The List of Plagues
A short story
The husband sits on the curb of a wide, four-laned San Francisco boulevard. The air is crisp but he wears no jacket, no socks. His old slippers, the leather scuffed colorless, splay out in front of him, half off his feet. He’s still holding his cell phone. He’s called his wife.
She arrives in minutes. “What happened? Are you okay?” Her mouth’s a slash of lipstick red.
“I’m okay. The car’s not so good.” He gestures in the direction of his Jeep, the wheel, the axle, one whole side sheared off. “First rain of the season. Spun out.”
His car faces the wrong way nosed into a concrete wall. Miraculously, no other cars are involved. Miraculously, he seems unhurt. The usually busy street is hushed in wadded quiet.
A tow truck arrives.
“How youse two doin’?” The driver’s accent is heavy New York, and for a moment, although she left more than forty years ago, the wife wants nothing more than to be a child back in Brooklyn again.
The husband tries to get to get to his feet but he falls backwards. “First rain. God-damned slick roads.”
The wife, on one side, the driver on the other, help him up.
“You can go home,” the husband tells her, shaky and gray. “He’ll drive me to the mechanic.”
“Can’t do,” the driver says gently. “This car’s totaled. It’s going to the Yard.”
The husband’s ribs hurt. They wait in the emergency room for hours for x-rays and an E.K.G.
“His ribs are either bruised or cracked,” the nurse says when they’re finally in their cubicle. She pushes morphine into his line.
The wife sits in a low-backed chair and watches him sleep. She still finds him handsome. They’d met 30 years ago, when he was 50, and she 32. He was acting in a play, a mixed- media collage in which he’d rolled shirtless atop a map of the world, his chest hair electric under the lights. He’d been so vibrant and charming before the diabetes, heart disease, spine surgeries, depression, nerve damage in his hands, she’d barely noticed their age difference at all.
A few days later they go to the Yard to clean out the Jeep. On the crash side, jagged metal teeth outline the door and broken glass fills the seat. The other side is wedged so tightly next to another car, she can only open the door part way. The husband tries to squeeze in but he drops his cane. When she bends to get it something metal catches her sweater and pulls a hole.
“Shit! Let me in there.” She pushes roughly between him and the car. “Tell me what you want. I’ll pass it to you.”
“I want everything!” He is angry too.
She hands him three pairs of sunglasses tangled, two faded baseball caps, and a saggy cardboard box. He limps the box, filled with coins, screws, earplugs, a shoe horn, screw tops from bottles, toothpicks, a screwdriver, two hammers and two retractable metal measuring tapes, trailing pennies, over to her car. At this rate, they’ll be there all day.
They fill canvas shopping bags with theater programs, Sudoku books, bags of chips, boxes of sugar free cookies and a six-pack of Diet Coke. She opens the glove compartment: a jar of melted candies, a jar of paper clips, a crushed box of tissues, a ball of string.
“You really want all this?” she asks.
“And those.” He points his cane at the Betty Boop floor mats.
He’d originally bought them for her. She hates Betty’s tiny skirt and push-up boobs. She’d liked Betty Boop when she was eight years old.
From the back of his car, she piles yellow waders, toilet paper, paper towels, flashlights, flares, cans of nuts and two gallons of water on the ground. He used to be ready for anything. He used to take care of her.
“I bought that for you.” He taps a hardback in a pretty flowered jacket with the tip of his cane. The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.
She snatches the book and puts it in her purse.
“Not those,” she mutters, when he dislodges the box of worn file folders and stained envelopes she’d purposely left behind.
“It’s my stuff,” he bellows, as if he’s been waiting for just such an opening. “You don’t get to decide what I can have!”
“What happened to you? You used to like beautiful things!”
“You used to like anal sex!”
The jumper cables she throws land rattling at his feet like snakes.
But they have to eat. And because they are married and because ending a marriage is more complicated than screaming in a junkyard, they stop at a Mexican restaurant they both like in that part of town.
“Let’s just get burritos to go,” he says.
“I don’t eat burritos.” She’s been on Weight Watchers for years. He neither notices nor remembers.
