| Myrna stood at the sink, slowly slicing up carrots for the stew that was simmering on the old gas stove behind her. The cat, ancient and grey, walked back and forth between her legs, begging for attention. She washed the carrot slices in a dented colander and dried her misshapen arthritic hands on a threadbare towel, tucked into the string of her apron. Reaching down, she scratched behind the cats ears.
“Now go and lie down Tessie, I can’t afford to be falling over a dang fooled cat at my age,” she scolded mockingly.
Myrna picked up the colander of vegetables and crossed the kitchen to the old gas stove, carefully spooning the carrots into the stew so she wouldn’t get burned. Slowly stirring the stew, she listened to the sounds of the house. Over the bubbling from the pot in front of her, the steady tick tock of the grandfather clock in the hall beat like the heart of the old house. She returned to the sink as the sound of the gears that preceded the hourly chime signaling five o’clock gave the time away. Gathering the scraps of the carrots, she counted the bells out of habit more than the need to know what time it was.
For over fifty years her schedule hadn’t changed, hadn’t fluctuated in any way. Myrna was a creature of habit, almost ritualistic, and now the ritual of dinner was underway.
The fifth and final bell echoed through the house as she stared out of the window, into the back yard. Smiling to herself, she listened to the sound of his footsteps climbing the stairs leading up to the front porch. She knew his habits as well as she knew her own, they were both cut from the same cloth. Counting as he stomped his feet, two times each, before entering the house, her smile slipped from her face as she remembered the events of the day before. The sound of the closing front door caused her head to flush heatedly, she gripped the edge of the sink for balance. Slowly, the footsteps advanced down the long hall leading to the kitchen, she counted all twenty-three. Myrna stood riveted to her spot in front of the sink, her eyes never leaving the bank of rose bushes in the back yard, desperately in need of trimming. She heard him pause in the doorway of the kitchen, as he always did, and hang his immaculately kept brown fedora on the hook on the wall. Closing her eyes, she counted the fourteen steps he took to reach her in order to plant an icy cold kiss on her wrinkled cheek. Opening her eyes, she mentally traced the six steps needed to reach his side of the antique dining set and sit down. Waiting until he slid his chair in, she finally turned to face her husband.
Walter was sitting as he always did when he first came home, hands folded neatly in front of him on the placemat. His mouth was turned up in a slightly mischievous smile and his blue eyes, now cloudy with age, looked at her with obvious affection. Myrna looked back at him, heart racing, and waited for the ability to breathe to return. Walter was the love of her life and her best friend. In over fifty-five years of marriage they had not been apart for more than a few hours, never spent a night apart. They had done everything in the world together. They had become two parts of the same organism, no longer having a separate identity or will, and that was fine with them. Myrna looked at Walter staring at her and felt herself slowly returning to normal. She didn’t know what to expect, didn’t know what was going to happen, but she decided that if he thought enough of her to come home today, then she thought enough of him to welcome him home, like she always did. She went to the cupboard, legs still shaking slightly, and gathered the dinner dishes, like she always did. Walter smiled up at her as she placed his soup bowl in front of him and set his spoon beside it. She returned his smile, somewhat weakly. Turning to the stove, she checked the progress of the stew. The kitchen was filled with the aroma of her rich beef stew and it was coming along just fine. Everything was fine. The stew was fine, the weather was fine, Myrna was fine, and Walter appeared fine. But that was what made it all seem so wrong. Walter shouldn’t be fine. Walter shouldn’t be sitting at their table looking at her as he always had. Walter shouldn’t be here at all. Walter had died yesterday.
The following day, Myrna entertained the dozen or so people that stopped by to pay their respects and ask her if she needed anything. She politely declined. A few asked what she was going to do now. Would she stay in the old house? Would she move in with one of her sisters? As politely as she could, she stated that she would remain right where she was, doing what she had always done, for she was a creature of habit. The time seemed to slip away from her and she was sure that this was exactly what all the well-wishers intentions were all along, to keep her mind occupied. She had no time at all after breakfast to think about the evening before. Walter had sat there at the dinner table, not moving, not eating. He simply watched her. When she could finally eat herself, growing more and more comfortable with Walter’s strange return, she found herself talking to him about the days events as if he had never died. He would just sit there with that wonderful smile of his and that gleam in his eye that always made Myrna turn to putty in his big strong hands.
