Fiction

Emily Greenlund

APRIL 16, 2020

The yellow house has red trim and large windows facing the street. From the view at the end of the driveway, the windows reflect the branches of the oak tree in the front yard. They look like spiderwebs on the glass, naked and unmoving. The hedges next to the steps are overgrown and the sidewalk is bumpy, tree roots lifting each square. The old woman has learned to step carefully when she’s leaving her house, but these days she leaves so seldomly that she forgets to watch her feet and trips the way she did when she first moved in over forty years ago.

Inside the yellow house, behind the windows that reflect the cars parked on the street outside, the old woman listens to a podcast about Mary Oliver. Mary Oliver is dead now, but the woman is comforted by the old recording of the familiar raspy voice as she reads her poem “The Invitation” aloud. She sips her coffee, watches a woodpecker land on the windowsill next to her. It taps the glass with its beak. She leans over and taps the glass with her pointer finger, a few inches from the woodpecker’s beady eyes. The woodpecker disappears in a blur of red and black feathers, but the old woman presses her lips together in a small smile.

The podcast ends and Mary Oliver is dead again. The old woman uses her elbows to push herself up and then, slowly, she stands up from the chair in the corner of the living room and makes her way into the kitchen. Her slippers make a “shhh” sound on the tiled floor.

In the kitchen, she opens a cabinet next to the refrigerator and pulls out a piece of blank printer paper and three gel pens. Blue, red, and purple are the only three that still work. As she shuffles over to the dining room table, she looks down at them in her hand. She decides that today is her lucky day; red and blue and purple are her new favorite colors.

She sets the paper and pens down on the table in front of her before pulling a chair out and easing herself into it. The mid-morning sunlight casts yellow rectangles on the cherry wood of the table’s surface, and the woman decides she’ll start crocheting a blanket for her granddaughter-to-be when her daughter calls tonight on Zoom. She can’t wait to talk to Charlie and May, if they haven’t gone to bed by then. Three nights ago, Charlie held up a drawing he did of the yellow house. She had to tell him to stop moving so much so she could see the drawing on the screen, but even just catching glimpses of his smile made her swell with pride. He told her, “I can’t wait to come back to grandma camp soon.” She nodded and told him she couldn’t wait for him to come back too. May also made an appearance. Her small face filled up the screen for a few moments, a thumb stuffed in her mouth and her brown eyes filled with sleep, before the old woman’s daughter lifted her onto her lap. She could barely hold May that way anymore because the baby was so close. “Any day now,” her daughter told her through the screen. May wrapped her arms around her mom’s belly. The old woman watched herself on the screen, watched the smile that never seemed to stretch far enough to communicate her love for them. She wasn’t used to seeing herself in real-time.

On the piece of paper, the old woman writes the words that struck her as she listened to Mary Oliver. First she uses blue, then red, then purple, tracing each letter with a shaky hand. She writes in cursive, the way she used to in the letters she’d write to friends after they graduated college and scattered across the country. That was the time before Zoom, and she usually missed the letters but now she is grateful for the intimacy, for the chance to see herself next to her family on the screen.

When she finishes, she carries the paperback through the kitchen and down the hall to her bathroom. Using four of the alphabet mirror magnets she had gotten to help entertain Charlie and May as they brushed their teeth, she places the paper in the center of the mirror over the sink. She stands back and reads it aloud, “It is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in the broken world.”

The old woman smiles at the words, at her loose, shaky handwriting. She is grateful for the steady thumpthumpthump of her heartbeat inside her ribcage. She is grateful for the sunlight, for the woodpecker staring at her through the windowpane, for the caramel coffee and the recording of Mary Oliver’s voice. She thinks of her newest grandchild, just days from entering the world. She decides she will sew those words onto a throw pillow for the baby. She wonders what the world will look like when the baby reaches her own age. She’ll never know, but she hopes Mary Oliver’s words will follow her granddaughter as she ages, that she’ll remember them as the world continues to change shape each time she opens her eyes. She hopes someday soon she can hold her for the first time, and that Charlie and May can run and dance and sing on the carpet in front of her chair like they always had. She hopes for many things, but as she stands in front of the mirror, she lists her gratitudes. She is still breathing, after all, and she doesn’t dare lose sight of her single life, the importance of the simple act of drinking coffee next to the window each morning as sunlight spills out across the kitchen floor.

The apartment building has red bricks. The windows are small facing the street, and each of the thirteen floors has ten windows and five apartments. Across the street, the laundromat is open and two people are inside, one of them behind the desk and the other inserting quarters into a washing machine. Both are wearing cloth over their mouths, and they don’t speak over the sound of a single machine as it spins. The mexican restaurant next door has a sign that reads “Closed until further notice”. So does the smoke shop and the YMCA on the corner.

On the sixth floor, in apartment 6F, a man sits at a desk by one of the small windows. He tilts the screen of his computer up, leaning in so his face can be seen during the conference call but hiding the unmade child’s bed behind him. His boss tells them that the company needs to lay off half of the employees. They can’t afford to pay them at this moment in time, there just isn’t enough work. The man nods blankly at his computer screen. He understands. In the other room, his youngest son begins to yell. A few moments later, the other two boys join in, something about the TV remote, the box of goldfish crackers. The man mutes his microphone, hoping the sound of it doesn’t reach the meeting.

