Dust hangs in the sunlight, floating white in the golden beam. Too much dust, Hugh thinks as he watches the particles meander through the light. It should be falling down, he thinks, with gravity. But the dust floats, moves diagonally, rising and falling and lifting again. Cora never would have stood for it.
The TV flickers. Flat, grainy bluish faces turn camera and smile, flip their shining hair over their shoulders. Hugh can’t quite hear what they are saying. He hates having to change the volume up and down between programs and advertisements. They make the ads so loud these days, and the shows so quiet. He’s losing his hearing and he knows it. He’d had the subtitles on for a while, but he’d somehow accidentally clicked them off in the last week and can’t remember how to turn them back on.
He pushes several buttons on the remote, black boxes with white lettering popping up on the screen. Somehow he ends up with subtitles that don’t even use English lettering. Russian? Greek? Are there really so many of them watching TV in this country that they warrant the availability of subtitles in their own language? He sighs and clicks off the TV, the picture sucks into a line in the middle of the screen before popping away. It doesn’t really matter anyway. More often than not, he falls asleep, and when he is awake, he only scowls at the screen, at the idiotic premises of the sitcoms, the repetitiveness of the news, the overt dramas, the degradation of respectable entertainment.
The clock on the wall ticks—though he isn’t sure he actually hears it, or he just knows the sound it should be making. But he hears a dog bark, and he knows he heard that. How can you hear a dog barking outside but not the TV in the same room? He hears Cora’s voice say I don’t know; he answers her. In his mind, she is still as young as they had been. He’s never envisioned her with wrinkles. She’d never gotten to have them.
The dog outside stops its barking. On more than one occasion, Hugh had considered getting himself a dog. He thinks of the day that golden puppy came ambling into his yard, mouth open in stupid puppy joy, tripping over its fluffy, too big paws. And a small girl chasing after it shouting “Goober, Goober come back!” Hugh caught the puppy, which all but leapt into his arms, and handed the dog back to the girl.
The girl was hardly bigger than the puppy, her golden pigtails matching the puppy’s curls. “Thanks, mister,” she said. “My name is Emma. We live next door now.” A neighborhood had sprung up around Hugh’s house. He remembers the neighborhood when it was new and wholly separate, not just another suburb spreading like tendrils from the city.
Little Emma squeezed the puppy, trying to hold him, his hind legs swinging between her knees and his little belly poking roundly out in front. Hugh asked her if she’d wanted to sit and have a glass of lemonade. “No thanks,” she said, her eyes flitting to the door and back to Hugh. She smiled and said goodbye, waddling back across the yard to her own. Her family lived there until Emma was well into her teens, and she’d always smile and wave to him, deliver him cookies on his doorstep, make him lopsided construction-paper cards, but she never came inside, never took a moment to even sit on his front step with him.
He knows why, of course. Don’t be alone with old men. Wasn’t that what parents told their children? Even if they didn’t say it, perhaps children were just naturally wary of solo old men. Hugh recalls the days of his own youth when he avoided the neighborhood codger. Now it was him. It was him the kids whispered about. And he knows what they whisper.
Hugh shifts in his old seat, the frame groans beneath the upholstery. He rubs at his eyes with knobby fingers and sighs. I never should have brought Cora here. They should have gone somewhere even more remote or stayed where people knew them and could vouch for them. She had blanched at the idea of moving over here. “But think of the opportunity,” he’d told her. “A chance to build our own house, better pay.” Back then the place had been new, vibrant, up-and-coming. "Progressive," he'd said. That's how the place had been advertised: Cooper Park, Proudly Progressive! The neighborhood was full of all types—or was trying to fill itself with all types, even though all the houses were merely variations on the same theme.
But Cora had never taken to the place. She said the looks were too much, the eyes boring into her whenever they went out, scrutinizing her with their heads tilted and eyes narrowed. “Don’t be silly,” Hugh had said, because no one ever said anything directly. But he didn’t see what she saw, feel what she felt. And, though they received frequent dinner invitations, she never accepted them. She hurried home from her shopping, scurried inside from their mailbox. Her only solace had been walking alone through the woods that extended from the back of their yard.
