Lover's Moon

The sun was hot on his back. Refrigerated air seeped around him as the doors of the grocery store opened and closed. A passing shopper brushed his arm and a child stopped and starred up at him and still he remained motionless, unable to remember why he had come. No, it was worse than not knowing why he had come, he had no memory of ever having been there before, no idea how he had gotten there. He patted his pants pockets for car keys. There were none.

Inside, the flicker of fluorescent lights was slightly nauseating. He looked at the signs over the aisles and tried to remember why he might be there. He felt his back pocket and took out the wallet that was there. The driving license belonged to a man named Henry Sheppard. Henry Sheppard had a credit card too, and a picture of a pretty young woman. The dye on the edges of the wallet was worn away and the leather was stretched out, as though it had once been packed with cards and pictures and whatnot. The emptiness around what remained was mournful.

Henry Sheppard wore glasses. He raised his hand to his face and felt them there and took them off and looked at them. They had the same round tortoise-shell frames. He touched his hair. It felt like it might be fine and gray, the way Henry Sheppard’s was. He put the wallet back in his pocket and went to a small bench in front of the checkout lanes and sat down and watched the people checking out and thought about nothing, because he had nothing to think about. He assumed he must be Henry Sheppard, but he felt no desperation to know for sure, no panic. He was barely even curious. He sat and watched the groceries being bagged and the people leaving. Now and then someone would glance over at him and he would nod with a courtly inclination of his head, occasionally reaching up to touch the brim of a hat that was not there.

He sat for some time, time out of mind, mind out of time. When he began to feel chilled, he rolled down the sleeves of his red plaid shirt and wondered briefly if he himself had picked out such a homely fabric or if someone at a homeless shelter had given it to him. An Hispanic stock boy with oiled black hair and a white shirt that was baggy on his thin frame came over and asked if he was okay. He said he was. The boy hesitated, as though wondering whether that was the truth, whether he should do more to help. There were no laws against sitting on a bench in a grocery store, the man thought, even for however long it took to remember who you were.

He thought it would come back to him if he was patient. He didn’t know why he thought that. Perhaps it had happened before and the base of his brain, where his instincts lived, remembered, even if his consciousness did not. The advertising banners over one aisle looked familiar. He got up and found a cart and pushed it to the display of cookies and took a package from the shelf and put it in the basket, in the little mini-basket near the handle, where the cookies wouldn’t be crushed. He got a quart of milk and a pint of vanilla ice-cream, and by the time he got to the meat counter he knew he wanted a pound of ground turkey because Emma wanted turkey burgers. He got buns and lettuce and tomatoes, no more than would fit in two bags, one for each hand. He paid with the credit card in his wallet and went out into the sun and looked up at the dry foothills rising up behind the store and started up the hill with his bags.

The sun felt gritty on his face, veiled in smog, a bright glare behind a dirty shower curtain. He leaned into the slope of the road and measured his steps on the dusty macadam and tried not to breathe too deeply. He could feel the sharp edge of the pain in his lungs that he knew would accompany a lusty breath. His eyes watered and stung. He wondered if Emma was all right.

The house was dark inside. He had left the drapes pulled shut to save the night cool, but the room had gotten stale and hot. He called Emma’s name softly and listened into the stillness. He heard nothing but the steady hiss of her nebulizer in her bedroom. He took his bags into the kitchen and put the food away and put on a kettle for tea and stood leaning against the stove, watching the gas flame lick the dented old kettle, feeling the dry heat on his face and on his eyes as he stared unblinking at the dancing blue fire.

Emma was lying very still on her bed. Her nebulizer mask was strapped over her nose and the machine was pumping dependably on her bedside table, making a dry flapping noise. She opened her eyes. He could tell she had not been sleeping, only resting, lying quietly with her thoughts, as she liked to say.

“I brought turkey burgers,” he said.

She smiled and lifted her hand in a weak greeting. He crossed to her bedside and checked the nebulizer’s medicine tank.

“I don’t think there’s any more in there.”

She pushed aside the mask and patted his arm. “I like the sound of it. The white noise. It makes me think of cards on a bicycle wheel from far away. Do you think I could still ride a bicycle?”

“Of course you could.”

He lifted off her mask and smoothed her hair where the headband had scrunched it. It still felt like the lustrous hair of his lover, even though it was gray now. It wasn’t dry or brittle or thin. It was damp at her temples. She wrapped her fingers around his hand.

“That feels good,” she said. “That’s how you got me, you know, petting me like a dog or a cat. Your touch was so gentle. I thought a man with a touch like that could be trusted.”

