“Damn him. He wasn’t supposed to be the first one to go. He promised me. He’s really screwed it up, he has.”
Sadie, jarred by the tone of Jan’s voice, sat up on her haunches and nosed her head into her new mistress’s hand. Without even realizing she’d done it, Jan stroked Sadie’s head and behind an ear. Reassured, Sadie gave an “I wasn’t really worried” yawn and settled back on the ground beside the folding chair Jan was sitting on.
She lowered her muzzle to between her two extended forelegs and gave a little whine. She knew something was wrong, something was not complete. But she didn’t know for sure what it was. Her master wasn’t here, but there were times when he was gone and only this woman he mated was there. At least one of them was beside her, if not the preferred one. So, it must just be her imagination.
Sitting on the other side of Jan, Ann took the hand Jan hadn’t been stroking Sadie with in hers and patted it with her other hand. She gave a little frown when she looked down and saw she had been lightly touching a couple of liver spots on the back of Jan’s hand she’d never seen before. But then she hadn’t seen Jan in the past three years, so, although seeing the signs of aging surprised her, there was no particular reason why they should.
“He wasn’t supposed to be the first one to go. He promised me.”
“I know,” Ann murmured, looking furtively around to see if anyone else heard Jan—but the few that were there were standing off. And if they heard Jan, they were pretending they hadn’t. “I know, Mom. You said that.”
“Do you think I should have gone with the brown suit? I always thought that was one of his favorites. But I thought he looked better in the blue. Do you think I should have gone with the blue?”
“I think the brown was just right, Mom,” Ann said. “He looked quite handsome.”
“Thanks. He was, still young and handsome,” Jan said. And she said it with such an emphatic tone that Ann looked up sharply, as if she’d said something wrong without intending to when she was doing her best to say just the right things—the things that wouldn’t rock the boat. She had said wrong, unwelcome, and hurtful things three years earlier—asking her Jan why, if she liked the man so much, she hadn’t married him rather than living as they had—as well as this not being the first time. But that had contributed greatly to the three years of strain between them, so Ann bit her tongue and didn’t ask the question again. Since then she’d looked into the financial arrangements of Dennis’s pension and understood Jan’s decisions a bit better. Rick had just turned a deaf ear, though, when she had talked to him about that.
A grating noise caught the attention of both of them, and, in unison, they looked out toward the road. Sadie was disturbed by the noise too and lifted her muzzle and sniffed the breeze. Jan lowered her hand to Sadie’s back and snaked her fingers into the dog’s fur. Sadie gave a little “give me credit for hearing the signs of danger” growl, and then she settled down with a small whine.
“What’s holding them up?”
“They apparently are having a bit of a problem with the hydraulics on the hearse, Mom. But the men working with it seem to know what they’re doing. It shouldn’t be long.” Jan stiffened at that, though, and Ann once again felt she was on the cusp of saying the wrong thing. She certainly didn’t want to leave the impression that she wanted to rush this. She decided to change the subject. “At least it’s a beautiful day, isn’t it? At least there’s that.”
A beautiful day. Yes it was that, Jan thought. It was a beautiful day too when she’d first met Greg. There in the park, on a day much like this one—and in a park much like this one, but without the depressing headstones. The stones, reminding Jan of where all end up—and how that was weighing heavily on her. Much more heavily than it should have weighed on Greg. Damn him, Jan thought. He wasn’t supposed to be the first one to go. He’d promised. He’d known; he’d seen the signs. And we were always open with each other. We’d discussed it. It would be all right. He was going to be there. And then he wasn’t.
So debonair and handsome, looking like he had the world by the tail. Walking briskly along, stacks of books precariously held in his arms, Sadie walking proudly at his side, like she had the best man in the world taking care of her. And she was right, Jan thought. Greg was the best man in the world. Even though it had all been messy, even though Jan thought her life was settled before that day in the park and wasn’t looking for the best man in the world to stroll by her as she sat on the park bench reading her Sunday copy of the New York Times. Things were going just fine with Frank—well, they were going to get back to fine, Jan had been sure. Jan didn’t need a Greg in her life. But sometimes we don’t have much of a choice on the directions our lives go in.
“There, I think they are making progress,” Ann said. “It shouldn’t be long now. But it’s nice enough out here, isn’t it, Mom? It’s a nice day, if we have to be . . .” Ann let her voice trail off, sensing there was no good way to end the thought. And to cover, she rushed into the next one. “Rick is really sorry he couldn’t come up for this, Mom. He would have—”
“Yes, I’m just sure he is,” Jan cut in. Her voice had turned testy, and Ann shrank from her. Jan reached out and took her hand, though. She smoothed the skin on the back of Ann’s hand with her fingers. She liked the feel of her daughter-in-law’s hands and was comforted that Ann was there at her side—and Jan wanted Ann to know that. No liver spots there. Ann didn’t want this to hurt her daughter-in-law. She had come; her daughter-in-law had come, even if her son hadn’t. Jan was grateful for that. Ann had always been understanding—well, most of the time―at least to Jan’s face. She’d been a real trouper, prepared to accept and not to carp.
Jan didn’t want to hurt Ann over this. She had never wanted to hurt anyone. She hadn’t even wanted to hurt Frank—especially Frank. And the memory of Dennis too. But, of course, she had. She was a woman with needs. Women didn’t just stop needing it when they reached fifty—or the day their husband died.
“Thank you for coming, Ann,” she whispered. “That means a lot to me. You have no idea how much it means to me to have family here.”
Ann shuddered, and when Jan turned, she thought Ann had a tear in her eye. Jan wouldn’t say more. She knew what a struggle this was—to be standing between a woman and her own son on something like this. Jan wouldn’t hurt Ann for the world, if she could avoid it. Rick hadn’t come. But Ann did, and, under the circumstances—with how on edge, how devastated and unprepared for this Jan was, it was probably for the best that Rick hadn’t come.
They surely would have argued over something innocent one of them said, and under these circumstances, a simple jarring statement could lead to a bitter fight. Jan wasn’t unaware how carefully Ann had been trying to choose her words today.
Jan had all of the time in the world now to reconcile with Rick. And it was her move to make; she could understand what a blow it had been to Rick. There wasn’t all that much time, but there was time to try to heal what was between them with Rick. But time was quickly running out on her connection to her lover and companion, Greg.
“Do you think the brown suit was the right choice?” Jan asked.
Ann turned and gave Jan a concerned look, which, mercifully Jan didn’t catch. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
Greg was wearing brown that first day, in the park, Jan thought. And he was looking good that day. He dropped a book and hadn’t noticed doing so as he passed the bench Jan was sitting on. Jan was in the park so that she could think. The park soothed her, and she had to review in her mind her relationship with Frank and the tiff they had had before Frank left town—on the surface described as an out-of-town trial running of his play, but both knowing it meant so much more―leaving Jan to wonder if Frank would be coming back to her.
And then, when he had come back, it was Jan who was gone.
Jan had barely noticed the young man walking toward her on the park path. She’d heard the book hit the ground, though, and had looked up. Greg apparently hadn’t noticed, however, and had just walked on. Sadie had both heard and seen the book drop, and she turned and looked at it, and then at Jan, and then back at the book. She was wagging her tail, and Jan laughed, getting the image that the dog was telling her to get her butt off the bench and pick up the book and give it back to her caretaker—as if maybe Jan had been the one to make the book drop in the first place.
Amused, Jan had risen from the bench, picked up the book, and called after the young man.
It’s certainly strange, Jan thought, how the momentous turning points of one’s life history could hinge on something as simple as a book falling out of a young man’s hands. She’d have to think more on that. Jan quickly ran the names of writers from the Romance era over in her mind to see if she could readily pick out such turning points in their lives—ones the biographers hadn’t worked over already, at least from the perspective of what they subsequently wrote. Jan knew there must be some unmined material there, but she couldn’t think of any possibilities at the moment. She filed that away to think about later. There was a vast “later” stretching out before her now. But maybe not all that vast. And maybe that was a blessing.
