Fiction by Tom Weller
Noah Filkins is an amazing lover. Noah Filkins is an amazing lover. Noah Filkins is an amazing lover. Noah Filkins is
I’m flat on my back, under my bed, writing on the bedframe when the nurse comes to get me. I hear the whoosh of my door opening, turn my head to see shoes coming toward me, running shoes, pink and light and airy as cotton candy. All the nurses wear them, running shoes in circus colors. Send in the clowns. I curse under my breath. A couple of shits and a goddamnit. I thought I had more time.
I shuffle the black Sharpie into my pocket. The vapors of the ink drying on the bedframe make me lightheaded. The cold of the tile floor cuts through my track suit, sinks into my bones. I grope for a cover story. I dropped something. Or maybe, something seemed off with the bed. I was checking the bed, trying to fix it. No. Better just say I dropped something or I thought I dropped something. I thought I dropped my book last night when I fell asleep reading. I thought maybe it was under the bed.
The nurse has a voice like a kindergarten teacher, sing-songy and stern at the same time: “Mrs. Filkins, hellloooo, are you ready for your big day? Mrs. Filkins? Mrs. Filkins? Mrs. Filkins! Are you okay, Mrs. Filkins? Don’t move. I’ll get help. Everything is going to be okay, Mrs. Filkins.”
I stick one hand out from under the bed and give the nurse a thumbs-up. I say, “I’m fine,” but the nurse keeps on going like she doesn’t hear me, like my words get lost in the mattress above me.
“You just relax and don’t move and everything will be fine. We’ll have you out of there and on your feet lickety-split.” Panic sharpens the ends of each syllable.
I wiggle out from under my bed, reach for the side rails, pull myself upright. The nurse watches me the whole time, her face pretty and open and amazed. She looks like a kid watching a man eat fire. “Ta-dah.”
“Why, Mrs. Filkins, I’m so glad to see you’re all right. You really scared me. What in the world were you doing down there?”
“I thought I dropped a book.” I wave my hand in the air near my face, swatting away her follow-up questions before they have a chance to form.
“Well, we should get going. You don’t want to miss your own party. Everyone is in the dayroom waiting for you already. You’re going to have a happy, happy 107. I just know it.”
“Yes, happy, happy.”
“Let’s go join the fun.”
“Yes. I just need a moment to freshen up.”
Alone in the bathroom, I squat and manage to squeeze in a few more on the underside of the sink. Noah Filkins is an amazing lover. Noah Filkins is an amazing lover. It’s still not enough. It feels like it may never be enough.
The nurse calls to me through the locked door: “Come on, birthday girl. I think I smell cake.”
Noah Filkins is an amazing lover.
That sentence is promise.
Noah Filkins is an amazing lover.
That sentence is penance.
Noah Filkins is an amazing lover.
That sentence is part of me, like blood or breath, has been, for more than sixty years.
Noah Filkins is an amazing lover.
That sentence is the medicine to heal broken hearts.
Noah Filkins is an amazing lover.
That sentence is the weight that keeps me pinned to the earth.
I know it’s a cliché, but it’s also the truth. It wasn’t planned. It just sort of happened. You’ve heard the story before.
Noah had been growing more distant. He spent more evenings puttering around alone in the garage, more nights falling asleep on the couch and never coming to bed. We’d been married close to thirty years. These things happen. There were never any angry words. There were just fewer words. Fewer stories and jokes. Fewer thank yous. For years Noah had been full of thank yous. We both had. Thank you for doing the dishes. Thank you for reminding me about my appointment. Thank you for calling the contactor. Thank you for listening, for helping, for caring, for loving me.
I missed the thank yous most of all, each one a small kindness, an intimacy.
And then there was Ben Knorr. For twenty-odd years we had worked together at the elementary school. I taught second grade; Ben taught third, his classroom right next to mine. We ate lunch together, gossiped about the kids, their families, the other teachers. Ben’s wife left him. Ben was heartbroken. Ben was full of thank yous. Thank you for listening. Thank you for caring. You see where this is going. You’ve heard this story before.
But it only happened the one time, just once. I swear. And afterward I felt hollow and ashamed. I never said anything, but somehow Noah found out, and it crushed him, broke him into ten thousand pieces.
How do you apologize for a mistake that shatters a person? How do you put them back together? For me, it starts and ends with the same sentence.