“You’re beautiful,” was all he’d say when he was still the person she went to for reassurance. The kind of unconditional acceptance he probably wants from her now.
She orders the enormous Juarez Salad, beans, cheese, chicken, corn, avocado, a fried tortilla hidden under the greens. As many calories as a burrito, at least.
“I can’t believe I wrecked my car,” he says.
His sadness unfreezes her for a moment. She almost reaches across the table and touches his hand but she’s too angry to give.
The cherry trees in their neighborhood bloom a riot of pink. The wife has her toenails polished Cha-Cha Coral. But spring is lost on the husband. He sleeps more hours a day than he is awake. Breakfast at noon, followed by reading the newspaper, then back to bed. He leaves a sticky trail of eggshells on the kitchen counter, muffins forgotten in the toaster, and on the dining room table, the newspaper flung open, as if he’s been suddenly called away. Early in their marriage, they cleaned up after meals together. Now she does everything alone.
Her cousin calls to invite them to seder.
“Yes, we’ll be there. Or maybe just me,” the wife says.
“How is he?” the cousin asks cautiously.
“His ribs are healing.”
The wife doesn’t mention the Memory Center diagnosis of “cognitive changes” or the doctor’s observation that in the elderly, it was difficult to pick the strands of depression and dementia apart.
When he sleeps so much, she is sure he is dying. What she wants to know is when. She might try to repair their relationship, be nicer to him, get back to the early days of attraction and laughs.
On the fifth day of the big sleep, she goes into his room at noon. It smells of moldy paper and unwashed hair.
“You need to get up,” she says softly.
They have slept in separate rooms for years. Sometimes, he shouts in his sleep. Sometimes he stays up all night watching movies. She needs time to herself without the television blaring. She rests better alone, moisturized, high in a nest of plump pillows.
“You have to eat something. I’m worried about your blood sugar.” She touches his hair.
His eyes open slowly. She imagines a tearing sound, his sparse eyelashes caught in the crust around his eyes. He blinks. She raises the shades. Sunlight floods the room and catches the scar on the side of his nose where a cancer was removed. A flight of wild green parrots call and swoop outside the window.
“Come have breakfast.” The wife pulls back the corner of his blanket. “We can sit on the deck. The parrots are back.”
He blinks again, more prehistoric creature than man. He will probably die first, but she’s afraid that by the time it happens her hair will have lost its luster, that she’ll be too tired to try again. He pulls the blanket up to his chin and closes his eyes.
The next day the husband is too dizzy to walk. The geriatrician agrees to see them. She declares a “diabetes emergency” and institutes stricter rules: Breakfast every morning between seven and eight. No chips, cakes, or cookies. Protein at every meal.
“Eggs, lox, cheese, meat,” the wife adds, for although the husband has a genius I.Q., he no longer knows which foods contain protein.
“Finger pricked, blood tested, before every meal,” the doctor continues. “What is the one food you can’t live without?”
“Hershey’s chocolate,” the husband replies immediately. Not even good dark chocolate, the wife thinks.
“Then you may have three Hershey’s kisses a day,” the doctor says.
“I miss my Jeep!” The husband bangs his cane on the floor.
The next day, the wife makes charts on a yellow pad. Blood sugar and foods consumed on one page, medications and dosages on another. The husband hates rules and schedules. Every story he tells about himself—smuggling snakes back from Mexico, visiting Mount Athos without a permit—show him defying authority. When they met, the wife found this attractive.
She removes his diabetes equipment from hiding in a decorative box and places the lancets, glucometer, insulin pen and the red plastic disposal bin on the dining room table. She is energized by the new regimen. Action gives her hope.
They have a good week. Most days, the husband follows the rules. Her fantasies begin. They will hire a personal trainer. They’ll take long walks, travel again.
He leaves his bloody tissues and alcohol wipes on the table. She stifles her resentment and cleans up the mess.
“I still don’t have a car,” he says.
“You haven’t been leaving the house much,” she understates politely. “Maybe we can share mine?”
“I want my own car!” He pounds the table for emphasis. The wife is relieved. She hates couples that share one email address.
Banners billow on auto row: “March Madness!” “Our Prices are Insane!!!” But at the first dealership, the husband declines a test drive. At the next, he’s too tired to get out of their car.
