On Saturday night Jack got into bed, slipped his hand under his wife’s pillow and cut himself open on a kitchen knife. The cut was deep, in the fleshy part of his palm at the base of his thumb. He wondered about stitches and shook Elaine’s shoulder. She rolled over.
“Why is there a knife in bed?” Jack held his other thumb over the cut. The blood settled into dark lines on his palm. Elaine rubbed her forehead. “I cut myself,” Jack said.
She opened her eyes then and took him to the bathroom. He sat on the toilet and she knelt in front of him, wrapping his hand in gauze. He had been out with a guy from work drinking Jim Beam and he tried not to breathe it into her face.
“You don’t need stitches,” she said. She wrapped it quickly and tightly and went back to bed.
Jack stayed on the toilet and swayed a little and wondered if Elaine had meant to kill him in the night, but thought that she was smart enough to use neater means than their serrated bread knife.
When he got back into bed he inched his other hand under her pillow to see if the knife was still there, but it was gone.
He dreamed of children, a boy playing in the backyard. When the boy turned Jack could see that he was playing with knives, and he called out to him—“Paul!”—but the window was closed and the boy sliced off his pinky finger without any reaction, then disappeared, and the pinky was in Jack’s hand. He looked down at it, fat and creased and cut clean at the bottom, but not bleeding and still pink.
In the morning he told Elaine and she said she had dreamed of drowning in a puddle at the strip mall. “And,” she said, “the night before I had a dream that someone bashed me over the head with a dumbbell. Walked right into the house and started hitting me.”
“We don’t have any dumbbells,” Jack said.
“We don’t have any children either.” She got out of bed and in a few minutes Jack smelled fried eggs from the kitchen.
On Monday Jack had to stay home from work because Elaine had dreamed she would fall down the stairs and break her neck. He was glad to avoid the office because his hand was still throbbing and hadn’t yet scabbed—the blood had just congealed over the wound. Elaine stayed in bed most of the day and Jack sat on the front porch catching up on newspapers. She came out late afternoon and asked him to read her a story. He took Sunday’s paper inside and sat on the bed and read her the update on Israel and then an article on repairs planned for the bridge going over the river into the city. When he got up to make dinner, she put her hand on his arm and tugged on the hair.
“Read me something from the Arts section,” she said.
“I’m going to get dinner. I’ll leave it with you.”
By Tuesday his wound had scabbed and he could have gone back to work, but she told him she was sure she was going to die today, because this marked one week of dreaming about it.
“I thought it started Friday night,” Jack said.
“No,” she said, “First it was a fire, then a car accident, heart attack, dog mauling.” She counted these off on her fingers. “I didn’t want to say anything.”
“You should see the doctor,” Jack said.
On Wednesday they went to Dr. Keyes and Elaine told him about all her death dreams, in the latest of which she was the victim of a drug overdose. She had allowed Jack to come into the exam room, and he pointed out that she wasn’t on drugs.
“Are you?” the doctor asked. He had his back to them, looking at Elaine’s history on his clipboard.
“No,” she said, and started to cry. She pinched the bridge of her nose and dropped her head. Jack reached out and touched her cheek, and it wasn’t wet, just soft and covered in her fine white powder.
The last time Jack had seen her cry was twelve years ago, when Elaine told him that she couldn’t have children. He asked why she hadn’t told him before they married. She had muttered something about ovary problems and curled into the same position—hand to nose, shoulders to ears, eyes down—and Jack hadn’t asked any more questions, but had touched her dry cheek the same way.
Dr. Keyes turned. “You’re forty-four?”
Elaine looked up and ran her fingertips under her eyes. “Yes.”
The doctor listened to her heart and looked in her ears and eyes. “It’s probably just hormonal,” he said. “Women don’t realize how much anxiety these early fluctuations can cause.”
“Fluctuations?” Jack asked.
Dr. Keyes was writing something on the chart. “From the onset of menopause,” he said.
Elaine didn’t look surprised but the word menopause flashed in Jack’s head. He imagined one of those subliminal messages they used to put on television—soda, soda, soda, menopause, and suddenly you’re thinking about it all the time without knowing why. The doctor wrote her a prescription for something to reduce the anxiety, and she led Jack by his injured hand to the car.
