O, ANNIE by Karin Lewis
My Wife Is Not Crazy
SHE'S MAKING A SOUND, a series of sounds really, like interrupted hiccups. They’re not unlike sounds she made when we used to make love. Now these sounds come when she’s anxious or fearful, which is more and more the case.
She’s seated next to me in her new doctor’s waiting room, her hand gripping and ungripping my wrist. “It’s okay, Ann, honey,” I say, in as modulated a tone as I can muster. I put my hand over hers and pat-rub, slowly and softly.
Suddenly she stands up and lunges toward the front desk, startling the hell out of the poor young receptionist. She pounds both fists on the counter, one after the other, crying out plaintively, “When? When? WHEN?” She lays her head on the counter, exhausted. I can’t help thinking she’s spoken for every sorry soul who ever languished in an overcrowded waiting room.
We’re ushered into a separate anteroom across from the check-in desk, where they can keep an eye on us. “I’m sorry, Toey,” she says, her nickname for me ever since our son mispronounced my name as a little boy. She nestles her head in the crook of my neck and I stroke her hair.
“No, no,” I say, and “There, there.”
She’s still beautiful, my wife Ann. She’s 55 and can look ten years younger. Men still stir when she’s near. On her best days she’ll have her honey hair brushed up and away from those breath-quickening cheekbones, her eyes will be dancing with the old whimsy, and she will not have her jacket on inside-out. Today isn’t one of those days.
We’re finally in a frigid windowless cubicle with a Dr. Theo Gittes, the neuropsychologist our GP has been touting.
“How goes it, my friend?” he says, looking up from her chart. He’s wearing argyle socks. I already hate this guy.
She’s tired from her earlier outburst. She won’t even look at him. Her eyes shift from side to side, she swallows hard. I know she’s searching for something to say that will sound regular, run-of-the-mill, not crazy. Gittes inhales audibly, about to swoop in and save the day.
“It….it GOES,” she finally manages, followed by a long, loud sigh. I can’t help myself–I chuckle, glorying in her relief. Gittes shoots me a disparaging look, and I shoot back my best ‘just how big an asshole are you?’ look, and she’s seen us and is laughing, and her laugh has the old music in it, not a hint of desperation.
A Painting of Shane
Ann is in her studio and she is happy. I know she’s happy because I can hear her humming. I can hear her humming because I had a sound system installed, a high-tech baby monitor, so that I can keep track of her. There’s a camera component but I only look at it if I haven’t heard her in a while or if she’s sounding distressed. I don’t know how much longer I can afford her that dignity.
After Shane was born, something blossomed in her, as if having him made her whole being fertile. By that time we’d traded my rent-controlled Chelsea apartment for a sturdy little Cape Cod in central New Jersey. She took over the back bedroom and began to paint huge canvases that could barely fit out the door, each a riot of color and movement. The Arts Guild in Rahway gave her a show; a pretty big fish New York art dealer liked what he saw and, like that, put two of her paintings in his new gallery, two blocks from where we’d lived. This was a fairytale of effortlessness, just like her. As they say, the rest is history.
I’d taken a job teaching Honors English at a local high school. The way I had it worked out for myself, the creative life was Ann’s. I’d stopped calling myself a writer a long time ago. She was able and big-hearted, taking care of Shane and me, all the while making her art. She and Shane had a delicious connection, kindred spirits with the same sense of humor, the same faces. She read to him every night, their heads bowed together. I’d watch them from the hallway, proud to have had a hand in it at all. And in bed with me she was deeply engaged, giving, thankful, ecstatic.
I became something of a gardener, spending weekends mowing, seeding, transplanting, scouring nurseries for just the right perennial. Sometimes I brought Shane with me, hoisting him onto one of the big nursery shopping carts, watching him delicately inspect my selections with his chubby little boy hands.
“Toey, I need you.” She sounds okay, no tone of imminent disaster. I use a post-it to mark the page of a student essay I’m grading, amble up the stairs, knees crunching. I walk into her studio these days not knowing what to expect. Will she have taken her clothes off and used them to paint with? Will she be crawling around on the floor, wailing, looking for a brush like it was a lost puppy? No, today she’s standing calmly at her big pine work table.
She’s laid out a grouping of photographs. From fifteen feet away I can tell they are all of Shane: from running, laughing backyard toddler to prepubescent comedian to his current teen-angst-hoodie stage.
