by Edward Ahern
It began with the toilet seat. It was down. Roger never left the toilet seat down– it had been one of the sore points with Joyce before she divorced him. He squinted early morning eyes and propped the seat back up.
His cell phone beeped as he slid a razor down his cheeks. Roger glanced at the heading –a message from Joyce’s sister. He finished shaving, wiped his face, and looked at the text, a broadcast to about twenty people. Joyce was dead. He called the sister without putting the phone back down.
“Sarah, Roger. What happened?”
Sarah was crying and stuffy nosed. “Oh, Roger! You didn’t know? I– I wish someone else had told you. She died in a car wreck last night. They said she was dead before they reached the hospital.”
“My God. Did somebody hit her?”
“No. She went off the road and into a gully. Apparently she and Larry had a disagreement and she went for a drive.”
They talked a few more minutes. Roger and Sarah had never been close, and the conversation strained to a dry finish.
Roger held the phone in his hands. Joyce. Forty three, no, forty-four years old. No kids with either him or Larry. He sat down. How hard they’d been on each other, how rasping. Yelling back and forth, but then, sometimes, wrestling down into sex in the kitchen or living room. We were best together when we didn’t talk.
Autonomic movements took over. Drinking juice and coffee. Finishing dressing for work. He reached up to the closet railing for a favorite tie. It was missing. Roger rummaged around the closet floor. No tie. Great.
Just before leaving Roger flipped open the lid of the garbage pail, dumping out the coffee grounds and watched the black grit splatter onto his missing tie.
I couldn’t have thrown the tie in there, not without remembering. How the hell did my tie get into the kitchen garbage can?
Joyce had despised that tie, saying that spaghetti stains might make it less ugly. She’d threatened several times to throw it out. She’d won post-mortem.
Roger sat at his office desk quietly, a file opened before unfocused eyes. Joyce. Brown hair cut in a bob. Quick in mind and movement. Petite framed, with heavy breasts that ski sloped over two ribs into pronounced nipples.
He’d never remarried, never had another relationship that strengthened into living together. I guess I was waiting for you to come back. Bad luck.
Roger sat alone in his apartment that evening. Carrie telephoned but he kept the conversation brief, unable to focus on another woman. Only two other people called. Joyce had taken most of their friends with her into the new marriage. And Larry was the widower, responsible for the arrangements. Roger looked up the number and called him.
“Larry? It’s Roger Previs. I’d like to help out in some way…”
“Previs, leave me alone. I don’t want your help. You can go to the wake and funeral, but don’t pretend to comfort me.”
“Look, Larry I…”
But Larry had hung up. What the hell. I haven’t spoken to him in two years and he rips me up over the phone. He won after all. Joyce went with him.
Roger drank infrequently, but decided it was called for. He sat in the silent living room with a large scotch. He wanted to feel sorry for himself, but instead felt that aggravated anticipation he so often felt with Joyce.
He was half asleep when the television blared and flashed. He stared at a sitcom about thirty-somethings that Joyce had loved and he hated. The remote lay on the coffee table in front of him.
How the hell did this crap turn on? Did I put my foot on the table?
He grabbed the remote and punched off the television, then stared at it suspiciously. He’d dropped the remote on the sofa and walked the empty glass out to the kitchen when the TV reignited with the same crummy show.
Piece of crap short circuiting remote. Roger bent behind the television and yanked out the electric plug. The thirty-somethings shut up.
That night Roger dreamed about Joyce. He roiled in and out of sleep, but kept falling back into the same topics- acid drippings about what was wrong with their life together. For all his anger, Roger could never have physically hurt Joyce, Instead he’d held her tightly, as if the squeezed bodies would somehow wring out their argument. In the serial dreams he held her to him three times. It felt good.
The next two days in the apartment were even more disorienting. The picture of he and Joyce trekking out west was back on the shelf, although he couldn’t remember putting it there. The bed was remade both evenings when he returned from work. The toilet seat was always down, despite his persistently leaving it up. It’s like she’s moved back in. Roger retreated into mindless games on his computer, sitting with the uneasy sensation that Joyce was in the next room. His dreams about her persisted both nights.
I’m losing it. Got to talk to someone. Going bat crap sitting here alone. Shrinks are quacks. Maybe Father Louis. Roger called the church he and Joyce had haphazardly attended and made an appointment.
The morning of the fourth day after her death he put on a suit and went to her funeral. As behooved a used-to-be, he sat toward the back, away from the clustered groups of family, associates and friends. Sarah noticed him and walked over.
“Roger, please don’t go up to Larry to offer condolences.”
