Sam’s final aching breaths, and the silence between, woke Miri, and she rose from the tangled blankets she slept on beside his hospice cot to hold his hand until it went cold in hers. She had been prepared for weeks now, and the phone was hooked up beside his cot. Her family arrived by dawn, first her grown daughter, Sonya, and then the rest. Some of her cousins brought food when they arrived. After embracing Miri, they pulled off the lids to show her what they had brought—soups, fruit salads, pasta dishes—saying, “So you’re all set for now.” They piled the containers in the fridge and began filling their air mattresses. Miri had insisted that no one get a hotel. She had plenty of space. She helped her family scatter their mattresses around the living room, where she had already dismantled Sam’s cot, and she moved back up to their room, alone.
Under Miri’s direction, her family busied themselves with the arrangements, all the appointments, the calls that needed someone to attend to the line during holds, the normal bills that, in this time, still needed to be paid. Whenever possible, Miri went at tasks alone. Alone she selected the prayer to be read for Sam. She chose the cards she would send out to all who came to the funeral, including the same family members who surrounded her now. She failed only at writing Sam’s eulogy, beginning several times over and never writing more than, What am I going to do without you? What am I going to do? Sonya placed her hands on Miri’s shoulders, almost motherly, and then slid the paper away from Miri. The eulogy no longer her responsibility, Miri asked her cousins what she could do to help make their stay more comfortable, but they always shook their heads, no, no. Eventually she could only stand back and watch the activity around her. Everyday someone had to do laundry before the appointments, the funeral, the reception, the burial. Everyday someone swept the kitchen to attack the footprints of too many shoes. Downstairs, in all moments, there were the sounds of squeaking sneakers on the polyurethaned floors, the faint beeps when someone lifted the phone from the receiver and dialed, the low murmurs as her family tried to prevent Miri’s overhearing. These sounds layered over the silence Sam had left in his wake, and over the many years of his laughter, the scratching of his frantic note-taking each morning before they left for work, his soft coughs of habit, and rendered his presence in their house gone.
The last morning, after all others had departed for their homes, Sonya cooked breakfast for Miri a final time.
“I’m making extra oatmeal. I’ll leave the pot in the fridge, so you can just heat it up this week. Raisins are in and everything.” Sonya placed the pot next to the containers Miri’s cousins had left her. Sam and Miri had never kept this much food in the fridge. On the fridge door, Sam’s picture was posted. The two of them. Miri didn’t know the year it was taken, but it hadn’t been in the last two. In the picture, Sam’s cheeks were not yet gaunt. In the picture, he held her close.
Sonya served this morning’s oatmeal. When Sonya ate, Miri did too. She hardly tasted the oatmeal. It dropped to her stomach and sat heavy there. Sonya’s car waited in the driveway. They both looked at it as they ate. When Sonya said she could stay no longer, they stood and shared a long, uncomforting hug.
Miri murmured, “I’ll call you later, when I expect you’ve settled in.”
Sonya shook her head. “I’ll call as soon as I get home.”
Miri didn’t argue, knowing this was Sonya’s way of expressing care, of needing care. “We’ll talk later.”
“Right around 5:00.”
Falling silent again, Sonya tucked her chin over Miri’s shoulder and squeezed hard. Miri let her, as she had let her daughter try to take care of her all week. Though Sonya was grieving, expressing her grief in the same outreaching manner as Miri, Miri did not worry for her. Sonya had always been close with Sam, and she’d visited enough these last years. And, when she finished the drive, she’d be back to her work, her own life, her own husband. They were hoping to have a child soon. Miri knew Sonya must be in deep pain too, but she was not experiencing the same final loss, the beginning of solitude.
The house went silent once more. Miri reclined on Sam’s side of the couch and closed her eyes for hours.
In the early afternoon, she trudged upstairs and busied herself to try to quell the ache. She made their bed. She only had to tuck the covers over her side. She did not need to lift the covers to her nose to know that they no longer smelled of Sam. He had not slept in their bed for months. She wiped the bathroom counters. Opening the medicine cabinet, she counted Sam’s bottles, six, then tucked them behind her own medications and closed the cabinet. In the mirror she watched herself lift and drop her shoulders once, twice. Through the silence cut the loud crackle of her joints. Miri studied her reflection as she brought her hands to her neck and rubbed. The ache endured.
Downstairs, she unpacked the fridge and freezer, decorated the kitchen table with Tupperware containers. She pulled off the lids. Miri’s cousins and Sonya had preserved the food perfectly, all of the quick-to-spoil foods in the freezer. With the fruit salad alone, she had enough food to last for days. Tiny crystals formed on the berries, reflecting under the kitchen lights. Miri replaced all the lids and returned the food to the fridge and freezer. She would eat another time, later. She did not look at Sam’s face as she closed the refrigerator door.
Drawn curtains darkened the living room. The shadows nearly obscured the carpet imprints where her family had set up their mattresses, where Sam’s cot had stood. Miri would not go in there again, not right now, and she retreated back into the kitchen until she stood near her walking shoes. After studying them a moment, she put them on.
Outside, the temperature had risen since she’d last been out. “It is summer,” Miri whispered. Soon sweat bloomed on her brow, and the arthritis in her knees warmed, flared. She would not turn back yet. It was only 2:00 when she left. She did not have to be home for Sonya’s call for hours. She pressed through, kept going, went all the way downtown. She had nearly reached the river and could go no further, and she thought to turn back, but to her left she spotted a cafe she and Sam had never been to. She would order sparkling water, or iced tea, and return home. She chose a table outside under an umbrella.
