Nate and Jenny came over at five for dinner. We sat down in our living room, Nate on the recliner and Jenny on the green velvet chair we had bought at a garage sale. Kathy and I were on the couch. Nate and Jenny lived two doors up from us. Nate was my wife’s brother, six-foot-three and big. He played football in high-school, but that was thirty years ago.
“Dad is always in our face,” Jenny said, “He answers the phone before we can get to it.” Jenny’s father lived with them. Her mom was in a nursing home two blocks away.
Nate shook his head and took a gulp of red wine.
“Nate is trying , but I know he’s gonna lose it soon.” Jenny was a talker, everything on the table, no secrets. She was a foot shorter, seven years older than Nate, and moved like a squirrel, quick and jumpy.
We all looked at Nate. He raised his eye-brows and glanced outside. “I cleaned all the windows today,” I said hoping to loosen things up.
“I saw you on the ladder,” Jenny nodded in approval, “I wish I could get Nate off his ass to do something useful.”
Things went quiet. Nate took in a breath. “Maybe next Sunday. I don’t mind doing windows and they sure need it.”
Kathy looked at me. “What do you think Mike. Should we serve up?” Kathy and I slipped into the kitchen.
Kathy had made couscous salad with tomato and feta cheese, chicken soup from scratch, and fresh onion bread. We brought the bowls of soup to the table with the salad. I pulled the bread from the oven and sliced off four pieces to get us started. Jenny and Nate dug in and cleared their plates. Nate had seconds.
The conversation lightened up with a few laughs about Nate’s fishing trip with Jenny’s brothers. Nate wasn’t a heavy drinker but the brothers treated the excursion like a suicide mission. “I always expect one of them to keel over dead .” Nate said.
Nate used to invite me along on but I’d declined so man y times I supposed he gave up. I felt bad for him because he was really doing it for Jenny. Her brothers loved Nate and Nate loved Jenny.
“Who wants coffee or tea?” Kathy called from the kitchen.
Nate and I took coffee and the girls had tea. I held my mug with both hands. It was nearly dark outside and chilly. I thought about the winter. I liked putting rakes back in the shed, rolling up the hose and turning the outside tap off in the basement. I was happy to batten down the hatches and hunker down for the cold months.
“Won’t be long until Christmas,” I said.
“Jeez Mike it’s not even Thanksgiving yet,” Jenny said. Kathy looked at me. “Mike loves winter.”
Nate was gazing out the window again. Our neighbour Dave, the university professor, lived between Nate and us. Dave turned on the lamp in his living room and sat down with a book. Jenny started talking to Kathy about Dave’s wife, “She’s bored as hell you know. All Dave wants to do is read those damn books on the civil war.” Jenny took a quick look at Nate who still seemed far off in thought.
“Oh my God,” Kathy said. “I forgot about the apple crisp.”
Nate grinned . “Now you’re talking.”
Four bowls of warm desert hit the table. Everyone ate quietly.
At eight Jenny said they should make tracks.
We waved as they walked across Dave’s yard to their house.
Kathy cleared the table and I ran water for the dishes.
“I worry about that brother of mine,” Kathy said as she dried a wine glass. “He sure was off in space.”
“It has to be his father-in-law. That man spits venom.” Kathy kicked off her shoes and put on slippers. “Do you think Jenny is hard on Nate? She seems more negative these days.”
“Like her father. It’s osmosis, a gradual absorption.” I wiped my hands. “Let the rest of the dishes drip-dry.”
Kathy stretched. “I’m going to take a hot bath.”
I remembered that the next day was garbage pick-up. I stepped out the back door, pulled the lid off the plastic bin and grabbed the green bag. I walked down the narrow passage between our house and Dave’s. The neighbourhood was deserted. Even Dave was gone from his living room. I could hear the hum of the 403 highway. A motorcycle screamed up Dundum Avenue. I listened, half waiting for it to crash into a tree or shoot into the sky and explode into coloured streaks. I wondered what was going through the driver’s mind or if his thoughts were non-existent, completely in the moment. I envied that freedom.
I dropped the bag at the curb. I heard a chair creak on Nate’s porch. The light was off and I couldn’t see if anyone was there. I waved anyway but no one spoke.
I came down the walk a second time with the blue box. I stopped and peeked around the corner of Dave’s house. I felt silly, like a kid spying on his friends. I saw the orange glow of a cigarette. I watched for a moment until my eyes focused. It was Jenny’s dad having a smoke. His name was Garnet, an old name. He smoked a lot. I thought of my friend’s brother, fifty-five with lung cancer. His prospects were bad, a half a year if he was lucky, and there was Garnet still puffing at seventy-nine.
Their porch light came on. Jenny poked her head out and said something. Her dad waved her off. Jenny closed the door and the light went out. I went back inside.
Kathy was in the tub.
“Are you reading?” I said through the door. I heard the water run again, she was probably adding hot.
“Where were you?” The water stopped.
“Spying,” I said and went to the bedroom. I heard Kathy say, “What ?”
Kathy’s and my parents were dead, all four between 1991 and 1996. I felt like we were spreading ashes every weekend back then. I still had dreams where my mom and dad were alive and I couldn’t bring myself to tell them they had died.
I wondered what it be like to have one of our parents living in our house with us, eating meals, sharing the washroom, Kathy and I whispering all the time.
I pictured the spare bedroom with a massive oak dresser and a green bedspread hanging lop sided over a single bed. Odd things in the bathroom like talcum powder and a denture container.
My father had played guitar until he got married and sold it. Whenever he’d had a few drinks he would talk about the days when he played in a band. I’m sure he died regretting his choices.
The next day at four-thirty I pulled into our driveway. There was an ambulance in front of Nate and Jenny’s house. Jenny was on the sidewalk with her hand over her mouth. Nate was sitting on the porch steps with his head down and a bottle of beer in his hand. Kathy wasn’t home from work yet. Jenny looked at me without saying anything. I didn’t know what to do. I thought about going in my house and peeking out the window but that sounded wrong even in my head.
Jenny got into the ambulance. They drove off with the lights flashing but no siren.
Nate saw me and came over. “He died.” He looked confused. I figured he was in for a bad time with the funeral, the relatives, and Jenny wading through the process. “I came in and he was flat out on the kitchen floor,” he said.
“He must have gone down hard because there’s blood on the ceramics and in the grout. I don’t want to look at that every day and think of him lying there.” Nate was pointing at the sidewalk.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t want to ask about his heart again. “Do you want to come over for coffee?”
Nate hesitated and then said OK. He locked his house up and got his cell phone off the porch. “I don’t know why Jenny went with the ambulance. I didn’t think they would let her.” He looked back at his house. “I’ve never won an argument with Jenny you know.”
Nate and I sat at the dining room table and talked about cars and renovations, everything but his father-in-law. I was happy to avoid the details. His phone rang. “It’s Jenny.” He stood up and went to the kitchen muttering while I tried not to listen. Nate closed the phone. “They have to do an autopsy and Jenny is having a fit.”
Five minutes later Nate left. I went upstairs and flopped face down on the bed. I didn’t know if I had it in me to tell Kathy how Garnet died on Nate and Jenny’s kitchen floor.
The old bugger had been a living misery. I didn’t want to get old. All my friends dropping off, my independence chipped away until I no longer owned myself. The chance of Kathy or I living in separate nursing homes because one of us didn’t recognize the other.
I stared outside at the maple tree . The leaves were starting to turn . They’d be yellow in a few weeks. Winter was coming. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and stood up. I wanted to be cooking dinner when Kathy got home.