The Boiler

Meghan Lamb

THE WIDOWER

The old man knows he is—or was—at some point—married. He remembers traces of their marriage, reoccurring moments.

Pink sunlight through the curtains of their kitchen.

Sipping coffee.

Gray-blue moonlight through the curtains of their bedroom.

Getting into bed.

Above all, he recalls her shape—the imprint of her shape—the space she occupied in bed, the mark that she was there.

He can remember what she smelled like, though he cannot name it, but sometimes he catches a reminder in something he passes by.

A breath of fresh-cut flowers.

Open windows.

Dew from recent rain.

Tea leaves dipped down into the steam he stirs.

The ghostly trails they leave.

He can’t remember what her face looked like, though sometimes he recalls her mouth, her nose, her eyes, but always individually. Not a face, but features floating on some pale tide of recognition. When he stirs them, they drift down to darkness, out of reach.

                                                                                 _

He squints into the pink light and he turns in bed. A thin twin, for one person. Cold. He coughs. He reaches for his watch. He puts it on. It feels hard against the raised vein of his wrist. He coughs. He eases slowly toward the edges of his bed.

He slips his feet into his slippers, ties his robe. Rough terry. Tender skin.

He pads into the bathroom. Stands before the sink. He puckers at the gray-white face. He lets the water run over his hands. The skin is loose. Ripples of mounds, like hills of wax.

He shakes the hills until they’re dry depressions, dries them, reaches for the glass that holds the teeth.

He looks into the tumbler at the teeth. A cloudy puddle, gray against the pink, a pool in its gums.

He shakes the teeth. They clatter, softly, in his hand. He puts them in his mouth. He shifts his lips against their slick, tart, strangeness.

He makes a frail stream of piss.

Steam rises and he thinks of tea.

He thinks of coffee.

Thinks about his wife.

Tries to imagine her.

Tries to imagine morning, with her.

Coffee. Tea.

Steam fades.

A tinge of pain.

He thinks, he can’t.

He flushes.

                                                                                  _

He glances at his calendar. It’s Wednesday. Laundry morning. So, he shuffles to the bed. He peels back the pastel sheets. He thinks they look like something that a woman would pick out. He can’t remember purchasing or picking out these sheets.

He bundles them into a ball. He holds the ball against his chest. The ball feels vaguely damp. The ball smells bad. He drops it in the hamper and he shuts the lid. Old man, he thinks. You smelly, dirty, sad old sack of man.

He tugs the hamper, but it feels too heavy to be lifted. He stoops down and drags the hamper from the bed frame to the door. It leaves a line of long, deep grooves inside the freshly vacuumed carpet.

When the hamper butts against the door, he clasps his hands against his knees, exhales dry, charred sounds, like burning leaves. He cracks the door. He peers into the empty, quiet hall. He can just barely hear the clink of distant silver, tables being set.

He slides the hamper out into the hall, before the door.

He squints. He hears a woman’s laughter rising through the silver sound.

It is a warm laugh. A familiar laugh. A laugh he knows but cannot put a name to.

                                                                                  _

A knock. A woman’s voice. Good morning, dear.

Good morning, he calls back. He smiles as the voice opens the door.

It’s Ms. Tanya. He knows her name her because she wears a name tag. A pink uniform. She has a gap between her teeth.

She smiles. Sit down, dear, she says.

He sits. She straps the cuff around his thin white skin. She pumps the tube. It hisses. She
writes down some numbers on the chart.

He coughs. What’s that? The day I’m gonna die?

She laughs. You’re funny, honey.

Yeah, he says. But looks aren’t everything.

You’re looking good, she says. She edges up the velcro of the cuff. She tears it very slowly so she doesn’t hurt him.

His skin pricks, not from pain, but from the effort. Sad old man, he thinks. He glances at the gap between her teeth.

Thank you, Ms. Tanya, he says.

My pleasure. Her tooth gap whistles. She walks toward the window, and she stands there.

Her silhouette against the curtain makes him think about his wife. It’s something in the way she holds her shoulders.

He watches as she shrugs, stretches her back, pinches a strand of hair, and sighs, pushing it back behind her ear.

It’s such a pretty day, she says. Light breeze. Low 70s.

He smiles. Good. I hope that you get to enjoy it.

                                                                                   _

After Ms. Tanya helps him choose his clothes—tan pants, a rust-brown checkered shirt that feels like the fabric of an old couch—he stands, slouches in his walker, pushes himself down the hall. He listens as the gentle, clinking silver sound grows closer, louder.

He sees another woman in pink uniform pushing another resident who sits, sunk down, into his wheelchair.