“Happy birthday,” they all say in unison when the nurse walks me into the dayroom. I want to say they yell “happy birthday” or they cheer, but it’s not like that. It’s more like the perfunctory schoolroom Pledge of Allegiance. “OnenationunderGodindivisible.” You know the drone. “Happy birthday.” This time it’s just one creaky voice. Just Frank. Poor Frank, always ten seconds behind the rest of the world.
They’ve shuffled the dayroom furniture, moved the tables and chairs into a kind of horseshoe, so walking into the dayroom feels like walking onto a stage to perform dinner theater. I should be belting out show tunes.
There’s a cake, of course. It’s the same big sheet cake we have for every celebration here. It’s covered in white buttercream and ten flaming candles, and when the nurses cut into it, one side will be white cake and one side will be chocolate, and this will throw Dolores into a tizzy. What to do, what to do? Choices can be so hard. What if the white cake is the best? It’s usually the best, right? But what if this time the chocolate is better? Dolores squints her eyes as she stares at the cake. Worry furrows her forehead. The debate has already started in her head. It’s not really about cake. It’s about opportunity costs, about missing out.
The singing starts when the nurse and I reach the center of the horseshoe. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you,” sing voices ragged with age and fatigue. I scan the faces. Nurses lean against the walls. They smile. They are all great smilers. It’s part of their job, I think. They get paid to smile. They are professional smilers.
Residents fill the chairs. Many of them are like Frank and Dolores, confused, scared. Millie suffers from dementia and can never remember we have a nice cafeteria here. She spends hours every day agonizing about where her next meal will come from, hands clasped, praying for food. Every time a nurse rolls her into the cafeteria, Millie experiences a miracle. Hallelujah. Blessed be this lasagna. Blessed be this most holy lime Jell-O. This cake will be a miracle for Millie. Others are sharp as razors. Jinny paints beautiful watercolors of covered bridges and sagging barns. Bernie flirts with the nurses like a Vegas hustler.
Confused and scared or razor sharp, we’re all old. We’re all thin hair like corn silk and cardigan sweaters in July to stave off the chills. We’re all joints that ache in the damp. We’re all threadbare stories about our people departed. My Noah’s been gone almost a decade. We never had children. My only sister died when I was just in my sixties. Every year a nurse will ask me, “Is there anybody you’d like to invite to your birthday party? Is there anybody we should call?”
“Call the cavalry,” I say every year.
The singing builds to the big finish: “. . . birthday to . . .” The nurses raise their hands to their chests, ready to clap, smiling the whole time. I want to pinch their cheeks. Some of the residents rock with excitement, happy for me, maybe, happy for the cake. I make a show of inhaling a big breath. My chest expands. My shoulders rise.
I lean down toward the cake, and then I blow. I get them all in my first try, all ten candles, every wavering flame, so much extinguished with a single big breath.
Two weeks after Noah found out about the affair, we were still rehashing the whole sorry thing, a kind of nightly call and response.
“Why?” Noah asked me. “Why?” This was the question he couldn’t put down, the bone he couldn’t stop chewing. The night my sentence was born, he didn’t even look at me as he asked the question, just sat in his wingback chair studying the ceiling and listening to the Cubs game on the radio while I sat on the couch, a book of half-finished crossword puzzles in my lap.
“Why? What does he have that I don’t?
“It’s not like that.” The Cubs were down by six runs in the eighth. Noah’s eyes never left the ceiling.
“Don’t I protect you and take care of you? Don’t I rub your shoulders when you tell me you’ve had a bad day at school? Don’t I make sure all the bills are paid and the house isn’t falling down? Don’t I listen when you need to talk?”
“Noah, you’re great. The best.” The book of crossword puzzles thumped against the carpet as I rose from the couch to approach Noah. “You’re all I want.” I crouched down next to his chair. The Cubs gave up a two-run homer, the hole suddenly deeper. I rested my hand on Noah’s forearm.
“There has to be something.”
“It just happened. I’m so sorry.”
“Do I not satisfy you?” Noah’s voice wavered and sputtered like a man struggling to pronounce a foreign phrase.
“Noah Filkins, you are an amazing lover.” I rubbed Noah’s forearm, my touch as light as breath. Goosebumps bloomed in the wake of my fingertips.
Noah turned to face me.
“It’s true. I’ll even put it in writing. Noah Filkins is an amazing lover.” I tried to give Noah a silly smile, squinched up my eyes, curled my lips. “I’ll write it a billion times.”
And then it happened, the darkness that had lived in Noah’s face for the past two weeks began to fracture. Something lighter started to show through the cracks.
