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He let himself in by the back door. Josie was there in the kitchen, waiting at the table with her hands strangely idle in her lap.
“Martin?” she said. “Back already?”
“Clean bill of health,” he said.
She looked up with a smile so benign it seemed she had not worried at all.
“Clean bill of health,” he said again, louder. “And the doctor gave me a refill of the blood-pressure pills.”
“That’s fine,” she said. “That’s just fine, then, isn’t it?”
He stood without taking his jacket off. He put one hand in the front pocket. “I thought I’d go down to the hardware store, and I want to bring you along with me. We can stop for lunch afterwards; how about that.”
She made no move to get up. “You can go without me,” she said. “I’m not very interested in the hardware store.”
“I want to get us a new alarm clock for the bedroom. This made me think of it,” he said, and from his jacket pocket he took a folded page torn from a magazine. “I was reading an article in the waiting room. I found some interesting information.” He unfolded the page, bending it back along the creases so it would lie flat on the tabletop.
“ ‘Electricity and Aging,’ ” she read over his arm.
“It describes how certain kinds of electricity are probably responsible for cell death. And also for cancers. It gives the list down here, see, with percentages.”
She examined the chart. He pointed to the numbers.
“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” she said. “There’s just too much information being published all the time.”
“Yes,” he said, “but this has the ring of truth.”
“Even so, people can’t live without electricity. Not modern people like us.”
“That’s not what I’m saying. That’s not what the article says. Don’t be obtuse, now.” He pushed the page closer to her, but she was done with it. “The article is only offering some easy suggestions that might make a difference in the long run. Like for example,” he said, pointing to the chart. He underscored it with his middle finger. She looked, then looked away. “It points out the places where people like us spend the most time near an electrical current. And here are some easy ways to cut down on unnecessary exposure. That’s all it is, Josie. That’s all I’m talking about.”
“It sounds like a scare tactic.”
“By who? For what? The alarm-clock monopoly?” He smiled, but she did not.
“I don’t know, Martin. But when I read this kind of thing I feel like I’m being bullied.”
“Look,” he said, tapping with his finger on the page. “It’s all about the currents, which are a physical fact. And we’ve got that old digital alarm right there—right where we sleep at night, and it’s only inches away from your head. So why don’t you just come with me to the store and at least take a look at the wind-up clocks.”
“Wind-up clocks!” she said. “Wind-up clocks are not convenient. That’s why mankind invented electric ones.”
“Look,” he said again, sharply, and then got up and left the room.
She waited. He came back carrying the digital alarm from their bedroom. The loose cord trailed behind him on the floor.
“Look,” he said. He was reading from the back panel. “120 volts, 60 hertz, five watts. I wouldn’t know what the exact risks are, but 120 volts seems like a lot to be sleeping next to for half your life.”
“I don’t really want to think about it,” she said. “I don’t share your morbid fascination. I mean, we’ve been lucky, haven’t we? We’ve made it through our lives this long, and we don’t have cancer.”
“Not that we know of, anyway,” he said.
“Martin,” she said. “That’s terrible. Shame on you for saying that.”
“Well, aren’t you worried about your headaches?”
She put one hand up to the site of a flickering, ongoing headache, unrelieved by over-the-counter medications.
“I’m certainly not going with you now,” she said. “You’re being a jackass.”
He went alone to the store. She stayed for some time at the table. Then she stood up with the intention of going into the laundry room, remembering a task that she had wanted to finish there among the folded towels. Maybe a button that needed sewing. But instead she went into the living room. She sat down. Almost accidentally she fell asleep, stretched out on the sofa, and when Martin came back he stood above and watched her, then turned off the lamp and let her sleep.
He brought home a new clock. It was trim and white and looked like a square of frosted sheet cake. He wound it carefully, using the brass ring that protruded from the back. The digital alarm was unplugged and set aside.
“What time should I set it for?” he asked at bedtime. She ignored him.
He turned off the bedside lamp.
The ticking of the new clock was an immediate presence in the dark bedroom. It put him in mind of relatives, the ones he used to see on vacations and visits, like his mother’s elder sister, who had come to stay for most of one summer. Her travel clock had stood upright in a leather case on the shelf beside the bed in his parents’ guest room, and every evening she had wound it with an actual key that clicked with each revolution. That clock had been audible in the hall, especially at night when the house had settled. Tonight this new ticking made him think of her, of his grandparents, of camping at their summer cabin, of sleeping in a bulky flannel sleeping bag that belonged to someone who had been in the army. Someone with a pocket watch. He thought that these domestic memories were fragile and that without new stimulation they would disappear, unnoticed.
“Josie?” he said.
She made an irritated sound.
He reached for her hand and fell asleep touching it.
In the morning it was clear that Josie hadn’t slept well.
“You could at least have gotten a quieter clock,” she said.
“I asked you to help me pick one.”
“You already had your mind made up.”
“But you know I’m no good at shopping.”
“That’s not the point.”
