I could feel his gaze on me from across the room, peering at me through those old tortoiseshell glasses with lenses thick as the bottoms of old Coke bottles. The old bastard was waiting for me to mess up as I puttered around the living room picking up the gutted remains of the Sunday Dispatch, its perused pages spilling across the sofa and onto the floor like a murder victim. My aching joints cracked in complaint as I stooped to gather the pages and shuffle them into some semblance of their former neatly folded stack. I winced at the arthritis that had settled around an old break in my wrist that hadn’t healed properly. Fitting that it should pain me as I picked up the paper, a reminder of another Sunday long ago when my wrestling with the paper had interrupted the game on TV. He hadn’t always known his own strength, not that it would’ve mattered much. These days, the TV volume drowned out the rustling of the newspaper, even long after he’d given in to his doctor’s urging to get that hearing aid. Old habits die hard, and the blaring TV was better than silence.
I picked up an empty cereal bowl from the end table and shuffled into the kitchen. It was too early to start making supper, so I made a pot of coffee instead. I unsuccessfully searched the cabinet for a cup that wasn’t chipped. Most had been shattered. How many had he thrown at me over the years? How many had I thrown back?
When we were young newlyweds and his temper had first emerged like a fiery belch from a wood stove that had been stoked too hard, I’d learned to fear him. Maybe there had been a time when I could’ve gotten out, packed my bags and left, but I had no money and no place to go. Before I knew it, I had a toddler clinging to the hem of my house dress and a belly big with another one on the way.
Once, with a black eye and belt marks on my thighs, I loaded the babies in the car and drove to my parents’ house. Daddy only scolded me for giving my husband cause to treat me so, while Mama sat quietly at the kitchen table. Daddy told me to get my ass back home, and Mama cried when she hugged me good-bye.
Afterwards, I knew I was on my own. That’s when I started to fight back. We must’ve made some fine spectacles of ourselves, the way we carried on. But times were different back then. Neighbors turned a blind eye. How a man dealt with his wife behind closed doors was his own business, especially a wife as willful and hot headed as I probably appeared to be.
The coffee pot percolated to a stop, steaming and gurgling like a disgruntled radiator. I poured black coffee into a chipped cup and sat at the kitchen table. I preferred being in the kitchen, out of view of his Coke bottle glasses. He’d never liked for me to sit idle in the living room, but the kitchen was my domain. The collage of photos pinned with magnets to the refrigerator door was the only proof I had of ever having a family. Both kids grew up, moved away, and never looked back. They call on Christmas and send cards with school pictures of the grandchildren tucked inside, but they don’t come around anymore. They paid their dues and considered themselves done with us. I can’t say I blame them.
I’d loved him once, enough to marry him when I was young and fool-hearted and didn’t know any better. Love eventually turned to fear, then anger and contempt. Strange, how old age could bring a couple back together. I wouldn’t call the bond between us love. It was more a type of dependence. We’d been together so long we just grew accustomed to one another’s company. We grew to need each other. We’d pushed everyone else away. Whether we liked it or not, we were all each other had in this world.
I doubt the old fool could’ve found clothes to dress in the morning if I didn’t lay them out for him. His memory was getting so bad he’d lose his shoes when they were right beside him, and he could never keep track of where he’d left his hearing aid, or even those damn glasses. I filled his pill box and gave him his insulin shots because he’d always get the vials mixed up or the dosage wrong. Secretly, I even enjoyed hearing him curse when I’d jab him with the needle.
My brittle bones and unsteady feet made my body betray me more than my mind. He carried in the groceries, carted the laundry up and down the basement stairs, and sometimes, I needed help stepping over the side of the bathtub to get in and out of the shower. Old age was a common enemy forcing two old foes to work together.
At the kitchen table, I sipped black coffee, wincing as the chip in the cup brushed the scar on my upper lip—the last scar he’d given me. The memory was as bitter as the coffee.
I’d knelt beside his beat-up Barcalounger preparing to draw up his evening insulin when he tired of me fidgeting with the bottles making sure I had the right one. “While you’re on your knees, why don’t you suck the end of this cane the way you used to suck my dick.” A flash of white hot pain blinded me as the bottom of his cane smashed into my mouth. I swayed on my knees and touched my lip, my fingers coming away bloody. I looked up and he was staring at the TV like nothing happened. I looked back at the vial of insulin in my hand—the wrong vial—and jabbed the needle into its rubber top. I pulled the plunger, filling the syringe all the way full, way past the little line that marked his nightly dose.
I considered the syringe for a long moment then looked at him again. He turned his head, his gaze passing over the full syringe with a glimmer of awareness. Our eyes met and I knew I’d been caught. He would know what I intended and his cane would smash into my head again, maybe for the last time. Instead, he shouted. “What the hell are you waiting for? Get on with it.” So I lifted his shirt, poked the needle into his stomach, and pushed the plunger. When I pulled out the needle, he swatted me away like any other night. “Now get the hell outta here, woman. Leave me be.” He slept downstairs in his recliner most nights. I picked up his glasses from where they balanced precariously on the arm of his chair and placed them on the mantle above the fireplace. Then, I turned off the lights, went upstairs, took out my hearing aid, and went to bed.
I found him on the floor the next morning, already gone. Nobody made too big a fuss about it. His mind was going. He must have gotten confused, they concluded. Probably woke in the night forgetting he’d already taken his insulin then got mixed up and took too much. How did I get my busted lip? I told them I’d slipped getting out of the tub and cracked my mouth on the sink. Our physician confirmed his senility and my difficulty getting around. An old, ailing widow must not have been worth wasting the time to investigate further.
I often wonder if the bastard really did know what I was about to do that night and let me do it anyway. At first, I thought maybe he’d done it out of remorse for all he’d put me through. Maybe he was tired of this battle we’d waged against one another most of our lives and it was his way of setting me free, letting me come out on top for once.
I know better now. After all those years together, I should’ve known the old bastard better than that. He’d let me do it all right, but it wasn’t out of any sense of remorse on his part. He was tired of this unforgiving life, of his failing mind and body, and he got out first, leaving me to tarry around this big house, old and alone. How would it happen for me? Would I slip in the tub and crack my head open? Maybe I would fall down the basement stairs doing laundry and break my hip. How long would I lie there broken and suffering before I died? How long before someone found my body? The children no longer came around. The neighbors had long ago learned to mind their own business. It was only a matter of time until my body betrayed me, and I lived in constant fear of it.
Every day, as I putter around the house going through the motions of old routines, I feel his magnified gaze on me, still watching me through those damn Coke bottle spectacles perched on the mantle where I’d last put them the night he died. I couldn’t bring myself to fold them up and hide them away in a drawer. That would feel too final, somehow. I would really be alone then. So I left them where they were, even though I could feel him still watching me as he’d always done, just waiting for me to mess up one more time. Watching and waiting until he could have the last laugh.
Brandy Bonifas lives in Ohio with her husband and son. Her speculative fiction spans several genres and her writing has appeared in anthologies by Clarendon House Publications, Pixie Forest Publishing, and Zombie Pirate Publishing. To find out more, visit her website Brandy Bonifas.