While Marilu did her laps in the snow globe I sat down on my rocker and tried to match my breathing to the rhythm of the chair’s runners. I was having an episode. That’s what they like to call them, those doctors, episodes. My heart was beating so hard, it felt like it was punching itself into my arm. My arm responded like a pastry bag, squeezing ribbons of blood and veins into my fingertips. I only had a few Nitro tablets left and I didn’t want to waste them if I didn’t have to. So I sat back, rocking, and watched the water around Marilu’s body part like strands of hair as she swam from side to side.
I could tell about a week ago that Marilu was getting antsy. She was upset. Her legs were getting heavy, and that was her best feature, her legs. When she first came out she was twenty years or so younger, but she aged very quickly. I hadn’t counted on that. I just kind of figured she’d stay just as she was, young and sinewy. Normally, I’m guessing, you wouldn’t notice someone gaining that much weight, but she was so small, every extra fleck of matter showed up on her. She started crying to me; “Look what you’ve done to me, you old bastard!” She would sit gathering her legs her chest like a child nuzzling a beloved doll and cry. It really got to me. “You old fuck sick bastard.” Screaming, crying, carrying on. It killed me when she said such things. I never wanted her to hate me. I never intended for this to happen.
I grabbed on the shelf near the window for the biggest snow globe in my collection. I got the idea from some kids’ toy I’d seen on TV, some doll that came with her own swimming pool. I took out an x-acto knife and sliced open the thin plastic wall that trapped the snowy water around Atlantic City. I loved this one. I got it when Emma and I took our last bus trip to the casinos. It was shaped like a wine bottle tipped on its side, with the whole back done up in bright colors. And it was big enough that you could make out all the big casinos on the boardwalk.
That was a great trip. Only a day trip, but we had lots of fun. Emma loved to go to Caesar’s. We didn’t really gamble much. Sure, we’d pull a couple of slots, mostly the nickel slots, but every once in a while I’d hand her a five and ask, “What’s your favorite color, honey? Red or black?” and she’d just laugh and say, “Go with the color of my heart, Isaac.” And I’d say, “Which color is that?” And she’d just tap my chest and say, “Oh, Isaac, the red one!” She always had such a pretty smile. I’d do anything just to see her smile.
I was always too poor to take her anywhere. And it was such a shame. If ever there was anyone who would’ve loved to travel it would have been Emma. She was always watching those travel shows on public TV and cutting out pictures from the women’s magazines and putting them on the refrigerator door. She called them her postcards. We’d pretend that we’d gone there and sent back postcards so we’d have something to remember our trip. Always broke my heart doing that, but I never told her. I never wanted to ruin her fun.
Every time I heard Marilu using that horrible language I knew it was my punishment for not being able to give Emma everything she deserved. The Lord works in mysterious ways sometimes, doesn’t He? I thought if only I’d find a way to make it up to Marilu, if only I could get her to stop her yelling, maybe I’d find some peace. I knew Emma wouldn’t’ve minded my cutting up one of her snow globes to make someone else a bit happier. It was the kind of thing she’d have done herself.
The water inside the bottled Atlantic City was blue and filled with those paint chips that made it seem like the sky was falling every time you shook it. I took a tack and made a few pricks first on the top of the globe and let the water drip out like all the tears I would’ve cried across my days if the good Lord had made me more of a man. It took longer than you might think to drain it out-such a small amount of liquid. I watched all the water stream into the sink, making marks like marble on the white bowl. For some reason it had just seemed too cruel to me to slice into the globe if even one drop of its water had been left in there.
Marilu kept crying something awful. If I could’ve saved all of her tears and the spit that she tried to get at me all the time I’m sure I could’ve had enough for her little body to swim around in. But I wanted to surprise her with this swimming pool of sorts, so no matter what she shouted, and how she shouted! “What the hell are you doing in there, you old bastard!” seemed to be her favorite thing to yell lately, I never told her what I was doing. I thought that maybe she’d think that it was all a dream. It’d be better for her this way.
I finished slicing a square through the top of the globe; using an x-acto knife was like trying to cut through a steak with a toothbrush. Tedious work. Then, I used a candle to try and melt the sharp edges a bit. There was no sense in her hurting herself. We had some crazy glue still left in the medicine chest from when Emma would do up her nails when they broke, and I took that out, and some dento-tape, too. I made a loop on one end of the dento-tape and glued the other end to one corner of the open square. This way, if I wasn’t around, or if the pains got real bad, Marilu could pull herself out of her swimming pool.