She’s studying the pictures, touching their edges reverently. I get the feeling she’s posed herself for me. She curtsies, something she’s taken to doing lately. She has her hair tied back with a colorful scarf. I walk over and kiss her forehead. My lips can feel her smile. All good signs.
“Help me pick,” she says.
“Pick what, honey?” Keep it light.
“A picture!” It’s her little girl voice. “I want to paint Shane so he’ll come back,” she says. Shane left home seven months ago, two days before his sixteenth birthday, on a terrible night Ann can’t quite remember, and I wish I could forget. He came in hours late, rain-soaked to the skin, reeking of cigarettes and dope. She attacked him, hitting him so hard his nose bled. He moves around, living with one friend or another, most recently with Dev, the drummer in their band, The Sum of Nothing. We haven’t seen him, even once, though he occasionally answers our texts in monosyllables.
She’s waiting for me to respond, but I’m unable to speak. I think she may be holding her breath. “I’ll paint him before he got mad,” she’s saying, her voice darkening. She’s clenching and unclenching her fists. Not good.
“It….it will……work! You’ll see!” She’s working herself up, head bowed, rubbing her elbows furiously. I try to hold her but she won’t unbend her arms. She butts her forehead against my clavicle, then again, hurting me like hell. I break away from her, stumbling backward, nearly falling. Now she’s crying hysterically, deep, guttural sobs, calling out, “Shane…Shane….oh my Shane....” She sits down hard on the floor of her studio. I envision the resulting bruise, spreading out from her tailbone, covering the top third of her buttocks. I suppress the urge to comfort her, knowing she might very well pummel me. She sits there, head hanging, like a rag doll propped up to a sitting position.
I saw a documentary a few years ago, long before her diagnosis, about a group of adult siblings, the oldest of whom, a woman roughly Ann’s age, was already in the later stages of the disease. Eventually every one of the brothers and sisters was stricken, but the story centered on the oldest. There were family photos and video clips of the woman she had been: the beloved big sis, life of the party, with such shiny dark hair. That hair had since been hacked off butch-short, cowlicks every which way. Who had done it? The family? The “facility” she finally inhabited? Maybe she’d done it to herself. She wandered around, the camera following her, completely gone from herself and the world. I vow, I swear, that I will do whatever it takes to keep Annie here with me.
Let them try to get their hands on her hair.
You’re the One
On our second date, Annie took me to a party in a Soho loft, thrown by one of her artist friends. It took everything I had to fake an attitude of casual frivolity, as in ‘I do this all the time, no problem.’ Because it was a huge problem. I had all of two people I could even claim as acquaintances, let alone friends: Brian, from my college days, who lived in Baltimore and who I spoke to maybe twice a year; and Jake, from my building, a small-time lawyer I sometimes went drinking with. I liked to hear him talk while I got drunk.
The place was packed. Cerebral jazz blared from the speaker system. With her arm around my waist, which would have aroused me had I not been so miserable, she wove us through the crowd, stopping here and there to introduce me. An artist of some renown, according to Ann, with a curtain of dark hair hovering just north of his eyes, sized me up with a bemused look. ‘So you’re the writer,’ he said. Ann stroked my back, kissed my shoulder, never taking her eyes off him.
"Play nice, Tommy," she said.
We took the bus out of the Port Authority at three in the morning, back to her studio apartment above a storefront in downtown Rahway.
The walls were the color of her: tender, glowing peach. She took off her coat, then helped me take off mine. She put her arms around me and kissed my neck. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she whispered.
Her bed was a mattress in a corner, draped in one of those Indian gauze things they used to sell in the Seventies, piled high with pillows and stuffed animals. She took my hand and led me over. Any trepidation I had about being able to please her seemed to evaporate off my skin.
My body fit just so into every curve. She guided me, showed me what she liked. Thank you, she kept whispering, thank you, thank you.
She slept with her head on my shoulder, occasionally rearranging herself, smacking her lips like a little girl. Then she woke up and sat back, wide-eyed.
"I think you’re the one," she said. "You are completely and utterly glorious."
"Who are you?" I said.
"I’m who you’ve been waiting for, silly. Don’t you get it? I’m here, and you’ll be all right now."
