Something was going to happen today.
Most days nothing happened in the apartment. Not that he minded. He still got something out of the time because things happened in his head. Everybody else was always complaining about their memories going. Not him. He had stopped saying that because he had figured out it wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. He was getting back every bit as much as he was losing, remembering lots and lots of bits of his life. Sometimes he filled his whole day with things that had happened a long time ago.
But today, Don was pretty sure, was a day when somebody was coming to visit. The week had been advancing toward some highpoint, something Chihuahua kept mentioning, and that must be it. He could have asked her, but no. The information will out, he told himself. His wife could never walk into a room without making an announcement of some kind.
And here she came. Chihuahua rounded the corner eating a big donut on a tiny plate. Mirabella was her actual ridiculous name. Not a single grain of sugar would fall off the plate. This ability of hers was one of the ways she proved to him that she wasn’t old.
“That’s what you plan to have on?”
See? The information was practically offered to him on the china plate. They were expecting company or she wouldn’t care what he had on. “It is my plan,” he said, “and it exactly meets the requirements of casual with a touch of class.” And he had dressed carefully, just in case.
“I guess it’s the class I didn’t see.” Chihuahua set the plate down to tie the long flaps on her shirt into a floppy bow.
“You don’t have eyes for Texas class,” he said. “A bolo elevates whatever it touches.”
She displayed her special smile that included flared nostrils and a stiffened upper lip. And just the suggestion of the miniature growl of Tootsie, who had finally kicked the bucket in May. Death had lost its victory, though, when it became clear to him that Mirabella had been studying Tootsie in order to become her. Late in life, it turned out, he had married a dog.
“I don’t think you can expect Hailey to recognize Texas class. She’s never even been there.”
Hailey. He saw a face with the name, a round, big-cheeked sort of face, a fully grown girl with a kid’s mouth. Not from his childhood, if she’d never been to Texas. Wasn’t she always fussing with a baby, burping it on her shoulder and so on? “Did she say if she’s bringing the baby?” he ventured.
Damn. She did used to bring a baby. If he was going to take a risk, he ought to have asked what time the girl was coming. “You just don’t remember. She takes care of some niece or something.”
“Hailey is the niece, Donno.” She called him that so other people would hear it as affectionate and he would hear it as dodo.
“Today I feel like doing something I’ve never done before.” Things like this just came out of his mouth sometimes. Afterwards, he would sit and think about what he might mean.
If a girl was going to visit, come to think of it, he ought be wearing his aftershave. Chihuahua didn’t like it, but other girls always did. Smell made a big impression on girls. He pulled his walker over and worked the levers of his chair so the seat tilted up, and then he could pull himself to a stand.
“You just went to the bathroom!”
“I have to go again.”
“The Flomax must be too high. We’ll get it adjusted.”
Was there anything in the world that wasn’t that woman’s business? He loved turning the lock on the bathroom door. Chihuahua could hear it click, too.
He was barely back in his chair when the thing rang and Mirabella buzzed the girl in and talked into the speaker on the wall to tell her to come to the fifth floor.
“Have you got something to serve?”
“She’ll come in carrying a paper cup from Starbucks, just you watch. She wouldn’t drink Folgers. And she’d hate a Royal Dalton tea cup.”
Some kind of bad blood was leaking around between Chihuahua and Hailey. Something real dumb. It was…was it, maybe—yes!—it was. Hailey had had the hots for him way back when. Chihuahua always picked up the scent right away when anybody came near him with half a wiggle and Hailey, if he could remember anything, had a whole wiggle. How many more times could a man in his position expect to make a girl sizzle? Even this once was more than some guys were going to get now.
He watched. From where he sat, he could see through the kitchen to a slice of the hall. If he kept his eyes on the hall, and kept picturing what was going to happen, it would stay in his mind. But Chihuahua, when she answered the door, always led the way back. His first view of Hailey would not be till they got into the kitchen and their shapes separated into the scrawny old thing and the fresh one.
It didn’t happen like that. Hailey swooped through the kitchen so fast with a bright swaying skirt and jewelry singing on her wrist and a boxy purse bumping something that he was startled. Then she was bending down to give him a big hug in his chair. Automatically, he checked for a view. She was wearing a sleeveless thing that about choked her at the neck, so he looked at her tanned arms. They were dewlappy. No matter. The smile was all for him, and she puckered her lips, and he closed his eyes and puckered his too, and she delivered a nice one right on them. If she left some of that pink lipstick, so much the better. He wouldn’t wipe his mouth.
