FICTION October 6, 2023


One day, the man noticed that his eyes, after being brown his whole life, were now green. A muted green, and still with some brown around the pupil, but definitely green. It was interesting. His first thought was to tell his wife because she was always the one he told whenever something interesting happened, but she was dying, and he thought she wouldn’t want to hear about it.

Technically, she was in the Early Stage of dying, according to the nurse who came to the house each morning. There would be a Middle Stage and then a Last Stage. In the Early Stage, she was restless, fatigued, and uncomfortable. Her lips were too dry, and she was losing her appetite, but she was still able to talk. She still wanted to talk. So he could’ve brought up the eye thing. It’s just that she didn’t want to talk about current events, such as eye things. She didn’t want to talk about things that were going to keep going, keep happening, after she was gone. She wanted only to talk about old things.

Which he totally got, and it was fine, he understood. Really. It just would’ve been nice if the old things she wanted to talk about included both of them.

For example:

Movies, she said yesterday.

And he, sitting in the armchair facing the bed, brought out his blue notebook, the one he used for her lists. This was a time of lists.

Ready, he said.

Notorious, she said. Bergman. Hitchcock.

This was how she spoke, now, in fragments. Only the essentials.

Sure, he said. A classic. Nazis. Cary Grant. And he wrote Notorious in the notebook. Then he underlined it, put stars next to it, and enclosed one of the stars in a circle. It wasn’t that he thought the symbols—there were others, there were exactly six others, and exactly twenty-four allowable combinations—meant anything or could alter the course of her illness, or.

He didn’t think that. But he never skipped them.

And she said, No, with a tired and rather baleful look. Weren’t any (deep, annoyed breath) Nazis.

He smiled, reassuringly he hoped, and blinked, and said, Well. He worried that she was confused, that she’d moved farther along in the Early Stage than he was prepared for just yet.

Psychologist, she said. Psychiatrist. Whatever.

He brightened and said, Spellbound!, relieved that she hadn’t gone to the Middle Stage without him. Then: I don’t think we saw that one, though. Together, I mean.

No, she said. We didn’t.

Which, again: Fine. It’s just that everything was like this. Everything seemed to be about her, exclusively about her. Always before, it had been about Them.

Of course he knew she’d had a life before they were together, just as he’d had a life. She’d had childhood friends, taken trips in the family station wagon, had crushes and dates, gone away to college in New England, and lived in New York City for a time. She’d fallen in and out of love several times, he knew, before they ever met. He understood all that. It’s just that it worried him that they had to dwell there. In that time. It worried him for reasons he couldn’t explain, the way it worried him to see photographs of his parents when they were young, before they’d had him, before they even had each other. As if imagining such things back then meant that choices were still to be made—that things could be different now. And why, after all, were these the things that she needed to remember now? Why was this where they had to dwell in the last days (the Early Stage of the last days)? They’d laid down roots together, the two of them. They were entangled. He didn’t want to become untangled now, at the end of things.

Still, he decided to keep the eye thing to himself.

She wanted to talk about vacations today. So he took out the blue notebook and wrote Vacations at the top of a new page. He was thinking of the last big trip they’d taken before she got sick, which was to Florence. They’d stayed in a small inn not far from the Duomo, and a mosquito had made its way into their room the first night and then followed them, or seemed to follow them, everywhere they went–to the shops of Ponte Vecchio, up to the top of Piazzale Michelangelo, and even inside the Uffizi—their personal tour guide. Here you will find da Vinci’s unfinished Adoration of the Magi. Le ombre…semplicemente magnifiche. Bzzzzz…She even gave the mosquito a name because she liked to name things.

Wildwood Beach, she was saying. Nineteen eighty-one.

What was the name, he said, of that Italian mosquito?

I took my friend—(she stopped, head turned on the pillow, looked out the window, searching). Rose. Her name. Write it down.

