Morning shuffled over the city, the clouds like discarded tissues on a floor changing from deep blue to azure. A few cars and trucks ventured into the streets. Far away sirens wailed. Grocery stores and pharmacies here and there began to roll up their shutters while reluctant shoppers in facemasks began to queue, six feet apart, watchful and silent. The shop doors whooshed open and one person at a time moved carefully inside.
Olive, lying on a sofa, under an old wool blanket, saw only the clouds passing from the sky, as if an invisible hand was slowly brushing them away. She wore Hugo’s old plaid pajamas. Although a little too big, they gave her the familiar feel of flannel against her skin and exuded his scent. She could almost pretend they had curled together in the darkness.
But now, morning.
She dragged the blanket from the sofa to Hugo’s favorite chair, a recliner that faced a windowless nook. He used to sip his morning coffee and evening sherry there, looking at a painting on the easel. Whatever painting he was working on at the time, he studied its imperfections under the changing light. “Sunrise, sunset: I see so many possibilities.”
Imogen next door began playing a bittersweet song, and the piano came through very faintly, as familiar as a beloved voice, overheard in another room. A tear wended its way down Olive’s cheek. The composer was one she knew and loved but Olive, but a dense fog had settled in her mind, could not name him. The music was unbearably sad and she would never have Hugo to listen to it with her again.
Sunlight grew a little stronger in the room and Olive pushed aside the blanket. She swung her callused feet to the floor and padded to the washroom, then crawled back onto “Hugo’s throne,” the recliner. She smoothed the blanket, their old plaid picnic blanket, and wept to think she would never sprawl on the picnic blanket with Hugo again.
Imogen switched to scales now, as regular as a heartbeat. Olive dully stared at the painting in the nook. Hugo’s final painting, three men at a door. Why had he selected this painting, of the dozens he had kept, for her to see the last thing at night and the first thing each day?
A year ago, they had made the painful decision that Hugo required “assisted living.” He needed to be lifted into and out of bed and – after carpal tunnel surgery on both her wrists – Olive could no longer help him. Hugo was having bad falls, too, and sometimes took her down with him. Grudgingly, they had put his name on the waitlist for Oakview Lodge, the nearest long-term care facility.
“I can visit you every day,” Olive had said.
“Promise or a threat?” Hugo had said.
What a comedian, that guy. A lump rose in her throat.
Three months ago, Hugo was offered a spot at the lodge. One week’s notice. What a panic had ensued: getting him ready for his new home – making sure he had all personal effects, enough presentable clothes, and the usual accoutrements. Nose-hair clipper. Electric toothbrush. Anti-fungal cream. “I won’t have you looking like some old hobo, dear,” she’d said.
Because that was his way. Unassuming. Never cared much about looking stylish.
Then, he’d spent many hours deciding which painting he would bring with him to Oakview Lodge. He had chosen a recent landscape of a meadow with his clunker red bide leaning against a tree. “I’ll look at it whenever I want to get away from this joint,” Hugo had said. “Yea, though I cycle through the valley of the shadow of death…”
Damn, she missed that guy’s humor, his guts. His ability to confront his own mortality and laugh in the face of oblivion.
There he was, cracking wise about the 23rd Psalm just as the visiting chaplain at Oakview was passing by. The man had simply smiled and introduced himself as Father Simon. “Drop by for Thursday vespers,” he’d said, giving Hugo the leaflet. “Nice painting.”
The bike painting … where was now it now, she wondered dully.
Olive chewed at the cuff of Hugo’s old pajama-top. The fabric felt solid and unchanging between her teeth – the opposite of her life for the past few weeks.
She raised her eyes to look at the painting in the nook. Hugo’s last painting, she called it, although that was not its real name. Three men, one talking, the other two listening intently. The conversation seemed charged now with a deeper meaning. She narrowed her eyes at the scene. Hugo had modeled the talker on a neighborhood man, the barber, Mr. Murillo, the kindest man around. He adopted homeless strays, tamed them, calmed them, found good homes for them.
Olive recalled Hugo’s final day at their apartment. His skin looked papery thin; he seemed more fragile than usual. Or maybe she was projecting this, fortifying her reason to send him away. He had his painting and his box of books, photo albums, and the family Bible, waiting for a friend’s son to carry it out to the van. He gestured at the easel in the nook. “Olive, this is the perfect spot for a lasting image. I’ll get Dylan to put it up.”
A poster of Elvis.
Typical Hugo. He’d pretended the King of Rock n Roll was his parting gift to her. What a laugh he’d had, teasing her gently through the sadness and guilt and loneliness of moving him to a long-term care facility. After a week at the lodge, he’d whispered in a parting kiss, “look behind the poster.” She’d raced home, eased off the poster, and revealed the true picture beneath.
As she remembered his kindness of making this into a joke, Olive burst into tears. Underneath the decoy poster (which she tore up; she didn’t like Elvis) was Hugo’s enigmatic last painting.
And now her eyes lingered on the rich hues of the three men, the subtle blending of black to brown to gold of their flesh, the white stipple of the eye-gleam, the texture of each impasto brushstroke applied by Hugo’s hand. how she wished she could hear the central man, the one about to go through the door. He was saying something to the other two, something changing the despair in their expressions to hope.
