It had been twenty-four years since she’d last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same, save for the moth-bitten taffeta curtains and the dust resting on the bookshelves and piano. The particles hovered in the air like pixies and tickled the woman’s nose. Her cool, withered hands quivered from age and memory as she brushed away the delicate grime from the instrument’s expansive cover.
The tintinnabulation of the front porch wind chimes carried on like a fairy choir with bass bamboo tubes and chipper crystal bells. Dozens of them hung from the gutters and poles in the yard, most of which favored the west and leaned decidedly in that direction. The legion was great enough to overcome the overhead planes and the grandfather clock. It had no hands to tell the time but sang anyway. The woman clicked her tongue at the clock in jest. Its replies remained unheard.
She was reluctant to enter the kitchen. She hovered before the threshold, ghostly and foreign in her own home. Arched scuffs trailed behind the corners of the crooked frame in the hall. Fractured glass covered the picture like fine spider fibers, a testament to both the time she’d spent away and the event that chased her out. The memory closed in like a dark phantom in her mind’s eye. Her face hardened, and she blew the spirit away with an impatient sigh.
By some miracle or wicked retribution, the kitchen still smelled like coffee. The glass pot rested on the table. It held on to its contents as if its companion would return to pour a glass of the molded, stagnant coffee, raise it to his lips, and hum a sweet, low waltz. The coffee pot should have been a vase or house plant, but there were no natural tamers in town. The woman cradled the pot in her hands, only for a moment, before pouring the coffee down the kitchen sink. The aroma lingered like cologne.
The wooden chair groaned indignantly when she pulled it away from the table, and it creaked and swayed under her slight weight when she sank into the seat with a sigh. Restless, she stood and shuffled to the counter where she had abandoned the coffee pot, then restored it to its post at the center of the table. She sat back down.
“He loved you; don’t you know that?” she asked the coffee pot. Sunshine wormed through the sheer lemon curtains, illuminating the dust suspended in the air. She leaned back in the chair. It crackled in protest.
“I can remember,” she began slowly, her voice soft and grave, “how he always knew exactly which brew I’d need before I even got up out of bed.” She rubbed her hands and smoothed the gingham tablecloth. “Extra sugar when I was sad, extra milk when we were angry at each other… and whipped cream on top if I had something he wanted to coax out of me.”
A fly landed on the coffee pot. She watched it dance and take off, but her gaze didn’t follow it to the next destination.
“He never left me to clean you for him.” She was addressing the coffee pot again, but her eyes were focused on a distant daydream, some holy trance fixed in the heavens beyond the ceiling. “He insisted he would do his share of the chores so we would have more time to be together.” Her voice relinquished the metallic hardness she hadn’t realized it equipped. Without the permission of her conscious mind, she stood and marched back to the living room, shoved the fallboard into place, threw open the black cover, and sat down on the grimy bench. The keys, having been immersed in twenty-four years of darkness and disuse, were sleek and hungry. She rested her fingers on the keys. Her joints ached in anticipation. She slammed her left pinky and thumb into a deep, bass octave and immediately retracted her digits in shock.
“Goodness!” she laughed heartily, her cool cheeks rosy and radiant. “I should have known better than that. Any piano would have gone to sleep after so long without a maestro.” She bounced the keys, tapping them just lightly enough to avoid the escape of a discordant noise. The wind chimes will have to do for a voice, she thought, just like he used to sing when I played.
Age had rendered her hands quiet. She hadn’t touched an instrument since she left, and now her hands were stoney and heavy. In her youth, they were like pigeons, rambunctious and fluttering. The woman rested against the cold piano, then returned to the kitchen, where the persistent coffee smell overwhelmed her once more.
The second time, something tugged at her. Strings pulled her along like a marionette, and she followed the invisible impulse to the back door by the fridge. The knob was reluctant to turn. She clawed at it desperately, animalistically, until the door flung open and she spilled onto the porch. Her knees were sore and scraped; her throat burned with the threat of long-overdue tears. The wind chimes screamed in a crescendoing chorus. She looked up.
Blazing carnations whirled in the swelling gale, one breathing mass like the frantic, gasping lungs of the earth. Where the soil had always been barren, now there were congregations of lilacs and lilies, hydrangeas like billowing clouds, pansies crawling along the ground like busy ants, and tulips boldly stretching, trying to reach the distant paradise beyond the living turmoils.
Petals flickered like flames at her hands in the grass. Something in her chest stirred like swarming bees. Visions from her past arose in her mind’s eye. Her beloved came into her thoughts as if guided by an angel. He smiled, hummed his neverending improvisation, and swept up the younger woman in a dramatic turn. They were newlyweds, still close to childhood, and every ordinary thing was flavorful. Each kiss was a surprising spark. She saw the house, this house, the first day he brought her home. The carpets were pink, then, and the piano absent, and the yards were desolately barren, but there was no smothering blanket of dust, and the house was never devoid of inhabitants.
She could see him clearly now. His smile always reached his eyes. His hair was peppered with silver, not snowy white like her own. Where her face was sunken and sallow, his was bright and round. His voice was never harsh or stern, but smooth and soft like a songbird. He had never been a skilled gardener or chef or poet, but he sang so soulfully.
The vision shifted involuntarily, and the woman closed her eyes. She clung to the grass. Sunlight burst through the open bedroom window twenty-four years ago. Her eyes opened, and she was lying on top of the quilt. She preferred to sleep in the cold, although she kept a hand in the warm spot where her husband had been minutes before. Her fingers were still wrinkled and spotted, but the skin was plumper and warmer. Her bones didn’t ache as much. The wind chimes warbled and trilled. A truck honked somewhere nearby, and someone screamed. She paled.
The truck was disappearing into the east. The rising sun obscured the license plate. The street was quiet. A disheveled carnation bouquet was strewn across the yard. The red ribbon that tied it together dangled over a deep pothole. When she saw the corpse bleeding into the storm drain, she didn’t scream. She didn’t cry. She didn’t call anyone or even lock the door behind her, she just walked away, briskly and robotically. Halfway down the street, blowing away from the scene, was the card that came with the bouquet. She wouldn’t touch it. She didn’t want to read it, but it blew open, and she couldn’t help herself.
In cheerful blue chicken-scratch: Happy anniversary, love-
He hadn’t finished his thought, but he didn’t need to. She knew what he meant, and that was all that mattered.