How long has it been since Emma moved away? Hugh thinks to himself. At least fifteen years, Cora’s voice replies. Fifteen! She was only a little girl not too long ago! She could have children of her own now.
“I’m never bringing children into this world,” Cora said early on in their courtship. Hugh had both agreed and disagreed with her. “Our parents have enough grandchildren as it is,” he’d said. In the end, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t a decision they could make.
Hugh listens to the buzz and hum of the emptiness in his own ears and the ticking of the clock, which he may or may not be hearing. There are things to be done, a lawn to be mowed, a bathroom tile to replace, dust to be moved. He gathers himself, preparing to pull himself out of his chair. He moves like unoiled machinery, shuffling across the carpet in his moccasin slippers. Eighty-seven years have stiffened his hinges, and his bones grind together like rusty iron. He’s been old for decades and alone twice as long.
He’d known Cora her whole life, played hide-and-seek with her, worked alongside her brothers, eaten food from her mother’s table. And when he’d gone away to get educated and then again for war, she was there waiting for him when he came back. His first kiss, his last kiss, his only one.
He looks out the window, out at the dense trees of the woods. Even though a sign stands at the entrance of the main trail that says, “Cooper Wood,” it isn’t much of a wood anymore, not since the neighborhood had grown around it. Where there had once been sprawling forestland where one could wander for hours, was now a grove hardly larger than a park. Hugh had watched Cora emerge solitary from those woods dozens of times, and it often made him uncomfortable to see her out there alone—a nagging worry that prickled the hairs along his neck. He'd heard so many stories of lone women wandering alone in the woods, so many that ended in tragedy. But Cora was also so contented after her walks, and he always told himself he was being paranoid.
Nevertheless, he’d made plans to get her a puppy, a surprise. He’d envisioned it: her coming out of the forest, through the back door, him holding the puppy behind his back, and when she’d lean in to kiss him, he’d bring the puppy forward. Hugh had imagined her happiness, the smile he’d always loved. The puppy came home, and the both of them waited for Cora until evening fell to night and she never emerged from the trees.
Hugh pulls on his shoes and slips a belt through the loops on his pants. He shuffles down the hall and across the living room. The brass knob on the glass door wiggles loosely in his hand as he turns it. Another thing to fix, he thinks. It’s always something. And in the back of his mind, Cora says, It’s good for you. Always having something to do, keeps the mind healthy and the body. Make you live to a hundred.
Hugh scoffs in spite of himself. Thirteen years to go. Thirteen years of replacing doorknobs and mowing the same old lawn and staring at the grainy TV screen. You’ve made it to 87, what’s thirteen more? That’s a blink of an eye. Fresh air gushes into the room as Hugh opens the door. He shivers a little. He has gotten too comfortable in the stale, warm air of the house. For a small moment, he considers shuffling back for a sweater, but he steps over the threshold and across the back lawn he goes, his feet barely lifting from the grass between each step. At the shed, he flips the latch and yanks open the rough wooden door. It smells of grease and metal and soil and gasoline.
Each time he opens this door, he thinks of that day, when the police came and opened this same door and pulled everything out, eyed each item thoroughly. “There’s something missing,” one of them said, pointing to the empty hook protruding from a bare stud. “There isn’t,” Hugh had replied. “Nothing has ever hung there.” He did not like what they implied.
Hugh pulls the thick tarpaulin cover off the lawn mower and shifts the up-ended wheelbarrow out of the way so he can pull the mower through the door. He backs his way out, the mower rattling on the concrete floor. At the door, he must heave the larger back wheels over the 2x2 that serves as the threshold. He warms as he positions himself and the mower on the lawn. It is a bright day, the sun high, the grass deep green and rustling in the gentle breeze.
He winces as he bends to pull the string, knowing it will take just about all the strength he can muster to pull it fast enough to get the damned thing to start. I’m not weak, just old, he thinks. He fails the first time, the machine chokes and sputters the second, and the third the motor catches and turns. Breathing fast, Hugh takes hold of the bar, the rattling shooting through his palms, wrists, sinking into his bones. He squeezes the self-propel lever and is soon following the growling machine around the yard. Mulch shoots off to the side, spreading the scent of the grass.
