After Evelyn Scrimshaw had her hip replaced, her husband Dave carted her off to the rehab facility instead of bringing her right home to recuperate in her own bed.
“I’ve got to work! Someone has to. How can I take care of you on top of everything else?” he asked. Before she could think of the answer, all she saw was his back, his bear-hunched walk as he skedaddled down the hospital hall.
Her unasked question, of course, was how had he been taking care of her in general. Had he? But since there was no one else—her daughter Caryn in Hong Kong and her mother long dead—Evelyn went, languishing amongst the other broken and aged until she could move without a walker, a full two weeks after the surgery. By the time she returned, he’d pulled down the wallpaper in the kitchen and gotten a dog.
“A dog? How can I take care of a dog like this?” She rattled her walker.
Dave had given her a look, and Evelyn had looked away into the strangeness of her own home. Everything had changed and gone on just fine without her. When Evelyn made it down the hall and looked into her room, she noticed her side of the bed was perfectly made, the pillows fully fluffed. He’d not once even snaked a foot toward her memory. Later, she realized he’d moved into the guest room, and due to the fact that his clothes were hanging in the spare closet, she had a feeling he wasn’t coming back.
Every day, Evelyn walked a little farther. First to the end of the block, the new dog—Spiffy, a rescue, part rat terrier part something else, pointy nose, big ears, spots—on a leash at her side. Spiffy was as terrified as Evelyn, both of them only recently released from incarceration. But at least Evelyn hadn’t faced the threat of death, except from anesthesia.
Spiffy walked perfectly at Evelyn’s slow heel, stopping when Evelyn wobbled to stillness. Her walker at home by the front door, her new cane ground into the sidewalk. Spiffy sniffed the air, turned his head, gazed up at Evelyn with his dark black eyes.
It was love.
Pretty soon, Evelyn and Spiffy were up to two miles. All flat, save the driveway dips. Big sidewalk blocks around the suburban neighborhood. Dave would leave for work, and after a cup of coffee, out they went, Spiffy’s tail wagging.
“You go, Evelyn,” Delia Saddle called from her Toyota.
“That’s the spirt!” said the replacement postwoman. Sam or Sue. Evelyn could remember.
She waved her cane hand, raising the stick in her clenched palm, shaking it a bit, wobbling sometimes as she did. Spiffy slowed, sniffed Evelyn’s ankle. They both panted and then moved on.
“Don’t you want to kill him?” Evelyn’s college friend May asked.
“Every day,” Evelyn said. She held the phone out in front of her, having pressed the round speaker button. May’s whine filled the living room air.
May lived in Minneapolis, only just thawed out from a long and freezing spring. Evelyn imagined her friend’s round moon face peering out from a round moon window. An Inuit in her igloo. Jack Spratt’s wife with no Jack Spratt.
“So why do you stay?”
“May, where do you think I should shuffle to?” Evelyn sipped her ice tea, the bottle slick in her hand. Diet, this one. The end of the sip tasted like poison.
There was silence at the end of the line, a big pause where “You could come up here and live with me should be.” But Evelyn didn’t blame May for not saying it. No one had ever really said something like that and meant it. At least, not for long. She and Dave had only been married five years when he stopped touching her. Now she remembered each and every seemingly last time he put a hand on her skin. The latest: Wednesday, her wrist as he helped her out of the car. Their only child had moved across the world. Even her mother had escaped through death. There was something cataclysmic and disastrous about her. Of this Evelyn was sure. But what? She’d eliminated the easy things. Breath, for one. A strong peppermint in every pocket. Her person was reasonable if not glamorous. Or even pretty. Her now graying hair was cut and shaped in what should be a pleasing fashion, short but not too, long but not wild. Her fat limited to her backside and triceps (such as they were) and she kept both under literal wraps: pants and those long-sleeved t-shirts from Target. Otherwise, she looked slim. She was cleaned and pressed. She wore a tiny bit of mascara and blush. Sometimes a pale glow of lipstick. Her shoelaces were tied and unfrayed. She smiled and said hello when appropriate. She returned her library books on time and paid her debts. She mowed (well, used to before the damn hip) her lawn and trimmed the hedges. She picked up the free newspapers that would otherwise gather at the end of the driveway in molten clumps. She brought reusable grocery bags every time she went to the store. She didn’t stutter, say “Um” very often. Mostly. More importantly, she didn’t start her sentences with “You know what I mean?”