So he wrote Wildwood Beach, 1981, w/Rose, and he asked her to tell him about where they stayed (a duplex three blocks from the boardwalk, with an upright piano that was missing a third of the keys), how the boardwalk smelled (salt air, cigarette smoke, funnel cake, hot grease, vinegar, wet concrete, candle wax, taffy), and what Rose whispered to her the last night of the trip after they’d climbed into bed and shut off the light (only thank you, again and again, squeezing her hand in the dark: a mystery).

Later, the nurse came, and he went for a walk.

They lived in a town of a few thousand people in the shadows of the Hudson Highlands. The town’s claim to fame, if it had one, was the fall Applefest, which drew thirty thousand people from New York and Connecticut every year on the first Sunday in October. There was a maple-tree-lined Main Street and a covered wooden bridge. There were three creameries, a shop that sold only maple syrup, and another shop that sold only artisanal olive oils. It was small enough that he could walk, during the hour when the nurse was at the house, all the way across town to the college where he (and, once, she) worked and then back again. Small enough that he mostly saw the same faces on the streets each day.

He turned on Main and walked past the maple syrup shop, head down, trying to remember the name of the mosquito that had followed them around in Florence. Luigi, he thought, maybe. Or no, that wasn’t quite right. But there was a g, and it had a lot of syllables because he could remember her drawing the name out, delighted. Giovanni?


He crossed the street (Gustavo, Giancarlo, Georgino, Gilberto, Gerardo), and as he stepped up on the curb, he ran straight into a chain-link fence.

He stepped back, startled. It was a temporary construction fence that had been erected around the corner in both directions. A sign on the fence, beside the building permit, advertised a new three-story “mixed-use commercial and residential property” coming soon. There was an artist’s rendering of a pretty but old-fashioned brick building, the bottom floor occupied by a brightly-lit café with a yellow-and-white-striped awning.

When was the last time something new had gone up in town? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t even remember what used to be here on this corner or when it had been torn down. A crane and other heavy construction equipment were already visible behind the fence, and as he watched, a construction crew was getting ready to go to work.

He crossed to the other side of the street so he could return to the sidewalk, and then he continued on his way, winding through the town, thinking, still, of the mosquito (Garibaldi?) and of who they used to be. The two of them. In Florence, they’d walked ten miles a day. In the rain! All their trips were like that in the old days. It felt good to walk, to learn a new city by feeling it underfoot. He’d always marveled at how, wherever they went, she always seemed to know her way—as if she were building each new city as she discovered it. He could get lost even here, even at home.

In fact, he was slightly turned around at the moment, so he stopped. He was on a quiet street lined with two-story Cape Cod-style homes. Wet yellow leaves covered the road and the sidewalk. He knew he must have walked the street dozens of times, but he couldn’t recall now, precisely, where it led. He thought he could see, far ahead, a dense thicket of trees and what looked like the entrance to a park. A pair of young joggers crossed the street and disappeared inside the park as he stood watching.

He turned and looked back the way he’d come. He could still hear the new construction on Main Street, but it sounded distant, as if he’d walked farther than he really had.

Confusing, he thought.

(Middle Stage, he thought.)

He shook his head to clear it, then checked his watch, which hung a bit on his wrist today. Time to get back already. Maybe he’d walked slower than usual.

Was there always a park? he asked his wife later. They were in the living room. He’d carried her down from the bedroom and set her up in the extra bed, the one they’d arranged by the bay window so she could look out on the street.

I got turned around, he explained.

Hmm, she said, half-closing her eyes. I loved the park. Central. Saturdays in, the fall. I’d wake up early, and.