Imogen’s scales stopped and a violinist tuned four strings to the piano. Hugo had spent a healthy two months in the bustle and camaraderie of the lodge, but one day Olive received a call from the assistant nurse: Hugo was running a mild fever. Some type of flu making the rounds. Olive should stay home and let Hugo rest, the assistant nurse advised. When Olive had tried to visit, she was turned away from the front door of the Lodge. “No visitors, ma’am,” the burly guard had said.
Not at all like the man before the door in Hugo’s last painting. Dear Murillo the barber, who combed and trimmed and listened to you pour out your woes. Who said, “hang in there” to Hugo on tough days. Poor Murillo, who she had not seen since Hugo moved out. Murillo in the painting had spots on his hands, although not in real life. The men were dressed in old-style clothing, simple tunics that had a timeless quality to them.
The violin and piano began a prelude, the minor key coloring the shadows of the nook. The long whole notes were exhales, the quarter notes were inhales. Inhale – exhale – inhale – exhale. Hugo had died in the throes of the new respiratory virus, she learned later. He had died less than three months after entering Oakview Lodge, without her at his side. How surreal. How had he gone so quickly from her dear clowning-around artist to a man fighting for every breath, whose lungs had become as useless and brittle as old leather? Tears brimmed in Olive’s eyes. What torture, those final hours. And she had not been with him. she was wracked with sobs anew.
Murillo (although he was not truly Murillo; she just used the term) beckoned to her. “Please,” he said.
Olive stood, shakily, her dark-shadowed eyes gazing at him with perplexity. The plaid blanket slid from her. She approached the man.
“Peace be with you,” he said slowly. He extended his hand, not to touch, but as a benediction.
She said nothing, only cocked her head to one side. A hologram? A trick of the sunlight on the shadows? Smoke and mirrors?
“Peace be with you,” the man said again, in tones of infinite gentleness. The other two men said “Peace” with almost a quiet joy, a tempered ecstasy. A shimmering quality seemed everywhere around them.
“You who mourn must take comfort,” Murillo said.
Olive pushed her inner skeptic to one side. “What?” she said to the man. “Who are you? How’d you get in?” she blurted. “We’re in lockdown, you know.”
The skin around Murillo’s eyes crinkled in a kindly way as he listened to her querulous protest. “You know me, Olive. After years of knocking, you have finally let me into your heart.”
She stared at the edge of a bookshelf – something solid – wondering if the shimmering might be slight vibration caused by an earth tremor. No, it seemed to be something else that was shimmering.
She looked at the door painted behind Murillo. “Is that how you got in?” A sudden yearning seized her, a yearning to see what was behind that door. “Why is the door important to Hugo?” she asked. “I must know, I must…” she began to weep again.
“It is my door,” Murillo said. “Hugo painted it for me.”
She sobbed unabated.
“Do not weep for Hugo. Peace. He wishes you only peace.”
Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor began again, with the inhale turning exquisitely to exhale. Again and again. The breathing of one who was calm. “Peace be with you,” Murillo whispered once more.
Olive closed her eyes and when she opened them again, he was gone. She curled into Hugo’s throne as the sun continued to warm the wooden floor, her bare feet, her knees, and then the blanket she had pulled across her body. At last Olive fell asleep.
* * *
She awoke feeling refreshed. More than refreshed. She felt like she had become winter’s ground on the day before spring, a thick peaty soil with snow drops and crocuses buried inside, ready to leap forth that very day.
She stood up and yawned and stretched, bowing a little toward the painting. She warmed a can of soup and sipped it as she stepped around the untidy room. The soupy warmth slid down her throat and warmed her to the fingertips. She went to the window, looked down at the sparse traffic and meager pedestrians.
No more normal. No more Hugo.
She recoiled, stepped back from the window, toward the chair and the nook. Toward the painting. How could she have forgotten?
The strangeness of the encounter pricked at her memory. She studied the painting, every brushstroke looking just as it used to. Yet not at all the same. What the?
She remembered Hugo’s habit had been to label each painting on the back – when and where it was painted, and its title. She put down her oversize soup cup and carefully turned over the painting. “John 20:21” was the title.
Oh rats, she thought. Bible stuff. She was not into Bible stuff. Decades ago, the pastor had railed against “sinners” and a teen-aged non-virginal Olive had decided that meant her. She rarely went to church, only for friends’ weddings and funerals. She’d left the spiritual heavy lifting to Hugo. Her eyes darted to the shelf where his family Bible was kept. No. It had gone to Oakview Lodge with Hugo and was now among the boxes of personal effects still in storage. Awaiting decontamination.
A sense of loss grew in her again – but she pushed back the feeling. She could Google the phrase, she realized. She went to her closet where she had dumped coat, boots, and purse four days ago, after she’d heard the news about Hugo. She dug out her phone and noticed a message from Father Simon, the chaplain. They had spoken four days ago, just after Olive had received the terrible news. She had no recollection of what she’d said, but she guessed it may have been uncharitable. And now here was a text from him, asking her to call.
Her finger lingered over the Reply button. Why not call. She had a question – simply a question about the title of Hugo’s last painting. What did John 20:21 mean?
She pressed Reply. It was, she realized, what Hugo wanted.
Note: This story is dedicated to the memory of the hundreds of residents of long-term care facilities, and their loved ones, who have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 deaths in Canada.