When Hugo finds his wife dead on the kitchen floor, a spoon in her hand and jaw slack against the linoleum, he sets down the groceries and the mail, washes his hands, wipes them on the cup towel, and proceeds to make himself a sandwich. There is already a sandwich started by the breadbox. It is early afternoon and the sun that falls on the laminate countertops is hot, causing the condiments and sliced cheese that clutter the counter’s surface to sweat. Hugo observes this and, observing also the greying mayonnaise on the spoon in his wife’s hand, realizes that she died in the midst of making this sandwich. He touches the packet of shaved deli meat – room temperature. He wonders how long she has been dead. He wonders how long it takes refrigerated meat to turn lukewarm.
Hugo reaches for the two slices of bread that his wife had, in the last moments of her life, set upon a plate. For a fleeting moment, he considers this simple action and wonders how many men and women have died with this task being their last on earth. Slice bread – set it on bone china – die.
Hugo wonders what time, exactly, that it happened. He wonders what he was doing at that moment. Had he felt anything? He reflects on the monotony of the morning, trying to recall a sign – a faint tremor in the fabric of the universe – that may have given indication of his wife’s passing. He tries to remember any moment of telepathic clarity, any draft of cool air against his skin, any paranormal sign that his wife’s spirit had left her body and ascended to the cosmos.
He realizes that he can’t remember anything in particular. He feels disturbed by the fact that he might have been licking postage stamps when it happened.
Checking the dates on cartons of milk.
He wonders whether he believes in ghosts.
The body of Hugo’s wife makes a kind of barricade between his own and the mayonnaise. He realizes that in order to reach it, he will have to step over her. He looks at the slope of her back, shrouded in a purple bathrobe, the fabric pilling at the elbows and shoulders.
A movement in the corner of his eye distracts him. A housefly lands on the rim of the open mayonnaise jar. He watches the fly grope about on the glass, enjoying the residue. It stops. Twitches. And then it dives. Over the top it goes, disappearing into the silky white folds of the mayonnaise.
Hugo decides to forgo mayonnaise.
He reaches for the mustard bottle, lying on its side. He wonders if his wife tipped it over in the act of her fall. He wonders, again, how long it has been. He tries to remember how early he left this morning, counting the hours backwards in his head, but he can’t focus. He tries to smell the mustard, but realizes that he can’t remember what good mustard smells like, or whether such an odor exits. The tartness makes his eyes water and his nose run. He decides not to risk it.
He looks at the tomato, halved on the cutting board. Its innards have softened and escaped from the flesh, leaving two wilting shells. He looks at the cheese, lying directly in a bar of sunlight. It has darkened and each slice is covered with moisture.
He looks down at the two slices of bread on his plate. He looks at his wife’s ankle on the floor. Her slipper lies to one side, jammed between her shin and the base of the cupboards. He wonders whether she felt the fall, or if it was over before she hit the floor. He lays one slice of dry bread on top of the other slice of dry bread and cuts the empty sandwich in half. He sets down the knife and takes his plate to the table.
Hugo sets down the plate in front of his usual chair, opposite the chair that is ordinarily his wife’s chair, and reaches into his pocket. It’s an act of habit; he takes his meals bookended by cigarettes – the first to balance his appetite, the latter for dessert. Instinctually he takes a step towards the back door, the one that leads from the kitchen to their garden. Not once in their decades of living together has Hugo smoked inside, so opposed was his wife to the smell, to the lingering of second hand smoke on clean linen and clean hair. And there was never exception. In heat waves and raging blizzards alike, Hugo would take to the garden, satiating his favorite vice.
But today he stops, battling a sudden onslaught of conflicting feelings.
He feels that it would be wrong to step outside and leave her here.
Though – smoking beside her now will make her body stink like ashes.
But – once he leaves this room, how will he enter it again, knowing what awaits him?
But – would smoking in the house be callous? An insult to her memory? Hugo weighs his options. Through the window he can see the white hydrangeas, full as pillows, nodding in the summer breeze. Nodding as though in a state of perpetual agreement.
Hugo takes a cigarette from the pack. He hesitates, feeling guilty. Treasonous. He imagines what she would say, the familiar timbre of her voice cutting the morgue-like silence of the kitchen.