She went out to the living room and sat in her armchair.
“Well, what’s the point, then?” he said loudly. But she opened the TV Guide and would not answer.
He went out to the garage, where he kept an orderly workshop. He spent the rest of the morning cleaning and reorganizing his tools, wrapping the electric ones in their own sloppy rubber cords.
He was persistent; Josie agreed to try the new clock for a week.
He had bought the clock for her benefit, but he could feel a definite change too. Not that he had had trouble sleeping before, but now he felt a depth of relaxation he hadn’t ever known was missing. The sheets seemed cooler, fresher, and so did the air in the bedroom. He could even feel the difference, maybe, in his blood pressure, if that was possible. Although who could really say about such things.
And he was sure that Josie’s mood would pass. She was understandably irritated with him. He had known she was already on edge over the headache; he could see now that he’d spooked her with the electricity article. Nobody would want to think of getting a cancer in their head. He ought to have brought up his concerns more gently.
Near the end of the week he opened his eyes during the night and saw, faintly, the luminous hands of the clock. It was late, after midnight.
“Josie?” he said.
She was awake too. Their arms touched in the middle of the bed and he moved his hand closer to hers.
“Go ahead,” she said.
It had been long enough that they were unfamiliar with each other, and their teeth clicked when he kissed her. She closed her eyes and kissed him back, a little.
He undid her buttons. He did what he had always done before to make her happy.
He thought that afterward she would be able to sleep.
In the morning she was slow to get out of bed, and he opened the blinds to encourage her. She blinked against the sunlight, and he saw that she had broken a blood vessel in her left eye sometime during the night. The blue iris floated in a solid hemorrhage of red.
“Honey,” he said. “Don’t you feel well?”
She didn’t answer. She got up and went into the bathroom, and he followed her.
“Is it your head?”
She leaned in toward the mirror. “I’m not sure,” she said blankly.
“Her headache is getting worse,” he told the receptionist when they got to their doctor’s medical building. Josie sat in the waiting room with her eyes closed, one hand cupped to her brow. She kept her eyes closed even later when two technicians attached monitors for a test. He saw that her scalp was very pink and that there was a line of new silver when they gently parted her dark hair at the roots.
“Can I stay?” he asked them.
“I’ll be fine,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Sweetheart, don’t worry.”
When he saw her again afterward in the exam room she was still wearing the hospital gown and belted robe, though at some point she had found her own socks and put them back on. She had an adhesive strip on one forearm. She pulled at the adhesive repeatedly.
“Martin,” she said. “This seems like overkill. I’m glad I’m not footing the bill.”
“Don’t worry about that part of it.”
“I’m not worried. Don’t put words in my mouth.” When she looked at him he had trouble meeting her bad eye. She didn’t look away.
“I wasn’t putting words in your mouth.”
“It’s better if you wait outside,” she said.
“Don’t you want me here with you?”
“I know you’re here,” she said. “It’s easier on me if you wait outside.”
Their doctor looked at him in the hallway, touched his shoulder. “Hello again, Mr. Edwards,” he said. “You can step into my office while Mrs. Edwards gets dressed.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Martin asked before the door had closed behind them.
“So far I’m not seeing anything too specific.” The doctor courteously put down his pen and rested his hands on the desk; he had been their doctor for several years. There were deep, good-natured lines in his cheeks, but he was not smiling. “I’m not seeing anything dramatic. It seems to me that she’s been having an episodic headache, which could be due to some vascular problems.”
“I was afraid it was something worse,” said Martin. “What’s the headache called?”
“It’s like a migraine, maybe from stress. Right now I’m interested in the overall picture of her general health lately. Her activity level. Her behavior.”
“She’s been fine.”
“How’s her appetite?”
“Same as always. She’s a light eater.”
“Any trouble sleeping?”
“Yes, she’s had some trouble lately. But I think that’s temporary.”
“Is she taking her hypertension medication?”
“Yes. I think so. We both take it.”
“Mr. Edwards,” said the doctor. “Have you noticed whether she has moments of being disoriented or confused?”
“I’m asking because when I spoke to her about the headache she said that you were trying to frighten her into believing that she has cancer. She wants me to give her proof today that she’s in good health.”
“But she has a headache. She’s had it off and on for six months. We’ve been here for it once already.”
“Did you tell her that she has cancer?”
“No, I didn’t. I said I was worried about the headache.”
“She also said that you’ve been hiding things from her. Taking objects from her purse, like her wallet and her keys, and making her feel trapped in the house and therefore dependent on you.”
“I have never mistreated Josie in my life.”
“I’m sure you haven’t. I’m asking you these questions now because she’s acting defensive and frustrated in a way that I sometimes see in older people when they can feel that something is starting to go wrong but they don’t know what.”
Martin didn’t answer.
“I’m sorry,” said the doctor. “It’s not pleasant to contemplate.”
“No,” said Martin. “It’s not pleasant.”
