The more I disappoint my wife, the more clothing she puts on. At present, she’s in the kitchen fixing a pot of coffee. She wears this heavy-duty, industrial-type nightgown that doesn’t show a speck of skin. The fabric moves like a wet curtain on a windless day. This thing zips all the way up to the very top of her neck, where a little white lace, like plumage, fans out—giving her the look of a woman being choked by a doily.
We’ve been married seven years. In the fifth, her mother got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the thing turned corners fast. My wife obsesses on it, especially the language—tangles and plaques, stages and hippocampus. “It’s just so visceral,” she says, “Can you imagine? My own mother, lost in the tangles of her brain.” I get it, I say. It’s awful, I tell her.
From my stool in the kitchen, I fuss with the newspaper. I pretend to laugh at the funny pages to cover the weird current left by the opening round of the morning: “Turn down the thermostat, Herbie, you sadistic son of a bitch!” These are harsh words, even for Lorraine in her present funk, and I worry. The sun hasn’t even started its engine yet.
When she catches my eyes on her, she goes to rub her back theatrically with her right hand. Apparently she slept badly. She had the dream again—the one where she’s writing letters at the kitchen table and gets stuck, literally, inside punctuation marks. Somehow, she connects the marks in the dream to the words of the disease. It’s the finality of them, she says. They’re the same kind of certain, she says. But they’re just periods and commas, I tell her, ellipses and quotation marks.
She used to write for a show called Wake Up, Missouri. Now she calls it Wake Up, Misery. She hasn’t picked up a pen in months. I tell her the dreams are just her subconscious trying to get out, but she’s come to believe that the whole business is symbolic or something—that she’s a marked woman, doomed to get Alzheimer’s just like her mother. She might get better sleep if she takes off the hazmat suit that she wears to bed, and telling her this occurs to me, but if I’m reading the momentum of the morning right, it isn’t yet my turn to speak.
“It’s July Fourth,” she says.
“Yes, it is,” I say. “Happy Birthday, America!”
“I’d like to go to Birdie’s to see Mother,” she says.
“What about dinner?” Her sister, Birdie, doesn’t cook.
“You are a grown man,” she says. She stops fumbling with the creamer and the sugar and looks longingly out the window, maybe at the naked birds splashing in the bath? Beads of sweat form on her brow. Is she too proud to wipe them away? “And as such,” she continues, “you’re perfectly capable of grocering this house yourself.”
“See what I did last night,” I tell her.
I put down my newspaper and go to my wife. I take her clammy hand in mine and lead her to the living room, just a few steps off the kitchen. The place feels absurdly small, as if we’re still kids playing in a tree house. It sits like a miniature L, for Love or for Lousy? The verdict’s still out. We bought the house in her prime childbearing years, though it has turned out not to matter. “It’s so cozy,” she had insisted.
“You did all this? Just last night?” She reaches for one of the pictures I framed on the fireplace. They highlight her best qualities. She has the same expression in all of them—a soft, open face, like a woman without a past. Now that same face is a series of inscrutable angles with eyes like sunken soufflé and, probably due to all the sweating from the extra clothes, she’s lost half herself in body weight. She traces the pictures with a pale fingertip. My legs move like squiggly lines, a holdover from a self-conscious childhood. I worry she’ll think I’ve placed them here to nudge her in the right direction should she ever wish to reclaim what was.
“And here I thought you just burned your eyes out all night watching reruns of Columbo,” she says.
“I did watch one episode.”
“Which one?” she asks.
“The one with Janet Leigh. Where she plays the dancer.”
“Where she murders her husband?” she says.
“That’s a good one,” she says.
“Do you think I look like Peter Falk? I think I look exactly like Peter Falk,” I say.
“I can see that,” she says. “You’re both short.”
The moment registers like something close to agreement between us. I feel emboldened. “Look at this one,” I say. I reach for a picture from our Colorado rafting trip. She wears a blue life vest, the same color as the sky behind her.
“Nice,” she says, but the word doesn’t match the shadow that’s fallen over her face. “Why’d you do all this? What possessed you?” She points to the pictures with her whole arm instead of her hand.
“I don’t know why. They’re nice, right?”
“Right, but why’d you frame them? Why’d you put them up? This trip,” she says, “was before we were married.” As if we have no business thinking back that far.
“I just thought you’d like to look at them is all. You said they were nice. So, they’re nice.”
“Well,” she says, “OK.”
“What do you mean OK? I thought you’d like them,” I say.
“OK,” she says. “It’s very sweet.” She puts the picture down on the mantel and squares her shoulders to face me. Sweat nestles in the dark curls near her temple.
“This is about Mother, isn’t it?” she says. “About taking her. What? Why’d you make that face?”
“When you don’t even cringe anymore, when you talk about taking her like she’s a pet or an object, maybe it’s time to think about another option.” Another option is code for old folks’ home, but the talk is so tired already that we don’t have to say what we mean because we know what we mean.
“We have a home right here,” my wife says.
“And where will we put her? In the master bath?”
“She can sleep in my room,” she says. “I mean our room. With me.”
There’s an admirable quality to the way my wife lilts over words when she’s being extra careful, as if each thought is tethered to an invisible thread on her tongue, and she’s experimenting with just how far she can pull and push it from her teeth.
“Well, this is a new development,” I say.
“No, it’s really not. It’s just a new ... reality,” she says.
I pick up a photograph of Lorraine. She’s standing with her right foot perched on a small boulder. She squints toward the sun. Her hair is longer than it has been in years, shoulder length, and the smile on her face looks easy. “I like this one,” I tell her. “I’d like to show it to our children someday.” Between Lorraine’s teeth, a sort of squeal escapes. She flutters her hands at her sides like a sick bird that can’t figure out how to take off. She sidewinds into the bedroom, approximately 12 steps away. I’ve gone and mentioned the C word. When she reappears an hour later, she’s wearing a skirt that goes all the way to the floor and a full-on fuzzy mohair sweater.