The resident is wrapped inside a blue fleece blanket.

Like a baby, he thinks, silently relieved that he is still—at least—a man.

                                                                                   _

His walker rounds the curve into the dining room. The silver sound builds from a tinny echo to a symphony of scraping knives. A table full of men with plates—all wearing checkered shirts—looks up across the room and nods and waves for him to join them.

Top of the mornin’ to you, says one.

Light breeze. 70s, another says.

They give his back a friendly pat as he sits in his chair.

Sleep well? They ask.

He clears his throat, which means both yes and no.


Not me, says one of them. Terrible dreams again. The war.


They all nod.


A young girl carries his tray to the table. He looks at the tendril curls of hair escaping from her net. He thinks, that’s nice. She sets his tray in front of him. A tattoo, on her wrist. A skull with roses. He thinks, well, now, that is not so nice.


Breakfast appears to be three pale palm-sized pancakes, two small links of shiny sausage, a sulfuric-smelling yellow scoop of scramble, and the ever-present teacup filled with coffee, which he reaches for, dismayed by the slight tremble of his hands.

The table of his friends sits, sipping, silent, mostly.

Coughing.

Sipping.

Someone reads the paper, turns the page.

Somebody clears his throat. Good news in there?

Nope, says the paper-holder. War, there. Everywhere. Out there, he sighs.

They all nod, knowingly.

                                                                                 _

Out there, a small brown finch is hopping on the lawn. He watches from the window as the brown finch flits along a patch of high grass.

The finch jumps, catches at the grass, and grabs a bit of grain. A long strand bounces back and forth. The bird keeps jumping, catching, grabbing.

Then, another finch flies down to join the first.

They jump.

They catch.

They nibble at the air.

Another bird flies down.

Another.

And another.

Soon, the lawn is filled with hopping, jumping finches, strands of light grass gently quivering amid their movements.

                                                                                 _

A memory begins to quiver in his brain.

Something about the window.

Watching something through the window, at home, with his wife.

He can remember her back, silhouetted, shadowed.

Coming up behind her.

Circling his arms around her waist.

Leaning to kiss her cheek.

Her tendril curls of hair.

Catching a strand between his fingertips.

Pushing the strand behind her ear.

The smell of her perfume.

The way she smelled…like what?

Lilac?

Or violet?

His thoughts contract.

The moment stirs.

Its thin strands split.

It slips away.

                                                                                   _

The silver scrapes, then stutters to a stop. The old men yawn. The small brown finches fly away. The tattooed girl comes by to take their trays. The rose skull circles round the table, darting in and out until it hovers—white-gray, flecked with red—in front of him.

He frowns. What made you want to get that tattoo, there? He says.

She sighs. I was so young, then.

He says, you are still so young.

He laughs.

She laughs.

He says, someday, you’ll be a good wife to someone.

She says, haha.

She does not laugh.

He says, you should remove it.

She says, sure.

                                                                                   _

The women in pink uniforms drift through the room and down the hall. The building softens to the long hush of the afternoon. Every now and then, a short alarm goes off. The pink suits scatter. Mostly, though, the men sit, silent, shuffling their cards.

They mumble, scratch.

Mhm. Mhm.

They flip their cards onto the table.

Rummy! One declares.

God damn it, no. We’re playing Hearts.

They whisper, shuffle.

In the far back corner of the room, a fish tank bubbles. Flashes of fins dart through the tank’s dim, violet glow.

He thinks, violet.

Lilac.

Gin!

God damn it, no.

He thinks of pink light.

Thinks of shadows, thinks he was once married. Once. He must have been.

                                                                                  _

The sun’s light swells into the shade he’s thinking of, which makes the room feel like a scene he’s conjured from a dream. He hears an eerie resonance amid the low hum of the fish tank, thinks the whispered, shuffled cards sound like the wisps of wings.

An old woman enters the room. She passes by the table carrying a pad of a paper and a box of paint. She wears her white-gray hair pinned in a thick curl with an indentation at its center, like a little nest. She wears a filmy scarf, a button blouse, a long skirt filled with flowers in the same pastel shades as his pale pastel sheets.

He sniffs, picks up a strain of her perfume. That smell. Those flowers.

He looks up above the hands, the murmured sounds, his fan of cards.

He watches her sit down, spread out her paper and her paint.

He plays a diamond, takes the round. He sweeps the cards into his stack.

She dips her brush into a glass of water, picks a color. Dips her brush into the glass. The water streams with blue.

Somebody says, the thing about the war…not just our town…the country…an entire country…an entire generation lost.

Somebody says, the field…

Someone else says, in the forest…mud…the rain…

He wonders if they’re thinking of the same war.