And he likes thinking about this. He likes imagining her sitting up from her place on the floor, cocking her head to the side with a level, almost amused gaze. “They’ll have to embalm me with Chanel No. 5 to cover the stench.”
He lights the cigarette and inhales. He feels that he is somehow tempting her, baiting her back to life. She would not stand for this – not even in death. He begins to bargain with her, smoke clouding the space between them.
If you remain dead, I will smoke over your body until you reek like a chimney. Like a tar pit. Until your skin is carmel-coloured with nicotine.
Hugo has avoided looking at her face since entering the kitchen, though his peripheral vision tells him that her eyes are closed. But now he wills her to open them, to roll over, to inhale the stink of his smoke wafting over the tabletop and down to the floor, settling in the plush material of that purple bathrobe. In the roots of her long, silver hair.
Roll over, my love. Wake up and protest. Come back to life and curse me a thousand times over.
Hugo ashes onto his bread-on-bread sandwich. The quiet tap of his finger on the cigarette is the only sound in the silent, sunlit kitchen.
When they had first learned that she would die, and soon, they had talked about how it would be. What it would look like.
“Death is never pretty,” she had said on that drive home from the doctor’s. She kept her eyes on the road, not checking his reaction. She had insisted on driving, despite the shock of the morning; sitting in the passenger seat always made her irritable. On long drives she would take a tally with every vehicle they passed; how many men driving? How many women? Upon arriving anywhere, more often than not, she would click her tongue in annoyance. “How far things have come for women, and yet we still let men hog the wheel.”
Hugo was glad that she had not looked at him. There was a sharp ache in the back of his throat. For a moment they continued in silence through the snowy streets. Pausing at a red light, she broke the silence, her voice oddly cheerful.
“Some people are crushed by vending machines and some people choke on pen caps. I read once about a woman who sat in a bath tub filled with ethanol for twelve hours, trying to sanitize herself from SARS. She died of alcohol poisoning.” She paused. “I wonder how many people would be satisfied with their end? If it was possible to reflect on your own death. How many people would say, yes, I was pleased by the way I went?”
Hugo had considered this, still uncertain of his ability to speak. Instead he had rested his head against the passenger window, letting the coolness of the glass fill him, sending chills from his forehead to his tailbone.
“That woman …” she continued, as though afraid to leave him to his thoughts. “Do you remember that woman on the news, the one who was killed by her own camel when it struck her down and tried to have sex with her?” Pause. “Jesus. You think she imagined her life ending like that? What did people say at the funeral? What did they write on her headstone – Shit Happens? ”
After this conversation they had talked about it regularly, this idea of meeting a satisfactory death. It became casual, the kind of conversation they shared over breakfast. It became a kind of joke. They would research anecdotes for one another. Having recently learned to text, they would send each other their latest findings. They would leave notes on the fridge, the last words of famous figures:
“This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” – Oscar Wilde
“I haven’t had champagne for a long time.” – Anton Chekhov
“Pardonnez-moi, monsieur. Je ne l’ai pas fait exprés.” – Marie Antoinette
In Hugo’s mind, this was how it would be with his wife; he imagined that she would excuse herself from the world with some insightful or witty remark, something good enough to inscribe on an epitaph. He would phone into the radio station and share it on open line, it would be so goddamn good. He’d have it printed on a pen and he’d leave that pen by the phone, and every time he answered it, taking dreary notes about the change in his cable plan, he would look at his wife’s dying words and think, now that’s an ending.
Her illness had progressed quickly. After one failed surgery, doctors determined further treatments to be futile; they had caught it too late. She ached regularly; her movements became slower, as though she was living underwater.
And yet she refused to stay in bed.
“I’d like to maintain a little dignity,” she had protested once against his suggestion that she take it easy, that she let him help her. Her jaw had been set, stubbornly; it had always been a matter of pride for her to refuse help.
But then she had begun to have weaker and weaker days. He would look at her and see past her skin, past her features, to the cancer beneath. The alien in the house, gnawing away at his wife from the inside out.