Then, back at the graveside, Jan felt Sadie nudging her hand with her muzzle and she gave the pooch the petting she asked for. But what about Sadie, she asked herself. She wasn’t young either. But what about Sadie in the new circumstances? She decided not to think about that just now.
Greg had thanked Jan for saving his book, saying that he would have started out his new class at the university behind the eight-ball with the professor if he’d shown up without that book. That he’d heard the professor was a real bitch and must really be egotistical, because she’d assigned one of her own books—this one—as required reading.
Jan’s eyes had sparkled when she looked at the book and saw that it was her own—the one she herself had written, although she hadn’t assigned it for the class to read.
“Perhaps the professor isn’t quite the bitch you imagine,” she had said to the young man. “Perhaps the professor’s teaching assistant established the booklist for the class. And perhaps the teaching assistant was doing a little brown nosing.”
Greg had been beyond embarrassment when they introduced themselves to each other and he discovered Jan’s name matched that on the book cover, and Jan had invited the young man to join her on the bench for a few minutes so that she could meet a new student. They had hit it off swimmingly, and Greg had invited Jan for coffee. Over their coffee they had discussed the course subject and then much more than that, not noticing the darkness descending on them outside the coffeehouse window—or that their hands had been touching and their eyes had exchanged similar thoughts of need and desire.
Seeing how late it was, Jan had asked Greg if he would join her for dinner, and then, later in the evening Greg, now knowing Jan fully—more fully than Jan had realized he had revealed—and always having been an open and straightforward—and confident—young man invited Jan to share a bed with him. And, smitten, Jan had uncharacteristically accepted.
She didn’t even think about Greg’s age—especially in relationship to hers. She only thought about how strong he was between her thighs. How they both laughed innocently and lustily together as they clumsily adjusted their bodies to each other—him in overconcern for her comfort, she because she had never done this before at such a whim and with such a beautifully built young man. How deeply he reached into her, how easily he found what sent her into ecstasy and how lovingly he made love to that, carrying her over the edge as no one else had. And the stamina of youth that enabled him to do it again, taking her to new heights of release. And then, in the early dawn once more, Jan taking command now and riding him as he lay on his back and looked lovingly into her eyes. Jan never having had intended to stay the night, but now never wanting to leave Greg’s bed again.
Another quirk of fate, Jan thought with a slight pang in her heart. Frank, the actor who Jan was living with at the time, on an out-of-town trial run of a play. And, worse, those bitter words they had spoken of his ease with his leading lady when he left, with Jan surprised even at herself for her flash of jealousy and for feeling that the younger Frank was being too controlling. Jan normally wouldn’t have given any thought to doing this to Frank. She and Frank were perfect for each other. They had been together for ten years at that point, having found each other less than a year after Jan’s Dennis had died. Frank had saved Jan from a deep spiral into depression. Frank and she had been everything to each other. They were perfect together.
But, at the time, under the specific set of circumstances, Greg was even more perfect.
Rick hadn’t understood and approved of Greg any more than he had Frank. “My god, mother, are you going to pluck them younger and younger? This last one isn’t much older than I am. Have you no consideration for the memory of Dad? Do you really need to grasp at sex all that much?”
“There, they have it fixed now,” Ann said. “It won’t be long now.”
No, it won’t be long now, Jan thought. I’ll be gone soon too—in mind if not physically, which, perhaps, the worse possible way to fade out. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. He wasn’t supposed to go first. He promised.
Then, like a bolt of lightning, the insidious thought sliced into Jan’s mind. Where would she be buried? There was a plot beside Dennis for her. But this was a double plot too. Would she be buried beside Dennis or Greg? She felt herself trembling, breaking down, never more confused or desolate in her life as now. She began to cry. Ann encased her mother-in-law in both of her arms, having no idea what had set Jan’s tears off. Sadie sat up and nudged her nose into Jan’s lap.
“There, there, Mom,” Ann murmured. “Just a bit more. Be brave. You’ve been doing so well.”
“Rick is going to have to decide. I can’t . . . I couldn’t possibly,” Jan was softly blubbering. Happily, the meaning of this went right over Ann’s head.
“Please, Mom, please don’t cry. Rick wanted to be here. He just couldn’t get away. You’ll have to come down and stay with us a bit after you are feeling better. Courage now, Mom, they are about to begin the ceremony.”
The burial ceremony was mercifully short. While a minister Jan didn’t know was speaking reverently but irrelevantly about the life of a young man he didn’t know, couldn’t possibly fully appreciate, Jan started to look around at who had come. It wasn’t so much that she was curious about who was there as that she couldn’t bring herself to look at the coffin, now positioned over the grave site. She didn’t want to remember anything about this part. She didn’t want to see this in her mind when she thought of Greg—so beautiful and vibrant and alive—so strong, moving inside her. Rick no doubt thought her a whore. But she wasn’t too old to live life. There was no reason that her natural urges should have died with Rick’s father. Her body’s needs didn’t die with him. It was hardly her fault if younger men found her attractive, desirable, still.
Sadie was getting restless now too, and as Jan looked around at the few little groups of mourners standing around in clumps, she reached down to touch the dog with a reassuring hand. Jan didn’t want Sadie to act up, but she also wanted her here. She was the closest family she had now—and she had been Greg’s dog. She deserved to be here more than anyone else did.
That had been Jan’s one testy moment with Ann that morning. Ann had thought it very inappropriate to bring a dog to a burial and had tried to convince Jan to leave Sadie home. Jan had been snappish with her, saying that if Sadie couldn’t go, she wouldn’t go either. But Ann had given right in. Ann always tried to avoid confrontation, was always trying to make everyone feel comfortable and wanted. So Sadie was here.
As Jan looked around, her eyes were arrested by the figure of a man, at the edge of the semicircle of mourners, by himself, not seeming to be part of any of the clumps of people dressed in black. He looked familiar, but Jan couldn’t place him, and he was standing too far away for her to focus on his features. By his stance, he looked too old to be one of Greg’s friends. The mourners could be divided into two groups by age. There were Greg’s friends, those in their early thirties. And then there were Jan’s few friends who didn’t want to ignore this relationship altogether, most of whom were in their sixties or older. There had always been this divide, and this had occasioned Rick’s most cutting remark when he had heard about Greg for the first time.
“You are going to do this again, Mom?” he had said in an incredulous voice. “And with one of your students this time? Aren’t you even too old for sex anymore?”
How little Rick knew about the rhythms of life.
This man standing over there by himself didn’t fit into either of those two groups. He was somewhere in the middle.
And Jan felt like she should know him, but, for the life of her, she couldn’t place what little she could discern of the face. She searched her brain, but without result. And it was this, this that panicked her the most—why she resented so much that Greg had gone before her. With each passing day, when Jan searched her brain, she was finding less and less memory to search. Her past was closing down on her. Her thoughts went to her father and how he had slowly faded out of life in his mind, quicker than his physical deterioration. The possibility of this happening to her had always frightened Jan whenever it gripped her thoughts. And now she was increasingly aware that it was happening to her. She didn’t even want to think of the future. All she had wanted was a present—with Greg.
Searching her brain, all Jan could come up with at that moment was that maybe Greg wasn’t wearing brown that first day they met in the park. Maybe he was wearing blue.
She turned to Ann and asked, “Do you think the brown suit was the right choice?”
Ann opened her mouth to speak, but at that moment Sadie, who had stood up and was sniffing the breeze again, suddenly realized what was wrong, what was missing, and she began a mournful howl. And Jan had to reach down and grab her collar to stop her from racing toward the coffin that was now being lowered into the ground.
“Well, at least think about it, Mom. No, that’s not enough. Plan on it, Mom.”
Jan had been straining her ears, trying to listen to the announcement over the public address. She didn’t want Ann to miss her plane, to be forced to stay here even one more day, and she still had to go through security. It was a bother that they wouldn’t let people go to the gates anymore to see their loved ones off. She didn’t want Ann to miss her flight.