I Hear Her Praying
I’ve slept in the guest bedroom for close to a year now. Ann has become so restless. She’ll awaken with that blind fear, crying out, kicking and punching violently. When it first started I’d hold her tight, the way we used to pacify Shane when he was a baby. It often took close to an hour to get her settled again, then the next day I could barely function at school. Eventually I realized that she was never really awake during those bouts. Little by little I began to gently pull away and watch from the hall. It took her much less time to settle herself than when I was in the mix. Sleeping in this bedroom, I’ll hear her struggling down the hall and still start to move to her, but I’ve learned to stop myself. Within ten minutes, usually five or less, she’ll have quieted herself. On the nights before particularly important events at school–parent/teacher conferences, say, or an exam–I admit to wearing earplugs.
Tonight I hear her praying, a string of Hail Marys, droning, monotonous, almost a buzz. I tiptoe down the hall to check on her. She sits in moonlight, propped up against the headboard, holding her stuffed dog Buddy tightly to her belly.
“You okay, kiddo?” I say this in a whisper, yet her entire body flinches.
“Toey?” Her little girl voice. Used to be I only heard that voice during lovemaking, when she’d say something like, "Daddy, I’ve been a very bad little girl."
“Yes, honey. What can I bring you? How about some warm milk?”
“That would be……..very….nice.”
I head downstairs, grateful for something to do. I warm the milk in a saucepan, checking it with my finger. It tastes so damn good that I add enough milk so we’ll both have some. I drink my portion down and carry hers back upstairs in our largest cup, the one meant for soup. I sit next to her on the bed and turn her lamp on low. I help her with the cup and she sips gratefully from it, closing her eyes in pleasure. She wipes at the sides of her mouth with the back of her hand, like a child, and sits back. She adjusts her nightgown, re-positions Buddy, and lifts her eyes to meet mine.
“You have no one to take care of you now,” she says matter-of-factly.
That is, as they say, about the size of it.
What My Wife Does Now
Gets in shower, soaps up, can’t remember how to turn on water–yells for me
Takes a half hour to make coffee–keeps losing count of scoops and has to start over again
Greets me hysterical when I return from an errand, claiming I never told her I was leaving, that I am trying to ‘ditch the bitch’
Gets escorted out of the supermarket for squeezing tomatoes until they burst
Accuses the mailman, Frank, a truly kind and patient man, of withholding important “documents” she has been expecting to receive
Asks: "When did President Obama marry Hillary Clinton?"
Sits in her studio for hours, motionless, looking out those huge windows
Spends an entire weekend ‘alphabetizing’ the spice cabinet. When I notice rosemary is the first jar, she explains she alphabetized them by brand name
Touches my crotch when we’re in public
What My Wife No Longer Does
Sings. She of the beautiful voice, who knew lyrics from Gershwin to Gaga
Reads books or magazines. What she does read, slowly, deliberately, are instruction manuals to toasters and electric can openers, things she is no longer allowed to use by herself.
Remembers my birthday, or her own. She still has a tenuous hold on Shane’s–she can usually name the month, and come within a week or so of the day. A few weeks ago she eagerly asked me to ask her his birth date, and when I did she crowed: “March twenty-first, two thousand!” “Yes, honey, YES!” I yelled back, and then we were both crying and hugging and attempting some kind of polka around the kitchen table
Drives her beloved old Volvo wagon. After months of quiet talks and screaming matches, with me, with her doctors, she finally seemed to understand, and surrendered her keys
Uses the color black in her paintings, believing that if she brushes even a dot of it on the canvas it will grow like a bloodstain and engulf everything
Touches my crotch, or almost any part of me, when we’re in private.
I Try To Make Love to Her
She’s curled up on the couch cradling a huge bag of popcorn, watching a Barbara Stanwyk movie, the wonderful Babyface, one of our favorites. She has on one of those silly ‘as-seen-on-TV’ blankets with armholes. I come toward her, expecting her to startle and curl up tighter. Instead she lifts herself up to a sitting position, smiles, pats the couch next to her. Maybe I’m hallucinating, because she’s actually cried out in fear if I accidentally brush her shoulder. So I sit down beside her, and she still doesn’t flinch. She points at the TV, munching thoughtfully.
“Don’t we just love Barbara Stanwyk?” she asks, and I know it isn’t rhetorical.
“We sure do,” I say. “We sure do.” I take some popcorn. She swivels her head from Barbara to me. “I like how tough she is, but underneath she’s tender. I like that a lot.” She’s trying hard to launch a movie conversation.
“Me, too,” I say. “What’s your favorite Stanwyk movie?” She shuts her eyes tight and bows her head slightly, tapping her fingers against her chin. I hear the ticking of the Final Jeopardy theme. Then her eyes open wide.