It was on a recent day, when she was particularly stiff and sore, that she had surprised him. Hugo had been immersed in the desktop computer in their grown daughter’s old bedroom, trying to teach himself how to use Google Maps, when he heard slow footsteps in the doorway. He had turned to see her, clad in that old purple bathrobe – the one she thought was ugly – hands deep in the pockets. She looked nervous, as though uncertain with what she was about to say.
“Will you draw me a bath?”
Hugo was somehow startled by the request, this question that bordered on being an admission of need. It must have shown on his face, for she continued, quietly, simply: “I’m tired.”
And so Hugo had led her into the bathroom and drawn the bath. She sat on the toilet lid and watched him test the temperature every thirty seconds. She watched him pour Epsom salts into the bath, which the doctor had said would help her muscles. When the tub was full and neither too hot or too cold, he had twisted the taps and turned to leave, to afford her some privacy.
“Will you help me?”
She lifted her arms to him like a child. And so he pulled at the sash of her bathrobe and peeled it away from her, hanging it neatly on a towel hook. She had shivered, naked, until he turned back to cup her by the elbows, help her over the tub, help her down into the water.
He had turned to leave, once more.
“Will you stay?”
And again, he stopped. She looked small, only head and shoulders visible above the waterline, like a waxen bust of herself.
And so he had stayed. And he had washed her with the bar of soap that smelled like her, its scent lingering in the bathroom long after a shower, settling on the towels she used, working its way into the folds of her clothing. Woodsy. Sweet.
She was always so goddamn particular about the way things smelled.
She sat with her arms around her knees while he grazed the soap across her back, his free hand lifting her hair to one side. It felt brittle in his hands. He washed her in silence, the ripple and drop of water echoing against the tiled walls.
“I’ve decided how I want to die,” she said suddenly, breaking the silence.
Her voice was muffled as she spoke into her knees.
She lifted her head. “Like this. In the bath.”
“Like the SARS lady? I don’t know where to get my hands on that much ethanol.”
He could sense, rather than see, her smile.
“No … just like this.”
“And why’s that?”
“Because … when you think about how we’re born, it’s probably the closest a person can ever come to ending full circle.”
He thought about it, this likening of a claw foot tub to a womb.
“And you know what my last words will be?”
She turned to face him. Her cheeks were pink from the heat– a sight he hadn’t seen in ages.
“Just pull the plug and let me out to sea.”
It wasn’t funny, but they laughed until they cried.
Hugo sticks the butt of his cigarette in the ash-dusted bread.
He imagines the laugh they would have shared, in this moment. Her laughter pealing like a bell through the whole house, seeping through the cracks in the walls. Tickling the hairs on his arms. “And so I died while making a sandwich,” says the ghost of her voice, sardonic. “And here I fancied myself a feminist.”
He is suddenly hyper aware of himself and the situation, as though he has become an impartial third party in the room. He imagines explaining this day to people, if anyone is bold enough to ask in the days to come. How he’ll say that he wasn’t with her – that she probably died while he was in the produce section, comparing bruises on apples. How the last thing she said to him was, “Can you get skim milk?” and how his last word to her was, “Yep.” How, upon discovering her, he left her on the floor while he tried to make himself lunch. How he then sat at the table and smoked a forbidden indoor cigarette, making his wife’s body smell like an ashtray while it grew cold in that hideous bathrobe.
Can you get skim milk? Can you get skim milk? The words ring in his head. He hears them until they are reduced to flat, meaningless syllables.
He is suddenly angry with himself. And with her. They should have known that this could happen at any time. They had known that this could happen at any time. So why hadn’t they parted as though they did? Why had they not reaffirmed their love for one another? Why had she not said something memorable? Something witty, or poetic, something so characteristically her? Something that he could share with loved ones, between tears, at the wake? Why had her last moments been so lonely and meaningless, so immersed in a mundane culinary task? She might as well have died while watching daytime television or taking out the trash.
Why did the moment of her death have so little to say about her life?
Why had he not pulled the plug and let her out to sea?
Hugo slides another cigarette from the package, a lump rising in his chest. His hands shake as he brings the cigarette to his lips. And then, quite suddenly, it slips from his hands and falls to the table.
“What have I done?”
The sound of his own voice startles him. The lump in his chest is turning into a sensation like panic. He looks at the body of his wife, sprawled on the kitchen floor. He looks at the butt of his earlier cigarette, poking up from the slices of bread like a signpost.
