Previously in Unbound Fiction:
"Meredith Toop Evans & His Butty, Ernie the Egg," by Alex Keegan (May 26, 1999)
"Introducing Unbound Fiction," by Katherine Guckenberger (May 26, 1999)
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June 23, 1999
hat woke me up was a hissing and the smell of bacon. I'm at Bonnie and Dave's, I thought, and Sylvia's fixing breakfast. It took a second for it all to come back: that Bonnie'd been in a car wreck, that Sylvia'd flown here from Phoenix. I sat up and saw Sylvia out in the kitchen, poking a fork around in a skillet. Dressed to the nines, too, in plaid slacks, white blouse, her hair just so. I was married to her, I thought. She saw me, smiled, and waved. Our daughter could have died during the night, I thought. But they would've called.
I pulled my robe on over my pajamas, stepped into my slippers, and went to use the toilet and brush my teeth. I hadn't thought to bring toothpaste, and when I opened the medicine cabinet looking for theirs I noticed a prescription vial with Bonnie's name on it. VALIUM, 5 mg. How long had she been on that stuff? Well, it could've been something a lot worse. It was when she was younger. I guess some people have a couple of beers to relax and some people take valium. I got the cap off, shook one out, looked at it (it was just a little bit of a thing), then slipped it into the pocket of my pajama top.
Back in the living room, I folded away the Hide-a-Bed and replaced the cushions. Now you could smell coffee, too. Sylvia was pouring grease out of the skillet into the Disposall, and she'd laid the bacon out to drain on paper towels; she'd turned on the coffee maker, and coffee was piddling down into the glass pot. I'm getting a little hard of hearing, but I could've sworn she was humming. Sylvia never could carry a tune in a bucket.
She didn't seem to know I was watching; maybe she's hard of hearing, too. I felt like I knew every move before she made it: put the skillet in the dishwasher, scoot over to the icebox, get out the eggs. When she opened an overhead cabinet and started reaching for the juice glasses, I could see the muscles of her calves under the pantlegs. This was a woman seventy years old. Supposedly she played golf and tennis; that's all since my time.
I picked out slacks and a sport shirt, and went back into the bathroom to get dressed. I took the pill out of my pajamas and set it on the edge of the sink while I got my shirt on, then put it in the breast pocket. When I came out again Sylvia had the table in the breakfast nook set for four.
"Look at all this," I said.
"Good morning," she said. "You certainly look spiffy. I've got coffee ready. Any signs of life down the hall?"
"Not a peep," I said. "You look nice yourself."
"Makeup covers a multitude of sins," she said.
"Sleep all right?"
"Like a rock. I was so bushed I can barely remember getting into bed. How about you?"
"Not so bad."
"I thought I heard you get up a couple of times."
"While you were sleeping like a rock?" I said.
"Oh, well," she said. "You know." She picked up a cup and saucer with one hand, pointed to it with the other, and raised her eyebrows. Her hands were steady enough that the cup and saucer didn't rattle.
"Sure," I said. "Please."
She filled the cup and handed it to me, saucer and all. Damned if I could keep my hands that steady, and I'd only had one Bud Light -- one! -- to get me to sleep. I remember many a morning when Sylvia'd be fixing breakfast after a rough night, just as fresh as a daisy. Which scared me more than anything.
She was pouring a cup for herself when little Dave came in, dragging his stuffed purple dinosaur. "Well, look who's here! Good morning, punkin."
"You remember, punkin. Mommy had to go in the hospital."
"Want her to come back." He dropped the dinosaur and grabbed Sylvia around the leg with both arms.
She stroked his hair. "She'll be back. I bet you like bacon, don't you?"
"Yuck," he said, making a scrunched-up face I bet a nickel he'd been told was cute. Then he cocked his head, like he was listening to something. "No, wait, I like it."
"Well, here." Sylvia handed him a piece. "That should hold you." He stuck it in his mouth: gone in two bites. "You're hungry, aren't you, punkin? What do you usually like for breakfast?"