His skeleton trembles in rhythm with the vibrations of the machine, and he recalls the first engine-powered mower he’d ever used. It was monstrous, it was loud, and Hugh had hated everything about it. The oily smell of the burning gasoline had overpowered the smell of the grass. He’d wanted to go back to his old push mower. Cora had laughed at him, at the way he’d jumped back and screwed up his face at the new monstrosity. Now look at you, she says to him now. He carves a square into the lawn, making it tighter and tighter with each pass.
He should have taken the puppy back the next day. Instead, he’d neglected it, left it outside, forgotten. By the time he had time to remember it, the puppy had disappeared. This realization had deepened the disgust building within himself. He hoped it had found warmth somewhere, perhaps in the arms of a girl like Emma. He couldn’t gather himself enough to go out looking for the dog, but he hoped it had not ended up cold and alone and crushed and bleeding among decaying leaves.
Hugh hits a rock, the mower blades wailing against it. He pushes the mower aside, lets it idle while he bends and clutches the stone. There are always rocks, no matter how many times I pick them up, he thinks. It’s like they grow, Cora adds. They grow from nowhere. He tosses the stone into the flower bed. More like a weed bed. Really, Hugh, can't you get anything to grow there.
He’s tried a dozen times, two dozen. He just doesn’t have the knack Cora did with flora. She could make irises grow from sand. She could probably grow a tree from a stone. He’d bring home plants lush and labelled “easy” at the nurseries, only to watch them curl and turn yellow, brown, black, die and crumble, no matter what he did. He’d tried everything—watering, not watering, high-level manure, low-alkaline topsoil, shade, sunlight, MiracleGro. Nothing had worked and only the lawn remained.
He completes his final square, until all that’s left is a single strip just wide enough for one more pass. He releases the lever and the mower stutters and chugs to its dormant state. He is thirsty now, he realizes. It is later than he thought. The sun has already tipped the peak of the roof. He drags the mower back to the shed. Back goes the mower, back goes the tarpaulin cover, back shifts the wheelbarrow. And back over the lip of the threshold.
Except this time Hugh’s toe catches—this chore has exhausted him, and his muscles don’t move his bones as they should—his toe catches on the 2x2 lip and he falls, forgets that he must throw his hands out to catch himself. His mind forgets, his body forgets. But it would not have helped to remember in this case. His eighty-seven years have eaten away his bones, turned them porous and brittle like dry loofahs. If he had remembered to catch himself, his arms would have broken just as his hip does. He feels it. He feels the pop, the cracking and the tearing, and for the first time in sixty years—since he’d failed to dodge that one bullet in the hailstorm of them —he screams the word “Fuck.”
He trembles, pressing an exploratory finger into the place where it hurts, then laughs because the pain is everywhere. He can barely lift his head for the pain, and his guts begin to churn. This is worse than a bullet in the thigh, he says to himself.
Then I suppose your language is acceptable in this case. Hugh shivers and closes his eyes, expands and contracts his lungs. Keep the shock away, Sweetheart, it’s better that way.
Hugh pictures Cora, the last time he saw her in the woods—the reason he never enters them anymore. Worried, he'd paced the house, held the puppy, set it down. Outside, the woods turned blue with evening. He tried to remember if she'd mentioned an appointment that night. Or, he hoped, perhaps she'd accepted coffee with one of the ladies in the neighborhood. The puppy had whimpered and Hugh picked it up again, held it close to him. The leaves on the trees turned black.
He looked at the clock. Would she have gone home? he thought. He shook his head. This was their home. She wouldn't have left without telling him. She'd have left a note, at least. He set the puppy down again and found a flashlight. He left the door open behind him and he crossed the yard, entered the wood. He'd walked, calling for her, twigs and leaves crunching beneath his feet. The woods were quiet and dark. The hair on his neck prickled.