He looks up again.

The water’s stained with deep blue, violet, gray.

She stirs. The water turns a shade of milky lilac blue.

The war…the thing about the war…

Hell, someone murmurs. War is hell.

He thinks, that color is the color of the scent he cannot name.

He pardons himself from the table when the game is finished, starts to makes his way toward the woman’s corner of the room.

Going to see about a lady? Ask the men.

He chuckles drily in response.

                                                                                  _

She looks up, startled, as his walker butts into the table’s edge.

Seat taken? He asks.

She says, I suppose not.

He sits down. Nice day, he says. Light breeze. 70s.

Yes, so they say, she says. She looks back down and contemplates her painting.

He watches for awhile as she nods above her painting, pushes back the tails of her scarf,
which drift down, once again. He watches her expression, twitching corners of her mouth. The empty indentation of her coiled nest of hair.

Your perfume. What’s that scent? He asks.

She dabs. It’s lavender, she says.

Ah, lavender, he says. I like it very much.

I used to grow it in my garden, when I had a garden. She smiles lightly, stirs the water, which then turns a deep, bright blue.

He tries to picture his backyard, which had a garden. He does not remember what was growing in it. He spent mornings on the front lawn, trimming long, green grooves that spiraled from the yard’s periphery into its fresh mown heart.

He says, a garden is a good thing. Good place for a woman.

I do miss the garden, she says. All the birds and butterflies. But that was long ago. She makes an odd sound, like she’s sipping from the air. For one breath of a moment, she sounds like a little girl.

She looks at him. He looks at her. There’s something so familiar, yet so unfamiliar in her
face. Her skin is full of lines, so many pathways to get lost in. He tries to look through them, searching for something he recognizes.

Do I know you? She says, suddenly.

He sips the air. He sounds old.

He says, possibly. I think, maybe, you do.

They lock eyes, once again. Her smile broadens.

She says, maybe. Lightly, as though brushing at the edges of some secret they might share.

They sit there, looking at each other, for another moment.

Then, Ms. Tanya comes up to the table, nods down at the painting.

Is it finished, dear?

I think so.

Let me take the glass.

Ms. Tanya carries off her little tumbler of bright blue.

                                                                                 _

That evening, he stands, looking at himself inside the mirror. He thinks, smelly, dirty, sad old sack of man. He makes himself laugh at this thought. He laughs at himself laughing. Then, he watches how his face goes slack when he removes the teeth.

He pours a spot of Listerine into his glass.

The same bright blue.

His teeth sit, like a fossil in some fish-less sea.

He looks intently at the glass, the shade of blue. His mind strains at his eyes. He feels his
veins begin to ache.

He shuffles back into the bedroom. Gray-blue light seeps through the curtains and some frail sense of recognition starts to filter through.

A knock, then, interrupts his thoughts. It is Ms. Tanya. She brings in his laundry hamper
filled with clean, warm, floral-scented sheets.

He thinks they look like something that a woman would pick out. He can’t remember purchasing or picking out these sheets.

She helps him make the bed. She tugs and smoothes its surface. Then, she stretches by the window, yawns, and tucks her hair back into place.

The gray-blue light surrounds her, silhouettes her frame.

Is everything okay with you, tonight? Ms. Tanya asks.

He says, I don’t think so. I cannot find my wife.

Ms. Tanya smiles, but her smile has an odd look to it.

She leans down and she opens his top drawer.

She lays his bed clothes out over the sheets.

Laid out this way, his thinks that they look like a shapeless man.

Let’s get some rest, she says. I’ll help you find your wife tomorrow.

                                                                                 _

He squints into the morning light. He slips his feet into his slippers, ties his robe. He pads
into the bathroom, to the toilet.

This morning is a stronger, strangely pinkish stream of piss.

He thinks about the light.

About his wife.

He flushes.

                                                                                 _

A knock. Ms. Tanya enters, carrying a package.

Today is your birthday, she says. Happy Birthday, dear.

How old am I, today? He asks.

She says, older than me.

He chuckles. Pretty old then, huh?

Her tooth gap whistles.

Ms. Tanya opens and unpacks the box. She hands him every item as she takes it out. The box contains a pack of undershirts, a new hand towel, and a small rectangle box of brand name chocolates.

He holds the objects in his hands. He turns them over, looks at them. They all have no significance to him.

Can’t eat those with my teeth, he gestures at the chocolates.

It’s the thought that counts, I guess, she shrugs apologetically.

                                                                                 _

He sits down with the table of his men. A pink suit carries him a tray with coffee, brown
toast, thin grits, and a dish of fruit cocktail with tiny specks of pink, but mostly filled with whole, white, peeled, vulnerable grapes.