“Stella DALLAS! Oh, and The Lady EVE…and…and Ball of FIRE!” She’s laughing giddily. “They’re ALL my favorite, Toey.”
And then she’s hugging me, her cheek on my throat. I stay very still, feeling her breath on my skin. Then she does the thing she used to do. She unbuttons the top button of my shirt and places her hand on my chest, lightly, barely nesting in chest hair. And, though novelty can be wonderful, it is a fine, warm-hearted thing when we both know what will happen next, that her hand will slowly make its way south to my nipple, and that the nipple will be teased expertly, and that I will carry her upstairs, my own Scarlett O’Hara. So I carry her to our bed, remove her blanket suit, and we begin, oh so slowly, since it’s been so long and I don’t want to frighten her. And for a few short minutes it almost seems like old times, our bodies in a dance, her little cries of pleasure a joy to hear. But then she’s falling away from me, winded or spent, unable to make the climb. “I…I can’t, Tony…I’m so sorry, I just can’t,” she’s saying, and I lift myself off and put my arm under her head.
Her breathing becomes more regular. “I’m not much of a woman anymore,” she whispers.
“Don’t say that, Annie. Please don’t ever say that to me.”
Annie and the Cops
My phone rings. “They’re going to arrest me.”
It’s Annie. By the time I get there she’s in the back seat of a squad car. She peers out at me, cheeks streaked with tears, hair wild around her face. She raises her hands to show me the handcuffs. Goddamn bastards! I give her my best ‘don’t-worry-baby-I’ll-take-care-of-this’ look as I size up the two cops: a young honcho with a shaved head and cold eyes, and his partner, closer to my age and paunchy, approachable. I keep my voice low and measured, explaining about Annie’s illness to Paunchy, thinking only of getting them to release her to me.
“She’s distraught since our son left home. I hope you can see how it is with her. She’s like a lamb, but she needs the boy, so she came here.”
“Some lamb,” says Paunchy, thumbs hooked on his belt, looking indignant. “She tried to punch me.”
I want to say, are you kidding me buddy? Not that I think she didn’t do it, but that this big jerk would make so much of it. “Sir, let me talk to her. If she says she’s sorry, will that make it right?” He appears to weigh the situation.
“Fine,” he says dismissively, making a fly-swatting gesture in Ann’s direction.
I walk over to the squad car, which makes her start crying again.
“Annie, honey, I need you to tell the officer you’re sorry, then we can go home.”
She shrugs her shoulders. “Okay.” I motion for Paunchy. He walks over and bends to look in at her, one hand on the roof.
“I’m sorry, Officer. I…I guess I lost my…my control. I won’t ever do it again, I promise.” Shirley Temple nailed it.
“Okay, lady, okay.” He swivels to face me. “You need to keep a better eye on her, you get me? Anything like this happens again, it won’t go like this.” Cop show dialogue.
He lets her out of the squad car, unlocks the handcuffs. I notice she’s wet her pants. I keep my arm tight around her waist as they drive away, then turn us to face the house where Shane now lives with his friend Dev. Nancy, Dev’s mother, stands in shadow at the picture window, arms folded. I will her to come out on the front porch. On the count of thirty she appears.
“I didn’t call the cops, Tony. It wasn’t me.”
“What happened?” I hold Annie tighter and look down into her eyes, forefinger to my lips.
“She just stood there yelling Shane, Shane, SHANE, louder and louder, and then she was hysterical and crawling around on the lawn, pulling out my grass. Shane isn’t even here for Christ's sake! He and Dev went somewhere, I don’t know, shooting hoops or something. I yelled for her to stop it, just stop it! Then she starts rolling around!” Nancy twirls her arms for effect.
Ann utters a low moan. Then, in a tiny voice: “Why won’t you tell him he can’t stay here?”
“Is that what you really want, Ann?” Nancy’s voice is softer, less strident. “Because it won’t make him come home, you know that. He’d be out on the street. You don’t want that Ann, I know you don’t.”
I make a conciliatory gesture to Nancy. She nods acceptance and we walk home.
It turned out an elderly woman neighbor had called the police. Scared, disoriented. Like Annie.