“What does Rick say about it?” she asked.
Jan could see by the expression on Ann’s face that Rick didn’t even know about it.
“It will be great with Rick. He wants to see you again. It’s been too long. He would have come to the funeral, you know, if he didn’t have to—”
“Yes, that’s what you said,” Jan cut in. She didn’t want Ann doing this. She didn’t want Ann lying to try to cover up this thing that existed between her and her son. It wasn’t Ann’s fault—or responsibility—and of it. It wasn’t really Rick’s fault either. Jan knew it was all her fault. A betrayal of Rick’s father—at least that’s the way Rick had every right to see it. Not just finding another man—no two—but finding ones significantly younger than she was. Making no bones that she done so for the sex rather than the companionship, signaled by show no sign of wanting or needing to marry them. Although that was a little harsh. She’d found companionship with both Frank and Greg that she hadn’t found with Rick’s father, Dennis. But she could hardly tell Rick that.
Jan had been miserable. She hadn’t even known what she wanted, what she’d been denying she wanted, before Dennis died—or hadn’t been sure, at least. He certainly hadn’t done anything about it. He’d been too ill for sex, but there were ways, techniques, substitutes, and he hadn’t even tried. Moving on to other men after Dennis died was messy, yes, and a crushing blow to Rick. But it was what it was.
Or at least what it had been. Jan couldn’t see herself being in any such relationship like that ever again now. She was truly too damn old now. Who would have her—in the condition she knew she was in? And in that was a sense of loss nearly as large as having unexpectedly lost Greg.
“Listen, Ann, I think that’s a call for your plane. I don’t want you to miss it.”
“OK, I guess it’s time,” Ann said. Jan wasn’t sure whether that was regret or relief in Ann’s voice when she said it. But she wouldn’t regret it of her daughter-in-law if it was relief. Ann was taking so much of this on herself. And Jan wasn’t her mother—not really. And she had a mother. A normal mother that Rick had been quick to bring up as a comparison to Jan. Not one who had been shacking up with a younger man—two of them, albeit not simultaneously. Probably the mother Rick had adopted as the one he wanted now.
“But think about it, won’t you? When you’ve had time to recover a bit. Think about coming down and visiting us for a couple of weeks. Or a month or more. I hate to see this . . . this nothingness between you and Rick. I know it’s just a matter of getting you back together again. And there’s nothing holding you here now. Now that you’re retired, of course.” She slipped in that last bit, seemingly out of fear that the conversation would head down one of those dangerous paths again.
“There’s Sadie,” Jan said.
“Sadie?” Ann asked. And she asked it as if she genuinely didn’t know who Sadie was.
“Sadie, Greg’s dog. Mine now. Could I bring Sadie?”
“Oh, well. Our apartment is only two bedroom. And we have cats, you know. Perhaps a kennel?”
This stung Jan. It was a sticking point for her that Ann and Rick had not had children. Jan took it as a rejection by Rick. She knew that Ann would have like to have them. But Jan considered that Rick was so put off by what he saw in the relationship between his own parents and how that affected him as a child that he didn’t want to repeat what he saw as mistakes. Jan thought that unfair, though. She could have risen further at the university if she hadn’t put husband and family first. And it was hardly her fault that she always had brought more home than Dennis had. Lord knows she’d balanced as best as she could—and had made unknown sacrifices that Rick apparently had no understanding of or feeling for.
“Sadie’s just lost her master,” is what she responded to Ann. “I’m the only one she has now. And if I leave . . .”
“Oh, well.” Ann was quite at a loss for words, and Jan didn’t need a roadmap to figure out how happy Ann would be for her to arrive on her doorstep with Sadie in tow. But she wasn’t kidding about the part of being sensitive to Sadie losing her master and then having the next in line disappear for several weeks as well. Sometimes Jan thought that people didn’t realize that household pets were people too—or something close to that.
“There’s the announcement again, Ann. You’d better go. You know how getting through security can be these days.”
“Oh, well. Yes. But you’ll think about it, won’t you?”
“Yes, Ann, I’ll think about it.”
Ann stood and picked up her jacket and carryon. She gave Jan a peck on the cheek and then a close hug. “I’m so sorry, Mom,” she said. “I know it’s a blow and a great loss to you. I understand that.”
Jan hugged her back. “Thanks. And thanks for being here for me, Ann. And, yes, I’ll try to get down there before winter,” she said, with a slight sob from somewhere down in her throat.
Ann smiled a wan smile at Jan and turned and started walking off toward the security gate.
“Oh, and Ann,” Jan called after her, making Ann turn back toward her, “Please give my regards to Rick . . . and tell him . . . tell him I love him.”
“Yes, I will. I most certainly will,” Ann said, tears now coming to her eyes.
It had been a struggle for Jan to say that. Rick hadn’t been the only one hurt; his unwillingness to try to understand Jan and her needs was also hurtful to Jan. She said it for Ann as much, if not more so, than for Rick. And she’d said it for herself too, she knew. She knew bridges needed to be rebuilt and that the initiative would have to be hers. And she also felt she had a limited amount of time—and that she owed it to Rick to set things right again. She didn’t want Rick going through life with this on his shoulders. And there would be nothing Jan could do about it after she died.
“Damn,” she thought. “Why did Greg have to go first? He promised me he wouldn’t.”
* * * *
“Hello, I’m Harold. Harold Dandridge. From 1124, just around the corner from you, at the mailboxes. I’m new here and just getting acquainted. I thought I’d do it by fixing that loose shutter you had around at the side of the your unit.” He was standing there, with hammer and screwdriver in hand, symbols of his indispensability to a woman living alone.
Jan stood at the front door of her condo, at a loss for words for a couple of moments. She couldn’t decide which one of them was older—or in more deteriorating shape. She had no trouble deciding who was more hopeful, though. Sadie peeked out around the side of Jan’s leg, and the man took one step back.
“Umm, uh, nice puppy. He doesn’t bite, does he?”
“Only selectively—and Sadie’s a she. Come on girl, let’s show this gentleman your manners. Hi. My name’s Jan. And thanks for fixing the shutter—I hadn’t really noticed that it was broken—and welcome to the neighborhood.”
“Yes I heard your name was Jan.” The man said it as if he’d researched Jan well. But not too well, Jan thought, or he wouldn’t be standing at her doorstep making preliminary moves on getting his dinners cooked and laundry done—unless he was a bit kinky himself or if he was so desperate that any woman would do. But he was going on, “It was no bother, really”—referring apparently to the minor handyman work—”and I thought I should stop by anyway. Did you know that the hose on your patio is running water into the street. I thought someone should let you know. It’s the neighborly thing to do—at least where I came from. They don’t seem all that friendly around here, I’m sorry to say.”
“Oh, Lord, it’s not, is it?” Jan exclaimed. “I must have left it running when I was watering the border flowers. I’m getting so forgetful.”
Actually, Jan was delighted. She now had an excuse to go outside rather than invite Harold in and to be doing something that he might get wet for if he came anywhere close to her. Jan already was running through her mind a scenario of this paunchy old man chasing her around the yard trying to put a peck of a kiss on her cheek.
“Well, it was nice meeting you—and thanks for fixing the shutter,” Jan wafted in Harold’s direction, giving him what she hoped was the polite kiss off. She wondered how long it would take for word to get to him that she’d been living with a much younger man—and then how long after that it would take him to add one and one together and get grasping cougar. Jan was up on such jargon; she’d heard that word whispered about her and had made sure to find out what it meant.
“Umm. Don’t mention it. Glad to have met you. I’m just around the corner if you need anything. 1124, over by the mailboxes.”
Happily, Harold was gone when Jan turned from shutting off the water. Jan could see that, indeed, she had been deluging the storm drains on the street. And they were in a near drought too. She had breezily passed off her forgetfulness, but it did worry her—more than she was prepared to tell anyone it did. Anyone but Greg, of course.
