The Bet

[img_assist|nid=4342|title=”Comfort Zone” by Indigene, © 2005|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=186]I confess that I broke the cactus. The poor plant had been growing well enough in its little auburn pot. I counted eleven spiny spears shooting out from the center to form a mangled circle of sorts. Somebody gave it to me. I don’t remember who. And then smack in the middle of the cactus, this morning, there was a strange brown wire. I thought, is it a twig? A thread? And without further reflection, I grabbed that funny brown thing and yanked it out. I don’t know when I realized it – as I was pulling it out, or in the instant afterwards, as it lay in my hand. I have just destroyed a cactus, I thought. This twig, or stem, or what have you, was growing in that cactus. It belonged there. This twig was not trespassing. Neither was it destined to become a spiny spear. I have just destroyed what would have been the only flower of this spiny, green cactus.

I left the cactus where it was, poor wounded thing, and went to make the waffles. I made them the old way, stirring the batter with a wire whisk and pouring it into the waffle iron. On good days, when Elroy was in the mood and I was feeling up to it, I’d go out into the backyard and pick fresh raspberries. Or fresh strawberries, depending on the season. I would stir these into the batter before cooking. There is nothing like a homemade waffle with homegrown berries.

Elroy isn’t coming home today. I feel it in my bones. Today’s the day. It’s the one. La una, as they say in Spain. Or is that one o’clock? It’s been so long. The dancing is a long way off. Sometimes when I’m trying to fall asleep and Elroy is breathing lightly next to me, his soft wheezing in my ear, short phrases come back. Detached words, the lyrics of the songs we used to dance to in Sevilla or Granada. Elroy says I’m living in the past. Stuck there. “We ought to get a microwave,” he says.

“What for?” I ask. “So we can both die of radiation?” This is a genuine concern of mine.

“I’m already dying of radiation,” he says. “Skin cancer. All those summers in Florida.”

I take a good look at his leathery skin. “You have a healthy tan, is all.”

He doesn’t answer for a moment and then he says, an impish twinkle in his eye, “Want to make a bet?”

This is beyond propriety. “Elroy, I don’t want to bet on the welfare of your skin cells. They won’t like it.” He begins to chuckle. “Don’t laugh, it’s true. These are live things. They hear what we say.”

He strokes my hand and says, “Ok then, love. We won’t bet on my skin cells. That wasn’t even what I was going to say.”

“Oh? What did you want to bet on?”

He pauses and then adopts a rather serious tone. “Let’s have a bet on which one of us is going to kick it first,” he says.

And that’s how it started. As a joke. Just like any of Elroy’s jokes. Like the time he let my brother think I was pregnant. This was nearly thirty years ago, when Elroy was sixty-two and I was fifty-four. But still. At that age? It’s absurd. It’s downright lewd. We had George going for a while. If he had a known a thing about women he would have known that I’d stopped menstruating years earlier. But George did not pay attention to such things. He never has.

George died last Christmas of lung cancer. I try to tell Elroy to keep away from cigars, but he doesn’t listen.

“They don’t cause cancer,” he tells me.

“Like hell they don’t.”

“They have nowhere near as much nicotine as cigarettes.”

I don’t know if this is true or false. “Well then, do it as a favor to me,” I ask. “I can’t stand the smell.”

“You’ve been standing it for sixty years, what’s to stop you now? Besides, you should be encouraging me. That way you might win,” he says with a wink. “I might drop first.”

I tell him that I don’t like this form of banter anymore. That I want to cut it out.

“Cut what out?” he says. “Mary Beth, if you don’t have your death to laugh at in these years, what do you have?”

He has me, I think. He has me. Unless, of course, I go first.

He’s gone out for his morning walk. That’s where he’s been while I’ve been making breakfast and killing cacti. I used to go with him. Then I broke my hip. It’s a wonder the way your body hangs back as a shadow for year after year after year. And then one day it creeps up on you – bam! Here I am, it says. Feel me. Feel me.

How different the pains of the body are. How different from its pleasures. I think of the early days, when life was new to me. I used to have the sensation of flying, of being above and beyond and outside of my body. I was a spirit. I was on air. Now the body comes to me as a casement, sealing me in, keeping me shut, tight, creaking and cramped. I can’t even go for a walk.

Today must be the day. It’s icy out. February. No berries of any kind to be plucked for waffles. Elroy has his boots on, but still. I know how slick that ice can be. I know how you can be walking steadily and carefully one second, and the next you’re sucked to the ground. I have a vision of falling. Of Elroy’s blood seeping onto the ice for some animal, or worse, a child to find.

