Delivering a Message
Like so many lovers, we waged war quietly. Our particular battlefield was the thermostat. It hung on the wall as an ever-changing banner. She wanted it up a few degrees and I was in charge of the household budget. Both of us vied for control: above sixty-five, victory was hers; closer to sixty-two, I felt triumphant. Only summertime created peace, mutually accepted and embraced. For three months we gave up one scheming, forgetting papers in other rooms, and the pretense of tripping into the hallway. In other seasons it was too easy to make an adjustment, overriding the system.
Autumn had died its usual death. There was talk of snow. The dead weight of winter settled on our land, house, and lives completely. “Like a landed whale,” I thought, imagining feeble attempts to dislodge such an unwieldy mammal. The results were cartoonish in my mind.
Dinner warmed us temporarily, and afterward I began to tell her about my day, the whispers of where, who and how. She stared at me and made a face I could not interpret.
“What?” I asked.
“Hmm?” Her lips moved only a little, momentarily revealing a flash of white. I had always admired her teeth.
“You’re looking at me so seriously.”
“I have something on my tongue,” she said, still making her impossible face.
Dinner over, the dishes occupied us, but not long enough. We sat back on the futon and turned the television on. We were young, only dimly aware of how age would sap our warmth, having watched our parents and too much television. Sharing a blanket, we made a silent truce about the temperature.
“Wouldn’t it be glorious!” she exclaimed of a sudden.
I knew her thoughts and they echoed mine, how different things would be if there were a child in the apartment, first wailing, then crawling, finally walking and running and…She had a name all picked out, as though that was all that was necessary for life, a name.
Dollar signs would become meaningless when a child existed outside our dreams. I never permitted myself to say if, but kept to a steadfast when like a sailor in search of dry land.
I heard the doctor’s message the next afternoon on the answering machine: “Mrs. Zalman, this is Doctor Reid, and I’d like to discuss your test results. Please give me a call at your first opportunity.”
The faint note of depression in Dr. Reid’s voice was unmistakable, even though he had spoken carefully and tried professionally to conceal it. Maybe it was a medical faux pas to say so much on the telephone, but who did you sue for destroying your dreams? What kind of malpractice was that?
First opportunity felt ominous rather than joyful in the recorded message.
When she arrived home, arms overflowing with flowers and a fresh loaf of bread—“There was a sale!”—I lost the heart to tell her about the doctor’s call. Better to let her be happy for a time. Deceit had a way of metastasizing, but still, it could be excised. We could try again. I had to believe in second and third chances.
We had eaten and peeked lovingly at each other from either side of the vase and the carnations that served as the centerpiece.
Now as we sat under the blanket once more, I was the child hiding my report card. When would the doctor call again? What if I was not home to stop delivery of the message? I thought of taking the batteries out of the answering machine, but their absence would be difficult to explain. I even considered running down a different set of batteries, leaving a flashlight glowing in some closet and putting dead batteries in the machine, but the uncertainty of a man’s voice strangled by wires, by life itself, overwhelmed me. And all that wasted light, guiding no one!
I leaned forward and made as though to turn on the television. We would have decades to sit like this.
“Honey.” I looked back at her. I had pulled the blanket completely off her legs and, smiling shyly, pushed it back toward her. She settled it loosely over her chest. Tonight her tongue was no bother. “While you were at work today,” she said, “when I was out running errands I stopped in to see Dr. Reid.”
I thought of how a whale could crush a man, or a whole generation of men. Evidently she did not notice the impossibility of my face for she continued speaking.
“He says that when I get bigger, several months on, I’ll feel warm all over.”
I understood the message and her changing face. Winter’s chill demanded more than a truce; it called for a treaty. There would be no trouble about the thermostat, and when sunny days returned, as they seemed wont to do, I could buy an air conditioner.
About the author:
Matt Kolbet teaches and writes near Portland, Oregon.