That seemed so long ago, when she started swimming. At first she thought I was trying to torture her or trap her inside that globe. “Crazy senile sicko, you think I’m just going to willingly go in there?” She yelled when I first showed her the pool. I left it on the side of my night table near my bed and waited to see what she’d do. My heart had started up with those angina pains, so I just kept real quiet on my rocking chair and concentrated on taking deep breaths. There were only three more nitroglycerin pills left, and I couldn’t afford to waste any of them unless it got really bad.
“I don’t know what sick thing you’ve got in mind here, old man,” Marilu ridiculed, “but you can forget about it.” It hurt me that she still thought I was out to torture her. She had such a pretty little body, even if it was aging so quickly. She reminded me of Emma-I’d never hurt her, why couldn’t she see that?!
“It’s a gift for you,” I started to tell her. I spoke slowly, so that she wouldn’t hear how hard it was for me to talk. I didn’t want to frighten her anymore. “You can swim in it and get your legs back to their pretty shape,” I said. “I made it for you. It’s a gift.” But she just looked at me and paced around the bottle a few more times.
“Well how the hell am I supposed to get in this thing?” she wanted to know.
I hadn’t thought of that. It was hard to get up. My legs were so heavy. I could feel the fluid in my chest running down, thick, slow and heavy like ketchup in a bottle. In one of the drawers in the night table I still had Emma’s women’s magazines. I stacked them up and spread them out to make a ramp for Marilu and then went back to my rocker. She hesitated, but eventually walked up the magazine ramp and went to the edge of her little pool.
“What’s this cord here for?” she wanted to know.
“My heart’s not too good. And I can’t move too fast. It’s just in case you get tired, and I can’t get there quickly enough to get you out.”
“Oh.” she paused then looked away. “Thanks.” It was the first time she smiled at me. She seemed embarrassed or maybe she was feeling shy. It reminded me of the first year Emma and I were married. She’d always look at me that way in the morning after we’d made love.
“I’m doing better, aren’t I, Isaac?” she’d ask. She was such an angel; she’d always wanted to please me. We were married for forty-seven years and I was the only man she’d ever been with.
“I just don’t want to hurt you, Angel. I hate to see that look on your face.” It seemed like whatever I was doing it was always hurting her. But she loved me anyway.
“What are you dreaming about, old man! I’m freezing here. Don’t you ever think about anyone but yourself? Get me a towel before I catch my death here!” Marilu shook my thoughts back from my memory like the flakes of snow that once lined the bottom of her little pool. I went to the cupboard and got out a tea towel. It wasn’t an especially good one. I don’t think Emma would’ve minded my cutting it up. I cut some strips for a bathmat, hair towel and some larger ones for body towels and took them back to the night table.
“I hope this is ok. I’m going to go in the other room and give your privacy. Just leave your wet clothes on the side and we’ll see about them later.”
“I’m not undressing for you or doing whatever sick thing it is you have in mind, old man. Old bastard,” She hissed under her breath.
“First of all, I want you to stop using this terrible language, no lady talks like that. And second of all, my name is Isaac, not ‘old man’. I know I’m an old man, you don’t have to keep telling me that. That’s been very obvious to me for a long time. Now, I’m going to walk into the other room for a few moments. Holler if you need anything. I know you know how to holler.” I said walking into the other room before she had a chance to say anything else. I didn’t want to get any more upset that I already was.
“You take these tablets and put them under your tongue until they dissolve,” the visiting nurse from social services had told me. They sent out a nurse from the county every couple months to check on me, to see if I was still taking my medicine, to check my pressure, things like that. Sometimes they sent out a dental student to check my dentures or a podiatrist to cut my nails and toenails. That was always the worst. Those kids sit there and they look at your hands and feet like you’re some kind of criminal because you can’t cut your own nails. Every time I want to shake my fist at them, I used to be a tailor! I used to make stitches as tight and tiny as the spray of freckles across Emma’s shoulders in the summertime.
I can still hear their internal voices when they looked at my fingers, bent like sidewalks, and my nails thick as pecan casings. I’ll never let that happen to me, they seem to assure themselves silently. If only they knew.
