Mrs. Parker is the best housewife.
She lives with Mr. Parker in a white Georgia-plan domicile with four rooms downstairs and two above that are connected by a steep interior staircase.
Now Mrs. Parker admires the kitchen sink she has just scoured and hand-dried with a clean paper towel. She sighs with pleasure as she hangs a cotton-weave dishcloth on the oven handle and turns her attention to the chicken soup that simmers in an orange enameled pot atop her sparkling white stove. The fragrant vapor fills her with the familiar satisfaction of fastidious home management. She’s put to good use every last scrap of the roasted chicken she and Mr. Parker enjoyed on Sunday, even the tender bits of flesh she picked out from the small bones of the neck. Mr. Parker loves his homemade chicken soup and he shall have it.
Mrs. Parker writes Housewife on any official form that solicits her occupation. There is no one who surpasses her in this job. Every night, she enjoys a sound sleep, knowing that every corner is dusted, every plate stacked, every object in its place. She balances their checkbook to the penny and carries a tiny three-ring binder of valid coupons tucked away in her big black purse. When she straightens a room, fluffs a pillow, or lays a steam-pressed sheet flat into its drawer, she says out loud, there you go! as if the house could hear her, as if she were sending a well-curated child off to whatever destination children have.
They don’t discuss it anymore, neither her secret relief nor his quiet disappointment. When they married, both on the cusp of thirty, she argued that children were an expense they could not responsibly afford. She said words his banker’s mind would cleave to: cost-benefit analysis, liquidity, long-and-short-term obligations. She offered proofs: utility rates, insurance, their mortgage payment, concerns about rising college tuition, and the mediocre ratings of the public schools in their area and the high cost of private ones. Finally, and in confidential tone, she reminded Mr. Parker of his junior position in the corporate pecking order. Wide-eyed, he praised her careful thinking and left for the office. Satisfied, she relaxed and felt her blood run smoothly through her veins again like water through a galvanized pipe. Relieved, she ran her tongue along her front teeth, even and smooth as bathroom tiles. Safe, she whispered to herself. Safe.
Seven years later, Mr. Parker was pulling in a neat salary thanks to satisfactory job performance and his wife could no longer deny they were comfortable. So, she endured Mr. Parker’s workmanlike efforts to fix what was already perfect, their ordered life that ran with the regularity of European trains. She suffered his inquiries about her menstrual cycle, a biological fact that betrayed itself in the purchase of feminine hygiene products and the wild call of her pheromones. She compressed her lips when she would see the folic-acid tablets he placed like a memo next to her cereal bowl every morning and his insistence on scientifically timed sexual activity. Mr. Parker marked his wife’s rhythms with red crosses on the hardware-store calendar in the kitchen and, as indicated, he would present himself at bedtime without his ironed cotton pajamas, his usual sweet smell of fabric softener supplanted by the vinegary tang of male urgency (and anxiety), and he would do what Mrs. Parker called his business. When he was done, he would raise her hips onto piles of pillows so his offering of semen would funnel in and not out. In those dark times of dripping, the indifferent moon would penetrate their bedroom window and spotlight Mrs. Parker’s pubis where it lay like a beached and fuzzy fish. And while Nature held her breath, Mr. Parker would totter off to the kitchen to get a cool glass of water for his wife (a slice of lemon to prove his love) and lie down next to her, bestowing uncertain caresses on her flat, white belly.
Mrs. Parker thought that once you’d had sex a few times, it became a pointless repetition of the same conversation and, distinct from beneficial routines like laundry and sink-scouring, it was messy. Mr. Parker’s diligent efforts in the bedroom made her feel like a science project. But she permitted his penetrations and distracted herself by thinking about stripping the bed tomorrow or calling the man about the gutters. Sometimes, when she watched his pale and prematurely balding pate bead up with sweat and his thin shoulders execute the desperate push-ups for which his bank job had so-ill prepared him, she suffered a flutter of guilt about that tiny plastic umbrella she’d asked Dr. Levine to put inside. Against a rainy day, she’d thought.