“Why are we here?” He sounds so fuzzy she decides they should go home.
But when they pass a used car lot at the end of Auto Row, he grabs her arm.
“Pull in,” he shouts.
“We don’t want to buy a used car on a lot,” she yells as they veer violently to the right.
“Pull in,” he screams.
He starts opening the door before she has stopped the car. A salesman sidles over. Close up, he is frightening, his hair dyed with what looks like a smear of black shoe polish, his skin an artificial shade of orange tan. He looks at least 70, with small gray-green eyes and teeth to match.
He leads the husband to a car she’s read described as “the worst of the hybrids,” notable for “poor visibility” and “sloppy handling.” He opens the door for the wife. The inside reeks of air freshener, the leather seats wrinkled like old skin.
“I’m going,” she tells her husband, and stomps away.
The husband takes his time chatting with the salesman. Just as she’s about to leave, just as she’s about to explode, he totters to their car.
“You’re acting crazy,” she screams. “And don’t grab my arm when I’m driving. You could have gotten us killed.”
“Shut up,” he shouts. “Stop telling me what to do.”
She pulls onto the freeway and in a moment, the motion lulls him to sleep.
Over the next few days, he decides he wants a new SUV, then a used wreck, then a luxury hybrid. The wife wearies of the circular discussions and of jollying him along. She suggests that he take her aging car and that she get the new one. She names a luxury car she’s always admired.
“You’re greedy!” he yells.
“And you’re a stingy old tightwad!”
They stop talking about cars.
They stop talking.
On Monday, the geriatrician is ill and cancels the husband’s follow-up appointment. The wife is despondent. She’s lost her only ally. The bathmat slides as she steps out of the shower and yanks her legs apart. She sinks to the floor, gripping her knee. The garage door grinds open, the old motor shaking the house like an angry beast. The husband takes her car.
He returns with pink iced doughnuts, a gallon of ice cream, two mini fruit pies and two boxes of cookies. He dumps it all on the kitchen counter.
“How could you? We were doing so well.” She follows him into the dining room.
He opens the newspaper.
“Why are you doing this to yourself? Answer me!” she pleads.
He raises the paper around his face.
She flies at the kitchen counter, squishes the donuts between her fingers, grinds the cookies with the heel of her hand, pounds the pies into mush. She throws it all in the trash.
Upstairs, she slams the bathroom door. She scrubs and brushes but can’t get the oil sugar stink out from under her nails. Her hand throbs from pounding. She takes a Xanax. Numbs out to Law and Order SVU reruns. Child prostitution, rape by a stepfather—lives worse than her own.
Later, she comes downstairs and checks the garbage. The husband still reads at the dining room table, quiet as a cat. “Where’s all that crap?”
“I ate it.”
“You ate out of the trash?” Pulses explode in her ears. She ticks like a bomb. “I’m not wheeling you around when you have to have your feet amputated! I’m not!”
“Leave me alone,” he booms. “Stop hovering. You can’t control my life!”
The next day, she does not wake him for breakfast. When he comes downstairs, she goes up.
This is the end, she thinks, not for the first time. They will live apart. She will spend Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Passover, her birthday, even Valentine’s Day, alone.
The next day, she does not wake him for breakfast again. Anger propels her around the lake in the park. Her knee hurts, a hot ominous grind, but she powers past a hunched old couple, the man leaning on a walker. The woman shuffles on a three-footed cane, holding his arm. Tears start in the wife’s eyes. At least they’re trying.
Overhead, the parrots appear. Raucous, acid green. Fucking birds!
She goes to Pilates and strengthens her core. She goes to book group. She looks at apartments online and imagines a small quiet space without urine on the bathroom floor.
But after a few days, she feels shaky. The silences she initiates are always harder for her.
“So what are we doing about a car?” she finally asks.
“I thought you wanted a…” He names the luxury car. “Haven’t you bought it yet?”
“I do want it, but you said I was greedy.”
“I might have said that but so what? Get what you want.” What does she want? She is not the kind of person who leaves a spouse because they’re old and decrepit. Is she?