She turned and gave his wife the littlest possible kiss on the cheek.
“Don’t you look just gorgeous!” Chihuahua said, looking directly at the dark roots that showed in the blonde hair on the top of Hailey’s head. Roots didn’t seem to matter now. Roots were on the sitcoms.
“Sit down, sweetheart,” he said. She sat on the couch. A smile warmed his face, he could feel it. He had checked what it looked like recently, to make sure it hadn’t turned ghoulish from disuse, or from his discolored teeth. But it was fine because Chihuahua had made him get his teeth dyed white, something dentists did now. He let the smile spread. Hailey was a girl who could just relax and smile back for a minute without filling up every inch of space with stupid talk.
Chihuahua was fussing in the kitchen, to avoid saying anything nice to the girl.
“I brought you a picture, Uncle Don.” Hailey held it across the space, still farther away than his arm would stretch.
“Sit closer, sweetheart. Bring a chair.” He nodded toward the table, and she brought a wooden chair right up next to his recliner. Now they could whisper.
“See, there you are the day we went down to the river to watch the steamboat. Look at Aunt Anne—I loved those yellow shoes.”
Pay dirt. Anne. His real wife. “Have you got any more pictures of her? Her face is so little.”
“No, just this one, but it’s really clear. You can see her dimples.”
Anne. A shape always just behind the door these days as Chihuahua barked and danced around him. The calm warmth he knew to exist, that felt more like faith, something he believed in and was always seeking with mental radar, straining to bring forward into the center, where things could be looked at. Now he was looking, and there was her curiously narrow face, tanned, framed by that hair like the pale tops of September corn you got at a roadside stand. The feel of it came back to him, smooth and slippery when they were young.
In the picture, a child stood near them, an awkward curly-haired thing of middling size, but they’d never had any.
“People always said I favored Aunt Anne.”
That’s who the child was—it was this Hailey who was right next to him! “No,” he said. “No, you don’t look much like her.”
“Do you like herbal tea, Hailey, or regular? I forget.” Mirabella in her singsong.
He slipped the photo under his thigh and gave Hailey a conspiratorial wink. She was surprised by it. He did it again, winked in full sight of Mirabella as she brought the tea over.
“So what are you two going on about?”
“We’re reminiscing about going to see a steamboat years ago.”
Hailey was a peacemaker. He took a good look at her profile as she said that. Her face was going down, some of it hanging under the chin.
“Is that the only thing people in Minnesota can think of to do? How ‘bout whale watching? How ‘bout going to the Met?” Yip yip yap.
Anne, now, had breasts. Chihuahua had something sticking out of her front too, but it was collarbones that reminded him of the parts of chicken you left on a plate. Anne was cold often and came close to him for warmth, and her softness would squish against his side as he folded her small shoulders under an arm. She tilted her face up to his—the whites of her eyes sent him over the moon, against the dark rimmed blue-green irises. He never could get over that, was always kissing her eyelids.
“Steamboats!” Chihuahua. With a sniff. “No wonder there’s no romance out here.”
He took Hailey’s hand in his and squeezed it until she squeezed back. “She doesn’t like Texas, doesn’t like Minnesota, doesn’t like anything west of the Mississippi.”
“West of the Hudson.”
He ignored Chihuahua, beaming his white smile on Hailey. “We know all about love, don’t we?”
But Hailey looked uncomfortable. He uncovered her hand and saw that she didn’t have a wedding band. He covered it back up with his own hand. Divorced, he supposed. “I’m your man, Hailey,” he whispered.
Hailey giggled. “You’re on your second wife already, Uncle Don.”
Which brought Anne to mind again. And brought the idea to him. The idea of how to take the day for himself. The idea of the thing he could do today that he’d never done before. He could commit adultery against Mirabella! Mirabella and her arthritic hips that hurt if they tried to bear the least little bit of his weight, as he discovered during the first year, the year that other people said would be so great, and then they would have each other to lean on as they got older. Leaning on Mirabella was like leaning on a saguaro cactus.
So, sex. Think about sex. Seemed like he hadn’t been up to much lately himself. Had something happened?
“You’re just as pretty as ever,” he said to Hailey. He had let go of her hand at some point, so he reached over to give her knee a little rub. The skirt was slippery. “You always were a beauty. Anne thought so too.”
“Thanks, Uncle Don. I don’t hear that a lot.”
