The drawer smelled rancid. I dug into the narrow void, past where I could see. I hated losing things, and didn’t do it often, but somehow over the last few years I’d misplaced a box of my grandfather’s things that I’d found in his bedside table after he passed away. Its contents were gone as well, dispersed over the house by the kids during one of their various phases of fascination with Mommy and Daddy’s stuff. Of all the items the box contained, one stuck in my memory—a cardboard pheasant about three inches long and a quarter of an inch thick, the smooth, colorfully printed image laminated to the cardboard almost too detailed for the age of the other objects in the box. When I’d found it, I’d imagined it was part of a set. Now I had no idea where it was, and I was running out of places to look. My grandfather was a coal mine fire boss—he kept the pheasant in a box with his Social Security card; a silver coin that had been turned into a ring by a friend from his youth who was gassed in the war; an untitled herbal remedy that included bitters; various buttons; and an old brass-handled nutpick. I would tear apart the house to find it. Beads of sweat sprung up on my forehead despite the chill of the weather outside, which was sending another several inches of snow onto what had fallen the day before. I bent at an unnatural angle to grope the back of the drawer.
“Something missing?” Jeremy’s voice cracked as if he hadn’t spoken in a while. I took a breath in and twisted to see him.
“Nothing.” I stood and closed the drawer.
“Something smells awful.”
“It’s the drawer.”
“I highly doubt that, Michelle.” His eyes didn’t look as sunken as they had over those last few weeks. Maybe it was just my imagination. A short crop of stubble was beginning to appear on his scalp and chin. He reminded me of a school presentation our daughter had done that included a marker drawing of the top of a bald head and eyes looking up to handwritten text, Why Chemotherapy Makes You Bald. I liked him with this rough glaze of stubble, as if new life was springing from his skin. But his self-image included lots of hair, so it was a version of him that I had to keep quiet about. “Twist ties and rubber bands don’t stink.”
“We’ve kept all kinds of stuff in here. It’s a junk drawer,” I said, envisioning a small scrap of asparagus clinging to a tight purple rubber band, having rotted to pure stench over a period of a few weeks. I imagined the odor leaking out even with the drawer closed.
Jeremy poured himself a mug of water with a short gush from the faucet and punched the microwave latch. He slipped the mug into the microwave. It made a hollow rumble as he pushed it to the center of the turntable. I never microwaved water for tea because it got cloudy and tasted like metal. “Your imagination is too active,” he’d say. He punched two minutes and leaned against the counter with a tea bag in his hand. “I’m not going to make it, you know.” He looked at me only after the last word had settled in the air.
I didn’t want to listen. I’d invested too much in him. Losing the fight of his life had never been an option. I preferred to look for a cardboard pheasant. The drawer stuck out from the cabinet just a bit, as if something was jammed behind it. I could barely resist the urge to pull the drawer open. If I could figure out how to yank it out of the cabinet, I would. My hand ached to reach back in. The pheasant had been brilliantly decorated—a male with long variegated feathers. My grandfather must have treasured it. His coal-rimmed fingers must have sought out its smooth surface whenever he rifled through the box. I wished Jeremy would say something else.
The timer on the microwave beeped. He dropped the tea bag into the water, which hissed and bubbled.
“You were gonna kick this thing? We were.” My voice barely disguised a resentment I didn’t understand. I was fighting-mad.
He didn’t seem to notice. All his attention was on the surface of the tea. Was the water changing color as the bag dropped into the hot water?
I didn’t want to remember Jeremy this way. I closed my eyes and envisioned him coming in from a run with his T-shirt dark with sweat instead, his forehead glazed in salt, and his hair in thick damp curls.
“That smell, that you think is in the drawer.” He gripped the mug with both hands and moved to the window. “It’s everywhere.”
“It’s not; it’s old asparagus or something rotted into the wood, just bad housekeeping.”
“I keep thinking of all the choices I made.”
I didn’t want to hear it. I’d rather talk about about the twins or how his mother never really liked me, even after caring for him.
“Drinking, smoking.” He hesitated. “Drugs.” He stared out the picture window. I closed my eyes again because I didn’t want to roll them. Spouses of the sick do not surrender to sarcasm or impatience. “Watching TV rather than exercising. Not drinking enough water. All that fast food my mother warned me about. This is the price for being careless.”