When she reentered the condo, she found Sadie perky, as if she had enjoyed the unexpected visit by a male figure far more than Jan did—and, possibly, that she wasn’t as picky about her men as Jan was.
On the whole, Jan was happy to see Sadie happy, if only for a moment. She had dragged around the condo even more than he had since Greg’s death. The worst part—which Jan knew was cruel and would fix as soon as she could find the directions and someone who could understand them—was the telephone answering machine recording. Greg had recorded the answer, and each time Jan couldn’t get to the phone quickly enough, Greg’s voice came on the machine and Sadie’s ears went up and she and wandered around the condo, looking for Greg, before she came back to the foot of Greg’s empty recliner in the living room and flattened herself on the floor and whined her mournful whine.
Sadie was still spending the nights there by Greg’s chair. When Greg had been here, all three of them had retired to the bedroom at night, and Sadie had lain at the foot of the bed until the bed stopped rocking—on the nights it did that—and then she’d be up at their feet while they drifted off to sleep. And invariably they would wake in the morning with her stretched out between them. They had had to go to a king-size bed just for her, as they hadn’t been able to change her habits. When they had tried to lock her out of the bedroom, she scratched the door and whined until they let her in.
After Harold’s visitation, Jan went to the condo’s second bedroom, which had been made into a workroom for both her and Greg, both of them using Jan’s accumulated vast collection of books on the early Romance writers that each of them drew on, Jan now for writing for publication and Greg as a junior member of the faculty of the university where they had met.
Jan was working on a new book—but she hadn’t been able to concentrate since Greg’s passing. That was what she had been doing when Greg died. They had had dinner together, and Greg said he felt he had a little indigestion and wanted to lay on the sofa for a bit. Jan had gone on into the study and was so engrossed in what she was doing that the hours passed, and, although she could now remember Sadie having been restless and coming in to the study several times and nudging at her without response, Jan just ignored her at the time. And then she stopped coming in and it progressively crept into Jan’s consciousness that she was whining strangely in the living room. When Jan went to investigation, she couldn’t rouse Greg. He was already gone.
Jan had no idea what could have been done if she had paid attention to Sadie when she first came into the study, and she was able to reason with herself that Greg’s passing wasn’t her fault, but she now just couldn’t concentrate on anything in the study. And Sadie wouldn’t come to her in the study now at all. She remained loyal to Greg—laying at the foot of Greg’s recliner out in the living room. She didn’t even come into the bedroom anymore when Jan went to bed.
Jan knew she’d have to move to exorcise the presence of Greg. What she was dragging her feet on, though, was that she didn’t want to exorcise Greg any more than Sadie did. She couldn’t go to sleep at night without moving her hand below her belly and imagine Greg inside her, making her feel alive.
The bottom line was that Jan knew that if she didn’t make some sort of changes—ones she really didn’t want to make at all—sooner rather than later, the decision would be taken out of her hands. That hose thing, for instance, was just a small matter—but it was happening more and more frequently.
Jan worked in the study for a couple of hours and felt a minor feeling of victory that she had made some progress—at least in deciding what she wanted to say about the writer she was studying, if not yet having put it to paper. She jotted some notes down. All the time she was working something at the back of her brain told her that there was an angle on the criticism that she had wanted to pursue—a possible new line of enquiry that had come to her at an inopportune moment. But she couldn’t think of it, and that was a bit frustrating, taking the edge off of the feeling or progress she’d made on the writing. Giving up and trying to remember, she stood and stretched and went out into the living room.
“Time for your walk, old girl,” she said, and Sadie stood right up and trotted over to her, tail wagging.
Jan smiled. This was a bit of progress too. Greg had always been the one to walk Sadie. Since he’d been gone, Sadie had been hard to motivate when Jan walked her. She’d tell the dog it was time for a walk, which she obviously understood and certainly didn’t reject in principal, but then she’d go to the back hallway, thinking Greg would come out of one of the doors there to snap her leash on her collar. But Greg didn’t do that anymore.
Jan went into a crouch beside Sadie when the pooch reached her side by the front door and ran her hands into Sadie’s fur and put her face to the dog’s neck and mumbled, “Thanks, Sadie. I know I’m no substitute, but it’s just you and me now, girl. Well have to muddle through this together.”
Sadie turned and licked Jan’s cheek, maybe brushing away a tear and maybe not, and the two survivors walked out into the late-afternoon shadows.
Harold waved at her from his dining room window as Jan passed his condo on the way to the mailbox. When she and Sadie returned from their walk to the designated area of dog business in the condo area, Harold was standing at his door holding his screw driver. Jan giggled to herself inside at the symbolism of Harold’s choice of a pledge of his competence—or perhaps his not-so-subtle offer. A screw driver. Still, she had to acknowledge that she could use a good screw now.
Once back in the condo, Jan took a family-sized TV dinner from the freezer and popped it into the microwave oven. She laughed again wondering if Harold also could cook, because it was something she had never mastered. The meal was lasagna. Sadie sat and whined beside the dining room table as Jan ate. And, of course, she wound up getting some lasagna. Not as much as she wanted, of course, but “as much as she wanted” wasn’t something that was going to happen in this lifetime. There was more than enough for both of them, though, and Jan put the more-than-half-full dish in the refrigerator and the dishes in the sink. She decided he’d do the dishes after she watch Jeopardy on TV.
The game show led into a situation comedy and then a drama and the news, and ended with a late-night talk show before Jan got up the gumption to move again. When Greg was here, they went to meetings and lectures and concerts and jazz bars, their favorite of those being Hudson’s. Jan hadn’t been to any of those since Greg had died, though. Tonight had been just about like any other night. The whole evening Sadie had lain, a bit restlessly, next to Greg’s recliner and had moaned and whined a bit in a trouble sleep.
When the TV went into a later-night show that was too “hip” for Jan to follow, she clicked off the TV, went around turning the lights off in the living room, and drifted back to the bedroom.
Her heart did a little zing thing as she got into bed after taking her shower and saw that Sadie was laying down in the hall next to the open door into the bedroom. She patted the bed and called Sadie’s name, but the dog stayed where she was.
“No matter, girl,” Jan murmured. “It’s a start. We’ll make it yet, you and I. I know it. We’re not ready for the nursing home yet.”
But then Jan felt a little catch in the back of her throat. This was what she’d been thinking about, worrying about in her mind. But this was the first time she’d said it out loud: “ready for the nursing home.” Not so much because she was getting old as because she felt she was losing her mental grasp. And the thought it sickened her. Not so much for her. But what about Sadie then? Sadie was the last link to Greg, and anyway, Sadie was now Jan’s responsibility—her responsibility to Greg. What about Sadie?
She turned off the light, ready for sleep. But sleep wasn’t that ready for her.
Jan was pretty tired when she woke up in the morning. She’d been stewing through much of the night. The first thing she did when she opened her eyes was look at the hall floor beyond the door into the bedroom. Sadie wasn’t there, though. Jan sure would have liked to have seen her laying out there—or, better yet, on the bed. When Jan made it into the living room of the condo, she saw that Sadie had returned to the foot of Greg’s recliner.
Jan also noticed that the dinner dishes she’d left to wash later the previous night were still piled in the kitchen sink. When Greg was here, this would never have happened. They ran a tight ship when Greg was here.
Jan took Sadie for a short walk—being happy to notice that the dog came to her when called like she had the previous day. It was still dark out. They rounded the corner on the side by the mailboxes, but Jan saw lights on in Harold’s condo and the curtains in his dining room moving, so she backtracked and they went in another direction. Jan was hungry and tired but knew she was procrastinating on something she really had to do, so she wasn’t in the mood to fall into her cheery neighbor’s clutches this early in the day.