A quiet waiter brought her a menu, and Miri requested water, said she’d have to look over the menu. When he went inside, she did not open the menu right away. Only a few cars were parked on this street, and fewer drove by. Nothing caught her eye, and she soon thought of home, of the grating, interminable silence. Only two or three months ago, when Sam had the strength to sit up, she’d moved him from the living room cot to the porch for a few hours. He knew it was her spring gardening weekend, and he said he’d like to watch her work. She could not bear to tell him that she hadn’t been able to buy the topsoil this season—she hadn’t been able to step away from home to do so. She’d left him on the porch to catch her breath inside; and even now, replaying this moment, she fought to keep her breath unchoked.
But seated in the shade, the breeze was good on her scalp. Her sweat began to dry, and she first forced and then allowed herself to pay attention to the wind lifting her hair.
The waiter returned with her water and asked, “What else can I get you, ma’am?”
Miri hadn’t looked at the menu. She wanted nothing, felt no hunger, and said so, but added quickly, “An iced tea will do.”
“That’s a good choice for a day like this. Sure you don’t want something to eat?”
“Oh…” Miri started, thinking of the piles of food at home that her cousins had prepared for her, how if she let it go bad, she would not be returning their care. But to get to the food, she’d have to reach past Sam’s picture. She’d be haunted, while eating standing up in the kitchen, by how she ended up with this food. By the silence around her.
If she ate a bit now, she could delay it all, and she said, “Perhaps you can point me to something light.”
The waiter gestured as though to hand Miri the menu, then stepped back, clutched the menu to his chest. “The scones are good. They’ll brighten your day. Just baked this morning.”
Miri nodded, and he returned inside.
Under the umbrella, she was no longer overheated, was simply warmed, swaddled. The sun was not directly overhead anymore, but still it couldn’t be near 5:00, when Sonya would call. Soon, Miri would have to trudge home to catch Sonya’s call—soothe her from a distance, assure her there was nothing more they could do for her father—but not yet.
Miri watched those passing by, and those coming to the cafe for a light bite. A family entered—a couple with a young child, perhaps nine. Soon a man and dog approached the cafe, and the man secured his dog’s leash near Miri’s table. He went inside. Miri watched him order, watched him wait. He glanced toward the door often, craning his neck to see his dog, checked again for his food at the counter. His dog, large and long-eared and hairy, some sort of spaniel, stood patiently, panting in the sun. Miri scooped an ice cube from her water glass and threw it to the dog. The dog sniffed the cube, licked it once, then sat up straight again and resumed panting. Droplets formed on his tongue, fell to and darkened the sidewalk. It was the hot part of the day, perhaps unsafe for a dog to sit in direct sun on concrete. Miri patted her thigh, and as she hoped, the dog scooted closer and stood within the umbrella’s reach. The dog looked up at Miri, the whites of his eyes flashing, his mouth open as though smiling, and then faced the cafe, watching again for the man.
Miri reached out, hovered her hand near his shoulder. The dog did not turn to snap, and Miri extended her fingertips to touch his coat lightly. The dog shifted his stance, his hip against Miri’s leg, almost leaning. Miri rested her hand on his back, warm and damp beneath her palm, but then the cafe door opened, and the dog leapt from her touch to greet his companion.
The man flashed Miri a quick smile but did not speak as he stooped to untie his dog. She watched them go, holding her water glass. Her palms chilled once more. Sonya would be crossing the state border soon, would speed up, mesmerized by her nearness to home.
The waiter came out and presented her with a scone on a little dessert plate.
“This is one of the last of the day. They sell out quick.”
“I’ll be glad to eat it. Thank you,” Miri said and waited until he was inside to try the scone. It had a cakey quality, the butter a little too noticeable, but it crumbled nicely with each bite, and the subtle flavor did not overwhelm her. On this day, this was something she could eat, and she ate it slowly. When she finished, she leaned back in her chair. The sun lowered and grew more glaring.
When the waiter brought out her check, he met her eyes and smiled at her, but other customers needed him, and he said no more before returning inside. Miri might not have another unstrained exchange for weeks. She reached for the bill and held the edge. The thermal paper crumpled easily, and she rolled the bill’s edge between her fingers, made the paper even softer. Then she tucked it back into the presenter, but not yet with her payment. It had to be nearly 5:00 now, and Miri could not walk home in time. Sonya would soon call to tell Miri she arrived safely. If Miri were home to pick up, she would note the relief in Sonya’s voice, always present after a long drive home, but weaker than usual, toned down perhaps for Miri’s sake. In the background, she’d hear the blaring TV as Sonya’s husband watched his after-work show. She’d point this out to Sonya, draw her back to her life and the goodness in it, and soon Sonya would excuse herself from the call. Other family members would call too, arriving home after long drives or flights, asking one more time if Miri needed a gift card for additional meals. And their check-ins, Sonya’s included, would overbrim with love, and yet they would each take something out of Miri.
Warm in the day’s last strong rays, Miri did not have it in her to push her aching body away from the chair, rush home, and listen. The calls would end, and she’d be left keenly aware of the empty house, its hush.
Now the city was growing louder. Sitting outside this cafe, she heard the traffic in the distance, the voices of workers leaving corporate buildings down the street, and the afternoon wind rushing the river along. Miri sat awhile longer, listening to these sounds. She clasped her hands together and placed her chin atop her folded, warm hands. She closed her eyes.
Natalie Gerich Brabson is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program and holds a BA in Hispanic Studies from Vassar College. Her fiction has been published in Cleaver Magazine, New World Writing, and Eunoia Review. In 2017 she was selected as Go On Girl Book Club’s Unpublished Writer Awardee. She lives in West Philadelphia and is at work on her first novel.