On Thursday morning Jack found out his wife had dreamed he’d strangled her. She asked him to leave the house, so he went into the office for the first time that week and sat at his desk, looked out his window into the windows of the building across the street, down on women waiting at the corner to cross and taxitops surging through red lights. He watched these things and considered carefully whether or not he could leave his wife. He was leaning toward yes after lunch, when his secretary had shown him pictures of her brand new twin grandbabies and reminded him that they were her son’s fourth and fifth. He wavered some when Elaine called early afternoon to say she had gone out for Neosporin for his hand and that she was making baked ziti for dinner. He had learned in these eighteen years that baked ziti usually meant sex—he still couldn’t find the connection, but it must have been there in Elaine’s mind—and at 4:55 he shut down his computer and firmly decided no, that he would not leave his wife, but that he would go home and eat baked ziti and make love to her propped up on his good hand.
When Jack got home he found that Elaine had moved all of her things and the blue striped sheets from their bed into the guest room. She was asleep in there with a dirty plate on the floor next to the bed. Jack stood over her. Her hair stuck in strings to her forehead and cheeks with daytime sleep sweat, her head back and mouth open like a baby bird waiting for its mother’s vomit.
He didn’t see Elaine the rest of the night and ate his baked ziti by himself.
On Friday Elaine wasn’t up when he left for work. At work, he sat at his desk and waited for her to call, but she didn’t. He looked at her picture framed on his desk and tried to pinpoint what was wrong between them, tried to name it. Menopause? The word had drifted into the background over the past few days, but now he wondered what this menopause actually entailed—a crazy wife who won’t get out of bed? A woman so convinced she’s going to die that she’s almost convinced her husband? No more sex?
Jack went out for more Jim Beam after work. When he got home Elaine’s door was still shut and he went to their bed and slept.
He didn’t wake up until eleven o’clock on Saturday, when they were supposed to go to his mother’s. He got up and walked into the hall—Elaine’s door was still closed—downstairs, through the kitchen, living room, dining room. No coffee or eggs. No paper on the table. All the lights on and the laundry still in the dryer. No wife.
He looked out the kitchen window and both cars were in the driveway, so he put the coffee on himself. By noon he had drank the pot and eaten two eggs and was thinking he should go into the guest room.
He opened the door without knocking. At first he didn’t see her, and then he saw she was in the closet with her back to him and an open suitcase.
“Why are you packing?” He tried to sound curious but it came out as an accusation.
She looked over her shoulder at him. “Are we still going to your mother’s?” She turned fully, hands on hips.
“Yes.” He turned toward the door. “I’m just about to pack too.”
In the car, he did not ask for a dream update—afraid he would again be playing angel of death—and she didn’t say why for nearly two days she hadn’t come out of the guest room while he was in the house. For two hours they drove in the quiet except to comment on someone else’s driving or a piece of road kill.
When they pulled up in front of his mother’s house, she was peeking through a curtain out the window. She lived on a cul-de-sac of townhouses, tan with cranberry shutters and connected by thick lawns.
Jack unloaded their suitcases and rolled them up the cement path to the door, then realized Elaine wasn’t behind him and turned back to the road. He walked back and opened her car door.
“Come on,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“That kid has a gun,” she said.
Jack looked to where she pointed at the house next door and saw a boy, probably ten, stalking around the yard with a BB gun.
“It’s a toy,” he said. “Mom’s waiting at the door.”
“Go tell him to put it away or I’m not getting out.” She looked up at him and Jack remembered that he was supposed to take care of this woman. “Please?”
He shut the door and jogged over to the boy in the yard. As he got closer and saw the boy’s face, he thought he might be more like fourteen, just small.
“Hey, buddy,” he called as he came into the yard.
The boy was aiming at something and didn’t move.
“Would you mind taking that in the house for a minute? My wife’s in the car and she’s scared of guns.”
The boy looked at him and lowered the gun. “Just having fun,” he said. “I won’t hurt her.”
“She won’t get out,” Jack said.
