If Not Love

by Claudia Burbank

It was four years since Joan died. Four years since they sat down to dinner and she said, “I feel funny.” Four years of loneliness and zapping frozen dinners and throwing his back out every time he did the laundry. Gunnar wanted another wife. But at seventy-eight the prospects weren’t exactly falling from the sky any more than they had at twenty-eight.His kids had their own lives now, and lived some distance away. Most of their old friends, Joan’s and his, had long ago drifted from this hamlet in the Jersey hills down to Florida. Gunnar enlisted his cronies at the coffee shop for help in his search. They congregated at the back booth, their booth, weekday mornings for an hour or so. He asked if their wives knew someone. But the pickings were pretty slim. Everyone agreed Betty Longwood was way above him. Ruth Timm seemed almost old enough to be his mother. Anne Fusco seemed like a possibility till she told him on their first date over the clams casino that she wouldn’t want a second husband if you paid her, nothing personal.“Join a church,” suggested Leo. They debated which church was good for meeting women, though none of the group went any more. For reasons that eluded Gunnar, they narrowed it down to the Methodist or the Congregational, but he felt it made him look desperate. Arthur, Jack, and Leo hooted, “Who you trying to kid?”

They consulted Sheryl, the waitress, a dishwater blonde in her twenties who looked more like forty. She had a couple of brats already, and a pleasantly thick waist that made her uniform bunch. “Available women?” she repeated vaguely, as if they’d asked about astrophysics. “What’s your type?”

“Breathing,” Arthur cracked before Gunnar could answer.

He tried the mall, the one in Dutch Valley, where knots of crepe-skinned women pattered around the tiers. He was continually startled at the reflection in the windows; a man, very much like himself, with a shock of white hair, oversized glasses, and a belly sloping over his waistband.

He felt equally ridiculous at the county Y where he doggie-paddled near the edge of the pool, or floated on his back, his tummy rising like a tropical island while a female gaggle at the shallow end exercised in pastel rubber swim caps. So many women clustered together made him feel back in high school, shy and outnumbered. They raised their arms in unison, bending this way and that, and fluttered their legs, churning white suds like the head on a beer. By next morning he’d developed a nasty sinus infection that required a trip to the doctor, and put him off indoor pools for good.

So when Frank Humphrey abruptly died, Gunnar’s buddies jokingly suggested that he make a move on his widow, Eleanor—jokingly, because she was not known as a sociable type, and because of her grown son, Birdie. “Haw, haw,” they thumped the table. “A match made in heaven—you and Eleanor and the Village Idiot. That’ll shut you up good.”

“Like you’re any prize,” he countered. “Fucking bastards.”

“Aw now,” Jack turned his palms up, “what village doesn’t have an idiot?”

“You running for the job?” Gunnar asked.

“What a sensitive sonofabitch,” Arthur said. “Hey Sheryl,” he waved her over. “Isn’t Gunnar a sensitive sonofabitch?”

“Yeah, a real bowl of mush,” she said, holding two stained carafes of coffee, one in each hand, like the scales of justice. She whisked away, her rubber-soled shoes squeaking.

“Morons,” Gunnar said, “all of youse.”

As it happened, he’d already approached Eleanor Humphrey at the funeral. Frank had been a house painter and a long-time customer at the hardware store where Gunnar worked until, surrounded by sprawling, cavernous stores out on the interstates, it folded for good. From time to time Eleanor stopped in with Birdie lumbering beside her. The nicer folks called him “backward” or “deficient,” but you couldn’t say those things any more. They were a common sight around town, especially as Eleanor didn’t drive. Birdie was squat as a pumpkin with plastered black hair; he didn’t talk, but made the odd grunt or burble. Eleanor was tall, with a forehead so high you could write a letter on it. She was seventy-three now, and her eyes bulged slightly behind silvery frames. But she had grayed so young she’d looked the same indeterminate age forever.

Unlike her husband, she didn’t talk much. And there’d never been any use trying to sell her something extra either, but Gunnar had admired that. She used to let Birdie shake some seed packets like maracas while she scrutinized others for so long he wondered just how fascinating cabbage could really be. At last, she’d deal the packets out slowly on the counter like a royal flush, snapping each slightly as she laid it down—Jersey boy tomatoes, big boy carrots, lettuce, peas, Alaskan jewel nasturtiums.

