The man’s home was altogether bland and uninteresting, filled with knick-knacks and worthless paintings from his younger years as an aspiring artist. The paint-job a peeling off-white darkened by cigarette smoke. “Strange,” his neighbor had said, “that a painter would hang paintings over a peeling paintjob.”
“Maybe,” he said, “but is a gardener with a lawn of dandelions in a position to talk?”
He liked his neighbor. But he tended to like most everything, and keep the things others considered trash long after he lost use in them. That was why his house was so full, his neighbor said. He couldn’t disagree because the green and red socks his wife gave him on Easter all those years ago (probably a recycled gift from Christmas) were still buried in his drawer somewhere—or had they spilled into the garage as well? He couldn’t remember. But there was a lot he couldn’t remember. Thoughts and images had blurred like smeared bloodstains since losing Gertrude last February.
So why is it I can remember the way her feet smelled after shuffling around in those ancient slippers? Why is it I can remember the precise tones in her voice that made me cringe? Why is it I remember her snoring? Why is it that when I go to the bathroom, I weep at the empty toilet paper dispenser?
Because I’m waiting for her to put a new roll in, he thought.
You keep it there, he told himself as he brushed his teeth. Keep it there on the ground next to you, and never put it in the dispenser again.
Some might think it strange, but he viewed the relinquishment of duties to a man’s better-half as a sacred thing. Some vows, though crafted in silence, remained long after “death do us part.” He thought replacing the toilet paper was one of them.
He smiled then, because he knew she would have smiled, though she would have chastised him all the same. She liked yelling at him, he had learned that years ago. It had taken him longer to learn he liked being yelled at.
“You were right,” he mumbled as he spit his toothpaste and washed his mouth with the city water that made his teeth squeak. He looked up and saw the wrinkles by his eyes, the beginnings of a beard appearing like white shadows, and the crooked nose from a third-grade fall on the playground. He fingered his nose, where it kinked to the left—or was it the right?
The right, he decided, realizing the mirror didn’t play with direction as much as he thought. Of course, how could he forget that detail while he remembered every feature of Gertrude’s paper skin—the way the veins twisted around the frail bones of her hands? He could paint her hands, even, if he had the talent. But he didn’t. That’s why he never painted the walls.
He clenched his hand in an attempt to feel her fingers between his, and he wept into the sink. “I’m angry you left me,” he said. “You broke your promise.”
Get over it, she would say, I’m with Jesus and he’s better company than you could ever be.
He chuckled then, and the tears on his cheeks disappeared in the corners of his smile. If she were here, she’d say, Just be happy already.
“I’m trying,” he said. “But I miss you.”
And it was ok, he knew, to miss her. She would want him to miss her, because she had loved him and wanted him most desperately to love her. Missing her was proof he had loved every bit of her, even the parts he didn’t like. But one regret still gnawed at him: she hated that he gave up painting.
“Look at this!” she had said, and pointed to a crude horse in a meadow of moss-green. “This is a good painting!”
“Thanks,” was all he said.
That day, she found enough space on the walls for every one of his paintings. A few still hung crooked, and he dared not touch them as he passed, the stairs creaking under his weight as he ascended. The wood threatened splinters, and as he reached the top, he rounded the corner to another thinner stairway with a wobbly railing.
As he came to the end of his journey, the window in the attic gave the dusty easel a halo. A swatch of paint sat glistening, and as he made it to his stool, he picked up his paint brush and dabbed it in what was left of the red. His arthritic hand shook as he painted a heart, and then the letters G, E, R, T, R, U, D, and E, inside. Then he painted his name below it, and a plus sign between the two.
His throat was tight, and he pulled the canvas off the easel and cradled it in his lap as he stared and listened to the sound of her laughter. He wept with joy because she was proud of him for painting again. And he was proud of her, proud of everything she had been to him and to the rest of the world.
“I’ll bring it with me,” he whispered, “because I know you’d like it. No one else would, but I didn’t paint it for them.” He shook his head and closed his eyes to see her better. “I painted it for you.”