Nancy Wade received her MFA in creative writing at Stonecoast MFA of the University of Southern Maine in January of 2016. She was the Editor-in-Chief for the Stonecoast Review during her last semester. She is a recently retired pediatrician/public health physician. She has published both medical articles and non-fiction in several journals. She has also published fiction that is her true love. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and two golden retrievers.
A Short Story
By Nancy Wade
The sunrise created a glistening reflective sheet on the snow where nothing had thawed in months. Sylvia longed for warmth to melt away her misery, letting the crocuses peek through, a distant dream. So she waited. At sixty-one, she had some good years ahead of her, or so she thought. When Ronald died suddenly three months ago, she realized all their plans were frozen in place. We, it was always we. She’d worked for sure, and she was an “I” there, but that ended five years ago when she retired and resumed the “we” position. They planned to travel for another ten years or so and then maybe think about downsizing, buying a condo, or even moving to a senior apartment. Ronald told her not to worry—his whole family lived well into their nineties. Wrong. She should have worried, at least a little. With his passing, she had to be “I” again, and “I ” hadn’t been paying attention. Ronald handled the money, their budget, her future.
On a bleak Tuesday morning, Sylvia met with Harold Small, the accountant who’d handled their books for years. She’d never understood why they needed an accountant with only two jobs between them. She was glad to have him now with the complex probate rules. Bottom line, what was Ronald’s was hers now, and so be it.
Harold came in. His slight limp hinted at a new hip in his future. His bald head, rotund body, and thick glasses seemed a caricature of his position. Sylvia shook his hand with her well-manicured fingers. After exchanging a few pleasantries and sharing his condolences, he said, “Well, I’m afraid you may have some belt tightening to do. The numbers don’t look all that good, not good at all.” He shook his head and frowned, flipping through the pages. “You and Ronald refinanced the house a few times. I’m afraid it’s worth less than you owe, underwater they call it. Ronald’s social security won’t cover your expenses.”
“Don’t we have some savings? What about his pension?” she asked. She looked at the pictures of Harold’s kids in the photos over his desk, imagining the three boys, short, round, and hairless in thirty years.
“You know,” Harold said, “I encouraged him to put some money aside for retirement, but he planned to keep working indefinitely. He wasn’t a saver. Do you think he had any life insurance? His income stopped with his death. There won’t be another check. Did he, ahh, tend to gamble, have any big expenses?”
“No, no, of course not. He was a good man. He had to travel, but the company always picked up his expenses.”
“Hmm. Well, I’d think about getting out from under your home soon. It will be hard to sell in this market, and you’ll lose money, but it will allow you to get into a place that won’t take all of your income.”
She sighed and felt like crying, but what good would that do? When her check bounced a week ago, she’d known she was in trouble. She had to get on with it. “Okay, let’s put it on the market. I’ll talk to a realtor and start to look for a place to live. How much can I afford for a new house?”
Harold stopped looking at the papers and gave Sylvia his full attention, making eye contact over his brown-rimmed readers. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think you’ll be in a position to buy a new house. After I do the most promising calculations, you may have eight or nine hundred dollars a month for rent, nothing more, leaving you little for an emergency. You may want to look into subsidized senior housing. Some of them are lovely. Have you thought about maybe working part-time for a few years?”
“That bad, huh?” Sylvia felt herself getting seriously pissed at Harold. “Why did you let him go on like this for years if you knew all along that I could end up…destitute? What were we paying you for? Where can I go for $800? Maybe if I moved back to Florida, but in New York, I’ll be lucky to get a room for that price.”
Harold’s face reddened all the way over the top of his scalp. He took a deep breath and sighed. “Exactly. I’m sorry for the bad news. Think it over. I know you’ll come up with a strategy. I tried to help Ronald and you plan.”
Sylvia shook his hand once more and walked out of the office with its worn-out carpet. She caught a glimpse of her thin, still youthful figure in the mirror while she waited for the elevator. How long would it be before her image changed from thin to frail? Her gray hair glistened in the sunlight. Like many older ladies, she’d shifted to purples and pinks to brighten up her fading complexion. Her dark eyes, once her best feature, were receding as if afraid to face the world straight on.
Sylvia went home. A room, a room with a view, of what? A dumpster. This could be a new adventure, and the golf club bored her almost to tears. How was the dumpster crew? She’d have to think about living in town. The car would eat up too much of her cash. Ronald hadn’t contributed to a pension—the company didn’t offer one, and he hadn’t contributed to IRAs or 401ks. Bad decision. She’d worked as a social worker, always service jobs where her big heart took care of the needy, but she never had any good benefits. She’d get maybe three hundred dollars a month in her pension at sixty-five. Was she becoming one of the needy, switching roles, departing the entitled? She looked around her big empty house. I don’t need any of it anyway.
