"Want to guess what the boys down at the hardware store said? They were talking about your boyfriend," I call to her. When Jeannie hangs up the phone like that, I know who she's been talking to.
"I don't want to hear it, daddy."
"Don't you want to guess?" With this, I swallow the last of my spaghetti and start playing with the leftover sauce, stirring it with my fork, watching my fingers tremble, feeling them ache. I drop the silverware and reach for a napkin. It takes me three tries to pick one up and I knock the others on the floor doing it, too, but she doesn't notice. She's ignoring me.
Jeannie unties her apron and stares out the bay window of the kitchen. Her sandy-brown hair is tied in a bun, the way I like it best, but she'll take it down for her boyfriend. When she starts to clear the table and has to pay attention to me again, I try to speak. But instead of words, all I manage is a croak. It's embarrassing.
"Are you all right?" She rolls her eyes away from the stack of plates she is holding to check me over.
"Just burping." A grin. My voice sounds rough but strong. "They say he wears ladies' lingerie!" This is triumph. My throat, after dinner, is usually clogged with mucus and bits of food that won't go down.
"Dammit!" She slams the plates onto the kitchen counter. "You always pick on Roger, and he's so nice to you!"
"He's so nice to me," I squawk, mimicking. The words sound scratchy and I want to say something more but I'm suddenly aware I've got to cough, to cough and spit. I lurch out of my chair,
leaning on my walking stick, and stumble over to the trash can. Jeannie drops the plates down in the sink and rushes over to help. They hit hard, fake china against hard metal, but I don't hear any of them break.
"Keep away!" I can help myself but Jean props my other arm anyway and we go tottering to the trash can together, out of step, our hips banging against each other.
"You shouldn't try to move so fast," she says.
I'm too busy leaning over and hacking up tomato-colored phlegm to answer. I feel her hand on my back, patting gently. It reminds me of the thumping caresses she gave as a child.
"He's coming over about a half hour."
"God!" My mouth tastes like slimy salt. "Where's he taking you this time? Where are you going to do it?"
Jeannie stares at me, a little shocked, angry too, and I realize I've used the name of the Lord in vain. But I'll apologize to Him later tonight. She takes her hand away and puts it on her hip.
"It's no business of yours," she says, finally. Then she trots back to the counter and leaves me huddling over in the corner. Funny how, when she's angry, she withdraws so quickly. No help for the petulant. No help for the complainers. Keep your mouth shut or we'll leave you to die alone.
"No business of mine?" I stand as straight as I can, using my cane to point, not for support. "This is my house he comes into! My food he eats! What is my business, then?" Jeannie
runs hot water over the plates and pots, scraping the food off with hard strokes of the scouring pad, jamming them into the dishwasher rack one by one. "Hell. Damn him to hell! You can
tell him to stay out of my house! If ... if that man ..." My hand has started shaking. Again. Whenever I get excited, it does that. I curl it into a fist.
"You've forgotten his name again, haven't you?" Jeannie turns around, a pained expression on her lips, wrinkles on her forehead. "I just said it a minute ago."
"It's ..." My cheeks turn warm and pink. I'm thinking but I lost my thoughts when I saw that hand. "I ..."
"I've got to go upstairs and change," she announces with a flip of the dishtowel. My opinion doesn't carry weight with her anymore. She never even gave me a chance. "You'd better come
with me. Those stairs are getting to be murder. God knows they're tough for me." The last part is to make me feel better. She's barely forty.
"I have my stick."
She takes me lightly by the arm, as if I were a real gentleman and she, my lady, and we each lean on the other a little. It starts out smooth, nice but by the time we reach the steps I'm doing most of the leaning. Jeannie doesn't stop. She leads me up with grace, her hand on the banister, letting me take it slow so I can get both feet on a step before moving on to the next one.
"Do you think you can get yourself to sleep all right?" she asks, and I nod. No need to say something mean. It's been a long day for her, with Bobby, our electrician, coming in and all. She opens my door and props my cane against the wall for me.
"I'll come by later to see if you need anything."
"Okay. I'll be here."
Jean titters, though I don't think she really understood the joke. I don't think she can, yet. Not the way I mean it. She snaps the door latch shut behind me, leaves me alone to undress.
On the edge of the bed, sitting straight as I can with the mattress sinking and shifting beneath me, I draw one boot slowly up until I touch my knee to my chin. The strings keep turning to knots in my hands. Can't give up. This happens every night. Each finger cramps in its own special way, every joint swells and fills with pus. I cut a puffy knuckle once, sitting right here in front of the TV, to see what was inside. After a bit of blood came out, there was just some yellow stuff there. Calcium deposits, my old doctor told me when he was having the same problem, about a year before he died. I don't pay it much attention.
