A bright morning in the third week of May. Here is our Lia in the garage below the small condominium where she and Evan now live. She is yelling, her hand in the box she has dragged to the foot of the stairs and opened, certain that although he is pretending not to, Evan can hear her.
“Where is it?” she yells one last time. Silence from the upstairs.
Lia is not to be outdone by a Christmas ornament.
To understand her, we must go back to breakfast and a small dispute. A detail needing clarification.
“It was like those awful hair angels you used to put on the Christmas tree.” Evan was talking about a doll one of their grandchildren had selected at the store on a recent trip. “Why would any child want something so ugly? And let’s not discuss that it’s Ben who wanted the doll.”
Evan dismissed her outrage with a flick of his spoon. “Yes, the ones you bought from that hippie store. Made of human hair. The girls were little. They loved them.”
“You’re insane, Evan. We’ve been living different lives. I’ve never purchased hair angels.”
He returned to reading his newspaper and Lia descended immediately to the storage shelves in the garage below. She has kept every single Christmas ornament ever acquired.
She rifles through the box at her feet. “Unless you threw it…” She begins but she gulps the sentence, not willing to give him a way out of their disagreement. She has kept her ornaments safe from every single one of Evan’s “spring-cleanings”.
At seventy-six and seventy-three, Lia and Evan are now like the two moons of Mars. They have found their orbit around the planet called their Life and they stick closely to it. Surveying it, watching it. Discussing its topography from a perfect height as they circle gently above.
There is a thump on the ceiling above Lia’s head. She smiles and shakes her fist. “Don’t stamp your feet, dear one, you can’t rattle me. I’m going to prove you wrong.”
Of course he does not answer. This is an established game. One of many the moons have discovered, useful ways to keep a careful watch on Life. Because Life has a way of shifting suddenly, turning into the darkness for a moment of obscurity. Blurred details.
Fifteen minutes later, maybe more, she emerges from the garage, a cobweb on her sleeve, dusty fingers clasped triumphantly around a delicate angel. It is not made of hair, but gold silk cords. She admits it has a certain 1970s handicraft look to it, but it is not gaudy. Or kitsch. Well, it’s certainly kitsch, Lia knows this; but Christmas cannot be otherwise.
“See,” she says, “I win. I always win. When will you…”
But Evan is no longer in his chair at the breakfast table. He is on the floor. His piece of toast has fallen with him and there is jam on his collar and in his thick white hair. Raspberry jam that looks like blood.
There is no blood. This has been the most peaceful of deaths. For Evan.
For Lia this is chaos. At first she does not understand the scene before her. She is sharp for someone of her age, but the impossibility of Evan joking with her a moment ago and now lying still on the kitchen floor creates a disconnect too broad for Lia to cross in a few easy seconds. This is an ordinary morning. Nothing extraordinary must happen on an otherwise ordinary day.
“This isn’t funny, dear.” But she knows this is not a joke. His stillness is the kind of stillness they have been warned about for the last few years. They are nearly elderly, many people—doctors, friends, their daughters especially—tell them this. So what has happened is not extraordinary at all.
Lia does not touch him right away. How can she? This is no longer Evan, and although her mind does not yet accept this, her body already understands.
But she needs to be sure. She takes his hand. There is something too taut about the muscles in the palm of his hand. She presses on them, bullying them, raging at them. She passes a gentle hand across his forehead. Evan.
No longer Evan.
How long was she in the basement? Why does she always have to win?
Back down the stairs she must go, slowly now, slowly, hold the hand rail. You have suffered a shock, Lia, take it carefully. Find the garage door opener, open the garage. Greet the angry sunlight, cross the untidy garden, find a neighbor.
Lia has left a medical alert device back inside the house, in the kitchen drawer, between a roll of masking tape and an expired coupon for hot chocolate, but she did not think to push it. This is not a medical emergency. This is her Life. There is no button.
Halfway across the street, she realizes she has left Evan alone. On the floor. She remembers her oldest daughter insisting on the medical alert. How she did not want to ‘impose’ on her parents, but she wanted them to be safe. Just in case, she said.
In case I win, Lia thinks.
She swivels to return to Evan and trips, twisting her ankle. Several minutes later, Mr. Dougherty comes out of his house because there is so much noise in the street. He wonders how this old woman still has such a voice. Lia is sitting on the curb, holding her ankle.
“He’s inside!” she says when she sees him.
“What’s that?” Mr. Dougherty is deaf.
“Evan!” she yells, and this time Mr. Dougherty understands. He has been orbiting his Life alone for some time now.
An ambulance arrives. Lia insists someone help her back inside her house. People in uniforms with careful voices and steady gazes take charge of the situation. A man walks into her home and comes out again much too quickly.
“Are you even trying? He needs your help!”
But the rush and panic are for her. She is injured. They want to take her to the hospital.
“You’ll need x-rays, ma’am.”
She fights them. She wants to stay with her husband. She tries to walk back inside the house but they hold her in the front yard, they make her sit down again, run their thick fingers along her swollen ankle and wrap it tightly. All these minutes, fussing over her, while Evan lies alone in the kitchen. When she cries, finally, one of the men, the younger one, takes pity on her and helps her back to Evan.
They’ve put him on some kind of a board, strapped his body for easy carrying. She kneels beside him and fumbles for a hand. What have they done with his hands? Someone is helping her to her feet again. Someone hands her a cell phone and gently tells her to call a family member.
But she cannot dial a single number, because which of her twin daughters should hear the news first? The kitchen stills, waiting for her. She presses buttons at random on the phone. She pictures her daughters—one at work in the city, the other in a university office—she closes the phone and returns it to the first outstretched hand. Someone will do this for her, someone who doesn’t know Evan, someone who feels nothing at the extraordinary event of this morning in May. But not Lia. Our Lia’s Life has cracked this morning and she does not have enough love for either of her daughters at this moment to give them the news.
‘Winning’ is an excerpt from Michelle Bailat-Jones’ novella-in-progress, Hush. Michelle is a reviews editor for Necessary Fiction and can also be found engaging with books at Pieces.