It began with the neighbor dying. No—expiring. Mary’s death was visible, the illness nipping away at her once-lithe body. She soured steadily, reaching the end with one choking gurgle. Marty was there, quite by accident.
He arrived home at the usual 5:15.
Glenfiddich, twelve-year, neat, at 5:30.
Hand on recliner pull at 5:32 when his wife appeared in front of him with an errand.
She also reminded him to take the sidewalks. Mary was growing Kentucky Bluegrass. He did as told, sighing when he walked by the opening in the Viburnum hedge that would take him directly to the neighbor’s Dutch kitchen door. He made his way through his yard, brown ground crunching beneath his chestnut oxfords, and took a left onto Juniper Lane, lined with white pickets. He found the knocker hidden behind a lilac wreath and proceeded to use it three times. Six times. Nine times. He did not care to endure the scene that would surely follow should he return home with the dish, so he let himself in, following the pastel green carpet and apple blossom wallpaper until he found the inhabitants of the house.
Marty stood awkwardly in Mary’s bedroom doorway. His wife’s famous corn casserole burned his hands through the small rips in the blue checkered mitts. Should he interrupt? Should he leave dinner in the kitchen? That made sense. Yet, he was still standing there, hands still burning. Something inside said this was an important moment. Unable to move, he watched Mary’s face. He felt it before he heard it, a sweeping wave of heat thickening the air, and then a crescendo of collapsing organs and straining muscles.
At Mary’s final sound, a sound escaped from Marty, drawing the attention of Mary’s husband, kneeling beside the oak sleigh bed, clutching his wife’s withered hand to his chest.
Marty stared, mouth agape, as Mary’s last breath was expelled past her dry lips, past the vase of fresh lavender, and into the room. It sparkled in the thin ray of evening sun shining through the tiny crack in the pinch-pleated curtains. It bounced about like a dandelion puff in spring, playfully rocking the gold strings of the ceiling fan as it made its way over to Marty. It hovered above him for several seconds. He watched in wonder as it slowly turned to ash and sprinkled onto his upturned face. He inhaled. Swallowed. And blinked.
When he turned his attention back to the room, he saw that Mary’s husband was still looking at him, stupefied, mute.
Marty cleared his throat and gestured to the glass dish in his hands.
“Casserole?” he asked.
Marty retired early that night. He lay awake trying to remember Mary. Despite having lived next door to her for seven years, he could not. When he finally drifted off, he didn’t sleep well. He dreamed of a nightingale, lost, unable to sing.
The next morning, he put on his glasses, his ring, his watch. He reached for a cream shirt in the row of cream shirts and beige slacks from the hanger of beige slacks. He pushed the half-Windsor knot on his maroon tie into place. He took a thermos and newspaper from his wife’s hands.
“Rosemary chicken,” she said.
Marty nodded and kissed her cheek.
The nightingale appeared to him again, still lost. It opened its mouth, and tiny petals poured from its throat. When Marty dressed for work the next morning, an intoxicating sweet smell lingered. He was fastening the clasp on his watch when he noticed he’d forgotten to wind it the night before. He slid the cool silver metal off his wrist and set it back on the nightstand. He looked at it for a moment, silent and steady.
“Interesting,” he said.
In the hallway, his wife held his coffee and paper out for him.
She raised her eyebrows.
He told her about the dream.
“Nightingales aren’t very pretty,” she said.
Marty couldn’t recall what they looked like, but he felt a need to disagree.
“And what good is a nightingale if it doesn’t sing?” she asked.
Marty frowned. If only he weren’t running late. He took the items from her hands and kissed her cheek.
“Pot roast,” she said.
The morning after his fifth sleepless night, Marty’s nose was inches from the bathroom mirror.
“Marty! Are you coming?” his wife yelled.
He turned his head from side to side again, watching his reflection. He wasn’t imagining it. His eyes had changed color. Yesterday they were brown.
“Interesting,” he said.
He reached for his glasses on the back of the commode. They dangled from his fingers as he realized something. He jerked his now-blue eyes back to the mirror. He could see himself clearly. He moved quickly to the nightstand and grabbed his wallet. He pulled out his driver’s license and held it at arm’s length, and then he brought it close. He put it back in its sleeve. He tossed his glasses next to the watch, apparently no longer requiring them.
