Saul sat almost peacefully staring blankly at the aquarium in the waiting room, watching the neon fish cut their way through the water. When the blonde nurse entered the room, Saul wanted to tell her to sit down. Pour herself a cup of coffee. He knew what she was going to say, and that he wouldn’t be able to stop her. He swallowed hard and nodded.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Huber,” she said.
Saul didn’t want to look the girl in the eyes. She was young. Too young, he thought, to be dealing with death.
The nurse’s bright pink fingernails clicked against her clipboard as she flipped through pages. “We called your daughter. She should be here in an hour. Would you like to sit with your wife while you wait?” The thought of sitting in the room with Henrietta’s dead body made Saul’s eyes glaze over. A heavy weight pooled in his chest. “Like the doctor said, she went peacefully,” the nurse said.
Saul wondered why she was smiling. “In her sleep. There wasn’t any pain.”
“Please leave,” Saul said.
The clipboard sagged in the nurse’s hands. She stopped at the doorway.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” she said, but the words sounded like tin.
When the nurse was gone, Saul sat and listened to the clock ticking away seconds behind him. He shouldn’t have snapped at her, he thought. It wasn’t her fault Henrietta died. But he didn’t want to face that room, didn’t want to see her lying beneath a white sheet. He would wait until his daughter, Emily, arrived. He rose from the chair and shuffled out to the hallway. A group of nurses huddled around a desk, whispering. One pointed in his direction.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Could one of you please call my daughter? She’ll have to drive in from Michigan.”
The blonde nurse blinked. “Call her again?”
She looked familiar, but Saul couldn’t place her. “My daughter Emily,” he said. “She lives in Michigan.”
The nurses exchanged glances. “She’s on her way, sir,” the blonde nurse said, running bright pink nails through her hair. “I called her a few minutes ago.”
Saul remembered. He shook his head. “That’s right,” he said. “I was just making sure.”
Before she died, Henrietta had been sleeping poorly. She woke in the middle of the night, struggling for breath.
“It feels like someone’s squeezing shut my windpipe,” she said. Saul urged her to call the doctor.
“Nonsense,” she said. “It’s just apnea. It’ll pass.”
But Saul wasn’t convinced. He crept out of bed while Henrietta slept and wrote down her symptoms in a green notebook. He wrote down what he wanted to tell the doctor and practiced the conversation in the mirror so he wouldn’t forget anything. Even so, the doctor sounded nonplussed. “Give it a few days, Mr. Huber,” he said. “If she still can’t sleep or if her symptoms escalate, have her come in and see me, okay?” Saul wrote down everything the doctor said and promised he would follow his instructions. When Henrietta came home from her knitting class that day, she showed Saul the progress she made on the baby blanket she was knitting. “Never know when this might come in handy,” she said, even though their only child, Emily, was thirty-eight and unmarried. Saul nodded and wrote it down in his notebook: Baby blanket for Emily.
On the day of Henrietta’s attack, she and Saul were shopping for groceries for their weekly card game. On Sunday nights, they hosted a game of gin rummy and a group of friends came over at seven to play. When Saul began forgetting the rules of the game he wanted to call off the parties, but Henrietta wouldn’t hear of it. Each week she patiently went over the rules, even the weeks he didn’t need to be reminded. If he started to panic halfway through a game, Henrietta could tell by the way he stared wildly at the cards. “Saul, why don’t you help me refill this cheese plate,” she would say. In the kitchen, she whispered the rules in his ear. “Nobody has to know,” she said.
At the grocery store, they had gathered their purchases and were making their way back to the car when Henrietta stopped short. Saul turned around and she was shaking her left arm, as if trying to restore circulation.
“Damn,” she said. “Damn my arm.”
“Everything okay?” Saul shouted.
When Henrietta looked up, her face had gone white and sweaty. “Growing pains,” she said weakly. Saul dropped the grocery bags and hurried back.
When he reached her, Henrietta had slumped down to the ground, hand clutched at her chest. “I can’t breathe, Saul,” she said.
“Help,” Saul shouted to the gathering crowd. “We need help!”