"Okay, let's have a look." She opened the icebox and bent over. "Oh my goodness, yes. We've got peach, wild berry -- peach and wild berry."
"Wild berry," he said.
"By God, he's an opinionated little cuss," I said. "Ain't'cha?"
"Can I hear a please?" said Sylvia.
He stared as if she was talking Chinese.
Sylvia looked at me, I shrugged, and she handed him his yogurt. He took it over to the table and started right in making a mess. The telephone rang, and I thought, Oh my God.
Sylvia picked it up. "Griffin residence." She listened for a few seconds, then said, "Well, I was going to, lover. But things got a little hectic."
I let out my breath.
She turned her back, which I took as a hint. Carrying my coffee into the living room, I heard her say, "Yes, I made a point of it. What? Yes, of course."
I put the TV on and sat down on the couch. The Big Bird and all were on, and of course that fetched Dave Junior; he was on my lap in two shakes, purple yogurt all over his face.
"This your favorite program?" I said.
"I don't know," he said, not taking his eyes off the screen for a second.
Dave Senior came in, his hair wild, in his undershirt, zipping up his trousers. "What happened? What's going on?"
"Go on back to bed," I said. "It's just Harold."
"Jesus. What the fuck time is it?" With the boy right there.
"Early," I said. "Go back to bed." It was only seven-thirty, quarter to eight. I counted back: out in Phoenix it wasn't even five in the morning.
"And what the hell's this?" He was giving little Dave a dirty look. What'd I tell you about eating on the good furniture, Mister? You get in there right now." He pointed to the kitchen.
"But I want to see -- "
Dave Junior got down and stomped off with his yogurt.
"And get a better attitude," he called after him. He shook his head. "Too early in the morning for this shit."
"I didn't mean to get him in trouble," I said. "I didn't know he wasn't allowed."
"He knows better. He's trying to see what he can get away with because he knows something's up."
Sylvia hung up the phone and stepped in from the kitchen.
"Good morning. How would you gents like your eggs?"
"I usually have scrambled," I said.
"You used to like a three-minute egg."
"God, that's right. I don't know, I guess I just got out of the habit. Egg timers and all."
"Men," she said. "What about you, Dave?"
"All I want's a bowl of Total." He rubbed his eyes and passed his hands back through his hair to smooth it down. You could see where he'd zipped his pants but not buttoned them. He was starting to put it on. "Christ, it can't be but about four in the morning out there. What the hell's Harold doing up at this hour?"
"I was supposed to call him last night," Sylvia said, "and I forgot all about it. He's such an old fussbudget. He said he was calling to make sure I'd gotten credit for the frequent-flyer miles. But I think he just wanted to know I was safe."
"He's up at four in the morning thinking about frequent-flyer miles?" Dave said. "He scared the piss out of me."
"You ought to just go back to bed," I said.
"I'm up now." He looked into the breakfast nook. "Hey! Will you watch what you're doing, Mister? You're getting it all over the table."
"It'll clean up," Sylvia said. "You ready for some coffee? I'll get you a bowl for your cereal."
"Don't bother, I can get it." He went into the kitchen, and I thought, No time like the present. I took the little pill out of my shirt pocket, glanced in to make sure neither of them was looking, popped it in my mouth, and washed it down with coffee.
Dave Senior came back in with a bowl of cereal and flopped down on the
couch. I guess the rule didn't apply to him. "Four o'clock in the morning."
He put a spoonful in his mouth and started watching the Big Bird dance with
a bunch of children. "I didn't want this day. And here it fucking
When the nurse on duty saw us walk into intensive care, she brightened up. "Hi," she said. "They're moving her right now."
"Oh, shit," Dave said. "Now what the hell happened?"
"Oh, they didn't tell you?" She was still smiling; they must train them to breeze over any bad words from people under stress. "She was awake and talking this morning, and Dr. Chambers thought she'd improved enough to go into a semi-private. And they might try to get her up for a few minutes this afternoon."
"Hell no, they didn't tell us." Dave Senior shook his head. "That's about par for this place. If she isn't here, where the Christ is she?"
The nurse stopped smiling.
