The Albrights

James P. Stuart

August 15, 2023

Benny died, either on a Tuesday, or in the earliest hours of Wednesday morning.

By the time Liza awoke, his body had long gone cold. Creeping bands of sunlight slid across the floor, up her feet and legs, past her torso and the curve of her neck, and eventually onto her face. She was drawn away from the fog of sleep with a pleasant warmth that diffused through her eyelids, turning them a soft red, and intensifying the horrible chill of his thigh as she snaked a hand behind her to reach for him.

It was a motion become familiar over thousands of identical mornings—a longing, ancient stretch, connecting flesh to flesh in the dawning light. Since they were newlyweds, Liza and Benny had slept back-to-back like soldiers in a foxhole, comfortable in each other’s company, but on guard against the night. The occasional touch, the rippling transfer of breath through the iron springs of their mattress—these were the signal fires of safety. But where there once was heat and reassurance, now there was only cold tissue holding the impression of her fingers like clay.

Liza shot upright in the bed, bouncing with the springs as she turned to face Benny’s lifeless body. He was faced away from her, his knees pulled up toward his chest and the pillow sandwiched high between the bend of his neck and a splayed arm. It was his preferred sleep position—something halfway between a fetal curl and a picnicker’s summer repose. His eyes were closed gently, unmoving under their lids, and the lines of his face had relaxed entirely, revealing a much younger man. As her heart raced, she could nearly pretend all was well, had it not been for the perfect stillness of the sheet across the side of his ribs. Again, she reached for him.

“Benny!” she screamed, shaking his shoulder, “Benny, wake up!”

Her begging wails filled the empty house. They bounced wildly off the photos lining the staircase and shook the dust off the fragile saucers and teacups in the china hutch at the far end of the dining room. In their shared bathroom, Benny’s robe and toothbrush stood in silent witness to the pain of her voice, transformed overnight, from useful items to artifacts of a life now past tense. By the time her screaming reached its peak, it had bled into the walls and seeped under the doorways, staining the foundations of the house like greywater. Even after her breath left her and she lay hunched over Benny, sobbing into his body, she could still sense soft echoes dividing infinitely into the space below human perception. In silence once again, Liza rolled Benny onto his back and laid her head against his bare chest.

An hour passed. And then another. Tears soaked the coarse gray hair between his nipples. She sought out his left hand and pulled it to her, stroking the palm where an old scar was stretched tight as a bowstring, bisecting the lines of his heart, head, and life.

Something primal broke inside Liza, and once again, sleep took her.

* * *

When she awoke for the second time, it was noon—or close to it. Outside, she could hear the ebb and flow of traffic and the occasional shout of passersby. A pair of birds called to one another from either side of the street. The sun had climbed high in the sky and the once pleasant warmth of the room had become stifling. Liza swung her legs out of the bed and walked to the window to crank the lever and swing open the window to its fullest aperture. The breeze that greeted her was modest, but welcome. She wiped away the crusted salt from her cheeks and stepped into a new world.

“Benny, we’ve overslept,” she said, stretching her arms toward the ceiling and twisting at the waist to loosen her back, “Are you hungry?”

No, dear, not at the moment. I think I will lie in a bit longer.

She turned back towards him. The sheet had slid further down his body, revealing the waistband of his plaid boxer shorts.

“That’s fine, love. Enjoy yourself. I am going to make something to eat and call Maeve. You know she is bringing the girls over this afternoon, and I want to make sure she brings their swimsuits so we can set up the sprinkler in the yard.”

That’s a nice idea, Liz. Tell her I say hello.

“Of course, dear,” she said, “Go back to sleep.”

Liza made her way down the hall to the bathroom, where she brushed her teeth and slipped into her robe. She noticed with a frown that his—hung on the peg adjacent to her own—had grown a hole in one pocket, just wide enough to slip a finger through, which she did. It took only a minute to find the sewing kit in her travel bag, and twice that to stitch the opening shut. She sat perched on the toilet with his robe in her lap and her fingers made the quick and practiced motions, before leaning over to bite away the excess thread and give her work a few testing tugs. Satisfied, Liza returned the robe to its peg and walked downstairs to eat and make her calls.

She left a message for Maeve and returned two calls she’d been putting off—one to her sister in Tampa and another to the Neighborhood Association treasurer who had double-billed Liza and Benny for the month of June. She toasted a piece of bread, covering it with peanut butter and slices of banana. When her daughter was young, Liza had been in the habit of making large breakfasts, complete with eggs, bacon, French toast or pancakes, and pulpy orange juice she squeezed by hand once a week. But when Maeve went to college out of state, Liza and Benny had discovered their appetites to be far smaller than they had assumed. Both had shed weight easily in her absence, slimming down into the bodies they’d enjoyed in their twenties.