Hugo slides to his hands and knees. He crawls to his wife’s body. He hesitates. And then he sniffs her.
She stinks like a chain smoker at a bingo hall.
He jerks backwards. His thoughts become jumbled. Irrational.
No one can see her like this.
He needs to wash the smoke from her hair.
Perfect! She had wanted to die in the bath! Hadn’t she?
He will rewrite the story of her sandwich-making death.
He moves towards his wife, her body curled awkwardly where it fell. He bends and his hands hover momentarily, unsure of where to touch her, where to pick her up. He’s afraid of what she’ll feel like. He’s watched too many television shows in his lifetime. Will she be stiff? Cold?
He settles on her back and the crooks of her knees, like he has carried her before. The time she broke her foot in the ravine. The night she turned forty and was too drunk to make it up the stairs. He slides his hands beneath her and strains.
With a groan that emerges from the very depths of himself, Hugo picks her up.
And then he falls.
With a sickening thud, the body of his wife crashes to the floor. His arms flail as he goes down with her, connecting with anything and everything in reach. The mayonnaise jar. The mustard. The breadbox. With a series of crashes and the sound of shattering glass, the sandwich supplies on the countertop go flying about the kitchen.
For a moment Hugo lies in a heap beside his wife. Once his breathing slows, he lifts his head to survey the damage.
The floor and walls are streaked with condiments. The mayonnaise jar lies in broken shards beneath the table. A slice of sandwich meat has fastened itself to the side of the fridge.
Hugo looks at his wife. Her abdomen is stained with red, the tomato innards that landed there oozing like freed organs.
He has accidentally created a murder scene.
He begins to sweat, cold, despite the heat of the kitchen. Once again he is moved with the urge to talk to himself, to break the eerie silence of this house that feels more like a tomb with each passing minute. “What the hell did I just do?” How will he explain this?
Is it even legal to try and move a body?
Will they think he killed her?
Hugo is suddenly uncertain of everything. Had he killed her? Without thinking he lifts his palms in the air, as though surrendering to the police officers that are about to charge around the corner.
No – no – he begins to calm himself. He did not kill her. He was getting groceries. He was at the post office. She died from the inside out.
He most definitely did not kill her.
And now she most certainly needs a bath.
Hugo looks down at his wife. Her body looks impossibly tiny amidst the wreckage of his fall. He curses his own strength, his inability to lift her now as he has so many times before. She is lighter than she has ever been – he knows this. But he is older.
He will have to drag her.
He surveys her body again, but this time with strategy in mind. The limbs, clearly – but the hands or the feet?
After brief deliberation, he settles on the feet.
Hugo repositions himself and removes her one remaining slipper. He pauses. He feels uneasy about the prospect of touching her skin. He reminds himself that he has already touched her; he checked for a pulse upon discovering her body. He vaguely remembers doing so, but feels as though he had watched from the sidelines while a stranger checked for signs of life. He can’t remember whether she was warm or cold. He can’t remember anything at all.
He grabs her by the heels.
The moment he makes contact with her skin, he feels a wave of nausea in his stomach. She isn’t cold yet, but she isn’t warm. She is room temperature, like the package of deli meat.
Hugo swallows. He gives her a firm tug and her body slides along the linoleum towards him. Weaving a trail around the slices of cheese, he pulls her to the base of the stairs, where he stops.
He counts. Seven stairs.
Hugo repositions himself so that his arms are hooked beneath her armpits. Her head falls forward and he now sees that the back of her hair has become matted with mustard. He must have dragged her through it. Again he tries to sedate the rising panic – he can wash it out. He can wash out the mustard. He can wash out the scent of smoke. She had said that she wanted to die in the bath. She would be happy with this ending for herself.
Hugo drags the body of his wife up the stairs, her behind smacking the front of each step, her legs flailing like the parts of a marionette. When he reaches the top of the stairs, sweating, feeling the strain of his veins as they pulse against his temples so hard that they seem to be trying to escape, he lets go of his wife and lets her slump to the floor of the hallway.
It is darker here. The hallway has no windows. The sunlight bouncing on the kitchen floor below him seems far away.
