I wrote 50,000 words, and all I got was this little badge!
And Darwin's back, so those of you who are heartily sick of Emma and Martin should be cheered. For all four readers of this story: I can't wrap it tonight, but I think we're heading for a close over the weekend.
There had been little for me to do after the accident. The police were mainly interested in talking to witnesses, and I had seen nothing. Emma’s body was loaded into an ambulance. I had been wrapped in a blanket and tucked in the back of a heated squad car while the officers gathered accounts. The distraught driver, a petite ponytailed blond on her way to a gig as a personal trainer, had sobbed in hysterics.
“I never saw her,” she wailed. “It was pouring so hard, you know? And I had the wipers on high, but I just couldn’t see anything. And then -- oh my God! -- she just stepped out in front of me, she didn’t even look at me. I barely had time to even hit my brakes. She just appeared in front of me,” she repeated, appealing through tears to the officers, the bystanders, and me. “I never even saw her until it was too late.”
Calls had been made. I said I know not what to my father, who offered to take care of calling other family members and promised that he and Mom would make flight arrangements that day. I fielded anxious calls from my mother and Stacy, who seemed to be under the misapprehension that I’d been injured, as they kept asking if I were all right. I spoke in a clear, pinched voice to Peggy, who drove immediately down to the scene, took one look at my white face, and ran interference for me and contacted whoever needed to be contacted -- the parish, the doctor’s office, I don’t know. I shook and made shrill wisecracks, and Peggy spoke soothing words to me and asked if I was okay to drive myself home.
That night in the living room, the green brocade sofa was still frayed and shabby. The green carpet still matted with age and the massive television still bore up under the weight of the remote, a TV Guide, and a box of tissues. The large dining table still stood in its usual spot between the living room and the kitchen and every chair was tucked in its place. Every individual aspect of the space was substantially the same, but the essential character of the room was altered. It was not a place of joy or anger or tension or grief. It was empty, a place of nothingness.
I wandered aimlessly, touching an item here, pausing in a doorway there. There was nothing I wanted to do. No one needed anything from me. I was free.
After a time my phone rang. It was Martin, calling at the usual time. It rang, and I looked at it as it rang. I would have preferred nothing more in the world than to suddenly find myself laying beside him, quietly sheltered in his arms, but to talk to him on the phone at that moment was beyond my abilities. The sound stopped after a moment, but I wished it would continue for hours so at least I could know that he was thinking of me.
There was a knock on the door. I laid on the couch. The door opened, and I heard Peggy calling, “Emma? I’ve brought some dinner for you.”
I appeared in the hallway. “That’s kind of you, Peggy. I don’t think I’m very hungry.”
“You probably don’t feel like eating, but when you do, you won’t feel like cooking.”
She told me a few things about the calls she’d made, and the expressions of sympathy she’d heard. I nodded and carried on competent conversation.
“Do you want me to stay here tonight, Emma?” she asked, getting ready to leave. “I could sleep on the couch?”
“No, but thank you. I think I’d like to be by myself.”
She accepted that, but at the door she added, “If there anything you need me to do for you tonight -- run to the store, do the laundry, anything?”
I hesitated. “Could you... would you call Martin and tell him about it?” She looked surprised, so I rushed on, “I... I can’t talk to him right now. Tell him I miss him and I wish he were here.”
“Of course,” she said, so gently and simply that I had to set my face to a rigid blankness until she left.
I went into the kitchen and poked through paper bag of food. Peggy had made macaroni and cheese -- from scratch, apparently -- and salad, and there also was a bottle of sparkling juice and a box of good tea. I tried to eat a noodle or two, but the effort of stabbing a noodle onto the tine of a fork and lifting it to my mouth was just more bother than I wanted to put myself through. I left everything sitting on the table and threw myself face down onto the couch. After fifteen minutes my phone buzzed with a text message from Martin.
I’m so sorry. I understand.
I laid on the couch and refreshed the screen until the battery ran dangerously low and whispered the words to myself as if they were an orison to with which to summon him.
Sleeping on the couch wasn’t really as attractive in theory as in concept, so eventually I staggered down the hall to the bathroom to brush my teeth. My reflection in the mirror was strange and pale and desolate. I felt as if I’d never truly seen my face before this moment. Emma’s cup for cleaning her dentures was on the side of the sink where she’d left it this morning, and I did not move it. I didn’t move any of her things, or touch them, in case -- I couldn’t clearly formulate the reason in my head -- in case they might be needed again. They were still her things.
My parents flew in the next day, Saturday. I was glad to see them; I had missed them more than I realized. They each held me in turn when they arrived, and I felt warm and protected, safe and weightless for a brief time. Mom set immediately to cleaning the kitchen, fascinated by the odd assortment of items stashed away among the dishes and the pantry. Dad sat with me on the couch while I told him the whole story of the accident, what little there was to tell.
“I didn’t even see it happen, Dad,” I told him, my head resting on his shoulder. “I was doing just what the doctor told me to do, making sure that she had her walker, so she wouldn’t fall and hurt herself. What a stupid reason, right? If she’d fallen at least she’d still be alive now. I should have locked her in the car until I got the damn walker open.”