These are the images that fill my days now. Phones ring and I think – hospital? Elroy? Was it the cigars? A stroke? Sirens roar a few blocks away and my heart leaps with a rush of adrenaline. Until I remember, he’s napping upstairs. Yet even once I know that he’s asleep or watching television or taking a bath, my heart keeps hammering on. Last night I dreamt I was at my own funeral. I was lying in a casket, wearing my wedding dress. I had gone back in time to my former bridal self, twenty-four years old and glowing. One by one, people came up to greet me. I remember a blur of faces and then Elroy. He leaned over the edge and simply said, see, I won.

I try to tell myself that it hasn’t really become a contest. That neither of us would wish death for the other. Or loneliness for ourselves. But there is this competitiveness. We both have it. It surfaces exactly the same way in casinos as in graveyard gambles.

“So did you take your vitamins?” he asks me. “Don’t forget. Especially calcium. You wouldn’t want to develop osteoporosis.”

This is a joke. I try to take it as such. Secretly, I make mental notes about his breathing: Scratchier than last night. Has developed a cough. He says it’s just a tickle, but I can tell. It’s a cough.

Elroy, I think. Please be careful. It is slippery out there and you are not as limber as you once were. Elroy. I was kidding when I said those cigars would do you in. Let us pray, dearest, that our words do not bury us alive.

I pour the batter into the iron and press it firmly shut. I listen for the sound of ice crunching or the doorknob turning. Today’s the day, I can’t help thinking. Something awful. We’ve wished it on ourselves. Something terrible. I think this a lot of late.

It’s not that we’ve actually made a wager on our respective dates of doom. We haven’t. We’ve only been kidding around about the bet ever since Elroy brought it up. But that was just the problem. He brought it up. And now it is here, lurking in the kitchen and the bedroom and all along Elroy’s walk. Which one of us will go first?

Aside from that question there are the other details. There are the non-competitive details, ones not so amusing as the thought of Elroy saying I-told-you-so at my funeral. There is, for instance, the image of lying in bed alone.

I tried it yesterday afternoon. Elroy was downstairs watching television and a sudden, ridiculous fear rose in my chest. Now, I’m no scaredy-pants. I’m not going to tell you I’m looking forward to death, but when it comes I will meet it with open eyes. What I am not ready for is a year, or two years, or even ten, living in this house alone. Without him. That’s why I got into bed yesterday. I pulled the lavender sheets back and thought, This is what it is like to have a king-size bed to yourself. It didn’t feel so odd at first. Well, of course it didn’t. I’d taken plenty of naps without Elroy by my side.

If I had only stayed there. If I had only stayed on my side of the bed, next to the alarm clock, all would have been well. But I really wanted to test it out. I thought I’d make the idea as tangible as possible. So I rolled myself into the middle of the bed. Not all the way over to Elroy’s side. But smack into the middle of the bed. I was a buoy bobbing on a sea of lavender.

And so this is the work, the daily work, of staying afloat. This is the making of waffles and the butchering of cacti. The mundane acts that make the anxiety shrink. If I knew exactly what was going to happen I could be at peace. If I knew that I was to go first, or Elroy, or that I would have to live without him for three years or six or ten, if I could only know the number I could get a grip on it. I could be at peace. It’s this not knowing that stretches out like an ocean before me, full of mystery, suspense at its worst.

I can’t tell if Elroy’s bothered by it or not. He’s always been so carefree. But they say that in every joke there’s a hint of truth. And he’s the one who made the joke. He’s the one who made it, but the unfair thing is, I’m carrying it. It’s weighing me down like a lifetime of cigars or a hearty dose of skin cancer.

The waffles are on the table. I’ve set the syrup out, and the butter. The napkins are set, two saffron napkins and two forks and two knives. Pairs. Doubles of everything. When we got married, everything came in twos. We were given two golden candlesticks, two porcelain teacups, two bathroom towel sets – did they think we couldn’t use the same towels? But we don’t. I use the mauve ones, and Elroy, the lime. We never discussed it. It just happened that way.

Is this the way it will happen? No word, no phone call, no ghastly sight on the staircase or in the den? Just this empty space, vacant time, the waffles getting cold and the coffee. And then I hear them. Footsteps. They are approaching the house. They are the sound of Elroy or a policeman or a stunned neighbor. They are going to hit the front door any second now. “Mary Beth?” he calls. It’s him.


He steps into the living room and crosses over to where I am standing.

“Yes, love?” His cheeks are flushed with cold. He isn’t wearing enough clothing. Beneath his jacket there’s just a red flannel shirt. “What is it?” he asks.

He ought to be wearing a sweater. A wool hat. He has leather gloves on, but they aren’t very thick. “You must be freezing,” I tell him. “You’ll catch your death.” And then I hear them, these awful words of mine.

“Is something wrong? Mary Beth, what’s the matter?” He lays a gentle hand on my wrist. It is papery and dry and firm.

“Breakfast was ready twenty minutes ago,” I tell him. “You’re late.” Kabeera McCorkle is a Philadelphia area writer and native. Her work has previously been published by the Danforth Review, and has been produced by Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company.

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