Ten minutes later, the boys have stopped yelling. The man heard his wife open the door across the hall and tell them, “Hush.” He wonders if she was in a session with a client, feels bad for keeping his door closed. He heard her shuffling in the kitchen, imagined her pouring three separate bowls of goldfish crackers and then putting the box on top of the fridge, out of reach. The boys are quiet now, and he can hear the beginning notes of Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go” through the wall. He can hear the youngest boy singing along, imagines them splayed out on the couch with their bowls balanced on their knees. The man stares at his computer screen. The Zoom call has ended, and now he stares at his own reflection in the desktop photo of a starry sky. He knows he should file for unemployment today, right now, but he can’t move yet, doesn’t want to. It’s silly, but he wonders if by remaining motionless in front of the screen, he might delay the reality. He thinks of the electricity bill, the insurance, the car payments, the rent. The boys already share one room, and now they keep their toys in the living room because it’s become his office. He hears himself laugh, but it’s colorless and comes from the back of his throat. The boys can move their toys back, he thinks.

That night, after dinner, the boys are tucked into their beds with books and the door to their room is closed, though the sound of their voices drifts into the kitchen from the crack under the door. The man stands at the sink with soapy hands as he washes the dishes. His wife sits across from him at the table, sipping boxed wine from a yellow and blue plastic cup as she attempts to sort through the bills. She tells him they’ll be okay, and he can tell by her unwavering blue eyes that she means it.

Together, once the dishes are stacked on the drying rack next to the sink, they finish the box of wine. The boys are finally quiet, and the man imagines the oldest underneath his blankets with a reading light, flipping through the pages of “Eragon” or “The Half-Blood Prince” or “The Lightning Thief”. His wife and him sit on the couch with their feet resting on the old coffee table, just their toes touching. Outside, the streets of downtown are eerily still. Tonight, they toast without the “cheers”, though they nod at each other, eyes locked, before lifting the cups to their mouths.

They crawl into bed at 10:30, deciding that the mess of toys in the living room can wait until morning. Before turning in opposite directions, they find each other’s hands under the blankets and squeeze. As the man begins to drift off, he realizes that they forgot to watch the news that day. He falls asleep thinking they should forget more often. He decides he’ll watch a movie with the boys tomorrow, if it’s still snowing outside.

The hospital rises up in the center of the city, skyscrapers with one-way glass reflecting the rainbow tiles of the hospital’s exterior. The dark streets of downtown are empty, but the hospital parking lot is filled with cars. An ambulance coasts into the parking lot and winds around to the Emergency Room at the back of the building, lights flashing but without the usual wailing siren. Finally in the driver’s seat of her car, a woman with dark circles under her eyes watches it disappear around the edge of the building. She considers climbing out again, thinks about her colleagues still inside, about the wild energy in the halls as they rush around under fluorescent lights. As she starts the ignition and backs out of her parking spot, she attempts to convince herself that she’ll be more useful after a few hours of sleep. She knows it’s the truth, but she has to fight to ignore the helpless panic she feels as she leaves the parking lot.

The highway is empty as she drives home. The emptiness is jarring after twelve hours at the hospital. She looks at the dark hills stretching out around the buildings downtown as she drives, thinking about all the lives inside the tiny flickering lights. She wants to pray for them, for all the tiny lights stretching out to the horizon line under a dark, cloudy sky, but she doesn’t know what to say. As she takes the exit that leads into her neighborhood, she decides she doesn’t need to have the words just yet. Nobody has the words.

She unlocks her front door and is greeted with a sloppy kiss from Tucker, her eight-year-old Black Lab. Tucker’s tail thumps loudly against the refrigerator door as she reaches above the fridge and removes a dog treat from the bag. He looks up at her with large tilted eyes as drool pools in the corners of his mouth, and she tosses it to him. She smiles when he swallows the treat whole.

Tucker’s toenails click on the hardwood floor as he follows her down the hall. She brushes her teeth in front of the bathroom mirror. She thinks she’s never looked so drained of life. Tucker sits on the bath mat next to her and waits.

Finally, she slips through the door and into her bedroom. She doesn’t turn on the lights and she barely has the energy to take her clothes off. She leaves them on the floor next to Tucker’s bed, where he curls up and rests his nose on his front paws.

After setting an alarm for 5:00 AM, she slides under the covers. For a few seconds, her husband wakes up. He presses himself against her back and rests his scratchy chin on her shoulder. “I love you,” he tells her. She tells him she loves him, too, and then she falls asleep.

In the morning, her husband brings her coffee as she forces herself to sit up in bed. As she drinks from the mug, blinking sleep from her eyes, he tells her about his classes. He says his fifth graders are starting to get the hang of online learning, that they’ve been talking more on Zoom than they ever did in the classroom. She listens with a sleepy smile as he tells her about a few of them, the ways they’ve managed to make construction paper maps of Mesopotamia and do presentations online, how one of the shy kids has actually been making the entire class laugh. This is the only time they get to talk these days.

She lets herself wish she could stay home for a few moments, and then she climbs out of bed. As she leaves the house again in the dark at 5:30 AM, she kisses Tucker’s nose and promises him another treat when she gets home tonight. She climbs into her car and starts the ignition, backs out of the driveway, merges back onto the highway. The hills around the city are still dotted with lights, though the first hints of the sun are turning the edges of the horizon a pale yellow. Once again, she thinks of all those people, tucked away behind the windows of their houses. She still doesn’t have the words, but she decides that just thinking about them is enough.

She enters the hospital again, has her temperature taken and scrubs her hands with antibacterial soap, puts on a mask. As she begins another day, she doesn’t let herself think about how long this might last. Instead, she thinks about one task at a time, about only the patient she’s with in each moment. She thinks about Tucker, about the fifth grade class and their construction paper maps. She thinks about the tiny lights disappearing into the horizon, about all the people staring at their computer screens as another day dawns. She doesn’t have the words.