She went to the bedroom and decided it was time to sort through his stuff. After the funeral, her sister had stayed on for a week and wanted to help, but Sylvia refused. When she was ready, she’d tackle the end of Ronald. She took out his clothes, laying them on his side of the bed. They still smelled of him, the musky clean scent that had so turned her on when she was young and still today gave her that little thrill. She smiled. He’d enjoy those thoughts.
In the basement, she picked up a box of large trash bags on the shelf next to a year’s supply of paper towels, enough toilet paper to last through the next cholera epidemic, and tomato soup, good with anything in a pinch. She used to think Ronald was a planner.
Climbing the stairs back to her bedroom on the second floor, she noticed the increasing pain in her right knee and hip. All those years of skiing fast and the falls. Maybe one floor would be easier. So would warm weather. Piles for goodwill, garbage, sell it. Maybe eBay? NWT, none of his were new with tags. How much could she really make on old clothes? She’d never been flat-out broke before, either. The share pile was way bigger than the throw out pile. She decided to skip the sell them step. Not now. She wasn’t there yet.
She needed to move, and the sooner she had the house in shape, the sooner she could leave and start her new life, new memories. Maybe there’d be new friends. Or would she be sitting by herself in a moldy room off a dimly lit hall, alone, looking out on an alley, waiting for the grim reaper to usher her over to the other side? Would she hear her heart stop when it finally wore out, as life turned from vivid color with sound and hope to nothing, silence, darkness? Maybe the big white light and the Lord would be there to meet her. What did she have to lose in believing?
Sylvia took Ronald’s phone from the drawer in his bedside table. Until now, she hadn’t wanted to disturb his stuff because it confirmed that he’d never be back. She smiled. He was such a techy for an old dude. She’d never texted till he began. When he went golfing with the guys or out west skiing or traveled to Chicago on business, he always checked in with the familiar beep.
She remembered how she’d treasured those times alone, though. She could be herself. No need to get his meals, share the bed. She could see her friends, meet for dinner without having to worry about annoying Ronald who seemed to require more and more of her time when he was home. Now “I” was overwhelming. She longed for “we” again and the comforting beep confirming all was well.
She plugged his phone in to charge it, wondering whether she’d forgotten to notify any of his buddies. Three months was a long time, but it sat there in the drawer undisturbed by time and grief, waiting to come to life again. Although she dusted his bedside table, she never rolled over onto his side of the bed or rearranged his books, his tissues, or repositioned his reading light. A piece of him remained, a shadow, a feeling.
She’d hoped he’d retire eventually, but he kept working, getting up every morning, going to the office, or working from his office downstairs. She dreamt of a house on the beach away from the snow with coffee on the deck in mid-January. But he kept traveling. She didn’t need to stay here any longer. She had nothing anyway and the cost of living was so much cheaper down south. She’d gone to school in the Keys, had old friends and her sister. Maybe a new life. She could still work. She’d figured all the work would get to him eventually. Maybe that’s why he died so prematurely. Minutes later, his phone started to beep as the power brought it back to life.
Messages scrolled across the screen. “Ronnie, call me.” “Ronnie, r u alright?” “Ronnie, where r u?”
Old messages. Urgent. The most recent one was two weeks ago. Someone didn’t know that Ronnie was gone. Who called him Ronnie? It was Ronald. Mmartin3@yahoo.com. Who was that? She answered the text. “So sorry to have to tell you that Ronald passed away very suddenly in January. Please call me if you have any questions. Sylvia.”
She put sweaters that had some life left in them in the give-away pile. The old guys at the shelter would love them in the winter. She’d wash them and see how they held up. She put a load in the washer—delicate cycle, cold water. It beat having to do them all by hand like she did before they bought the “smart” washing machine. She heard the beep from his phone. For a moment, she thought he might be trying to contact her from the hereafter.
“Are you kidding me? What the hell are you talking about?”
Sylvia paused. It must have been a mistake. But no, it was MMartin. The phone rang almost at the same time the message came through.
“Yeah, who the hell do you think you are telling me that Ronnie passed away? What do you know about him?” asked an angry woman’s voice.
“Excuse me, who is this? How do you know Ronald?” Sylvia asked.
“What’s it to you?”
“Where do you live; are you nearby?” Sylvia asked again.
