by J.B. Mulligan

It might have been different if they’d had children. Not dogs — children. Or if Ellen hadn’t gotten sick with … whatever it was. The doctors had run test after test, and each diagnosis was offered and withdrawn, like an alibi that kept changing, for an act that was not a crime. Tom knew it couldn’t be easy for her to deal with the resulting continual exhaustion and uncertainty. A once-vibrant, ruddy woman had been transmuted into a washed-out shape that seemed to quiver without actually doing so. It wasn’t just, but life wasn’t just. You had to carry on, and he did, and she did, and so it didn’t end.

Tom’s health wasn’t what it had been when he was younger, and it wasn’t all because of age. Age didn’t push a tasty supper up to the bottom of your throat like an acid surge, or make your body ache like a clenched fist being slammed repeatedly onto a desk — or a wall, or a door that refused to open — a door from behind which came the faint sounds of music and laughter.

Ellen worried about Tom, Tom worried about Ellen, and both of them thought the other might be not be happy for quite some time. “No risk of joy,” he thought sometimes.

It was a good life, compared to some. Tom knew people who would be happy to trade their life for his. They had suffered losses that … weren’t his. Not that he’d had losses, exactly. They were more like absences. They were spaces in a life where something should have gone but didn’t, a life that was like a driveway in a world without cars. So he puttered back and forth between his job and the glaring white house on Maiden Lane.

There was no right answer to the question, “What’s wrong?” when all you could do was shrug and wave around at what wasn’t there.

As Tom did things around that house that she was too tired to do, while the dog yapped at him to hurry it up (this bit of canine fluff was even more spoiled than the last one), he found that a slow percussive music had begun to play in his mind — a tuneless song with lyrics that varied, but had a single theme. One day it might be: 

Each time I do this is one less

To bear before I leave this mess.

Another day, it might be:

One more time, one more, repeat,

Until I put an end to it.

The song even began to play in his mind at work, and late at night as well, when he lay awake with moonlight’s implacable shine on the blanket (because she needed the curtains open, otherwise she couldn’t sleep):

I’ll do this, each time one time more –

Until it drives me out the door.

Ellen sighed her appreciation, as if it were a weight, and Tom smiled and said it was fine, and the verses of the song, like grains of dust in a barren field, accumulated. But the “door” of the song always seemed to move when he did, so his distance was maintained; he might as well have been running in place, for all the good it did him.

And then he had a stroke. It was like falling into a well: He saw her, high above him, a pink hint of a blush on her face like a rash, as she asked him if he was all right, and he shouted his answer up to her, and she asked him again if he was all right.

They brought him to the hospital, where they could do nothing except run some tests and send him home. He became sick of the word “rehabilitate” in all of its permutations. It seemed now that he and his catheter would be living on the couch for a long, long time, with the help of the dog, who alternated between a suspicious glare-and-sniff, and an obnoxious fawning on him whenever Ellen was absent.

Ellen had, amazingly, gotten well enough to go back to work. She brightened. She told him things would be fine, things would work out, things could be worse. Sometimes Tom tried to scream, and she told him to calm down, and asked if he wanted some toast. And the song was still there, but there were no words, just noises like the ones he made to Ellen. He could feel the thoughts in his mind perfectly well, but the words to express those thoughts … were gone. There was just a running engine in his mind, v-rm v-rm v-rm v-rm, while she smiled at him and the dog barked, and she went out of the house into the world and the door slammed.

Photo by Nick Bondarev from Pexels