“Wanna give her a scare?” The boy lunged at Jack and pressed the gun to his chest. “Hey, lady!”
Jack looked over his shoulder at the car and Elaine was looking at her fingernails. He turned back to the boy and shrugged.
“You can come right back out.”
“Just cause I feel sorry for you,” the boy said, and turned toward his house. He went in and stood watching at the front door like Jack’s mother.
Inside, his mother directed them up the stairs to the guest room to unload their luggage and told them to come right back down to eat. At dinner, Jack talked to his mother, then his wife, then his mother. He found a bottle of red wine in the kitchen, and when he got back to the table, Elaine pushed her chair back and stood up.
“I’m exhausted,” she said to Jack. “I think I’ll go up to bed.”
“I’ll be up in a while,” Jack said.
As they finished dinner, Jack’s mother talked about how much she loved the townhouse and the neighborhood and he talked about how busy he had been at work. He washed the dishes and she put coffee on. They poured their cups, then sat down again at the dining room table. In the middle of stirring her cream in, his mother said, “I’m dying, Jackie.”
He set his spoon down sideways on the tablecloth. A little pool of coffee ran off it and soaked into the white lace, leaving a jagged tan stain.
“Oh,” his mother said. She pushed her chair back and went into the kitchen. She came back with a red spray bottle and doused the spot and blotted it with her napkin.
“Don’t worry, it should be okay,” she said. She put the bottle back in the kitchen and sat down at the table.
“Did you say you’re dying?”
She looked at her lap, then at him. He saw now that the whites of her eyes were yellowed and her skin was rough and stretched thin over her face.
“Cancer,” she said.
“My right breast. But it’s spread.” She smoothed her pink running suit over her collarbone.
“How long have you known?” he asked.
“Six months? Are you on chemo?”
She looked at the ceiling. “It’s too far along, Jackie. I didn’t want to be miserable my last months.”
“Months.” Jack’s mouth was dry and he took a gulp of coffee.
“Two or three.” She squinted and wrinkles sprang from the sides of her eyes like fireworks.
Jack’s eyes were heavy as rocks, burning like charcoal.
His mother put her hand on his knee. “I’m not worried, dear. And not in pain. Just tired.”
They sat in this position for a few minutes until she patted his knee and sat back in her chair. “I need to go to bed.” She kissed the top of his head and he watched her hold tightly to the railing as she went up the stairs.
He joined Elaine in bed a few hours later, after drinking the rest of the coffee and watching a documentary on the praying mantis. He lay awake and watched stripes of light on the ceiling from the street lights coming through his mother’s Venetian blinds.
Elaine woke up around five, before the sun came up. “What time is it?” she said.
“A little after five,” he said.
“Coffee?” she asked.
“Could you make it?”
“Your mother’s going to kill me,” she said.
“Elaine.” He didn’t have the patience to tell her right now that his mother was the one being killed, and he couldn’t stop thinking about her insides. He imagined the inside of her breast, a sack of skin filled with fat and bubbling cancer cells.
“That’s how I’m going to die,” Elaine said, sitting up.
He envisioned them sprouting off of one another and growing ripe, bulging with liquid and then popping like pimples, spraying toxic liquid into other parts of her body. Then those little droplets welled and turned yellow and green and swam around in her and burst and spread, and now they were all connected and clustered together, pressing against her liver and her dry, slack skin, and spreading upward too, swelling up into her neck and pinching her spine and licking at her brain. Down in her ankles, squashing themselves into her toes, and crammed in her calves, and especially thick in the backs of her knees.
“She’ll be dead in two months,” he said. “Breast cancer.”
Elaine got out of bed and put her robe on and he heard her go downstairs. He stayed in bed and came in and out of sleep.
He woke up at ten o’clock and got out of bed and into the shower. He worried about Elaine and his mother alone. Several times his mother had accused Elaine of lying about not being able to have children. Once she had called Elaine a selfish wench. And really, they had no proof of it, no medical records or doctor’s word—just Elaine’s—but Jack had thought he should believe her because she was his wife. And after Elaine said it six years into their marriage, he brought up adoption sometimes, but never asked for a medical reason or even any other reason, even when she said no to adoption.
