SIXTY-TWO AND RISING
She dies quietly beside him.
He’s brought everything, (he hopes, what does one need as they die?) a basin for her vomit—the basin the daughter used during elementary school flu, a glass of ice water, plastic, in case she loses hold. And what she asked for—the bucket he packs with fat, ripe garden tomatoes in summer months, filled with hot water.
She wants to be clean under each layer, to feel hot damp on skin and places he hasn’t touched for years. But like a back rub or orgasm by the hand of another, so much to negotiate. He wanted to ask her what the point of clean is, the bathing of the dying before the bath of the dead. But she asked him to; he has to. And they both know of his shower in the morning, bath at night ways. How he kneels naked at the edge of the bathtub, rubs the soap residue from the edges of the tub, asks if she’s done the same every time she steps from the steam of the bathroom, just when she feels a little bit pretty.
She considers making this easier on him. Calling her nurse or her daughter to save him the sight of her body, the curses and should-haves of last-life, but she knows he would pretend offense, then agree. And it shouldn’t be that easy.
She’s dreamt (while awake) of taking the nail-clippers, Swiss army-knife, nuts, half-dollars and razors—everything he’s accused her of losing— and hiding them under rolls of fat to give him incentive to hold the cloth to her body.
He hopes she dies before he has to bathe her, then thinks what a terrible thing to think. She hopes she dies while he bathes her, for him to have to see her body without her mind, to have time to study her flesh and fat and hair and see how different it all looks from the last time he saw. Time with a free body that can’t complain, can’t hide from look or contact. Maybe then he’d touch. Maybe he’d wonder if he’d regret not touching.
If he lifted the fat of her stomach, he’d see the scar from where they opened her, rested things meant for inside on her skin, took out what seemed to be causing her all that pain. He’d see the hair he hinted she pluck was gone, and the black-blood stretch marks long ago scarred into white.
But the fat. All the fat, and the things she had to hear and see and defend because of it, still there. And that was the thing that had to go. He dips his hand into the bucket. Heat dies on his skin. Again he hopes she’ll die before he has to bathe her. He tries to think what a terrible thing to think but then thinks himself out of it. How can a thought be terrible? It has no form, no consequence, no blood on its thinking-hands. He once thought he could kill her, thought his hands around her throat, or finger squeezing the trigger of his shotgun. But those thoughts forgot to think themselves again so he forgot them. But if he hadn’t, they were still just thoughts. She watches him wring and wring and wring the cloth. Tries to feel sad he cannot do this one thing before she dies. But she thinks deathbed gestures are overrated. What difference would it make if he could finally stand the sight of her body when all it can do is bloat and drain and rot?
The phone rings, he answers. It is the daughter asking if she can bring her twin daughters to cheer and lighten. She loves her mother. She is a good daughter. But she is obliged.
He asks her and waits.
If there were ever a time she’d like to smack a look off a face it was this. His hoping-for-the-daughter-to-save-him-the-horror face. He’s told her he’d do anything to trade places, to give her his health and leftover years. But she knows it’s because he cannot bear her body, the scent of shit or piss or the decomposing breath of the dying. He’s afraid of what her body will do. He knows she what she will release, but he’s seen the late night television show of just how quickly a body becomes a horror scene when no one knows you’ve died, when you’re not supposed to be anywhere or answering anyone’s phone call. Neighbors call to report the smell or swamp-shaded blood dripping from a crack in the ceiling. A body can melt or explode within hours if the weather is like a New York City summer. He’s never been to New York City, and though he checks the thermometer hourly and knows it’s not too, too hot here, and that someone will know she’s missing, and that he will find her dead within seconds, minutes, hours, he’s not sure what changes in humidity cause, what differences in ocean, mountain and farmland air do to the body.
And what of the weight? The weight life pressed against skin instead of away from it now flattening her blood and meat and bones and organs. And the smell? He knows its animal equivalent. A day-dead calf in August. He’d helped birth it— slipped gloved hands and wrists and arms into its mother, palmed slippery ankles, saw its first look at life. He’d bathed it when its mother refused to clean the blood and placenta from its orange and white fur, held a baby’s bottle to its lips, spoke to it about things being just fine, and of the days ahead when it would be big enough to eat grain from the trough. He found it crumpled into a bed of hay after a double-shift at the refinery. Its mother nearby, but busy sweeping grain into her mouth with her foot-long tongue. He smacked her ass out of the way and picked up the calf. The calf’s shit spit onto his arm. He dug a hole behind the manure pile where they buried the bits of butchered cows and pigs they didn’t use. He laid the calf into the grave, considered closing its blueblack eyes, and vomited over its body. He never forgot that scent. And that calf was fresh, only two days old, first shit and nothing done wrong. But how much wrong was in a grown body? The men that cleaned burst bodies wore suits like astronauts and carried Biohazard bags. Those men said nothing could block or erase that smell. He puts the phone to her ear.
She listens then says, No honey. Not anymore. Not at all. I’ll call you tomorrow, and thinks of how much time she wasted trying not to die when really it isn’t so bad.
