I woke up the same way I had for the past fifty-three days. An empty bed, with too-cool sheets just to my right, where my toes could touch if given the chance, where once there was warmth. No, where once there was Lucille.
The day began the same way it had for the past eight years; for as long as we’d shared this house. Ira, the Barber’s mutt, barking at god knows what. Lucille would sigh and say, Ira’s up, so we’re up! before rolling over to face me. I would feel her kind brown eyes on me and her sleepy breath on my neck. I would feign drowsy unconsciousness so that time would pass slowly, but Ira never stopped and eventually Lucille would get up, in that calm and deliberate way, and pad quietly, without fanfare, out of the room leaving only Ira’s short, sharp yawp and a fading warmth beside me. Today there was only barking.
I made my way downstairs and started the coffee machine. Big Marine Lake stretched placidly out before me like a sheet of stained glass. With winter on the way, the dappled surface would soon turn gray and dull. Until then, the blue herons and raptors hunted for largemouth bass, sending Ira into a tizzy halfway out on the Barber’s dock. She wouldn’t go in the water, or any further out; Ira was all bark and no bite. Should one of the bass jump, she would spook and run back to dry land, her barking anxious and frantic, a bundle of wheat-colored fur, before shoring up the courage to make another go at it. Rinse and repeat until Tom Barber called her in for her breakfast. Then peace for me and Lucille, who’d wrap her arms around me from behind and press her cheek against the flat of my back.
I stood at the counter, eyes closed, remembering how I’d try and suck my gut in so Lucille wouldn’t hug so much of the expanding waistline sixty-three years had accumulated. She’d hold on so tight it was an exercise in futility to attempt to hide it, and a self-consciousness I painfully missed now. I opened my eyes and watched the light play across the lake surface. I missed her so.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and walked towards the back of the small rancher she and I had bought on Big Marine Lake several years ago. The fishing hotspot sat about seven miles east of Forest Lake, Minnesota. To the southwest, about fifteen miles as the crow flies, the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul bustled and teemed with the activity of thousands of busybodies. We’d spent the salad years of our marriage in North St. Paul and our holidays, when we could get them, on this lake. Neither Lucille nor I were fishers, instead enjoying the tranquility of the water and the relative quiet. There aren’t many places quiet enough these days, Lucille would say, but this is good enough. We bought the house soon after I’d retired from the meatpacking plant and spent our days gazing upon the lake, our nights listening to the loons, and our lives together.
Opening the back door, I walked out onto the porch and stood by the steps leading down to Lucille’s herb garden. The plants had grown wild without her tending; I was a brown thumb and there wasn’t much point in me trying to keep it going. Ira had likely frolicked amidst the soil; it was freshly turned in several places. Better she enjoy it than me. I’d only see Lucille squatting on the wooden ties that shaped the small plot, her bare hands inspecting the plants, trimming where needed, smelling the basil. Sipping my coffee there, as I had done so many mornings, I chastised myself for letting my mind return to those moments once again. She’s gone, Roy.
The distinct metallic croak of the iron spring on Tom Barber’s back door prefaced the loud clap of the wood frame as it snapped shut. I looked over to see Tom, in a pair of sweatpant shorts and a t-shirt emblazoned with the bucktoothed Golden Gopher, begin to stretch loudly as Ira circled his legs and ran down to the water’s edge.
“Morning, Tom,” I said, lifting my coffee mug in the universal morning salute.
Tom blinked at me. “Morning, Roy. How’s it?”
“Still here,” I replied.
“Yep,” Tom said. “Appears so.”
“Want a cup, Tom?”
Tom scratched at the stubble along his cheek and nodded. “Sure, Roy. I’d appreciate that.”
I placed my mug on the porch rail and entered the house. From the kitchen counter I could see Tom Barber begin the morning routine he claimed responsible for keeping his aging body fit and limber. It consisted of stamping both his feet in turn while thrusting his arms out in front of his body. Each thrust accompanied a low grunt as he twisted his torso to either side, exhaling and inhaling sharply. Lucille would press her face into her hands and giggle in that schoolgirl way she had about her when truly tickled. I’d just wear my grin openly. Tom was adamant about his morning regimen and its benefits, despite an obvious affection for pilsner, pig, and pipe smoke.