I took a big breath and let it out. "Thank God. Thank God. You know, they probably called the house when we were on our way here. Jesus, isn't that wonderful." It was like the weight of everything lifted up off of me -- my arms actually felt light, like there was air under and around them. And then, just like that, it hit me that this little time, with all of us together, was rushing to an end.
The nurse ran her fingernail up and down a clipboard gracefully, searching. It seemed to take longer than normal. "She's being moved to 517- B. That's in the other wing, fifth floor. You can take the elevator by the waiting room." Dave Senior turned around and tromped out without so much as a thank you. Sylvia stared at him. I told the nurse thanks for everything, that she'd been a wonderful person to us, then Sylvia and I followed Dave out. He'd been under all that stress for so long, you see, that having it suddenly let up -- I don't know, it must have discombobulated him.
The waiting room, where I'd spent so much time the last couple of days, looked strange to me, like some place you haven't seen in years. It could've been that pill starting to take hold. I hadn't noticed before that it was all shades of green in here: green walls, green carpeting, green couch, green chairs. To calm people down. With all this green around, I thought, plus a Valium pill, you ought to be ready for anything they throw at you. Dave Senior was over at the elevators; he touched his finger to the "up" arrow, and it lit up green. A colored couple I'd seen yesterday was there on the green couch, and I was going to nod at them, except I wasn't a hundred percent sure. And what for? We were in different boats now: them still here and me just passing through one last time, really a million miles away already.
When Sylvia and I got over to the elevators, Dave Senior pounded the lit-up arrow with the side of his fist. "Let's go. Son of a bitch."
Sylvia laid a hand on his arm. "It's all right. She's going to be okay, thank God."
"Fine. You thank God. God'll shit his pants when he hears from you." He shook loose of her hand and pounded the arrow again.
She took a step back. "What's the trouble? I should think you -- "
"What's the trouble? That's beautiful. That's a classic. That should be the family motto. What's the trouble. You whored around on him" -- jerking a thumb in my direction -- "your daughter whores around on me, and you --"
"No, now you're out of line now," I said. The colored fellow was looking over at us, trying to make believe he wasn't. "I can understand if --"
"What's this?" Sylvia said.
Dave Senior looked at me. "What, you didn't tell her? That would figure. That's about par."
"What didn't you tell me?" Sylvia said.
"The great peacemaker," Dave Senior said, shaking his head. "The great cover-up artist. Okay, what happened to your daughter, Syl, she got creamed when she came barrel-assing out of the motel where she was shacked up with somebody else's husband. This shit's been going on for --"
"Don't listen to this," I told Sylvia. "He's all hipped on this thing because he's upset. As near as I can make out, she just went in there to use the telephone."
"Where do you get that crap?" Dave Senior said. "She had her car phone, for Christ's sake."
Ding, and the elevator doors came open, and we had to step aside for a gurney with an old, old lady flat on her back, asleep, or in a coma maybe. All there was to her, poor soul, was just ragged white hair and poor thin wrinkled skin over her skull; her closed eyes stuck up in their sockets like knuckles. I had a fool thought -- probably due to that pill, because I could feel it coming over me pretty strong now. I thought that she'd lived a good long life and for that reason she'd been chosen to take Bonnie's place. I stole a look at Sylvia on the million-to-one chance she might be thinking the same fool thing. But Sylvia was looking at her watch, and I could tell what she was really thinking, just as if she was saying it out loud: If Bonnie is truly out of the woods, what's the soonest I can get a plane to Phoenix? They wheeled the old lady off toward intensive care, and we stepped into the elevator. My ears were humming, and my legs felt like they had no bones. I fingered the coins in my pocket: Okay, if this one's a quarter, then this one has to be a nickel. So I couldn't be too far out there yet. Dave Senior pounded the "5" button with his fist, the metal doors slid shut on everything that had happened until now, and up we went.
Join a conversation on fiction in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.
More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
David Gates is the author of the novels Jernigan and Preston Falls, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. "Vigil" is included in his new collection, The Wonders of the Invisible World, to be published by Knopf this month.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.