“I’ll start right now,” I said. I walked over and picked the book of crossword puzzles off the carpet. I sat back down on the couch and found my pencil trapped between the cushions. I flipped to the first crossword puzzle, and in the white margin that ran across the top of the page I wrote: Noah Filkins is an amazing lover. Noah was still looking at me. I showed him the first page of the crossword puzzle book, showed him my sentence. I smiled at him and said, “One.” I turned to the next page. “Only 999 million and change to go.” I curved my back as I wrote, curled myself around that sentence, leaned into the work.
Noah Filkins is an amazing lover.
At first the sentence was easy, fun, a kind of game. I could get thirty-four Noah Filkins is an amazing lovers on a sheet of college-ruled notebook paper, one sentence on each line and two more in the white space at the top of the page. I’d rip the filled pages out of the notebook and leave them in places I knew only Noah would find them, on top of his workbench in the garage, in his underwear drawer, pressed between the pages of whatever book he happened to be reading, in the refrigerator taped to one of Noah’s Budweisers. And I’d know when Noah found the sentences without him having to say a word. He’d come in from the garage with bounce in his step and give me a wink as he walked through the kitchen. He’d take a long, slow pull from a Budweiser and look at me over the top of the can, his eyebrows raised. And I would know, and he would know I knew.
I imagined each one of those sentences as a slim silver thread, something like spider web, but strong as steel. I imagined those silver threads stitching Noah back together, stitching us back together. Each one of those Noah Filkins is an amazing lovers felt like a small act of kindness, an intimacy.
Then one day, after months of daily pages of Noah Filkins is an amazing lovers, I stopped writing them. Just stopped. Enough was enough. I felt done. Maybe I just wanted to see if Noah would say something. Maybe I just wanted to hear that Noah missed the sentences and wanted more.
I didn’t hear that, not for a very long time.
On his deathbed, Noah looked like a raw prawn. His back had curved. He was hairless and pale and thin. Everywhere I looked, I saw thin blue veins running through his flesh. As Noah lay dying, I could look right inside him. The visible Noah. I watched his blood moving through him as he died. It was the cancer that did it. You know the story. You’ve heard it before. He was ninety-two.
I got to be with him as he went. In Noah’s hospital room, medical equipment hummed and beeped and nurses came in and out, in and out, every few minutes a nurse. But none of that mattered. What mattered was the cool of Noah’s hand in mine as I sat next to his hospital bed. What mattered were the questions Noah asked me: “You’re ready to sell the house, right? You’ve talked to my insurance agent, right? You know you don’t have to be alone, right? You know I don’t expect that, don’t want that.”
I patted Noah’s hand as he spoke. I said, “Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Then Noah took a deep breath, turned his face toward the ceiling, and said, “You almost finished with those billion sentences?”
Noah Filkins is an amazing lover. The words bloomed in my head like the melody of a nearly forgotten song. “Almost,” I lied to my dying husband.
“Well, make sure you finish.”
“I will,” I promised my dying husband.
Then Noah closed his eyes and told me he was going to take a little nap. But we both knew it was not a nap. I watched him, for ten minutes, maybe fifteen, watched the blood in his veins still.
Before I left him, I stood and kissed him on the forehead, then whispered in his ear, over and over again, “Noah Filkins, I love you.” And as I whispered, I moved my index finger across his thigh, tracing into his flesh a down payment on the words I owed him: NOAH FILKINS IS AN AMAZING LOVER.
Don’t let their fun shoes and professional smiles fool you. The nurses can be a hard bunch.
When I first moved into the center things were pretty good. I missed cooking for myself, and, of course, I missed Noah, every day I missed Noah, but I had a purpose. I had my promise. I had Noah’s sentences to write, or, really, our sentences. Those sentences were for both of us now, the last of our communal property.
When I first arrived at the center, I had whole days to write. After breakfast I’d come back to my room, put the shopping channel on the TV, climb into my bed with a college-ruled spiral notebook and a fine-point pen and write and write. Noah Filkins is an amazing lover. Noah Filkins is an amazing lover, piling them up one on top of another, neat as cordwood, thirty-four to a page.
In the background pretty women on the shopping channel would talk about jewelry and vacuums, frying pans and computers and boxes of Omaha steaks they would send right to your door. Imagine that, meat through the mail. And I would only half hear about the steaks and the rest of it because I’d hear the sentence in my head as I wrote. Sometimes my voice spoke the sentence. Sometimes Noah’s voice spoke the sentence. Sometimes we spoke the sentence together, sentences became chant, sentences became an intimacy.
