BY MARY COGGINS
It is nearly dusk on Halloween, and soon the youngest costumed children will be coming to the door escorted by their parents in wagonfuls. John sits on the couch, facing away from the closed bedroom door. He was previously thinking about dinner but is now preoccupied with his decision from several hours before to let the hospice nurse go home early.
There must be a paper somewhere, he thinks, with all the appropriate numbers. They have classes for these kinds of things, he is aware, but they were always at such inconvenient times. Did the hospice nurse have children she needed to take trick-or-treating? He doesn’t remember. For some reason his memory of the hospice nurse looks like McDonald’s clown, which is unsettling so he would prefer not to linger. Perhaps her number is on the paper that must be somewhere. He is unsure of how to handle this situation.
The doorbell rings and John dutifully pushes himself out of the deep cushions. When he opens the door there is a three year old Dalmatian with blonde hair and ears made from the corners of an old crouton box. John recognizes her as the Moorfield girl, Jenna, or Gemma. Perhaps it’s Jennifer. The Moorfield woman is behind her holding a baby in bumblebee stripes.
“Trick or treeeat,” the Moorfield woman says in the delicate voice women use for children.
“Gemma, what do you say, baby?”
The Dalmatian lifts a plastic pumpkin closer to John and mumbles something he assumes is related to the holiday.
“Oh, wonderful!” John says, “Look at what a pretty puppy we have here, oh yes, ha ha … let me go find a treat for this good girl, okay? Okay. I’ll be right back now.”
Of course, there is no candy. John is aware of this. He does not purchase candy; it’s terrible for your teeth and his teeth are terrible already. John vaguely panics thinking about the dentist and shuffles back toward the kitchen in hopes that there may be some peppermints shoved in the back of a drawer somewhere. He is not sure how to handle this situation.
John empties the drawers of all their toothpicks and embroidered napkins and soy sauce packets, but finds no peppermints. Perhaps butterscotch drops, he thinks, because Barbara used to buy a bag and hide it in the crevice between the oven hood and the cabinet to eat while she cooked and he watched golf. It was a long while since Barbara cooked though, and there is no butterscotch bag in the crevice. John thinks perhaps there are some cokes in the fridge. Children like Coca-Cola, he thinks, but inside the fridge there is only a casserole from whoever lives across the street and a large bottle of beer, which John tells himself to remember for later.
And then, a stroke of luck! When he shuts the refrigerator door the paper with the appropriate numbers is right next to his hand, tacked on by a large plastic magnet commemorating John and Barbara’s cruise to Alaska four years prior. He takes the paper down and studies the magnet for a while, remembering that there was a very decadent chocolate cake for dessert when they had dinner with the captain and how thrilled Barbara was to win bingo the third night. John finds that he is smiling to himself despite the situation at hand. He is not sure how to handle it.
The immediate situation at hand, he suddenly remembers, involves a Dalmatian with an outstretched pumpkin. Candy, he thinks, and grabs a can of prunes on the way back to the front door. They are wrapped individually, John thinks, this is fine.
“Okay then,” John says as he walks back to the Dalmatian and her mother, “I think I’ve got something this puppy-dog might like.”
He tries to open the can of prunes and realizes that it might be difficult while still holding the paper with the appropriate numbers and the rather bulky Alaska magnet. He does not want to put them down and risk misplacing them again, so after several long seconds of wrestling with the prune can it finally pops open. John is unsure how to handle this situation.
“Aha!” John says. “Sorry there ladies, I was having a little bit of senior difficulty, ha ha.”
He pulls out two prunes and drops them into the Dalmatian’s bucket. He pulls out a third and hands it to the Moorefield woman for the Bumblebee.
“Fank you,” the Dalmation says.
She is timid in the way tiny blonde girls often are. John thinks she has excellent manners.
“You are very welcome,” he says and tries his best to bend to her level, “are you gonna grow up to be a big strong puppy dog?”
The Dalmatian nods emphatically.
“You’re gonna look out for this little bumblebee, right?”
“Wonderful, just wonderful. You’re a precious little thing, aren’t ya? Ha ha.”
John has to use the door frame to stand up all the way. The Moorfield woman is smiling, apparently proud of her offspring. There are less children in the neighborhood then there were ten years ago, John notes. He has been here for a long time.
“Thank you for the treats, Mr. Rivers, they’re very yummy, and not even bad for your teeth!” The Moorefield woman looks at her children while she talks, as if she is simultaneously speaking for them as well as instructing them on grown-up manners.
This is a good woman, John thinks. He is admiring the children while she asks vaguely about Barbara’s health. This scenario can be handled privately, John thinks, she does not need to be involved. Women like to cause scenes, and there are a Dalmatian and a Bumblebee present.
“Oh Barbara’s fine, just fine,” he says, “Just taking a little rest today, you know?”
The Bumblebee gropes at her mother’s hair and seems to have some difficulty controlling her saliva.
“Yeah? I heard she was on bedrest, and then of course I’ve seen the nurse here every day.”
“Yes, yes, she’s been here. Very helpful for Barbara, you know, I’m absolutely useless.” John says. He is attempting to be amiable but is still distressed by the image of the hospice nurse as the McDonald’s clown. Leave that alone, he thinks.
“Well is there anything we can do to help out? Dean works all day, you know, and us girls aren’t bad company if you needed some extra help around the house.”