“Why not, Sarah? He was mad at me a few days ago when I called him, but there’s no reason for it.”
“Apparently he and Joyce had another blowup. She told him she was leaving and going to your place. He thinks you two were having an affair. Please don’t go near him.” Sarah threw Roger a speculative look, a glance that conveyed her own suspicions.
“Good God, we were nothing to each other any more. I hadn’t seen her in a year, maybe longer”
“Whatever Roger. Just please stay away from Larry.”
Roger had been content to hover in the background, but now angrily considered bracing Larry. I only wish we’d gotten together, it would have been worth the confrontation.
That evening, reclined in front of a blank television screen, some of the good parts seeped back into his mind. The sideways glance and half smiling lips when she was amused at one of his absurdities. How she carried her body when she knew he was watching. The way she could finish his thought and embellish it.
Enough. Quit hanging out in the lost part of the lost and found.
Roger picked up the phone and pulled a number out of its memory.
“Carrie? It’s Roger. Thank you. Yeah, it’s sad that she died so young and needlessly.
“Listen, I’m having a hard time being alone. Would you want to come by tomorrow evening for a little dinner?
“Great, see you then.”
Carrie was an old friend who Roger could open up to about his problems. Joyce had hated her, suspecting that Carrie and Roger were dabbling in more than conversation. She’d been wrong. Roger had begun to have occasional comfort sex with Carrie only well after the divorce.
As soon as he put down the phone Roger noticed a raspy, dry-rot smell that started him coughing. The odor persisted until he went to bed. The next morning, after a Joyce nightmare rather than a dream, Roger drove over to the Rectory at St. Thomas.
“Yes. Roger is it? We don’t see you very much.”
“I know father, I haven’t been very good about attending mass since the divorce. Father, I need to talk about some strange things that are happening to me.”
Father Louis sat Roger down in a chair across his desk. “Do you wish confession?”
“Not confession exactly father, more getting your advice.”
Fr. Louis said nothing as Roger described the happenings since Joyce’s death. I wonder if he thinks I’m crazy or just suffering from guilt.
“Roger, after the death of a loved one-and she seems to have still been loved by you– it’s normal to be hyper sensitive, to loosen our grip on reality a bit.” Fr. Louis went on to describe other grieving parishioners who had successfully emerged from anxiety and uncertainty.
“Father, fair enough, grief might explain my unease and the dreams, but what about the TV, and the picture, and the bed making and the tie, and the toilet, for God’s sake!”
They talked further. Finally Fr. Louis said,” Look Roger, I still think that you’re going through a natural, very sad process that’s unsettled you. However, everything you describe seems to take place at your apartment. There is something I can do that might provide emotional help.”
Fr. Louis laughed. “Nothing so dramatic. Some people who feel uneasy or threatened ask us to bless an item or a person, or, in your case, an apartment. It seems to help sometimes in getting rid of what concerns them.”
“Let me think about it Father. And thanks for listening to me.”
Late that afternoon Roger began preparing lasagna for him and Carrie. The meat sauce simmered as he went in and out of the kitchen, tidying up the apartment. He mouthed the wooden ladle for a taste before spreading the sauce on the noodles and spit it out. My God, there must be a whole jar of hot sauce in this. I couldn’t have done that! But an empty hot sauce bottle squatted on the counter.
Roger rummaged through his cupboard and found a prepared bottle of sauce he could substitute. Keep focusing, stay calm, don’t panic.
When Carrie arrived her body language was blatant. She’d arrived prepared to spend the night. After dinner they drank more wine in the living room. The CD player squealed into breakdown halfway through a mood-inducing track, and they talked gently across background silence. Roger described in clinical phrasing what had happened in the apartment since Joyce’s death, and his worry that what was really happening was his own breakdown.
He felt uneasy, queasy almost, but moved over next to Carrie on the sofa, the prelude to the heavy petting prelude. As he leaned forward for a kiss the apartment imploded.
Books launched out of their shelves and smacked into them. The television ended on ended into the wall next to them. CD jewel cases spun into their faces, cutting both of them.
Carrie was cowering, screaming, at the end of the sofa. Roger grabbed her and pulled her out of the apartment, onto the landing. They were showered with debris as they fled.
Carrie screamed for another minute, then began to whimper. They inspected each other for injury as they crouched on the floor. The open-doored apartment behind them was silent.
“What happened Roger? Was it an earthquake?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t know.”
“Call the police.”
“And tell them what? That the apartment threw us out? I’m just relieved that you’re okay. And, in a way, relieved that you just saw what I saw. Whatever else is happening, I don’t think I’m crazy.”
They held each other for several minutes. “Come on,” Roger said, “I’ll take you home’”
Roger, occasionally shivering, drove below the speed limit. When they reached her house Carrie begged Roger to stay.
“I can’t. I left the apartment open. I’ve at least got to go back and shut things up.”
They kissed chastely and Roger left. When he reached the apartment door, still ajar, he could hear the resurrected CD player making soft post-mayhem music.
Roger thought about just locking up his apartment, but needed to see, to verify. He walked in carefully. The television, screen cracked, was back on its stand. The books were on the shelves. The jewel cases in their slots. It’s a back-handed apology after an argument.
There was nothing to clean up. Roger picked up the phone, which worked, and called the telephone number Fr. Louis had given him. He was sure that late on a Friday night he’d get a recording, but couldn’t wait until morning.
“May God’s blessings be upon you. This is Fr. Louis Pintye. I am away on retreat this weekend and unavailable, but please leave me a message and I’ll call as soon as I get back.”
“Fr. Louis, it’s Roger Previs. Things have gotten much worse since we talked. I think– I think I need that blessing you said you could perform. Could you possibly come by on Monday? Pray for me please father.”
Now what do I do? I’m afraid to stay in my own apartment. Get a room somewhere? Move out? I’ve got the spiritual fumigator coming. Joyce, God damn it, this is my place now.
Roger cautiously prepared for bed. His last two actions were to down a liquid sleeping pill of scotch and double-check that the front door was unlocked, just in case he had to run out again.
But his sleep was featureless and untroubled. As he awoke he smelled fresh, hazelnut flavored coffee. Joyce, you know I hate that hazelnut slop of yours. And then he remembered that Joyce was dead.
The coffee pot was full, the coffee freshly made. Roger decided not to remake it. Adulterated coffee a la Joyce. Can you taste what I taste? Is that why you made it? Or are you just tormenting me?
Roger plugged in the television, but it was injured beyond the CPR of electricity, and stayed dark. He shaved, dressed and started out on his Saturday errands. His sense of Joyce dropped away as he went through the door, leaving a space empty.
When he returned to the apartment Joyce re-enveloped him like a bathrobe. What’re you doing here? You left me, remember?
Roger prepared and ate a cold supper, and then tried to read. It was hopeless. Stray, aching thoughts kept short circuiting the text. What he should have said to Joyce that gave his meaning without hurting her. Her tenderness with the children and animals of others. The indelibly graceful way she could leave the bed nude to go into the bathroom. He finally put the book in his lap and talked aloud to the room.
“Okay Joyce, look. You know I’ve always loved you, even when I showed it badly. You can play your games with me but don’t scare people like poor Carrie- who only tried to give me a Raggedy Ann to cuddle. Do your damndest, Joyce, having you near and surly is better than your absence.”
The room seemed to go pastel. Roger’s frustration softened as well, into an awareness that something strongly feminine was near him. Roger’s dream that night was of he and Joyce in the bed he slept in, the bed they had shared for years. They were engaged in pre-marriage sex, the kind that ebbs and flows for much of a tide change.
Roger woke pleasantly exhausted to the smell of coffee– good, black coffee– no hazelnut. “Thank you,” he muttered. He sat in the Sunday morning kitchen and read excerpts from the newspaper aloud, not sure how Joyce absorbed things. He savored his movements, thinking that Joyce might share in them.
He left the apartment once, to buy a television. When he’d set it up and turned it on he tuned to a depressingly chipper sitcom that Joyce had liked. After he’d put down the remote the television switched to a football game. He left it there. It was her gift.
Joyce joined his sleep again that night and he sensed the burbling river flow of her thoughts without words needed. They loved each other again, this time softly, as though they were both sore from prior injuries.
That Monday morning, a few minutes after 9a.m., Fr Louis called.
“Roger I got your message. Are you all right?”
“Ah, Father. I’m okay I think.” Roger started pacing nervously from room to room.
“You sounded- strained. Look I can be over at your place a little before noon. It shouldn’t take more than a half an hour to sanctify it.”
Roger had fetched up in the bathroom. “Father, I don’t know. I’m getting over the shock of what’s happened, as you said I would. I’m, more comfortable with things. Let’s defer the blessing for awhile.”
“Okay Roger, your call. But I’m always here if you want to talk.”
“Thanks Father, I appreciate your calling.”
As Roger clicked off the phone he reached down and gently lowered the toilet seat.
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He has his original wife, but advises that after forty five years they are both out of warranty. Ed has had forty six stories published thus far.
Aftertaste first appeared in Whortleberry Press.