Martin’s first warning comes when he sees “cat food” on the grocery bill.
“Cat food, Maggie?”
“Oh, that’s funny,” she says, looking embarrassed. “You can cross that one off, can’t you? Old habits, I guess.”
“Cat food, my goodness, Maggie. That was years ago.”
His hand on the railing is white at the edges, his arm trembling under the weight of his descent. How one begins to rely on simple screws in two-by-fours, the spacing of the stairboards, the amount of light in the room.
He still drives, which is something. Getting into the car has been a problem at times, but once he’s in, when the engine is singing and the landscape is flying past, there is nothing old about Martin Davies.. His hands on the steering wheel, gentle and coaxing, are like those of a young lover, guiding his new bride toward warmer, softer places.
Margaret was aware of the problem before her husband, several months ago, when she searched her handbag for her lipstick for nearly fifteen minutes before remembering it was in the top drawer of her bedroom bureau. It was always in her bureau, she had never carried it in her purse. Only hussies carry make-up in their purse; make-up belongs at home, in a woman’s bedroom, good heavens.
She had been losing other things, too. But the lipstick incident was a catalyst of sorts, a new kind of forgetting. Forgetting not just things, but how to do things, what things were for.
It got worse quickly. There were moments of her day that would slip beneath the surface, just disappear like something heavy sinking out of sight. She would find herself staring at nothing, as though in a trance, desperately searching her thoughts for what may have happened before lunch, and how did the milk get left out for so long, good heavens? And then she would snap out of it, aware, her head hot with shame and terror.
She’s always been a bit of a hypochondriac; she knows she overreacts to these sorts of things. But the thought of it, the absurdity of the lipstick incident – leaves a trace of dread in her heart.
Martin passes the cat food on his way to the produce aisle and lets out an uneasy chuckle. It’s not like her to make that sort of mistake. He quickly calculates her age (she’s four years younger than he), and feels a flutter of fear pass through his chest.
He shudders briefly. No. He’s made the same mistake before. Pringles was with them for a long time, sixteen years, and he remembers only recently waking up and being careful not to knock the cat off the bed, though she’s been gone six years.
Still, it’s not like Maggie. She’s got a good head on her shoulders. She does their books, she manages their schedules. She’s clockwork. He wonders.
It feels like she’s being erased. She has paragraphs that are missing from her narrative, blocks of white space. She found a strand of gray hair today when she was fluffing her pillows, and she felt a wave of panic splash her heart. A gray hair? – good heavens, she’s still so young –
And then, of course, coherent thought returns, and she’s like Rip Van Winkle, I’m sixty-five goddamn years, I’ve been gray half my life. And that’s another thing – whence the profanity? She’s never sworn. Now, she thinks them every day, these filthy words. They are abhorrent to her, distasteful, like teeth that have suddenly gone black in her mouth. They come unbidden, it’s like Tourette’s, she can’t stop them.
So far, she hasn’t let them slip from her mouth, but when she does, then what?
On a Sunday in July, he brings home a case of Friskies, because she insisted, and he couldn’t stand the thought of trying to convince her again.
Okay, Peg, cat food, I’ll pick it up.
He calls her Peg when things are rough. It’s unintentional, he doesn’t even think about it at the time. Later, he often thinks, I called her Peg – we’re not doing so well, are we? Sometimes, then, he enters the kitchen and places a hand on her shoulder and puts his bristled cheek in her hair so that his lips touch her ear and he breathes her name: Maggie. It’s like he’s reinstating their intimacy, calling her back to their marriage as it should be.
And she turns, every time, forty-three years of marriage and it never fails, and slips her arms beneath his and burrows her forehead into the corner of his neck and chin, and they rock on their feet together, a sort of silent waltz, swaying to the music of learned love like two stalks of seaweed that have grown beside each other in unison with the currents.
The biggest curse for her is coherent thought. It’s like seeing the shark approach; you know it’s going to devour you, you can feel the teeth digging in, can see your blood beginning to spiral out in the saltwater, and you’ve got to wait it out. There’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Struggling – raging against the dying of the light, as Dylan Thomas pathetically urged – will only make you a sore loser. We’re all going there sooner or later, Maggie. Don’t make us uncomfortable by reminding us the whole way down.
And there’s pride. Good Lord, there’s got to be that. What do you do when the urine begins to flow without permission, but submit again to diapers? And what do you do when the mind starts to decay, but hold fast to what fleeting grip you have?
You have to hide these emissions – no one wants to see the contents of your bladder through the flowers of your dress. And the contents of your failing mind?
No. There’s pride, still.
He doesn’t talk to her about it; he doesn’t want her to know that he notices. She becomes angry with him when he catches her slipping up. Yesterday she put a can of Friskies on his breakfast plate and a steaming, fried egg in the cat’s dish.
Martin tried to rescue the egg without her seeing, but she returned from the washroom sooner than he expected.
“What are you doing?” she asked. Her eyes were frightened, and as he moved toward her to comfort her, she seemed to awaken, and she exploded.
“Damn you, Marty! I know that’s an egg. I know Pringles isn’t with us anymore. Don’t play with me! I know!”
He followed her to the bedroom, but she had locked him out, and it was ten minutes before she emerged, looking confused and scared, and entered his embrace.
He walks her around when she needs to move, like a pet, speaks to her from behind a wall of strangeness. He doesn’t know this vulgar woman, this profane creature.
She trembles, constantly, every part of her. It’s getting bad enough that he feels his own arms shaking when he holds her. She glares at him like a rabid dog. She does not answer his requests.
Only when he speaks softly into her ear and holds her bone-thin body to his own does she soften and become still. She does not speak, still does not respond to him, but she ceases her trembling. Then he feels that perhaps she is still his wife, still his Maggie, and he tells her this, and he thinks she hears.
Maggie holds her baby on her right arm, her left hand caressing the tiny, fragile chest. She speaks to him through loving smiles, speaks in his own little language, speech that is high and gargly and devoid of consonants.
She feels full to the brim with pleasure. Motherhood is her fulfillment, her greatest accomplishment.
She looks up and sees Martin, her beautiful husband, at the door. Martin is leaning against the doorframe, hand in pocket like a model from a Sears magazine, smiling his sexy half-smile. She puts a finger to her lips and tilts her head to the baby.
“Oh, Maggie,” he says, his eyes moist, and she thinks, he loves me so much, he loves me so deeply, my Martin.
Martin crouches by her chair, places a hand on her shoulder. Puts his lips to her ear and says her name, as she loves to hear it said. He places a hand under her arm, helps lift her from the chair, and she feels a touch dizzy, grows a bit confused – why was she in the rocking chair? – but she leans against the warmth of him, lets him lead her to their bed. She is already in her nightgown (how did that happen?), already diapered and ready for sleep.
And oh, she is so tired.
They sway a bit as they move together toward rest.