“When it starts to melt, it goes right into your blood stream, and it’ll calm your heart. I know these episodes are frightening for you, but if you concentrate on your breathing and let the Nitro work, the episode should stop. You just call me if you need a refill on this.”
At first I tried to do without those pills altogether. Once they start you on those pills, that’s the end. It’s off to the home. And once you’re there, you might as well be dead. I never put my Emma in one of those places, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to end up there myself. I knew if I kept asking for refills on the pills that they’d start to think I couldn’t take care of myself and they’d make me go to one of those homes.
“Isaac!” I heard Marilu shouting, “Isaac, what are you deaf, too, old man?”
“I told you to stop calling me old man, didn’t I? I’m just slow, for God’s sake.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again with that embarrassed look. Except, this time she wasn’t smiling.
“I sure hope you don’t treat your father this way. How would you feel if someone talked to one of your parents this way?”
“Don’t scold me like I’m some child, Isaac.” She said with one hand on her terrycloth-wrapped hip.
“And don’t you order me around like one, either. Especially when, if you’ll notice, I’m the one who’s doing everything for you.”
I took Marilu and placed her in my front pocket, that way I could still use my one hand on the cane and place the other one against the wall to steady myself as I walked. She was really quiet. I felt her crouch down in my pocket, waiting for our next destination.
My apartment was small. It didn’t really matter, though, since I’d sold almost everything to pay off Emma’s medical bills. Poor thing, she hadn’t been sick too long. Near the end, when she looked at me with that pretty smile, but there were no memories behind it, just those blank eyes, I knew it was better to just let her go. I sold our house, which always smelled like her, in every room lingered the freesia scent of her hand lotion. Each doorknob as I grabbed it, each drawer as I pulled it open, wafted up a vapor and a memory.
Eventually I moved into an apartment in the city. It was really only one room with a junior bedroom attached. It’s okay, though, that it’s small. It leaves less room to be lonely.
When we got to the living room, I placed Marilu on a tray table and went back to the bedroom to get the television. I kept it on a long extension cord. It was small enough that I could carry it easily, even into the bathroom. Sometimes I take it in with me and put it on the counter while I have my bath. Other times, when I have pains, I put it in my lap and stroke the static on the screen like the fur on a cat.
“I thought you might like to watch a little television while I use the hairdryer to dry your clothes.” I said.
“Well, I guess if there’s nothing else to do,” Marilu said, sitting cross-legged in front of the screen. Seeing her next the screen made her look even tinier and breakable. I didn’t think she remembered my taking her out from there. She was too calm. The swim had obviously done her some good.
Even though Marilu was in better spirits now, I was still feeling hurt from the first time that I’d met her. That day I’d been having terrible pains, and the breathing exercises the visiting nurse taught me weren’t working. So, I sat down on my crummy sofa, with the length of my back against one of the slats of wood that poked through where the stuffing was worn, and put a Nitro under my tongue. I concentrated harder than I’d ever done before, slowing down my breathing until it matched the hum of the television in my lap. I’d heard somewhere that you could get so relaxed that you’d feel like you were flying. Parts of you would just rise up. I’d never believed a word those teenage-hippies said on TV. I would’ve bet money on it, that all that meditation was just a load of hogwash. I never believed it, but, then again, I never believed that I’d be without Emma either.
I’d just about forgotten about my breathing when my arms slowly started to rise. It all happened like on a TV program: I felt the tickle of the static tease the pads of my fingers, and then I pushed inside the glass like it was nothing more than tapioca pudding. It parted even easier than the good Lord had parted the Red Sea for Moses, I imagine.
I slowly slid one arm out, and watched the rivulets of pixels and echoes of white noise eddy around my wrist, forearm and elbow, forearm, like a sleeves. My hand popped out with a sound almost embarrassing, like when I’d first learned to kiss and pulled back to get some air and made a sucking sound.
It was hard to move with one hand still stuck in the set, but something told me not to let go. I felt around near my lap for the newspaper. My fingers smudged a line, like a stroke of paint down the daytime TV listings. I must have been sweating something awful. I was nervous. I didn’t really know what I was doing.
