The old couple sat in their carpeted kitchen, the only space in the house they shared. Margaret read the paper. George sorted his change jar.”You been dipping in here?” he asked.
Margaret turned the page. “Why would I want change when I have bills?”
“Quarter stack seems small,” muttered George.
Margaret did a quick calculation. “$9.75,” she said. “Was $8.50 last time.”
“Oh,” said George.
“Well,” said Margaret, “Katherine Adams died.”
George’s hand jumped. Change spilled onto the buckled carpet. “What?”
“Yep,” said Margaret. “Funeral’s today. Here, for some reason.” She pushed the paper at him, disturbing more change.
Katherine Adams. He hadn’t heard that name in thirty years. “Where’s my glasses?” he said.
“How should I know?” she scowled.
“They’re by my bed,” he said.
“You want me...,” she began, but went and got them.
“Thank you,” said George.
IDE – Funeral services will be held for Katherine Rebecca Adams Banks, 64, at 11 a.m. Thursday, October 12, 2004, in the First Baptist Church in Ide with burial at Pineview Cemetery. Mrs. Banks, a thirty-four year resident of New Orleans originally from Ide, died at 7:22 p.m. in TOURO hospital. Survivors include: husband, Robert Banks of New Orleans, son, Gregory Banks of New Orleans, daughter, Melissa Banks of Biloxi, and two grandchildren.
There was a picture of a smiling old lady. George studied it for traces of the woman he’d known. Thirty-four years. And now she was dead.
“We’re going,” said Margaret.
George stared incredulously.
“Come on,” she said, already in motion. “We’re too late for the funeral, but we can still make the burial.” She stopped in front of a mirror and patted her high black hair. “Let me touch up.”
George had not moved from the table. “Why in God’s name...?”
“We should walk, too,” said Margaret from her bathroom. She glanced at the blue sky out the window. In it she saw a child’s face, the same one she’d seen for thirty-four years, the one she’d compared to her husband’s, her children’s.
She put on her lipstick. “Good funeral weather,” she said.
What did Margaret know? George put on sunscreen, two pairs of socks, shoes, and a hat. He blocked the doorway. “Listen,” he said. He was a tall man and could make his voice big when he wanted.
Margaret turned. “You ready?” She waited for him to move.
Her authority was one of the first things that impressed him. Plus she was older, regal, could do math in her head, and was the first woman who’d paid attention to him when he’d returned to Ide from a tour of duty in France.
“Nice day,” said Margaret. “First we’ve had in a long time.”
“Cool front,” said George.
“Supposed to be nice again tomorrow,” said Margaret. “Maybe someone else will die so we can do it again.” She chuckled, shook her high black hair, and patted it into place. “He’s not your son, you know,” she said.
George winced. He looked at his dry wife. A math teacher. That’s what she’d wanted to be. Glasses, long skirts, she’d smell of mothballs and whatever she’d cooked in her cramped apartment the night before.
They got married instead. August 6, 1945, the day the bomb was dropped. At the reception he’d found her at the back of the banquet hall doing long division and listening to the radio. “This is not a good sign,” she’d said. He’d kissed her then, coaxed the pencil from her grip, brushed bits of eraser from her cheek, and eased out a bobby pin dangling by a strand.
“What makes you so sure?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” said Margaret.
“Well that makes two of us,” said George. He remembered when Katherine told him. How she was scared, and the promises he made.
“Imagine what we could of done with all that money,” said Margaret. “William could of gone to private school. Bryce to one of those summer camps. I could of redone the house, put down pine floors-“
“You wanted carpet,” George flared. “This is the first I heard about pine.”
“Pine,” said Margaret, “is what she had in her house.”
George stopped. Ahead lay the east-west tracks, or what used to be. Now a smooth mound in the road, it was as if a giant mole had burrowed through. He’d started out as a brakeman on the other line, the New Orleans-Memphis. “How did you know that?”
“I know a lot of things,” said Margaret. “You met her on the train.”
“Yes,” said George.
A car honked. George waved. The couple started off again.
“You took her to New Orleans,” said Margaret.
“I took you there, too.”
“I know,” said Margaret. She was pregnant with their first child. George kept grabbing her belly and telling her she was sexy. She’d slap his hands and say he was crazy. For five days she didn’t mind being Mrs. Thigpen, housewife, instead of Miss Hall, math teacher.
“First Baby,” said George.
The cemetery came into view. The funeral procession was pulling in behind the hearse.
“I never blamed you,” said Margaret. After First Baby was born with a hole in his heart, something shifted inside her. She’d left her family for a dead baby. Given up her career for a dead baby. But pretty soon William was on the way, replacing faulty with new, like car parts. Bryce came next while William was still on the tit. Everything she’d ever been told was a lie.
“The hell you didn’t,” said George. In his head he’d screamed it, but the obstruction in his throat prevented high volume.
Margaret stiffened. She scanned the mourners piling out of their vehicles. Strangers, most. The family gathered under a green canopy at the bottom of the hill. “I sat waiting for you in the car.”
“I remember,” said George.
“There was corn and carrots between the seats. Bryce had had the stomach flu.”
Leaving his mistress’s house, his wife’s vehicle blocking his in, George had surveyed the landscape: rain in the front yard, sunshine in the back.
He imagined what his parents would say, what his children would think, what the town would whisper. At least with rain, when the sun broke through, it lifted your spirits. He could live for those moments.
The old couple settled on a spot at the edge of the crowd.
“The child was in the curtains. I saw his face.” Margaret nodded her head toward the canopy. “That must be him, there.” She pointed. “Wife and kids, too.”
George wondered if they resembled him. Wasn’t that his nose on the boy? His forehead on the baby? His look of consternation on his grown son? It was hard to say and, when he thought about it, he wasn’t sure if William and Bryce looked that much like him, either. Everyone said they favored their mother. It’d been a running joke among his coworkers, in fact, that even his genes were henpecked, shrinking recessive to his wife’s dominance.
“... pay our respects,” Margaret was saying. She looked at him expectantly.
George panicked. “I am not going down there. It’s been too long, Margaret. Let it be.” He was trembling and used a shoulder in front of him for balance. The shoulder turned. George apologized.
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll go myself.”
The old man’s face contorted. “What do you want?”
They were starting to attract attention. Her husband’s defiance threw her off: this from a man who’d walk twenty times around the whole town rather than demand his right. Margaret dropped her voice. “I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”
George stood firm. His words came out exactly. “I’ve done my time. If you’re never going to forgive me, at least leave me alone.”
Margaret had taken a bite and was surprised by the taste. Where was the desire to put him in his place? She felt flattened, run over.
Thirty-four years ago, you didn’t get a divorce. She’d divided the house in two, but never left him alone. She couldn’t.
Picture straight line A, always approaching but never meeting curve C, so that A is an asymptote of curve C, traveling together, side by side, for infinity.
Margaret reached for her husband’s hand. A train whistle blew. “How about we check on First Baby?” she said.
George looked his wife in the eye.