Gunnar cringed when he recalled the time, some twenty years ago, Eleanor hustled Birdie into the store and asked, “Do you have a bathroom? Gunnar had hesitated. The toilet was in a broom closet with pin-ups of chesty women. When was the last time he’d cleaned it? “Birdie has to go.”

“Oh, does he know how?” Gunnar blurted.

Her eyes were flecked with gold and uncommonly direct. “He won’t make a mess. Like some. If that’s what you’re thinking.”

As if anyone could make that stinkhole worse, Gunnar thought. He gestured with his chin to the back and, of all things, winked at her. Why the hell did I do that? I never wink.

That was years ago. They’d had any number of unremarkable encounters since then. But it was all he could think of as he paid his respects at the funeral home and took her hands clumsily in his. She latched on with the tight grip the newly bereaved use with the living. Those gold-flecked eyes, dazed and uncertain, searched his face as if he could explain what was happening to her.

“If there’s anything,” he’d said, “anything at all I can do.” She nodded but seemed reluctant to let go even after he ran out of things to say.

Gunnar lived some blocks away and though he had no reason to drive down her street, he found himself doing just that in the weeks that followed. One day, after a windstorm had taken down most of the autumn leaves, he knocked on her door and offered to rake her yard. She seemed mildly surprised as if the bright yellow sea that lapped at her front steps had never occurred before.

He gave Birdie an extra rake and he seemed happy rocking back and forth by the tire swing. Eleanor sat listlessly at the warped picnic table in back of the red bungalow.  Occasionally she rose to yank this or that from the straggly border. Gunnar studied her from beneath his visor; she moved with clean purpose when she moved; when she was still, she was stiller than fear. He also made note of the peeling paint and rotting boards near the downspouts—the shoemaker’s children, he thought wryly. Frank had never been friendly with work, as the village wags put it, and by the look of things, there was probably little set aside. Why else, at seventy-five, had he still risked his neck on high ladders?

Over the next few months Gunnar persevered through Eleanor’s mute, almost childlike helplessness, offering rides to the grocery store, telling her it was no bother since he had to go anyway. Birdie rode in the back, the window down no matter how chilly, his face in the breeze like a dog. Gunnar led them down the aisles. When she stood too long in front of the cereals or the canned soup, he gently prodded her, or threw whatever was closest into the cart.

It wasn’t long before Leo spotted Gunnar’s car in her driveway. “Lovebirds,” the cronies razzed.

“Hell,” Gunnar said, “she takes the paper towels I throw away and dries them out to use again.”

“Oh, you’re in for it now,” they slapped the table, haw, haw. “Here, have some napkins,” the tears streamed down their faces, “for the next time you take a leak.” Haw, haw.

Soon Gunnar was stopping by Eleanor’s most afternoons and often stayed for dinner and a couple hours of TV. There was always something that needed doing. At first, even if he couldn’t see her, he sensed her watching him and Birdie, his near-constant, wordless shadow. Once Birdie dragged the hose to him while he was sawing a board out back. Gunnar put the hose down and Birdie picked it up again. A window snapped open. “He’s thirsty!” Eleanor called. Or fixing a light in the kitchen, he rested on a chair. “Guh,” Birdie said. “Guh!” Eleanor poked her head in the doorway. “That’s Birdie’s chair,” she almost smiled. She was the sort of person who thought she was smiling, even though she wasn’t. Once, watching a very funny show, he asked her why she wasn’t laughing. “But I am,” she protested.

He noticed the little seizures first, when Birdie went still and seemed to disappear like the moon behind a cloud. “He’s fine,” Eleanor assured him. “Just ignore it.” But it felt strange to pretend nothing was happening: he felt he should stop, or whisper, or stroke Birdie’s arm. He was working in the basement a month later when a big fit occurred, and Birdie toppled off a stool. Gunnar yelled and Eleanor flew down the stairs. She showed him how to make sure Birdie didn’t bump his head and how, when he sat up groggily, to lie him on the sofa. “A few times and you’ll be used to it,” she patted Gunnar’s shoulder. You’ll, he thought, taken aback. You will.

One evening, she made pot roast after he said how much he missed it, and though it was drier than an old log, the time felt right. He cleared his throat. “I’ve been thinking.” He spread his hands on the vinyl tablecloth. “I’ve been thinking. There’s you and there’s me. And there’s Birdie.” Birdie grunted at his name and began to sway; Eleanor went still. “I don’t see why we can’t—I mean, I’m prepared—if you want to, that is—I’m prepared to sell my house. It would bring a little something—well, not a lot, but enough. To make life easier, a little. If you want, that is.”

