Fever, chills, cough— I want my wife to go up to the clinic.
“What for?” she says from bed. “I have no underlying condition—except mortality.”
A single laugh sets off a spasm of hacking, and, one hand bothering chest, “Like-hit-by-a-train,” she gets out, thick and foggy, of how she feels, before fading beneath a framed canvas wrap of an angel that hangs protectively on the wall behind her, covering the deep hairline cracks in its pale beige paint. . . . My wife is devout, and I am no painter.
“Don’tcha think, though—?” I say. Her deaf-looking eyes wave me off with, “They’re closed.” “Well, first thing tomorrow then.”
I back out of the room and quietly close its bleeding and blistering door, averring to check back later, while avowing a coat/double, evermore. Then, masked of course, I think, amid her rib-bruising barking, “Cunctator,” because the word later always retrieves “cunctator” from my troubled memory, not for its rhyme, but for its meaning.
“We are always getting ready to live but never living.”
I picked up “cunctator,” not from Emerson, but from a softly-belted Polish girl of very fair hair and smoky blue eyes of whom late night megrims and schawarmerei can still ignite a beerdrunk despair. ’S why she’s still, lo these many years later, my płomień, my flame, albeit for all I know, long since extinguished. . . .
“Bry” I called her—for Brygida.
I can still hear her say, in a quiet, dreamy voice, a blush of pleasure mantling her evenly-chiseled face, a thin, long-fingered hand patting the bed on whose edge she is perched, perfectly balanced as if at the midpoint of a voltage divider, I can still hear, “I always imagined doing it right here.”
It is the most extraordinary bed I have ever seen. A Queen Anne canopy, is it called? Yes, I think so. Solid walnut with hand-carved details, and smartly dressed at that. With sheets and blanket, quilt and duvet— well, naturally, I can only surmise, for all of that lies veiled beneath a pink and white cabbage rose hobnail chenille spread, with ball fringes that kiss the floor.
It is upon this ceremonious ancestral plane, above which hangs a gilded Christ on a silver-plated cross, that she says, my demi-verge płomień, that she always imagined “doing it for the first time.”
Being then an earnest and callow fellow of the gild of ephebi, I weighed her words as if an invitation to a beheading beneath a rood.
“We were,” he murmurs, as if “bending down beside the glowing bars,” “not lapsed Catholics, but low,” owing to those soul-suffused Saturday nights at the Hurricane, and its wake. . . .
Ah! The Hurricane, with its corny tropical storm and cheesy boys band strumming “Cheek to Cheek.” For all of that, after all these years, my all time favorite place. . . .
Afterward, in the living room, that’s alive with Hummel figurines of feathered friends swapping secrets, with parents ensconced a wall away swapping their own in that very bed, beneath that most venerable image, we curl up, a goddess in firelight and I, on the chaise lounge couch, lips close-pressed, a well-filled blouse infusing me with yearning, tingling to Little Jimmy Scott’s “Falling In Love Is Wonderful.”
Oh what a magical year! that year of mad pursuit, the year that at the age of thirty-seven and all of 4 feet 11 inches tall Little Jimmy inexplicably sprouted eight inches. But alas! The magic never went “all the way.” Does it ever? . . .
“Handfast”—now there’s another word you don’t hear everyday. Old-fashioned, “handfast.” A word Emerson might have used. Striking, evocative—“handfast.” Like “hand-fastened.” Unlike the desultory “engaged.” What’s that all about? A driver-operated clutch is what— hmph, “engaged.”
Anyway, the selected fiction I tell myself: Had I accepted Bry’s invitation it would have been nothing short of a decision to be handfasted by sex framed as a sacramental act of betrothal.
So, “Better not,” echoes in the relentlessly rust colored springs of memory, “they may turn up, they may turn up.” Her parents I mean, though the drift of time makes “they” more tenebrously indefinite.
That’s when, with startling abruptness and twitching red lips under knotted indrawn brows, she unloads, with equal parts mockery and jest, the broadside that still haunts my apprehensions like a nickname. “Cunctator!”
At the narrowing day I make out in the dim sidelights of my old and faded brain a figure forever frozen in the doorway, utterly at loss for a Parthian salvo. And in its shadow I can sense on the edge of a grand bed a wraith, bearing a vague grin foreshortening a face delicately colored with a suffusion of light orchid . . . and hear with torturing wonder the melancholy moan of a distant ship horn. . . .
“A word of thanksgiving,” my wife, the daily “Mass maker” I call her, steadfastly urges. “For great things, marvelous things,” she means, “incomprehensible things, things without number, wondrous things—thankful for everything that comes across your path.”
“As if,” drily I go, “hey ho, if love were all.”
“And who doesn’t love a lover?” she comes back, with a puckish peck, hoisting me on my own petard. Emerson’s, “All mankind love a lover.”
I stand at the door.
Is it mine—the clammy and ringed hand that clasps its rubbed bronze knob?
The sorrowful mouth beneath blurred, heavy-lidded, milk-and-water eyes, and cheeks creased and sunk and sallow— is it mine? . . .
And these lips, soundlessly moving as if with some inchoate, choked-up sensibility—are they mine?. . .
I knock, gently, tenderly, when out steals the thought: How soon it is too late.
After retiring from a career teaching philosophy, Vincent Barry returned to his first love, fiction. His stories have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad, including: The Saint Ann’s Review, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, The Broken City, Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, Kairos, Terror House, Caveat Lector, The Fem, BlogNostics, The Writing Disorder, whimperbang, The Disappointed Housewife, The Collidescope, and Anti-Heroin Chic. Barry lives in Santa Barbara, California.