He knew this story. Her first months in New York after college, just starting out in her career—the one she’d had before becoming a teacher, like him. If he was being honest, it was not his favorite topic of conversation. He thought sometimes of their old lives, before they met, before there was a Them, as being like two novels. His was slim, the spine barely thick enough to support a title. The protagonist spent a lot of time thinking, wondering about things, and happily puzzled by the world. There were too many conversations, mostly about books. There were some quiet thrills, yes, and sadnesses, and misadventures, and even romance, but these were all scaled, it seemed to him, to the small towns in which he’d always lived, gone to school, and worked. Her novel was different. He imagined it as a kind of globe-hopping picaresque, with dozens of major characters, convoluted subplots, and tangents that occupied a hundred pages at a time. It was a novel in which the protagonist backpacked across Europe as a teenager, and broke her leg in a motorcycle accident, and organized protest marches in her hometown, and took a job teaching in the city after college, and learned to be a part of the city, to find its rhythms, and to let it carry her toward whoever it was she was going to become. It was at a different scale, her story, and nothing seemed larger in his mind than her time in New York or farther and more different from the life the two of them had now together. Maybe he was intimidated by it. Maybe it was only that he was still protective of their own story, the one that hadn’t yet ended.

I know, he said too abruptly. You woke at dawn, and you went across the street to Ernie’s to buy a bagel and coffee, and then you walked to the park, and then.

She said nothing.

I’m sorry, he said. I’m just having some trouble. With this. He looked around at the IV stand, the bed, the pill bottles, the letters, and the notebooks scattered everywhere. The everything-ness of it.

Me too, she said.

It’s hard, he said.

Yes, she said.

They were silent for a moment then. He stood beside the bed, and they looked together out the window. It was getting dark earlier now, and as they watched, the streetlamp outside their place flickered on.

Did we have a streetlamp before? she asked.

Interesting, he said.

You know, she said. It wasn’t Ernie’s.


Eddy’s, she said.

The next morning, drying off after his shower, he noticed that the hair on his arms, legs, and chest was gone. Or not gone, entirely, but what was left was so small, fine, and golden that it might as well have been invisible. When the nurse came, he took her aside and asked if he should be worried.

Would you rather have more body hair? she asked. Or less?

Does it have to be one or the other?

Seems that way, she said. Do you feel healthy?

I think so, he said. He actually felt better, physically, than he had in years, which seemed terrible under the circumstances.

Main Street was buzzing with life when he went for his walk—so many people now. Some he knew, but most were strangers. He noticed that they’d installed two new streetlights to handle the pedestrian traffic. The three-story mixed-use construction site was coming along, although he saw from the rendering that they’d updated it to eight stories instead of three. The steel supports for the first five stories were already in place, and dozens of construction workers in orange vests moved about, ascending and descending, voices echoing in the bright air.

He left Main Street. New buildings were going up elsewhere, too, or had already gone up, and he’d missed them. It was, he thought, a curious mix. There was a Chinese restaurant announcing its grand opening, a community theater staging a production of Twelfth Night, a pop-up shop that sold pizza for only fifty cents a slice, a basement fortune teller and palm reader, and a gift store that sold lemon-themed gifts (glass lemon Christmas ornaments, lemon-decorated serving bowls and platters, lemon-drop earrings, watercolors of lemon trees growing on the cliffs of Positano). On one sidewalk, he found an empty kiosk with a sign advertising sunset boat rides. He kept walking, finding not only new places but new streets, paved streets and cobblestone streets, and a stretch of whitewashed wooden planks that simply came to an end in a hedge of skip laurels that bordered the college. He went as far as he could along the boardwalk and stood there for a time, staring into the shadows of the hedge, puzzled. Far off, he heard the crying of shorebirds.

The next day, his wife woke up agitated. She hadn’t even started packing, she said. She asked him to get the hard-shell silver suitcase down from the attic. When he froze and said nothing, she said, Oh. Maybe a dream, he said. But there was no silver suitcase he could remember, and they didn’t have an attic.

He found on his walk that the new eight-story building on Main was finished. Even so, one of the orange-vested construction workers was posting a new building permit outside the restaurant with the yellow-and-white-striped awning.

What’s happening, the man asked, stopping.

Need this space, said the construction worker.

For what? asked the man.

The worker checked his clipboard and said, A museum of blown glass and the history and technology thereof.

Why? the man asked.

The worker shrugged. What’s wrong with a museum of blown glass and the history and technology thereof?

The man looked back toward the restaurant with the awning. I never even had a meal there, he said.