No spitting, swearing, gossiping, tale-telling, or burping, at least out in public. She sat quietly when necessary (doctors’ offices, plays, school board meetings, graduations). Whatever else she could do, she didn’t know, though she’d never really asked anyone.
Only people who didn’t know her well were nice to her. The checkout clerks. The postal workers. The meter man in his blue shorts and work boots and the big tan. In her real life, just Dave, Caryn, and May remained. And not by much. With May and Caryn, Evelyn knew it was only possible because of the thousands of miles between them. With Dave, it was a vague feeling of responsibility. Otherwise, it would be just her and Spiffy. And who knows? Maybe Spiffy would run away and join the circus the moment Dave’s car pulled out of the driveway for the last time.
But as May talked, Evelyn looked down at her feet. In between her feet, nestled against her sensible walking shoes, Spiffy lay in a tiny dog circle, his tail wagging.
After talking with May, Evelyn took her time arranging her feet, readying her thighs and then slowly stood up, put Spiffy on his leash, and headed out for their afternoon walks, which had been getting longer now that Dave was coming home later and later. Just the night before, he showed up about 10.30.
“Had a meeting,” he’d said.
For a long while, Evelyn was silent, trying to determine how to answer. Dave worked for Pacific Gas and Electric in cost analysis, and most of the meetings were during the day. This she knew from having been married to him for twenty-seven years. As he hung up his jacket and took off his shoes, she suddenly wondered if he was going to AA. He was close to retirement, his marriage was a mess, and his wife was hobbled. All that was left to him was drink. No wonder he’d been forced to put her in the rehab facility.
Before he left this morning (Early, again. Strange tie and that odd brown sweater he bought last year), he’d said, “Don’t wait up.”
At her side, Spiffy waited and wagged. Evelyn put on her jacket, loaded her pockets with doggie treats and poop bags. She packed essentials in the fanny pack she’d asked Dave to scrounge up from the basement, something she’d bought when Caryn was little and they’d gone on walks in the Regional parks. Evelyn had loaded up the car with hiking boots and the first aid kit and butterfly nets. Back then, it hadn’t been doggie treats but animal crackers, Pepperidge farm fish, and juice boxes. Lots of extra Band-Aids. Caryn had been adventurous (thus Hong Kong) climbing up trees and sliding down rough back. Oh, that time with the splinters! Polysporin. Snake bite kit. Where was that old thing?
But now, she bagged up some raisins and nuts. Two bottles of water. Emergency cash. Just in case, she put in the pepper spray May had sent her, a promotional canister for “Take Back the Night” in Minneapolis.
“Can’t be too safe,” May told her later on the phone.
“Are you supposed to send that in the mail?” Evelyn had asked. She still didn’t know the answer. Maybe it was just about airplanes. Safety items couldn’t travel.
Despite himself, Spiffy whined and then sat, ashamed, looking up at her with pleading eyes.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if it was just the two of us?” Evelyn asked as she opened the front door.
Spiffy, the world in front of him, rushed out. But didn’t pull the leash. Spiffy waited, butt barely on the porch, tail a thumping wag.
The day was perfect, not to hot, not too cold, a Baby Bear kind of day. At least, that’s what Evelyn used to tell Caryn, back when Caryn listened. But now, Caryn talked on the phone. Told. Described. Explained. Held forth. And hung up. Never asked a question.
“Have you ever heard of Cassandra?” a therapist once asked, the one she went to at May’s prodding.
Evelyn wanted to nod as she did to most things, but she’d never be able to fake her way through.
The therapist waited and then went on. “She was a prophet. She was always right. Knew what would happen in the Trojan War. But her family only believed her once.”
Evelyn listened. Had anyone believed her? Even once? Maybe she hadn’t said anything anyone could believe in.
