Somehow, I manage the front door with that damned leg-brace and nearly stumble into the dark house, unbalanced by the two heavy grocery bags. I flip the hall light switch with my elbow. A few dessicated oak leaves that gusted inside with me cling to the rug at the front door like reluctant guests.
“Dave?” I call. On my way to the kitchen, I stop at the bottom of the stairs that lead to our bedroom. “Dave?” He’s a light sleeper, and my voice is loud enough to wake him if he’s napping — something he’s started doing lately — but there’s not a breath of sound from up there.
I set the groceries on the kitchen table and inhale sharply. By the end of the day, my femur is on fire. After the accident, I kept my job with the town’s lawyer — I’ve worked for him for 30 years — but Dave is “semi-retired.” He calls his customers in the morning, and his boss says, “Dave sells more from his kitchen phone than my guys out on the road.” Afternoons, he works around this place, then rides his bike far out into the country or goes for long runs across the hills that circle our fields, using the farm roads and vaulting the low fences. In a few weeks it will be cross-country skiing. All things I can’t do with him any more.
Dave’s energy keeps this old place up. “How’d I ever have time to work?” he’ll say with his big smile, as he climbs the back steps to the kitchen, toolbelt dangling, nails jingling in his pocket. “It’s a miracle we didn’t wake up one morning and find the whole house fallen down around us. Barns, too.” He works hard, and I’m not much help. Dragging the brace around all day . . . well, I’m exhausted.
My sister pep-talks me. “Just do what you can,” Nancy says briskly. She’s right, but every time she starts sounding like a third-grade teacher, she gets on my nerves. We’d resolved our Big Sister-Little Sister stuff years ago, but the accident brought it all back up again, and now she’s full of advice. Dave says she’s just trying to help. I know it, but I don’t need her guiding me through my whole life.
I put the groceries away, wondering where Dave is. In late October everything changes; night comes on early and fast. If he ran farther than he meant to, he’s heading home in late twilight. Already a few stars are floating into view above the shadow-black hills. I put on the outside light. Cradling a smooth pie pumpkin, I search the darkness for a pinprick of light bobbing toward the house. “No good spraining my ankle in the middle of some farmer’s field,” he says, so he always carries a flashlight in his pocket.
I’d like to go upstairs and freshen up, but it’s too hard to climb those steep stairs by myself after a full day of work. Instead I splash water on my face at the kitchen sink and dry it with a paper towel.
I should be figuring out how to tell him what Dr. Palmer said this afternoon. He’ll ask right away. He knows I had the appointment. Dave and I don’t keep secrets. If Dr. P. is right, and the pain in my leg is a bone infection, something not healing, the leg may have to come off. “A bad break, in every sense,” he said and squeezed my shoulder. “We’ll save it if we can.” I never cried in his office before.
Chopped onions sizzle in the cast iron pan, and I put in the floured chicken breasts, turn them when they brown, and add lemon juice and cooking sherry. Nancy’s recipe. I set the kitchen table, not as nice as the dining room across the hall, but fewer steps. Water’s boiling for pasta. I cut up tomatoes and cucumbers, making the chunks smaller and more exact than usual. I don’t want the dinner preparations to end until Dave tromps up the wooden steps. “Just in time,” I’ll say, covering up the hole of his absence.
Headlights flash in the yard. A pickup truck pulls into the shadowy oval cast by the outside light. The truck door slams, and Duncan trudges toward the back steps.
He nods to me through the screen door. “Dave here?”
“I think he went for a run. He’ll be back any minute. Can I give him a message?”
Duncan pushes his cap back and rubs his reddened forehead. He rents most of our land and does the actual farming. He grows corn and soybeans and tends the apple orchard.
“Come on in.” I prop the door open with my braced leg and wave him inside. “Get out of that chill. Coffee?” A large man, made larger by his bulky work clothes, Duncan fills the kitchen. He’s brought in a nimbus of cold air I can feel through my dress.
He waves off the coffee. “Dave and me-” He stares morosely into the silent blackness of the yard, as if he can see the ankle-twisting furrows of the razed and plowed fields, the brushy woods beyond with their maze of roots and leaf-camouflaged sinkholes. “Dave and me have our eye on a cider press old man Haavert might be selling. He can’t live up at his place by himself no more. Can’t take care of it. He’s too crippled up.” Duncan glances at my brace and flushes. “He figures his kids aren’t coming back.”
“Old man” Haavert is only about five years older than Duncan, which puts him near seventy. Their mother long dead, his children are in their thirties and scattered to cities. No, they aren’t coming back to these lonely farms.
“Too bad,” I say. “Where’s he going?”
“Into the Home.” His tone suggests it is anything but.