Eleanor’s eyebrows rose in twin peaks. She scraped a dried bit of something from the vinyl with her thumbnail, and opened her mouth to speak.

“You think on it,” he said quickly. “That’s all I ask. And no hanky-pank—that’s not why I’m asking—unless you want.”

She gave a single, short “heh.” “Well, I don’t know,” she said slowly. “That upstairs bedroom gets awful chilly.”

The only things Gunnar took were his tools, his bed, and the Barcalounger. “No way,” he grumbled goodnaturedly to his cronies, “am I sleeping in a dead man’s bed, or sitting in a dead man’s Lay-Z-Boy, that’s for damn sure.” He played it up just for them.

His son drove up from Monmouth to help him move and seemed genuinely happy for him. His daughter in Ohio seemed to think he’d gone senile, and all but accused Eleanor of tricking him into something. Once she realized, though, that she could stop asking him to move closer, she seemed relieved, if mildly annoyed. “I can’t believe you sold the house without asking,” she kept saying.

To start anew after so many years with Joan was like learning a new, imperfect dance for three. Gunnar tucked his napkin at his neck, the way he liked, and drank beer from the bottle, things Joan hadn’t allowed. They ate dinner on tray tables, watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, calling out answers. They followed natural disasters on The Weather Channel the way others did celebrities. If Eleanor wasn’t much of a cook—in fact, she was awful—well, that’s the way it goes.

Then there was Birdie. He wandered into their bedroom when they were asleep and sat like a dozing bear at the foot of the bed, or stood in the glow of the nightlight. One or the other—usually Eleanor—would sense a murky presence and tell Birdie to go back to bed, good boy. “Why does he do that?” Gunnar asked.” Is he frightened?” But she thought he just woke up and wanted to see where she was.

With Joan, a vague disappointment had settled over their marriage even before the children were grown. With Eleanor, there hadn’t been time for disappointment to arise; they were still feeling their way. After a few months, he suggested a cruise. Something nice for once in her life. “Couldn’t someone watch Birdie, someone from an agency perhaps?”

“Oh, no,” she looked up from the shirt she was mending. “No, no, no,” she said quickly. “I’ve never left Birdie like that. Not ever. I couldn’t do that to him.”

“Well, then, the three of us, maybe the shore for a day.”

She took a few more stitches, pulling a long thread into the air. “I was afraid of this.” She held the shirt to her mouth and bit off the thread with a soft snap. “Dragging you down.”

He leaned over and kissed that broad brow, one, two, three times, till the furrows disappeared. “My ball and chain,” he said tenderly.

***

Birdie as in Bertie as in Albert, she explained. Albert Francis Humphrey.

“What’s it like,” the cronies wanted to know, “having him around? Frigging weird, right?”

“Better than you lousy bunch of bastards,” Gunnar said. They smiled.

You could sit Birdie in a rocking chair, or the tire swing, and he’d go like a metronome, singing some goobledygook in a surprisingly high voice. You could give him a box of crayons or pipe cleaners—heck, a box of anything would do. Mainly he liked magazines, ones with lots of pictures like Vogue and National Geographic. There were tattered piles of glossies in every room. Flip-flip-flip—he could go for hours. And walks—you could walk him endlessly, round and round the village. At Tony’s, you could plunk him in a chair and, between the rare customer, Tony draped him up and pretended to snip and whisk his neck.

Others were more uneasy. The woman at the pizzeria asked Gunnar politely to leave, saying Birdie would scare off customers. At the liquor store, which had replaced the hardware store, a clerk yelled as soon as he opened the door, “Hey! You can’t bring him in here!”

Thank God Birdie didn’t talk. For hours they walked in silence, pausing to sit on a bench or, if it was raining, in the library. But also, he could get things off his chest and ramble on about anything; Birdie didn’t mind. The first time Birdie held his hand, Gunnar said, “Oh well, all right, if that’s what you want.” Birdie’s hand was damp and doughy.

“Hey we seen you,” Arthur ragged, “you and your boyfriend, just your type.”

Gunnar held his hand out. “Jealous? I know you want to do it. Go on.”