She’s isn’t coming, he says, dipping his finger into the cooling water.
No. It’s just you and me.
She glances at the bucket. She remembers squeezing bath water from the hospital sponge. She’d bathed both of their mothers. Dabbed gauze against her mother’s oozing fifty-five year old scar from where she’d been born. Lathered and shaved the whiskers from her chin and upper lip because her mother made her promise to never let anyone see it, spread her legs to change her diaper. She assured her mother the room wasn’t flooding, and nobody was electrocuted in the sizzling fluorescent light. Of course she’d done this for her mother; there was no one else.
But she’d also brushed his mother’s hair, applied the lipstick she wouldn’t be seen without. Learned to change the bandages so the nurses wouldn’t have to bear name-calling and begging. The body died before it did and began its revision into burgundy and black, post-transplant stitches tearing at the seam. He visited his mother only while she slept, brought his wife clean underwear and crossword puzzles. He whispered long speeches into his mother’s ear that ceased if she stirred. Doctors warned him he may become everyone to her—brother, father, husband— and not to take anything she said too seriously. But if he were just anyone to her, she would be nothing to him. If he were his father to her, she would die hated.
He slicks her hair back with one hand, dabs her forehead with the cloth.
She asks, what will be your memory?
They had watched a Japanese film the daughter rented and brought to them. In the film everyone existed in the in-between place after life. They had one week to choose a memory to take with them, all others would be erased, and this one memory would be their eternity. He’d said, and that’s supposed to be heaven, filing for a memory worth remembering. He knew the memories he should want—the birth of the daughter, the wedding, that anniversary party. But he only remembered them in the stillness of photos taken.
She’d said, an impossible thing to choose, as she chose and replaced, chose and replaced. In the film, choices were made. One chose a scent, another chose a flavor, one created a memory to take, one refused to choose.
I’ve decided, she says.
You said it was impossible, he says.
It was. What’s yours?
He considers a memory she’d want him to keep. She watches him consider which memory he thought she’d want him to keep. He sees her watching and says, I don’t know. What’s yours?
I’m not telling. But it isn’t what you’d expect. He lifts her head, moves the cloth over the back of her neck and shoulders. He expects it is their motorcycle trip down 101. Sea Lion caves, Redwood Forest, the drive-thru tree, Golden Gate. It’s her favorite picture, he thinks—him lifting her body at the feet of Paul Bunyon’s blue ox, displayed on their dresser for a hundred years.
Not that one, she says.
She looks at the photo. Her then body—nothing extra, nothing used. The last time they remember her thin. She knows he’ll think of the caves, the forest, the bridge and not of the drive east to the gutted mountain and the dust-dead waters of Spirit Lake. She’d not been able to get over that day. The years-old ash still choking the air, the before and after photos, the Standing Dead Zone, where trees that weren’t ripped out or snapped in half stood naked and empty and useless.
He is still rubbing her neck and shoulders. He can only think of the memories he doesn’t want to take. The cool cloth shivers her skin. The look on his face reminds her have pity.
She says, I think I’m hungry.
Okay, he says.
She sees relief, but not the stupid hope she saw when the daughter called.
He slips two eggs into a pot of water. It will be six minutes before they boil, four more before they are the way she likes them.
He checks the thermometer hanging outside the window. He toasts and smoothes sugarless strawberry jam on a slice of bread, slices it diagonally. He pours a glass of her milk, shakes his head, he can’t stand its water-downed color or understand 1% of what. He’d never understood how they could eat the same things, the fried potatoes and pork and late night chocolate bars and he stayed thin while she fattened. He holds the toast to her mouth and says, it’s sixty-two degrees.
She nibbles the toast. Jam collects in the corners of her lips.
He knows this feeding—his father, years into his disintegration. He fed him peanut butter cups, the childhood treat he’d eaten on Christmas and Easter instead of waiting for presents and God. The chocolate had drooled down his chin.
His father had unknown him years before. Lucky bastard, he’d thought while he shoved another disc into his father’s mouth. The doctors told him you don’t get to choose the memories you keep. But his father had remembered his love for chocolate and peanut butter, the only thing he could remember about his father that wasn’t bitter.
He remembers the film. Any eternal memory would be hell. Perhaps choosing a terrible memory is best then you can be grateful to no longer be living it. When the toast is crumbled or eaten, he scoops a wedge of egg onto a spoon, dips it into her mouth. The chalky yolks coat her throat and she tries to think of something she likes the taste of. Tries, but this flavor erases. She can’t believe she’s eating eggs. She hates the stupid bits of shell that cling to the solid whites, the ochre smears of the crumbles. She tries to think again, but dies before she can forget the taste.
She’d once cracked an egg and saw a tiny beak wedged into center of the yolk. She poked it with the shell looking for claw or eye or vein. Nothing. She slid it into the trash and bleached the frying pan. She told him, and assumed they’d have hot cereal until she forgot. But the next morning he slipped two eggs onto her plate, sunny-side up.
Previously published in Meridian
Kami Westhoff received her MFA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her work has appeared in Meridian, River City, Phoebe, and various other journals.