The lights in the house had gone out, and the chainsaw had sputtered for a few moments, irritated. Neither of these could she forget. Nor could she forget the dog's sudden bark. She looked out the window and saw her husband's body. The emergency workers had told her she'd acted correctly, reporting the details, not touching the ladder, speaking coherently. She'd tried to revive him until they came, or so they said. But that was a story, one they'd told, and she'd heard. She remembered nothing but the beginning, and looking out the window, seeing Wyatt on the ground with blackened hands, and smoke curling from his hair. Everything after that was a null space in her memory.
Always a planner, he owned plots in the cemetery on Fifteenth street. Gabriel and Clover called the mortuary, arranged the interment, and whatever else needed to be done, while Ada wandered the house, saying "yes" to anything they asked her, without listening to the questions. She discovered later that she'd agreed to a simple stone that would be flush with the ground, and nothing but Wyatt's name and dates. That was enough; she could think of no inscription that might be appropriate.
She'd wanted no ceremony, because she wanted not to be busy in conversation, and because he was dead. What would have been the point of saying words? He might have been able to find something to say; he was the craftsman of words in the family. She couldn't. It would cost too much to try.
"Coming, mother?" Clover asked.
"I'll be there in a minute," she said. "You go ahead."
She sat on the sofa for a moment and looked at the piano. Soon the surfaces would be dusty. She couldn't play. She opened the lid. She wasn't even sure which key was middle C. He'd explained the arrangement of the keys to her, but now she couldn't remember. She struck a note, then another. They were discordant.
There had been a Saturday once, when she'd slept late. A student whose parents were getting a divorce had called and talked half the night, and Ada had listened, and come to bed quite late, and slept until Wyatt brought her lunch in bed: tomato soup the way she liked it, with lots of pepper, and the little goldfish crackers. With the soup he'd brought a grilled cheese sandwich, another of her favorites. He gave her these things on a tray, and returned to the kitchen, where the children were playing Monopoly. She lay in bed, vapor curling up from the soup, and beyond that, out the window, snow coming down in hesitant little sprinkles. She lay in the flannel sheets, in their big bed in their warm room, the bedroom of the house her husband had brought her and the children to, and she ate the food he had made for her. That was love, final and perfect.
She looked at the clock. Somehow fifteen minutes had passed. She drove herself to the cemetery. A small group stood next to a pine box: Gabriel, Clover, the Larsons, Nina and Sarah, and Buzz and Chick and Tim. They looked at her as if they expected her to do something. There was a hole in the ground.
"Go ahead," she said to the men standing in the background. They stepped forward, took the ropes in hand, and released a catch. The box sank into the hole. She looked at the mourners, all of them watching the casket as it lowered. So many people were missing: Wyatt's brother, from whom he had been estranged most of his life, and whom Ada had never met; Wyatt's father, recently dead; his mother, her memory ruined by Alzheimer's. Melody, above all: she was out of contact again. She never gave out her phone or address. News of her came from her quarterly visits and calls to Clover, since they lived across the San Francisco Bay from each other.
Now the group was gathering around her, laying hands on her, murmuring words of sympathy. She ran to the car and drove home.
"What did that mean?" Clover said, minutes later, having tracked her to the master bedroom. "You're not the only one. They need to know you're all right."
"But I'm not all right. It's too soon."
"Well, you'd better get ready. The wake is tomorrow."
She had wanted no ceremony, no eulogies. Now she discovered that when she'd been numb and saying "yes", she'd agreed to a memorial service, there in the house. The children refused to cancel it -- people were coming from all over the country. Ada didn't have the energy to fight her son and daughter. She wanted only to hide, but Gabriel said, "We need a way to start remembering him. This isn't for him. It's for us. The living."
A grapevine, unknown and never used, existed. Friends the children knew, or found in their father's address book, had called other friends, who'd called yet more. People came whom Ada had forgotten, or never met. Even the surviving members of his original band, some of whom Wyatt hadn't seen or talked to in decades, showed up and offered the conventional condolences. Ada had to take their names on faith, because she didn't recognize their faces. She'd met them only briefly, a lifetime ago, in college. Now they looked variously like decadent Angelenos or successful businessmen.
The children set up a table in the living room with photographs of Wyatt, the awards he'd won, his platinum album, and a biography. Her favorite photograph of him, taken by a friend in the Canadian Rockies, was on the table: always at his happiest outdoors, his smile was wider than in any other picture; he was in his place, with a lake and a glacier in the background, his backpack on, and good weather. His hair was long and he looked like the young man she'd known in college. She wanted to go upstairs to her bed, crawl in, and hibernate.
He had seemed indestructible; how could he die? He had been so good at rescuing others -- why not himself?