Returning to the condo, Jan flipped the TV on to CNN and turned the volume down low enough that she knew it was there and could latch into a news report if she was truly interested but that it didn’t pound the world’s problems into her brain. What turning it on showed that she really lacked was conversation—the presence of someone else even if the discussion was desultory. She could spend an entire day with Greg with neither of them having said anything much, and she would have felt that she’d had companionship. It was the same way with Frank before that. It was something Jan felt was important to have. She hadn’t had it much with Dennis in his declining years. There’d been tension in the air then. And that probably had been what led her to Frank. Frank was a different from Dennis as a man could be.
How could Jan tell her son that it wasn’t just the sexual allure of the younger men—although it certainly was partially that. It was at least partially his father, Dennis. There had been the illness, but Dennis was done with sex before he even reached fifty. And all those years, Jan had stayed faithful to him. But she had never been done with wanting the sex. When Dennis died, she regretted it, yes, but in some ways it was a release. But how could she tell her son that without Rick hating her more for what she had become in his eyes?
Frank had come to the university to give some “first-hand-experience” lectures in the English Department from the perspective of a working actor. Jan had made some dismissive remarks from the audience on modern-day playwrights, and Frank had challenged her to accompany him to some Off-Broadway plays with a discussion to follow on what the playwright was trying to do and how well that had been accomplished.
Jan had been impressed with the seriousness and depth of that discussion.
Dennis had died earlier in the year and Jan had withdrawn into herself, feeling that everyone was just waiting for her to die too—were reacting like her whole life should have been Dennis and she should have thrown herself on his burning funeral pyre, or something. Rick was already off at university himself then, a couple of thousand miles away, and Jan had been left all by herself to grieve and to feel guilty that the last years with Dennis had been rocky, not least because of her own brushes with cancer that led to a full-blown bout of it and endless chemo therapy sessions followed by long weeks of recovery. None of that had helped her disposition or wish to chat much, nor was there any reason why it should have.
And then Dennis had been the one to go instead of her. Jan felt the guilt, half thought that people thought she had cheated Dennis of his life because she was the one who was supposed to die.
Frank had been companionable, which was where their relationship had started. It wasn’t long, though, before Frank had become indispensable. Jan had had another brush with serious illness after she had moved in with Frank, and Frank had been there for her—in ways that Dennis never had—and had stayed by her side. And he had taught Jan to acknowledge her desires and to live her life to the fullest. Which meant that, yes, he was good in bed. And they thoroughly enjoyed each other bed, having given a name to the object they loved sharing.
Jan never did become taken with modern playwrights, though. And the really nice thing with Frank was that this was OK with him. It was only Frank’s tendency to plan out Jan’s days and evenings for her and to always be at her elbow that had put Jan off. Frank got to the point of finishing Jan’s sentences for her, whether she wanted him to or not. It was not only a reminder of how much more quick-witted Frank was, but also marked the drift toward a set marriage, with or without the certificate. Dennis and Jan hit it off well enough when they were younger. It was only when they got to the stage of completing each other’s sentences that Jan had gotten restless.
Of course, the way her mind was going now, Jan thought she’d appreciate having someone complete some of her sentences. It would be interesting to know what she had been trying to say. Sometimes that was a mystery to her now. But the habit hit too soon in Jan’s relationship with Frank. This had contributed to the slight bobble that the entry of Greg into Jan’s life at a vulnerable time had made into a chasm.
In any event, CNN running in the background wasn’t Jan’s idea of a substitute for either Greg or Frank—but it would have to do.
Jan fed Sadie and ate her own breakfast—more slowly than she should, because she was avoiding what she planned to do this morning. After she finished, she took the dishes to the sink, moved the dirty ones to the countertop, squirted some dish detergent into a dish pan, and turned the spigot on.
It hit her while she was doing this that she wasn’t even sure she knew where the city telephone directory was. This was the sort of thing she would have asked Greg about, and Greg would always know where they kept it. Jan padded down the hallway, opening closet doors and looking for the telephone directory. She finally found it on the windowsill in the study, where it was serving a useful purpose of lifting an African violet high enough to catch just the right amount of sun that the finicky plant demanded to flourish.
Apologizing to the plant, she extracted the directory from under it and sat down in her chair in the study, turned the pages to “Retirement Communities,” and started perusing the listings. After an hour, she’d marked some, but none of them explicitly stated that they accepted pets, so she knew she’d have to start making some phone calls. Thankfully, a more welcome chore interceded. She remembered that at the burial she’d gotten the idea to check into whether the effect of major events on a writer’s life heavily influenced something one of the Romance writers she studied wrote, and she put the telephone directory aside and made some notes on that question and scotch taped them to the side of her desktop computer.
She felt a pang of hunger and walked out into the living area, past the spot where Sadie clung to the floor next to Greg’s chair in fitful repose and on in to the kitchen, where she found the water running in the dish pan and overflowing into the sink. Money down the drain.
Jan said a little prayer of thanks that she hadn’t put a stopper in the sink, and then cursed herself under her breath. Between this and flooding the street yesterday, her next water bill would skyrocket. She washed the dishes and then took the rest of the lasagna she hadn’t eaten last night out of the refrigerator, popped it in the oven, and turned the oven on.
She went back to the study and made three phone calls to the retirement homes that looked the best to her. None of them accepted dogs, but one of them made some suggestions on places that might. They all understood her dilemma and agreed that it was a shame that more places didn’t . . . but with the bother and health codes and all . . .
All of this depressed Jan—and tired her out, although she already was pretty washed out from a night with little sleep. She wanted it just to go away. She knew what she needed to do, but nothing was coming easy. She wasn’t used to this. This is the kind of thing Greg was good at—and Frank before him. Jan hadn’t had to do the tough planning and preparation since she had been married to Dennis—and then only in his declining years. This was part of the attraction of the lifestyle she’d gone to after Dennis had died—someone to take care of her for a change.
Why had Greg gone first? He had promised to always take care of Jan.
Jan didn’t want to think about it—she wanted it all to go away. She stood up and walked into the bedroom and laid down on her bed and closed her eyes—wanting all of her problems just to go away, the inevitable future just to evaporate. And she drifted off into sleep.
Jan was dreaming of that day, of the day Greg left her—and she felt close to him. She was moving in her dream toward him and could see his form. The closer she came to him, the more clearly she could see him. She expected him to be beckoning to her, smiling his welcome. But, although nothing was crystal clear to her, she got the impression he was gesturing her away from him—and his made her heart go to lead. Through her dream she heard Sadie whining—that strange little whine that she had used that day Greg died to try to get her attention.
It took Jan a moment to realize she wasn’t dreaming at all—that Sadie was there on the bed, standing over her, nudging Jan with her muzzle, and whining that whine. It wasn’t a dream.
But Jan couldn’t see her all that well. She seemed to be in a haze. A haze of smoke.
Someone was banging on the door. Harold broke through just as Jan, crawling along the floor and coaxing Sadie along with her, reached it.
“Mom. Thank god we tracked you down—and that you’re all right. What happened? How did you get out?”
Ann’s voice was nearly hysterical. It was breathy and she was struggling with every word.
Jan was beyond embarrassment. “How did you find out? How did you know?”
“You had our number down for your emergency contact—secondary after Greg. They called, but they only left the number of the hospital they were taking you to and a sketchy explanation of what had happened—that you’d been in a fire. And then that’s not the one hospital they took you to. What’s the matter? Have you been burned?”
“No, I got out,” Jan said. “The lasagna’s a little crisp, though. And it was just smoke, not a real fire.”
Ann didn’t laugh. Jan had meant to try to take an edge off of her daughter-in-law’s concern, but it wasn’t happening.
“How? How did you manage?”
“Sadie. Sadie woke me up. She saved me.” Then it hit Jan. Where was Sadie? Did she make it out OK? If so, where was she now? Suddenly that was all Jan could think of. Where was Sadie?
“Listen, I gotta go,” Jan said over the phone line. “I’ll call you back. I’ve got to find out what’s happed to Sadie.”
