Without HenryPosted May 01, 2017
Here is a short story I wrote a few years ago, and which garnered me an honorable mention in a literary contest. Hope you enjoy it.
By M C Domovitch
Mildred finished scrubbing the kitchen floor, then backed away a few feet to better check the results. At last, not a trace of blood remained, and that sickening metallic smell was also gone, replaced by the clean scent of Pine Sol. With a groan, she picked up the pail of bright red water and carried it to the sink.
This was the second time in six months she’d had the chore of cleaning away the evidence of Henry’s hemorrhaging. And this last one had been much worse than the first. There had been so much blood, it was a wonder there was any left inside him.
He’s killing himself, Mildred thought to herself for the hundredth time. She’d told him this so often it had become no more than a boring refrain. You’d think one episode was enough. Now, two. Surely this will make him stop drinking. Twice now, Henry had been rushed to the hospital where he was given multiple transfusions, then kept in the emergency room until he was out of danger.
A few days later, when Henry was discharged, the doctor tried to convey to him the seriousness of his condition, to no avail. Finally, he gave up and instead assigned Mildred the responsibility of watching over her husband.
He has dilated veins in his esophagus,” the doctor said. At Mildred’s blank look, he continued. “They’re a form of varicose veins, which occur most frequently in alcoholics. Your husband already had two ruptures, and the last one has not completely healed yet. You must understand just how important it is that Henry stays off alcohol completely. If he drinks, he will have another rupture, and chances are he won’t survive that one.”
Mildred took all of this in silence. Once again she was being held accountable for her husband.
“Another thing,” the doctor continued. “Keep him on soft foods for at least two weeks. We want to make sure his esophagus is completely healed before he goes back to solids.”
Mildred went back into the hospital room and looked at her husband sleeping peacefully. His skin looked ashen, his body frail. He doesn’t even resemble the man I married, she thought as she tried to remember the vital youth she had fallen in love with so many years ago. She could barely recollect the kind and caring person he used to be.
Her husband opened his eyes, and for the briefest moment Mildred thought she saw a flicker of the old Henry
“What chu staring at?” he demanded. “Don’t chu have anything better to do than to stand there lookin’ stupid?”
And just like that, Mildred was swept back into reality.
Back at home, as long as Henty was confined to his bed, she had no problem keeping him off the booze. However, as soon as he was on his feet again that became a challenge.
Mildred’s weary eyes followed her husband around the kitchen, anticipating his every movement, his every utterance. They had been married thirty-five years, and sometimes she thought she knew him better than she knew herself.
Henry was rubbing his knuckles with a pained expression in his rheumy eyes.
He’s going to tell me his arthritis is acting up.
“It’s gonna rain,” he said. “I can feel it my bones.” He grimaced as he made his prediction and his face wrinkled like a dried apple.
Now he’s going to say he needs little something for the ache.
“What I need is a drink…” Henry opened the cupboard and pulled out a bottle of Johnny Walker Red “to make me feel better.”
He’ll take one swallow and refill his glass.
Henry took a deep gulp then poured in more whiskey.
Now he’s going to turn to me and say something nasty.
Indeed Henry turned away from the counter and looked at his wife with distaste. “Wassa matter with you? Cat got chur tongue?”
Mildred shook her head. “I was just resting. I’m a bit tired today.”
“Here we go again. Complain, complain, complain. That’s all you ever do.” Normally, Mildred would have simply kept her silence and busied herself with housework, but today, Henry’s comment angered her.
“Talk about the pot calling the kettle black,” she mumbled under her breath.
Henry turned and looked at her with shocked outrage. “Whass’at supposed to mean?”
As defiant as she felt, Mildred still couldn’t bring herself to criticize him outright.
“Sounds like you accusing me a something. Why don’t chu come right out and say it, woman?” His wrinkled face was flushed, his eyes were a furious road map of fine red veins, and his entire body was trembling. Only the glass of whiskey in his hand was steady. It amazed Mildred how his glass always remained calm. His buoy in a raging sea.
I wonder if I’d be better without him. Lately, this question seemed to haunt her. She swallowed her exasperation as she always did.
“I didn’t mean anything. I just wish you wouldn’t drink so much.”
She shuffled over to the sink where she’d set a bowl of potatoes. She would have to peel them, boil them and mash them to a thin, unappetizing pulp, just as she did all of Henry’s food. Behind her, she could feel Henry waffling. Now that she had softened, his anger had also deflated.
Can’t a man have a drink around here without chu makin’ a federal case out of it?”
“I’m not making a federal case out of anything,” she replied over her shoulder. “I’m only suggesting that maybe you should put down that drink. You know what the doctor said.”
After so many years together the couple had learned to spar with barely concealed resentment more often than with stormy tempers, but now Henry slammed the glass on the counter and whiskey splashed onto the worn, Formica countertop.
“Happy.” He shouted and stomped out of the kitchen, A moment later, his thunderous footsteps exploded on the stairs all the way to his den,
“I’ll call you when dinner is ready,” Mildred yelled up to him.
He answered with a door slam. Mildred stood still for a few minutes. Stunned by the eruption of her husband’s fury. At last, she bent over and patted Buddy on his head. Sometimes I wonder what I would do without you.” The cocker spaniel wagged his tail and Mildred went back to peeling the potatoes. The next morning Mildred waited until Henty left the house and then she took all of the liquor in the kitchen cabinet and hid it in an old trunk in the garage.
‘We’ll keep this our little secret,” she told Buddy, who only rolled onto his back for a tummy rub.