Top of the mornin’ to you, says one.

High of 67. Chance of showers in the afternoon, another says.

He pictures showers in the afternoon. Small drops of memory begin to trickle through the gray-blue of his mind.

Today’s my birthday, he announces.

Happy Birthday, they congratulate him. Why, you old son of a gun.

They all nod, knowingly. They look back down into their breakfast.

The grits taste like quicksand. The toast, like ordinary sand.

One of the men begins to cough. They all ignore it, for a moment, but the cough grows louder and much more insistent. A pink suit flutters from across the room. She pats the man’s back firmly til he gags a wet pink fleck of cherry.

The man looks down until she leaves. He shakes his head. I don’t know what came over me, just now, he says. I’m so embarrassed.

One of them nods with understanding. One time, I was so embarrassed.

The men lean in to hear him tell the story.

We all were riding on the bus, you know, he says, somewhere in Italy. The hills were steep, you know. The bus was curling, right along the edge. The hills were high, not much to keep us almost from the edge. So, anyhow. The driver, I don’t think he knew what he was doing. So, he gets pulled over, so, he stops, and then the door just opens. All these men, the police—we were all in Italy—they had these great big guns, you know, these just enormous guns over their shoulders, and well, there we were. They had these great big guns, in Italy.

Today’s your birthday, huh. The men look back toward him.

I suppose so.

They all sing together: Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday to you.

One of their voices cracks in his attempt to sing the harmony.

They all look down as though they were the culprit.

                                                                                 _

The sky darkens from gray-blue into deeper gray. The rain begins to fall. It falls hard, fogging  up the windows. Through the windows, he can see the soft, blurred shapes of trees, the softly glowing globe lamps, haloed all around the building.

An old woman with white-gray hair pinned in a thick curl walks into the room, holding a pad of a paper and a pack of paint. She glances toward him as she passes by the table, and the men grin.

Looks like you had better follow her.

He sits across from her as she sets up her paper and her paint.

He breathes in.

Lilac.

Violet.

No, lavender.

Your lavender perfume, he nods.

She nods. That’s right. My garden, when I had one.

Yes, your garden. He remembers, now. For now.

She dabs her paintbrush, dips into the glass. A spot of tea-green sheds its pale strands.

She stirs. The strands dissolve.

The wind begins to blow the rain in sheets, which hit the glass, then splatter streams of gray-blue-gleaming water.

The spring is bittersweet, she says. The rain.

Don’t much get out no more, in rain nor shine, he chuckles airily.

I mean the way the rain reminds me of my garden, looking at it from the window, waiting to get out, she says.

She dabs her brush. She dips. The water streams with reddish-brown, the shade of things in disrepair, the shade of rusting tools. Then, she stirs. The water turns a murky puddle-brown. He thinks of oil, thinks of sawdust, thinks of afternoons in his garage.

When I look out the window in the rain, she says, sometimes I think the garden will be there, just waiting, when the rain clears.

He says, that’s a nice thought. A garden is a good thing. Good place for a woman.

While it lasts, she sighs. She stirs the paint.

Somewhere off down the hall, somebody fingers at an old piano. A few hesitant keys, then a set of scales. First, descending. Then, ascending, with an air of distant optimism. The piano lingers, echoing above the highest note.

It plays some breezy melody, all brightly flitting pecks of keys and warm chords.

She sighs, shakes her head, and dabs her brush. She paints. She stirs.

The song ends. A small group of unseen hands claps, slightly.

A new song begins. He trains his ears. This one, he thinks that he might know.

He strains his thoughts toward the movements of the keys, into anticipation of the verse.

He starts to sing. The voice that comes out of his mouth is strangely frail. He has never heard this voice before:

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine.
I’ll taste your sweet berries, I’ll drink your sweet wine.
A million tomorrows will all pass away.
Ere I forget all the joy that is mine.
Today.

They laugh together, at his voice, and at the song.

Your voice is lovely, she exclaims.

Come now, he coughs.

It is though. Lovely.

He looks at her eyes and at their gentle shining folds, a bit like petals from a wilted rose.

They linger, speechless, in the kind of cloudy feeling that piano adaptations of familiar music always brings. His ears continue scanning melodies for bits he knows. He watches her keep dabbing, stirring, dabbing, stirring, smearing paint.

The water in the glass does not evoke the sense of recognition that it did, though, when it
turned bright blue before. It just turns brown, then brown, then darker-brown, then dark-brown, then dark-dark-brown, then dark-darker-brown, then gray-dark-brown, then black.