But the passage of time made the matter moot. One morning, a few weeks after her 45th birthday, Mrs. Parker entered the kitchen while her husband was having his regular breakfast of two eggs, two strips of bacon, and one piece of whole wheat toast. She waited until he was looking at her and then she emptied a nearly full box of tampons into the garbage can. He paused mid-chew. Then he looked down again and kept eating. message received, the pills and the red crosses on the calendar disappeared, and Mr. Parker’s plowings became less frequent until they ceased altogether. Twenty years passed with few changes except that Mr. Parker became assistant manager of his branch. This is your achievement, too, he told her.
Now, Mrs. Parker stirs the fragrant broth with a wooden spoon and reflects on how things were a just year ago, when she was dreading Mr. Parker’s retirement. One bright February morning, he proclaimed his plans.
“Emily, I must tell you something important,” he said as he sat down at their kitchen table.
She cracked his eggs into the sizzling skillet. He cleared his throat. His pension was fully vested, he said, and he would be of retirement age soon. He preferred to leave of his own accord rather than wait around to be made redundant. She felt her insides go wobbly and cold. Her stomach cinched tight. She was not accustomed to Mr. Parker making big decisions without her. She returned her attention to his eggs seconds before they would have burned.
“But . . . but what about our financial security?” She lifted the golden yolks and crisp whites from the pan onto Mr. Parker’s round plate. The eggs stared back at her, horrified.
“Emily, I promise you,” he said, tucking his necktie into his shirt as she had taught him to do when eating. “We are in good shape.”
But it was not concern about money that turned her legs to aspic. She sank into the chair across from Mr. Parker and smoothed wrinkles out of a perfectly ironed white napkin. It was, rather, that their life would change, and his tone suggested there would be no debating it. She could not deny or argue away the mathematical truth of his age nor the impending reality of the downsizing at the bank. Soon, there would be another body knocking around the house all day, making smells, creating messes, taking up space. He would retire at the end of the first quarter, he said. And that was in a couple of months.
“Are you done?” asked Mrs. Parker, a hint more stiffly than she had intended.
“Yes,” Mr. Parker said, patting his lips with his napkin, which he then refolded.
As always, Emily Parker cleared the table and stacked the dishes neatly in the machine. As always, she said have a nice day, dear. As always, she waited at the kitchen window and waved goodbye to him with the fingers of her right hand as his car left the driveway.
Then, she wept.
As the date of Mr. Parker’s retirement party approached, Mrs. Parker’s anxiety escalated to a fibrillating panic. Her customary eight hours of slumber disrupted, she would wander through the house at night seeking its counsel, breathing in its air, which was as neutral as the atmosphere of museums, that metered ambience that is the opposite of art’s passion and evidence of its captivity. She felt as one does before going on a long trip, the pre-nostalgia for the thousand comforts and familiar contours of home. But she was not going anywhere, rather her home would change with her inside it, altered by the constant presence of Mr. Parker. Someday had arrived too soon. Now, the kitchen clock’s pleasant tut-tut-tut sounded like the clucking tongue of regret. Sometimes in her insomniac wanderings, Mrs. Parker would sit down in the kitchen wrapped up against the late-March chill and watched infomercials on the portable T.V. that Mr. Parker had given her years ago to keep her company. It soothed her to watch the almost handsome and nearly beautiful spokespeople hawk exercise equipment, juicers, and other ingenious gadgets engineered to overcome every sort of domestic dilemma. Afterwards, Mrs. Parker would return to bed, reassured enough about the rightness of the world to fall asleep.
She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live without Mr. Parker, nor could she fathom a life with him so very present. What if he took up a hobby? Started inviting friends over? Or, worse yet, tried to pitch in and help out? His dependable invisibility had been one of his greatest merits and she was horrified at the thought of him being underfoot, always observing her. He would make suggestions about her housekeeping that she knew she would interpret as implicit criticisms. She scanned her kitchen counters as if there might be a solution in plain view dangling from a pothook or laid amongst her collection of well-sharpened knives.