“Mom, Mom. Wait a minute. Mom.”
Jan was shocked back to attention. That wasn’t Ann’s voice. That was her son, Rick.
“Rick,” Jan said, not knowing what else to say.
“Yes, it’s me, Mom. Listen. They said you’d left the stove to burn. You’ve got to come down here. Now. We’ve got to talk. And the guy who called us said you aren’t going to be going back into your condo any time soon. You need to come down here. We’ve got to sort this out. We’ve got to think of something.”
Rick was talking to her. Rick was telling her to come down. “OK, Rick. It’s nothing serious with me; just took in a little smoke, and they wanted me to come into the hospital to test out my lungs. Anybody can make a mistake like this, can forget to do something. Give me a day or two to see what’s up here and I’ll come down. But Sadie—”
“There’s no place for Sadie there now, either, Mom. Put her in a kennel and come on down.”
“I have to find her first.” If she’s still alive, Jan thought. And it’s all my fault, she couldn’t help but adding. She wasn’t ready to admit it to others yet, but she couldn’t hide it from herself.
* * * *
Jan was relieved when she finally tracked down the paramedics who had brought her into the hospital and found out that Sadie had come out of the ordeal fine.
“There was a man there; an older gentleman. He said he was a neighbor of yours and that he’d take your dog until you were able to pick him up. He gave the impression that it would be fine with you—that you and he were good friends.”
“Her, Sadie’s a her,” Jan said, a slight tone of indignation in her voice. She didn’t know why, but she felt that she needed to speak up for Sadie. She was the only family Sadie had.
When she was released from the hospital, Jan called a cab and made a stop at a hardware store to buy a very nice tool box, and then she went on to her condo.
She only made a cursory inspection, because she was anxious to get to Sadie. The damage didn’t look too bad—mainly some repainting, she first thought. And then she got a whiff of the furniture and decided that more would have to happen then just repainting. Maybe she’d have to dump most of it. But then maybe she was going to have to get rid of most of it anyway. She didn’t need to have the inevitability written on the wall for her. She’d known even before the fire; she’d started looking into it. Her forgetfulness was getting beyond serious; she had to face the fact that it was clinical. She needed to be under supervised care.
But there was Sadie to think about. She couldn’t abandon Sadie. Sadie certainly hadn’t abandoned her.
But maybe there was Harold. He had taken Sadie in. Maybe Sadie could go to Harold—and, who knows, he didn’t appear to be an irritating man. Jan cringed at the thought, but maybe Harold would be an answer for what she needed now too. Jan knew she was grasping at straws here, though, and she knew this would be a nasty thing to do to Harold. False pretenses. But, then, he was certainly signaling loneliness. Jan tried to dismiss the thought from her mind. When she looked at him, she didn’t think sex was likely. Harold seemed like a common sense person. He’d be quick to give her the boot when he discovered why Jan had shown interest in him now.
And boy was Jan right.
Harold met Jan at his door, with Sadie on a leash. He’d probably been watching for her. Only one of the two seemed happy to see Jan. Sadie bounced out of the condo door and was all over Jan in welcome. Jan handed the tool box to Harold, accompanied by an apology and a several words of thanks—for the several things Harold had done, not the least being pounding her door down. Then Jan went down on her knees and returned Sadie’s greeting.
Harold stood in the door and watched them, trying to be polite and friendly, but letting his façade slip enough for Jan to know that the excitement she had caused in the neighborhood had also brought out the gossips, who were delighted to fill Harold in on the gruesome arrangements of Jan’s life. Loose woman. Cradle robber. Gold digger. Jan had heard them all whispered, although she thought the last one totally unfair, as Jan had always worked and brought in a good income of her own.
“Uh, thanks, Harold,” she said. “You’re a real lifesaver. Thanks for keeping Sadie for me.”
“It’s what any neighbor would do,” Harold answered. But the way he said it indicated that letting Sadie lay by his door was much more an imposition than screwing a shutter back into the wall or pointing out a needlessly flowing water hose.
“Uh, guess I should be trying to find a roof over our heads for a couple of days—until I can get this all sorted out.”
“Yes, I guess that would be a good idea,” Harold said. “There are a couple of motels over on Pine. That’s where I’d start, if I were you.”
“Yeah, you’re right. And thanks again.”
Jan knew that there wouldn’t be any more neighborly help from Harold, and, in the whole, she was relieved, even though this closed one of the only possible doors of what could be done for Sadie. She knew it had been a long shot anyway.
And Jan clung desperately to the need to save Sadie, Somehow, instinctively, Jan knew that this was linked irrevocably with saving herself.
On her third try Jan managed to find a motel that would succumb to her sob story, and would accept a dog. Then she sat by the phone, calling home repair shops, retirement homes, her travel agent, and, when she couldn’t avoid it any longer, kennels. All the while Sadie slept contentedly at her feet, assured that Jan would take care of her.
It broke Jan’s heart. Jan was getting to the point where she couldn’t take care of herself anymore.
Jan felt so lonely. Sadie wasn’t going to talk to her. She might save Jan and give her some companionship, but Jan needed more. She not only needed someone to keep her from burning buildings down around her ears, she also needed someone to talk to—to stimulate what was left of her brain, to help her fight to keep her brain from going to mush. And a little bit of lovin’ wouldn’t be out of the question either.
Sadie seemed fine where she was—stretched out on the floor between the end of the bed and the console where the TV set was so that she was an immovable barrier to moving around in the motel room.
Jan went to the closet and put on the other set of clothes she’d bought that afternoon, everything else she owned needing a good cleaning to get the smoke out. This other set made her look younger, she thought. It was in brown, and she always liked Greg in brown, although Greg was better looking in blue. Or was it the other way around? No matter, she thought—although it was maddening to be losing memories of Greg this quickly.
She got in the car and drove over to Hudson’s, the discrete bar she and Greg had often gone to in the evenings. Greg had always known just the right thing to do in the evening, what both he and Jan would enjoy doing. She sat outside for a while, getting up the courage to go in. She didn’t even know why she was here, what he expected. But in the back of her mind, she thought of this as another option she had to check out.
When she walked into the place, several of the patrons there, including the bartender, greeted her warmly and passed on their condolences about Greg. She knew their sorrow was genuine. Greg had always lit up the place. He was the one who made friends easily and knew how to cultivate them and keep them. The conversation had always been lively when Greg was there. Certainly, Jan had been treated well and was always included in the conversations, but Jan always wondered how comfortable she’d be here if Greg wasn’t with her—or how comfortable the others would be with her.
Now she got her answer: Not very.
Everyone there was with someone else. And although she was greeted all around, Jan wasn’t invited to sit with any of the couples, or foursomes, which were sitting around at the tables. Everyone was already with someone and was happy with drinking and talking with the one they were with.
Jan sat at the bar for a while and had a glass of chardonnay and watched the people enjoying themselves. A young man, maybe in his thirties, came in and was glad-handed and invited to sit at a table with a couple of other patrons. The place was getting nosier with talk—and laughter—all of it being done by someone other than Jan. And then a young woman, looking to be in her late twenties, came in and was greeted and seated the same way.
Then a guy in his fifties came and got “hi’s” all around, but no invitation to sit at one of the tables and wound up at the bar, down at the other side of it, from Jan. Jan and he exchanged some looks and then a few lines of chitchat—he was nice enough looking—but then a thirty-something woman came in alone and perched at the bar, and the fifties-something guy turned his full attention in this woman’s direction. They too were just chitchatting, though. It didn’t really seem like they were flirting—or shopping.
Jan got the message—got more than one message. This wasn’t really a pick-up bar. It never had been; that’s why she and Greg had been comfortable in the place. Most people came in here already paired and already content with who they were paired with. That was what she and Greg had been. Jan also got the message that she was too old for this. Too old to begin again—and too old for the type of man she gravitated to. She’d known this, of course, but she was looking at all of the options. She had had to check this one out.