Myrna excused herself to the last few remaining mourners, showing them to the door around three in the afternoon, and then she pulled the shades. She headed upstairs to their bedroom to freshen up before she made dinner, as she always had. She wanted to look her best for Walter when he came home for dinner.
Four days had passed since Walter’s body could no longer contain his spirit. That was the way Myrna thought of it, now. To call him dead would be an injustice to such a great man and an insult to the ultimate creature of habit. He returned each evening at the stroke of five and sat with Myrna until she finished eating before he stood from the table and walked up the stairs, fading as he went. It was as if he had never left, except for the long lonely nights that he wasn’t there to warm her cold feet.
Walter hung his hat on the hook next to the kitchen door and slowly crossed to give Myrna her kiss, like he always did. A shiver raced up her spine at his ghostly touch.
“Hello, Walter,” Myrna greeted as she watched him sit on his side of the table. Folding his hands on the placemat in front of him, he turned to face her.
“You’re looking very fine, dear,” she said, returning his gaze. She turned to get the dinner dishes from the cabinet.
“They’re going to bury you tomorrow, you know. I just couldn’t bring myself to do all the things that the funeral director wanted me to. How do you expect me to finalize your sendoff with you still coming home every night?”
Walter simply sat there staring at her, as he had all week long, with the same silly grin.
“You say as much now that you’re dead as you did when you were living, I swear,” Myrna chided, setting their places.
She dished out the Shepard’s pie into both of their plates, knowing his would go untouched and sat down. The meal went as it had for the last five days. She slowly ate her meal while he watched her eat. It wasn’t an eerie kind of staring. It was a kind of look that spoke volumes about the feelings that only fifty-plus years together could cultivate. It was comforting and warm. Myrna had learned to eat very slowly this week. As soon as she placed her silverware down, signaling she was finished, Walter gave her a big grin, touched her hand with his icy finger and got up from the table. Myrna could only sit and watch as he headed upstairs without a backward glance.
“Goodbye, dear,” she said to him as he got up. He moved through the kitchen doorway and headed for the stairs.
“Walter,” She called, slowly rising to her feet. “Take me with you?” He paused at the base of the steps, one foot on the first riser. Turning to look at her, he merely smiled and headed up, leaving her alone.
Myrna finished dressing for the funeral the following day and headed downstairs. She had arranged for Walter to be buried early in the day so she would be there when he got home for dinner, like she always was. Today was going to be special, she was sure of it. Pouring herself a cup of tea, she listened as the clock in the hall rang, signaling nine o’clock. Picking up her tea, she went into the living room at the front of the house.
“Good morning, Tessie,” She said to the cat sunning herself on the window seat. “The car will be here soon.”
Placing her tea on the little side table next to the window, Myrna sat next to the cat and pulled her into her lap. Staring out the window, she focused on the years spent with the greatest man she had ever met.
Fifty-five years earlier, in a tiny church outside of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, Private First Class Walter Olsen and Myrna Patterson promised to love each other. It was a small ceremony, rushed and ill prepared. All necessary though, due to Walter’s leaving for the Pacific and the war against Japan’s aggression the preceding week. It was all the ceremony they had needed. Walter returned a few short weeks later, wounded and sullen. He never talked about Iwo Jima, she never asked. His injury had left him unable to father any children, so they only had each other, but that was fine with them.
Myrna’s reverie was interrupted by the sound of a car horn.
“Oh, dear,” she muttered, wiping a tear from her cheek and shaking the cobwebs from her mind. “I guess it’s time to go, Tessie. You be a good girl and take care of things until I get back.”
Wrapping her shawl around her shoulders, she left the house.
At three-thirty, sharp, Myrna returned from the service. She hung up her shawl and bustled into the kitchen, heading for the refrigerator. Tessie greeted her by curling around her legs.