The Terrible Night
On a sleeting, blustery night last winter, on our way home from a movie, Ann and I had swung by to pick up Shane at a pool hall, one of those sterile, suburban billiard places (we’d even had his ninth birthday party there), where he’d gone with his buddy Pete. He wasn’t there like he said he’d be. The proprietor told us the two of them had left over an hour earlier. We tried with no luck to reach him on his cell. We went to Pete’s house. Pete came to the door in pajama bottoms, stifling a yawn. “My parents brought me home. Shane said he wanted to walk.” We went home. No Shane. Ann became more and more distressed as we drove through the surrounding neighborhoods, moaning and hugging herself. Out on the four-lane we finally spied him, walking alone on the steep, narrow shoulder, cars whizzing by at 50 and 60, his head hooded and bent against the rain and wind.
The sight of him.
On another night, along this same stretch of highway, Ann and I had seen a boy about Shane’s age, looking cold, uncared for, thrown away. Seeing Shane like this worked a poison in us, as if the figure of our son on the highway signified all the accumulated loneliness of our family. I fought the urge to grab him and stuff him in the back seat. We doubled back. When he finally came through the front door of our house, we were ready for him.
He was having trouble with his key. I swung the door wide, and he kind of stumbled in. He reeked of cigarettes and weed, and he was soaked. I looked at my wife, whose eyes were closed, as if in prayer.
I said, “Where the fuck were you?”
Before he could answer Ann came at him with her fists, screaming “You’re very bad, you’re not my boy. You’re not my boy anymore. I hate you, I hate you, I HATE YOU!” Shane deflected most of the blows, but at some point he just let his arms hang at his sides, and Annie landed a blistering slap across his face. He looked at her, shocked, holding his jaw. He stood there for a beat before shoved her fiercely away from him. She tottered backward, halfway down the hall, but kept her footing.
He said, “Fuck you, you crazy old bitch. FUCK YOU.” Then he turned and walked out, slamming the door so hard it created a hairline crack that continues to grow and flake paint on the carpet.
When she was pregnant, Ann knew with unwavering clarity that she was carrying a boy. We didn’t toss names around. There was only one name she wanted for him. It had been her favorite movie as a kid.
“Shane….” She’d say it over and over. “There’s a wildness to it, don’t you think? Like freedom.”
I have never loved the holidays, and by "the holidays" I mean the Big Two: Thanksgiving and Christmas. Let us count the ways that humans can misbehave around this time of year, from over-eating to over-drinking to driving drunk to having bone-headed expectations that things will be different this year to attempting to buy love with gifts to wanting things a certain way and behaving like a big baby if they don’t go that way, et cetera, et cetera.
I have been guilty, at one time or another, of all of the above. Last year at this time, Annie was still more-or-less herself. Shane was still here. He had a girlfriend, Chloe, his first real squeeze, and he was considering having Thanksgiving dinner at her house. Our consolation prize? They’d have dessert with us. I screamed at Annie when she told me she’d agreed to the plan. She made her pies for them. She sat with them. I stewed in a Seven-Eleven parking lot.
In her heyday Annie had been a terrific hostess. Today she sits at our kitchen table, dressed in shapeless clothing, her hair wild, her color bordering on gray. The Macy’s parade blares on the television. She has taken every magazine page and 3 x 5 card out of her recipe folder and fanned them out. She pushes the papers around, clearly confused. There will be no Shane today, and she knows it.
I put my hand on her shoulder. She shrugs it off.
“You all ri...”
“Just go away, okay? GO UH-WAY!”
I grab a sweatshirt and take a walk around the block. A wind has kicked up, blowing this morning’s rain off the tree branches. I come home. I gently talk Ann into taking a long, hot shower. When she emerges, pink and happily bleary-eyed (I had to come get her out or she’d have stayed in there parboiling for an hour), I help her get dried off and dressed. I stand behind her combing the tangles out of her hair.
“Annie,” I begin, sensing an opening. “I have an idea.”
“Really, Toey?” She is concentrating hard on applying lipgloss, stretching her lips over her teeth and squinting into a hand mirror.
“Really. I think we should keep it simple, very simple. Why don’t you make us one of those amazing pumpkin praline pies of yours. Let me take care of the rest.”
“To-ey!” She’s giggling. “Now you’re being silly. How can you…”
“Just wait!” I interrupt. “You’ll see. You may discover you underestimate me in the kitchen, my lovely.” She looks unconvinced. “Come on, give a greenhorn a chance already.”
She smiles ruefully, shaking her head. “Sure, okay Toey.”
