His heart stopped, the doctor said. Just stopped. With blockage that severe there’s almost always a bad outcome.
Margaret stood in the middle of the ER, her suitcase of a handbag pressed to her flaccid chest, licked her trembling lips. “Was it—it wasn’t—me?” she whispered.
“Excuse me?” the doctor said, and hitched forward, cocked his head, an expression of mild concern, confusion, wrinkling his smooth good-looks. Dr. Sheffield was a youngish man, but already distinguished, a plain gold band on his left hand.
Margaret shook her mousy head, bit her colorless lip. “Nothing,” she said. “I—nothing.”
“You’re probably in shock,” Dr. Sheffield said, and took her arm, ushered her to a chair. “His heart just stopped,” he said again, more gently.
But Margaret knew better. She squeezed her oversized purse to the navy blue polyester blouse she’d worn to work that morning, gripped the edges until her fingers were numb, gritted her teeth until her jaw throbbed, even her toes clenched in her plain, round-toed pumps. The doctor talked on. He kept using the phrase bad outcome. By-pass surgery might have prevented a bad outcome. If he’d survived it still could have been a bad outcome. Blockage that severe almost always results in a bad outcome.
No, he assured her, the blame lay squarely on the clusters of plaque that had lodged themselves throughout Bert’s arteries. Not, he smiled with closed-mouth sympathy as he patted her hand, on Margaret.
That’s what you think, buster, Margaret thought as she looked mistily down at the doctor’s long, tapered fingers where they lightly lay on her wrist. She sniffled, shoulders hunched, trembling because the damn air conditioning was blasting; trembling, too, from shock, she figured. Shock that wishing something so hard could make it happen.
Things hadn’t played out exactly as she’d envisioned. She’d favored a drunk-driving accident, a scandalously perfect, fitting end to Bert. The banality of a heart attack was less satisfying to her than a fiery crash would have been, but at least, she consoled herself, he didn’t take anyone else out with him.
Margaret called Brian at his office in Cincinnati before she drove to the funeral home. It’s your father, she said into the hospital pay phone, and Brian exhaled audibly, then went quiet on the other end.
Bert had never been a good father, so Brian’s grief was muted, to say the least. Still, he would have been horrified to learn of the role she’d played in his father’s death. Horrified to know that she’d huddled under the blankets of her lonely bed, night after night, and prayed that God would rid her of that rat bastard once and for all.
She rolled up the long driveway and turned the ignition off. She sat in the stuffy car, listened to the pings and clacks of the cooling engine. The stifling air would have driven anyone else into the cool of the house, but she hardly felt the heat. She stared at the flat, lush fields beyond the tidy frame ranch house Bert had moved them to twenty-eight years ago, right after Brian was born. Right before Margaret picked up the beige kitchen phone extension one night and heard him arranging a date with one of the office girls. Mitzi.
She accused him. He denied. Lied. Cried. All of it so sincerely he almost convinced her it was all in her head—simply office talk she’d misheard, misconstrued. She should go home to Louisville, visit her mother, Bert said. And so she had.
A few months later it was a small, jade drop earring Margaret found under the passenger seat in his Monte Carlo. There were more accusations, and from Bert the same response. Deny, lie, cry. She took Brian for a two-week visit with her mother. And so the pattern was established. That year, the year after, and on and on, long visits home with Brian in tow, sometimes for the whole summer, the spring vacations, Christmas. Until her mother died.
Brian grew up. Margaret took a job at Fidelity Bank, the cross town rival to First State where Bert was Vice-President. Out of consideration for their son, Margaret and Bert kept their arguments to an angry whisper in the privacy of their bedroom. Eventually, exhausted from the years and years of anger and outrage, Margaret stopped confronting, accusing. It was easier.
The temperature in the car rose quickly, even in the shade of the elm trees. She realized she’d have to get out soon, or suffocate.
That first night after he died, Bert spoke to her in her dream, parked in his usual post, the black leather chair in the den, his black-socked feet crossed on the ottoman, his little pot-belly a soft mound in his lap. Old-fashioned, he barked, and for countless anxious dream hours she dithered around the Harvest gold kitchen, looking for the sugar cubes, the bitters, the whisky, the maraschino cherries that stained her fingertips so vividly she knew, without doubt, that she dreamed in color.
But when she finally assembled the cocktail, put it on a tray with a small dish of salted peanuts and pretzel twists, and approached the chair with breathless apologies, she found him slumped, unresponsive.
And then she woke into the still gray of early morning, the soft whoosh of the central air, and remembered about his heart, Bert’s heart, that had finally turned on him, self-destructed, the worms of faithlessness and corruption and deceit finally choking off their parasitic host. She whispered aloud, “Bert is dead. I killed him.” She’d expected some dreadful, euphoric rush at the spoken words, but she felt nothing at all.
That isn’t how he went. The way his secretary told it, Bert keeled over on his desk, pen still in hand, a loan rejection letter signed Robert Henw— under his thick, fleshy cheek, a rivulet of spittle spotting the black ink, smudging it against his slack, bristly jowl. The aborted signature, Henwaller, ended in a distressed scrawl; the scrawl itself petered out with an ever thinning, oddly wispy pirouette, as if the pen had simply floated off the page.
At Bert’s funeral, Margaret endured her friends’ sympathy with a barely concealed hilarity. She stood with their only son, Brian, in the receiving line, and as each unfamiliar female passed, she peered at their earrings, the color of their lipstick, inhaled perfume, pressed the hand offered, said, “And you knew Bert from—?” “Work,” a couple of them said. One blowsy brunette, her black dress too low cut, her breasts propped up, said “Chamber of Commerce,” which was a damned lie, Margaret knew, because Bert had never been civic-minded.
