The Wife sits in a green vinyl chair next to Husband’s mechanical bed in the Oncology ward of Baylor University Research Hospital. Poison drips into his arm; professionals call it medicine. She snaps shut her Selected Stories of Alice Munro; the sound is like a snowball thudding against the glass, its flakes flying this way and that when the snowball actually hits. Husband almost wakes up.
She wants to re-direct her mind away from Mundane Sadness, but she’s already read all the magazines and so decides to become a Storyteller to entertain herself. The nurse shows up dressed in her blue cotton uniform. “Life-giving chemo,” the nurse calls the poison as she checks the intravenous line, flicks her fingernail on the clear plastic connectors. Of course, everyone knows the poison isn’t life-giving at all, not at Stage 4. Chemo just dances around with death with increasing futility. The whole place smells like urine and is somnolent and heavy and silent. The Wife should be sleepy too, but she’s strung tight like barbed wire around an interminable landscape that feels beige like hell. Does she want anything, Nurse asks? Yes, Wife-now-Storyteller answers, I want some paper. Nurse finally leaves with a smile and returns with the paper, deeply relieved she can do something concrete.
Wife-now-Storyteller digs in the huge purse that she thought would contain all she would want today but which, obviously, does not, since it does not contain enough distractions from The Situation. The purse was expensive, and she carries it regularly now because it has lots of pockets for things they need as they travel from waiting room to waiting room. While Husband snores, she licks the lead of the pencil that’s been at the bottom of her purse since before The Diagnosis.
She taps the pencil against her teeth. So, she thinks, which is the more interesting point of view? The Spouse who takes the high road all her life and gets to stand in regal black at the funeral, or the Mistress nobody acknowledges? The Wife would ignore the Mistress who showed up at the funeral wearing a red silk dress, approaching the Wife as if she were some stranger instead of being intimately tied to her. In this story, the Wife should know all about this Mistress—the Wife being the one who pays the bills and, after all, how can a woman miss something like that unless she wants to? Unless somehow it’s to her benefit to miss it. Or else she’s just not experienced enough to know about such things. Of course, in that case, the Wife wouldn’t be the one to pay the bills.
It is absolutely critical to be interesting. Maybe it would be more interesting if the protagonist was the Mistress getting dressed in a one-bedroom apartment subsidized by Husband who’s dying. Indeed, who at this point would actually be already dead, though the Mistress would hardly know it since, being the Mistress, she wouldn’t have seen the Husband through the last horrible ordeal. She wouldn’t have smelled death or changed diapers or cried herself to sleep every night in fear of the cataclysm about to overtake. Indeed, that ordeal that’s banging on their home’s door every second. How would this particular Mistress find out about the funeral in the first place? Newspaper? A call from a fellow Mistress? Maybe just Husband’s unexpected absence for weeks on end?
Maybe all that’s required of the Mistress is to run her fingers through some cold jewelry nestled in a black velvet box with one hand while she drums on her dresser with the painted nails of the other hand? Those jewels are probably fake; this is something the high-road Wife might have figured out since she pays those bills. One-of-Many-Mistresses might just stand there naked and struggle to decide if she should show up at the funeral at all. She might be afraid to attend, say good-bye, but long to do so. Finally she might decide that she’d sit at the back of the church; she’s sure which one it is most likely to be because Husband was, after all, a leader there and confessed that to her once, his voice dripping with guilt but without conviction. No one needs know who she is; she could be some random secretary. What would it matter anyway if high-road-Wife knew about her now that it’s all over?
Maybe all the Mistress has to do is slip on the red silk dress, stand in line with everyone else to console the Wife, who by now is dressed in black-knit widow’s weeds appropriate to The Occasion. The Mistress might have a mascara-streaked face and not look young anymore, but the Wife—who takes the high road most of the time—keeps her face as immobile as she can, even with the tip off of the red silk dress. She might just stand in the receiving line and wish she could write another story instead of this one that has a life of its own.
About the author:
Cynthia Sample has earned an MFA from Vermont College while her stories have appeared in the Blue Five Notebook Series, On the Veranda, SLAB, Summerset Review, Steel Toe Review, Sleet, After the Pause, and among others.