I end up basting the hell out of the turkey with about a pound of butter. When in doubt, add butter, that’s my motto. I don’t even attempt the stuffing. I slice and sauté the yams in brown sugar and yet more butter, steam the string beans, open a can of cranberry sauce, and, voila, dinner is served. Ann has managed to produce her pie, and though it took her about four times as long and looks a lot the worse for wear, the taste is still there, incomparable as ever. We eat quietly, trading compliments. No mention of Shane. She seems to have forgotten he should be here.
I don’t tell Ann that I texted him this morning. I slip away and drive in the twilight to Dev’s. Through their bay window I see a group of people, lit by chandelier. I think of the word festive. I turn away, not wanting to see my son at that table. I text him.
I’m outside. Let’s talk
I tell myself I’ll give him five minutes. I watch the car clock tick off. 5:14 5:15 5:16 5:17 5:18. As I’m putting my key in the ignition, my son opens the car door, folds his long, lanky body into the passenger seat, and hugs me. The car is full of him. I will not cry.
“Hey, Dad, what’s up?” His customary greeting. Just like that, as if we’d seen each other yesterday, his voice sounding so beautiful and clear that for a second or two I forget every bad thing in life.
I’d thought about what I would say but decide to ditch the playbook. There is really only one question I have wanted to ask him all this time. The question I’ve bedeviled myself with, turning it upside down and inside out, making a case for every scenario I could come up with. None of that matters. Not ‘why did you leave us,’ though that last word—“us”—sticks in my throat. Just, simply:
“Why did you leave?”
He looks past me, tracing his index finger along the dashboard. “You don’t really want to know, Dad.”
“Oh but I do, I really do.”
He slouches a little and crosses his arms.
“Shaney, at this point, I think I can hear anything.”
He clears his throat. “The night Mom slapped me. That just kind of ripped it open.” He’s quiet for close to a minute, and then, “I saw her. I saw her with Jack Calipari.”
So he knew. Jack Calipari, a town councilman, the guy with the underground sprinkler system and the best lawn in the neighborhood. “What do you mean you saw her?”
He hesitates, then: “One night, summer before last. Dev and I were coming out of the billiard place. I saw Mom and Jack leaving that Italian restaurant a couple doors down…I always forget the name of it.”
“Right. I…she didn’t see me, ‘cause I backed up into the doorway. Almost knocked Dev down. I watched them going to their cars, and I saw the way she looked at him.”
“Looked at him? Like how?”
He seems disgusted with the question. “Like how? Like, like she wanted him, okay? Like she was hot for him.” He shakes his head and says “shit” under his breath.
And then I tell him a truth, a stretched truth, and a bald-faced lie.
“I knew, Shane.” Truth.
His face reddens. “FUCK!” He pounds a fist on the dashboard. “Then, then how could you just lay down and LET her?”
“Okay, okay, relax. Just relax.”
His nostrils flare. He shakes his head hard, like a dog. After a few seconds, he says, “I’m okay.”
“Okay. So, that was around the time that Mom was diagnosed.” A stretched truth. She and Jack had had a thing for months before she knew what she had. “I think she was trying to, to… (I’m groping, stalling)… beat back the disease. Say fuck you to everyone and everything.”
“Mostly to you.”
“I understand it looked that way.”
Shane shakes his head slowly. “It’s just that, I could never imagine Mom doing that. Never Mom. Other women, other moms even, they’re around town. They act like skanks. Mom was….is….lovely.” His voice catches in his throat.
A thought comes to him and he scowls. “That was the only time, just with him, right?”
“Of course,” I say softly, “of course.” Bald-faced lie. “But, it wasn’t just Mommy, was it? You’d been mad at me for a long time.”
“I guess I was mad about a few things.”
He shakes his head no. “Things are good, Dad. This is a good talk. Let’s leave it.”
“No Shane, I want to hear it. Please. I won’t be mad.”
He’s quiet. I can hear us both breathing. Then: “I just never thought you were all that happy with me. Like you wanted me to be somebody else.”
“Somebody else. Who?”
“Somebody who likes school, likes to read books. Somebody you could….talk about important things with.”
Oh, Shaney. O Shane.
I go in through the garage so I won’t ruin the surprise. I hear the doorbell, Annie opening the front door, her happy squeal, whispers, then the door closing. She meets me in the kitchen, pink-faced and glowing, looking in that moment like my real wife.
“Thank you, oh thank you,” she says, hugging me tight.
She carefully cuts two slices of pie, piling one of them with an Everest of whipped cream. She carries the two plates waitress-style in one hand, a big glass of milk in the other, to the dining room table, where her son is waiting. They sit there, huddled together like birds. Shane inhales his pie, then Ann gives him her slice. After a while I see her gently take his hands, and he does not pull away.