As she nibbled at the corners of her toast, she remembered those years—how it felt to have an empty house for the first time in nearly two decades and to be free from all but the most banal of obligations. Benny would sneak home during his lunch breaks, and they would romp in whichever room seemed most intriguing on a given day. They’d felt like teenagers, and not only because of the sudden trimness that thrilled them in the mirror. She recalled one afternoon, thirty years ago, when they’d screwed on the living room couch, and she felt pregnant afterward. A ridiculous thought, especially at her age, but something was alive inside her. Benny held her in his arms and kissed the soft hairs at the base of her neck, and she knew it was happiness.

By the time she returned upstairs again, it was well into the afternoon. Benny’s jaw had dropped open slightly, his bottom incisors peeking out over his lip. Liza placed a hand under his chin and gently closed his mouth, careful not to pinch his purple tongue between his teeth. She made her way to the bathroom to wash her face and get ready for the day.

“Benny, the girls will be here in an hour or so. What do you want to wear?”

I don’t care, dear. Something comfortable.

“What about the green shirt with the birds on it?”

That would be fine.

Liza smiled and walked to the closet to sort through his hangers until she found the shirt. It was one of many short-sleeved floral and tropical patterns he owned, all made from synthetic fibers that dried quickly and laid flat against his body. Most were lined with coconut shell buttons and had wide collars that splayed open across his broad chest. Benny called these his weekend shirts, but only out of habit. They had become his daily preference after he’d closed his practice and retired to be with her full-time.

Liza pulled a pair of khaki shorts and a woven belt out of his side of the dresser and moved to the bed. She struggled against his bulk to sit Benny upright. She leaned his weight against her and slipped one arm into the shirt before stretching the fabric to its limit to hook in the other. His limbs had begun to grow stiff, and his back was bruised a royal violet from the blood pooled there.

“The girls are excited to play in the yard. Maeve said Beth has been down in the dumps since school let out. She misses her friends.”

They don’t have play dates?

“That’s what I said. Apparently, the other families summer up north. That’s the word she used, ‘summer.’ Can you believe that? We’ve never summered a day in our lives.”

At this, Benny remained silent. Liza eased him back down onto the pillow and then pulled the covers down to the foot of the bed to begin working the shorts up his legs.

“Anyhow, Emily doesn’t care one way or another. Such an independent girl. I don’t think I’ve seen her with her nose out of a book since she learned how to read.”

They continued on like this while Liza looped the belt around his waist and cinched it tight. Other than his bare feet, Benny looked much the same as he did most days. The picture of retired, middle-class ease. She licked her fingers and smoothed an errant lock of hair out of his face and neatly into place.

“I’m going to cut up that watermelon in the fridge and put out some snacks for the girls. Do you need anything, dear?”

No, I’m fine. Give them all my love.

“You aren’t going to join us?”

No, love, I’m afraid I don’t feel very well.

“Oh,” she said, disappointed, “well, okay. It’s probably a summer cold. You know how nasty those can get.”

I’m sure it’s nothing. I’ll be right as rain in no time.

Liza smiled and began dressing herself, chatting happily as she picked out a pink and cream dress she’d worn to a family reunion the year before. Downstairs, the doorbell rang, and she could hear the giggling voices of her grandchildren. She smoothed the wrinkles of her dress across her belly and legs and left the room.

* * *

The girls’ screams echoed happily through the neighborhood with each pass through the water. They had made a game of timing the slow arc of the sprinkler, leaping through the crystalline spray precisely at its apex and sprinting as it chased them to the far end of the yard. On the porch, Liza sipped slowly from a glass of lemonade as beads of condensation dripped onto her dress. The heat of high summer hadn’t fully arrived and the breeze chilled the wet spots against her skin.

“Sam has the girls next weekend and wants to take them to Six Flags, so of course I’m the villain for saying no,” Maeve said, “But they have a soccer game that afternoon. It’s been on the calendar for weeks. I don’t know why she does this.”

Liza was lost in thought, smiling as she watched Beth ring water from her hair. It had finally begun to grow long and full—the hair of a young woman, not the thin, frizzy mop of a child.

“Mom? Mom!”

“Sorry, sweetheart,” Liza said, “I was just watching the girls. Beth looks exactly like your grandmother at that age. I didn’t get that strawberry blonde.”

Maeve frowned.

“Are you okay? You seem out of it today.”

“Oh, I’m fine. Maybe I got a touch of what your father has.”

“Maybe, but you don’t look sick.”

Liza shrugged off her concern.

“Do you want me to go up and check on Dad,” Maeve said, “I don’t mind—the girls are germ factories anyway.”

“No!” Liza snapped, and then, catching herself, “No. That’s all right, hon. I want to let Dad rest as long as possible.”

In the yard, Emily squealed as her sister chased her with the hose, and Liza tried to remember what it was like to have more ahead than behind.

