By John Grindstaff
Warm and cozy as a creaky old man can be under the thick blanket, Hoover doesn’t feel like crawling out of the big comfortable bed he bought for his wife even though he knew the furniture store overpriced the thing and called it a bargain. Geraldine wanted the bed and he couldn’t argue with her. He wasn’t afraid of losing the argument. He couldn’t stand the thought of winning on logic and denying her something she wanted and deserved to have. He rolls from his stiff back onto his aching hip. Might have to pee. Sometimes his plumbing’s iffy. He takes his eyeglasses from the nightstand and nearly pokes himself in the eye with the end of the earpiece trying to put them on. He groans as he slips his feet into waiting house shoes then limps one small step at a time to the half bath off the bedroom.
After he pees a weak stream that takes longer than it should, Hoover shuffles to the sink and runs the water until it’s warm. He washes his hands then dries them on the pink towel hanging next to the sink, frowning at the old man with wild, messed up white hair in the mirrored sliding doors of the medicine cabinet, scrubbing a hand over white stubble on his cheeks. Looks like he hasn’t shaved in a couple of days. Strange. He has shaved every morning of his life for longer than he can remember. Until now.
Geraldine tried to talk to him about something important last night after they went to bed but he was exhausted and fell asleep. She’s usually up by this time, the smell of breakfast and coffee wafting through the house, but he doesn’t smell anything. He is a little congested. A cup of strong hot coffee would do an old man good. He takes his robe from the hook on the back of the bathroom door, wincing as he slips each arm into a sleeve, and ties it in front. There’s room left inside for another one of him. Geraldine should be happy about that. She’s been on him to lose some weight, afraid for his ticker.
Crumpled sheets on his side of the bed tell the tale of tossing and turning in his sleep. He does that when his joints hurt worse than usual. Geraldine’s side of the bed looks like she didn’t sleep there long or maybe not at all. She must’ve been up all night with one of those stomachaches again. She worries herself sick about everything and nothing. Worries about their daughter even though Judy’s a grown woman with a husband and she works in the family business, doing a fine job, healthy as can be. Geraldine worries about people. She can’t help it. When she’s not worrying about her family, it’s something she heard on the news or neighborhood gossip about who done who wrong. She’s spent too many sleepless nights in her lifetime.
He does that zombie-like stiff limp shuffle walk down the short hall, but the pain in his joints is nothing he can’t handle. It’s all part of the morning routine these days. He steps into the living room. One of those mystery books Geraldine likes lies face down on the table next to her chair. Reading glasses lying on top of the book. Sky blue shawl folded across the arm of the chair. She was probably reading all night, trying to ignore the pain in her stomach. They should hear from the doctor soon to find out what he found. Hoover hopes they can do something to make her feel better. He told her for years she was going to worry herself into a stomach ulcer.
He zombie walks on into the kitchen. The room’s cold and feels empty without Geraldine performing her cook’s ballet. His favorite coffee mug sits on the counter next to the coffeemaker where he must’ve left it yesterday morning. If Geraldine weren’t feeling awful, she would’ve washed the cup and hung it in its place on the hooks above the coffeemaker where the rest of the mugs hang. There’s no coffee made. Geraldine always makes a pot of strong black coffee first thing in the morning. Even when she feels bad.
Hoover looks in Judy’s old room, now Geraldine’s craft room. Everything’s dusty, as if she hasn’t been in there for a long time. He pokes his head into their bedroom. It doesn’t look like she slept in bed last night but he remembers his wife lying next to him. The gaunt, scared expression on her tired, beautiful face terrified him. A cold wave breaks through his body. He shivers. She doesn’t go anywhere without letting him know where she’s going and kissing him goodbye. Maybe she went outside to read on the porch swing. She doesn’t do that as often as she once did. Warm sunlight streams through the sheers over the big window in the living room. It looks like a beautiful day outside.
He opens the front door and steps out onto the porch. The empty white swing hangs motionless. The sweet smell of mown grass tickles his nose. He doesn’t recall mowing yesterday but the lawn’s fresh cut. He hurries inside, forcing down the odd urge to cry, and closes the door behind him. There’s something scratching at the back of his mind he should remember. Something that would explain his missing wife.
