Ross's memory was fine, and his eyesight and hearing were still in working order, at least on the right side. It was his sleeping that the long years had robbed him of. He used to be able to fool himself and lay abed for the recommended eight hours even if he wasn't so much sleeping as zoning out, meditating on the back of his eye lids while Marjorie puttered about the house in her morning rituals. Now, though, he didn't have the patience. When the sun came up, when Marjorie started her morning ritual--especially when Marjorie started her morning ritual--he couldn't even pretend to sleep.
How many years could one person do the same thing over and over? The dusting was the part that Ross most couldn't understand. From one day to the next, dust didn't have time to accumulate, Ross figured. But what Ross could or couldn't understand or figure out was of no nevermind to Marjorie. She would keep on doing her morning rituals until ... forever, Ross guessed.
Or near enough to forever. How many years had they been married now? What came after the so-called Golden Anniversary? Diamond? Or just petrification?
Ross certainly felt petrified as the first rays of the sun peeked over the horizon and through the parted curtains and poked him in the eye.
Parting the curtains of the bedroom window was always the first part of Marjorie's morning ritual. She got up, stretched with a creaking of tendons and a cracking of bones that was at once awesome and frightening to witness--and had been startling Ross awake since their first morning spent together--and then went to east window and pulled the curtains back with the matching sashes. Both curtains and matching sashes were faded and wearing thin--just like the two old people behind them, and like just about everything else in their little house--but Marjorie liked the material and the print and she refused to get new curtains until she could replace them exactly. Already the difference between the curtains drawn and the curtains parted was getting hard to determine.
The morning sunshine--and the dust put in the air by Marjorie's morning diligence and worn-out feather duster--irritated Ross's nose. He sneezed, causing Marjorie to oops! and say, as she said every time he sneezed, "Bless you."
As he did every time she said that, he looked at her and said, "Hang your blessing, woman. Stop dusting me."
Marjorie's thin face took on that hurt look she had perfected over the years, her thin lips pressed together until they almost disappeared, her eyes widening and the tip of her nose trembling as if she might start crying. Then she hmmph-ed and turned her back on him and continued dusting, sending a million shiny motes spinning in the direct sunlight.
Ross rolled out of the bed and stood up. He stretched, creating a few satisfying pops of his own. Marjorie still faced away from him. He put a thin hand on her thinner shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm always grumpy in the morning."
She turned around, letting his hand stay on her shoulder. "You're just always grumpy." Then she went up on tiptoe and pecked him on the right cheek. Her lips were dry and scratchy, just like they had been for ... how long? Too long. So he got revenge the way he always did, by kissing her on the forehead with his own dry, scratchy lips.
Marjorie pulled away from him, a tired and faded playfulness in her expression. "Get on with you. I have to finish my dusting."
Long ago, he would have given chase. Now, though, his gaze fell, as it always did, to her left hand, which she kept wrapped in a scarf and pressed to her stomach. As old and as far gone as they both were, he wondered at the vanity that made her hide her hand. He had given up trying to convince her that no one cared. He certainly didn't. He actually wanted to see her hand, which she found revolting, and she didn't care that she could still use the hand. She kept it wrapped in the same scarf, day after day. That argument he always lost. Like so many of the arguments they had had over the years. Not that he actually lost so many of them, he told himself--and had told his dwindling number of friends over the years--he didn't lose arguments so much as he had learned that winning arguments wasn't all that useful in the long run. And their marriage had certainly proved to be a long run.
He left her in the bedroom and went looking for breakfast.
The kitchen was spotless, as it was every morning. Not a pan in the sink, not a plate out of place.
And, as usual, no breakfast.
That was one thing that had changed. She used to make him breakfast every morning. Even on the mornings he got up late and she had to tsk-tsk him about how retiring hadn't meant he didn't have work to do. But then, just like Marjorie could no longer find the material to replace her favorite curtains, what he wanted to eat just wasn't available any longer. He couldn't muster any interest in the food she cooked for him. He would just sit at the table, look at the steaming piles of food she had cooked, never taking a bite until she took the plate away and scraped it into the trash. Eventually, she stopped making breakfast for him. He didn't blame her.
So, as he had every morning for--how long? way too many--years now, he went and sat on his favorite chair on the front porch and watched the drones heading to work, reveling in the last bit of entertainment his retirement left him.
The drab men and women in their threadbare work clothes walked mechanically along the road, stepping around the rusting hulks of the old cars on their way work. Some of them saw him step out of his front door and looked up. But, as always happened, their interest faded in an instant, and they continued along their way. None of them so much as waved in greeting.
Ross took some satisfaction that everything had gone to hell after he had retired. Otherwise, that would be him out there, slogging along to a job he hated, probably walking miles that used to seem so short but now stretched into eternity. If he got to work during daylight hours, he would be sitting in a cramped cubicle, staring at a dark monitor until the sun went down. Then he would get up, and walk back home. And when he got home, he would wait until the sun rose to do it all over again.
After a few hours, her morning ritual completed, Marjorie came and sat down beside him. That she sat on his left now was also a change from how things used to be, but she didn't want him to hold her left hand. Only her right hand.
So they sat there, holding hands, watching the damned, some of them with kids in tow on their way to days at school as dismal as those of their parents at work.
Ross found himself looking down at Marjorie's left hand, still wrapped, resting in her lap. After he got over the initial horror of what he had done to her, and their lives had returned to a semblance of their old routine, Ross had found the sight of the bare bones of her left hand oddly fascinating. That, as much as simple vanity, he figured, was why she kept it covered. Her skeletal hand was the only time in their many years together that there had ever been any violence.
She didn't blame him, and she had shushed all his apologies. She figured she had made him pay sufficiently by flattening the left side of his head with her favorite iron skillet and locking him in the garage until she had died of the festering wound he had torn with his teeth--he still remembered the sweet, sweet taste of her flesh--and then awoken hungry just like him. When she let him out of the garage, they had first looked at each other as if to find the best place to attack with their teeth, then they had hugged each other as tight as they had ever had. Since neither one wanted to eat the other any more, they made up.
And then they had gone out to look for dinner together. Along with the Pulvers next door--Hank Pulver with half of his face missing--they had searched every house in the neighborhood, finally finding that repulsive little punk Bobby Jackson--Bobby had more than once thought it the height of humor to throw rolls of toilet paper over and into Ross's hedges and trees--and cornering him in an interior bathroom. Ross remembered wishing he had thought of this particular revenge years before, when Bobby would have been even more tender and tasty.
Those had been happy days, when there were still living people to find and eat. But then the last of the living had been devoured or had died of their wounds and come back as undead.
After a only few more months of chaos, life--or un-life, Ross thought--had gone back to normal. In a manner of speaking.
At least he and his good wife had retired before it all went to hell. Because his own little corner of hell wasn't that bad, since he owned his house and had Marjorie with him. It was too bad about the grandkids. He missed them sometimes.
The two of them sat and watched the drones trudging by until long after the sun went down.
Inspired by this painting by my brother, Don Michael, Jr: