A selection from The Blond Box

 Toby Olson


            There was an old woman who lived on Beech Street , in an apartment that seemed no bigger than a shoe. She had no children, and she and her husband lived exclusively on social security, disability checks, and the small pension granted him when he left work for the railroad. He had been a station master in Pittsburgh and had known other people only as they passed through, taking their belongings and their lives to places he would never see, not until he came down with that ailment men consider only in their darkest dreams, cancer of the prostate and testicles, and then he saw one of them, Philadelphia, but only that part visible out the small bedroom window and glimpses of South Street and the Schuylkill River on his way back and forth in a taxi going to the hospital, where the doctors shook despondent heads and looked at him sheepishly from the corners of their eyes.

            It was that bad, and for his wife it was bad, because she had come to realize, somewhere along the line, that she did not love him and thought she never had, not since those moments at the altar when she was the virgin and bride, only to become neither on their wedding night. Then she became the wife and went about the business of ignoring him, who as the bachelor had offered that passionate self, only to become the complacent husÐband once the beautiful ceremony had come to an end, fifty-two years ago.

            She had been a child at the time, though lovely and seducÐtive as all virgins are. Now she was hefty and old and he was dying, his "essentials" rotting away below the sheets and blanÐkets.

            In the fall, Philadelphia loses its leaves and humidity, and on certain days a cool breeze can whisper along its narrow street and make its residents happy and contented, unburdened of any thoughts of endings, even though summer is ending and winter will soon come, and the old woman took the opportunity of one of these days to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art in order to view the Impressionism show, something undemanding, to take her eyes and with them her attitudes away from her husband, who was lying at home in his death bed, and when the show was over for her, she lingered in the museum courtyard, putting off her necesÐsary return for as long as possible.

            The courtyard was empty, but then she saw a young woman with long braids on the stone steps beyond the museum's door, and she watched her pass by a trash basket and drop something into it on her away to the steps that lead into the city and its now glimÐmering lights. The woman saw her pause there, looking down at the city, then she made a decision and quickly disappeared.

            The woman went to the trash basket then and found the glasses with their red and green lenses, lifted them out and put them in her purse, then walked to the bus stop, hoping she had missed a recent one and could linger there too.

            When she got home he was sleeping. Thank God, she thought, and went to the kitchen to prepare a cup of tea, but the pot hadn't even come to a simmer, let alone its soft whistle, when she heard his voice, calling her name. She turned down the flame, shrugged her shoulders in resignation, and went to the bedroom to see what he wanted and asked him that.

            The room was dark as a bar that caters to romantic trysts, just a dim bulb burning under the shade of the small lamp on the bedside table, and the street light beyond the window and the hall light over the doorway cast broad shadows across his insubÐstantÐial figure below the covers, and on the dresser and carpet, and formed hazy geometric patterns on the walls.

            "What do you want?" she said, her voice muted in his presÐence, which held the scent and the presence of death.

            "I want you," he said, "as I remember you."

            Is he delirious? she thought. Should I call the doctor?

            "How?" she said.

            "In your wedding dress," he said, "as I remember you, at the altar," and he spoke with such deep longing that she could not refuse him.

            "But the dress won't fit," she said. "It's been so long."

            "The veil, then," he answered in his faltering voice. "At least that."

            She went to the small room off the kitchen where she spent her nights these days and rummaged through the trunk that held mementos. There wasn't much beyond her wedding day, photographs from a company picnic, the raffle ticket that had won hair care products and cosmetics years ago, a few brochures and airline ticket prices to romantic places. But the dress was there, folded carefully below the album and the guest book, moroccan leather, like the ones used in funeral parlors, and she lifted it out and carried it to the bathroom and placed it on the hamper. Then she took up the veil and put it on and found, because her breasts had sagged and shrunken, that she could still wear the jacket of tooled silk, though it buttoned tightly, and when she looked at herself in the mirror, she smiled like that virgin bride she had once been, in remembÐrance. I'm not so different, she thought, inside.

            On her way back through the kitchen, she saw her purse on the table and the glasses gleaming in its open mouth, and she plucked them out and went down the brief, narrow hallway and stood in the bedroom doorway where she had stood before. The white wall behind her was awash in the light flooding from the ceiling fixture and she was back lit, her figure that of the shadow of a madonna cast on porcelain from his point of view, though his eyes may not have been focused and able to see her.

            "I'm here," she said, and she heard his weak sigh and saw his eyes glimmering in the lamp light. Then she lifted the glasses and put them on and found they were not glasses made for the viewing of art objects, but for seeing things more clearly in the real world, even though she had found them at the museum. They softened the dim light. The shadows lost all fuzzy edges and became as substantial as the objects that cast them. And she felt she was substantial too, as was her husband's body below the covering, three dimensional, but cast out from another dimension, like the shadow cast from hers, and that this fourth dimension was as insubstantial as all the others and of little consequence.

            It makes no difference at all, she thought. There is only this, right now. Then she took off the glasses and spoke into the bedroom she had once shared with him.

            "I'm here," she said again, then saw her husband rise to his elbows with great effort, his head coming to rest against the pillows, half sitting, as he looked out into the shadows and saw her, the figure of his lost bride in the doorway, then he spoke.

            "Come here my love. Let me die in your arms."

            She came forth out of that madonna shadow that hid her grief, only to show the face of it, framed by the white veil, as she entered among the room's shadowy objects and approached his figure in the bed.     

            He reached out to her, smiling as he had at the altar, and cast back the covers. She dropped the glasses to the floor, then climbed in beside him and gathered his thin body against hers. This is the way it might have been, she thought, and like so many words that are spoken again, even after the object of desire has been attained, he whispered into her ear.

            "Let me die in your arms."

            And then he died.