Most days I could fill one whole notebook. Thirty-four Noah Filkins is an amazing lovers X seventy pages = 2,380 sentences. Sounds like a lot until you think of dividing one billion by 2,380. I never did have the heart to do the math. Don’t think about it, I told myself. Just listen, listen to the next sentence and the next and the next.
One sentence at a time I filled notebook after notebook. I always kept a stack of ten or so blank ones on the nightstand on the left side of my bed. I piled the filled ones on the floor on the right side of the bed. And every night that pile was just a little higher or a little wider than it had been the night before, a jumble of Noah Filkins is an amazing lovers creeping like kudzu throughout my little room.
There’s satisfaction in that kind of work, joy in tangible progress. You don’t get that in teaching, not often. You don’t get that that often in love, not really.
But then some of the nurses started asking questions. I think at first they were just trying to be friendly. Friendly is part of their job. “Whatcha doing there, Mrs. Filkins?” they’d say.
“Just writing,” I’d say.
“Words. Sentences,” I’d say. Two questions must have been their quota for friendliness because after that they’d leave me alone, wander off somewhere. Probably to ask some other resident two questions. Questions distributed like aspirin. Two for you and two for you and two for you.
But then one day a doctor appeared, a squat balding man with a belly like a beer keg, and he had questions. Questions about wouldn’t I be happier if I got out more. Questions about wouldn’t it be nice to clear out some of the notebooks and have a bit more space in my room. Questions about how I felt about Noah.
It was the nurses who called the doctor. I’m sure of it. I’m sure curiosity got the best of one of them once when I was out of my room eating, and I’m sure that nurse snooped through my notebooks. And I’m sure that nurse told other nurses, and I’m sure they all decided they needed to alert the doctor. And I’m sure they huddled and whispered about me, probably smiling the whole time. I’m sure they whispered words like hoarding and compulsion, like crazy and OCD. Sometimes I wonder if they ever whispered heartbroken. I know they never whispered promise.
So when the doctor spoke with me, I just agreed. “Yes, I really should get out more.” “Yes, less clutter would be lovely.” And when he asked about Noah, I just ignored him and kept on agreeing. “I hear some of the women have a book club. I think I’d really enjoy a book club. I’d like to start clearing out some of the notebooks today if that’s possible. Is there a way to make sure they are recycled?” And I smiled the whole time. Not a professional smile, but good enough. It worked. That afternoon two nurses came with a big blue trash can to help me clean up my sentences, and I started spending time in the dayroom. It seemed like Wheel of Fortune was always on the TV.
Inside my dresser drawers, under my t-shirts, under my bras and panties.
On the back side of Jinny’s paintings that hang in the lobby.
On the bottom of every table in the cafeteria.
Under the TV in the dayroom.
Inside the battery compartment of the TV’s remote control.
In the pages of the phonebook nobody uses anymore.
In the Bible in the dayroom, woven among Old Testament verses no one reads anymore.
Inside the hot air vents.
Inside the cold air returns.
On the back of every plate over every outlet and every switch.
This place is infested, crawling with Noah Filkins is an amazing lovers, each one written in black Sharpie, each one built of wavering letters formed by an ancient hand plagued by the imperative to work quickly, to get the letters all out before anyone sees. Look behind the fire extinguishers hanging in the halls. You’ll find herds of them. Pick up any of the potted plants; look on the bottom of the pot. You’ll find some. There may even be more, on the undersides of leaves, maybe, buried in the damp soil, maybe.
Noah Filkins is an amazing lover is part of this place now. Like the insulation in the walls and the water flowing through the pipes, Noah Filkins is an amazing lover surrounds me, sustains me.
It’s slow work now. Stealth costs quantity. But that’s okay. I’ve got time. Slow and steady. I’ll keep going until I’m done. Call the Sharpie factory. Call the birthday cake bakers. Let ’em all know, we all got years of work ahead of us.
They’ll be here soon, the local news people, the painted and polished TV ladies, the rumpled newspapermen. Just like they came last year for 106, just like they’ve come every year since 101. They’ll come as I’m finishing my cake, and they will all ask the same question they asked last year and the year before that and the year before that: “What’s the secret to a long life?”
They’ll want me to smile into their cameras and say something charming and just a bit risqué. They’ll want me to say, “The secret to a long life is an apple every day and two shots of whiskey every night,” or something like that. But I won’t.
When they ask, I’ll tell them the truth, again. The secret to a long life is a promise to be kept that you carry in the center of your chest. The secret to a long life is a lover that only you can make whole.