I wanted to rest my hand on the chenille of his robe, but I couldn’t. The fabric had grown rough with frequent washings and smelled of fabric softener—lavender with a chemical edge. Underneath, something else. I rubbed my nose as a reflex. My fingers smelled like the drawer, which was almost comforting. I touched the tips to my nose and inhaled. I hated the notion of larger judgments, of a past that haunts you, bad decisions like latent viruses waiting to take hold. Biological retribution. One genetic test would have ended this discussion. “That sounds more ridiculous now than when you first said it.”
Jeremy looked at me like he knew something I didn’t. “I once heard that every heart has only so many beats—once you’ve reached that number, it’s over. A slower pulse means a longer life. Faster, shorter. That’s it.”
“Like planned obsolescence?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“I was kidding.”
“Maybe we only get so much endurance. If it’s squandered, it won’t be there when we need it.” He blew across the tea. Months ago, the lecture had been longer. “I feel like crap. My last days on earth are going to be more about feeling like crap than life. I won’t be able to remember another way of being. Images of feeling like crap will be all that flashes before my eyes as the lights go out.”
Parts of Jeremy had been completely unaltered by the process of illness—the shape of his legs, the pinkish tan lobes of his ears, the fullness of his lips. “Maybe I’d be better off with lots of morphine and a chaise lounge in the backyard. I’d be happier. I’d be in nature. The kids could play while I watched. Maybe you could take some time off and garden again.”
This didn’t work for me—the movie ending with the couple holding hands in the backyard and the sick one quietly nodding away in death. My memories deserved a fight. I took the kids to school, went to work, called him a few times a day. Work was a relief, a vacation from caregiving. I even got a raise in the middle of it all.
I tried to take in Jeremy’s look, his smell, the sense of him in the room. But I felt caged, like I was banging my head against the bars. “The doctors said there’s hope. Let’s stick with hope.”
I wanted him to reach over and rub my head, mussing my hair like he used to. Instead, I closed my eyes tight, feeling the flesh around my eyes wrinkle in on itself. Imagining his hand in my hair.
“’Chelle, I’ll jump through hoops for you if you want me to.” He really was saying, but don’t make me.
“How about for the twins.” I wasn’t exactly certain of when that look in his eyes shifted to some other plane of his existence. He could barely see the kids anymore. He’d started writing cards for each of them for future birthdays, graduations, weddings. All the cards said the same thing, “Know I’m with you. Know I love you.” I would put those cards away and only bring them out when I was alone, when I wanted to see his lousy penmanship again.
Jeremy walked to the back door and onto the patio. I watched him through the windows. The green lawn framed him in his blue robe, his pale hand held the red mug, white stubble coated his face and head like an early frost. All the colors seemed vivid and oversaturated, as if the sunlight carried its own psychedelic glow, and I realized then how much I missed our life together.
I opened the drawer again and reached deeper inside. My fingers felt a narrow, thick tab, like maybe the shape of a pheasant’s tail. I pulled, but it was lodged in the back seam of the drawer. I leaned in with a flashlight, and the smell hit me again. I almost couldn’t bear it. I held my breath and finagled my arm deeper into the drawer. As I tried to wrench the object from where it was wedged, I could see over the counter, out through the window, and into the yard. Snow filtered down from an unbroken gray sky and settled onto the black covers shrouding the lawn furniture. A spiderweb of frozen crystals moved across the panes of glass in the window. The twins piled more snow on the snowman they’d built yesterday. “Fatter, Mommy, fatter,” they’d said in unison. Around them, the late-afternoon sky changed everything to shades of gray.
~For Betsy Smith Edmunds
Ree Davis has worked as a cook, dishwasher, seamstress, farmworker, typist, and baker. She’s traveled across the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Graduating from Cornell University, she headed R&D for a Fortune 500 Company and gained masters degrees in architecture and creative writing. Ree lived on both US coasts, in Japan and China. Her work has won two Pushcart Nominations and appeared in Narrative Magazine, Daedalus: The Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Limestone, and Penmen Review, among others. Her story “A Limitless Sky” was adapted to a radioplay by Delmarva Public Radio. She lives in southwest Virginia.