She left Hudson’s and got in her car and sat there for several minutes. As she sat there, she saw a man with what looked like a familiar face approach and then go into Hudson’s. Late forties, maybe early fifties. Nice looking. Jan couldn’t place him but somehow thought she should know him. Maybe her memory playing tricks on her again—in either direction, a false positive or a false negative. She had the urge to get out of the car and go back into Hudson’s. But she just couldn’t do it. She knew it was futile, that she would be acting in desperation and false hope. Like so much else in life, Hudson’s had passed her by—just by standing still.
Jan returned to the motel room. Sadie was stretched along the end of the bed now—and she didn’t move when Jan undressed, pulled back the covers, laid down, and pulled them back up to her chin. At least there was that. At least there was that much progress, she thought, as she turned out the light and drifted into a peaceful sleep—made peaceful by that simple little gesture of Sadie’s and Sadie’s gentle snoring, which, if Jan really worked her imagine, she could dream was that of a man in her bed.
The next morning Jan was sitting in the office of a retirement home that had said she could keep Sadie with her. There was nothing attractive about this facility other than that, and they’d only agree to her having Sadie as long as Jan was in independent living—but this was the best that Jan could find. She’d been heartened when she’d approached the facility and saw an old woman sitting and rocking on the front porch with a sleeping and purring cat curled up in her lap. It sounded like the woman was purring too. This would be enough for her, Jan thought. She could close her eyes to the rest. Having Sadie beside her would be enough. And, with luck, Sadie would go before her and she wouldn’t have to worry about who would take care of the dog. Her going about ten minutes after Sadie did would suit Jan fine.
What Jan couldn’t count on, realistically, though, was Sadie going before Jan had to move from independent to assisted living. Her father had had Alzheimer’s. Jan had to acknowledge that she feared that was her road as well—and that the drive there was faster than she possibility could hope.
But it was a stopgap. There was an outside chance there would be something down where Rick and Ann lived. But Jan didn’t want to do that. She didn’t want to impose herself on them now. Maybe earlier when she could pull her own weight and didn’t promise to be so much of a burden. But she would see. She’d fly down there for a few days and see. Sadie would have to put up with a kennel for a few days, sad to say.
From this point Jan—and Sadie too—would have to live from day to day, trying to make the best of it. They only had each other.
“You can’t be going back already, Mom. You just got here. We need to find someplace around here for you to live.”
Ann was still doing most of the talking. Rick was still sitting somewhere in the vicinity, but not really there. And that made all of the difference to Jan. Jan wouldn’t have come down at all if Rick hadn’t gotten on the phone and told her to do that.
It had all gone OK between Jan and Rick for maybe the first two hours. Rick had tried to be reasonable and welcoming, but it just wasn’t a go. He was steeped in it, the resentment. And Jan could well understand he would be. But none of it had been either Frank’s or Greg’s fault either. Jan didn’t care if Rick went after her, but carping on Frank and Greg just couldn’t go undefended. It didn’t matter that in trying to rekindle a relationship with his mother, Rick was avoiding putting the blame where it belonged and was scapegoating with the men Jan had loved and lived with out of wedlock. Over the first day, Rick became more and more remote, retreating into the shell he’d been in for years now in relation to his mother, and was less and less adamant about Jan moving down near him.
And now, by the morning of day two, it was obvious that there wasn’t any place for Jan here—let alone for Sadie. The apartment was small and in an urban area. There was no place to walk Sadie and no place for her bedding here. And no place for Jan here. Jan could feel the tension in the air. She couldn’t do this to Rick and Ann. She’d known she had to get back on the plane almost as soon as she’d gotten off it.
“I’ve signed papers for a home up there. I think I should give it a try. It would be wonderful if you’d do a little checking around here—for someplace that will take a dog and would pledge a no-kill placement for when I’m gone. Maybe that would work out. Staying here, though, wouldn’t work out. I’m sure we can all see that. I don’t want to do that to you.”
Jan looked over at Rick, sitting on the sofa, half watching a basketball game and half tuned to the conversation between Jan and Ann at the dining table. But Rick wasn’t disputing anything Jan was saying.
“Sadie, Sadie, Sadie,” Ann said, in exasperation. “Sadie and Frank. That’s all you can talk about. Sadie isn’t your dog—not really.”
“I am Sadie’s human. I’m responsible for Sadie. And Sadie saved my life,” Jan said stubbornly. She was trying her best to keep her cool. They just seemed not able to understand. To them Sadie was just a dog. That was one reason Jan didn’t want to be here when she died. She loved her son and daughter-in-law, but she simply couldn’t entrust them with the well-being of Sadie after she’d gone. She’d just have to find some arrangements of her own back home—someone she could trust not to abandon Sadie.
And then the rest of what Ann had said hit her. “Frank? What’s this about Frank? I haven’t been talking about Frank.”
“Yes, you have, Mom,” Ann said. “You’ve been talking about Sadie and Frank the entire time you’ve been here. Not about Greg—but I can understand that. About Sadie this and Frank that.”
“She’s right,” Rick chirped in from the other room.
“Why, I don’t think I’ve mentioned Frank,” Jan said. “I haven’t even been thinking about him.”
“I think you have, Mom,” Ann said. Her voice went quiet and serious. “And I think that’s the problem we’ve been dancing around. You’re getting forgetful. You’re repeating things without seeming to know you’ve already said them.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Jan said. She did, in fact, know so. She just didn’t realize it was that obvious. This was her own personal hell. She didn’t know it was so apparent. They’d been good about accepting her explanation of the condo fire. They hadn’t shown any suspicion of what she knew—that she was losing her mind and that this was what had caused the fire.
“At the funeral, Mom,” Ann said quietly, “At Greg’s funeral. How many time do you think you asked if it was right to bury him in a brown suit?”
“Oh, I don’t think I would have asked anything like that,” Jan said.
“Three for four times, Mom. You asked it three or four times—and each time you made it sound like it was a new thought. I knew then, Mom. The stove fire in your condo just confirmed it.”
“I knew before that, honey,” Jan said, finally giving up the fight. “That’s why I’ve been looking into retirement homes. But I can’t just abandon Sadie. I’ve got to set something up for both of us. And I don’t want to give her up if I don’t have to. I can’t do that to her. It isn’t just that she was Greg’s dog; she saved my life.”
Ann stood and reached out to the kitchen counter and took a tissue from a box and blew her nose. She turned from Jan then and Jan could see her shoulders quake.
“It’s hard on all of us, honey,” Jan said gently. “I haven’t been much of a presence in your and Rick’s life and it isn’t a very good time to impose.”
“You’re not imposing, Mom. You’re family.”
“But I’m not crazy yet, Ann. I’m trying to work it out. Let me try. You look around at homes near here—if I come down here, I will have made other arrangements for Sadie—just give me a little time up there to see what can be worked out.”
Ann didn’t answer—but she didn’t argue either. Jan looked over to her son, sitting on the sofa and staring into the TV set. She could see that Rick’s shoulders where quaking as well.
Jan was sitting on her favorite park bench, Sadie sitting at her side, her tongue hanging out and panting, both enjoying the early fall briskness in the air. The condo was still being refurbished, but Jan had it on the market. She knew she wouldn’t be going back there, and that was a relief, really. There were too many memories of Greg there.
They were still in a motel. Jan didn’t move into the retirement home for another two weeks. She had had to sit on the waiting list for a month, but it was a miracle it wasn’t longer than that. Even that facility had a restriction on how many residents could have pets. And Sadie was probably too big for their rules—they were bending over backward to accommodate her; Jan couldn’t push them. But she had been very persuasive. She was proud that she had managed that by herself. Maybe she could do more for herself than she had permitted herself to believe she could as long as Frank and then Greg were around to take care of her.
“Hi. Mind of I join you?”
Jan looked up. The voice sounded familiar and so was the face, but she couldn’t quite place it. While she was still searching her brain for clues, her mouth formed the words. “Hello yourself, Frank. Yes, I’d be pleased for you to join me.”