An ambulance was there in minutes. Henrietta’s eyes rolled back in her head, eyelashes fluttering. “Oh, Henny,” Saul said. He patted her cheek with a shaking hand.
One of the EMTs elbowed his way between them. “Sir, are you riding along?”
Saul watched the workers strap Henrietta to a backboard and load her onto the rig. He thought of the questions he might be asked. About her medical history, the pills she was taking. He wasn’t sure if he could remember the answers. What if he answered a question wrong? Through the tiny back window of the ambulance, he could see someone compressing Henrietta’s chest. The siren screamed on.
“I’m sorry sir, we need to move,” the worker said. Saul watched as the flashing lights disappeared.
Tests revealed that Henrietta had underlying arteriosclerosis coronary heart disease.
“What does that mean?” Saul asked.
“It’s a general term,” the doctor said, glancing down at Henrietta’s chart.
“It means that the walls of your wife’s heart have thickened with fat. One of these sacs of fat broke away, clotting blood flow in Henrietta’s heart, causing the attack.”
“Please, I need you to write it down,” Saul said. “I forget things sometimes.”
“We’ll have to watch her closely,” the doctor said. “In situations like this it’s not uncommon for patients to have repeated attacks.”
When the doctor was gone, Saul rested his hand on Henrietta’s shoulder.
“I’m going to tell Emily,” he said. “What if I can’t take care of you?” Henrietta’s voice sounded tired but determined. “We’re the parents,” she said. “We take care of her.”
“I don’t know what I’ll do without you,” he wanted to say, but his throat clenched. He had never been one to cry and couldn’t bear the thought of Henrietta seeing his weakness, not now when she needed him to be strong.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. Then she placed the oxygen mask back over her mouth and patted his hands before she closed her eyes. Saul sat next to her bed, wringing his hands, watching her fall asleep.
Saul had always been a hard-working man. When he graduated high school, he started working in the limestone quarry with his father. He descended into the valleys every day for almost forty years, carrying a mallet and chisel, to split blocks of sediment hauled from the ground, crushing them to dust.
On his last day, the foreman came and shook Saul’s hand. “It’s been good having you aboard,” he said. Saul stared down into the valley and watched the drills eviscerate the walls of terrain, slowly chipping away, piece by piece, turning solid earth into canyon. He reached out and shook the foreman’s hand, wiped the white powder from his face, and headed to the bar. He sat sipping a cold beer, still wearing his tool belt, and thought about his early retirement. He hadn’t asked to leave early and wasn’t even interested in the pension. But the job had recently purchased new motherboards for the power drills, and he couldn’t remember how to operate them.
“Please,” he pleaded with the foreman. “If we get the old motherboards back, I can do this job.”
The foreman shook his head, not looking Saul in the eyes. “It’s time,” he said. “Nobody has to know why.”
“It’s just my short term,” Saul said, tapping his temple with a finger. “I need more time with the manuals.”
The foreman rested a hand on Saul’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Saul,” he said.
Saul had been good at his job, reliable, strong. He always took pride in the work, until now, when he sat at the bar and thought about how he hadn’t done much with his life except spend his days hollowing out the earth.
In the waiting room, the blonde nurse had reappeared sometime before and sat down next to him. “Mr. Huber,” she said, resting a manicured hand on his knee. “I know it’s hard.” He shifted away from her. “Mr. Huber,” she repeated. “If you want to say goodbye to your wife, now’s the time.”
“This has happened before,” he said, “but she was always okay.” He fixed his eyes on the fish in the corner aquarium. He could see the nurse nod in the reflection of the glass.
“We’ll be moving her soon,” she said.
“She said she wasn’t going anywhere,” Saul said. He wondered if there were tubes in her throat. He wondered if she already had a tag on her toe.
He knew it wasn’t fair for Emily to see her like that. As her father, he should make the death manageable for her. She needed his protection. He didn’t take his eyes away from the fish cutting streaks through the water in the tank. “Is she covered?” he asked. “I don’t want to see her under a sheet.”
“She’s in her bed,” the nurse said. “She looks peaceful.” She stood and reached out a hand to Saul. “Shall we go together?”