I turn down the burner under the chicken. Dave will be sorry he missed Duncan. He rarely pays a visit. He prefers to waylay Dave outdoors, or in the barn, somewhere more in his element. Dave calls Duncan, “Our Man of the Barns and Fields.” It makes me laugh. He still makes me laugh, even after 28 years married, and even without any kids to lift our spirits. Or help out. But kids are no guarantee of anything these days. Look at old man Haavert. We’re fine, just the two of us.
“He should be here,” I say, not meaning for Duncan to hear.
“Tell Dave I’ll catch him tomorrow or next day. If we aim to bid on that press, we need to fix a price.”
On his way down the steps, Duncan stumbles over something. He looks back up at me with his sad, questioning eyes. Despite the sharp air, while Duncan backs his truck down the long drive I stand in the doorway, a little breathless, waiting for the headlights to pick out Dave jogging home, home from the woods, home from the fields, home.
When the truck turns onto the road, the yard is dark again, except for the modest patch lit by the cobwebbed yellow bulb. I slowly close the door and go sit at the kitchen table. I need my sweater, but I’d have to go upstairs to get it.
I sit a full hour, not sure where the time went, staring at my braced leg sticking out straight, awkward, a limb that no longer does what it’s supposed to. I eat a few bites of the supper, leave the food on the stove’s lowest heat for a while, and at 8:30, put everything in the refrigerator. Around nine, I pick up the phone to call my sister Nancy, but think better of it. Instead, I call our best friends, the Randalls. No answer. I remember then that Polly Randall’s aunt had bypass surgery, so she and Mel drove down to Baltimore for a few days to help out.
Next to the phone is the calendar where I write down our social engagements, church functions, birthdays, and the like. I must have forgotten some meeting or other. But, except for my appointment with Dr. P, the squares for this week are empty. A physician’s appointment card, tucked into the back of the calendar, falls onto the counter. An appointment for Dave, two days from now. An appointment he didn’t tell me about, or write down. On the card, Dave wrote “unstable angina.”
Dr. Vikram Das, the card says. “That’s not Dave’s doctor.” I straighten up. The name is new to me, and the address isn’t local. In the Burlington telephone book, I find Vikram Das, a cardiologist. Is Vikram a man’s or a woman’s name? Nancy might know.
When my sister answers the phone, I say, “Dave’s not home.”
“Hi to you, too. Is his car there?”
“Yes. So’s his bike.” I don’t want to sound worried. “When I got home the house was dark. I figured he was out for a run, but he’s not back.”
“In this cold? I’ll be right over.”
“Not necessary. It’s late.” My voice creeps higher. I don’t want help. I don’t want to need help. But my leg aches so bad.
“I’m coming.” Nancy hangs up before I can argue and is at our door in 20 minutes. One look at me and she says, “I’ll fix some tea. Did you call Mel?”
“They’re in Baltimore.” When Nancy brings the cup and puts her arm around me, I feel the tears dammed up behind my eyes.
Nancy sits down and points to the open telephone book, eyebrows raised.
“Dave has a doctor’s appointment Thursday in Burlington.” I push the little white card across the table.
Nancy cocks her head and gives me a long look. “Is Dave having heart trouble?” Early heart attacks run in his family, which is one reason he works so hard to keep in shape.
“I don’t know. I don’t know this doctor.” My mind feels frozen, and the tea isn’t warming me. “Something’s wrong.” My voice sounds like it came out of a big hollow cave.
“Laraine, if Dave was hurt, somebody would have found him, and you’d have heard by now.” We both know this is a lie. The places he runs, he could be missing for days. Lying injured somewhere. Alone. Cold. “Are you sure he went for a run? Are his running shoes in the closet? Did you check upstairs?” Nancy walks toward the hall.
“No! Don’t go up there!” With difficulty, I stand. My big sister is taking over, pushing me aside, invading our rooms and closets. I hug my arms tight across my belly and slump like a deflated ball. She opens the closet door and begins to rummage. “Don’t look! Don’t look for them!” I am yelling.
The running shoes won’t be there. They are outside on the steps. Clumsy Duncan tripped over them. I saw them-muddy, laces tangled-and so did he. But until Nancy opened the closet, I could hold out, pretend to myself he’s on his way.
I know where he must be.
I limp across the small kitchen like someone walking under water, fighting to move forward, desperate for air. Nancy stands at the bottom of the stairs, and I move in front of her. I set my good foot on the high bottom step, and I pause long enough to discard every unnecessary thought, every constricting emotion, like shedding a worn out, useless skin. Slowly, I turn, reach for my sister’s hand, and, as if we were children once again, we mount the stairs together.
Weisfeld, a Princeton resident, began writing fiction seriously in 2005. Her short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (most recently, February 2012) and U.S. 1. She has completed a thriller set in Rome. Weisfeld has degrees from the University of Michigan (journalism) and Pitt. She studies with Lauren B. Davis.