Hugo leans against the wall, trying to steady himself. His breathing is ragged.
He isn’t strong enough for this. He looks at the lumpy purple heap that is his wife. He looks at the front of his shirt, now streaked with mustard where her head had flopped against it. It looks as though he has been shot in the heart and bled yellow.
He has watched far too much television in his lifetime.
He collects himself, wipes his sweating forehead. He looks down the hall, gauging the distance yet to be travelled. He looks at his wife. He finally comprehends the etymology of the term dead weight.
“Help me out a little,” he mutters.
His words echo down the hallway. He hadn’t meant to speak to her. His earlier words had been directed to the space around them. To the universe. Now they are directed to her. It simply comes from him, instinctually, this act of talking to her that he has performed every day for the past twenty-four years.
There is some comfort in it.
Hugo catches his breath. He bends down and hoists her up by the underarms once more. He tries to ignore the way her head rolls backwards.
Hugo drags her down the hallway.
He stops at the door of the bathroom. With his hip, Hugo nudges open the door.
He blinks, his eyes adjusting to the sunlight after the darkness of the hall.
The light dances on the white tiles, the porcelain toilet, the claw foot tub.
“Snowy and sterile,” she had always said about the whiteness of this room.
Hugo drags her inside, the mat by the sink getting tangled in her legs and coming along for the ride.
Panting, Hugo sets her down by the toilet.
Despite the sunlight, the bathroom feels cool. Hugo realizes for the first time that he is still wearing his outdoor shoes. Another rule broken. He lowers the toilet lid and sits down to unlace them. A kind of reverence overtakes him; he slips the shoes from his feet and arranges them gingerly on the floor, as though his wife is sleeping and he would prefer not to wake her. He peels the socks from his feet and lays one in each shoe. Barefooted, he pads his way towards the tub.
Hugo places the plug in the drain. Turns on the taps. The temperature is not important, but he checks it anyway. He is satisfied when the water is neither colder nor hotter than his hand.
As the tub fills, Hugo turns to his wife. He smiles involuntarily at the sight of that stupid bathrobe, lumpy and shapeless, like an over-loved child’s toy, stained with food. Hugo turns her onto her back. His initial shock at the touch of her skin has subsided. There is a quiet comfort in it.
And just as he had prepared her for that earlier bath – a long ago day, it feels – so now he prepares her for her last. He gently tugs the sash of the robe, releasing the folds wrapped at her chest. Beneath it she is fully naked. Hugo remembers a time – remembers the thousands of times – that he has undressed her. He remembers yanking the clothes from one another like savages, when they were young, with the appetite for that. He remembers learning to undress her slowly, learning that this was part of it.
Freed from her robe, she is stretched out on the bathroom floor. Hugo turns off the taps. The water is shallow, but enough. He knows that he will have to lift her one last time. Knows that this will be difficult. He realizes that the easiest way will be to take her with him.
Hugo rolls up his pant legs and fishes the cell phone from his pocket, laying it on the back of the toilet. He crouches behind her, propping her up. Reaching around her middle, his hand brushes the long scar at her abdomen. The souvenir of a fruitless surgery – the end of the road.
He knots his arms around her stomach and locks his hands together.
He lets his breath do the counting. One, two, three –
Hugo groans as he tries to stand. His back cracks with the exertion, however thin the frame of his wife. In this moment he is made keenly aware of his own age.
His own mortality.
Knees shaking, clinging to her for dear life, he lifts one leg over the side of the tub. Careful not to slip, he twists his body so that she moves with him. Her hip smacks the side of the tub.
“Sorry! Shit, sorry.”
And then he slips for the second time today, landing hard on his tailbone.
She lands in his lap, the weight of them both sending a tidal wave of water over the side of the tub. But he has not let go. He still holds her around the waist, and she has fallen in such a way that her head rolls gently into the nook of his shoulder. His shirt is now more mustard than not.
He stays like this, fully clothed, soaking, holding her.
He is made aware of the passing time only by the water growing cooler and the light fading.
When his teeth begin to chatter, he rises. The sound of the water dripping from his clothes is deafening. With extreme caution, Hugo lowers his wife into the shallow water, straightening her body so that it fills the length of the tub. The waterline stops at her chin, framing the pale oval of her face.