Sometimes a huddle of teenage boys at the pond would whisper and snort, shoulders shaking with laughter, while the boldest imitated Birdie’s heavy, clumping walk right in front of Gunnar. Birdie was oblivious, but Gunnar wanted to smash the kid’s pimply leering face. Once, after he let fly, telling them where to go and what they could do to themselves, a muscled-up cop came to the door; someone with a lawyer for a father wanted to press charges. Against him! “Just apologize,” the officer sighed behind wrap-around polarized shades. “Let’s all be adults here.”

The first time Birdie was troubled—when he made terrible moans and groans and rocked back and forth—they were a block from the house and Gunnar nearly panicked. He had to get him home to Eleanor. He alternately pulled Birdie by both hands, leaning back on his heels, and pushed with his shoulder in his back, putting all his weight into it. It was like trying to budge a file cabinet. Surely the neighbors saw him shush, wheedle, bark orders, and throw up his hands. He’d got him halfway down the front walk when Eleanor rushed out and pinned Birdie in a bear hug, rocking him side to side, foot to foot, like a child’s stiff dance. Gunnar learned to do the same, though his belly got in the way unless he bent forward awkwardly so that Birdie’s hot breath, his muffled anguish at God knows what, dampened Gunnar’s shoulder. He’d thump his soft, round back like a baby’s. “Now, now,” he’d say, “there, there,” pressing his chin on the head of slightly oily hair. “Is it so bad?” he’d croon. If that didn’t work, he’d pop a Life Saver, the fruity kind, onto Birdie’s thick tongue like communion. When Eleanor first got sick, a year after their marriage, he must have used a barrel of Life Savers, but didn’t tell, so as not to worry her.

***

It was as if she’d swallowed a swirly agate that somehow lodged in her left breast. At least that’s how it felt to him.

“Nothing,” she said, when he asked her about it. That meant it was something, all right. If it were nothing she’d have said “I must be hard-hearted,” and waited for his laugh. She wouldn’t go to the doctor either, just flat out refused. Gunnar was terrified of losing her.

His worries tumbled out to Birdie on their walks, for all the good it did. The marble grew to a peach pit, then a lump of coal. He pleaded, cajoled, demanded, threatened to leave. Of course he was bluffing, but what else could he do? She’d promise to make an appointment if he shut up, and swore she had, but of course she hadn’t. A couple times in Adamstown he pulled up to the doctor’s. “Eleanor, please. For God’s sake.” But she just glowered and clamped her worn brown purse beneath her arm like a football.

He thought he’d go crazy. Finally, he went to her lady friend, Carol Ann, across the street. She marched right over and confronted her. Eleanor bent over sobbing so hard she practically choked, but to his astonishment, she let Carol Ann take her just like that.

***

In the hospital—the only time she’d ever been separated from Birdie—she seemed panicked at Gunnar’s visits. Where was Birdie? What if something happened? Birdie must be so lost, so frightened. “Please don’t come,” she finally said. “I’d much rather you stay with him.”

“If that would make you happy.”

“It would.”

There was a rough patch the first week when he rocked Birdie in a bear-hug at least once a day. And when he wandered into the bedroom at night, Gunnar didn’t have the heart to send him back. He began to worry—what if something happened, what if he, too, became ill. What then?

He looked into some places, special homes they didn’t have years ago. A couple seemed okay: nice, no smells, within a forty minute drive. After Eleanor came home, lopsided and shrunken, she’d slump at the kitchen table, one hand propping a cheek while she studied the brochures and Birdie flipped through magazines. Sometimes Gunnar would find her staring out the window at the tire swing. Once she turned to him, tearfully, her mouth opening and closing like a fish gupping air, and shook her head. But she always carefully folded the colorful spreads, and tucked them behind the coffee can of rattling change atop the fridge.

***

Good, real good, he told his buddies whenever they asked, though they all knew she wasn’t. They’d have to move, he explained. The only bathroom was on the second floor and the stairs were getting hard.

“Got the short end of the stick she did,” Leo said. Gunnar contemplated the oily sheen on his coffee, while Jack and Arthur rattled off various surgeries, illness, and accidents of late, presumably to make him feel better. Leo raised an empty mug in Sheryl’s direction—“A little love here, what?”

