Sam Kean
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Pills and Peaches

There are too many pictures for such a small coffee table, and Harold knocks one over as he reaches for the egg-timer. It had gone off suddenly, without provocation, but neither he nor Millie flinches. Millie, her withered frame wrapped in a blanket, murmurs and continues to watch television. Harold, also resigned to the noise, resets the timer and replaces it. He was sitting next to her on a wooden chair imported from the kitchen—there is no room for another full chair like Millie’s—but now he rises, picking out a drinking glass from the cluttered table.

Millie rocks a bit from side to side in the dim, flickering light of the television while Harold digs around in the small kitchen just off to the side. There is no dining room anymore. He removes from the cupboard bottle after bottle of prescription pills, opens them all and begins to count them out onto a plate. They have organized their life around pills, their days broken up into hours like individual capsules. Harold’s hands sort quickly and familiarly, but with so many it still takes a bit of time.

As if he cannot take another moment of this, Harold suddenly brightens. He fills the water glass, and with a sudden inspiration drapes a towel onto his arm and pushes into the living room with a hop, striding toward Millie.

“We have a wonderful selection today, madam, a plenteous feast—”

Without looking up from the TV says, Millie shushes him. “Harold, I don’t want to miss anything, shhhh.”

Harold stands at attention like a farcical waiter until a commercial comes on. He lowers the plate to Millie. “Only the finest, madam: three plums, two pineapples, four cherries, a custard, six bananas, kiwi-strawberry limes.”

“Tuesday is four pineapples, two plums.” She pokes the pills and looks up with disgust. “And no custard.”

“No, love, it’s Thursday you get no custard. Today being Wednesday it is, of course, three plums, two pineapples, four cherries, a custard, six bananas and the kiwi-strawberry-limes. Oh yes, and the giant peach for my peach.” He picks out an enormous peach pill the size of his thumb and holds it for her.

“Hrmph.”

Though grousing, she finishes them all, struggling near the end. Harold coaxes her and refills her water glass. She accepts his help and though her eyes are watering from all the pills, she settles back to watch television again. He returns to the kitchen and dismantles his act with a sigh as he begins to put away bottles.

“Harold? Harold! … Harold, goddamn it!”

He is there in an instant. “Yes?”

“You have to fix the window, I’ll miss my show otherwise. I told you already to fix the window, the one that’s frosted over.”

Harold glances over the window. Like the coffee table, the walls around it are crammed with too many pictures. There was simply not enough room. Harold tells Millie he thought he already fixed it; she turns around to say that No, there is still a draft that she can feel, and they banter for a moment. Harold removes from a broom closet a feather duster, blowing on it to demonstrate how easily his breath moves the feathers. Back at the window, he tests for a draft by holding the duster in front of various parts and satirically scrutinizing it like a biologist with a microscope, watching for any signs of movement. He backs away, testing for a draft at other points, and blows on the feather duster again as if to make sure it still responds.

Eventually he backs his way into Millie’s chair, and he teases her with the duster, placing it on top of her hair like a wig. She pushes him away, though not without laughing a little. He replaces the duster, gets a coat from the closet and opens the outside door. A few newspapers on Millie’s table rustle from the wind.

Millie, transfixed on the television again, bellows without turning around: “Now look, Harold, this is what I mean—fix that window. I swear I’ll kill you if I miss any more of my shows.”

Harold steps out into the afternoon, closes the door, and the living room turns dim.

Harold enters from outside with a long, thin bundle wrapped in a blanket. His shoes are covered with snow, which he does not bother to wipe off before tracking it through to the kitchen. He sets the package on a table behind Millie, along with his coat, and gets his wooden chair from the kitchen to sit next to her. Just as he is about to say something, the egg-timer rings on the coffee table. He reaches up, turns it off again, and again resets it, before grabbing the glass and returning to the pills. He has fewer pills to get this time, and upon returning waits for a commercial before he speaks.

Millie says, “Squash and green beans? I hate green beans.”

“Yes, I know. But the yellow one is buttered mashed potatoes, your favorite.”

“Hmph. Not my favorite,” she says, her mouth full as if they were real mashed potatoes. She tries to swallow two at once and chokes a bit. Harold is ready with a glass of water.

“That a girl. That’s my girl.”

“I’m fine. Cough, cough. I would have been fine.”

“I know you would have been,” Harold says, and smiles.

“And if you don’t stop that waiter bit, I’ll kill you, I swear. It’s patronizing. And did you fix the window yet? My show’s on later and I don’t want to miss it again.”

“Didn’t you sleep through it last time?”

“I swear: if you don’t get that window fixed! It’s too cold for the television otherwise. It doesn’t work in the cold, the antenna doesn’t.”

“All right, I will,” he says and rises. To himself he mutters, “I did.”

Harold looks over the window as Millie rebundles herself in her blanket. After a perfunctory glance at the frame, Harold goes to the long package, which he unwraps to reveal a rifle, worn but usable. He pulls out a list of instruction from his coat pocket and consults it as he silently undoes the bolt and checks the chamber. Millie doesn’t notice anything. He sets it down and a new show comes on the television.

Harold, suddenly aggravated, puts on his coat, heads to the door, and stands again with it open. Papers rustle and Millie doesn’t move.