Marilu wasn’t the first one I took out of the TV set. I wasn’t myself. I was greedy and mean. I took people at random and frightened them. The first couple of grabs were the worst. The studio audience in one program was surprised to see me. They didn’t know what to make of my gigantic arm and groping fingers. I picked up the expert panelist on some talk show about freak home accidents with my left hand, then reached my right hand back into the TV, transferred her, and pulled out again with a pop. She was too stunned at first to notice what had gone on, and just kept on explaining to my cuticles and nails whatever psycho-babble she’d been spewing only moments earlier. Not knowing where to put her, I just grabbed around for whatever was handy. An empty packet of sugar was on the top of the television so I put her inside. She was in such shock she just lay down in it like it was a sleeping bag and promptly fell asleep.
The lady I took out, this psychiatrist, she was on all the TV shows. In real life, she was about the size of a piece of Trident, all the people came out of the TV about that size. I guess mostly because I have a small TV set. Maybe if I had one of those really big ones, then, they’d come out as big as me.
When I looked back at the TV set, I couldn’t stand to watch how everyone in the studio audience was running around. They were shouting and scared and I knew it was my fault. So I just turned the channel. Each time I switched the channel, the static and pixels rose around my arm in splashes. My arm started getting numb, but that actually made it easier for me to hold it up for longer.
Channel forty-two was blurry. It was always blurry no matter where I took the TV set. I could feel the waves of Nitro starting to spittle in my palms and on the pads of my feet, and I knew that I didn’t have much more time. I looked back at my hand, still stuck inside the television and listened to a familiar organ-like theme song. I took the psychiatrist, who was staring at me like I was some zombie, and stuffed her back inside the TV.
The opening credits for the show stopped and there she was, Marilu, the one person I really wanted. She was playing a game of solitaire while a bunch of cabbies fought with a dispatcher and was too self-involved to notice my tremendous arm. I felt a twist-tie on the floor beneath my foot and bent down to pick it up. After twisting a tiny lasso out of it, I slipped it around Marilu’s midriff. She began yelling, “Hey, hey, hey!” over and over, but I ignore her. She popped out very angrily. I knew it would be futile to try to talk any sense into her, so I lifted her up until she was level with my face. She was about the size of a paperclip and still, in her miniature state, so young and beautiful.
“Look,” I said, “I don’t have time to argue with you right now.” Her tiny nails were digging into my index finger like bee stings. I knew I’d have to find a place to put her soon, or I’d drop her. That’d be quite a fall, not one she’d be able to recover from.
I walked into the bathroom and sat on the toilet seat to catch my breath. I put the drain stopper in the sink down and let Marilu tumble to the bottom. She must have been as tired as I was, because she just sat on the metal stopper and shook her head back and forth. It was a good place to let her rest. In fact, I still leave her there in the sink at night, with a couple of socks to soften the surface and a potholder on top to keep her warm. Sometime I watch her sleep.
Emma used to sleep like a little kitten. She’d arch her back until it matched the shape of my stomach and nestle in close to me. She smelled like sleep. When she turned over in bed, a breeze the scent of dreams would drift over to my nose. For a while, after she died, I tried not to wash the sheets or pillowcases, but they stopped smelling the way she used to smell. All I can smell is myself, and all I can think about is that I am alone.
More and more circulars for the new shopping mall down the street were coming in the mail, and I thought it might be interesting to take a walk down there to see what they had to offer. I didn’t want to buy anything, but I figured it’d be something different to do and it would get me out of the house. I asked Marilu if she wanted to join me.
“I’d do anything to get out of this place,” she muttered under her breath. She thought I didn’t hear her, so she just looked up at me and said, “Whatever,” in her usual bored tone that she was using with me these days. I ignored her tone, though. Lately I had started to feel sorry for her. She was looking so tired and much older. In the last week alone she must’ve aged ten, maybe fifteen years. She was always complaining that everything hurt. I gently slid her into my front pocket and stood in front of the mirror. I combed my hair, straightened my collar and headed for the door. The three-pronged cane I liked to use for longer walks was inside the coat closet, and I switched my normal cane for that one. Emma always hated the three-pronged one. She said it made me look like an old man.
Walking down to the stores, I wasn’t really concerned about anyone seeing Marilu. I figured that anyone in their right mind would probably think that it was just some old loony carrying around a doll in his pocket. I’d stuffed a handkerchief in first, so she could sit on it and see out of the top of my pocket. But I also wanted to make sure she was comfortable.
We went into one of those large electronic store chains. Emma would’ve loved it. Rows and rows of washers and dryers and fridges and stoves, all lined up perfectly like desks in a classroom. It was still hard to be around all the kinds of things that she would’ve loved to own.