What are you painting, there? He asks.

She turns the picture upright, so the bits of wet paint drizzle weakly down the page.

I’m trying, she says, but I can’t…

The teary stems, the bright, smudged orbs, look like the painting of a child, nothing like a garden.

Then, the piano starts to play a flat, chordless rendition of the Happy Birthday song. Strange distant voices chorus, Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday, and Ms. Tanya scurries in, holding a cupcake with a candle.

Happy Birthday! Says Ms. Tanya.

Happy Birthday! Says the older woman.

Happy Birthday! Sing the voices of the strangers he can’t see.

He leans in, takes a deep breath, and blows out the candle.

Distant hands clap for him.

Smoke drifts over everything.

                                                                                   _

He dreams in flickers. Flashes. Gray-blue. Coffee. Shadows. Lace. A smile. Hair tucked back. A silhouette. Blue flowers in a blue vase. Thin bones. Thin, thin, brittle. False teeth. Outlines in the bed. A dream about an old dream. Cold fog. Dreams about the war, the war, the war. Always the war. Cold fog. Brown puddles. Yellow gas. Blue flowers. Yellow-brown. Thin bones, exposed. The weight of them. The dreamlike movements. Cold fog. Thin, thin, brittle, never able to move fast enough. Gray-blue. The sense that something—waiting to consume you—lives beneath the air.

                                                                                    _

He peers into the light. A haze of white-gray, shivering with dust. He aches. He slips feet into slippers, shoulders into robe.

His chest hurts and he coughs.

He has to still himself against the door frame.

He tears up, involuntarily.

He pisses puddle brown.

_

He waits for her amid the shuffled whispers of the cards.

The murmured expletives: God damn it, no. Sonofabitch.

The muffled coughs.

Bad rain all week, and thunderstorms. Low 60s.

Coffee tastes like piss.

The war, the war.

The thing about the war…

                                                                                 _

He waits for her amid the movements of the light, the weather, hoping her shape will materialize with the slightest change.

But she does not materialize.

Nothing ever changes.

He just moves throughout the day, as usual, perceiving flickers in the air.

                                                                                   _

He dreams in flickers. Pink light. Gray-blue drifts. Flakes of dust. Flakes of ashes, falling. Sawdust. Shavings. Smell of sulfur. Smell of paint. Smell of the coffee, brewing through the day. The smell of an eternal morning. Shadows moving. Nothing ever changes.

                                                                                  _

Until: one morning, he wakes up, and he can smell his own breath.

It is terrible.

The fibers of his robe feel like fine needles, sewn together.

When he stands, he nearly falls.

When he leans down to piss, he nearly falls.

A bad piss.

Red.

He shivers deeply in his bones.

                                                                                 _

He dreams long lace shadows like the lattice of his veins. Hair blowing. Silhouettes he follows, but he cannot reach. Cold. Thin bones. Empty bed. Cold fog. The war the war the war the war the war the word, the word war, wife, the word wife, wife, the missing wife.

The flickers turn to flames which turn to nightmares. Gray-blue caverns that he wanders
through, into a black-blue maw. He falls. He falls into a forest, which he realizes is a graveyard, which he realizes is a clay trench, filled with fallen forms.

He wakes and stares into the curtains, terrified to fall asleep. He lies, looking up at the ceiling, at the circle of the light, which looks back, humming, lidless, like a peeled eye. He sweats and sweats and sweats and shivers, staring as hard as he can.

                                                                                 _

Ms. Tanya comes into his room holding a cup of tea.

Good morning, dear.

What’s good about it? He says.

Yeah, well, she agrees.

She sets the cup of tea beside his bed. She sits beside his bed, carefully folds the strip around his arm, and gently pumps.

It feels like the air is being sucked out of his skin. He makes a hissing sound, like sipping from the air. The sound reminds him of his wife. My wife. What happened to my wife? He asks Ms. Tanya.

She looks out the window.

I’m sorry, but she’s gone, she says, after a moment.

Gone?

She nods.

Do you know where? He says.

She says, no. I am sorry.

He says, don’t be, and looks where she is looking through the window. He sees a sliver of a tree. An empty parking lot.

He looks into his tea. He stirs the trails from the leaves.

They flow like fingers through the water, in a sort of warm wave.

He holds the cup between his hands.

He breathes in, sips.

He stirs.

He smiles, his hands tingling.

Hello.

_______________________________________________

Meghan Lamb currently lives in St. Louis and teaches creative writing at Washington University. She has two novellas Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace) and Sacramento (Solar Luxuriance) and short stories in The Collagist, DIAGRAM, Necessary Fiction, PANK, and other places.