And yet she could not do without him. For if Emily Parker were to merit the superlative of best housewife, there must be —for the word’s implication were perfectly clear—both a house and a husband. This was a necessary assumption.
She had nightmares.
One in particular burned itself into her hypothalamus with such clarity it felt to her as if she had lived it. The rooms of her house multiplied, and its stick-built frame became visible. Walls were disrupted and olive-dark, the floors were as flimsy as cardboard. Desperate, she ran from room to room trying to put things to rights. She knew the house should be condemned but she also knew it was all she had in the world. Their bed was a mound of sour-smelling sheets and dirty clothes and, as she tried to sort it all out, she became entangled in the soiled bedding and sank ever deeper into it. Suffocating, she saw Mr. Parker standing there, but when she called out to him for help, he smirked at her with cold, sardine-colored eyes. Mrs. Parker awoke to her own muffled wail of terror, which fortunately was not sufficiently loud to wake Mr. Parker. Her heart fluttered; her chest hurt.
On his last day of work, Mrs. Parker ushered her husband out the door at 8:00 o’clock as always. She handed him his plaid thermal bag containing a low-fat lunch despite his protests that colleagues planned to take him out. Now, as she stirs the chicken broth, she remembers how she wrapped a blue scarf around his thin neck that chill April morning though he said he didn’t want one and how he tipped his head back and grimaced when she knotted it a bit too tightly. Then, she didn’t know what she would do the next day when Mr. Parker would continue sitting at the kitchen table after breakfast. After he left, she swallowed a big white pill she’d squirreled away from his wisdom tooth extraction and she slept until lunch.
The first Monday morning of Mr. Parker’s retirement, the weather was fine. He came to breakfast at the same time as always and the only difference was that he wore a plaid flannel shirt and chinos, no tie. After he ate, he cracked open the newspaper and began to read. Mrs. Parker felt breathless, unsure what to do. She tip-toed around and set the dirty dishes in the sink with greater care to avoid making clattering noises while he read. Every time he finished a section of the newspaper, he picked up the next one and snapped it open with executive authority, a popping sound that made Mrs. Parker jump. She noticed that he used a tiny utility knife to slice out certain articles, laying them aside and writing the date and source in the margin with his silver ballpoint pen. This was how she learned her husband had his own rituals of which she had been entirely unaware.
Emily, I will have another cup of coffee, please.
He said it without looking at her like a man accustomed to having a secretary. The executive finance officer Mr. Parker had been at the bank was now in her kitchen, supplanting the docile after-hours husband she knew. As she wiped the stovetop with a moist paper towel, Mrs. Parker began to feel like a cleaning lady because he was sitting there. How would he have felt, she fretted inwardly, if she had turned up one day and just sat in his office mending socks? As if his territory were hers? The last words slid out of her sotto voce: as if my territory were yours…
Nothing, she said.
Golf became Mr. Parker’s main activity outside the house. He had played before, just enough to accompany the bank’s important clients around nine holes without embarrassing himself. This was how they had justified the expensive Club membership all these years. Mrs. Parker hadn’t minded because she wrote it off as a business deduction. She even archived his mediocre scorecards in case of tax audit. Now she continued to justify the membership as a small price to pay for her mental health. Mr. Parker played golf
Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.
Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.
Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday.
It was like a job.
Don’t forget, you have a tee-time to make, she reminded him when was slow to finish his breakfast.
Mr. Parker’s golfing uniform was conservative. He favored cotton polo shirts in subdued colors and pleated beige slacks. One day, however, he brought home a pair of bright green pants and a wide, shiny patent-leather belt he had purchased at the pro shop. He asked Mrs. Parker what she thought of his new ensemble.
“It certainly stands out,” she said.
“It’s by Jack Nicklaus.”
“I can see that,” she said, pointing at the great man’s signature which was embossed in gold on the shiny white leather.
Usually, Mr. Parker was home by lunch on golf days. He preferred to eat at home, he said, because the fried offerings at the clubhouse gave him heartburn.
“But wouldn’t it be nice to relax with your friends? I don’t want them thinking I’m forcing you to come home. You don’t tell them that, do you?”