Jack went downstairs. Elaine sat on the couch reading a magazine.
She said, “Your mother’s on a walk,” without looking up.
He made coffee and sat down next to her. When she still didn’t look up, he said, “I think we should stay here a while.”
She looked at him then, but she continued flipping pages in the magazine. “Are you serious?”
“Someone needs to be here.”
“What about your job?” She was back to the magazine, following a caption with her finger.
“I’ll take a leave of absence.”
Elaine shook her head. “It’s up to you.”
“Did you dream last night?” he asked. He looked at the picture in the magazine, a deck with Adirondack chairs and big pots spewing flowers.
“Mhm. Cancer,” she said.
He sat for a few more minutes while she read, thinking bitch, bitch, bitch. “Do you know where mom went walking?” he asked.
She shrugged one shoulder. “Around the block or something.”
Jack went into the front yard and looked up and down the street. He didn’t see her. The boy next door was back outside, gunless, coloring his bottom porch step white with chalk. “Hey,” he said to Jack.
“Hey,” Jack said. “You seen my mother?”
“No,” the boy said, and laid the length of the chalk against the step and scraped it across, hard, then back again. He moved on to the second step. There was a bucket full of fat chalk next to him.
Jack walked over. “What are you doing?”
“Coloring my steps,” the boy said.
Jack looked around for his mother again. “Did you see her leave?”
“A while ago.” The boy switched to blue and colored in scribbles, holding the chalk straight up in one fist with the other hand on top pressing down. Today Jack thought the boy could be eight.
“Like an hour maybe.”
“Have fun,” Jack said and walked out of the yard and turned left, away from the circle of the cul-de-sac and toward town. It was close to noon.
When he got back an hour later the boy had all of the steps colored and was drawing a sailboat on the walk to his house, and Jack had not found his mother. “Has my mother come back?” he asked. The boy looked up and shook his head.
Jack went in the house and Elaine was asleep on the couch with the magazine face-down on her stomach. Better Homes and Gardens.
Jack went back outside and sat down on the walkway next to the boy. The boy said, “Wanna help?” as he drew sharp waves overwhelming the side of the boat. They were coming up over the front, the back, the side. Jack took a fat new piece of chalk out of the bucket, green, and went out to the front sidewalk and drew pointy sticks of grass, one at a time, from the edge of his mother’s yard to the other side of the boy’s. He went back, drew another layer of grass, this one scribbled and round at the tops. He went back to the bucket for white. On top of the grass he drew a big Adirondack chair—this took some time, he wanted it to look real—which his mother walked over the outlines of on her way home. He ignored her and colored it in the slow way, with the tip, in straight, even strokes. When the chair was done he went back to the bucket and the boy was finished with his boat, sitting on the blue step watching Jack. Jack took the whole bucket back to the sidewalk with him and took yellow, a shorter piece flattened on one side, and drew the center of one flower next to the foot of the chair.
There was green dust on the knees of his khakis now, white on his fingertips and more green on his palms. He drew the center of another flower, ground and twisted the chalk around into the sidewalk, and again next to that one, and again. He saw his mother and Elaine standing in the yard and the boy still sitting on the blue step, watching. He ground harder. He took pink and drew big loops around the outside of the flower centers—petals—colored them in, then added purple petals behind them. He picked the yellow back up and crushed it on the sidewalk into more centers. He could see his mother’s white walking shoes at the edge of the lawn now, and Elaine’s bare feet, and the boy had moved farther into his yard and was leaning against a tree. Jack took blue and colored in the sky up along the top of the sidewalk, running the chalk against the front of his mother’s shoes and his wife’s toes. He laid the chalk flat then and the sky appeared in big stripes, Jack crawling along through it as he pushed the chalk ahead of him. He looked up.
He looked at the boy, who was starting to climb up into the tree.
His mother had retreated some toward the house with her hand on her chin.
Elaine touched her big toe to the chalk sky as if it might burn her, or she was trying to decide whether or not to jump in.
RACHEL WEAVER holds an MFA from the University of Montana. She currently lives in Pittsburgh and works as a teacher.