After about twenty tries, I get the candy-striped laces untied, kicking off the shoes, peeling them each with the toe of the other foot, and I feel a shudder shake the floorboards. A
grinding sound runs underneath the house and water clanks through the pipes. Jeannie's turned on the shower. I lie back, listening.
Sometimes, when I lie here, I think I hear Martha's footsteps. She had a rabbity, dainty walk. I always heard her scurrying around downstairs, pattering up in the attic, folding things so neat, dashing over to kiss me smack on the lips in front of my friends. Now I only hear her when Jeannie is asleep, her feet still not quite lifting off the ground.
Downstairs, a door slams.
I think, It's him! He's let himself in again! For a second, his name is in me, in my mouth, but before I can say it to myself, I've forgotten it again and all I've got left is a bitter taste, like old coffee, like my spit when I wake up in the morning. Stretching, reaching so far for a hold that it hurts, I put one hand on the nightstand, another on the stool by the bed, and lift myself up. He's down there now, in the dining room, wearing his floppy, red-plaid hunter's jacket, poking around in my things, taking what he wants. It's not right. There's no one around to help me with him, no one to fight for Jeannie's honor except for me. And if no one's going to do it, it'll never get done. I've got to go down there. This may be my last chance ... one day soon, it will be last.
Walking is easier in just socks. Strange, how I'd forgotten that those boots weigh so much. The door to my room creaks, of course, so I can tell when anyone is coming in. But I'm used to it, myself. I can swing the hinge without much noise. My house is like my body -- full of sounds in the places that got used most. It's still standing, though. We both are. Barely.
In the hall, since I know which places squeak and which don't, I move like a ghost. A carpet might help here but I like the color of the wood too much. I don't think I'll ever put one in and anyway, I'd hate to give up the advantage. I can hear everyone in the house from this hallway. But no one hears me.
He's in the kitchen, rattling around in the liquor cabinet. God, he's such a nance! I hope he doesn't break something again. The last time he was here he cracked one of the legs off the
coffee table. I made that coffee table practically with my bare hands, sanded it, polished it ... it was part of me, like a bastard child. Now a leg is cracked and you can't put anything
heavy on it and I don't think I'll have time to make it new again. The only consolation I got was the bruise on his shin after he did it. Though Jeannie had to ruin that, too, when we
came down to see what he'd done.
"How'd did it happen?" she said, crying. She never even looked at the table.
"Bumped it." He always mumbles or whines.
"You poor thing! Let me see." She acted like he'd gotten wounded in a war or something. All you could see was a tiny little blue and red mark, though I hear it turned black later.
Gasping. At the top of the steps, my lungs are gasping. Once they get going, they're hard to stop. After a while they hurt like hell, too. So I rest here, leaning on the wall.
Oh dear God don't let me be this weak, not when I talk to him. If only my body wouldn't betray me every step I take, then I could throw him out, out of my house, and make sure he'd never come back again. Jeannie would hate me for a while, sure, but she'd thank me later - thank me for stopping her from being such a slut.
Why does she sleep with him? Good Lord, why? He's such a clod, a nance. A nancy. That's what the boys at the hardware store called him. A nancy. Baggy clothes, baby fat all over his body, wire-rimmed glasses half as thick as my thumb ... what can she see in all that?
He'll never marry her. That's the worst part. I know he'll never marry her and it seems like that's the least he could do for a woman who's too good for him anyway. My fingers hurt. They've cramped up into balls of twisted flesh.
Jeannie would just die if she saw me. The rail is smooth and glossy. Me and Bobby's father put it up. I have trouble gripping it. Put weight down, gingerly. My right knee hurts. I don't know
what's wrong with it. Maybe someday I'll take it to a doctor, but I doubt it. The new one at the clinic, all he'll do is poke at it for five minutes or so, then give it a name. When doctors give things names, it makes them sound like they can be cured. You know, if you've got something with five syllables, just take a pill that's got six syllables and that'll make it better.
Well, that won't work this time.
Nothing's going to work this time. The knee is just a sign. What's really wrong, what's really got me, is God, crushing me in his fist, my whole body just decaying into a mush of blood and
dust. No matter what names you give to all the little things going bad in me, they all add up to my age and God's great big hands.
My old age. All the medicine in the world isn't ever going to stop it, I don't care what anybody says.
I reach bottom and slip and slide along the floor in my socks, feeling giddy. The wall keeps me from falling. My heart protests. I can feel it in my temples, squish-thud, squish-thud, as steady as ever. Loud. I'll have to rest before I go on. I can't let him see me like this. He'll laugh.
Worse, I'll have a damn asthma attack right in front of him and instead of stammering and turning pink at the ears like he always does when I yell, he'll get all smug and concerned-looking. Then he'll call Jeannie because he's got an excuse and she'll come rushing down with a towel wrapped around her and make like I'm about to die.
Feels like I've twisted my knee, even though I know that's not true. I just need to find a chair and relax. I'm glad there's one by the kitchen door.
Without ever lifting my feet all the way off the floor, I creep up on it. The last yard or so I have to walk without a wall for support and my body starts wobbling crazily, like a weighted pin in one of those fixed carnival games that comes around. I have to keep looking down to catch my balance. Collapsing in the seat is a relief.
But the sound of the shower dies. A second later, Jeannie is stomping around between the hallway and her room. I haven't got much time left. She probably already knows which clothes she wants to wear.
So I rest my fingers on the handle of the kitchen door. If I'm going to do it, I've got to do it now. The latch turns silently. The door eases ajar an inch or so. Cold white light seeps in through the crack in the doorway---Jeannie insisted on buying those damn new lights, those things with some kind of gas in them, shaped like tubes. He's in there, all right, sitting at my table, drinking from one of my fancy glasses. I can see him through the narrow, open slot, sitting on his fat ass, guzzling my liquor. Who let him into my house? Into my cupboard?
God, what a face! When I was young, a kid with that kind of face got beat up at least three times a day. And why does he always look like he's wearing hand-me-down pants? He must buy
them four sizes too large.
He raises his arm, trembling, and downs half a cup of my whiskey in one huge gulp. As greedy as that. Have to wonder how much he's had before. I doubt he's still sober. It's hard to tell when someone's sitting down. I'll bet he throws up. That would be just like him, to vomit all over my floor.
His snifter quivers. It looks for a moment as if he's trying to pinch the glass together at the rim. Straining, he jerks his head, so that his foolish mop of long, curly brown hair falls
into his eyes and I can't really see him anymore, only the lower part of his face. There, I can make out shadowy muscles twitching. I didn't know he had any under all that pudge. When I see those ripples on his jawbone and watch the tendons pop out on his neck, I know it for certain. I know he's going to break that glass. On his smooth, little boy's hands, there are veins
swelling up like flooding rivers.
When the crystal starts to bend, it makes a funny, high-pitched noise, like a dog whining. Then the glass breaks apart, like a dandelion puff. Flakes of it float everywhere.
They fly away in spirals, bouncing off the ceiling and floor with the force of the explosion, shattering again and again, until they become a fog of pointed dust motes. He just sits there, in the swirling, falling slivers, and lets himself be cut over and over. Tiny pinpricks, like measles, grow on his arms, and the anger gently fades from his face. He stares at the cloud of
shimmering rain he has created, hypnotized, calm in his fascination. He doesn't move.
The stem of the glass has driven deep into his palm. A thick, red, sticky syrup drips down from the bottom edge of it, staining his pants. Gripping it fiercely, he shivers.
That cut is so deep, the blood so dark, I almost leap up to help him. Only the effort of rising stops me. Partway out of the chair, I groan, crouched between two urges, and I hear Jeannie's footfalls in the upstairs hallway. She comes clacking down the staircase in her heels and even as she takes the first step I'm sitting back down.
In the kitchen, Jeannie's boyfriend hears, too. He lurches up out of the chair and sweeps off all the fragments from the table onto the floor. He winces, stumbling on his way to the sink, recovering with the wrong hand. Maybe he really is drunk. He washes his palm under the faucet, letting the water run clear and bubbly-white from the tap to his hand, thick and frothy-red from his hand to the drain, taking the big pieces out before my daughter can get there.
"What happened?" She is frantic again. She never even glanced at me, sitting out here in the hallway, and she grabs him by the shoulder, jerking him away from the counter top because he doesn't resist.
"I was trying to catch it. Broke in my hand." His voice is deeper than I remembered.
"Oh, Roger!" So that's his name. God, why don't I remember things anymore? I should know him ... Roger, I mean. He's been around long enough.
He looks at her with a pouty expression on his face, as if he's saying he's just a nance and doesn't know any better. Jeannie coos and pats his hand with a wad of tissue, mothering
him the way she always does. She kisses him on the cheek and murmurs something that I can't hear. But it seems to be kind.
It makes her happy, taking care of him like this. I've never understood it, the way she's always liked helping other people. Maybe it's that she never had a child. How could she? She's
never been married, never had anyone to support a family.
Jeannie mutters something about bandages and walks over to the closet. Halfway there, she glances back at Roger. Her face is so sad, so full of crying for him because he doesn't do it
himself, not really, that I want to rush out and hug her - I would have, if I was stronger - but there is a warning in her eyes. She knows. I know she does. She knows what he's doing.
And she protects him from it.
Why did he do it? God! Why? I didn't want to see that. The last thing I needed was to see Roger do something like that. How can Jean be in love with him?
The Nancy by Eric Gallagher, originally published in The Norwottuck, 1985