It wasn’t bad, the worker said. But I’m excited about the museum.

When he went home, he found that they had a new picket fence around the yard, still wet with paint. And on the side of the house, there was a garden, now filled with strawberry plants and dotted with pinwheels that caught the morning sunlight.

We should talk, the nurse said when he went inside. Things, she said, are moving quickly now.

He looked toward the closed door of the bedroom. Okay, he said.

She told him, again, what to expect.

Don’t be surprised, she said. Things will get weird.

Things already, he said, seem weird.

He was thinking about his feet, which were now too small for his shoes. He’d had to hunt through the closet that morning to find an old pair of his wife’s running shoes. Maybe, he thought, he should mention that to the nurse. But then she’d ask him if he’d rather his feet became larger, and he’d ask if they had to become one or the other, and she’d say, Yes, it seems that way.

His wife slept much of the day. She didn’t want to be moved from the bedroom, so he sat in the chair across from the bed. When she was asleep, he opened the blue notebook and read through the notes and the lists. Favorite words (number one for her was refrain, because it meant both to stop and to keep going, while for him it was endless, regretted as soon as he said it aloud), least favorite holidays (Flag Day for both of them), catalogs of childhood friends, opening lines from books, the evolution of her movie candy preferences. Sometimes, he added a star here or there, or a sunburst, or a heart. Sometimes, he only sat and watched her sleep. Sometimes, he slept, too.

Once, they both woke up at the same time. The room was dark except for the light of the muted television on the dresser, which was showing an old episode of Hawaii Five-O.

Did you used to live in a house—he said, leaning forward in the chair, his voice hushed—with a low white picket fence? And a strawberry garden?

In the flickering TV light, he could see her cloudy eyes go inward for a second: seeking, then finding. She nodded.

Sometime around dawn, he woke up still clothed and curled in the chair. The bed was empty. The room was different—smaller than he remembered, with a full-sized bed instead of their queen, butterfly wallpaper, and, in the corner, an adolescent’s white desk with an oval mirror, the kind with two faces, one that showed you up close and one that showed you as you were to everyone else. Branches scraped against the window from a dogwood tree that had sprouted and matured overnight outside their bedroom.

He went to the door and felt, behind him, the room already changing, moving on. The hallway was crowded with people coming and going, so much so that he had to move to the side to let them pass. Adolescent girls and crying teenagers, older adults who all looked a little like his wife, nervous boys and other boys who didn’t look quite nervous enough, college girls in their bathrobes chatting on the way to the shower. They ignored him, but he felt the rush of life as they moved past, like blood through an artery.

Things were moving so quickly now.

The streetlamps were still lit when he stepped out the front door and went down the steps. Autumn was here, and it was cool enough, in the shadows of the skyscrapers that had gone up in the night, that he could’ve used a jacket. Goosebumps rose on his smooth skin. He walked to keep warm, thinking as he walked that he’d been trying to remember something, and that it was close, whatever it had been, and wasn’t that the strangest feeling, to know that something was so deliciously close, to know that it was there but might never be found?

West End down to Eighty-Seventh, then east, toward the park. Shivering pleasantly.

Oh: The city waking up, all around, all around. A line at Eddy’s already. The new Italian guy behind the counter, only his first week. Nervous, not great with his English, but friendly. Earnest. A little too earnest, but he’d figure it out. (So would she.) Then it was her turn to order, and she went to the counter, and she saw his nametag, and she laughed.

Giuseppe, she said.

He smiled shyly, and he didn’t understand, but he laughed, too.

She took her coffee and sipped it as she crossed Columbus Avenue, then made her way into the park. She found a bench that looked out on the south side of the park, toward Midtown, and took small bites from her bagel. Across the way, a girl walked a path into the park with her mother, holding a bag of cotton candy in her hand, though it was still early in the morning. The city loomed high above the tree line, and she knew no one here, and there was time.

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press). He received his MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and his recent work appears in The Iowa Review, Ninth Letter, Carve, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.