“I’m in Chicago; where are you?”
Sylvia felt the beginnings of something dreadful to come, that sinking feeling that her world order was about to shift. “I’m in New York,” she whispered.
“Well, Ronnie and I have been married for twenty-five years. The boys miss their Dad. He just stopped calling.” She sobbed. “We thought it would be better when he retired and didn’t have to travel so much.”
“I, I don’t know what to say. Ronald is gone.”
“Who are you? Are you his sister? He stayed with her when he traveled. You could have at least had the decency to let me know.”
Sylvia felt the room spinning and thought she was going to pass out. Ronnie? Ronnie? His sister? Sons?
“Are you there?” the woman asked.
Sylvia let out a long sigh and barely whispered, “Yeah, I’m still here. I guess I didn’t know how to reach you.” She hung up and dropped the phone.
Sylvia collapsed onto the bed, taking deep breaths, holding her stomach. She ran to the bathroom and heaved. How could he? Married? For years? Sons? She’d trusted him. She’d given him all she was. He slept with another woman then dared to come home and sleep with her. How disgusting. Who was he? All the excuses she’d made for him, all the allowances, all the little hurts that she’d let go. What a fool she was. She kicked his clothes off the bed.
Late the next afternoon, she stuffed all his bedside table treasures, his clothes that she’d tromped over last night, his shiny shoes, and worn boots into six garbage bags. She threw them down the stairs then maneuvered the heavy bags, the remnants of Ronald, into the back of his 2010 Ford pick-up. She drove to the dump, tossed the bags to the ground, and kicked them into the heap of trash. “May the rats enjoy your treasures.”
She returned home as the light faded into early evening. She hit the garbage can as she turned up the driveway. “Damn him!”
She curled up on the couch with a glass of Hennessey’s on the rocks. It burned going down but warmed her stomach. She walked though the house, taking down pictures of happier days, dumping them into another trash bag, taking it out to the garage, and throwing it into the barrel. They were no more. He no longer existed; perhaps they never did.
Gradually, she began to feel the easing of tension and a strange peace that she didn’t have to deal with him anymore. She could be herself, whoever that was. She didn’t need to conform to his plan, not anymore.
Sylvia slept badly. Can you learn to hate someone? Someone who’s dead? That you loved? She got up, putting on her tattered robe and slippers. She brewed a pot of tea, spilling some boiling water as her hands shook, and she tried to get control. She wanted to talk with her sister, but no. She had to think. Her sister would know what to do, but Sylvia was so ashamed, mortified, pissed. All those years of miscarriages, fertility tests, pleading with him to adopt, to have a real family of their own. She felt the noose slowly loosening as she realized she could be anyone she wanted from now on, her terms, her crushing grief diluted by his deceit.
Sylvia sipped her tea. Some of Ronald’s odd behavior started to fit. He had to travel, often–about half of every week. And the calls in the night from work, when he got up and went down the hall, so he wouldn’t disturb her. And all the holidays alone. She remembered Christmas a year ago.
“You haven’t spent a Christmas with me in over ten years,” she said.
“I know, I know, my job is tough, but it keeps us in all this good stuff. If I stop, what would I do with myself? No one wants to travel over Christmas. They count on me. My customers come first.” Then he hugged her, and she made do.
Damn him—his other family always came first. His smile and a warm embrace healed every hurt. She rarely questioned him. She buried her sadness, and when she really thought about it, she’d buried more than she was willing to admit. She’d been a fool, stupid, the kind of woman she despised. No more, it was time for her to move on. Maybe this was a gift in disguise.
She hadn’t been in his basement office since he passed except to get the checkbook out of his desk. She never really used the big book. He put money in her account, and she let him know when she was running low. She deposited her checks into his account. He ran the budget. Things got paid. She opened the door. The paneled walls and low lights gave a sense of elegance to what was nothing more than a basement room. One small casement window. Musty smell. Leather chairs—as if customers were going to meet him there. No one ever came in. He’d kept it locked. Why? So she couldn’t get in? Why had she never challenged him? She’d had to call the locksmith to break the lock. He’d had some trouble with it.
“Pretty secure lock for a basement room. Is this where he kept his guns? Have to keep them away from the grandkids. Smart people.”
She’d just smiled.
She sat in his leather desk chair worn where his arms rested, an unexpected intimacy washing over her. The TV on the wall, widescreen, bigger than the one upstairs. He had his own phone line—required for his business. She never came in here—he even cleaned and vacuumed the room himself—man cave was what he called his hideout.