“Then it turned out I was just like all the other boys, just wanting to get you in bed.”

“Oh, I knew that.”

“Would you like me to help you sit up? It’s almost time for the story.”

While she watched the television soap opera they had taken to lately, he made dinner and brought it into the bedroom. He plumped up her pillows so that she could sit up enough to eat comfortably from the bed tray and he sat beside her with his plate in his lap. He talked about going to the store. He didn’t say anything about his transient memory loss. He turned on the little fan on her dresser and the air moved over them and stirred the loose hairs that hung down one side of her face. She watched him with pale blue eyes that may have been a little washed out compared to how they had been when she was a girl but that still reassured him that his Emma was with him, her wit and wisdom intact, even if her lungs weren’t what they used to be.

“Jay called while you were out,” she said.

He glanced over and saw the message light blinking on the telephone.

“He wants you to go to the picnic with him. Listen to the message and call him back. You should go.”
“Maybe. It’s not the same there now. I don’t like going back. It makes me a little sad.”

“I know. But you should go. Jay’s just as lonely as you are.”

“I’m not lonely.”

“I know. Call him.”

“We’ll see. Eat your burger. Did I overcook it again?”

He and Jay Meacham had come to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory together, arrived on the same day fifty years ago. Jay played the violin too, and they had worked on lunar landers and missions to Mars by day and played Bach and Beethoven by night. That was all over now. He hadn’t been back down into the little swale in the foothills in a long time, not since Emma’s health started failing. The moon was their lover’s moon again now, not a chunk of rock to mine and test. He had come back down to earth. His violin was in the top of the closet, one string still broken.

After she had eaten he brought in her pills and refilled the sterling silver water cup she kept by her bedside.

“You look tired,” she said.

“I’m fine. I’ll just clean up the kitchen.”

“Can’t we have someone come in to help you? Can’t we afford that?”

“It’s not the money. I like taking care of you.”

“Promise me you’ll get some help.”

“I promise.”

She closed her eyes then, so slowly and peacefully that it seemed that having extracted that promise from him she felt she could go ahead and slip out of this world. Her breathing was steady and even. He closed her bedroom door quietly as he went out.

In the kitchen, dirty plates and pans were stacked on the red Formica counters and in the sink. On the breakfast table, with his and Emma’s chairs pulled up neatly on either side, three neat stacks of bills awaited his attention. He didn’t know why he tortured himself by getting them out on the fifteenth and the first of every month, as he had for fifty years, as if he could just pay them and be done with it. Perhaps not admitting to himself how bad things were was the way he made sure he didn’t let the truth slip out to Emma: about the bills, about anything.

He didn’t think he had Alzheimer’s, not from what he had read, but he wasn’t sure. He didn’t know what the hell was going on. He’d seen a story in the newspaper about a man who’d gone missing for six months before being found in Chicago, hundreds of miles from his home, where he’d taken a new job with no memory of his old life. One day the man in Chicago remembered who he was and called home to Minneapolis and his wife and son had come to fetch him; he’d seemed glad to see them, they said, and yet somehow not. Dissociative fugue the doctors had called it: running away from something that was bothering you so badly you had to get away from it. Your subconscious mind, realizing what you needed, even if the sentient you did not, took over and escorted you out of town. All that time, you’d know other things you’d learned in your life—how to drive a car, who Jean Paul Sartre was—but you wouldn’t remember who you were. It was a self-imposed, guilt-free holiday from burdens that had become too great to bear.

He didn’t like to think that one day he might not sit down on a bench in the grocery store but keep on going instead. He felt it a privilege to be able to care for Emma, to help her into her bath, to keep her sheets and bathrobe washed. He didn’t like to think that some part of him might need to get away. He couldn’t abide the disloyalty his forgetfulness implied.

She was asleep when he came back into her room. He sat beside her bed and watched her for a long time and bent forward in his chair and put his hands to his face. The warm wetness of his tears on his fingers made him feel stronger somehow, as if he were getting a grip on his grief the way a man should.

“What are you bawling about?” she whispered.

He sat up quickly and blotted his eyes with his sleeve.

“Pretty soon you’ll be crying in your sherry at stories on the evening news the way your grandfather used to do.”

He wiped his hand across his nose and sniffed indelicately. “He was ninety five. That’s some excuse. A little sherry might do us both good.”