“Oh, we make out all right here,” John says, and for a moment is thrilled by the thought of spending languorous autumn days with the Moorfield woman, the Bumblebee, and the Dalmatian.
“I think mostly what Barbara needs is peace and quiet.”
“Mmm, that makes sense,” the Moorefield woman nods with a significant amount of sincerity.
“Yes, rest and rest is what the doctor ordered, ha ha.”
John is overwhelmed with the urge to tell this woman that his wife is dead. He is not sure how to handle this situation; it seems bad in every direction. How would this woman react if he told her Barbara died exactly forty-seven minutes after the hospice nurse went home? How could he explain, with the Dalmatian right at his knees, that his wife is a corpse under the covers with his own bedtime rapidly approaching? The risk is great, John thinks, but somewhere on this page the appropriate number is written. And if she can help me find it, perhaps I can have dinner at a reasonable time. He clutches the Alaska magnet and prepares to breach the truth.
“I cannot have them thinking this is a prank,” John says.
The Dalmatian is looking up at him with so much innocence.
“I’m sorry?” The Moorfield woman asks.
“You know, for the holiday,” John says, “the Halloween and all.”
“I’m, sorry, I don’t understand.”
John takes a rather deep breath.
“I am reasonably sure that my wife is dead. I need to call someone, but I’m not sure which number it is. They have classes for these things, I know, that you’re supposed to do together before, you know, one of you becomes hopelessly infirm but we went to Alaska instead and had a wonderful time, and I’m glad we did, honestly, seeing the moose and the lynxes and lots of men with big beards and the syrup there is just fantastic so– ”
“You’re reasonably sure? She’s– dead?”
She didn’t even whisper the word, John thinks. She just said it.
The Moorfield woman moves past him into the house and sets the Bumblebee on the floor near the stairs. She asks several questions about the nurse and Barbara’s medications while the Dalmatian waits patiently at the door. The woman heads for the bedroom, toward the closed door beyond which Barbara is no longer breathing.
“No no,” John says, trying to move as quickly as possible in slippers that seem directly opposed to his will, “I don’t think you need to see her. She’s dead. Please don’t cry.”
The woman is already in the bedroom. The Bumblebee scoots toward John and he marvels at the resilience of her diapers.
“I am afraid I don’t know who to call,” John says after her, “I don’t want the children to think it’s a prank, when they come to take the body away.”
The woman comes out of the bedroom not crying at all and John is surprised. Don’t women cry at dead things? Barbara cried at the very mention of dead things. She closes the door behind her.
“I understand,” she says, “let me see that paper, please?”
John sees as he hands it to her that there is a name written in large capital letters, circled several times and highlighted. That is probably the appropriate person, he thinks, and tells the woman.
“Yeah, this is the coroner,” she says, “but I don’t know if they’d wait to take the body away. Maybe we should call the nurse? Is her number on here?”
“She had to go to her second job at McDonalds.” John thinks there is a possibility this might be true, as he is still unsure of the connection between Ronald McDonald and the hospice nurse. At any rate, he does not wish to see her.
The woman stands scanning the paper for anything. She seems to have a sense of what to do, John thinks. The Bumblebee stands up and clutches John’s leg like a tree trunk, moving in jerky, unsteady steps. He bends down to pat her bald-ish head, soft like a real bumblebee.
John wishes more than anything that Barbara had waited one more day to die. The day, even the morning following Halloween would be an ordinary time to die. People would only come to their house after the fact, bringing covered dishes instead of asking for candy. There would be no costumes and most likely no children. But tonight there would be people, complete strangers progressing in degeneration as the night wore on, milling about the neighborhood to witness his wife’s body being carted out of their house. They would assume it was a totally rad Halloween decoration, John is sure of it.
He wants her to be respected. He wants her to come back alive for twelve more hours. He wants to sit down.
“I think I would like to take a seat,” John says, but cannot detach himself from the Bumblebee. He shakes his leg lightly but she’s clutching hard. She does not even look up at him, and her mother is preoccupied with her phone. The Dalmation has moved on to the yard, plucking dandelions from the grass. There is supposed to be some kind of dignity in this scenario, John thinks, and instead there is a small bumblebee drooling on my pants. This has gotten out of hand.
“I said I think I would like to take seat,” John says, rather loudly. He is suddenly overwhelmed by a need for French fries.
“Oh, sorry,” the Moorfield woman scoops up the Bumblebee and still manages to hold onto her phone and the paper with the appropriate numbers.
John moves toward the couch and its deep cushions. He sinks in and does not fight the urge to put his head into the soft bowl of his hands. He thinks he may be crying. How did I get here, he thinks. And where the hell do I go now?
Millions of tiny wonderings fill his head, like how will I fill my hours without the butterscotch hidden beneath the cabinet? What about the mums in the fall and the radio playing in the kitchen? Who will accompany me on all those exasperating grocery trips? What is left without my wife, John thinks. I do not know, is all he knows for sure. I have no idea.
After a short while John realizes the Dalmatian has climbed up beside him and is studying his grief. She places one of her several dandelions on his lap. The Moorfield woman and the Bumblebee are watching him from the ottoman across the room. John takes the dandelion and puts it behind his ear, which makes the Dalmatian smile. She says something to the elementary effect that he is beautiful, and he wants to give her all the dandelions in the world.