She chooses one of the cheapest drift cars, a spunky brown car, the color of a chimp, her favorite animal. The ride is tight. It wraps her in luxury, but she wishes she were happier. She wishes the purchase wasn’t layered with conflict. She wishes her salesman wasn’t a Republican. She wishes she looked better, not sag-faced with sleep drugs and sadness, as she writes the check.
The next day, the husband comes downstairs early. They eat breakfast together.
“Here’s a story about those parrots.” He passes her an article clipped from the newspaper.
So he was listening. He can still surprise her. She abandons the idea of going to the seder without him. She has reached the point where it is taking more energy to be angry than to let it go. She remembers their first dance at their wedding, the sweet, open passion in his eyes. She remembers how he allowed her father to instruct him in the art of bonsai for hours at a time.
A small group gathers at the home of the wife’s cousin for the seder.
The husband affects a stagey Fiddler on the Roof voice while reading from the Haggadah, a performance of being Jewish, that puts the wife on edge. The cousin leads them in a responsive reading, but the husband reads faster or slower than everyone else, never blending with the group. His originality charmed her at first. Now, he just seems incapable of unison.
“Blood.” “Frogs.” “Lice.” The plagues are read, and after each they dunk their fingers in their glasses and flick the dark red wine at their plates.
Marriage, she adds silently to the list.
“Boils.” “Cattle disease.” “Death of the first-born.”
The husband stiffens. Or she imagines that he stiffens. His son from his first marriage, his first born, a little boy killed so long ago.
She stiffens too. Her, their, one, two, three, four miscarriages, many years ago.
On Sunday morning, the wife wakes the husband. The night before, he had agreed to join her for brunch. She carries plates of smoked salmon, capers, tomatoes, toasted sourdough bread, fresh orange juice and coffee out to the deck.
When the husband does not appear, she goes back upstairs. He is sleeping again. She rocks his shoulder, kisses a tender place on his neck.
“Do you want to have sex?” He tries to pull her towards him, his damaged hand as blunt as a club.
“No. I want to have brunch.”
Finally, he appears on the deck in floppy jeans cinched with a tired belt, a torn straw hat, and shoes with no socks, a diabetes no-no. The coffee is cold but he is there.
“To my beautiful wife,” he toasts with his juice. “Who loves and takes care of me.”
She scans the sky. Now is when she wants the parrots to appear. She needs to see them with her husband, to share a moment of joy, wring hope, encouragement from tropical plumage and flight.
The sky remains a bright empty blue.
Audrey Ferber’s work has appeared in the Cimarron Review, Fiction International, Frontiers, More Magazine and elsewhere. She lives in San Francisco where she teaches at San Francisco City College and is at work on a collection of essays about body image, aging and dance.
3 comments on “The List of Plagues”
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Absolutely brilliant. The back and forth, high then low. Once I started, thinking I’d read a few lines and finish later, I couldn’t stop. The details are spot-on. The ending perfect–no parrots, but there is a toast.
They met thirty years ago when there was no manifest age
difference. Now, the wife is sixty-two, the husband eighty. Husband’s dementia,
depression, indifference, retreat. Wife wants to live life to the fullest. Wife
must look after, take care of, wipe the piss, obey, and resent—not what she
signed on for. The list of plagues should include old age, distance, abandonment
of love and sex, no children for comfort (or taking care of the wife!), and the
precious remnants remaining when memory empties. A poignant and
timeless story about the lack of equality in a marriage as one ages more
quickly than the other. I wonder what I would do?
I read this when it was first published and now this morning again. So well crafted–every line, every word, every image. I like the use of “the husband” and “the wife” which immediately reveals their polarity, their distance, and their sacred connection. It’s scary–I don’t want want to be either one of them (I’ve been both of them)–and yet as my boomer generation ages, this is what is happening all around me. We were born around the time when penicillin was discovered and it saved us from infectious diseases, but it has also cast us into the arms of diabetes, arthritis, and dementia to name only a few of the most common tormentors. Longer lives at this stage of medical science are a mixed blessing, and “not for sissies.” Parrots come and go. The sky changes blue to gray to dark and back to blue again. The plagues… a great and memorable story.