Howie had taken to falling as of late. He fell in the shower, down the stairs, up the stairs, while brushing his teeth, getting out of the car.
Several times, Babs had found him asleep on their bedroom floor, snoring wildly, his cheek up against the plush carpet, his feet slung in the blanket and suspended inches off the ground. Each time, she urged him back into bed without waking him, not wanting to admit she’d married a faller.
But the affliction had only recently come to bear on their marriage. Babs had grown impatient with him—flippant even—knowing they would (if they hadn’t already) grow apart, become very different people, lead different lives, go in different directions. After all, Howie had taken to falling down and Babs had grown accustomed to staying up.
“I can’t leave the room for a second. There’s just no freedom in it,” Babs admitted to her bridge foursome at their weekly game. She hadn’t missed a bridge game in twenty years, and, though she imagined Howie at home falling that very second, she couldn’t bring herself to be there for it in lieu of showing up Judy Berridge’s private bridge lessons.
“One diamond,” her partner bid from across the table, unconsciously and uncannily twisting her diamond wedding ring. Babs glanced down at her own left hand, at the opal-shaped diamond sparkling against her blotted skin. Remembering herself, she looked back to her cards, full of hearts and points, and considered upping her partner’s bid to “two hearts,” though she wondered whether she’d have the hand for it, maybe even the guts for it, when her turn came.
“All couples grow apart,” Judy said.
“I just don’t see what the big deal is, staying upright,” Babs said. She folded her cards into a neat stack and held them as though they were one. “Everyone else does it.” She counted the cards she’d been dealt. “Why does he have to be so contrary?”
The following Sunday morning, as they walked, her arm hooked in his elbow, down the front walk toward their car, Howie’s foot caught a stone, and down he went, his tall, lanky body pulling him forward and away. Babs felt the weight tugging, begging her to follow. She squirmed her arm free of his and pulled away. “Howie!” she yelled, but it was no use. Down he went, like a tree felled, his arms splayed to brace his fall, his palms out and flat, hoping to catch on something first. Babs heard the smack of wrist on cement, followed by a cracking noise and her husband’s cry. “Oh,” she said, shaking her head. “You’ve broken something, haven’t you?” to which he simply nodded, sitting now on his backside, holding his right wrist in his left hand and grimacing.
“To the hospital then,” she said, bending over to take her husband’s arm again, careful not to go more than halfway to meet him, lest she be pulled down, too.
On the ride home, Babs glanced at her husband as he rubbed his naked skin next to the plaster cast, noticing that most of his arm had disappeared in it; she wondered what would disappear next in a similar fashion. She remembered that the doctor had given the cast at least four weeks, and she didn’t think Howie could go that long without using his hand and wrist to stay up. She’d have to become his hands, buttoning his shirts and tying his shoelaces. She imagined their home, wallpapered with safety bars and littered with furniture that lifted up so he wouldn’t have to go down.
“You know,” she said, her eyes cast ahead, her hands gripping the steering wheel. She never drove with him in the car—she in the driver’s seat and he in the passenger seat—and she felt the awkwardness of his being able to watch her face while hers stayed true to the road. Still, she thought, as she carefully chose the next words, she could get used to the driving, the staring ahead, which allowed a certain emotional detachment. “This is getting dangerous, your falling down all the time.”
“It wasn’t dangerous before?” he said, squeezing the plaster cast to test its strength and hardness. A long, silver strand of hair had fallen out of place from his crescent-moon shaped hairline, and it hung limply, as though having given up on him. Howie didn’t brush it out of the way or back into line, thinking it wasted energy for his one good hand, and instead let it dangle in front of his blue-green eyes like an older, ridiculous James Dean.
“I mean, what if something really bad had happened? Like you had fallen on your head. What would I have done then?”
“Call an ambulance, I suppose,” he said.
“And leave you there? On our front lawn, lying in your own blood, every dog coming to sniff at you while I stood there! I don’t think so.”
Howie leaned out the open window, letting the breeze on his face and watching the town pass before him like a picture reel. Babs noticed him squinting, as though he’d not seen these same buildings year after year, and she wondered how many years had passed since he’d cared to look at them.
“What will you do with me?” he said, balancing his casted forearm on the door, hanging it out the window and letting the air whip through it: in by the fingers, out by the elbow. His arm caught resistance, and it flew up and then coasted back down, like a bird, a thing so childlike that Babs almost scolded him to pull his arm in.
“I’m not going to do anything with you,” she said, her voice now shrewd, her knuckles white on the wheel.
“But you’ve gotten so good at that, honey.”
