She stands on one leg at the front door in the heavy dusk, balances the paper bag of groceries on her knee, and fumbles for the key. She has knocked, three times, and now listens for movement inside, peers through the dark window, unsurprised to find no lamps on.
Just inside the doorway, the bag crashes to the floor. A tin of water chestnuts rolls across the hardwood. She gropes for the light switch.
From the back room, his studio, he calls her name. His voice is weak, hoarse, gravelly from lack of use. “Is that you?”
She does not answer.
Nothing is left to say.
Either he’s been sleeping and is now in a black fog or else he’s been sitting in the dark again, half finished sculptures littering the tables, house dust collecting on top of the clay dust that already covers all the surfaces. For months now, he has let her clean the kitchen and bathroom, let her vacuum the rooms and hallways, but his studio is off-limits, his cave when he needs time to think. Or not think. From her distance, it’s hard to tell.
She turns on the kitchen light and sees that everything is just as she left it the night before, the dishcloth left to dry on the sink divider, the clean cup towel folded and on the counter. When she opens the refrigerator to get out the vegetables, it is almost empty, the small containers of last night’s leftovers exactly where she left them, untouched.
The flatness of his voice never fails to hurt her, although she knows she should be accustomed to it. He rarely looks at her, never touches her.
A couple of months ago he finally commented. “I think I may be coming down with the flu.”
“For six months?” She slammed the table with the coffee spoon she had held in mid air. He’d hardly blinked, as if her anger were not worth registering.
She looks around at the floor only she mops, the table only she wipes down.
When she gets out the cutting board and begins to chop the vegetables with a large cleaver, hitting the surface in loud thuds, he calls her name again, his voice no stronger than before. She pauses, listens.
“Please,” he calls to her. “Come here.” And then, when she is silent, “I need you.”
That’s rich, she thinks, too numb to laugh. All these months she’s swallowed her pride, given and given to him, only to have him call her less, need her less. In the car, she made up a haiku: “Women give and give/ and give and give and give and/ Men don’t give a shit.” In her mind, she makes excuses for him. He is tired. He has a big show approaching. One day she whispered, “I think you’re depressed.”
He was quiet, thoughtful. “I’m not depressed,” he said. “I’m just stiff.”
“Like I’m changing,” he said. “My eyes aging. Like I’m seeing in texture, everything grainy.” He seemed sad, distant.”Like my eyes are turning to wood.”
That’s so like him, she thinks now. Always the artist. Special. Ordinary depression too common. Him, he’s turning into wood. She attacks an onion with the cleaver and hears the thwack echo from the inch thick oak of the cutting board. He hates it when she’s loud in the kitchen, claims it disturbs his concentration. She opens a cabinet door and slams it shut for good measure. The noise ricochets throughout the house.
It was not always this way. She remembers in the beginning his aloofness was part of the charm. The lonely artist. His work shown in a top tier gallery, his agent dealing with the day to day. His studio: a refuge of intense meditation. His art: his thoughts 3D, tangible in clay, in sand, then bronze. Lately: just clay. Over and over, the same forms, little variation. His hands for weeks in clay.
She puts two plates into the oven to warm. She will tell him tonight that she’s leaving, wash the dinner dishes, and quietly leave. No scene. He will hardly miss her. She folds the napkins and gets out the salt and pepper. Dinner is almost ready. She puts the kettle on for tea.
“I need you,” he says, his voice rattling, “to see.”
Maybe he has finally made his masterwork, something substantial and lasting. Her job in the kitchen is almost complete, just waiting for water to boil. She wonders if it is a large piece, something new, something he has spent his energies on. She steps toward the hallway.
“See what?” she asks.
Now it is his turn to be silent.
“See what?” she repeats.
Her heels click on the bare wood; the copper bottom of the kettle complains of heat.
“I need you.” His voice: weaker, scratchy. “I need you to come here and see.”
She walks with care down the dim hallway and turns to enter his studio. She was correct. He’s in the dark. Since she never comes into this room, she does not know where to find the light switch. She feels the wall with one hand, then both. She stumbles over a chair, almost falls.
“Never mind about that,” he says, his voice little more than a whisper. “Come here.”
“Where are you?”
“Follow my voice,” he says. “Here. Over here.” His voice: raspy. “I’m right here.”
She reaches him, and, in a turn of heart, holds her arms out to him.
“Give me your hand,” he says, grasping her arm, then her right hand. “Now feel this,” he says, guiding her. “Feel my eyes.”
She feels first the wetness of a tear on his cheek. When she leans to kiss it, she smiles to taste the salt of his tears.
But then, to her surprise, when her hand reaches his eye, beneath her fingertips roll the tiny raised ripples of grain.
A.M. Garner’s fiction has appeared in INTRO, the Black Warrior Review, and other magazines and anthologies, most recently in storySouth online. A collection of her short stories was selected as runner-up for The Virginia Prize. She has taught creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and currently teaches creative writing and a course in Southern fiction at the University of North Alabama.
Image by Ira Joel Haber, featured artist. View more of his work here.