The women who took shifts caring for Margaret wore tulip-pink scrubs, cardigans, and round-toed shoes that squeaked on the polished floors beyond her room.
“How are you today Mrs.—” they asked, glancing at the white board.
Margaret could see her name on the board, but it was a drawing—letters like rows of black flowers or city streets hemmed in by a blizzard.
Margaret had a job once, too. At the telephone company. Nylons. Smoke break. Coin purse.
Riding the bus to work, she’d thought of his hands, the shape of his wrists, shirtsleeves rolled up, his public reserve.
And his wife at the Christmas party, the way she waited for him to take her arm, her coat still on, the fur at the collar touching her cheek.
“There’s nothing between us anymore,” he said to Margaret in the rooms where they met, the heat so high that they had to crack a window in January, the pipes banging, the smell of cigarettes and a stained ashtray on a bedside table.
The orderlies kicked the bed’s brakes up, arranged the blanket, one turn, then another. The swiftness of imaging, the thundered circumvolution. Then in reverse. The hallway, the banks of white lights, the bed’s brakes, the blanket.
But of course—how stupid he must think me, she’d thought, because that spring—there was the shock of John’s wife in aisle seven, full cart, in a dress of bursting orange carnations, looking like triplets were on the way.
The jar of honey slipped from Margaret’s hands and shattered on the tiled floor.
Cleanup in aisle seven.
For the pain, morphine on the gum. The nurse kept the door open. In the evening, she wiped Margaret’s face with a warm cloth.
Trapped in a snowstorm at a hotel near the airport, just north of the town where John had finally moved his family, Margaret sat on the bed and listened to him Hello, hello at her, the yellow receiver heavy in her hand, the curl of the telephone cord gripped in the other as if it might get away.
“Is it you?” he asked. She hadn’t seen him since that day in June, when they’d taken the train from the city, each arriving at the station at the appointed time, he ahead of her in the ticket line. She took a seat on the train where he might see her hand on the arm rest, her bare shoulder, the back of her head. The train emptied at each station, until finally, it was just the two of them—he at her side—and the day blue and long ahead of them.
She hung up.
The snow covered everything. It silenced the wide berth of business parks and fast food places. No field of summer flowers here. No veranda—just the hallway on the third floor and a cheap white table with a crackled gold vase of stiff blooms by the elevator where Margaret caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror before going down to the buffet, assuming it was another stagger-smiling stranger, drunk on the in-between of it all.
“What do you need, dear?” the nurse asked.
Hadn’t Margaret asked for her cotton sweater already, the one she’d carried that day in case it grew cool in the evening? Pointing to the door. Opening her mouth.
“Are you thirsty?”
In and out. The bed was body. The body was a raft. The water struck with sunlight.
How natural to rest her head on his chest, to—
Shaking the pale blanket, brushing at their clothes—the pink of Margaret’s dress gloaming lavender—they stood. Already late. Always later. She smoothed pine needles from the back of his shirt.
Saying her name, he turned to her—
“Tell me, John,” Margaret said.
“Let’s check into the hotel across the lake, the one with the veranda that we saw from the road. Let’s never go back.” He was breathless.
How should she answer? He didn’t know it was the last time. Answer with a question, perhaps: What will you name the baby?
She finger-combed her hair into a braid. One, two, three. And tied the sweater she’d brought around her waist. Then, in the copse of darkening trees, they leaned into one another.
Beyond the pines, the swell of late-day locusts.
The cool of their skin, the arc of a single day.
They walked back the way they’d come, through the tall grass, the warmth of the sun still on their shoulders as they passed through the buzzing field.
Beth Hahn (she/her) is the author of the novel The Singing Bone (Regan Arts, 2016). Her stories can be found in Fractured Lit, HAD, and CRAFT, among others. She is at work on a novel and a collection of short fiction.