“So, how was your day?”
We’re sitting down to meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and canned green beans. It’s Wednesday and that explains that. Thursdays is pork chops, minute rice, and boiled carrots. Fridays, fish sticks with tartar sauce. She’s not Catholic anymore, as far as I can tell, but Marion could never be accused of seeking adventure.
“Nothing unusual,” I say. The meatloaf’s dried out and the potatoes are lumpy, but that’s part of the picture. How long has this been going on? She could tell you. I stopped counting twenty-five years ago.
“How about you?” I say. Wednesday is her marketing day ‘cause that’s when the ads come out and she likes to get in on the specials, as if I didn’t make enough for her to shop regular.
“The Safeway had a good sale on pork chops. And I got some of those Oreo cookies you like.”
She said something else, but by then, to tell the truth, I wasn’t listening much. A new girl started at work today, young like they all are. But this one was different. Pretty, that’s not so unusual. But friendly. And, it seemed, especially to me. So, I was thinking about that and kind of wondering if she’d have lunch with me at Harry’s next door. Something in Marion’s voice, though, made me put down my fork. It wasn’t what you’d think. More a lack of feeling in what she said.
“I went and saw that doctor that Dr. Wilson sent me to.”
That’s all she said and she was paying a lot of attention to her green beans. Finally I said, “Yeah? Well, what’d he say?”
Then she did something really unusual. She got up and took her plate and went into the kitchen and I could hear the garbage running. She must have dumped out the whole plate of food. When she came back a few minutes later, she had her Sanka, as usual, but she had my attention too.
“So? What’d he say?”
“Well, it is a lump. The pictures don’t look good.”
“What do you mean?”
Her voice came back loud, like she was mad. Marion never gets mad. “There’s a lump and the pictures don’t look good. What do you mean, what do I mean?”
But she was looking at her Sanka, not at me. For a moment everything was dead quiet, which I can’t stand. “So,” I said. Then she raised up her head and looked at me.
“What do you think, Arnold?”
Cold, distant. Like it was my fault somehow, and she hadn’t called me Arnold for at least twenty years. There was a feeling running through me, like my blood was cold. Her eyes blazed out at me and we looked at each other until I couldn’t look any more, and I stood up and took my plate into the kitchen and scraped what was left of my supper down the garbage too. I took a long time washing everything before I arranged it carefully in the dishwasher. Outside the kitchen window I could see it was starting to get dark.
When I finally came back to the table, she wasn’t there. Just her cup, still full of the Sanka. Then I did a funny thing. I picked it up and took a sip. I don’t drink Sanka. That’s Marion’s drink every night after supper. I think that’s the first time I’d tasted it. It had cream and sugar and the warm sweetness was a comfort. I could see why she might like it. I took it with me into the living room where she was sitting in her chair, a woman’s magazine open on her lap.
“You left your Sanka,” I said, putting it down on the table beside her. She didn’t say anything. Finally I said, “Want to watch some TV?” We always watch TV after dinner.
“Okay.” She didn’t look up, just looked at her magazine and every once in a while she’d turn a page.
I was just standing there and finally I sat down and picked up the remote. “It’s Wednesday,” I said. “We could watch Eight is Enough.”
“You don’t like that show. Anyway, it’s a rerun.”
“A rerun is just what I want to see. Something funny.”
She didn’t look up. “It’s Wednesday,” she said. “You always watch CSI on Wednesday. Your favorite.”
“Well tonight I want to see Eight is Enough. You used to like it.” I clicked on the TV and surfed around until I found it, and it was just starting. She put her magazine down on the table, and I saw it was the Christmas issue of Woman’s Day. This was July. When the commercials started, I said, “Drink your Sanka. It’s good for you.”
“It’s cold,” she said.
“I’ll warm it up,” I told her. When I came back with the hot coffee, she was asleep in the chair, her head on her chest, and she scared me at first. I just stood there looking at her until I was sure I could see her chest rising and falling. I thought for a minute of my mother, the way she looked toward the end.
“Marion.” I said her name softly. How long since I’d said her name? She started awake and the peaceful look changed to troubled. “Let’s go to bed,” I said.
“It’s not even seven o’clock.”
“You’re tired. Come on.” I held out my hand and she took it, and like I was leading a little girl, we climbed up the stairs to the bedroom hand in hand. When we got there she went into the bathroom while I sat down on her side of the bed and waited. Eventually she came out wearing her nightgown, and I stood up and turned back the covers and she got in. I pulled the covers up snug around her, tucking her in. Her eyes were closed, and I brushed back the hair from her forehead.
“Do you need anything?” I said.
She took my hand and kissed the back of it.
“Sleep tight,” I said, and after turning out the light I went back downstairs. Eight is Enough was still playing and I sat and watched the whole thing while I drank the Sanka and the house around me echoed with a frightening emptiness.