“Hello, Tessie. No time to dilly-dally, I’ve got to get dinner on the stove.”
Myrna pulled out the ingredients she needed and got to work. She chopped, shredded, diced, measured, and mixed everything into a big stew pot before setting it on the stove. While waiting for the pot to come to a boil, she cleaned up the residue of her preparations. Myrna just finished wiping down the counters as the clock rang four o’clock and the stew came to a boil. She lowered the flame to a tiny blue crown under the pot and covered it with the lid cocked slightly to one side.
“Time for the final ingredient, Tessie,” She told the cat on the top of the fridge as she headed for the cellar door. Tessie watched Myrna disappear down the steps as she started cleaning behind her ears. By the time Myrna reappeared at the top of the steps and closed the door, Tessie had fallen asleep under the spell of the warm hum of General Electric.
Myrna pulled off the pot lid and gave the bubbling stew a quick stir. She picked up the rusted metal can that came from the cellar and popped off the cover. Shaking the crystal white contents around, she gave the can a sniff and recoiled at the acrid odor of the contents.
“How on earth do rats fall for this stuff?” She muttered to herself, dumping the contents of the can into her stew. She gave it another quick stir and replaced the lid.
“Time to get ready for dinner, Tessie,” she said to the sleeping cat, and headed upstairs.
The sound of the grandfather clock in the hall declared five o’clock and the arrival of Walter, just as it always had. Myrna was standing in front of the stove, stirring the stew, when Walter hung his hat on the hook next to the doorway.
“Hello dear, welcome home.”
He shuffled over to where she was and gave her his usual kiss, icy and without weight, like the flutter of a moth’s wing on her cheek. He didn’t seem to notice the wedding dress or the bitter aroma of the tainted stew hanging in the air as he turned and walked to his chair.
“Wonderful service today,” Myrna said, reaching into the cupboard. “You looked so peaceful, like you were sleeping. Though a bit too made up in my opinion.”
She pulled out the soup bowls and set their places while he watched.
“There were so many people there to see you off, Walter, you should have been there.” Her hands shook as she froze in the middle of placing the silverware in its proper place. “Oh, dear me, I guess you were there, in a sense.”
Feeling her face flush hotly, she fell into the chair across from Walter, a dull ache beginning to form in the center of her chest. He looked into her eyes and smiled warmly as her heart drummed erratically.
“My word,” she gasped, slowly climbing to her feet. “I’ve got to serve the stew.”
Myrna took her bowl over to the stove. Taking a moment to stir the stew one last time, her nose wrinkled as the rancid aroma rose to her nostrils. Her left arm tingled with pins and needles as she scooped a large helping into her bowl and turned off the burner before returning to her seat.
“We have had a wonderful life together, haven’t we Walter?” She asked breathlessly after settling into her seat. She pushed some potatoes around her bowl with her spoon. A bead of sweat traced a line down her temple and found a home in the age-stained collar of her wedding dress. Sitting quietly on his side of the table, Walter smiled at her as Myrna reached for her glass of water.
“Honey, please forgive an old woman,” she gasped, placing her glass back on the table. “I can’t bear the thought of being here alone any longer,” she said to him as he reached for her hand, his touch seemed to be warmer. “I don’t know if you are coming back, or if you are going to go somewhere that I can’t follow.”
Myrna closed her eyes against the ever-strengthening pain in her chest. Nausea loomed just below the surface, threatening to send her running for the sink. She felt another hand grasp hers and opened her eyes. Walter sat staring into her eyes from across the table, her frail hands clasped in his. Myrna felt the pain and nausea leave her as he stood up and came to her side. She sat for a minute, stunned when he spoke.
“Time to go, Angel,” he said, helping her to her feet.
“Walter, how come… where are we going?” she stammered as he led her to the kitchen door.
He said nothing more as they headed from the kitchen. Turning to check the stove one last time, Myrna realized where they were going. She stood for a moment, staring at herself seated at the kitchen table, the untouched stew slowly congealing in front of her lifeless form. Turning, she took Walter’s arm. They were going home.