A first-floor two-bedroom was available in the aged brick garden apartments the other side of Main. It was smaller than the bungalow, and the brook that ran behind it tended to flood, but it’d do. He walked Birdie down the six blocks every day so at least the outside would be familiar when they moved. He insisted Eleanor rest, and she insisted on doing her part. He was so afraid that she might, like Joan, suddenly “feel funny,” that he only reluctantly left her alone, and never for more than an hour. Whenever she dozed in her chair or on the sofa, he leaned in close to see if she was breathing. “Go away,” she’d say without opening her eyes.

***

Two weeks before the move, piles and boxes and emptied shelves made the little house feel under siege.

One night he woke to an awful heavy thunking, but couldn’t tell what it was, or where, or if he’d really heard anything at all. Eleanor was sitting up in bed, tensed and still and peering at the top of the staircase just outside the door. His head was muddled with sleep but she seemed wide awake. “Birdie?” He started to grope for his glasses when her fingers dug into his arm.

“Wait,” she said. Her grip was ferocious.

Not Birdie, then, but what? Burglar? Branch on the roof? One of the boxes in the hall? But, no, how would it tumble by itself? He started to throw back the covers but her grip tightened even more. “Not yet.” He held his breath straining to listen.

She was moving then, slowly, deliberately, scuffling into her slippers. He saw her bat-winged shadow pull a robe around her and, not in any hurry, tie it securely. Must be going to the johnny. He closed his eyes and rolled over. No, wait. That’s the stairs, not the bathroom door hushing over the carpet.  “Oh!” he heard her say.

He saw him at the bottom of the stairs in the glow of the kitchen light, curled on his side. Step by step, Eleanor crept down, clinging to the handrail. Her slow tread and raspy, labored breathing echoed in the narrow stairwell. At the bottom, she balanced a moment on the step; grabbing the post with both hands, she swung one leg over Birdie, and then the other.

“I better call,” he said from the top of the landing but his legs wouldn’t move. A dark trickle from Birdie’s nose as he gazed up at his mother. She frowned with concentration the way she did threading a needle. She gathered the hem of her robe and brought it to his face.

Wait. No. She wasn’t wiping the blood away at all. That’s not what was happening.

Birdie’s hand twitched. Those thick stumpy fingers.

***

She said she found him like that and no one questioned her, not the cop or the volunteer first aid squad. They noted the history of seizures. The confusion of boxes in the hallway. The rugs that had been taken up earlier that day. Someone said it was a blessing in disguise; another, it was for the best.

The cronies don’t ask how he’s holding up. Sheryl does, but he feels himself almost start to blubber and who wants that.

“It’s a damn crying shame,” Jack says quickly.

“One little slip,” Leo shakes his head. They stare off into the distance as if something interesting were happening there.

“On the house, gentlemen,” Sheryl sets down a plate of crullers. Gunnar takes one, but it’s dry and he starts to choke.

“Whoa!” says Arthur, “don’t crap out on us now.” He thumps his back. All Gunnar can think of is a wide, soft, sticky hand in his.

Closing day. Gunnar’s parked in the driveway with a few last things; the movers came yesterday. Six blocks can be a world; everything looks different, feels different, like being in another country. They’re in that unsettled limbo between places, their lives, or what’s left of them, packed, labeled, waiting in unfamiliar rooms.

Eleanor is ankle-deep in the pachysandra, bony rump in the air. She wants to plant some rootings at the new place. “I don’t know if they’ll let you,” Gunnar’d cautioned gently, but she’d waved him off like a bothersome fly.

His hand hovers over the horn, drops to his lap, hovers again. They’re late for the closing.

You can’t tell Eleanor what to do, he muses, whether it’s going to a doctor, or a closing, or leaving some plantings alone. Or keeping a son that everyone called “defective” and urged her to give up.

Eleanor straightens up with the drooping sprigs, and fingers the leaves with the same tender motion she used on Birdie’s hair. No tears, though. Not for Birdie. “I feel him just beyond the door,” she said the other day, “waiting, with Frank.” She’d sounded certain, tranquil, relieved. Almost, Gunnar thought, as if she’d already left.


 

If-Not-Love_Burbank_photo_lgeClaudia Burbank was born in New Haven, Connecticut and graduated from Vassar College. Her honors include the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award, two fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Inkwell Prize, and several Pushcart Prize nominations. Her fiction and poetry are published or forthcoming in such journals as Subtropics, Puerto del Sol, Prairie Schooner, upstreet, and Washington Square Review.

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