The Arch of Sunlight- a short story

Daylight filtering through dirty glass and yellowed sheers wakes Lois up. She lies beside Herbert on their ancient double bed, part of a whole suite they bought when they first married. She feels like she should go to the bathroom. Her hand reaches forward, numb because she was sleeping on it, and knocks her glasses off of the nightstand. Lois sighs. Am I going to do it today? she wonders.

Herbert keeps his eyes shut. The sides of his deeply lined face look like cracked eggshells. The dark blue that fills the hollows of his eyes makes his thin skin seem shockingly pale. Still asleep he sucks in air through his teeth that Lois forgot to take out last night.

The light is now bright enough in the bedroom for Lois to look on the floor without turning on the lamp.  The crackling sound her knees make worries her as she squats down to pick up her glasses from beside her slippers, and she’s relieved when she is able to stand back up with minimal pain. She walks to the bathroom noticing she wet herself when she squatted so she gets a fresh pair of panties from a tall dresser. This happens all the time to old ladies, she thinks. 

When she comes out of the bathroom ten minutes later, it’s 6:42, a cold Tuesday morning and Herbert is still motionless. “You better not have died.” she says to him through tight lips. He takes a low breath and she nods while she walks out of the door and goes to the kitchen.

A coffee smell makes Herbert’s nose twitch, familiarity billowing in his sinuses. He thinks it’s strawberries, but he can’t be sure; he doesn’t remember if he likes strawberries or not anyway. Lois won’t give him something that he doesn’t like. “Where are you?” he calls to her. His voice doesn’t make a sound above a whisper.

Lois comes in with a tray. She doesn’t have coffee or strawberries, just ointment, cleaning wipes, and an adult diaper. “Good morning, sweetie. Let’s check to see if you need to be cleaned.” She holds his bird bone shoulders while she turns him from side to side changing his night diaper. He winces slightly from the cold wipe, and she pats his hand. The job done, she sits in a straight-back chair next to the bed, her head leaning against Herbert’s pillow. She stops thinking about what she needs do and starts thinking about what she wants to do.

The sun is brighter and the sheers glow like they are about to ignite. A heated nylon odor hangs in the air around them. There is a table under the window covered with medicines, empty saline containers, tape and bandages for wound care, and a dead dish garden with a deflated metallic ballon stuck festively in the middle. “Get Well Soon!” is printed on the colorful foil wrapped around the base of the dry plant. A few used paper cups roll around on their sides, a buzzing breeze stirring the air by the oxygen concentrator on the floor next to Herbert’s side of the bed.

Lois dozes. The doorbell rings, and she is jerked out of her nap. It makes her feel angry and disoriented to wake up on the hard chair. She looks at the clock and it’s 7:58. The bell rings insistently now, and she walks heavily out of the room to answer the door.

The noise makes Herbert turn his head. He watches the back of Lois walk out of the door and he wonders who she is. Then he stares at the ceiling and waits for someone to return. I’m hungry, he thinks. Lois should bring me something soon. He remembers her name for a brief second more and then forgets everything again, even that he is hungry. He keeps staring at the ceiling. He hears someone come into the room.

“Good morning, Mr. Moorer! How are we today?” Maria, the Dominican home health aide, is too loud, too cheerful, dressed too brightly. She reaches under the sheet, lifts his legs and turns him over onto his side to check the bedsore he developed during his latest trip to the hospital. Her actions are mechanical and efficient.

“Stop it.” Herbert puffs softly out at the strange woman. Everything about her is sudden, even her appearance, and that startles him. He feels her tugging at a bandage on the base of his spine, and he grimaces as air hits the moist wound.

Lois walks in holding another tray as the nurse finishes tending the sore. There is coffee for Lois and the nurse, and a bowl of scrambled eggs and a bottle of a nutritional supplement that says “New Great Chocolate Taste” in bold letters. She puts pills in a paper cup and hands it to the aide to give to Herbert.

“You want me to feed him today, too Miss Lois?”