The room was full of rented chairs, but the crowd spilled into the kitchen. Who were these people, standing up to talk in turn? Telling how they'd made music with Wyatt, or gone backpacking with him. Neighbors whom he helped with yardwork that was too heavy for them. There were musicians he'd encouraged; sometimes he'd loaned them money, or given it outright. Young guitarists and drummers to whom he'd given a first job; songwriters whose songs he had improved. His softball team. Her husband, it seemed, moved in wide circles, and was more generous than Ada had known.
A few people appeared through the fog: Tim, with the same kind, unassuming concern as always -- from childhood he'd been that way; Pilar, teary-eyed (she had always loved Wyatt); Gabriel and Clover; Buzz, who sat by Ada, and named the musicians to her.
A few words emerged from the fog as well: a member of his first band saying, "He was a man. He was the only reason we stayed together as long as we did"; Buzz saying, "He was my brother. I would have done anything for him. Anything. Because I loved him"; Gabriel saying, "What am I going to do? He was more than my father. He was my teacher. He was the one who gave me advice. I can't replace him. What am I going to do?" Ada scarcely listened; she was reviewing their life together. She had spent half her life with him. She had expected to spend the remainder going to bed and waking up together, eating meals, getting his help with chores, listening to his stories, and missing him when he was away.
She twisted the gold band on her finger. She had no reason to wear the ring now, but she couldn't bring herself to put it aside. The final words of their wedding promise came to her: "for so long as we both shall live". How was she supposed to live alone? The word alone was insufficient, because she had been sundered. One side of her was unrecoverable. His death was a greater loss than blindness would have been. She could have compensated for that. He would have helped her and they would have learned new ways. But this? She could not imagine going on without her mate. The house had been empty with the children gone. Now it would be airless and dark as well.
She had no one to share anecdotes about the children with ("Do you remember the time...?"). All the shorthand references to memories in common: extinct. The allusions to shared events and notions: no more. All had vanished. Those who said a language dies with the last speaker were wrong: it dies with the next-to-last, when the only survivor has no one left to talk to. A language of two had come to its end. They had spent decades building a life together, sharing it. Now that life existed only in her brain. His death had, in a moment, taken away a million sharings, had turned them intangible, had moved these recognitions from between them to inside her. All that remained had halved, had shrunk from two to one. When she died, the two of them would vanish altogether, and no more of him would be. Until then, the thought of him was all that remained to her. She would never touch him again. He would never hold her.
Since she had been young, Ada had begun every day with a prayer of thanks. She had never asked for the granting of personal desires, but now she knelt by the side of the bed and pleaded, "Take away this pain. Please take away this pain." She had never experienced such suffering, not when her mother had died, not when she had divorced, not when her father had died, not when her daughter had run away.
Every day she saw the tree limb not yet cut up; the ladder, its parts melted together so it couldn't be shortened, lying against the garage wall; music on the piano; shoes in the closet; his work gloves lying on the toolbox. Only his old dog Apache seemed unconfused -- accustomed to Wyatt's absences, he came as he always did to Ada instead, and set his head on her knee, and looked at her, waiting to have his head scratched, as he looked at Wyatt when Wyatt was home. The dog would be the last to know that his master was gone.
Wyatt would never come back. She knew this. But sometimes she forgot, and found herself noting things to tell him: a nest of rabbits in the yard, a book she'd been looking for, a problem with her car. Worse, sometimes she remembered that he was gone, and found herself thinking of him: Thanksgiving evening in the snowstorm; their first time in bed together, and how he had bellowed with laughter; conversations; nights worrying together about a sick baby; disagreements.
She wandered the house, watching the dust gather, the flies die on the windowsills, the dishes pile up. She had always loved this house. Now she hated it. Where was the music? She imagined watching a tornado sweep it away. What a relief that would be. If she could have mustered the energy she would have cleaned it out, scrubbed it from roof to basement, and sold it to the first comer. But she felt too tired.
She did have the company of her son. After the wake he said, "Mom, can I live here a while?"
"What about Julia?"
"She thinks we should take a break." He picked at his lip. "You know how she is."
"Yes, I do, but I know how you are, too. I'll manage alone. It's time I learn."
"But -- "
"Thank you for trying to help me, but Julia needs you. This will always be your home, but she needs you more than I do."
He began dropping by on his way home from work. She thought him wonderful company, as ever, and looked forward to his visits; when he was late, she fretted. He had always practiced piano every day, and this reminded her of Wyatt, from whom their son had acquired the discipline. Now Gabriel practised at her house. One day she heard the music stopping and starting, the melody and the chords played with variations, and pauses between the different versions of the piece Gabriel was experimenting with. She came to listen, and sat on the sofa.
"That was lovely," she said when he stopped. "What was it?"
"Something I'm working on," he said. "Dad was helping me." He played a few bars of Traumerei. "Writing songs is hard. When I got stuck, he'd find a way to get me started again." He closed the piano.
"Play some more," she said. "It reminds me of him."
He played Weightless because she liked it. He sang his father's lyrics: "How did I come untethered, floating here in space, awake at last, but unattached... " When he turned around she was staring through him. He sat next to her and put his arm around her shoulder. "Mom?"