“What did they believe?”
“They believed her about how the war started. But after that. Nothing. My point is—“
“What happened to her?” Evelyn had asked, wondering what happened to those who were ignored and forgotten.
The therapist looked up, fiddled with her glasses, bit the corner of her lower lip. “The point is that sometimes people can’t make themselves known. Sometimes, no one will listen. No one will bat an eye, no matter what happens.”
Later, Evelyn had looked up poor Cassandra, raped and defiled during the sack of Troy by those terrible Greek warriors. But Evelyn didn’t worry. Nothing like that would ever happen to her, no matter who didn’t listen to her. Eventually, she stopped going to the therapist because no matter all the Cassandra stories and the “Yes, go ons,” Evelyn didn’t think the doctor was paying much attention.
The morning light dappled the sidewalk, the sway of leaves’ light shadows flickering as Evelyn stepped one foot and then the other. Spiffy trotted his small dog trot, stopped for periods of time to pull in scent from yellowed half-moons on the grass or invisible messages on fences and decorative rocks. The breeze was cool, and for the first time in weeks, Evelyn didn’t feel the hitch in her gait, her strides short but smooth. In fact, she’d actually gotten into shape, even though she’d been walking at a snail’s pace. But every day, sometimes up to three times, she strolled, her body moving more than it had in twenty, twenty-five years, all the back to those days when Caryn was a little girl hunting for wild ladybugs.
“What a cute doggie!” a woman at a corner said, her head turned over her shoulder as she stepped into the crosswalk. Evelyn stopped moving, her breath in her last stride. But no car. All was safe. The woman smiled, waved, and hopped ran across the street into the next block. She had three empty shopping bags clenched in her hand, and Evelyn realized she and Spiffy had walked eight blocks.
Juggling the leash, she pulled out a bottle of water, carefully cracked it open, and poured some into the cap for Spiffy. Bending down slowly, she held it out for Spiffy who lapped it up. They repeated this a couple of times, and then Evelyn put away the water and gave Spiffy a doggie treat, a little round pellet of ground up animal goodness. Turkey. Or Salmon. She couldn’t remember.
After looking both ways, they set out across the crosswalk, the woman who’d spoken to them almost out of sight.
How long had it been since she’d gone into town by herself? Somehow, she’d let Dave just pick up milk, bananas, and pork chops on his way home from work. And then there was that Safeway van, the man bringing her groceries to the step. How humiliating. She’d taken to putting out a cooler and hiding behind the half-pulled curtains. Then she’d lug in the cooler, unpack everything and put it away, letting Dave think she’d done the shopping all herself.
Then he’d found out, ranting about service charges and her laziness. Just last week, he’d told her, “It’s a miracle you busted your hip. You never used it for anything.”
Tears pressed behind her cheeks as she thought of his face when he’d said that, the way he looked at her like she was a person who just walked in the house. A stranger. A person he’d never known at all.
At the next block, the street opened up wide, pushing into a larger, vast space, making way for rows of parking spaces. The grocery store—not Safeway. That was near the mall—was the one she used to come to with Caryn on hot summer evenings to buy Eskimo Pies (were they still called that?) and creamsicles. Back then, the employees knew Caryn’s name, Evelyn’s too. Caryn, with her necklace made of Evelyn’s many old necklaces all twirled together, jangled around the store, skipping up and down the aisles in her knee-high socks and black patent leather shoes. Clickity, clack, Evelyn used to sing. Clickity clack.
At the front of the store, displays disgorged tumbrels of orange, yellow, and green summer fruits and vegetables. Zucchini, Meyer lemons, avocados, peaches. The electric double doors opened and shuffled closed. A faint whine of pleasant music spilled out with each customer.
“Who’s this?” a man in a green apron asked, his hands on cantaloupes as if they were wayward children’s heads.
Evelyn almost said, “Evelyn,” but then she realized he was asking about the dog. “Spiffy.”
The man bent away from his fruit and squatted, holding out his hand for Spiffy to smell. Spiffy trotted close, tail wagging, scared but eager.
“Spiffy indeed.” The man—his gold name tag read Earl—scratched behind Spiffy’s left ear.
He stood and smiled, and Evelyn walked on, her stomach growling. Suddenly her packed up raisins didn’t seem like enough. In fact, she was starving, wanting the real breakfast she didn’t eat—the real breakfast she hadn’t eaten for years. Eggs, over-easy, cooked to crispness in butter. Whole wheat toast dotted with pats of yellow spring butter. Sausage and bacon and red-faced grapefruit halves. Orange juice and a café latte. Or hot chocolate. The kind Caryn used to like, tiny marshmallows floating on the top life like preservers.
She walked past the mounds of produce and picked up a shopping basket, freezing for a second. Had she brought her wallet? Did she have any money? Shame flowed through her like water. She’d have to put down the basket and back away from the warm ripe fruit like a caught thief. She closed her eyes as she imagined in the contents of her fanny pack. Keys, water. And yes. Of course! Her emergency money. Two twenties folded into a rectangle in the secret pocket nearest her body.
“Got it, Spiffy,” she said, opening her eyes and walking toward the whooshing doors. “We can get a snack.”
Evelyn looked down at Spiffy. Her dog. That was true. Her dog. Who looked up at her with his black beady eyes. As if she knew what she was doing. And had she ever? That long-ago therapist had once asked her, “So if you were going to a desert island, what five foods would you bring?”
Evelyn had blinked, questions struggling at the back of her mouth. How long was she going to be on the island? Did the food have to last? Was there water? Was the food a singular food like milk or a food like pizza, loaded with pineapple, ham, mushrooms, tomato sauce, and cheese?
Her therapist tapped her fingernail on her notepad. Evelyn couldn’t imagine what she liked enough to take with her. She had no idea, really, what kept her alive.
“Bread?” she said finally.
“Good. What else?”
The bread would go stale, but maybe a pumpkin would last. She could roast it over the fire she’d never be able to start. Or maybe camping supplies. Dried fruit. Nuts. Powdered milk. Canned chili. Canned corn. She told the therapist all those things, and she knew she’d failed the test by the way the light went out of her therapist’s eyes. Clearly, Evelyn was supposed to say Champagne, olives, marcona almonds, Brie, and caviar. Or basmati rice, pesto, blood orange juice, broccoli, and Spanish peanuts. But no. Once again, Evelyn managed to disappoint.
But now, Spiffy was swinging his cute little rump around the store, employees and customers smiling as Evelyn and he made their way up the deli aisle. Even the canned music seemed jaunty, a fast piano, a waft of violin. Yes, the deli aisle. That’s what she wanted for today’s desert island. A sandwich with turkey, Swiss, tomato, and lettuce. On sourdough with a pickle. And in the pet aisle, a little chew bone for Spiffy. That was it. That’s what she’d tell that damn therapist if she could. So damn what if that was six foods. So damn what.
In the shade of a broadleaf maple, Evelyn sat on a metal bench, her cane propped against the seat back. Near a paper bowl of water, Spiffy chewed his bone. His leash was wound around her good leg, though Spiffy put not once ounce of pressure on it. Now and then, when a child ran up to find a ball or a person walked by on the path, Spiffy wagged his tail but never took his mouth from the chew. Her sandwich gone, she sat back, a can of something fruity in her hand (“A total energy drink” the girl at the deli counter had said). It felt like drinking chemicals, the fruit forward and then gone in a wash of molecules with names Evelyn knew she couldn’t pronounce. But now and again, she took small metallish sips, breathing in the fragrance of imaginary pink fruit.
The early afternoon cupped the park in warming hands. School must be out already, the world running on a schedule that no longer required Evelyn’s permission. Now summer was like every other season, only warmer. But under the maple, the air was cool and smelled like wet dirt. Like the dirt in the garden boxes she and Caryn used to tend. Pole beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, pumpkins, all staggered and staked, dinner full of things they’d grown themselves. A couple of years ago, Evelyn noticed the wire tomatoes cages crammed at the back of the garage, thick with cobweb meshing.