With mug in hand, I walked out to the porch and down the steps to the flagstones that bee-lined a path to our dock. Tom had finished his routine and began walking over to me.
“Frost is comin’. I can smell it.”
I handed him the cup. “Here you go.”
Tom took the cup, sipped and winced as the rich liquid hit his tongue. Blowing on the surface of the coffee, he turned out to face the lake. “Seems early this year. For sure the bass are still biting, but not for long. You know I got a sense for that.”
“I know,” I said, a slight grin forming as I remembered all the times Tom had been wrong about the weather and fish forecasts.
“Ira’s been acting up, though. More so than regular,” he said, his eyes shifting to carefully watch my response.
“Is that so?” I answered, gazing straight out on the water.
“Well,” Tom resigned. “I know she’s a rambunctious thing and she gave you and Lucille hell all these years, but she ain’t been herself lately. More so than regular.” He turned to face me and his expression was serious.
“There’s no need to apologize, Tom,” I said, meeting his gaze. “We love Ira.”
“Yeah well,” said Tom, turning back towards the lake. “All this commotion’s got me thinkin’. People gettin’ sick from god knows what. Winter comin’ early. They’re saying now the clinic in Forest Lake’s been shut down. Quarantined for rabies, if you can believe that, and all the channels is talkin’ about the looting and riots gettin’ to be too much for the police to handle. ”
I suddenly felt dizzy, remembering the night I took Lucille to the Forest Lake clinic. “Quarantined for rabies?” I asked, Tom’s litany of increasingly dire statements taking their time getting processed by my muddled mind.
“Ayup. Closed it down the day before yesterday. Yellow tape and all that. Them hazard suits that make you look like you’re made of marshmallow? Got the talking heads a yammerin’. Talkin’ about the National Guard comin’ in.”
“What?” I replied, incredulous. “What for?”
Tom shrugged. “Hell if I know. Ain’t never heard of rabies causin’ somethin’ like this.”
“Aren’t they equipped for that sort of thing?”
“You’d think so.” He shrugged again. “Anyway, it ain’t just Forest Lake. Reports of people gettin’ sick in St. Paul and thereabouts. It’s all over the news, Roy.”
I didn’t watch much television; never did. I wasn’t a complete recluse, however. I read the paper and a few internet sites to stay up to date, but these days it just gave me a headache with people arguing about things that either seemed insignificant or clear as day. With all the problems in the world, real or imagined, and no one having a goddamned idea about what to do about it, I just decided one day to turn it all off. Maybe it was just me getting old, maybe it was losing Lucille, but it always seemed counter-intuitive to move out here for the peace and quiet only to keep myself tethered to the incessant noise. Lucille didn’t mind; she enjoyed her programs and staying up on who was doing what and all. Then again, Lucille was always more tempered than me. And these days, the world and everything in it reminded me of her. It was just too much.
Ira had returned and was playfully pawing at Tom’s slippered feet. Low, quick grunts were rushing out of her in preparation for a straight-up barking fit should Tom ignore her any longer. Tom patted her softly on the head.
“Better get this one somethin’ to eat before she holds a grudge. I’ll never hear the end of it,” he smiled. “Listen, you ought to turn your television on and see what’s what. Ira and I are considering battenin’ down, case this thing spreads out here. I’m headin’ out tomorrow to get some supplies and whatnot. You need anything, just holler.”
I looked at Tom for a moment, my head still processing what he had said. An outbreak of rabies in Forest Lake and the Twin Cities? Rioting and looting? The National Guard, for crissakes?
Tom patted me on the shoulder. “Thanks for the cup, Roy. Good coffee, as always. We’ll be here should you need anything.”
I nodded absently as he turned and walked back to his house, Ira pouncing and darting forward in eager spurts. I stood there, coffee mug cooling in my hand, for a few moments. The pine and ash that shouldered the lake and shaded our home whispered overhead with the breeze coming off the water. I shivered, but not from any chill borne on the wind.
