Ten years earlier
That day, ten years ago, Jon struggled with the key in the door, his thoughts in disarray. How would he break the news to Harriet? He had hoped to return home with Lady, perhaps with some dog medicine and a prescription for lots of rest and recovery time. But his trembling hands were empty except for Lady’s old dog leash, now unnecessary. At the moment he climbed into the taxicab with their beloved pet, he feared he may return without her. He knew that outcome was most likely though he had hope it would be otherwise.
He managed to fit the key into the slot, turn and open the door. Jon stepped onto the inside landing and called to Harriet; his voice subdued.
He removed his jacket and hung it on the wall hook beside the door.
He climbed the short staircase slowly, as if each of his legs weighed a thousand pounds. He called to Harriet again. No answer. He stood at the top of the landing stairs and listened for her to acknowledge his return. Only the low buzz of the refrigerator and the hum of the furnace fan could be heard in their small old house. No tick of Harriet’s annoying metal alarm clock with the alarm bells on its top, no drip from the kitchen faucet he’d promised to fix for the last two years and of course no scraping of Lady’s toenails on the floor as she made her way to greet him home. The air was thick.
As he stepped through the doorway into the kitchen his eyes were instantly drawn to Harriet’s legs stretched out on the floor, her body hidden by the kitchen table. She was still. Jon called her name. Had she slipped and fallen? Nothing seemed out of place, no broken dishes, no spilled food or laundry basket, everything appeared normal, except dear Harriet. Surely she wasn’t sleeping on the kitchen floor, in the middle of the day. Jon stepped closer. She was wearing her spring dress, with the red and white flowers, neatly draped in place, as if she had taken care not to wrinkle the fabric when she laid down. Her black pumps, polished from the night before, were on her feet, ready for her morning walk with Mrs. Katz, from next door. Her dark brown hair was combed and sprayed, most every hair still perfectly in place. Her deep red lipstick was painted precisely and her eyebrow and eye makeup all perfectly done. She was ready for the day.
He was numb, confused, as if he was in a dream of disbelief.
Harriet’s eyes were wide, her mouth just barely open, as if she was about to speak, perhaps to say ‘don’t worry, I’m okay. I’ll be fine, in time’. It was as if she had just quietly placed herself onto the linoleum for a nap.
‘She looks peaceful’, Jon thought.
He called her name quietly, asked her if she was okay. There was no answer. He called her name again. Still nothing. He knelt beside her slowly, holding himself steady on a kitchen chair. His bones creaked as he lowered himself, trying to remain quiet so as not to disturb her, not to wake her if she was just resting. He leaned his face over hers, looked into her open eyes and saw there was no life in them. Harriet Magnusson was gone.
It came over him in a slow agonizing wave. Confusion, disbelief, fear and then panic. It was too late for an ambulance. ‘She waited until I left the house so she could depart in peace.’ He imagined her rising upward, like smoke rising into the sky. She was rising with Lady. ‘Rising to where? Why rising?’
‘I should call someone’, he dialed their son Magnus’ number.
“Your mother seems to be dead,” he said, then hung up the phone. He did not wait for his son’s response.
Jon Magnusson laid on the kitchen floor beside Harriet as if they were two stiff mannequins waiting to be put away. He put his hand in hers, remaining still and quiet, waiting for someone to come and wake him from his day of terrible dream. Her hand was cold.
That was more than ten years ago. That was when the first talk began of Jon going to live with his son Magnus and daughter-in-law Wilma, so they could take care of him, now that he was alone. ‘Now that mom’s gone’, Magnus said.
But Magnus had just retired. Jon could not see him having to go from working for a living all his life to now babysitting his eighty-nine year old dad. And Wilma was coming down with the arthritis and osteoporosis and painful varicose veins. No, he would stay put. It was Walden who was the first to bring up the idea of a retirement home. A place where he could be with other like-minded senior folks. But Jon didn’t want to be imprisoned with a bunch of old people. No, he would stay put, in his little house. They could come and visit him now and then, if they wanted, even stay over in the guest room for a night or two, but he was staying put. With Harriet’s ghost. Lady’s too. Besides, he was in better shape than both of them put together; he’d be the one taking care of them and he had no time for that. He had done his duty wiping noses and changing diapers.
“Don’t expect me to be changing your diaper again,” Jon said to Magnus. “Just because you’re old and can’t hold your water.”
‘Ten years ago’. Time had passed so quickly, it seemed like all that happened just last year or maybe the year before. Just as well he didn’t move in with Magnus and Wilma or he’d be dead too now, from breathing in that carbon monoxide furnace air. Poor Magnus, poor Wilma, but at least they went peaceful, in the night, together in their own bed. They should have known something was up when both of their canaries died at the same time. But now there was not even them to bring his supper around and check on him. Who would pay the housekeeper lady, who always came at the most inopportune times, who always disturbed him when he was reading or writing or spending his half hour on the toilet or naked in the bathtub. Who would remind him to take his blood pressure medication and joint pills.
It was the doors he remembered most. The doors in the vet’s office; the bathroom, the exam rooms, the door to the death room that once passed through with the life you loved in your arms, could never be exited without despair. And the doors he saw while kneeling beside Harriet’s body. Looking down the hallway that led off the kitchen. The bedroom doors, all opened so the daylight could be spread throughout the house. The bathroom door at the very end of the hall. He imagined Harriet standing at the sink, looking into the mirror making her makeup perfect, primping her hair that never seemed out of place.
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