One corner of his mouth slowly lifted into a rusty grin. It took the other corner a bit to follow. His hands smoothed the soft cotton of his pants as they slid into the pockets. He rocked backwards on his heels and chuckled low in his chest.
“Hmm?” he asked, turning. Marty looked at his wife, her blonde curls bouncing brightly in the early morning sun.
She folded and unfolded her hands. “Your things are on the table,” she said.
Marty looked at the wall behind her and noticed their wedding photo was crooked. He stepped over and straightened the frame. He stepped back.
They stared at each other in the small space of the bedroom. A dog barked outside the window, chasing children on their way to school.
“Marty, you’re acting very strangely.”
He smiled, this one taking shape much easier than the last. “What’s for dinner tonight?” he asked.
She stuttered. “Um. I... are you saying you’re hungry for something?”
Marty rocked on his heels again and scratched the underside of his chin as he thought about it.
“Casserole?” he asked.
The next morning, the morning of Mary’s funeral, Marty awoke rested and feeling contrary. He hummed as he showered. He hummed as he shaved. He took his time getting dressed. He reveled in the sound his tie made as it whooshed through the silky loops. He did not think it odd to smile and nod to all he saw on the short walk to church.
His wife sat beside him in the second pew, demurely dabbing at the corners of her eyes. He rested a comforting hand on her thigh. She placed a hand on his. Somber hymns fell one after the other. Mourners said nice things. Mary was wearing a dress the same color as her prized azaleas. The pink satin teased over the casket’s white satin. The aroma of fragrant blossoms floated through the air, and Marty was suddenly eager to look at her. He stood in line behind his wife. When it was finally his turn, however, he was disappointed.
“This won’t do at all,” he mumbled.
The plastic caps under the blue eyes were not the right almond shape. The cheeks were packed with too much cotton, too much blush. The mouth was sewn uneven, and the hands stacked clumsily on the abdomen. At least he could do something about those. He glanced to his left. He glanced to his right. As the passionate choir peaked, he reached inside the shiny box and gently moved the hands to the sides. He smiled at the fingers now resting comfortably.
And then Marty remembered something. Mary was graceful. She would spend hours digging in the dirt, her back straight but not stiff, shoulders strong yet soft. She would walk from end to end of the flower beds, watering and whispering, the blooms under her care proudly glowing in a symphony of vibrant colors.
The next day, feeling wonderful, no—revivified, Marty left the office and made his way to the hardware store. He’d written a list of things he could not find in the shed. Things he needed. Kneeling now in the backyard, he surveyed the sod, inspecting it closely as it sifted through his fingers and covered the hardened earth.
He shook his head. It was as he suspected. He would have to dig it all up and begin anew. He stood and brushed the dust from his tan slacks. He loosened his tie, unbuttoned his collar, and rolled up the sleeves of his cream dress shirt. He set about taking measurements. He walked off a rectangle near the spigot, placing markers as he went. Half sun, half shade. He liked the sun. He paused to feel it tingling his skin, the soft hair on his pale arms singing in the warmth. He had a new appreciation for warmth. It was a perfect afternoon. His eyes closed, and he swayed with the slight breeze. The air was smooth as it filled his lungs. He held it softly before releasing it back into the world.
He stayed like that, in the backyard, swaying and breathing, until a screen door slammed behind him, screws a bit loose. He would repair that next.
Marty turned toward the sound and saw his wife. She seemed to have come to an abrupt stop, a too-full laundry basket sliding down the side of her small frame.
“Hello,” he said politely.
“Hello,” she said. She continued to stare at him for a moment before shifting the basket to her other hip. “I was just coming out to hang the whites.”
“Need a hand?” he asked.
She shook her head briefly as if not hearing him correctly. “Okay?”
“Okay.” He stepped over a rake and took the laundry from her.
They walked to the clothesline together. He set the basket down and began hanging up an undershirt.
“You’re home awfully early,” she said.
“I am,” he said, looking her way.
He watched her eyes leave him and roam the area. They moved from the pile of tools to the stack of stones, to the bags of soil and the packets of seeds on the nearby patio table. Round and slightly nervous, those eyes eventually found their way back around to him.
“Marty,” she said, “what are you doing out here?”
He smiled pleasantly. “Starting a garden, dear.”
Michelle Quick is a writer and chef from the Midwest. She likes tiny houses and spends her free time worrying about things.