The tape on the package was striped with waxed string. David dug his fingernails underneath the perimeter of the tape and clawed at it. He didn’t want to go to the kitchen for a knife, and he spent an extra piece of time examining the entire package to find the loose end that could be pulled up. Inside the package was a Styrofoam carton, sealed with another kind of thick tape. A receipt was attached to the top of the lid, noting a cremation charge of $795, a box charge of $25, and a shipping charge of $20.95.
The package measured a few feet square. It was pockmarked with red stickers printed with the image of a broken wineglass. The return address was of a funeral home in town. David placed the package on the coffee table between Franny’s cooking magazines and a stack of old newspapers. Some of the crosswords in the newspapers had been completed weeks earlier, perhaps months. Franny would read the news, and David would complete the crosswords. David took the newspapers into the basement and stacked them in a far corner.
Franny had never faulted him his confusions. Once, a group of squabbling jays stopped them on a walk. Two of the birds were circling each other, ducking and weaving, thrusting beak to wing, falling back. The group around that central pair collectively made a noise like rushing water. They spread their blue wings. It looked like someone had dropped a scarf on the ground. They moved in a unified line around the fighters in the center.
She took his hand. “You’re in the road,” she said.
He knew he had found a good woman in Franny. After only a few months of movie dates, they announced their engagement. The two of them took David’s father out to dinner and told him as the main course arrived. David’s father thought about how tall Franny was, how much taller she was than his son. Even with the two of them sitting across the table from him, he could see the fine, straight lines of Franny’s spine holding her higher than his poor 30-year-old son, balding young, who scrabbled after a piece of meat with one side of his fork. Franny seemed stronger and older and smarter than his boy. She used her butter knife to push the errant cube of steak onto David’s probing fork without breaking eye contact with David’s father. Still, David’s father thought, marry a straight spine and she’ll grow into a walking stick.
David’s regular patients asked the most questions. There were his childhood friends, Samson and the other one, the one whose name David could never remember even when he held the man’s file, a file containing a near lifetime of dental history, on his lap. David kept in contact with his old friends over time because they came in yearly for checkups. They usually spoke of the small success and general failure of local sports. The hygienists were the ones who had let the engagement news slip, and then David was cajoled into producing a picture of his future bride, and then everyone asked about her grip strength and cooking skill, and if she could help them move a dinner table to a third-floor apartment.
The questions they asked were forward but mostly not impolite. One of his patients who worked in the art department at the local community college asked if Franny could stand for his life-drawing class, speculating that her anatomy would lend itself to easier visual interpretation.
“She’s massive,” said an uncle on his father’s side, who came in from the country every few years for his teeth and had received an e-mail from the hygienists that included an image attachment. “I mean that kindly,” he said, insisting it over the sound of applied suction.
David knew that his family and his patients were only trying to piece together the physical mystery of Franny. The truth was that he had always felt he was an average-size man until he met her and realized how small he truly was. He appreciated the perspective.
Franny had run away from home as a teenager and ridden the bus alone. David asked what made her do that, and she said there was nothing else going on. She remembered the time fondly. In order to buy the tickets, she spent her paychecks from working at a food court shake shop at the mall. She took a bus to visit a town with a coalmine fire that would slowly burn striated fault lines for the next hundred years. The blaze had evacuated the area a decade before. Franny walked around while eating a cheeseburger from the bus terminal café. She would lie on a bare patch of dirt at a school playground in the middle of the Pennsylvania winter and felt warm. A vent in the earth released a sour smell. The heat from the vent steamed against the falling snow, turning it to a drizzle before it hit the ground.
Though she never touched tobacco as an adult, teenage Franny would pluck cigarette butts from the kitty litter trays by the bus terminal door and smoke the dregs. One of the other passengers might witness this act and stroll over to offer the girl a cigarette from his pack, but she would refuse. She figured a whole cigarette would make her sick. Often, the cigarettes she found carried lipstick marks, like blushing thumbprints, and Franny would light up and imagine the kind of woman who applied lipstick to make the trip between Ohio and Michigan.
The filters she examined were ivory-colored and darkened in a spectrum that revealed the pull of the previous user. She could find plenty of near-new smokes in an ashtray at any given bus stop owing to people running to make their connection. She smiled when she thought of those years but admitted that it was a true miracle that she did not contract oral thrush. It seemed to David as if she could leave at any moment. She would get that look in her eye.
He knew Franny had been behind the house. She wore a scarf colored red like the berries that grew back there. Her feet were bare and her ankles were slick with fluid. “Something has happened,” Franny said.
She was standing at the bottom of the stairs. She held the rail and tipped her head back to look at her husband. They held the same rail. “You’ve been tromping berries,” he said.
“It’s blood.” She held the stair’s rail and vomited down the front of her dress. “Could you call for help?” she asked, wiping her mouth with her fingers.
“Of course,” he said. He commanded his body to find a telephone and determine its use. “What’s the problem?”
“God, damn it,” she said.
“What did you do?” he asked. “What happened?”
“Could you call the fire department?” She sat on the stairs and leaned against the wall with her back to him. He came down and sat next to her. He touched her cold face with his hands. “You don’t need to call anyone,” she said. “Forget about it. I love you.”