One woman, a petite little blonde with a poodle bouffant, who said she knew Bert from his calling on the plumbing contractor she worked for, came to the luncheon at the KC hall afterwards and drank too much. She got a little agitated, teary, and Margaret sat paralyzed, terrified, waiting for the high-strung little yipper to erupt, to bark out some shameful confession, shake up the sober gathering.
But it wasn’t her. It was a younger woman, dark-haired; her teeth needed work. She appeared at Margaret’s side while Margaret’s attentions were still fixed on the poodle. “Mrs. Henwaller,” she said, an unmistakable, tremulous twang in the –waller. “Your husband was a very special man. “
“Yes,” Margaret said, distracted.
“I guess you know that,” the woman said. She fingered the cheap Zale’s heart necklace with diamond chips that hung around her neck. “You were lucky enough to have him all these years.”
Miss Poodle had flagged the waiter down. Surely she wasn’t ordering another vodka-tonic. Margaret sat straighter in her chair, crimped a corner of her napkin.
“He was special to me, too,” the woman whispered, clenched the little heart in her fingertips.
Margaret’s attention shifted abruptly. She narrowed her eyes at the dark woman. “I don’t want to know who you are,” she said. “I don’t want to know how you knew Bert, or what your relationship was. You can shut up now. Shut up and don’t say another word, to me or anyone else.”
She meant it. Margaret suddenly ached for the comfort of silence, an end to the crackling white noise of speculative gossip that had accompanied her life with Bert for the last thirty years. She’d suffered such humiliation, such loneliness. And now that it was all said and done, Bert thrust in the ground like one of his hair-plugs, she yearned for an end to it all.
The woman stared at her for a long moment, then her hand slipped from the necklace, and she slunk away.
Someone put the rabid, inebriated, little blonde in a taxi.
And then it was all over. Brian drove her back to the house and, the two of them sitting in his rental car in the driveway, said, “I’d stay in town longer, but the office needs me.”
“Of course,” Margaret said, “you have to work.” Brian was her son, not garrulous and flirty like his father, but retiring, buttoned-down like she.
He said, “C’mon, Mom, to Cincinnati with me. I have an extra bedroom in the condo, just for you.”
But she put him off with vague, guilty promises that would never be realized
The leave she took from the bank turned from a few weeks to months. She didn’t need the money; Bert had plenty squirreled away, plus pension and investments. Besides, she didn’t want to see anyone. She kept telling herself all she wanted was silence. It seemed the only appropriate accompaniment to the off-kilter rhythm that her life assumed in the days AB. After Bert. She kept the TV off and seldom bothered to answer the phone when she had it plugged in.
As for her friends—hers and Bert’s—it was amazing how quickly they took the hint and quit heaping unwanted phone calls and dinner invitations on her. She was well-aware that they read her reclusiveness as a staggering sorrow; they never once suspected that, like a criminal on the lam, she was just lying low until interest in the crime blew over. Until the heat was off.
But with Bert dead, the simmering anger that had propelled her through the monotony of her life dissipated like steam, and because that anger was, for such an awfully long time, the only emotion left to her, she now found herself quite empty.
Late summer sighed into fall. Fall fell into the clutches of winter, everything frozen to a still lifelessness, and the isolation of the remote house, the muffled quiet of the dead farm fields, engendered a silence unlike anything Margaret had ever known.
Sometimes she sat in his leather armchair, her eyes closed, the frozen tree branches clicking against the house, and sorted through all the little clues to Bert’s secret life that littered her memory—the make-up smudges, mate-less earrings, telephone hang-ups, strange scents on his skin, some an uneasily familiar, musty dark odor—as if she might recapture some lost emotion, some feeling, something.
Strangely, the silence she’d lusted for provided too perfect a canvas for the remembered sound of Bert’s voice, that silky baritone that could shift from a wheedle to a snarl in one disconcerting second. When she made herself a little baked chicken breast with rosemary, the scent perfumy in the steamy kitchen, he crooned, “Smells great, Maggie, can’t wait.” When she left the Muncie Star creased around the crossword he snapped, “Can’t you even fold the fucking newspaper?” Sometimes his voice in her head was real enough to startle her, to make her say, “Who’s there?”
After a time, however, she figured he wasn’t going to shut up, even in death, so she began to answer him. At first she was careful, diplomatic, non-committal, like she’d always been with him. “Herbed chicken tonight,” Bert, she said. “And a nice pilaf to go with it.” Eventually, she realized her caution was silly. She was talking to a dead man, after all. She began to say the kinds of things that, before, she’d kept to herself. “To hell with you, Bert, I only keep the paper coming so I can do the crossword. If you don’t like it you can get the hell out.”
This seemed to chasten Bert. He spoke more considerately, reined in his petty criticisms, occasionally gave her a compliment. When she tried on the cocktail dress she’d bought for Brian’s engagement party, he let out an appreciative whistle and said, “Hot mama”.
She slept better. She no longer lay awake, listening for the sound of Bert’s Crown Victoria sneaking into the garage. Instead, she drifted off with his voice whispering in her ear, sometimes little reminders: Make sure to stop the paper before you go to Cincinnati. Don’t forget to pay the propane bill.
More often, though, as she snuggled under the comforter, his pillow pressed to her belly, he purred, “You were the only gal for me, Maggie, the only gal for me.”
She smiled to herself, sweet and secret. “Finally,” she whispered back to him. “Finally.”