Saul watched as a turtle in the aquarium swam to the surface and gulped for air. Then he nodded and reached for the nurse’s outstretched hand.
Seeing her in that bed, memories knotted in Saul’s throat. They all came rushing at once, messy as a finger painting, all the colours running together.
There were so many Saul felt like he couldn’t wade through them. Couldn’t choose just one to focus on. It was like the drone of a power drill in his brain, hammering so loudly he couldn’t hear the words being spoken to him, couldn’t open his eyes in the bright fluorescent lights. Everything, it seemed, was lost in a buzz of noise.
The nurse waited for a moment in the room, standing just near enough to Saul that he could smell her perfume. Different from the scent Henrietta wore. Henrietta always smelled like lilacs. But then Saul wasn’t sure if it was lilacs or roses or lilies or those pink flowers that grew in bright fluffy balls, climbing their way up the trellis in their garden. He couldn’t remember what those flowers were called. Couldn’t remember what they smelled like. He turned to Henrietta for help; she always remembered the names of things for him. His knees went weak. “I need to sit down,” he said.
“Her purse. Get me her purse.”
The nurse left the room and came back with a giant Ziplock bag that held Henrietta’s things. Her purse. Her gloves. Her car keys. He unzipped the leather purse and fished around until he found a small bottle of perfume. Gardenia, the label read. His heart snared. He hadn’t even been close. He found a pen and wrote the word carefully, in block letters on the handkerchief he kept in his pocket, then sprayed two squirts of the perfume into the fabric and brought it to his nose. When he looked up, the nurse was gone. He hadn’t seen her slip back into the hallway but was grateful she’d left him alone.
Henrietta wasn’t wearing any makeup. She never left the house without putting her face on, and Saul knew she would be embarrassed to be seen this way. He found a bottle of foundation in her purse and patted it under her eyes where dark circles had formed. He had watched her perform the same application every morning for the past thirty-nine years. Even now, if he closed his eyes, he could imagine each step. He could remember the way her fingers traced the lines in her face, remember the angle at which she held a tube of lipstick. He picked up a circular puff next. He knew it was important but couldn’t remember what it was for. He had seen it every morning. His breath raced. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to force the memory to the surface. “I’m so sorry, Henny,” he said. And then it came like a shot of lightning. An image. He remembered the time Emily got into her mother’s makeup and powdered her entire face. To Saul, she looked like the workers he used to see coming out of the limestone quarries. Pallid. Ghostly. My Emily, he thought. He should call her to break the news.
Henrietta was wearing just a white cotton slip as a nightgown. When she was living, Saul saw every breath rise and fall through the thin layer of cotton, but now it clung to her body, painfully still. He thought if he stared at it long enough, he might see her chest rise, catch that brief moment of hope before it slipped gracefully from her lungs. He leaned close, imagining he could still hear the steady rhythm of her heartbeat. He watched the frozen fabric intently until suddenly, in a jolt of hot air, the fabric fell. A breath. Saul reeled back, not letting his eyes leave her chest, willing the slip to rise again, for Henrietta to cough back to life. He watched, eyes wide, helpless, but the fabric did not move.
When Emily arrived, Saul was tucking the blankets under Henrietta’s mattress. He looked up and felt his breath catch in his throat. “H-Henny?” he said.
“Oh, Daddy,” Emily said. Even in adulthood, she hadn’t outgrown this endearment. Her eyes were red, her face wet. She wrapped her arms around Saul’s neck and cried into his shoulder, like she had done as a child.
Of course, Saul thought, stroking his daughter’s hair. My Emily.
After a moment, she sat delicately at the edge of the bed, reached for her mother’s yellowed hand, and pressed her mother’s fingers against her lips. Some of her black mascara had dripped onto Henrietta’s hand. Saul wanted to wipe the blackness off with his hanky, but didn’t want to rub away the scent of Henrietta’s perfume. “You can come and stay with me awhile,” he said. “You’ll need some time.”
Emily nodded. She wiped the wetness from her eyes and sighed. “I can’t believe she’s gone.” Her voice tightened. She covered her face with her hands.
