By Michael Thériault
“Thirty?” Berto said to Jolene.
“She could have been thirty-five, at most,” Jolene said. “Almost their whole lives before them.”.
From the little kitchen table in a second-story bay window Berto watched with her a man carry groceries from a car trunk into a stuccoed corner house the near-mirror-image of theirs.
“And yet nothing’s changed,” said Jolene, some rasp now in her alto.
“Groceries same time Saturday mornings,” Berto said.
“Laundry on the back lines Saturday afternoons,” said Jolene.
Over its six-foot redwood fence, Berto could see in the man’s back yard the clothes on their lines, a fig tree, a Eureka lemon, a hydrangea, and – just visible against the far fence – the young leaves of the taller dahlias.
“Garden after work,” said Berto.
“Sunday morning car wash. You would think…,” Jolene said.
Whatever had happened had been sudden. He and Jolene had seen her, it seemed, within the month, to appearances healthy.
The man closed the trunk again and carried the last bag of groceries into the house.
“You would think…,” Jolene repeated. “But it’s like nothing happened.”
Berto said, “You’d still need food, and clean clothes for work.”
Hearing no reply, Berto turned and looked at the light olive roundness of a cheek, at a dark eyebrow trimmed fine, at salt-and-pepper hair and the glimpses of neck its waves permitted, but not at Jolene’s brown eyes, which she averted from his. Looking out the window, she finished her coffee in silence.
After lunch, the late spring day’s unusual heat filling the house, Berto sat with Jolene in folding lounge chairs in the back yard in the shade of the avocado. Berto trickled beer from the Yemeni corner grocer into his throat. On the sidewalk outside the fence two women conversed, their voices skittering up and down the seven tones of Cantonese. Down the block the Enríquez children played, their shouted Spanish dancing and sweet. Berto listened to Jolene’s breathing: Easy, contented – it seemed – easy. He turned to watch the long curves of her breasts rise and fall with each breath and her eyes half-close in somnolence from the warmth and the meal, and he felt so at home with her and with these few blocks of San Francisco so like what they had known since childhood. The contentment he saw in her nestled into his.
He heard the squeal of the man’s clothesline reels across the street.
The couple had moved in not three years before. The Audi at first had carried Ohio plates.
“Work in tech,” Berto had said, and Jolene had nodded.
Both the new neighbors were tall and slender. While the man would set up on Sundays to wash the car, she would leave on a bicycle, a sandy braid trailing out from her helmet. He would run early weekday mornings, often before dawn. Leaving for his pickup and the warehouse, Berto would encounter him sometimes sprinting the last block to the house, droplets of condensed exhalation or of fog in his thin russet beard.
“Morning,” Berto would say. The man, breathing hard and saying nothing, would raise a hand as his sprint carried him past.
A habitual reader of the Chronicle’s obituaries, Berto had found hers. No date of birth, no cause of death, just “too young.” Survived by husband, parents, a grandmother, cousins. Services in Cincinnati. “In lieu of flowers, please contribute to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.”
The employment Berto and Jolene supposed for the couple from Ohio had made them seem more than foreign, two among a horde that would likely pass from the City as had others before theirs. “Grasshoppers,” Jolene had called the couple. Neither Jolene nor Berto had ever sought to learn more of them than their names.
Berto now, in the glow of his beer and in the thought of the unanticipated fullness of the woman’s passing and of the man’s loss of her, began to regret this.
But the clothesline reels continued to squeal at the interval of clothespins. Berto was first fearful that they would wake Jolene, then angry.
His regret, too, passed fully.
Sunday passed almost as it commonly did, unremarkably, with the ten a.m. Mass, a visit to Berto’s mother, a dinner stop for pupusas, an hour with the television, and Berto reaching for the lamp on his nightstand to switch it off.
This was not the time – in the dark, her back to him in the bed they had shared now thirty-three years, his hand sliding from her hip to her thigh and back – not at all the time he wanted such a question from Jolene.
“Would you be like that?” she asked, no rasp now in her voice, its pitch higher, almost a child’s.
His hand stopped. “Like what?” he asked, although he knew.
“If I…. Would you be like him?”
“I’d be a wreck,” he said, though just then he did not quite feel he would be, “but I’d try to go on.”
The answer seemed to work. A minute or two, a few twitches, and her breathing came slow and even.
Berto remained awake.
In an unbroken flow of motion smoothed by years of repetition Berto pushed the lever to tilt the mast forward, unbelted himself, pivoted to one side, swung forward on his arms to launch himself to the ground, stepped in front of the machine, pushed the forks closer, remounted, pulled one lever to straighten the mast and pushed another to lower the forks, rolled forward to slide the forks under the pallet, pulled two levers simultaneously to raise the forks and tilt the mast back, and drove across the concrete floor to where Óscar waited.
Óscar had worked with him most of those years. Throughout them, if Óscar had changed, it was in ways undetectable to Berto. Small bundle of wire, hair thick, mustache narrow, and both still black, he moved always with the same rapid grace, which must – Berto often thought – have served him even better on a dance floor than on the warehouse’s concrete slab.