* * *

A week passed. And then another. After the third day, she’d gotten in the habit of washing Benny with a cool, wet rag twice daily. She was careful to use a light hand to avoid pulling at the places where his skin was coming loose. In the corner of the room, she lit a large purple candle. His odor embarrassed Benny, and the scent of lilacs reminded him of his mother. When the candle ran out after a week, she replaced it with something resembling honeysuckle, which didn’t remind Benny of anything, but which he enjoyed, nonetheless.

Every morning, after bathing, she dressed Benny and made plans for their day. She stopped buttoning his shirts when his stomach bloated, and the kitschy little bits of coconut would no longer reach their holes. The belt was at its last notch by the end of the first week. But this, too, passed. Eventually the expanse of his body retreated to its usual size, then collapsed further. She resumed buttoning his shirts to hide the craters forming between the ridges of his ribcage.

Some days, she laid in bed next to him and they talked about the old days. His memory had always been better than hers, but he enjoyed listening to her piece together the past in her own way. She told him about the morning of their wedding, when she’d tortured herself for an hour trying to get her hair to fall the way he liked it.

I always like the way it falls, he said.

“That’s not true,” she said, “Remember when I cut it into a bob, and you said it made me look like a Soviet?”

Russians are sexy.

At this, they laughed until tears formed in the corner of Liza’s eyes. She struggled to catch her breath, but eventually they fell into another silence.

“You know, I don’t think we ever stopped laughing—you and I.”

It was a fun life. I enjoyed every minute.

“Every minute?”

Oh, sure. There were times it wasn’t easy, but they didn’t last.

“And you never wanted more?”

More what? More money? More women?

“More time.”

We all want more time.

Liza stopped leaving the house, even for groceries. She moved Benny’s car into the garage and shut the door behind it. Maeve dropped off a box of pears she’d been given at work; Emily and Beth had covered the cardboard in crayon drawings of stick figures and beaming suns. She didn’t ask, but Liza told her Benny was out. The pears rotted in their box.

When the second candle burned out, she didn’t replace it. The stench had become familiar—as much a part of him as the freckles on his shoulders and the way he pronounced, “espresso,” with a phantom “x.” The wet rag no longer came away clean, and bits of Benny began to accumulate in the bottom of the bucket when she rang it out. She used tweezers to pull away the squirming, white creatures that climbed out of his skin, but they multiplied faster than she could drop them into the trashcan and her fingers ached from the effort.

I think it’s time, dear, he said.

It was another Tuesday, and she knew he was right.

Are you ready?

“No, Benny. I’m not ready,” she said, “But I suppose that’s the way it goes, isn’t it?”
It seems that way.

At the back of the closet, Liza found her favorite of his suits. It was a deep blue, the color of the ocean at night, and he hadn’t worn it since Maeve’s wedding. She hung it on the back of the bathroom door while she showered, letting the hot steam seep into the fabric as gravity pulled it taught against the wrinkles of the years. As she toweled off, she admired the way the blue thread along the seams shimmered in the bathroom light. The arms of the jacket hung limp on the hanger, and she could almost feel them around her as they spun in the moonlight, singing along to Elton John, and Frank Sinatra, and musicians whose names they would never learn. She tucked herself into her robe and retrieved a pair of shears from the utility closet. She split the suit in three places, cutting the backs of each leg up to the crotch and cleaving the jacket in half. She knew his limbs wouldn’t tolerate any more hassle.

Liza picked a white oxford shirt from the closet and gave it the same treatment, before draping each section over his body and tucking the sides underneath. The mattress was impossibly stained a deep, rusty red. There was no guilt for what was to come. Maeve had always been a practical girl; no doubt, she would thank them for going together—freeing her from the hassle of a widowed mother and allowing her to grieve all at once. Two-for-one, everything must go.

She buttoned the suit jacket and brushed the lint from each shoulder. With the same shears, she gathered his hair between her fingers and snipped away a quarter inch all the way around. He had been due for a trim. She brushed the clippings from the pillow and into her palm. It didn’t amount to much. She brought her hand to her mouth and swallowed the small pile, wondering at the fact that this would be the last thing to ever pass her lips.

She hadn’t bothered turning on the lights, and the house was quickly becoming dark. Her eyes strained in the twilight to see the delicate pattern of lace on the sleeves of the dress she picked out for herself. She pulled it up her legs and over her breasts and zipped it along the side. It fit well; Benny would have liked it.

Liza slipped into the bed next to her husband. Outside, a car passed, and the moon had risen full and bright. She turned onto her side to face the wall. Behind her, she reached for his hand where she knew she would find it.

About James P. Stuart

James P. Stuart is an American fiction writer, based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in The Mountain (Middle Creek Publishing), Creative Colloquy, The Almagre Review, and Mud Flat Shorts: Mostly Fiction, among others. Stuart is also the founder of literary magazine Twenty Bellows. He lives in Denver with his wife, Maggie, and their pets, Phoebe and Fred.

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