Panic quickened strides wobble his heart in his chest and numb his head as he walks through the house faster than he thought he could, struggling to breathe air into his tight, burning lungs. He holds onto the back of a chair at the kitchen table as the room spins for a few seconds, slows, then stops, leaving him lightheaded and trembling. Geraldine might’ve gone to the grocery store without him, thinking he needed the extra sleep. They usually make the list together and he doesn’t recall doing that. He doesn’t remember mowing the yard either, which he obviously did.
She goes to the grocery store every Saturday morning unless a big snow traps them at home. She has done the grocery shopping on Saturday mornings since they were first married. Hoover checks the digital clock on the counter. The fancy thing has the date on it because apparently it’s too hard to look at a calendar on the wall for most people nowadays. It’s Thursday. So she’s not at the store. She wouldn’t leave without telling him.
Hoover can’t remember the last time he saw her.
It was last night.
She was here last night. They went to bed at the same time.
That doesn’t sound right, but why wouldn’t she have been here?
It feels like he hasn’t seen her in a long time.
He shuffles to their bedroom. Pauses inside the door and stares at the big empty bed, feeling the answer so close if only his mind would stop skipping like an old scratched record that plays memories instead of music spinning under a bad needle. Not only is the record scratched, the turntable in his head runs too fast for a few seconds then too slow, back and forth, blocking any clarity. He sits on the edge of the bed and looks at her side of the mattress. He lies down and scoots close to where Geraldine sleeps. His hand rubs slow circles over the spot where she would be if she were in bed with him.
A sound like a giant cricket startles him. His body is stiffer again and sore like it is when he’s been in bed a long time. He rolls over, picks up the chirping landline phone he refuses to give up and pushes the button, hoping it’s Geraldine.
Hoover clears his throat. “Hello?”
“Mr. Galloway, it’s Penny.”
“Hello Penny.” His face droops when hears her voice instead of his wife’s.
“Judy asked me to call and check on you,” Penny says. “She tried your cell but it kept going straight to voice mail.”
Hoover picks up his little flip cell phone lying on the nightstand where it charges every night, unplugged charge cable curled up next to the phone. He tries twice before he flips open the phone. It’s dead.
“Are you still there?” Penny asks.
“I’m going to take a day off,” he says.
“Yes, Judy, this is your dad,” Penny says. “He’s taking a day off. Mr. Galloway, are you there?”
“Still here.” He hates when someone calls him then talks to someone else, even if it is Judy.
“Judy wants to know if you’re feeling okay,” Penny says.
“I’m fine,” he says. “It’s Geraldine. She’s not feeling well. I’m staying home with her today. Do what I can for her.”
“Judy,” Penny calls across the office. “I think you need to come here, talk to your dad.”
“It’s nothing to bother her about.” Hoover says.
“He says Geraldine isn’t feeling well,” Penny whispers.
“Daddy? Are you okay?” Judy sounds scared.
“I’m fine,” he assures his daughter. “Your mom will be all right. She doesn’t feel well today. I’m going to stay home with her, be a good husband for a change.”
“Daddy, hang on a second. Penny, I’m going to take this in my office.”
“Hang on, Mr. Galloway,” Penny says. “Judy will be on the line in a sec.”
Hoover sighs. He didn’t mean to worry his daughter.
“Are you there?” Judy’s voice quavers.
“I told you, I’m fine. Going to stay home with your momma today.”
“Daddy. You’re not staying home with momma.”
“You don’t need me there.” Hoover growls into the phone. “You run that place as good as your momma did. I don’t need you to pretend I’m still important to the business. I know I’m in the way there.”
“Think what you’re saying about momma,” Judy says. The phone is quiet for so long she starts to ask if he’s still there.
“She’s gone.” He chokes on the words, unable to hold back flash flood tears. “I don’t know what to do.”
John Grindstaff is a self-described hermit writer who lives in Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee. He’s an avid reader, a hiker and likes to camp as much as he can.