The Good Life _     _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _  Mark and Rebecca Spencer

 

 

EIGHTEEN

 

     Rose's bed is a mess of blankets piled and tangled and twisted.  Stacked all around the bed like a low wall are supermarket tabloids.  Their bold-lettered headlines shriek claims about spacemen and vampires, about movie stars being unfaithful to their spouses and dead people not really being dead.  If you're famous, you never die, these papers imply.  One headline says, "ELVIS DANCING WITH MADONNA."  There's a blurry picture of a balding man dancing with Madonna, who has her head turned away from him and thrown back in hysterical laughter.  She has on a cocktail dress, low cut so that her breasts are almost fully exposed. 

     I look around at the chaos of this room and feel tears well up.  I look back at the picture of the bald man and Madonna.  The subheading under the picture says, "It was the thrill of my life."  It's not clear who said it--Elvis or Madonna.

     If a Catholic had lived in this house, the niche in the hall would hold a statue of Mary.  I suppose that Rose stayed a Methodist after her divorce.  Her divorces.  It doesn't really matter.  My mama and daddy were Baptists, so I was, too, of course.  I was never allowed to dance.  The day I joined up with the Methodists I said to Meg, "Now I guess I can dance." 

     When Meg lay dying the last week of her life, unconscious all but a few minutes a day, I sat by her bed, holding her hand, talking to her as though she were listening attentively, trying to convince her that her life had been good, worthwhile, trying to convince myself that I had no great reason to feel guilty, that I had not failed her. 

     "I'll make you happy," I had said on a chilly March night.   I was twenty years old and proposing marriage on her front porch after bringing her home from a Sunday night service at the Methodist church.  That was when Reverend Peabody was alive, a little man who looked like a dried up apple--shrunk, wrinkled,

and red.  Meg and I had held hands the whole night.  I hadn't heard a word Reverend Peabody said. 

     Now on her porch Meg was shivering, her arms crossed, her teeth chattering a little.

     I looked at the clear night sky, then back at Meg.  "So will you marry me?"  I said.

     She nodded and said, "It's awfully cold, Fowood.  I need to get inside."  

     I took her nod as a "yes," but the next morning I was feeding my daddy's hogs, wearing a grin, I'm sure, when suddenly I was hit by the thought that her nod had really been only a shiver.  She had said nothing in response to my proposal, except that she was cold.  I was a fool.  I had lain awake all night, thinking of her, of our future, and now I realized I was a fool.

     I had to drive sixty-five miles to Cincinnati for my college classes, but I ran inside my parents' house, cranked the old telephone, told the operator in Peebles I wanted Meg and her mother's place.

     After half a dozen long rings, her mother answered in her tired, soft voice.  Meg's mother took in ironing and clerked part-time at the Five-and-Dime in Peebles.  She was only in her mid-forties, but her hair was completely white.  She said Meg was in the bathtub. 

     I said, "Get her out.  You've got to get her out.  Please."

     I waited and waited until Meg picked up the phone.  "It's me.  Fowood Anderson," I said. 

     "What's wrong, Fowood?" 

     "Remember last night?  I asked you to marry me?  Well, you didn't really say anything."

     "Fo--"  Then she had a coughing fit.

     "I promise I'll make you happy."

     She blew her nose, then said,  "I think we'll work good together."

     "Are you saying yes?"

     "Yes."

     "Are you sure?"

     "Yes.  But I'm standing here dripping, and I'm freezing, so --"  She started coughing again. 

     She would be sick in bed for two weeks after this.  She came close to having pneumonia. 

     "If you're sure, then okay.  I'll make you happy.  I will, I promise."

     Three times, I said it in the process of proposing.  Then forty-three years later, when she was on her death bed, I tried to convince myself I had kept my promise.  I reminded her of how most years our crops had been good.  I mentioned lucky things that had happened to us--tax refunds, gifts from relatives and friends, vacation trips to the Smoky Mountains and Niagara Falls and Nashville .  I reminded her that Nick was a loving child.  I tried to make her laugh over the antics of various animals we'd

owned--a rooster that went through the gestures of crowing but was mute, a lazy hound dog that loved to eat pickles.

     It was a life full of success and humor and love, I wanted her to believe.  Throughout that last week, she would nod her head occasionally but seldom spoke, never cracked a smile. 

     It strikes me now that an awfully lot of people are dead.  Meg.  Mama.  Daddy.  Rose.  The list goes on--friends, relatives, enemies.  Endless as the sky.

 

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