Saul shifted in his chair. He wanted to reach out and rest a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. He wanted to pull her on his lap and tell her it would be fine, like he had done when she was a little girl.
“I’ll call someone to bring your bed out of storage,” he said. “They can set it up in your old room.”
Emily shook her head, her face still covered. Her voice came out muffled from between her palms. “I just can’t believe she’s gone.”
“We can hang the pink canopy again. Keep you safe from the nightmares.” Emily looked up at him. “What?”
“Your magical canopy,” Saul said. “The one we hung to keep the monsters out.”
“Daddy, what are you talking about?” Emily said. “I never had a canopy.”
“Of course you did,” he said. “Your friend Bonnie Campbell from next door was so jealous.” He tried to smile. “You remember, don’t you?”
Emily’s mouth hung open. She shook her head. “Daddy, who’s Bonnie Campbell?” Her face had lost its colour.
Sweat trickled down Saul’s neck. His heart pounded. He pulled the handkerchief from his pocket and wiped it across his forehead. The sudden smell of Henrietta blinded him. He staggered.
“What?” he said. “What did you say?”
His mind raced. He saw everything, felt it all at once, in one messy puddle of gardenia and power drills and neon fish and flashing sirens. The limestone crushed to powder. The sheets fluttered.
His body slid down the plastic seat. He heard Emily crying from the other side of a canyon. He knew it was her, but he couldn’t find her. Couldn’t reach out a hand to comfort her as she shouted, frantic, for a nurse.
In the days following the funeral, Saul was grateful to Emily for helping him pack up the house. “It’s okay, Daddy,” she said, but she didn’t look him in the eyes. She reached for a vase on the kitchen counter. “Keep, sell, or donate?” she said.
Saul stared at the vase in her hand. It was porcelain with blue flowers. It looked cheap. “I don’t know,” he said.
Emily set the vase in a box. “Donate then,” she said. She picked up a wooden cutting board. “Keep, sell, or donate?” Her voice shook.
Saul picked up a pile of yellowed newspapers and dumped them into a trash bin. He heard Emily exhale. She dropped the cutting board into a box, then fished out the newspapers. “These are for wrapping glasses,” she said. “Can you focus, Daddy? Please?”
For the next few minutes, Emily worked in silence, dropping things into random boxes. It hurt Saul to see her so angry.
“I just got confused,” he said.
Emily looked up. “What did you do?” she asked. “What are you talking about?”
“Bonnie Campbell,” he said. “She was my sister’s friend. I just got confused.”
Emily cleared her throat. “You told me that already,” she said. She turned her back and started rooting through the cupboards. “What about these,” she said. “Keep, sell, or donate?”
He couldn’t see what she was holding. It didn’t matter. “Just leave it,” he said. “I’ll finish this later.”
“You’re coming home with me,” Emily said. “We discussed this. Remember?”
“I’m not a child,” he snapped.
Emily rested the fingers of one hand on her forehead. She breathed in deeply through her nose.
“I’ll finish this,” he said.
Emily nodded. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll just be in the other room.”
When she was gone, Saul eased himself onto the floor next to the boxes. He sifted through the few sheets of paper and photographs Emily decided he should keep. One crystal bell. A blanket. A sterling silver spoon. He picked the items up one by one and held them in his hands. He felt the curve of the bell with his fingers, the weight of the silver in his palm, but these items held
no meaning. He couldn’t remember them. And yet he didn’t want to return them to the box. Beside him sat a green notebook and he flipped through its pages. He recognized his handwriting. Baby Blanket for Emily, one note said.
He picked up the half-knitted blanket and ran his fingers over the stitches. That’s right, he thought. I remember. He wanted to place the blanket in the box marked Keep, as if that meant he could hold onto it forever, but he was too afraid to let it leave his hands. He closed his eyes and could hear the click of Henrietta’s needles. When he brought the blanket to his nose, he could almost smell the gardenia.
Amy Holwerda’s work has been noted in The Best American Essays (2013) and has been published in Hobart, The Collagist, Quick Fiction, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, and Sycamore Review, among others. She currently lives in Berlin, Germany with her husband and their newborn daughter.
"Gardenia" appeared in 37.4 Claiming Space.