“What did you get into?”
She tipped her head to the side and back, squinting at him or resting against the wall. “That’s your problem,” she said.
They were quiet for a long time. He listened to her breathing so closely that he forgot to breathe, himself. He gasped for air. He prodded at her with his elbow. “Doc,” he said. “You gotta understand.”
She laughed once.
David sat next to his wife for three days. They leaned against each other and created a powerful odor. In that way, it was like growing old together.
David decided that the police must have been tipped off by a neighbor who had wandered in a few days before.
“How long have you been here?” one officer asked.
“I’m not sure,” David said. He was wrapped in a blanket. A firefighter was trying to strap an oxygen mask onto his face. “I’m sorry, I’m disoriented. I think there’s enough oxygen.”
“Not in your world,” the firefighter said. David noticed that the firefighter was a woman. He felt the world shifting to the point where he was wearing her uniform. His straw- blond hair, which was hers, was pulled back into a ponytail. He had never experienced a ponytail. It felt as if his head was weighted from behind. The weight terminated at a single point, which gave him the sense that there was an opening back there that might allow fluids to escape. His lips felt thin, and he watched her, as him, sitting on the stair. His face had sunk around its bones like soft earth, and the oxygen mask protected his mouth like a clear carapace sheltering his organs.
David wasn’t sure how to tell her what needed to be said. He needed to be brave and gather his emotions for the sake of professionalism. It wasn’t the first time he had called upon this professional bravery, though it always felt like the first time and in fact currently felt like the very first time. “Your wife is dead,” he said.
The firefighter swallowed something. She looked as helpless there as a 50-year-old man, and David felt pity. He reached toward his pocket for a tissue before realizing that he was wearing a firefighter’s uniform and there were no pockets, only reflective strips that would glint against traffic lights and fires.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
She held her hands on the oxygen mask as if it were an extension of her face.
“We’re going to have to ask you a few questions,” David said.
She shook her head. “I can’t,” she said. Her voice was muffled by the mask. “I don’t understand. What happened?”
“That’s normal,” David said. “What you’re feeling is normal.” He could see her eyes inside his, even as he occupied her body. It felt warm in the retardant uniform. He took on her memories. He felt a strong desire to sit with her in a bathtub and wash her shoulders. He clapped a gloved hand on her pale, cold thigh, which was half covered by David’s filthiest robe, a green-and-black flannel that always looked as if it had been crammed into the space between the water heater and the wall.
David and the firefighter crouched in the stairwell. He felt as if he was looking down from the position of an angel who could not get much vertical distance over the scene. He turned awkwardly in the bulky retardant suit to observe the base of the stairs. It was caked with the fluid and gunk sloughed from the mess of a living body and a dying one. His pajama pants rested in a filthy heap below.
He looked to the firefighter occupying his body and saw that her left foot had retained its slipper, but the other foot was bare. The second slipper was forgotten at the base of the stairs. The firefighter was still swaddled by the blanket. The smell rising from the stairwell and steaming from her was an embarrassment of childhood odor. It made David dizzy to experience it, and he tried to focus on the thin face blurred behind the oxygen mask.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She was crying. David had never seen such emotion from a public servant, other than the time a post office clerk was informed of his daughter’s death via telephone in the midst of a Christmas rush, and now he was observing it happening in his own body. He had seen the post office clerk take the phone call and put his head in his hands, sobbing, resting his elbows on an electronic scale. David had been there to mail a package of documents to his mother’s lawyer, but he was touched by the display and later sent flowers to the post office. He didn’t know the clerk’s name and addressed the lilies to the office in general. It seemed like the right thing to do from a taxpayer perspective.
The firefighter clutched the blue blanket and took shallow breaths. She tried to touch her face again and felt the oxygen mask and moved it out of the way. David reached his glove out to touch her arm, then removed the glove and touched her with his bare hand. He moved the mask back over her face.
“Get it all out,” he said. “Would you like to talk about what happened?”
The firefighter scrubbed at her face and mouth. “I can’t talk about it,” she said. “I’m so confused.”
David felt like a dog peering dumbly into the darkest moment of his owner’s life. “That’s normal,” he said.
He noticed a pain in his arm and saw that he was taking fluids intravenously. He was inside the dimensions of his own body again. The oxygen mask lined his face and the calming smoothness made his eyelids heavy. And there was Franny, resembling a piece of modern furniture under the police tarp. Her body had vacated its bowels beside him at some point in their time together on the stair. He cherished the life implied by that action, the odor of a living thing beside him, pulsing bacterial life that had once been harbored by her body, not unlike a child, ejected now into the dimming light, bacteria feeding on itself and fading. He wondered if a florist might deliver lilies to the stairwell. Franny’s body had grown stiff and then soft again beside him on the stair, and by then it must have been as pliable as a wax figure. In the police business of securing the area, she was forgotten on the floor. A paramedic stepped over her. Sweet Franny, David thought.
Amelia Gray grew up in Tucson, Arizona. Her first collection of stories, “AM/PM,” was published in 2009. Her second collection, “Museum of the Weird,” was awarded the Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize. She lives in Los Angeles. “THREATS” is her first novel.