But Babs hadn’t heard him. She’d been thinking, instead, about a day on the beach, before they’d had kids, when Howie had buried himself in sand, only his gaping mouth free to beg like a hungry begging crab. She’d fed him grapes and champagne until he’d spit them out laughing. Now, she wondered where that husband had gone, this one a different, less desirable kind of helpless. She cringed thinking about having to spoon-feed him.
“I’m just saying, you can’t write out checks,” she said. “You can’t open medicine bottles or wash yourself while holding on to the towel bar…”
“What am I good for, then?” He smiled, teasing her, his voice loftier than before. But Babs considered his question, pondering what role he’d play in her life from here on out.
“That’s not what I’m saying. It’s just, you’ll need someone to look after you.”
“I think I can get by one-handed for a few weeks.” Though, Howie didn’t look sure. He flexed and stretched his fingers, like they might have gone numb and lifeless. “When did Johnson’s Donuts go under?” he said.
Babs glanced at him, feeling her face grow angular and ugly. “We’re calling Dr. Brenner tomorrow,” she said. “Maybe he can recommend some care for you.”
Babs felt the sprawling quiet of their home in those first days living alone, Howie off to the nursing home as though to octogenarian summer camp. At first, she still cleaned the house at five o’clock, just as she’d done for years, having once satisfied Howie’s comforts. She even moved a pair of Howie’s old slippers, which she’d tried to toss years ago, from the middle of the kitchen floor to the foot of their bed, thinking that Howie might trip on them. But, after a few days, five-o’clock cleaning became six-o’clock cleaning, and then seven, and then things left in the middle of the floor were no longer visible. Eventually Babs stopped cleaning all together, finding that, alone, she didn’t make much of a mess. Howie’s shoes didn’t litter the front hall. His empty coffee mugs didn’t sit on the arms of the couch. No longer having to cook specific foods that Howie requested, like steamed fish and broccoli, she often skipped dinner, snacking, rather, on crackers and cheese or rolled up pieces of salami, so that she didn’t need to do any dishes, and she felt lighter in the mornings, especially after having spent the night free of thunderous snoring. Babs took baths without interruption. She sat through an entire cup of warm coffee, never having to get up to refresh someone else’s. And she traveled from room to room—as she always did—looking for something, though now no one followed closely behind her, sometimes cornering her in the closet and asking, What do you need, honey?
“It’s wonderful,” she confessed at bridge, placing her like-cards together, the major and minor suits still apart. “I still have all the benefits of a partner. Only now, when I’m lonely, I can visit him, and when I’m annoyed, I have the house to myself. It’s like having a long-distance boyfriend.”
“Or a bridge partner.”
“But I wouldn’t want to be married to my bridge partner,” Judy said.
“What does Howie think of it all?” her partner said, picking through her own hand.
Babs held her hand close to her breast and breathed deeply. “To be honest, I haven’t much thought of that.”
Babs visited the afternoon Howie got his cast cut off, hoping to celebrate. The dull, chilled spring had finally given way to sun, and Babs felt hopeful and lively. She showed at lunchtime carrying homemade egg salad and a baguette to share.
“I got some tomato seeds,” he said, the two of them sitting in The Oaks garden, in wrought-iron patio chairs that rocked slightly as they leaned into them, eating Bab’s lunch. “And a clay pot and some soil. I’m going to start them indoors. Still too cold at night for ‘maters.”
“Oh?” She marveled at all the tidbits he seemed to know, the helpful pointers for making and fixing things, and she felt something like unease, then, at the thought of him gardening. “In a pot, you say?”
“Yup.” Howie rocked gently and nibbled the corners of the wheat-bread sandwich, staring up into the trees. Babs noticed a change in her husband’s face in the day’s light—his upturned chin, his smacking lips, his lifting and dropping toes as he rocked himself into a soft hum—and she realized she hadn’t seen him look so carefree in a while.
“You’ve never said, how’s your bed here? Comfortable?” She thought the mattress might have been different, that he slept more soundly at night.
“It’s fine.” He gazed down the path that led to the wide community garden, where three women in brimmed hats picked at budding weeds. “Everything here’s just fine.”
“And the nurses? Have they given you anything to help you rest? Maybe nice massages?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” he said, laughing. He glanced sideways at Babs and took a hearty bite of egg-salad sandwich. Babs bristled, something about his eyes distant, like he was talking to a college friend.
She touched her fingers to his healed wrist, now pale and thin. “And the falling?”
“Not so much.” He pulled his arm from her touch and took the last bite of his sandwich. He brushed his hands clean of crumbs and smeared a long silver strand from his eyes. “You look rather fresh today, honey,” he said, as though surprised by it. “Did you do something with your hair?”