She started to open the desk drawer but hesitated. He was gone; it was okay. The top drawer had his receipts in a folder. Meals, airline. More meals, airlines. She scrutinized the meals. Most were in a town outside of Chicago. Elks Grove. Cocktails. He always paid. Two drinks, wine. Sometimes four drinks. He never drank wine. He also paid for the food. Big bills. She looked for the clip labeled travel—airlines and nothing more. No taxis, no car rentals, no hotels. Ronald was not one to use public transportation. Maybe his clients picked him up. Or someone else? His wife? Sylvia realized that he’d never gone to a hotel; he’d gone home on every trip to Chicago, over and over again while she stayed east, alone. And it was all right in front of her nose—all she had to do was look.
She was happy though or so she thought. She had her job, her friends. She told herself all was well. All used to be well. She missed his sturdy build, impenetrable, and his sense of purpose like what he did was vital. She loved the look he gave her, half a smile, enticing, when she asked him to come for dinner, the way he held her hand, protected, cradled against his chest when he slept. She wondered if he held his other wife’s hand the same way.
The right hand desk drawer was locked. She went to the workroom to get a screwdriver and jimmied the lock. More folders. She took them out, went across the room to the comfortable leather recliner, and spread them on the coffee table. One was labeled personal. There she was, Mary Martin, MMartin@yahoo.com, a thin, pretty girl with two little boys holding her hands. She looked weather worn and frazzled, but attractive. The picture said, “To Ronnie Love, Mary and the boys 2000.” She went through the folder and pulled up the boys’ school pictures. Daddy from Brian, To Daddy Love, Eric. Brian and Eric, the boys Sylvia had not given him. The red hair and smiles were their Dad’s. They were teens now and would be handsome young men. The reality of his deceit wormed its way into her heart. But in some strange way, seeing the boys comforted her. It wasn’t him after all.
All those years of trying and no baby. It had to have been her all along. She was the barren one, void, childless. His refusal to even consider adopting left her feeling more alone and betrayed. He had his kids. As recently as six months ago, she’d asked him to let her take in a foster teen who needed a place to stay.
He wouldn’t hear of it. “No, enjoy your retirement.”
She thought, sure, enjoy my retirement alone while you’re off with your wife and kids.
She pulled out bank statements and tried to decipher where the money went. She saw transfers to her account and transfers to another account and more to an account labeled expenses. The balance was low and shrinking. She realized she was soon going to be broke.
She and Ronald had been married for thirty-five years. Fifteen after they married, Mary emerged, a year after he began his job, traveling to Chicago. Devoted husband and father. Bigamist. Father. She tipped the words over: father, babies to hug, to cuddle, baseball games, and he left her alone. Alone. She threw the pile on the floor.
Get ahold of yourself Sylvia. Trying to stay focused and determined to decipher his mess, she tackled the drawers in the armoire next. The first one was stuffed with envelopes. Letters from Mary. Letters from Jocelyn. Who was Jocelyn? Did he have a harem? Was he a trigamist? She couldn’t fathom how foolishly naïve she’d been. Some slips of paper with demands to pay up, informal, hand written. No names. Some envelopes had money in them. Twenties. She tossed the twenties in a pile. Toward the back of the drawer, the cash began to pile up—bigger bills. Lots of them. Most were in envelopes with nothing written on them. Here and there, she saw an envelope from the casino. When she opened the cabinet to the armoire, a bank bag fell out, spilling stacks of hundreds bound together with rubber bands. She counted them slowly, making piles of a thousand on the coffee table. What the hell? No labels. Just money, twelve stacks of one thousand dollars.
Sylvia stared at the desk and imagined him sitting there, watching her, as she fingered his piles of money. She could feel the paranoia creeping up and over her shoulders. She heard noises upstairs and slammed the door as she went up to check things out. It was the mailman. She needed a hiding place. She’d put the cash in the bank this afternoon. No, she couldn’t. What if it was illegal? Of course it was illegal. Could she go to jail for his tax evasion, and embezzlement or whatever it was? Did it matter now? She was better off than she was yesterday when the accountant told her to get her affairs in order.
She put the twelve thousand dollars in a coffee can and put it in the back of the upstairs cupboard. It would tide her over until she got back to work.
She went upstairs and walked through the echoes of emptiness. She could stay if she wanted; they’d already asked her to come back to work. She hesitated by the pink bedroom, sitting on the bed, thinking the room pleaded for a teen to come study, to sleep, and to dream. She closed the door, went back to the kitchen, and thumbed through her folder from children’s services.