Over the following days, the doctor’s dire warnings kept Henry begrudgingly sober. He stayed away from alcohol and Mildred stayed away from him. As much as she loathed her husband’s drinking, she detested, even more, the man that emerged from his new sobriety. Whereas the old Henry complained incessantly, he at least fell asleep on the sofa after four or five drinks. This gave Mildred a few evening hours of peace and quiet, time for her to rest and watch television with Buddy’s chin on her lap.
However, this new Henry stayed awake, nagging and criticizing until bedtime, and the only way Mildred could avoid him was by spending her evenings in the kitchen reading or knitting with Buddy by her side. That was where she was when he came down one evening.
“Alright, where’d chu hide it?” he demanded, this features contorted with rage.
“What are you talking about?” she asked, knowing full well what he was referring to.
Buddy ran over to him and sniffed at his ankles. Before Mildred could call him back, Henty gave the dog a swift kick, sending the spaniel sliding across the floor until it crashed into the wall. The animal yelped in pain.
Mildred jumped out of her seat and hurried over to her pet. “Are you alright Bud?” He looked at her with wounded eyes.
Mildred, still crouching by the whimpering Buddy, turned to her husband.
“How dare you hurt Bud? He did nothing to you, and all I’m doing is trying to help you follow the doctor’s orders.” She stared at him as he stood by the doorway, paralyzed with indecision. “But if you don’t want my help anymore, that’s fine with me.” She picked up her dog and by the time she had laid him on the table, Henry had disappeared.
After a careful inspection, she decided that, other that some sore ribs and bruised feelings, Buddy was fine. “Don’t worry, I won’t let him hurt you again.”
The next morning, Mildred took all the bottles out of the trunk and carried them back to the kitchen. She stored them in their usual place and half-closed the cupboard door allowing a partial view of the bottles from her husband’s habitual place at the kitchen table.
When he came down a few hours later, she forced herself to look contrite. “Henry, I want to apologize. I shouldn’t have yelled at you yesterday.”
He was pulling on a sweater. He looked at her in surprise, then quickly straightened his back and jutted out his chin. “T’s about time. I’m sick and tired o’ your attitude. You should have a li’l respect for me. You pay more attention to that dog than you do your own husband.”
“I’m making lunch, Henry.”
“I sure as hell hope you’ll give me some real food for a change. I’m fed up with that slop you been feedin’ me.”
“I’m making your favorite, hamburgers and French fries.” She gestured to the ground beef patties and the sliced potatoes on the counter. “It’ll only take a few minutes. I’ll call you when it’s ready.”
Half an hour later, Henry was devouring his meal. The hamburgers were perfect, plump and juicy; and the French fries exactly as he liked them, dark and very crispy. On the table was a fresh bowl of Waldorf salad, the apples cut in small bit-size pieces and the walnuts crushed. If, by some misfortune, a few small pieces of shell happened to get mixed in—well—Henry would never notice.
“I can’t stay and have lunch with you. I have an appointment at the hairdresser’s,” Mildred said and she tied the leash to Buddy’s collar.
“You taking the dog with you?” Henry asked, surprised.
“He won’t bother anyone. He just sits quietly next to me.” She opened the door. “Don’t forget to eat your salad,” she said as she walked out.
She headed over to Sally’s Beauty Parlour a few blocks away, and had her hair trimmed.
“While you’re at it, Sally, why don’t you give me a new hair colour?”
She chose a lovely caramel tone that would cover her gray nicely. When her hair was dry, she had it styled.
“You look beautiful, Mildred,” Sally said. “Do you have a special even to go to?”
“Oh, at my age, the only outings I have anymore, are funerals,” Mildred said, and she gave a small laugh.
“Don’t even say that,” Sally said, shuddering. “I get goosebumps just thinking about funerals. Maybe you can get Henry to take you out.”
Mildred nodded. “Maybe I can do that.”
When she left the salon, Mildred looked at her watch. “It’s still early, how about we go for a nice walk, Bud?”
For the next few hours, she walked and walked, all the way down Main Street, then all the way back, looking in shop windows and stopping for a chat with everyone she knew. By the time she headed home, she had been gone the entire afternoon.
As soon as she opened the door, she smelled it. Buddy backed away from the door, whimpering.
“Don’t be afraid, Bud,” she picked up the dog and walked in. The odour was sour and metallic, and it got stronger as she ventured farther inside. She walked through the kitchen, noticing the empty bottle of Johnny Walker on the table, next to the remnants of Henry’s lunch. Only a bite of hamburger remained. She picked up the plate, washed it off, dried it and put it away.
Next, she went up the stairs and into the den, stopping in the doorway with her hand on her heart. Henry was lying splayed on the floor, in a pool of blood.
“Oh, my,” she said calmly. “It’ll take a lot of scrubbing to get all that blood out of the carpet.”
She went back downstairs and picked up the phone. “Hello, 911?”
After the funeral, friends and relatives came to Mildred’s house where they gathered around her, offering support and condolences. “What are you going to do without Henry?” they asked, full of concern.
“Oh, I’ll carry on. We had thirty-five good years together. We were lucky,” she replied as she dabbed the corners of her eyes with a tissue, and everyone wondered at how brave she was. “Besides, I have Buddy, so I won’t be completely alone.”
To her friend Lila, who had lost her husband a few years earlier and who looked happier than ever, Mildred said,” Life just won’t be the same without Henry.”
“Trust me, you’ll get used to it.”
“Oh, I’m sure I will,” replied Mildred. “I’m sure I will.”
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