“Nice day,” a voice said.
Evelyn turned, blinked, a person standing against the light, underneath the tree, her eyes adjusting slowly.
“It is.” She turned back toward the field, hoping that once acknowledged, the man would go away. But he only moved closer, sat on the far edge of the bench. Spiffy stirred, something like a tiny growl in his throat.
The man seemed undeterred, settling himself, patting his knees and leaning forward as if he were watching a soccer match.
Seeing him clearly now, Evelyn took in the long coat, the hat, the bottle-shaped bag in his hands. Fingernails oily crescent moons. Face pallid, streaked with ash or dirt. Shoes old and untied. No laces actually. Or socks for that matter.
“Nice to be out,” he said.
“It is,” she said, but in a lighter more vague way, hoping he’d get her message.
“Lots to do on a sunny day. At least in the shady spots. Lots.”
Evelyn swallowed, unsure what to say. Unsure about what she was hearing. It had been decades since she’d talked to a man not Dave. At least alone. Maybe in college, young men had sidled up to her at the library or cafeteria, smiling, holding books or a food tray. She’d been okay with that. Okay with Dave coming to her desk at the insurance company they’d both worked at, sitting on the edge of her desk, asking her to go to the movies. Okay with the way he’d put his hand at the small of her back as they left for the day. Okay enough to say yes when he asked to marry her. And a man had actually asked. Her of all people. For a while, she’d been a part of a family, a unit. She had things to do and people to take care of. Where had it all gone?
It was a life ago. Maybe two.
Her life had been like her hip. It hadn’t broken but just wore down to the nub.
“Hmmm.” Evelyn let the sound play out on her lips.
“Yes, and I know you have some fun fun fun in that fanny pack of yours. Need that fun to do anything. No matter the day.”
Evelyn’s heart and lungs heard the words before her ears did. At first, his face and smile were pleasant, as if he were offering her a cookie or a ride on a Ferris wheel or a seat on a riverboat. But then her ears caught up, hearing his want. His need. His ready-to-take.
“Just some doggie treats,” she said, forgetting and then remembering her change from the store. One whole twenty and a few ones. A quarter or two. A nickel. She looked out to the field. The children had left their games, the mothers packed up their babies and bags. No one around to call out to. And she’d never figured out a cell phone. Dave had thrown up his hands. “Hopeless,” he’d said. More than once.
“You don’t say.” The man scooted toward her, his smell preceding him. Dark oily clothes. Rot and sweat and wet.
“Maybe,” she began, swatting away crumbs and pulling Spiffy toward her. The dog stopped chewing, stilled, growled.
“Vicious beast,” the man said. He was smiling under his beard. At least, it seemed like a smile. Maybe it was a slash of grimace. “Needs to go.”
“We’re just about to do that.” Evelyn patted her fanny pack, pulled on Spiffy’s leash a bit. Gripping his bone in his teeth, he stood up, his tail down between his legs, ears pricked.
“Not until I know your name.” He gave her the grimace-y smile again, his brown eyes like glittering dark marbles under the shade of the tree.
“Evelyn,” she said, moving herself to the edge of the bench, just barely resting on the wood, ready to move. She thought of her cane, felt in against her palm, heard it slap his shoulder, crack his head.
He leaned closer. “Do you want to know my name?”
Evelyn clasp her hands, the leash between her palms. How to say no and not offend him. If she could run, she’d be out of here, now, dashing to the middle of the field with Spiffy, yelling her head off.
“Sure,” she said, the word like an anchor in her throat.
“That’s good! Just fine. So call me Nick. Just like Santa Claus. But you’re the one with the pack, huh?” he laughed, a thick, deep sound that came from his chest. Why wasn’t anyone else hearing this? She looked to her left, hoping to see a child on a bike. But the world outside the maple’s shade was a hot flat empty disc.
“Nice to meet you, Nick,” she said. “We need to go now.”
“Not so fast, Evelyn, and not without a goodbye kiss.”
She started, stood, her eyes on Spiffy, hand reaching for her cane. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“Doing it to you?” He stepped closer, the sound of his clothes flapping like waves.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Who else?”