“You know I always preferred tequila.” She winked at him the way she always had when she opened a bottle and put it on the counter next to a pitcher of lemonade, a wink so demurely suggestive that it always made him blush; she would see his face color and lean close and whisper something a little naughty and he would feel the hot blood in his cheeks as she made the poor-man’s margaritas that had given their love a little shot of afterburner, just enough to break free of earth’s gravity.

“I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” he said.

“For what? My bad heart? You always treated it tenderly. The only thing you did was fill it with too much love. That’s why it’s all swollen up now.”

He had brought in a bowl of Jell-O for her and he took it from the bedside table and dabbed at his eyes again held it out to her.

“You eat it,” she said. “I only ever served that silly stuff because you like it. You’re still just a little boy.”

She had always made him feel that way, like a boy. She gave him permission to be foolish. She laughed at his ridiculous puns. She complimented his flowered ties with such enthusiasm that he almost believed she actually liked them. She nodded quietly at his rants about cuts in the space program, about how the country had lost its explorer’s heart. She made him feel like anything was possible. Still. Even lying there in bed, she was the strong one.

He raised the shade and opened the window. The air was stirring over the dry land, carrying the smells of desert nights with her snuggled in his arms as they lay under the black sky and he told her the names of the craters of the moon and the stars he wanted to explore.

“It looks like a nice evening,” he said. “Do you feel up to going out on the patio?”

The cushions of the chairs were covered in a yellow-green dust of pine pollen. He hadn’t thought of that, of having to clean up the chairs for her, and he stood there holding her arm, thinking he should neither let go of her nor seat her in a dirty chair, feeling foolish as she watched him patiently. He felt her sway a bit, like she might be getting unsteady, and while still holding onto her with one hand he took his shirt off with the other and used it to wipe off a chair.
“How gallant,” she said, as she sat down.
Standing there before her, half-naked, he felt suddenly self-conscious. He had a farmer’s tan on his arms and against the brown of them his torso was shockingly pale. He was thin---he prided himself on that, on staying in shape---but he thought he didn’t look healthy, just old. Even the sparse hair on his chest was gray. The only color on his midsection was from a half-dozen small red dots that looked like red wood ticks had latched onto him but hadn’t yet gotten around to gorging themselves on his blood.
“You want to go inside and get another shirt?” she said.
He looked at the one in his hand, streaked with pollen. He thought perhaps she was embarrassed by his nakedness too, not in a prudish way, but embarrassed for him, for the exposure there in the daylight of the merciless fact that he was no longer a dashing young man. He shook out the shirt and slipped it back on.
“How about I get us some iced tea?”
She smiled up at him.
In the kitchen he picked up the stacks of bills from the table and looked around for somewhere to put them out of sight; he stuck them in the potholder drawer. By the time he opened the refrigerator, he was having another of those moments of having arrived somewhere to do something and not being able to remember what is was. There was a pitcher of lemonade on the shelf. Was it that? He bowed his head into the cool air. Not now. Please, not now.
“Do we have any teabags?” Emma called from outside.
He nodded twice, as though she were there to see. “I’m just getting the ice. There’s some lemonade made. Would you like that?”
“That would be perfect.”
They sat on the patio with the lemonade glasses sweating on the outsides, the water running down onto the open weave of the wrought iron table and then dripping down through the spaces. The wet spot on his knee grew round and dark.
“Are you worried about the bills?” she asked.
“Not one bit. I told you not to worry about that.”
“I don’t so much. I know you’ll take care of me.”
“Everything’s going to be fine.”
She looked over at him with an expression that said she didn’t believe him but she wanted to go along with him so he wouldn’t worry that she was worried. He wanted to say, No, don’t look at me like that, I’m telling the truth, but he knew she would know better. This was the best he could do, this little fantasy that she indulged: her hero riding to her rescue.
After a while she closed her eyes and her chin settled against her the collar of her robe. She stirred now and then as she fell into deeper sleep and was roused by the slumping of her head. He wished he didn’t have to take her back into her bedroom. It would be nice if she could just sleep there in the mildness of the waning day. Over the foothills he could see the rising moon, scrubbed pale by the evening light, a child’s balloon that had been let go and was floating away.


  1. Nice Mac. You painted a great picture with your words.

  2. Oh, Mac, this is heartbreaking! I felt my chest swell in that amazing last sentence -- what an image! This story captures so much, with such grace and sharpness. A huge predicament, these two loving people are in . . . one that so many of us will face, or are facing. You make them utterly distinct -- their banter, their way of remembering and not remembering, the stories they tell each other in order to permit life to go on.