For four decades the fingertips of Duffy’s left hand had been impervious to temperature. He could handle a piping-hot cup with ease, a feat that always made non-musicians gasp.
It was on the 16th, exactly eight months since he had picked up a guitar, that he realized his calluses were nearly gone. When he touched the microwaved coffee mug, the scorching heat came as a shock.
“Son of a bitch,” he said softly.
He looked around the kitchen, dimly lit by the eroding sunlight, as if someone might have heard.
Five steps brought him to the hall closet beneath the stairs and with a shaking hand he opened it. He got a jacket or a hoodie from that closet every day, but he rarely reached into its depths. That slanted back area where the five guitars lived felt like a foreign country.
Duffy wasn’t sure how long he stood there. Two minutes? Fifteen? Then he dropped to his knees, shoved aside a few boots and pulled two guitar cases forward.
He stood them side by side in the hallway, the hulking black fiberglass dwarfing the gray fortified cardboard, and inspected them like they were part of a police lineup. Without opening them, he knew they held his Martin and Kate’s Epiphone.
Resolutely, he carried them to the living room and set them next to the chair where he watched TV, graded compositions, and usually ate. Nearby, but not in his line of vision.
The mug held only a comforting warmth by the time he retrieved it and set it on the end table. Sinking into the worn suede, he reached for the phone and punched in Jack’s name.
“Hey, man, what’s up?” Jack tried to sound offhand, but Duffy could hear the worry in his younger brother’s voice.
Duffy swung his long legs onto the hassock. “I hit the eight-month mark today.”
Jack inhaled sharply. “I know. You doing okay?”
“I guess so.” He gulped some coffee. “But four more months of this?”
“Why four months? I mean, who the hell set that timetable?”
“Everybody. The hospital social worker, the pastoral guy, every goddamned waiting room pamphlet.” Duffy picked up a clump of mail, dropped a few circulars in the wastebasket, and threw the rest on the coffee table. “For all I know, it was on The View today.”
“You watching The View? Are you getting PMS too?”
“Yeah, can I borrow some of your Midol?”
They laughed, then after a brief pause, Jack said: “Look, the back bedroom’s yours if you want it and I’ll even throw in half the garage. I did get the whole thing in the settlement.”
Jack’s divorce from Viveca, his flighty ex, had been final months ago. She was now living in her boyfriend’s condo, but her possessions had been slow to follow.
“Vampira finally came and picked up the rest of her stuff?” Duffy asked.
“Yeah. No more loom or quilts or ceramic birds so the spare room’s almost empty. Think about it.”
Duffy let out his breath slowly, the way he had in his weed-smoking days. He’d been considering it more seriously than Jack knew. “I will. Soon.”
“Okay. But I still don’t get the year thing.”
Neither did Duffy, but the experts warned against making any major changes for twelve months. No moving out of his house, no changing jobs, no retiring. No starting over in another town or state or country.
What those know-it-alls didn’t tell him was how to keep living in the same place without seeing Kate everywhere. Curled on the sofa immersed in an old movie or sprawled on the floor with her laptop. Singing as she weeded the flower bed or swearing as she watched a Yankee game.
Walking around town, he saw her hunched over a Sudoku in Palmer Square or striding up Witherspoon juggling a macchiato and a pile of library books
After he hung up, Duffy took another run at the mail. He discarded most of it, then checked the clock to find it was nearly nine.
Turning on the kitchen light, he studied the wall decor — diner memorabilia, produce and beverage ads, vintage utensils. He never knew if Kate’s kitschy treasures would make him smile or tear up. Tonight it did both, but the smile won. He’d eat in the kitchen for a change.
The freezer held pasta, meatloaf and a few chicken dishes. He grabbed some spinach lasagna and, while it was nuking, set a place at the red formica table.
At first the meals had poured in as if he’d subscribed to some comfort-food-of-the-month club. They had eventually slowed and now came mostly from single women. Co-workers, neighbors, even Kate’s friends.
Female company hadn’t been this accessible even decades ago, when his band had played the local bars. And Duffy had never cared less.
His poker buddies and softball team, his visits with Jack, even calls to his daughter in Boston and his mother in Tampa took the edge of his isolation. The hovering females made him feel lonelier than ever, and trying to talk to them was an unwelcome chore.
At first he had thought they were just being kind but soon realized he’d been marked as single-man fresh meat. The format of every discussion had tipped him off.
“How have you been, Duffy?
“Really, are you doing okay?”
“Is there anything you need?”
“You will let me know how I can help, won’t you?”
Between the opening how-are-you and the final what-can-I-do, they praised Kate a little and themselves a lot: their hobbies and education, their love of exercise and culture, their aversion to carbs and TV.
The text was as standard as their impeccable manicures, skinny jeans, and chunky necklaces. So was the subtext: “I’m a superior specimen to poor Kate and could easily replace her.”
As if it were Kate’s fault someone had rear-ended her Toyota, causing a minor concussion that triggered a major brain tumor. As if flawless hair and makeup were invincible armor or kale chips and Pilates could trump fate. As if an afternoon of tennis or museums or wine tasting would resurrect his heart.
These women knew so little about him and even less about his wife.
Nobody made love like Kate. Nobody made jokes or music or lasagna like Kate. Perfect hair looked wrong on her if you’d seen her rumpled auburn bed head.
Usually she had worn Levis and sneakers, like most physical therapists, so she packed a major punch in the occasional dress and high heels. She preferred long walks to their treadmill and hard rock to chamber music. Gardening and guitar had made a mess of her hands, but he admired their roughness.
The memory of her nimble finger-picking and vibrant soprano swept through him at unexpected times, like a gust of warm wind. In his dreams he heard her singing “In My Life,” the tune she’d been playing when he’d met her at a picnic and invited her to see his band at the Nassau Inn. Or “Crazy Love,” their first duet and, a year later, their wedding song.
Duffy cleaned the kitchen, perversely neat now that he could be as sloppy as he wanted. Again he thought about the guitars and returned to the living room.
He laid the larger case on the sofa, bent over it and ran his palm over its scarred surface and the Sun Studio sticker Kate had bought him in Memphis. Later that day they had wandered along Beale Street, stopping to jam with an elderly couple in W.C. Handy Park.
His hand moved to the fastening at the top of the case and froze there. The cold metal turned warm beneath his fingers and his eyes welled up. After a few minutes, he withdrew his hand. Not tonight.
Duffy stowed the cases in the back of the closet again and returned to his chair. At least he’d gotten them to the living room. Some months he couldn’t get them past the closet door.
Settling back, he reached for his laptop and opened his lesson plan file. He was weeks ahead but he may as well gain some extra ground while he watched the Knicks game.
On the 16th of next month he’d try again. Maybe he’d be able to get one case open and look at the guitar inside. Once he saw it, he just might want to tune it and restart his calluses.
If not, at least he’d have nine months under his belt by then. And only three to go.
Loretta Bolger Wish is a former newspaper reporter, grant manager and staff writer for the State of New Jersey. Currently she writes online and magazine features along with the film blog Hollywood Castaway. She lives at the Jersey shore with her husband, Fred Wish, and enjoys travel, acoustic guitar jams and the fellowship of the Princeton Library Writers Room.