“Why you doing this to me?” His voice hard, angry. She glanced up and in a second, he was on her, one strong hand on each shoulder. Alcohol and badness surrounded her. She wanted to close her eyes and pull into herself, but Spiffy needed her. Dropping the leash and using a move from a YouTube video May had sent her, she brought her hands up between Nick’s arms, pushing with all her strength with her forearms, breaking his grasp.
“God damn!” He bent down and grabbed the leash, swinging Spiffy around like a toy. The dog yelped, and then screamed when Nick kicked him.
“Don’t do that!” she yelled.
“Ugly useless old bat.”
“Stop!” she cried running at Nick with her fists, and that’s when he grabbed the fanny pack belt, yanking her hard, yanking her whole body to the edge of the field. Pulling her toward the creek that ran below. Her hip ached. Her breath shot out of her lungs. He hit her on the head with the flat of his hand. He hit her face. She tried to duck, but he was yanking again, pushing her toward the edge, pushing, and then the belt popped open, and she was falling, rolling down the embankment, the world whirling, whirling, dark.
Evelyn sputtered awake, a deep pain in her head and on her side. Her eyes still closed, she reached down to find something hard and wet jammed against her waist. What was it? A rock? She opened her eyes, blinking back the dusk and water. Where was she?
Her side throbbed. Her hip. The man. Nick.
“Spiffy,” she cried, pushing to all fours and then falling down on her hands and knees. She tried again, crawling through the grass. Weeds hard as wires slapped her face. Rocks under her palms, on her shins. With each sobbing move, hand, knee, hand, knee, she called out her dog’s name. Evening hummed with mosquitos and frogs. Mud pushed up between her fingers. Vines caught her around the arms, wrapped slick green fingers across her forehead. Twice, she lurched, falling on her cheek, her forehead, struggling up each time to call out again.
She didn’t dare stop. She had to get back. All around her, life was moving on. Minutes and hours since Spiffy was at her feet drinking his water and chewing his bone. Soon it would be another day, more of the life where she could take care of nothing. Not even herself. But she’d have to. What had Nick said as he staggered toward her?
“Ugly useless old bat.”
Useless. Unable to take care of even one small creature.
Evelyn pushed herself up again, staggering, lunging as she found her footing in the muck, and called until she was hoarse. Crying, wiping her eyes of tears, her face gritty and slick, she pulled herself up to the field with her hands. Digging into the hill with her feet. Grass in her mouth, her hair, under her nails. Her pockets full of mud. Soaked socks. No one who’d even know or care that she was late. Gone, even. If she died here like a terrible trout, Evelyn didn’t even have her fanny pack with her careful address written in Sharpie on the inside tag to identify her. Nick had taken it. But did it matter now? She rubbed her face with her sleeve, her breath ragged, her legs aching. Nothing was left of anything. Or maybe. Spiffy. In place of nothing, something else, if she could only keep slogging forward.
Bugs zirred past her ears, pinged her cheeks. Somewhere, the whoosh of an irrigation system. The bloom of wet pulsing up from soggy ground. And then out from under the canopy of maple and oak branches—shiny and bright under the glowing park light—Spiffy, wagging his tail. Jumping on her legs. Licking her nose, eyes, chin. His tongue, soft and red even in the twilight. And Evelyn, holding him tight, feeling his soft live warm body against hers, both of them shaking.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “We’ll be okay.”
Dave would leave her, moving from the guest room to wherever he was most of the time. They would agree on terms. They would sell the house. She would pack up what remained of a life. Day by day, she’d keep practicing how to walk.
Spiffy’s panting breath warmed her face. In the distance, a call out. A man in a dark uniform, waving. “Ma’am! Hey, Ma’am!”
Dog in her nose, on her skin, his small pounding heart against her chest. Evelyn wailed for all that she’d lost. For everything she’d found.
About the Author: Jessica Barksdale is the author of thirteen novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her latest, The Burning Hour, is forthcoming from Urban Farmhouse Press. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. She has an MFA from the Rainer Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.