“Tan pequeña es, tan frágil es,” Óscar sang now in his goatish attempt to imitate Sabú’s tenor imitating Drupi’s.
Unlike the girl or woman whom the song addressed, Jolene was neither small nor fragile. Berto recalled his arms around her.
At his sister’s wedding they danced belly to belly, his hands just reaching each other across the small of her back, his hips and her broad hips rocking side to side together.
Even so, he thought, health could turn in a literal heartbeat.
He swung down again from the forklift seat and came beside the pallet across from Óscar. Óscar extended the blade of a box cutter and slit top to bottom the plastic wrap holding the boxes to each other and the pallet; Berto needed no prompting to do the same. He and Óscar pulled the wrap away, balled it up roughly, and tossed it aside. They set to moving the boxes to an adjacent shelf.
“Uy,” said Óscar with each graceful lift; in rhythm, “Uy,” and “Uy.”
And if that heartbeat came? Berto recalled another occasion of Jolene’s dancing.
First birthday balloons tugged back and forth in the breeze against the ribbons tied to the sconces either side of his sister’s and her husband’s garage door, under their house. The barbecue outside the door hissed and popped and heaped scents onto the sidewalk. A cutting board, carving knife and fork, and platters awaited meat on a table just inside the door, beside bowls of rice, beans, and salads. Chairs and coolers lined each wall of the garage. Berto’s mother was helping the birthday boy walk, his pudgy arms straight up, his blunt pale smooth hands in her brown rough hands. Speakers played a cumbia. Jolene swept the boy up and away into her arms and danced.
Berto and Jolene had and would have no children to mourn her. That would fall to him.
“Uy,” said Óscar one last time.
Berto climbed back into the seat.
Paired since Balboa High School, thirty-six springs together, thirty-three married, and when he imagined her gone he saw for himself only the same forklift back and forth in the same warehouse to and from the immutable Óscar, the same five-and-a-half miles in his pickup to and from the warehouse, the same food truck at lunch, the same beer after his shower. You are no better than a dog, he thought.
As Berto pulled away on the forklift, Óscar resumed his trilling: “Sin ti, lo sé, yo ya no puedo vivir.”
No, worse, Berto thought; a dog would mourn.
A puff of breeze through the open window buzzed a slat of the darkened blind and rattled Berto’s sleeplessness.
Jolene’s breath strummed an adagio on the folds of her pillowcase.
Berto tried to imagine its absence, and did.
He tried to imagine grief, and failed.
All her hair was now dark, all its strands of gray dyed by night.
The diesel groan and whine of the day’s last bus swelled and receded outside.
Her breath absent, the City would hold to its rounds and ways.
So, thought Berto, will I, by day, by night.
A shard of moonlight pierced the blinds.
The few days of spring heat would pass, the summer sea fog and its chill return.
Without her, Berto thought, will I be cold and regular as the moon?Regular and cold like the fog?
And like him?
Worse than a dog, like him?
In the warm predawn, the streetlamp called a faint shine from the sweat on the man’s shoulders, arms, and cheeks as he sprinted. As always, he raised a hand to greet Berto.
Something – not “Morning,” certainly – some sort of growl punctuated midway by a deep chirp came from Berto.
The man passed with no sign of noticing.
Berto wondered at the sound he had made and at the odium he felt. Both frightened him.
Berto was home from work before Jolene. The heat fading with the day, he moved around the second floor to open windows and let in the cooling air.
After opening one of the windows by the kitchen table, Berto paused.
Across the street, the man worked in his bacbackyardk yard. Berto saw his shirtless back waist-up, at the yard’s far side. He moved as though hoeing, a tool handle visible in his hands.
A raven alit at the edge of the house’s flat roof, overlooking yard and man. Berto guessed it was from the flock that spread from McLaren Park down across the neighborhood and then the City at dawn and returned to the pine, cypress, and eucalyptus crowns at dusk. He saw the bird’s bill open and close, open and close. The street was quiet of passing cars. Instead, Berto heard a sound as of wood blocks clapping. Open and close again, again, and again and again wood blocks clapped.
The man froze.
Open, close, clap.
The man turned his head slowly toward the bird.
The man turned back toward his task but did not resume it. For some moments shudders uneven in amplitude and duration convulsed his shoulders. They were vehement enough that Berto at his window supposed them the products of silent weeping.
A few moments more passed before Berto discerned the heaviness of his own breathing. With some effort he calmed it. He gave a slight nod.
Relief, then joy swelling within him, he continued to the next window.
About the author:
Michael Thériault has been an Ironworker, a union organizer, and a union representative at various levels. He published fiction in his twenties, half a dozen stories in literary magazines, but abandoned it for decades to support first a family, then a movement. In his recent return to it, he has been published in Pacifica Review and Overheard and accepted for publication this fall in Iconoclast. "Like Him" is another product of this return.