“Give us a kiss.” He presented his lips, and she complied. He got two more out of her, Chihuahua sitting with a magazine that must have been just fascinating.
“She has her moods,” he told Hailey.
“How’s your arthritis, Mirabella?” Hailey asked, but only got a shrug in answer.
“Pretty bad,” he said. “That’s why she gets so ornery.”
“I’m sorry,” Hailey said to both of them. “Can I do anything for you while I’m in town? Errands? Phone calls?”
“No, sweetheart. Mirabella takes care of everything I can’t do. She’s got a lot of energy.” Mirabella was demonstrating her energy at that moment by getting up out of the couch without any help and scurrying into the kitchen fast as rat, and fussing with bottles of medicine and setting an array of pills on the table to go with his lunch. She invited Hailey to stay for lunch, but got a no. Some reason that didn’t stick in his mind past its moment of sound.
Hailey sipped her tea, hardly taking any into her mouth. “Don’t drink that,” he whispered. “I know you don’t like it.”
She laughed and set it down on the floor. “I’m not thirsty anyway.”
He was looking at her foot with the white sandal hanging off it, right by where she set the cup and saucer. There was a black mark above her ankle. She saw him looking and crossed her feet the other way so it didn’t show.
“Is that a bruise?”
“What is it?”
Hailey looked away, watching Chihuahua clattering things in the kitchen.
“What is it?” He wouldn’t have done that when he was younger, asked again when someone obviously didn’t want to answer. But now there was so little time, you had to get everything you could, when you saw something you wanted, even if it was just a little answer to a question.
“It’s a tattoo.”
Well, well, well. Of course he saw them all the time when he was out, being taken to the doctor or somewhere. Young skin was blossoming all over the place with dark words and pictures. Parts of tattoos showing above jeans, either in back or in front, of course on arms, and he’d seen them on ankles just the way Hailey had it. But on Hailey? She had to be fifty, when you really looked at her.
“Can I see it?”
And the next thing was, there was her foot right in his lap with a black flower on her pale ankle. How about that?
All of a sudden her foot jerked this way and that in his lap! She was digging in the side pocket of her skirt. She pulled out one of those pocket phones that was buzzing.
“Sorry.” She was apologizing for opening the phone to talk on it, not for the foot activity.
“Oh, it’s fine.” He was feeling generous. He was full of Anne suddenly, Anne in her blue flowered nightgown willing to hoist it up, sitting in his lap and kissing him. They were in a funny place—at the kitchen table in her parents’ house. Over her shoulder, he could see his cereal bowl sitting in front of him with some milk left in it, and it jostled and spilled when her back bumped the table. Her parents had gone out early. He and Anne had driven down for a weekend while he was in graduate school, and their suitcase had more books than clothes in it.
He kept his eyes closed and blocked out the quiet intensity of Hailey’s phone call and remembered Anne for as long as possible, the feel of her skin pudgy at the waist, the different smells of her forehead—chili powder or curry, or coffee on a Saturday morning. The pleasure too, he could remember.
There was no stirring, and it came back to him that there had been prostate trouble and surgery and he was lucky to be alive, they said. That was okay. Anne was already gone, hadn’t survived her cancer. It was only Chihuahua he would miss out on, and he was always so tired after dinner he dozed till bedtime, with her claiming he would spoil his sleep, and then he fell right to sleep anyway.
He was hot. The sun was all over him. He opened his eyes. “Where’s Hailey?”
“Hailey? She left hours ago. In the middle of your nap.”
Damn. He hated that.
“Go eat your sandwich. It’s on the table.”
He pulled the walker over and got himself up. On the way to the bathroom he passed his lunch plate, under plastic wrap.
“You know you just embarrass that poor girl,” she said. “She doesn’t like all that kissy business one bit.”
He ignored that.
When he came back and got himself seated at the table, he saw that the steamboat picture had been found where’d he forgotten it in the chair and laid next to his plate. All his secrets, always on display. She’d been trotting all over the living room, from her recliner to his, to the table, and now she was perched on the couch, just while he was in the can. He balled up the plastic wrap over his sandwich and set it aside.
Anne had a sliver in her foot. She was limping around in his dorm room while he hunted for a tweezers. His roommate’s drawer was the place he found one, and he grabbed it, all caught up in Anne’s pain. She sat in a chair and stretched her foot across his legs, and he had sucked in his breath. “Your toes!”
“What? Donnie, just do it! Get it over with.”
“I never saw toes like these. Never. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as cute toes!”