“If you would. I’m too tired to do it. He spits out everything worse than a baby.”

Together they hold him and prop pillows to position him upright. Maria sits in the chair and Lois watches her attempt to feed Herbert, the pills crushed and sprinkled on the food. The eggs drip down his chin, too difficult for him to swallow, and he can’t suck the supplement through a straw.

“Spoon feed him the drink. Get it into him.” Lois says.

This old man is already dead, Maria thinks. What’s the use in feeding him? She pours the drink into his mouth with a spoon, holding his chin and stroking his neck after each taste. It reminds her of giving medicine to her dog at home.

The liquid drifts down his throat, and Herbert coughs down an eighth of a cup.

I’m going to do it today, Lois decides.

The room is much brighter now. The tall dresser with a small round mirror on top is covered with Lois’s large purse, several slot machine tokens, and stacks of unopened mail. Next to the dresser is a lowboy Hebert dragged into the bedroom from the living room decades ago;  he needed a place to store the programs from funerals and memorials he attended. He went to  services for friends, relatives, even people he didn’t know. It made him feel alive, he said to Lois. The flyers were the souvenirs of a morbid hobby, she declared at the time, but now she can’t throw them away. The lowboy sits stuffed full even though Herbert has not been able to attend a service for many years. Lois keeps a carafe of water on it, and it is cloudy with motes of dust. Sun streams golden through it from across the room. Faint bird twitterings can be heard through the window.

Maria finishes feeding Herbert, and Lois takes the dishes back into the kitchen. Both women notice how little he actually ate, but neither of them say anything. The nurse stays in the bedroom, sitting in the straight back chair, reading a romance novel. Every once in a while she leans over and checks Herbert’s diaper.

Lois is in the kitchen after she washes the bowl and spoon. It’s quiet in there, no oxygen machine grinding, no irregular snorting and breathing. The florescent light is gray, cool, consistent and reflects weakly off of the old refrigerator. The hard kitchen chair feels more comfortable to her than the hard bedroom chair, so she sits and thinks. She closes her eyes and when she opens them again, she has no thoughts. Relaxing, her head falls forward and she drifts off to sleep sitting up, and begins dreaming of nothing.

The clock above the stove reads noon and Maria walks into the kitchen, checking her watch against it. “Miss Lois, it’s time for Mr. Herbert’s meal. Do you want me to fix it? You want me to feed him again?”

Lois wakes up abruptly for the third time that day. It shakes her for a few minutes, lasting while she fixes lunch. She takes a container of mashed potatoes out of the refrigerator and puts them in the microwave. They cook with the occasional hiss and pop. She reaches into the back of the cabinet next to the stove and takes out a small medicine bottle containing dozens of morphine tablets she has saved from Herbert’s palliative care over the months. Crushing them all, she dissolves them into a glass with apple juice. Her thoughts race. I’ve got to do it today. I’ve got to do it now. I can’t watch Herbert dying like this. He’s attending his own funeral every day. She watches the small grains of narcotic swirl and disappear into a cloud in the juice. Putting it on the tray along with the mashed potatoes and another nutritional drink, Lois takes lunch to the bedroom.

The sunlight is bronze as it reflects off of the bedroom door. The digital clock on the table blinks 3:24 redly. The lunch sits on the table under the window, mashed potatoes drying in a bowl, an empty drink bottle with a straw drifting in it on its side. Herbert is snoring softly, matching the sound and timbre of the oxygen machine. He is clean, but looks feverish and swollen. Over in the corner in the straight chair is Maria, also asleep, head drooped forward, her romance novel in her lap.

Maria wakes up and looks at her watch. It is 6:24 and almost time for her to leave. The room is black. The sun is gone. Herbert is still asleep. She gets up and finds Lois in the dark kitchen at the table. The refrigerator door is slightly open, and a strip of yellow light glows across her slumped form. Lois is cold and motionless in her chair,  pale blue fingers wrapped around an empty juice glass in her still hand.

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