“No, I—,” she said, thinking how she had stopped doing it the way he’d always liked, with it pinned up at the sides. She touched its edges.
“Oh!” Babs sat upright. “I forgot drinks. I’ll get you some lemonade.” She leaned forward in the chair, bracing herself on its arms to stand. But Howie laid a hand on hers and patted it.
“Don’t you worry yourself one bit, honey,” he said. “They have helpers here. Someone will bring us some.” He craned his neck and stuck his arm in the air, and sure enough, a young woman showed and nodded as he spoke. Babs thought she saw him wink at the young woman as she left.
That afternoon, Babs ventured to her shed for a large pot, thinking she’d start a few tomatoes and cucumbers, too, in the house, just as Howie had. She culled piles of mended pots, noticing the care Howie had taken to glue their seams right and to brush away the excess glue. She could hardly tell the pots been broken at all. She smiled as she chose the perfect one, a tall, narrow pot with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage, and she brought it into the sunroom, filled it with potting soil, and pushed the seeds down until she couldn’t see them anymore.
For dinner, she grilled a cheese sandwich, eating it off a paper towel. Thinking a pickled sounded good with it—a spear or two tucked between the buttered bread and melted cheese—she dug in the fridge for Howie’s dills, but the lid wouldn’t open. She shoved it back in the fridge and stared at the half-eaten sandwich on the counter, now cold and rubbery. She left it there to sit in the sunroom, where she stared at the pot of dirt over new cucumber seeds, convincing herself she saw something growing in it. She hadn’t thought to ask Howie how long she’d have to wait before seeing something sprout.
Babs picked up the phone and dialed his number, imagining him sitting nearby in his easy chair, propped in front of the television. The phone rang twice, and she thought it odd he didn’t answer; he never missed the nightly news. It rang a third time and a fourth, and his answering machine kicked on. The voice on the recording didn’t sound like Howie’s, though she knew it was. It sounded like a boy’s, the scruff of Howie’s years gone. She imagined he’d fallen somewhere, like in the shower, where he was now stuck, cold, naked and wet, yelling for help, and she regretted not being there to pick him up. Then, she thought he might be sitting on his patio, perhaps with some new friends, talking fondly of old days long gone, romanticizing them because they wouldn’t return. And she remembered Howie winking at that young woman who’d taken their lemonade order and wondered if she was still on duty. Perhaps, Howie was ordering beers now and telling her jokes at Bab’s expense. Suddenly, this game she was playing felt very off.
Babs sprang from her seat and rushed to The Oaks, find him, wrap him up in her arms and tell him that she’d hold him up forever if she needed to, so that he’d never, never have to fall without her again. When she arrived, she found the entry-nurse pulling the clipboard away and closing the plexiglass door to the visitor hall. Babs knocked on it, and the nurse pointed to the clock and shrugged.
“Visiting hours are over,” she mouthed.
“But we still have time!”
“But I’m his wife!”
The nurse furrowed her brows and left the office.
Babs wandered the front hallways, not yet ready to go back to her car and drive home. She paced the waiting room, glancing at the posters lining the walls with gray-haired beauties laughing as they played shuffleboard. Underneath each one, the tagline read, A carefree retirement. A new life. Babs felt faint. She needed to sit down. She let herself fall into the closest chair, her hips sinking into it. She rested her head on her open palm, the ringing in her ears like a blabbering bridge partner. You played your hand wrong.
“Babs?” a voice said in the hallway behind her. “Honey?”
Babs looked up, craning her neck to see Howie standing there, a cup of milk in his hand, his bathrobe pulled tightly around his waist. His eyes narrowed and his head dropped, like the old Howie’s would have done.
“Is everything alright?” he said.
“Oh, sweets!” Babs said and sighed. She placed her hand to her chest, feeling her heart in it, and laughed once before covering her face, blocking out the world that had faded from her view only minutes before. She shook her head and looked up at her husband, who shuffled toward her. “Yes, yes, everything is alright. Just a little dizzy is all.”
“What are you doing here?” He bent at the waste, slightly, just enough to scan her face. “Can I get something for you? A glass of milk?”
Babs had never seen Howie so radiant—so dashingly handsome—bending over her in his light-blue robe, holding in his shaky, healed hand a warm glass of milk.
“Yes, yes, that would be nice.”
“Stay here and rest,” Howie said, patting her shoulder twice before walking off toward the community kitchen, his legs looking so strong and stable that Babs, like a young girl in love, couldn’t recall a single time he’d fallen.