Into the Storm
In the middle of the night, I wake up shivering. I shuffle down the hall to the thermostat, thinking Ann must have turned on the a/c by mistake again. At the top of the stairs, I see that our front door has blown wide open. A dusting of snow (the beginning of a nor’easter I’d vaguely known was coming) covers the slate foyer and halfway up the stairs. The wind is knocking the door rhythmically against the foyer wall. When was I ever going to remember to buy a door stop?
I stand there naked, thinking that inane thought, then I’m running to her bedroom that used to be our bedroom. I scream her name over and over and over, running around the room, plowing into the walk-in closet, her favorite hiding place, shoving everything in my path aside, screaming, Annie, goddamn it, Annie, where are you? Tearing her clothes off their hangers, thinking maybe she’s standing behind them. She’d done it before. I hadn’t been able to find her for over an hour.
I fly down the stairs, dick flopping, slipping, falling hard on my ass. I sit there in the doorway, freezing, and there they are, barefoot tracks in the snow on our front stoop, down the steps, then barely visible across our lawn, swept by the wind, leading out to the street.
A week before Christmas. Shane is asleep in his room. His size thirteens (Ann called them clodhoppers) dangle off the end of the mattress. His mother has been gone for five days. The police and fire departments, friends and neighbors, everyone’s joined in the search. Shane and his friends nailed posters (with a sparkling picture of Ann pre-illness and the words Have You Seen Me?) on telephone poles and store windows and bulletin boards for miles around. Prayers have been offered in every house of worship. They dredged the creek across the street up to the point where it empties onto a concrete spillway over by the turnpike. They even arranged for a search-and-rescue dog to be flown in from Colorado, specially trained to detect avalanche victims.
Shane and I search for her every day and night, red-faced, noses dripping, putting one booted foot in front of the other. We’ve become a familiar sight around town, shovels and rakes in hand. Shane’s been intent on looking behind people’s bushes, up against their houses, reasoning Ann might have huddled in just such a place. We shovel chunks of crusted snow, then scrape with our heavy garden rakes behind bedraggled rhodys, azaleas and junipers. I have to cajole him to knock off each night. I’ve begun to realize he’s working hard not to find her, for by not finding her she could still be alive.
I follow him out to the back porch after dinner, bumming a cigarette, feeling the old pleasure of it. I’m getting hooked again, but who the fuck cares. We talk about the weather forecast, about how fast socks dry on a radiator. Then he says, “Do you think she got away?”
I feel a wave of nausea. “Come again?”
He clears his throat. “Do you think Mom could be still alive? I mean, we would’ve found her by now, right? Somebody would have.” Her son has hope; it’s there in his eyes. I can’t take it from him, so I say, “I think—I think anything’s possible.”
We spend Christmas Day at the multiplex. I give Shane money. “Go watch whatever you want, as much as you want.”
“I want to hang with you, Dad.”
We sit in the flickering dark, stuffing handfuls of popcorn into our faces. We leave around midnight, not wanting to go back to our house until Christmas is over.
A week later, and they’ve called off rescue efforts, gearing down to recovery mode. Shane is furious. He’s stomping around screaming, “fucking cops!” Then he begins to cry, tears squirting out of his eyes. “Don’t let them stop, Dad, don’t let them...DON’T LET THEM!” I try to grab hold of one of his flailing arms but he pushes me away. Then: “Wait a minute, wait a goddamn minute! Did they check the buses? DID THEY? Maybe she could have made it to the bus station...maybe, maybe she had some money on her, and she took a bus to New York and she transferred at Penn Station, and…”
I don’t tell my son the detectives have looked at days of surveillance video taken in both town bus terminals, calling me in once to look at footage of a woman who roughly matched Ann’s description. She was older than Ann, disheveled and clearly hammered, appealing to the ticket agent to let her ride gratis. I looked hard at that woman, someone I would have reflexively side-stepped around, probably holding my breath as I did, and realized how much my wife had come to look like her.
“Maybe she just got away somewhere, because it’s so hard for her here. Because life is so hard.” He falls into the big easy chair next to the fireplace, holding his head in his hands. “Oh, Ma, oh Ma,” he cries. “Please, Ma, please.”
The chief calls every day or so to check in. "My guess," he says on his most recent call, "is that we’ll find her within a two-mile radius of your house, whenever we get a thaw."
