by Phyllis Carol Agins
When their son died, the one in the middle of three boys, Charlie thought: I can still say the boys because two remained. After the funeral, covered dishes sat on the front step with notes that read, we’re here for you. Then the oldest one went back to college, and the youngest traded school activities for a job that would keep him out of the house until midnight, as if he understood that their house was filled only with the dead.
And after a few weeks had somehow passed, Charlie’s wife left him for the bedroom down the hall where that middle child once slept. She buried her clothing next to their lost son’s and moved a collection of his photos to the nightstand beside the unrelenting, single bed.
He rarely saw her anymore. The noises in the bathroom down the hall announced that she still lived in the house. The shower running, the light switch clicking, and the door opening—all evidence that she was there. But never the sound of her voice.
That lost boy was his, too, he told himself whenever he tasted pain. Would it have helped to hold each other through the nights as in their early loving days? Or to talk of their boy and remember, laughing at their shared memories? Or to cry together, or even one at a time, when the other was feeling stronger? He wondered these things, but she kept the answers in that faraway bedroom.
Sometimes Charlie saw her walking across the yard in sweatpants and a tee, as though the pandemic still raged around them and there was no reason to dress. Because isolation had become the required way of life. Or because her grief was so fierce that real clothing and combing her hair would have been a betrayal of love. She watched the birds gathering around the feeder their lost son had strung on a wire between two trees, laughing at his cleverness in outsmarting any squirrel around. But most often, she simply sat and recorded the sky. She wouldn’t cry there in the open, saving the sounds of grief for that bedroom, those pillows, and that bed. Outside she was silent in the loss that she, only she, was allowed to own.
If she would announce that she didn’t want Charlie anymore, that she would never lie under him again, only occasionally meeting his passion but at least welcoming him and smiling silently when he finished, patting his back as she might have a child; if she would divorce him in her grief, then he could move on.
But she never admitted that her love for Charlie died the same night their child had died. Although Charlie hadn’t been in the car, or created the black ice, or planted that too strong tree at the curve ahead, or decided never to buckle his seatbelt because doing so would be like giving in to a short lifetime of watch out and please, be careful. How was all of it—the ice, the tree, the curve—his fault? How could she enforce this isolation on him, he raged silently.
Then, almost without deciding, without weighing the choice or examining any alternatives, he started. The pictures of the lonely women on the internet never ended. Every night they marched across his screen with their smiles and poses. With those carefully chosen words that they hoped would capture all they had become at that point in time. Still optimistic. Always full of life. I’m younger than my years. My husband died. My husband left me. I still desire passion. So much to give. I am too alone.
So no one might find out, Charlie met them for lunch where they lived. He told them outright: “My son died. My wife never got over it. Two years now and I’m alone in my marriage.”
The women didn’t ask for much. Some would meet him at a motel. They’d undress quickly, grasping at him as though they might never be touched again. As though life could end in that very moment. As if an earthquake could arrive with the orgasm that promised nothing, not a life together, not even friendship.
They might see him a few times more before they decided that he, or it, wasn’t for them. And he would start again. How many had there been? Ten? Fourteen? Unlike his younger self, he never counted.
Until the morning Charlie woke early. One still-living son was running out the door. His wife was at the table, drinking her tea and running her fingertips along her jaw over and over. The sunlight pressed into her skin, making her light eyes transparent, her face on fire. The loss was there for him to read. In the lines crowded around those eyes, in the set of her silenced mouth.
Then Charlie saw what he had forgotten. That second in their college class when those blue eyes first startled and then held him in recognition. Her joy when the boys were born. Now, while the dust particles swirled like atoms around her burdened face, he knew the true dimensions of his own sorrow. Not just his middle son, who would never sit at this table again. But her. In that moment, he discovered how much he loved her still.
His tongue caught on his teeth. “Justine,” he offered her name. He tasted love and fear. “Look at me.”
She turned her light, dead eyes in his direction. And then closed them. As if he looked too much like their lost child. As if considering anything other than those old photos, and trees, and sky were simply too much.
“Please, Justine,” Charlie begged, his voice hoarse and thick with hope.
Her mouth opened without words. Surrendered tears fell onto her clasped hands.
“I’m here, Justine,” he said over and over. “I’m still here.”
Phyllis Carol Agins has long found inspiration in Philadelphia, PA. Two novels, a children’s book, and an architectural study of synagogues and churches were all published during her years there. Recently more than 50 short stories have appeared in literary magazines, including Art Times, Eclipse, Lilith Magazine, The Minetta Review, Soundings East, Pennsylvania English, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Verdad, Santa Fe Writers Project, Westview, Whiskey Island Magazine, and Women Arts Quarterly Journal. For many years, she divided her time between Philly and Nice, France, adding the Mediterranean rhythms to her sources of inspiration. Please visit: phylliscarolagins.com.