That’s just exactly the sort thing her mind was starting to do to her. her mind knew it was Frank. It just neglected to make that clear to the Jan, who, increasingly, was becoming a different, separate being from her mind.
“Fancy meeting you out here,” Frank said. He reached over and scratched Sadie’s ear, and she gave a little whine—a whine of happiness this time—and she put a paw and muzzle in Frank’s lap, inviting him to continue the scratching, which he did. Sadie liked men as much as Jan did.
“Yes, this is my favorite place to think,” Jan said. “As you well know,” she continued. “And I have a lot of thinking to do.”
“World weighing heavily on you, Jan?”
“You could say that. Sadie and I are moving to a retirement home in a couple of weeks.” Jan said it almost as a challenge, almost as if Frank had walked out of her life just yesterday and would be shocked to know that Jan was old enough to be moving into a home. There was a difference in their ages, but nothing like there had been between Jan and Greg. Jan mentioning the onset of old age could be expected to give Frank a pang of discomfort for his own advancing years.
“You don’t say.”
“Yes, I’m retired now.”
“I know. I’m teaching at your university now myself. Same department. Modern playwrights.”
They shared a little laugh over that. Such amusements had always been a comfortable sharing between the two of them.
“And Greg . . .” Jan didn’t know if she was moving on shaky ground here. She wanted Frank to stay here, talking to her for a while. She didn’t want him to get mad and leave. Jan desperately wanted someone to talk to, someone who knew and understood her, someone like Greg—or like Frank. “. . . Greg is gone now. He died. Two months ago.”
“I know that too,” Frank said softly. “I was there . . . at the service and the burial―both.”
“Oh,” Jan said. And then she looked closely at Frank again. Yes, yes, she knew now that Frank had been there. The middle-aged man standing apart from the others at the cemetery, not appearing to belong to any of the other clumps of people standing about.
“You didn’t . . .”
“I didn’t want to intrude. It wasn’t the best of circumstances to reappear. But I wanted to be there. I know what he meant to you—that he was good for you. I wanted to be there. For you.”
“Thank you,” Jan said. “You were good for me too, Frank. You were always good to me.”
“Not always,” Frank answered. “I know now that I crowded you too much. I don’t blame you that you moved on. But I felt a great loss then.”
“But you never—”
“It was lonely . . . without you.”
“Me too,” Jan said. “That’s the worst, maybe. The loneliness once someone is gone. I went to Hudson’s the other day. But . . .”
“You did? I did too . . . out of loneliness. But I felt more alone in there than outside. We may just have missed each other.”
“Yes, we may have,” Jan said. A line of enquiry to check out with Romance writers, she thought. Narrowly missed connections that had an impact on their later writing. She’d have to remember to jot that note down somewhere so that it didn’t slip away from her—and maybe look into unexpected events that also influenced them later too.
“You know, I tried the conventional route,” Frank said. “I married an actress. Not something I’d recommend. Breaking that up had more reasons than my still carrying the torch for someone else . . . and her liking women, but not really liking anyone better than herself.”
“Don’t be. It was a grand experiment. And it helped me immensely in convincingly playing the jilted husband in a string of Broadway successes after that. I had my name in lights, you know.”
“Yes, I know. I read the Times.”
“Do you now?” Frank’s voice sounded pleased. “You and Greg made a dashing pair, you know. I sort of kept track of you too. He was a handsome devil. Looked really good in that brown suit there at the last, at the viewing.”
“You think so?” Jan asked. “You don’t think he would have looked better in blue?”
“No, the brown was perfect.”
Jan wasn’t sure that Frank could have said anything to please him more. But then he proceeded to do just that.
“Sadie’s a nice dog, Jan. If you ever need someone to take care of her, give me a ring. I live nearby. I can bring her to the park. She seems to like it here.”
Jan couldn’t readily come up with a response to that. All of a sudden, weeks of tension seemed to be flowing out of her body and her eyes were tearing up.
“In fact, Jan, I’d kind of like to have Sadie come live with me now. I think we’re bonding here.” And, indeed, Sadie looked like the petting Frank was giving her was better than sex.
“Excuse me?” Jan managed to say.
“But I’d have one proviso, something that could be a deal breaker. A hard requirement.”
“And what’s that?” Jan’s hopes deflated as fast as they had inflated.
“You’d have to come with her. I’ve got a pretty big house. And I’m lonely rattling around in it. I need a companion . . . and a dog.”
“Frank.” Jan’s voice was strangled. “Frank, you don’t want to do that. I’m going crazy. I sometimes can’t remember anything but what’s in front of my face on a given day.”
“Aren’t we all, Jan . . . going crazy that is. And I rather fancy being in front of your face every day.”
“Frank, I can’t impose . . . I can’t ask . . .”
“It’s my idea, not yours, Jan. It would be more for me than for you. And I want to have your dog. And I won’t take her unless you come along.”
“But I’m going into a home in two weeks. I’ve paid a deposit.”
Jan sat there, dumbfounded, while Sadie almost climbed up into Frank’s lap and started licking his cheek.
“And I lied about wanting a companion,” Frank continued. “I do want that, yes, but I want a lover too.”
Jan blushed up at that. “Frank, when I die, will you do something for me—I mean something more than make sure Sadie still has a good home—if she’s still here then?”
“Sure, anything,” Frank said, smiling a little smile in relief now, knowing that this was Jan’s capitulation to his proposal. The negotiation had been particularly delicate; it was Frank asserting his will again. That had spelled disaster before. But now, knowing how dangerous the edge of that was, there was a good chance it wouldn’t happen again.
“I’d like to be cremated—and separated into three. You and Greg and Dennis. I can’t choose, and I don’t want to worry about it anymore.”
Frank said nothing other than a simple “yes.” Even though Jan was rambling, Frank knew exactly what she was asking, and he felt a thrill inside, as ghoulish as it was, that he was one of the three.
“You won’t leave me, will you? Not the way Greg did.”
“I’ll try not to. That’s as much as I can promise. I think you know that.”
Jan nodded her head. It was a good answer. As good as she had a right to expect. She continued sitting there in silence for several minutes, something trying to rise up in her mind, something that seemed important. A question she had. She hadn’t quite surfaced it, when her mouth formed the words, supported by the necessary breath for delivery. “But how did you find me, Frank? How did you know I’d be here?”
“You don’t know, do you?” Frank said. “He didn’t tell you, did he?” He was wearing a tremulous smile. He stopped petting Sadie with one hand and reached over and touched Jan’s arm. Jan shuddered at the touch. It didn’t matter how old she was; she was still capable of shuddering at Frank’s touch, melting to him, wanting him.
“Rick. Your son, Rick, called me, Jan. He said that you needed me, and he begged me to come for you—and for Sadie too. He said you both needed me; said he wanted to meet me too. It was a nice thought, but he didn’t have to beg me. I would have come anytime I knew you needed me. Anytime since the day you left me.”
He paused then, both of them struggling for control of their emotions.
But then, being the Frank she knew, he twisted the tail of if. “But it’s the dog I’m really after, you have to understand. It’s not you and me I want to save—it’s Sadie.”
Jan was beside herself; she didn’t know whether to cry at the poignancy of what Frank had just told her or laugh at his joke about really being after Sadie. So she did both at once. Frank had always been able to move her to both tears and laughter at the same time.
“But, you know, I’m surprised. You haven’t asked,” Frank then said.
“Asked? Asked about what?” Jan said.
“Asked about Peter. Asked how he’s doing. If he stands at attention.”
Jan reddened up, still having enough memory left to remember what they’d always referred to as Peter in their lovemaking—as if it had a life of its own.
“In case you are still interested, Peter is doing just fine. And misses you and would like to be inside you as soon as I can get you up from this park bench and home.
Jan did laugh at that. A long, lusty, on-the-journey-back-to life laugh.