“Aunt Emma always had a mind of her own,” he pointed out. “She could have unlocked the door if she’d wanted to get out.”
“At least that might have given me time to catch her.”
My mother entered the living room carrying an item enclosed in its tupperware container. “Emma, this bag of flour expired five years ago!” she exclaimed. “Why didn’t you get rid of it?”
“Emma didn’t like the things to be moved around too much, and she seemed to know if I threw anything away. It was easier not to upset her.”
“Well, I’m tossing it now,” Mom proclaimed, heading back into the kitchen. I opened my mouth to protest, then stopped.
“It can’t possibly matter to Emma now, hon,” reasoned Dad, seeing my twitch. But it seemed wrong to start clearing out her things so soon. That was her expired flour, after all.
Mom and Dad were staying at a hotel, since they weren’t particularly keen to sleep in Emma’s bed. Dad, like Peggy, offered to stay on the couch, but I still wanted to be alone. Their vitality affected me strangely. I knew that Emma’s death mattered to Dad. She had been a favorite aunt of his, and he had many fond memories of her. But it seemed to me as if, for them, Emma had been dead for years. They weren’t shy about touching her things or throwing away junk, or speculating on who might get her dishes or furniture. They had not lived with her for the past six months, feeding her and clothing her and fighting with her and loving her.
I had no desire to sit up alone in the empty house, so I got ready for bed early. Sleep didn’t come instantly, though. My active imagination wrote and rewrote Emma’s last moments, crafting new endings or magnifying minute details of that morning into glaring portents of impending catastrophe. I should not have let her get out of the car. I should not have bothered with her walker. I should not have taken my eyes off of her. I knew, better than anyone, how unpredictable she could be. How could I have been so careless?
The mental fidgeting became so disruptive that I couldn’t lay still, so I sat up and swung my legs out of bed, preparatory to making some of Peggy’s tea, when my phone rang. I snatched it up. It was Martin.
I tried to sort out my emotions. After the day with my parents, I wanted to talk to someone who knew Emma as I did. But I still didn’t know whether I was ready to handle the vulnerability of having to express myself to him in words. Without having come to a full decision, I took a deep breath and answered the phone.
“Emma,” he said, his voice warm with concern. “I’m so sorry. I wondered a bit when you didn’t answer the phone last night, but I didn’t expect anything like this.”
“Neither did I.”
There was a pause.
“I keep wanting to ask if you’re all right,” he said, “but that doesn’t seem like a good question right now.”
“Do you even want to talk now, or should I let you go?”
“I... I’d rather just listen to your voice, if you don’t mind.” I curled up in bed again and laid my head on the pillow.
“I’d be happy to oblige, if I could think of the right thing to say.”
“Oh, she’s fine. I don’t think she really misses me when I’m gone, which is one of the reasons I decided to stop traveling so much. She’s not used to me being around all the time, and I want that to change.” He waited for a second to see if I would respond. “I had some barbeque here in Kansas City.”
“Was it good?”
“Our clients took us to this restaurant where you can order sausage wrapped in bacon and barbequed up with way too much sauce. I like bacon as much as the next man, but I couldn’t even look at it. You would have been appalled.”
“That’s just vile.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it almost put me off bacon, and that takes some doing.”
I had nothing to say to that, and the silence stretched on.
“Emma,” he said at last, “I really am so sorry. I know you don’t want talk about it, but I don’t want you to think that I don’t care. I hate the thought of you being all alone right now.”
“My parents were here,” I said with difficulty.
“That’s good. I’m glad you had some company.”
“They weren’t good company. It doesn’t really seem to matter to them that Emma is...” I hastily reached for a safer formula. “...isn’t here.”
“My poor Emma,” he comforted, with a catch in his voice that nearly undid me.
Now my words rushed up and forced their way past the tightness in my throat. “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, Martin. This wasn’t how Emma was supposed to go. She was supposed to die of Alzheimer's, and now she’s one more traffic statistic. I would have taken care of her until the end. Instead she died because I was taking care of her.”
“Emma,” Martin said gently, “you’re blaming yourself, but this isn’t your fault. It isn’t anyone’s fault. She might have died at Christmas when she got lost; we just happened to find her in time. You kept her safe as long as you possibly could. That’s what matters.”
He was right, of course, but it was no solace to me.
I laid with my eyes closed and listened to him breathe.
“Do you want me to let you go?” he asked finally.
“No,” I said. “I wish you could read to me until I fell asleep.”
I heard a faint rustling. “Well, here are your options,” he said. “I have on the one hand a half-completed draft of ‘Supply Chain Efficiencies and Warehouse Management Technology’ and on the other, a copy of The Tailor of Gloucester I picked up for Grace.”
“You went on a two-week trip and didn’t bring a book for yourself?”
“I don’t think,” he said simply, “that you really want to hear about five years in a Vietnamese prison camp.”
In the time (he began) of swords and periwigs and full-skirted coats with flowered lappets -- when gentlemen wore ruffle, and gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta -- there lived a tailor in Gloucester.
I pulled up my blanket and wrapped myself in his voice.