From one of the far corners of the store came a collage of sounds from the display of radios and television sets. The visiting nurse had told me to be careful exerting myself too much and to stay away from loud noises. They could irritate my situation and bring on an episode, she said. And it seemed that she was right. The closer I got to the TVs and car radios, the more my chest thumped. When I reached the largest TV set, HD Omnivision the display sign said, the pain in my chest was the worst it had ever been. One of the salesmen came over to me to ask if I wanted some water or a chair or should he call an ambulance, but I just waved him off. Marilu also stuck her head up from my pocket to see if I was ok. The way I was breathing in and out, she said, made it seem like there was an earthquake. I told her that I’d be okay. “All I have to do is to slow down my breathing,” I assured her, “and it’ll pass.”
One of the televisions had a big sale sign around its screen resembling a sunburst. It said, “Good prices dawn on us.” My eyes moved around the zigzags of orange and pink and red while I tried to slow down my breathing. Marilu was getting more agitated. Maybe that’s how she acted so I wouldn’t know she was scared. I couldn’t concentrate. Her muffled voice was unintelligible inside my pocket.
“Why don’t you come out of there for a little while,” I said, cupping my palm like a garden shovel. She began pacing back and forth along the white metal shelf below the television. The doily-like pattern of the metal made Marilu look like she was walking on a street paved with giant snowflakes.
“You won’t have to worry so much about me bothering you anymore, Marilu. I’m going to put you back home where you belong,” I said. I took one of my Nitros out of the bottle in my pants pocket and slipped it far back under my tongue.
“Look, I don’t want you doing anything rash right now. I need you to just calm down.”
I began laughing a bit at her. I figure, when I first took her pretty little self out of the TV program I must have looked old enough to be her grandfather. But she’d aged some years herself since that day. Plenty enough for her to resemble a daughter, she surely couldn’t pass for being no granddaughter now. My laughing must’ve upset her because she started walking along the metal shelf even faster. She stopped for a moment and put her hands on the sides of her face like the “hear no evil” monkey.
“Okay, okay. Now, I’m going to count like this,” she said, marking time with her right foot. “One, two three, four,” she chanted. “And every time I get to the four I want you to try to hang on to your breath and skip a beat with your breathing. Can you do that?” Marilu pleaded.
“I can do that,” I said with breath that sounded like a garbage bag being dragged across a sidewalk to the curb.
When Marilu started calming down a bit, I picked her up and let her sit on the curve of my upturned palm. I felt a bit tingly. The sunburst cutout around the TV started to rotate like a whirligig and I knew it was time to let her go. I didn’t say anything to her, thinking it was safer and would be less alarming for her. I couldn’t risk her getting scared that I was going to swat her like fly on the picture tube and I couldn’t chance losing my concentration. With Marilu still quietly chanting beats for me to breathe by, I placed her into the TV screen, palm up, like I was trying to feel rain.
I waited there with my hand awhile, giving her enough time to get used to her surroundings once more. Probably I stayed a few moments because I didn’t want to look at my hand and realize there was no one to hold in it anymore. The Nitro began wearing off eventually, so I pulled my hand out and put it into my pants pocket until the blood began flowing and the pins and needles were gone.
The Omnivision stood in front of me big like a bus shelter. It was almost as tall as me. Some woman on an infomercial stepped to the front of the screen to talk about life insurance. I watched her chest move up and down as she spoke and tried to match her pace. I’d managed to slow down my breathing, but the pain only got worse. So I put my hand in my pants pocket and felt for the bottle of Nitro. The three left I took out and put under my tongue. I closed my eyes, imagining myself in bed next to Emma when we were first married. The curve of her back against my stomach, my left hand around her cupping her breast, her hair tickling my cheek. I breathed deeply.
When I opened my eyes, there she was, Emma, right in front of me, standing where the woman on the infomercial had been. She smiled and winked. I lifted my hand to the set and caressed her cheek. She was young and her face was smooth. She couldn’t have been more than thirty. I closed my eyes and moved my hand back and forth against the screen until my fingertips sank in. As I walked forward, brightly colored pixels broke apart and attached t to my skin like shards in a mosaic. Emma was only inches away, with the brightly painted backdrop of Atlantic City behind her and flakes of shimmery glitter falling around her body. I slowly moved through the wavy blue until I reached her and took a deep breath. She smelled like sleep, like waves of dreams washing over me.