Gripping the side of the tub, steadying himself, Hugo steps onto the bathroom floor. The water that escaped from the bath during his fall now pools in the curvature of the floor, where the house in its antiquity is no longer level. He breaks the glassy surface with his foot. It is cold, sending a chill from his ankle to the back of his neck.
Delicately, hand cupping his sore tailbone, he sits in the puddle.
He leans his head against the cool porcelain surface of the tub, the scent of the cast iron beneath it overwhelming him, reminding him of every hospital, every stadium, every change room of a public pool that he has ever visited. The taste of every dentist’s appointment, welling about in his mouth, metallic, like blood.
Finally getting to work, he washes her hair.
He is gentle, working the shampoo from roots to ends in circular strokes, the way he has seen her do it, when they used to shower together. The mustard comes away in his hands, staining the water a strange sepia tone, like the faux-antique photographs that their grown daughter takes with her cell phone. He reaches for the tap and lets a cool stream of water wash the lather away.
He remembers how they had bathed their daughter together, long ago, when she was a toddler. He remembers splashes and accidents in the tub, the cursing and the laughter that came with it. He remembers wiping the soap from her eyes with a warm face cloth.
Hugo knows that the time has come to make a call. There is a kitchen to clean. There will be papers to sign, arrangements to make. The strange, private bubble of this afternoon will end, this bath will end, and everything after the bath will be a strange new world without her.
Hugo reaches for his phone on the back of the toilet. His thumb trembles over the keypad and he suddenly realizes that he has no idea what number he ought to be dialing. 911 seems senseless. The police? Is this what police do? No – there hasn’t been a crime. He remembers that coroners exist, but isn’t quite sure what they do either. He also realizes that he has no idea how to reach one. Could the police recommend a good coroner? Is a coroner in the phone book? Hugo wonders if he still owns a phone book.
Hugo inhales, sharply. Through the sterile scent of the cast iron is something familiar, something woodsy and sweet. He turns his hand and finds himself eye level with a soap dish. His wife’s soap dish, with a cake of soap that smells like her.
Hugo looks at his wife, the uniform paleness of her skin. Her hair, floating, forming dark clouds in the soapy water.
Hugo dials a number he knows.
He listens to it ring. The tub drips gently.
The voice of his grown daughter. Slightly breathless, traffic in the background.
Hugo opens his mouth to speak, but has no idea how to form a sentence that delivers the kind of news he inevitably has to.
“Dad? I’m having trouble hearing you, I think.”
He is struck with the realization that his next sentence will make it real.
He looks at his wife. The dripping tap forms tiny swells in the water. He watches the way it ebbs and flows around her navel.
For the first time since he walked through the door today, he looks at her face.
The small folds of skin around her mouth and eyes.
Her jawline – once defined, softened by age and stiffened by death.
“Dad! Can you hear me?”
Hugo reaches into the tub. The clouds of hair curl and uncurl around his hand, soft, like underwater reeds in a pond. He imagines her floating away from him, into green depths.
“Daaaaaaad is this a butt dial?”
Down, her limbs tangling in the underwater garden, her body drifting to its resting place on a sandy bed, where it will become a shrine for the crawling things that live there. Centuries will pass and she will become a gathering of bones. Eons will pass and the geology of the earth will change, the land around this pond eroding away and falling into the sea. And what begins as a small trickle of water from this pond will form a river, growing in size and surge, until one day it swallows the landscape and the pond and the sea become one. And then the atoms of his wife, the last remaining organic matter that has become the tendrils of weeds and the bodies of fish, will be released into the open waters.
He reaches beneath his wife and pulls the plug.
“Let me tell you the story of your mother’s last words.”
Meghan Greeley is currently completing an MFA in Screenwriting at York University. As a playwright, her work has been produced in Newfoundland and Halifax (Canada), and her play Brother, Brother, which was a winner of the InspiraTO Short Play Contest, will be produced in Toronto this coming May-June. Her poetry and prose have been published in Riddlefence, Humber Mouths 2, Nelson’s Literature Homegrown (Grade 9 Text), and her poem those eyes was recently the winner of the Sparks Poetry Festival. She is a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada.