Wednesday’s Word/Short Story: The Benefits of Malaise

Chris couldn’t quite tell the difference between day and night. He knew if he said that aloud, Lana would stop in her tracks, eyes big as pie pans. At work he said only what was required. Oh no, that wasn’t right. He no longer reported to a job. He was a homebody now; he tinkered every now and then, he sat and sat. He wandered in his mind.

Day melted into evening into night into another dawn. The shadows on walls or floors lightened and darkened, lengthened and shortened. He watched them move about and thought how mysterious they were. Sheer ivory curtains swayed and fluttered when a breeze visited. But the light itself? It only seemed to dim and then dim more in waking hours, then disappear as time wore on. Once Chris pulled apart the curtains to peek out at midday and the sun was a spotlight that blinded him. He closed his eyes, turned back to his interior darkness, and the greyness of the room. It might make some difference if he moved about the house, just got up and left their bedroom for more than a few minutes, Lana had said.

Maybe; likely not.

In their room, he’d placed the antique wingback chair just so, then he could rest and fiddle with the radio on the little side table, punch the buttons of the TV remote–though TV didn’t much interest him. He had books, and every day picked one from the teetering stack. Flipped the pages as if he thought it engrossing when, in fact, he lost his place every other paragraph. If all else failed, he’d take five medium steps to the bed and flop down, stare at the squiggly lines in the ceiling until he grew drowsy.

Lana said it was almost like his room now, in the same way the far end of the sagging mauve velvet sofa was their cat’s: Captain’s spot. No one thought it wise to move him, especially after his eyes closed. Chris agreed it might not be wise to move himself, either. But Lana came to bed around ten-thirty, as always. Gave him a kiss on his cheek, smoothed the damp T-shirt against his back. He couldn’t bear to face her much of the time, those eyes that saw him. He squeezed his more tightly closed.

At least she had become more silent like he was, as there wasn’t much more to add to it. The facts: hiding out in the room, his too long pause. Languishing in your bitter disappointment, she said once, tears held at bay as she turned from him. He could not argue with it.

******

Lana carried on. For her, life went on if edited to feel differently. There was still cleaning and cooking–tidiness helped with her feelings of misalignment, the stress of his distress, and he still liked good meals though he ate half the amount now–and errands and bill paying and calls to family to try to reassure. But even if she had expected Chris would get a hobby or become a bona fide handyman when he retired–granted, it was a very early and forced retirement, as he said–she was so in error. At least at this point. Not that this bothered her. He read; did crosswords (just easy ones, she noted); he took out his ancient ukulele a couple times and attempted to strum a tune. And he slept. How he slept.

What wore on her was that he had made their bedroom his cave of isolation. It was their bedroom, not just his only she only needed it at night, she supposed. But if she stepped in during daytime, she felt a temperature change. Coolish when it should have been warmer up there–they’d never gotten the planned central air–what with summer going heat-wild but no, it was a strange well of shadows, and it seemed the walls insulated Chris like protection of earth about a real and deep well. She’d open up a window to air things out and he’d half-shut it, as if too much oxygen might be harmful. He kept a fan going all the time, facing outward so stray warmth and breath was sucked right out.

He is trying to live in a vacuum, she thought and it made her shiver.

After breakfast, while he leaned back in the ancient wingback (she’d spent too much money to re-upholster it in a fine wisteria print–how was she to know he’d be let go?) and stared at things she’d not ever see, Lana went to the market. Up by seven, put the kettle on, take Chris his breakfast on a tray, eat her own thick slice of bread with a nut butter and jam, then off she’d go. It was a sure thing to keep her better afloat. And a break from his melancholy.

The colors! The mix of voices, casual elbowing. The foods displayed in an artistic way–she’d gawk while fingering things. In her hands, tomatoes were smooth as silk, plump with juice; potatoes with their earthiness were weighty and consoling. Herbs were held to her nose; the aromas carried her away. The onions were pretty with papery skins and friendly, unlike when she chopped them for stews or tacos– in seeming punitive response they made her cry a bit. Then strawberries, black raspberries, raspberries and figs, peaches and apples–all called to her as if she was exactly who they were waiting for, and she was delighted to carry them home.

Sometimes she’d sit with her bag full of sustenance and watch others come and go. Mothers wheeling newborns about, older men with sunglasses perched atop balding heads, little children stopping play to blissfully bite into ripe nectarines, juices dribbling down their perfect small chins. Women with eyes bright with relief and happiness like hers.

And my, those astonishing flower stalls.

Lana was not that talented in their yard–mostly, she weeded and beat back bugs that nibbled away, trying to keep things going. So she bought flowers at the market in armfuls. Chris tended to complain that they’d wilt and be done so what was the point? But she had a collection of odd and lovely vases, even a few antiques scrounged over decades from flea markets and garage sales. She loved the act of preparing bouquets, the gentle separation of stems and trimming, arranging this way and that, in just the right vase. They were placed on tables throughout the house, each room they graced sparking with beauty. She smiled as she entered and exited and grazed their bold or pale, tender blooms with her fingertips. Their unique fragrances followed her from task to task. She sometimes thought she’d like to take a class on flower arranging, make it more than an amateur attempt. She thought, too, she’d like to wear them in her hair.

It was an hour or so that Lana spent at the market. She was lightened by it, always looked forward to chatting with neighbors and vendors. It assured her she held a welcomed place in the world, as did they. But then she had to go home.

Not that she didn’t have a place there. It had just shifted as their foundation trembled; big parts of their life were no longer settled.

Chris had fallen away. And she was taking care of him, trying to keep him from tumbling further. And if that meant bringing him meals and seeing that he got a good shower every couple days, she’d do it.

******

He might have done something different, he thought many times a day, so that he’d have been kept on as supervisor at the plant. Eighteen years there, unheard of these days, and yet he was one of the first to go when the pandemic stopped the world. But it was done, he reminded himself, and that was how it was–why wear out the simple truth of it with all his self-doubts? He was getting older, business was poor, they could do fine without him, it turned out so fare thee well old man.

Why it mattered so much he didn’t know. The job wasn’t something to brag abut, it was good work fairly well paid. He and Lana were not going to go hungry or lose their bungalow bought thirty-some years ago. So they wouldn’t likely redo the two bathrooms. They might not eat as well as they liked and no longer eat out, of course. Captain, their fat grey tabby, might have to endure nail cutting from him as all that cat upkeep business got pricey. Vacations might have to be cut the next few years, maybe forever, he wasn’t even sure yet.

They’d be okay. Still, it felt like a punch in the gut.

And what came next?

These thoughts coiled and uncoiled in his brain as he half-dozed, so that when he awoke with a start as a truck rumbled by he wasn’t sure if he had just dreamed of Angus burgers burning on the grill or Captain racing away as he wielded nail clippers or Lana catching him off guard as she waltzed right past him in a beautiful green dress, her dazzling smile with tears falling. Maybe he was recalling the past in altered form. There certainly wasn’t much going on in his present life. The future? Anybody’s guess. Chris could be nostalgic as much as he chose. It didn’t change a thing.

The life beyond the windows on their second story room barely pulled at him. He knew the Carters were jamming as many suitcases and bags as possible into the back of their camper van. To the Southwest in August, they’d informed him a couple months ago. Tom Hannelly had broken a leg when he fell from his cycle racing down country hills; he hobbled about in an unwieldy cast, swearing a bit. Tina and her three dogs were out three times a day; she now worked from home. And Margo and Danny were maybe still getting a divorce after the pandemic but for now they were a team trying to make it work, their two teenagers in need of cohesion.

The last bit he knew because Lana had updated him. He hadn’t asked, he never did; he counted on her to be the bearer of news. And most else. And like before, she was there with what he needed, even though he had been in an unfamiliar survival mode. She was his safety net.

Chris heard her come in and shut the door, jabber to Captain. He wondered what she’d bring him from the market for a snack. Then felt the guilt wash over him. He was stuck in this room–and didn’t care that much. He put his feet on the footstool, settled into the wingback and felt the tide of sleep lap at his mind, threatening to take him again. But he was sorry he made things harder for her. It’s just that the most pressing thing was how many lines were creeping across the ceiling he had almost memorized. And if he was ever going to look further into it. Beyond that, the room was getting stuffy despite the fan on high all the time–but there was enough good air, he presumed, to keep sitting there indefinitely. It just took too much effort to face what lay outside these walls, beyond the tiny corner of his life. Discomfort nagged at him and he shifted. There came a niggling restlessness that he ignored. He dozed once more.

Then her footsteps, steady but light, the only footsteps he loved to hear. Did she ever miss hearing his on the stairs or running down four steps into the breezeway and across to the garage with its apartment built on top (that had been empty since Teddy had left for post-grad work six years years ago, good for him) or grilling on the deck he had built last year? Did she wait to hear those steps as he waited to hear hers?

He felt the slip of breeze with a touch of cool sail over his eyelids, neck, hair. He stretched, got up, went the distance to the hall, then the bathroom–the farthest he had walked in some time.

*******

She spent a long time sorting and preparing bouquets of multi-hued dahlias and roses with sprays of greenery for three rooms. Then several minutes fixing the zinnias so they fit a smaller orange and white swirled glass vase with fluted mouth. She picked the freshest, brightest blooms, placed them in the water, patting them when done. She also nestled a mix of berries in a well used white ceramic bowl and brewed tea, Lady Grey, for his mug with its red-winged blackbirds motif. It didn’t much matter that he might not notice these things. She wanted to do it for him.

When she knocked softly, then entered their bedroom, she was surprised to see Chris showered and dressed in shirts and a fresh T-shirt. It had been almost four days since that had happened and it had almost scared her.

“Here you go, tea and berries, and my, you look nice, fresh.”

He gave her a weak grin, let his eyes roam over her; they landed on her hips a moment, then her shoulders and neck, her face. Remarkable, really; she always looked good to him. It had been awhile since he had really looked at much less seen her and her trim form and bright expression stirred a light flutter in his chest.

“I needed it, I suppose.”

She set down the tray after he put the radio on the floor. That old thing, a cumbersome black radio that he’d kept for twenty years and repaired twice. She heard him fiddling with stations sometimes, until he settled on local news or programs with old standards, as ever. She hoped it never broke down for good.

“Berries again,” he murmured, and pinched one between thumb and index finger, popped it into his mouth, groaned in appreciation.

She knew he enjoyed them, as much as he could. She watched him test the tea, blowing across the top of the mug first, then nod. Smoothing her chinos with damp hands, she said, “I’ll leave you to it, then,” and turned to go.

At the door, she heard him stir, then say her name. She turned and saw him sitting forward, mug set back on the table.

“I’m sorry, Lana,” he said.

He had said this often enough that she was sure he was, and she knew he meant it to bridge the narrow but obvious gaps between them. She had tried for two months months to be patient, to let him work it out, to be positive with fewer words and yet she hovered at the edges of his malaise, waiting, tending, praying, just trying hard to accept. The bee sting with the honey, she recalled her mother telling her of the flux of things in marriage.

“Drink your tea, it’s good tea, eat the berries, you’ll feel better. I’ll make a peach pie later.”

She smiled, started through the doorway but looked back a last time. He was hunched over bowl and mug, head in hands. So she went to him but sat on the bed a few feet away.

To speak or wait and listen.

His head felt thick as pudding but the promise of peach pie was so good gratitude welled up. Could a pie do that to his impoverished soul? How long was he going to let her carry the load while he suffered hurt pride and a loss of direction, still as a sloth in the heat of summer days and nights? She was near him and he ought to speak to her but Chris noticed an ant cross over the worn wood floor boards, then another and another, an orderly line in and out of shadows. Ants had purpose, they got so much accomplished, putting him to shame. And when had they started back in? Was it about fall already?

Lana lay back on the unmade bed and the feather pillow, long gray hair (no more beauty salon visits lately) strewn about it. She took a quavering breath in, let it out. Touched the silky sheets. It was a good bed; it had served them well, had been a nest and a briar patch and a chalice of sorts. As she closed her eyes, weariness engulfed her. Was she really that tired out? She never felt it when on her feet, moving and doing and looking forward. But here, in the middle of day, after flowers and berries and hearing his deep regret again, she felt nearly overwhelmed by the weight of their most ordinary lives. Her broad palmed, practical hands were crossed over her chest; the heat of them and the oppressive room pressed upon her. And she understood the need to sleep more.

And then he was beside her, a zinnia in hand. He touched it to her rosy cheek, traced her firm jaw, lips soft as dandelion fluff. She opened her eyes and what she saw was a small relief, and an offering, a remembrance of love. She took the flower, lay it aside as he lay down. And then he held one of her hands in his and they closed their eyes, midday sunlight peeling away bits of slinking shadow. Captain pounced, then lay at their feet, and a trickle of incoming breeze from a slightly ajar window felt like a spell or a blessing rich with jasmine. It was daytime but it might have been night, as the room felt so much more theirs as they settled close to each other, and it was not a fortress nor a place of doom. It was only a room of comfort.