“Of course not,” snorted Mr. Parker. In truth, he had told them something very similar on a few occasions.
“I think you should pick a day to stay for lunch.”
Mr. Parker picked Thursdays.
This was how the Parkers negotiated the outlines of their new life. On Tuesdays, as soon as he walked in carrying his golf shoes to keep from tracking what she called his residue into the house, Mrs. Parker pointed to his sandwich on the kitchen table and left to do the marketing. On Thursdays, she had the house to herself until two. On Saturday afternoons, she ran errands upon his return. On the other days, she had no remedy for the strangeness of his constant presence. He was apt to nap, take drives, or muddle around looking for something to do.
One afternoon, she found him sitting cross-legged on the basement floor sorting through a trunk of his personal memorabilia. Photo albums, notebooks, letters, Boy Scout binoculars and other evidence of his life before she knew him were fanned out around him on the cool concrete floor.
“I am considering writing a memoir,” he said. “What do you think of that?”
“That would be something,” said Mrs. Parker.
That evening, when Mr. Parker was taking his usual after-dinner walk, she went down to the basement, placed her husband’s past back into the trunk, and closed the lid securely. He didn’t mention the memoir again.
One day, Mrs. Parker was in the kitchen preparing to polish the silver. It was an annual task that gave her great satisfaction. How the sterling flatware they used only on holidays would sparkle when she was done! She arranged her soft cloths, the tub of polish, and a bowl of soapy water and laid all the utensils out in order on the newspaper-covered kitchen table. She had only just smeared a bit of pink polishing paste on a fork when Mr. Parker walked in and ambled around. He opened and closed cabinets as if searching for something. Then he leaned on the edge of the sink, just where she could see him out of the corner of her eye, and he gazed out the window. Her kitchen window. He sighed, the sort of sigh that is begging someone to ask what’s wrong? The blood rushed to Mrs. Parker’s head.
“Stop lurking,” she said and gripped the fork harder.
He apologized and left the room. Minutes later, she heard the front door close and his car leave the driveway. Where was he going? Why hadn’t he told her goodbye? Mrs. Parker tried to settle back into her pleasant task but to no avail. Her mood was ruined. She returned the flatware, unpolished, to the dining room sideboard.
Mr. Parker came home that day carrying many big, shiny shopping bags. He had wound up at the mall, he said, and took it into his head to do some window-shopping. He stopped for a coffee and found himself looking across the atrium at Bobby’s Hobbies. This, he told her, was not some toy store. It was a serious craft shop for adults. He had decided to take up building historically accurate models of famous ships. Mrs. Parker’s eyes widened, and her scalp prickled as he excitedly unveiled the colorful shrink-wrapped box containing the many pieces of a 1:84 wooden scale model of the Cutty Sark, as well as a bag-full of specialized tools he had bought to put them together. He had also subscribed to a club so that he could access online forums and get advice from fellow modelers, something he saw as a prudent investment, lest he run into any difficulties with his expensive builds. How expensive? With taxes, nearly $650.00. Mrs. Parker’s hand flew to her mouth.
“I know that seems like a lot, dear,” said Mr. Parker, “but it’s not that much when you think of the many hours of quiet enjoyment it will provide me.”
The glue! The paints and lacquers! The multitude of tiny pieces! The smell! The cost! Mrs. Parker became aware her hand was still on her mouth and removed it.
“This will keep me out from underfoot, Emily,” he said. Then his tone turned wistful. “You know, as a kid, I used to love building scale models with Dad. I’d always hoped I might build models with my own son one day.”
Unfair, Mrs. Parker thought, unfair.
She took a deep breath and imbued her next words with as much warmth as she could muster.
“Well, this really is a new chapter! Where are we going to set you up?”