In mid-January, Shane and I reluctantly agree to return to school. The house is quiet. We don’t talk about his mother, which is fine by me.
I have this nightmare. Ann comes crashing through my bedroom door, an ice monster dressed in zombie rags, her frozen hag-hair sizzling and popping. She stands there cackling, melting in front of me.
In late February, after two 70-plus degree days produce flash floods across the state, a stock boy at Target, nearly three miles from our house, phones 911 to say that he’s found something odd, something orange, stuffed into the narrow space between the dumpster and the wall behind the store.
They bring in a truck to haul the dumpster away from the wall. It is the compressed, thawing body of a woman, dressed in pajamas and an orange parka, knees touching her chin, arms hugging her legs.
The autopsy confirms the cause of death to be hypothermia, caused by prolonged exposure to below-freezing temperatures. The assistant M.E., a kindly young woman, explains to me that victims may exhibit a behavior known as ‘terminal burrowing,’ or ‘hide-and-die syndrome,’ in the final stages of hypothermia, in which they wedge their bodies into small, enclosed spaces, such as underneath beds, behind large pieces of furniture or…
“Between a wall and a dumpster.”
“In this case,” she says softly, “I’m afraid yes.”
“How could she have gotten so far that night, in the cold, in all that blowing snow? She was barefoot, for Christ’s sake.”
“Humans are remarkably resilient, Mr. Darrow. Given her illness, your wife may have very likely been fearful. Fear is a colossal motivator. She may have felt she needed to run from something, or someone.”
I lie in the dark, thinking of the night Annie walked into the storm. I’m in her body, feeling disoriented and desperate, going, just going, but where? (When we had had arguments over the years, she’d sometimes leave and walk for hours. Maybe that’s what she thought she was doing.) Just walking, walking, sometimes stumbling, the snow swirling around her. Looking up, watching amazed as the snow falls harder, stinging her face. Feeling the pain of her feet starting to freeze, after a while not feeling them at all. Moving from streetlight to streetlight, letting them guide her, forever and ever, until she comes to a huge clearing, bright with the glare of what seems like ten thousand lights, a clearing so empty and white, glittering and beautiful: the Target parking lot. How festive, with its lampposts bedecked in holiday greenery! How perfect a place to be on this night! She imagines ice skating with the hippos from Fantasia, gliding effortlessly beside their huge bodies, twirling and capering to The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies. And then suddenly she’s very tired, stumbling again, her feet icy stumps. She needs to be away from the light, to find a place to rest. So nice and dark back here, and a little warmer out of the wind.
I’ve started sleeping in our bedroom again, on my side of the bed, on this mattress known so intimately by my body. I notice again the variations in light through the bay window, how when it’s windy the scrub maple branches scratch against the siding. I used to hate that.
I’ve re-washed every king-size sheet set and bedspread and blanket I can find in the linen closet. She liked to mix and match sheets and pillowcases, pairing, say, a floral with stripe, so that’s what I do, too.
I turn over to face the window and there she is, asleep beside me. She has on her peach silk nightgown, almost the same color as her skin. Her hair is a beautiful mass of waves, her face peaceful, like before she got sick. I touch her eyebrows, then the bridge of her nose, ever so lightly with the tip of my finger. She opens her eyes.
“Good morning, early bird,” she says, so young and bright.
“Good morning,” I say, kissing her. Suddenly she’s up on her elbows, eyes toward the hallway. “Do you hear Shaney?” she stage-whispers.
“I think he’s coming down with something. I’ll go check on him,” she says, sitting up.
I place my hand carefully on her right shoulder, to coax her, to see if she’s real. “It’s okay. I just did a few minutes ago. He’s fine. Come on, stay here with me.”
She looks to be weighing the matter. Then she turns to face me. The corners of her mouth crinkle upward. “Whatever did you have in mind, sir?”
“Oh, I dunno. A little of this, a little of that.”
“You mean ‘the old in ‘n’ out’?” One of our favorite lines from Fargo.
“Possibly...if you play your cards right.”
She giggles and snuggles up to me. My chest against her beautiful back, I feel her heart beating. We drift, our arms entangled, gone in sleep.
KARIN LEWIS is a writer/artist with a day job. She owned a highly successful residential mural business in New Jersey, pursuing an English degree at Rutgers University in her spare time. This story is excerpted from her novel What Made Annie Run, which is nearing completion. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida with her husband.