"The morning after we moved back from Monteverde he played piano for me. You and your sister were asleep upstairs, with Maria. He played that song. In this room. On that piano. He knew I liked it. It's always been my favorite. My God. I can't get used to this."
"Do you?" She looked at her fingernails. They were bitten, as always. She rubbed the end of the middle finger of one hand with the thumb. "All this." She gestured around the room. "The house. You children." She looked sideways at him. "That isn't half of what we had. I knew him. Knew him, almost from the moment we met, with nothing between us. I could never make a mistake with him, even when I made a mistake. How can I replace him?"
"Find someone else."
"Men don't want a woman my age. I don't want them, either." She brushed back the hair that always fell onto her son's forehead. "Your father would be an impossible act for them to follow." She stood and said, "Don't worry. I'm all right. I have chores to do."
"Stay here. I'll play you Thumbelina." This was the song Wyatt had written about her.
Ada ironed clothes in the basement until Gabriel left. She didn't want to be rude to him, he was the sweetest of her children, but she simply couldn't listen to the music, or watch him play -- he reminded her too much of his father. When he'd gone, she went upstairs and took Wyatt's last journal from the bookshelf in their bedroom. She had never read them; he'd been entitled to his privacy. He was good with words: the tender things he'd said to her, the angry things as well, and his songs. He was gone now, and she wanted to read the words in those journals.
She opened the book where a 3 x 5 index card marked it. The remaining pages were blank, and the marked page was only half-filled. The final entry was dated the day prior to his death:
I finally see what she's been telling me all these years. The necessity of gratitude, what a miracle this life is, given to us for free. Inexplicable, beautiful, mysterious. Most of all her, wholesome as a drink from the spring, and the great good fortune of my life. Must remember to tell her this.
Wailing, she flung the book away and fell to her knees. She slapped the floorboards, shouting, "Come back to me! Come back!" She pressed her forehead to the floor and sobbed.
The bedroom door clicked shut. The light bulb in the ceiling popped, and the room dimmed. Outside, the dog howled. She stopped sobbing, and held her breath. She remained as she was: on her knees, sitting back on her heels, with her forehead on the floorboards and the palms of her hands pressing down and next to her temples. A moment later a hand stroked her hair. The stroking went on, and then she was lifted to her feet, and arms went around her, and she put her arms around the body in turn, and pressed her cheek against his chest. She turned her head and nestled into the body supporting hers.
"I love you," she murmured. "Please stay."
Time passed, or must have, but seemed not to exist -- seemed not even to seem. Her sense of self vanished, and so did the sense of time passing. She was absorbed, and unaware. She fell asleep.
She woke to the dim light of late evening. The feeling of waking from sound sleep, so sound she'd ceased to be, was all she knew. She stepped back. Wyatt was there, though she couldn't see him.
"Are you staying because of me?" she asked.
"Yes." The voice was his. "You're holding me here. I'm like the kids. They have their lives to lead. I have something to do, too."
"Dying. Let me go, Ada. You're the reason I'm still here. You have to give up."
This was a betrayal she could never have anticipated. She felt not pain, but appalled dismay. She groped for his hand and stroked it. "I need you to stay," she said.
"I'm too tired. More tired than I ever thought I could be. Let me go. Stop being selfish."
"Just a little longer," she said. "Please. There are some things I haven't figured out yet."
He was silent.
"Wyatt, I need to know. Are you real?"
"No," he said. "I never was. No one is."
"I mean, am I imagining you?"
"I don't know. I can't even tell who's dead and who's alive."
"Am I imagining your hand?" She lifted it, invisible, in hers. "Am I imagining the things you tell me? Am I imagining that you've come back to me?"
"I don't understand those questions."
"What's it like, being dead?"
"My body's the same all the time. Standing up, sitting, lying. All the same. I don't feel the touch of clothing. I don't feel air temperature. It's all gone. My body's more numb than numb."
"I wish we could make love. I miss that."
"Was it good?"
"Don't you remember?"
"Do you feel anything, want anything?"
"I want to be dead." There was a pause. "You're unhappy," he said.
"You can read my mind?"
"I'm afraid. Afraid this will be the only time I'll see you, that you won't come back again."
"I'm tired," he said. "Tired and dull. Like wearing a blindfold and earplugs all the time."
"If I died now, could we be together again?"
"Is that what you want?"
"Yes. Can I be with you?"
"No. I'm disappearing."
"I'm forgetting things. Words. The names of our children. I'm like a tree on a riverbank, and the river is carrying away all the dirt under me. I'm eroding. I'm almost gone."
"What happens then?"
"I don't know."
She thought for a long time, holding his hand. "I love you, Wyatt. I have always loved you... Go. I won't hold you. I'll find a way to be alone."
The air made a sound, as if it were rushing to fill a void, a sound like her ears popping.
Her hand was empty of his. She reached out, but there was nothing.