Now Mrs. Parker smiles as she reaches into the cupboard for a white soup bowl, which she places in the center of Mr. Parker’s tray. All’s well that ends well. Goodness, she thinks, what a silly-billy I was back then! What a fusspot! Now, almost a year since Mr. Parker’s retirement, her household is running as smoothly as ever. Perhaps even more so. Mr. Parker in retirement is, if anything, a more well-integrated part of the household than he ever was during in their thirty-seven years of marriage. Mrs. Parker takes off her flowered apron and hangs it on a hook next to the door. She places a fresh napkin, a straw, and Mr. Parker’s little bottle of liquid vitamins on the tray. She fills the bowl with two ladles of rich, hot chicken broth and, as she contemplates her work, she purses her lips with pleasure. She lifts the tray.
At the bottom of the stairs, she looks up. The stairwell is as narrow and dim as a grain chute. They added this windowless companionway when she and Mr. Parker turned the attic into a full second floor with a small bathroom and two bedrooms.
“Just in case,” he had said.
“To enhance our home value,” she had replied.
“For family and guests.”
“It will be a mess.”
Back then, Mr. Parker was still envisioning himself putting at least one child to sleep every night in that renovated attic. Mrs. Parker, however, was bracing herself for the invasion of carpenters, plumbers, and painters. She fretted as they bored screws into fresh wallboard and laid down bright new floors. She made them hang thick plastic everywhere as if it were an asbestos abatement. She mandated paper booties. Now, as she gazes up the stairwell’s long barrel, she wonders if the lack of a handrail is a code violation, and she makes a mental note to research the matter. Mrs. Parker’s sneakered foot feels for the first carpeted step and she climbs, one riser at a time, careful not to slosh liquid onto the square of yellow placemat. How she had resented the vertiginous angle! But the architect who drew up the plans proved to them it was the only way to get from here to there. Now, Mrs. Parker reflects on the backaches she’s endured over the years because of these stairs, which require regular vacuuming like any other part of the house despite the scant use they received for so long. But now, she thinks as she ascends huffing and puffing, she knows their value.
When he became a hobbyist, Mr. Parker turned one of the two upstairs bedrooms into his workshop. He did not consult with Mrs. Parker before he dismantled the four-poster bed and rolled up the thick blue rug to make room for his new enthusiasm. He left all the furniture huddled in one corner in a single, disconsolate, drop cloth-covered lump. He purchased a large industrial worktable. A new goose-necked lamp with a wide honey-comb base became populated by glue and paint tubes, tiny brushes, clips, toothpicks, and rolls of fine wire and twine. A sleek wooden box held his array of crafting knives. He attached a jumbo magnifying glass to the table with a C-clamp. He removed the blue draperies from the windows and tossed them willy-nilly on top of the furniture pile. His work required light. Lots and lots of light.
Mr. Parker spent one entire day unpacking the Cutty Sark and inventorying all the pieces in its eighteen assembly packs. Then he spent a couple more days studying the manual from cover to cover before beginning the assembly. Between his golf and his modeling, he became very busy. So busy and enthusiastic was he that he started to excuse himself quickly after dinner.
“Off to the poop deck!” he declared, taking his dessert with him.
Anxious about crumbs, once morning Mrs. Parker went upstairs to clean while her husband was golfing. She dusted his worktable, re-ordered all the little pieces by size and placed them in nice straight rows. She ran the vacuum, retrieved a fork and a pie plate, and tried to avert her eyes from the sad, curtain-less windows and the forlorn pile of abandoned furniture. She had decorated the upstairs bedrooms with such care, and she had loved the persistent whiff of unspoiled newness that was once there, a perfume that had never faded thanks to the lack of use those rooms had received. Thanks to Mr. Parker, this room was now dismembered. It smelled of glue and Mr. Parker. It had become unhomely and weird.
That afternoon, Mr. Parker, who was not at all happy to see that his worktable had been organized, spent several frustrating hours searching for a couple of missing mast-hole gaskets and finally determined they must have disappeared into Mrs. Parker’s vacuum. He had to sort through a heap of wet refuse in the kitchen bin to locate the tiny pieces. From then on, he prohibited the use of your machine past what he now referred to as my threshold.
“In that case, there will be no more snacking up there,” said Mrs. Parker.
“We’ll see,” said Mr. Parker.