When at last he’d found her, he wished he hadn’t. He wished he hadn’t seen the blood trickling from between her lips to the damp carpet of fallen leaves, the blood puddling around the slices in her blouse, the blood blushing in the whites of her open, glassy eyes, eyes focused and unfocused on the treetops growing black against the night sky. He had not screamed “Fuck” then. He had screamed an unintelligible garble of hollow, desperate noise.
What everyone else had seen was him carrying his dead wife down the street, the both of them covered in her blood with no explanation. They stood on their doorsteps with their hands over their mouths. There was no one to be found to blame for the act, no one but him. And, for a while, they’d blamed him. He was carted away, his wife buried without him while he failed to sleep for nights behind iron bars. Cora’s family didn’t blame him, but, in time, they’d stopped talking. And now most of them, too, were dead. “We know it wasn’t you,” Cora’s mother had assured him. It might as well have been, he’d thought. It was me who brought her here, and I shouldn’t have. They let him go. For a while they looked for someone else, when other women turned up like Cora in the following years. But eventually the police stopped looking; “Random act of violence,” Hugh had heard them say. Cases can only stay hot so long.
Now Hugh lies broken on his lawn. And I will die here, he thinks, clutching his arms to his chest. And no one would find him for days at least, more likely months. No one would come to look for him until the bills stopped being paid, or until someone’s dog smelled his death and demanded their owner follow. No, Cora says.
“No,” Hugh says. No. I have survived two wars. This is not where I die. During his lying there, in pain and pity, the sun has dipped, casting long shadows across the yard. Hugh takes deep breaths, fills his lungs, compresses them in slow releases. He clenches, rolls to his stomach, and digs in his elbows, using his forearms to pull himself along the ground. Each shift, each tiniest movement fills him with needles of pain. No, not needles. Swords.
You’ve never had a sword in you before, you don’t know what that’s like.
But I’ve had a bullet.
You said this hurts worse.
It is not the worst I’ve ever hurt. Cora, just let me come to you, he says.
But she is silent.
A sob rises in him from the pit of himself, unexpected and overwhelming. He must pause, though he’s only moved a foot. He buries his face in the fresh cut grass and sobs. When he gulps, shards of grass enter his mouth, his nose. He sneezes and groans. Biting his lip, he struggles forward, his arms weak. He makes it halfway across the lawn. Tremors quiver through him. He is filled with thirst, his tongue like sandpaper in his mouth, his throat dry as tortoise skin. He moves again. He will crawl to the front yard—there’s no fence between them—he’ll crawl to the front and someone will see him, call for help.
He crawls and he aches. All that’s left of his body weeps to quit. The blue of the sky deepens, the day is cooling. He is rounding the house now, he is almost in view. He sobs with relief and pain. Then he feels his head grow fuzzy, black edges encroaching in his vision, and he cannot get his body to move. No… he groans inside himself as the world around him darkens.
When Cora was gone, Hugh felt the eyes on himself, the same one she’d claim were scrutinizing her. He had convinced himself they had all killed her, that it was their fault she was taken from him, and he would not speak to them. It had been one of them, after all, that had called the police who'd come and carted him away. And no one had stopped them to say, “That’s nonsense, he’d never do that to her.” They had never vouched for him because he had never given them a reason to. He imagined they had said, “They were quiet, kept to themselves. She was timid, always hiding—who knows?”
Red light cuts through the dense fog of his vision. He is jarred and jolted, and the sound of hollow metal knocking against hollow metal fills his ears. A blue-gloved hand rests on his chest. It belongs to a girl—no not a girl, she’s a woman—who smiles at him with perfect teeth. “Hold on there, sir, we’re taking care of you,” she says.
“Lucky thing your neighbor came home when he did,” says the young man next across from her. “Saw you laying there in the grass, called us right away.”
Hugh can see the neighbors, the ones that live where Emma used to, standing in their driveway, watching. They are a quiet family, even the two children. The children turn to their parents, expressions concerned, the parents comforting. Have they waved to him before? Smiled at him over the fence? Hugh knows he has never spoken to them. They just moved in, that’s why, he tells himself.
Sweetheart, they’ve been there three years, she says.