.” He rubbed his seat. “I think.”
She just smiled some more. Up ahead the driver shifted gears and the bus rolled on towards its next stop, coughing trails of black smoke on the downtown streets.