Mr. Parker completed the Cutty Sark in six weeks. It was his first project and had a few obvious flaws, but the overall effect was good. So, he mounted it on an oak block and had a brass plaque engraved with the name of the ship and To Emily, my wife. He presented it to her on their 38th wedding anniversary. She said thank you very much, dear, and after a day or two placed it back in his workshop. There was no suitable spot for it elsewhere in the house, she explained to him, and she thought it best to display it where it would provide him with inspiration. He agreed with her, secretly pleased that he would not have to part with it.
Encouraged by his success, Mr. Parker started in on the HMS Sovereign of the Seas, an early 17th century British ship of the line. Because of its great size and detail, it was significantly more expensive than the Cutty Sark and he was excited about the 102 real bronze guns and the quantity of gilding that he would have to apply. At dinner, the Parkers’ companionable silence was replaced by Mr. Parker’s spontaneous lectures on the Anglo-Dutch wars and engineering matters, such as how reducing tonnage in the upper works of a large war ship increased maneuverability on the high seas. He was becoming a history buff.
I see, Mrs. Parker replied. Yes, I see.
Mr. Parker continued to play golf with increasing enthusiasm, especially after that fine September day when he came within an inch of hitting a hole-in-one on the par 3 eight hole. He returned home late and a bit tipsy because he had felt obliged to accept the drinks his golfing buddies bought him in celebration. Giddy, he related his near feat to her. A rehearsal for the real thing, his friends had told him. You’ll be buying next time! Listening to him, Mrs. Parker thought about whether his scorecards were worth archiving anymore, since greens fees could no longer be claimed as a business deduction. But she was in the habit of keeping them, so she continued to do so. Mr. Parker acquired a tan and began to sport a carefully clipped beard and moustache, both of which grew out very white and made him look even swarthier.
“Are you growing a beard?” She asked him this one day, although it was perfectly obvious that he was.
“Every man should grow a beard once his life,” said Mr. Parker, defensively.
“You look like an Italian fisherman,” said Mrs. Parker.
Mr. Parker had no reply for this observation.
Now that Mr. Parker was using the upstairs bathroom every day, it required more careful attention. So, she took her bucket of cleaning supplies and, as she passed the closed door of the workshop, she heard an unusual sound: it was Mr. Parker laughing. A chuckle at first, it transformed into chortles, and then guffaws. At dinner that night, she asked him what had been so funny earlier. He didn’t remember, he said, it could have been anything! His circle of friends in the online modeling forum was extensive. International, in fact, he told her. His group, he added with a wink, included some very interesting characters.
“They appreciate my historical knowledge,” he said.
As you do not, she heard.
Changes of routine are riddled with hidden dangers. Improvisations are fine in jazz, although if she were to be honest, Mrs. Parker found jazz to be both messy and undisciplined, a squabble posing as music. She thought that in the real lives of most people, method and repetition were what allowed one moment to proceed to the next without disaster.
Mrs. Parker was entertaining these thoughts one day as she vacuumed her way up the stairs, breathing hard and suffering the August heat that had accumulated in the ventless space. She settled the heavy cannister on a step and passed the nozzle over the two steps above her. Then, resting the long, ribbed hose carefully to the right side, she lugged the cannister up another two steps and repeated the process. This was her invariable method and, though it was slow, it was also prudent. She did not wish to have an accident. Especially since Mr. Parker had been making noises lately about them hiring a maid. It is getting to be too much for you, he said. She answered him with silence. The though of someone else caring for her home filled her with horror.