I entered the house, placed the mug on the kitchen counter, and quickly strode into the living room where the television sat on a low, brown china hutch which had been missing its top shelving for as long as I could remember. On top of the set sat a precariously balanced tower of old newspapers and mail inserts, drooping pages hanging over much of the small gray screen. I lifted the stack of papers onto the floor beside me and squatted in front of the set. Pressing the power button, the screen came to life with a dusty snap and fizz, sound and image fading up and filling the room for the first time in over two months.
“…rough video is all we have of what is reported to be widespread chaos in the Twin Cities area. Again, we are staying with you uninterrupted to bring you the latest on the outbreaks being reported in both Minneapolis and St. Paul as rioting spreads out of the downtown area and into surrounding neighborhoods. Stores, homes, and vehicles have been abandoned in what can only be described as a mass hysteria over unconfirmed reports of additional viral outbreaks and violence. We have on the phone with us right now…”
The images that played before my eyes seemed almost unreal. From on high, a news helicopter recorded video of what appeared to be downtown St. Paul in complete shambles. In the streets, cars lay immobile, upright or overturned, with litter and debris filling the frame and people running everywhere. Smoke from small fires made it hard to see; every so often a clear patch would pass in front of the camera’s lens and I could see glass shattering or a speeding vehicle careening across a sidewalk.
I turned the channel knob on the television.
“…water and non-perishables from shelves. Police and fire departments encourage citizens in Ramsey, Washington, Anoka, Hennepin, Scott, and Dakota counties to remain calm and indoors as they continue to deal with the lawlessness. Police Chief Johnson has stated they have the resources on hand to bring these incidents under control and the CDC confirms they have units on the ground working to contain the rabies outbreak. We go now to Mitch Davidson live on the scene in Logan Park…”
The anchor stood in front of a Best Buy electronics store as a crowd of people entered through shattered front windows while others emerged holding laptop computers, televisions, and armfuls of merchandise.
I turned the knob again to see two men and a woman sitting at a table, an image of a magnified cell projected behind them.
“…period between infection and the first flu-like symptoms is typically two to twelve weeks, but can be as much as two years. What we’re seeing here is a rapidly accelerated infection, resulting in full fledged symptomatic evidence within hours or days. It’s quite unlike anything we’ve seen thus far, and quite unlike any rabies virus.”
“Now, now…let’s not contribute to the panic already rampant among the populace by overstating what is simply unconfirmed. We have the CDC investigating the reports to see if what we’re really dealing with is, in fact, the Lyssavirus or another form of neurotropic infection. It’s hyperbole from experts such as yourself, Doctor, that lead to these unqualified and irresponsible rumors we keep hearing about the dead walking and people biting each other.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that this is unprecendented, Jack, and your adamant stance does no one any good when we have—“
“It’s not my job to diagnose, Allen! That’s why you’re here and frankly, you’re out of your damned—“
I turned the television off, reminded of why I’d stopped watching in the first place. The initial shock of the helicopter footage had me concerned, but it appeared no different than the videos I’d seen years ago of the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict, and the other report seemed to say that much of the violence was isolated and would soon be under control. The bickering analysis only proved that no one had any goddamned idea what was going on, which usually meant it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. It figures that Tom would be preparing for the worst. He’d always been the first we’d hear from should a strong storm front approach or the television worry-warts warn of golf ball-sized hail. Lucille would always hear him out, thanking him for his advice and telling me he means well. He’s a friend, she’d say, and he’s just watching out for us.
I stood up, knees popping, and just stared for a moment at the dusty television screen. The silence in the house was oppressive, and I knew that this was my reality now. The days would stretch on, I would think of her, and then I would sleep. Each day would bring the same.
I turned my eyes to the slender brass urn that rested on the window sill to the left of the china hutch, her favorite place to sit on bright days like this. It was all that I had left of her save for everything that reminded me of our life together. Its dull sheen glinted sharply as the sun rose to its apex and the day carried on without her.