“It’s been a few months since I’ve seen her, and obviously you know her much better than I do. I’m not saying there’s a problem. But it’s good to be aware of potential problems. Based on some of the tests so far, I’m concerned that she could be experiencing some reduced blood flow in the brain. But we often can’t diagnose a problem like that from the outside unless something major happens, like a stroke. Which she hasn’t had, and that’s good. So for now I’m going to give her a new prescription, and we’ll just have to wait and see how she does.”
“I understand,” says Martin. “But I would feel a lot more comfortable knowing how to think about this. For the future.”
“Aside from the headache, her symptoms are so slight that I can’t even say for sure that there’s anything wrong. But if I had to put a name to this today, I’d say I was concerned, potentially, about some mild vascular dementia that could be the result of reduced blood flow in the brain.”
“Oh,” said Martin, sitting back. “Dementia.”
“But it might not be that. It might not be anything to worry about.” The doctor spread his fingers meditatively on the desk. He was wearing a heavy wedding band that Martin had never noticed before. “If it makes you feel any better, I can tell you that we had a similar question in my family, too, with my father. We noticed some small changes, some neurological symptoms. He would have good days, and then he would have bad days. For a long time his behavior was just normal enough that we didn’t see those bad days for what they were turning into. It can be difficult to recognize at first when someone close to you is having cognitive difficulties. So for now my advice is just to pay attention. Make sure she takes her medication. Call me if anything at all changes.”
“You don’t think she’s going to get worse?” said Martin.
“Well,” said the doctor. “It’s hard to predict.”
Back in the room Josie had exchanged the robe for her street clothes. Martin helped her into her shoes and bent to tie them. She put one hand on his shoulder.
“You’re just a little shook up,” he said.
“I’m completely fine except for this headache,” she said. “That and the fact I’m so angry with you lately.”
“Well, okay,” he said. “We can talk about that later.”
Back at home he tucked her into bed and watched her swallow one of the pills the doctor had prescribed. He placed the glass of water on the nightstand where she could easily reach it and kept the pills in his pocket.
“Martin,” she said. “Seriously. Take that clock away. I can’t adjust to the sound.”
“But it’s for you. I got it for you.”
“I want the old one.”
“This one is better.”
“You aren’t listening to me,” she said loudly; she hadn’t raised her voice in a long time, and now it startled him. The surface of her bloody eye moved when she blinked, something swollen rolling out of sight.
He traded the clocks. He put the white one in the kitchen, then plugged the old one in and put it back on the nightstand, sitting next to her while he reset it. When he looked up she was asleep, or pretending. He got under the covers, too, without undressing. He listened to the absence of the ticking. He could hear her breathing, something he usually didn’t notice. It sounded normal. He thought he could also hear, barely, the thrum of current cutting through the room. This was also unfamiliar, and he knew he could only hear it now because he had been without it for a week. It sounded lethal. Low and angry.
When he opened his eyes she was already up and out of the room. He felt uncomfortable and stiff. He turned his head on the pillow and felt a strange constriction in the blankets, then remembered he hadn’t undressed before getting into bed. He pushed down the covers, reached to unbutton the collar of his shirt, and found an electrical cord wrapped once around his neck. The digital alarm clock was waiting on his chest, pulling the cord tighter when he sat up.
Josie was sitting in her chair in the living room. Both lamps were on and the room was warm, golden. She was watching television with the volume down.
“Josie,” he said. “Did you put that thing around my neck?”
She looked up at him.
“Josie,” he said. “Why did you do that?”
“Listen,” she said. “I’m tired of your manipulations.”
She was wearing slippers, slacks, and a cardigan, neatly buttoned. The same kind of outfit as always, with her ankles crossed as always on the footrest.
“I’m trying to take care of you,” he said.
“Look at my eye,” she said, pointing to it. “You did this to me.”
“Come on now,” he said. “Be reasonable.”
Both of her eyes looked strange and slick. Suddenly her face was unfamiliar, her eyes perhaps smaller, and, Martin wondered belatedly, had she stopped wearing her glasses entirely? At some point?
“You be reasonable,” she said. “Be reasonable and shut up, Martin.”
She was content to look him in the face after saying such a thing, and then to look with equal dispassion at the television afterward. He left her and went back to the bedroom. What should he do? He picked up the alarm clock out of the sheets and plugged it in, replacing it on the nightstand. The digital numbers seemed distorted and bright. He pulled the plug and took the alarm clock out to the garage. He took the still-ticking white clock as well and put them both away in a drawer where he had already put other sources of trouble, such as the new TV remote control that had been too complicated for her to figure out, the cordless phone that she had repeatedly lost in the sofa cushions, the second set of car keys, the electric garage-door opener, and all the other potentially upsetting or dangerous things, taken from the house for love of Josie.
Maile Chapman is an American novelist and short story writer. Her first novel, Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto, was published by Graywolf Press in 2010 and was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award. Her stories have appeared in A Public Space, Literary Review, the Mississippi Review, and Post Road.
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