“There isn’t, silly! Get it out.” She angled her foot back so he could see the ball of it, where the splinter was, and he began to poke around it, but the hissing of her pain unnerved him.
“I need you to be in a different position. Just lie on the bed on your stomach. Then you can relax your foot.”
She lay there, and he worked on the soft pink bottom of her foot, using a safety pin sterilized with matches and the tweezers until he got the splinter out. Then he cradled the foot in both his hands and memorized the look of it. Its shape, its many colors, the feel of its pads, and every little bit went into his memory for good. Only it had gotten misplaced until today, this wonderful day.
“For crying out loud, eat your lunch. You’re just sitting there like a dolt.”
“I cheated on you,” he announced. “We went all the way.”
She cackled, showing her bottom teeth.
“It’s true, Chihuahua. Right in that very chair.”
That got her. Boy, did she get a startled look on her face then, with her bug eyes all bloodshot. He gave her his white smile. She could just think it was that relative. Or anybody. She never needed to know it was Anne. He had seized the day! There was another language you were supposed to say that in.
She kept looking at him, puzzled. She had the crossword in her lap and he began to think she was trying to get a word. “What’s the clue?” he asked.
“You called me something.”
“I don’t think I called you anything, sweetheart.”
“Yes. You called me Chihuahua.”
“Chi-hua-hua?” He said it as slowly as he could, as if it were unfamiliar.
And then her face—which was really still very straight-nosed and elegant with her smooth white hair—crumpled all up and she covered it with her hands. No sounds came out of her hands.
“Forget about that, sweetheart. This ham sandwich is just delicious.” He said it with his mouth full, as evidence.
But it wasn’t enough to undo the other thing. And the other thing was ruining the sandwich. He straightened out the plastic to cover it again and pulled himself up with the walker. It took a long time to take all the steps over the wood floor, and then the rug, till he stood next to her. She was rocking slightly, with her face still covered. The good thing to do would have been to sit down by her and put an arm around her bony shoulders, but he never sat on the couch anymore because it was impossible to get out of.
“If I sit by you, will you help me up afterwards?”
“Don’t I always help you with whatever you need?”
So he turned around and then had to sort of let himself fall onto the couch. “Sorry.” He had caused a big bounce.
“I meant what are you sorry for.”
“Making you bounce.”
She took her hands down, and her face was elegant again. But sad, which was his fault. He hadn’t meant to make her sad, he just wanted her to get all steamed.
“I never had a happy marriage like you did,” she said.
“This is a happy marriage.”
Nothing else was coming. What he had done was so bad, it seemed, that it couldn’t be mentioned. He wished he could be exactly sure of whether the insult he’d given was to his wife, in comparing her to the dog or, somehow, to the dog itself. Oh, she had loved that thing! Used to go on ad nauseum about its soft fawn color and its perfect apple head. Like anyone would want to look at an animal with an apple head?
“Mirabella, you’re just beautiful. Did you get a look at that Hailey? She doesn’t look so great and she’s got decades to go to catch you.”
On the crossword puzzle, Chihuahua’s hand lay limp, veins like worms squiggled across the back. Some of her fingers were starting to angle away at the last knuckle. The diamond ring always fell to the side because it had to be so big in order to get it past a bulging knuckle. He lifted the hand to his lips and kissed it. “We can get another dog if you want, sweetheart.”
But she left her hand in his, and he tried and tried to remember where he’d found her, this old woman he was with now. They sat watching the sun slide across the rug for quite a long time before she got up to turn on the television.
“We missed half of it,” she said. “My program’s almost over.”
He was glad they’d missed it. Then you couldn’t be expected to follow what was happening in the program. There were a lot of things he wanted to miss now, most of them just chances to mess up one way or another.
The steamboat picture, he remembered, still lay on the table. He began to plan how he was going to get it back and put it somewhere. Somewhere only he would know about. He looked at Chihuahua, staring at the loud television. Her head hung forward, her pale eyelashes touched her sagging eyebrows. She was the kind of person who would construe it all wrong if the steamboat picture disappeared.
In the evening, on his final trip of the day through the kitchen, he saw the picture again—Anne in her yellow shoes magneted up on the refrigerator. It was a kind thing. Chihuahua had done a kind thing. It was a thing he would like to hold onto.
Robin Underdahl’s fiction has appeared in Notre Dame Review and Short Story, and a personal essay is forthcoming in upstreet. She has an M.F.A. from Columbia and lives in Dallas.