When she had almost reached the top step, a wave of dizziness overcame her. Mrs. Parker lowered herself down and sat on the second-floor landing, her back to Mr. Parker’s now always-closed workshop door. She closed her eyes and bowed her head down to her knees, breathing deeply until the wave of nausea that had enveloped her started to taper off. Phew, she said to herself. You’re not a kid anymore, Emily. Her skirt spread around her and her bare, plump legs stretched down like those of a child about to bump downstairs on her fanny. She remembered sitting just like this at the top of the stairs in her parents’ house those evenings of the smoky, noisy cocktail parties they had with their friends. From the safety of her perch, she would listen to the noise of the music, talking, and laughter that, after everyone had left, often modulated into her parents yelling at each other, saying cruel things, throwing objects, slamming doors. Then, little Emily would crawl into her bed and cover herself up from head to toe, shielding herself with sheets and blankets. And if someone opened the door later to check on the little girl, which they rarely did, she would curl up into a tight ball and pretend to be asleep, wishing away the proximity of those smoke-saturated clothes and sour breath, the wet, alcohol-soaked kiss on her face. The next morning, while her parents were still asleep, she’d creep downstairs to the living room in her pink moccasins and nightgown to begin the methodical, solitary work of emptying ashtrays, picking up garbage, washing the dishes. What would I do without you? Mother said, lighting up her first cigarette of the day. Emily brought her a coffee, black with three teaspoons of sugar. You are the only person who loves me, Emily. The only one.
The sound of Mr. Parker laughing punctured Mrs. Parker’s memories. It was spontaneous, like a dog barking on the other side of that door that was closed so tightly against her. She did not know that laugh. She did not trust it. That bearded and suntanned man who built miniature ships and almost got holes-in-one was a complete stranger to her, a foreigner. Emily pulled her legs up and turned her body over until she was on all fours. Then, using the wall for support, she pulled herself up to her feet. But the darkness started closing in again and she felt her senses failing, like shutters slamming closed on the windows of a house. She felt her way down the short hallway to the second, still-perfect guest bedroom where no one had ever slept or dreamed or made love, and she lay down. The clean smell of the chenille bedspread and the gentle whirring of the ceiling fan relaxed her and within minutes, she was asleep.
While Mr. Parker’s present situation is not a gift by any measure, there is good to be found in all adversity. Emily Parker thinks this now as she balances the tray that holds his bowl of chicken broth. She prepares her smile, and, with one well-padded hip, she bumps open the door to the room that they still call the workshop. This door is never closed all the way anymore.
She is still surprised at how, while she slept off her bout of vertigo just down the hall and darkness fell, Mr. Parker kept working on the HMS Sovereign of the Seas, unconcerned that she had not called him down to dinner. Excited to have applied the last delicate touches of gilding to the forecastle, he apparently leapt up to run downstairs and tell her. Who could blame Emily if just that once she had failed to put away the vacuum and its clear, ribbed hose? How could she have known it would uncurl itself like a snake across the top three steps? You might as well blame the architect who had failed to light the staircase properly or install a handrail. You might as well blame Mr. Parker himself (although she never would) for insisting on the folly of the second-floor renovation in the first place. But none of that matters now. What matters is that she, his wife, dedicates herself to his care. What matters is the light. So much light! And that is why she keeps him up here.
“Lunchtime!” Mrs. Parker trills to the ashen man with the perpetually shocked expression who lies strapped to a hospital bed in the upstairs room. Ironic, said his friends from the Club about poor Mr. Parker’s terrible accident so soon after retirement, though few of them took the trouble to visit. We will miss him, typed his pals from the modelers’ forum after she wrote a goodbye message and logged him out for the last time. Now the sunlight makes the smooth white walls gleam and lends an atmosphere of cheer and good health. The Cutty Sark and the HMS Sovereign of the Seas sit on a low white bookshelf where he can see them always, dusted and polished. Now the blue curtains belly inward with the fresh spring breeze and the double-wedding-ring quilt she made for him drapes a body whose motionless contours barely disrupt the plane of the mattress.
Mrs. Parker hums as she deposits the tray on the adjustable hospital table, lowers the bed’s side gate, and presses the button to raise her husband to a sitting position. The doctors say they have never seen someone take such exquisite care of a housebound patient and they marvel at her cheerful acceptance of the situation. I was made for this, she tells them.
“Here I am, dear,” says Mrs. Parker, stroking Mr. Parker’s smooth, white cheek. “It’s your favorite, home-made chicken soup.”
And Mr. Parker’s thin neck quivers as his wife approaches him with a silver spoonful of steaming broth.