“I have some errands to run. To the bank. I’ve got an hour before . . .”

“Fine, Harold. Shut the door, please!”

Harold bows and then slams it behind her. Blackness falls.

Harold enters again with a folder of papers that stick out over the edges. He puts it near the rifle and pulls from a pocket a small, greasy box that sounds as heavy as lead as he lays it down.

Removing his jacket, he smiles impishly. Sneaking up behind Millie, he slides himself onto the arm of Millie’s chair, leaning against her. She protests a bit and shoves him, but he teases her and shoves back.

“Just for this one show. I’ll move then, I promise.”

Millie harrumphs, but lets him remain. As soon as they are settled, the egg-timer goes off. Harold closes his eyes and sits motionless for a moment. After stopping it, he lets it fall to the table and heads to the kitchen.

“I’d almost forgotten, just once.”

Harold digs in the cupboard for the bottle of peach pills. He also removes a different colored bottle from the cupboard and pops one pill himself. Millie, for once, looks over her shoulder at the kitchen door.

“Harold? Harold!”

Harold, who is still swallowing, croaks: “Yes?”

“Is that my peach you’re digging up? I’m not taking it.”

Harold, relieved that she hasn’t caught on, resumes his hamming and returns to the living room: “Oh, but this peach pill is the important one. The rest of those just keep you living, but this one, this one is one that gives you pep and zest. Why you’d just sit around all day if it weren’t for these.”

She scowls. He puts the pill on her tongue like Communion, but she defiantly doesn’t swallow, holding it in her teeth before spitting it into her hand. Harold shrugs and settles onto the arm of the chair beside her, with the same gentle tussle as before. Again, she lets Harold stay, despite her annoyance. They watch for a few moments.

“Millie, I do believe this is the year we finally get our honeymoon.”

Millie, half paying attention: “I thought we’d cured you of that twenty years ago. But every winter . . .”

“No, I really mean it this time. I’ve been at the bank, figuring a bit.”

“Ha! You’ve been working with some figures? Ha, ha, ha. So are we paupers or millionaires? I guarantee you got the numbers wrong—it’s just a matter of whether or not you got them wrong in our favor.”

“Hardy har har. One of your old colleagues helped me. Nancy. And we worked it all out. Provided that we thrift a bit and drive there, of course, we can’t afford to fly, Nancy agreed with me on that . . .”

Millie shushes him once again, but gently this time, putting a finger to his lips. Then she turns to watch television.

Harold sets the egg-timer and protests, “Really, the numbers came up great.”

“Why would Nan sit down with you and not me? If anyone’s going to meet with Nan, it’s me. I am the one who gave her first job. I should be the one to meet with her.”

“Well, Nancy was a little hesitant without you being there. But you know me—I can talk an Eskimo into buying a bag of ice, right? I talked you into marrying me. Once I convinced her, she was a great help. Didn’t tell her everything, of course, but enough. She showed me all the calculations to make, how to jiggle the numbers a bit—I like that phrase, ‘jiggle the numbers.’ She asked about you, too, how you were doing especially. ‘Fresh as always,’ I said. You were good friends with Nance, weren’t you?”

“Please, Harold.”

He watches television for a moment before standing up to walk about. He ends up kneeling beside her. He can’t help but start in again. It’s got ahold of his mind.

“Think about it Mil. No, don’t get hissy. Let’s go on our honeymoon. I’m serious. We’d see where they launch the space shuttles and try out those white sandy beaches with warm water. People our age down there. The whole time we’d be thinking, ‘Just over there, just on the other sides of all this water is England, and Europe after that.’ Damn, wouldn’t that be fine. And do you know the best part would be, the best part?

“Shuffleboard?”

“No, damn it. Don’t laugh at me. To hell with shuffles and shuttles. The best part would be right before we got there. Right at the Georgia border. I heard somewhere that it’s peach season now, and we’d get a real Georgia peach, right off the tree. Fat with juices. We’d eat it in the car knowing that with every bite we were getting closer and closer all the time.”

“Harold?”

He nods eagerly.

“Shh.”

As a consolation, she gives him a quick kiss. Though not placated, he settles onto the arm of the chair beside her, this time without a struggle. She takes the pill she’s been holding and as the television goes to commercial, blackness falls.

Millie and Harold are sitting in the chair, she sleeping while he stares at nothing. The television drones unintelligibly. The egg-timer rings. Harold reaches to stop it out as if stiff and in pain. He picks up the water glass and heads to the kitchen, where he gathers Millie’s pills and has another one for himself. Not satisfied, he takes another, and opens a can of beer to wash it down. Upon returning, he sets down the plate and unplugs the television.

Millie, wakes at this. “Hmm, wha? Harold what’s happening?”

“You have a few to take. Lemons and limes.”

Millie, wrinkles her nose. “What happened to the television?”

“We’ll get to that. But we need to talk first.”

“Harold, if I miss my show—”

“You won’t miss it, I promise.”

Millie slowly begins to down pill after pill, and Harold paces, impatient but waiting for her to finish.

When she does, he begins immediately. “Millie, we are going on our honeymoon. We are, and that’s final.”

Millie looks at the clock. There are three in this room, there being no where else to put them. “Harold, I swear, if you make me miss my show—”

“We’ll set the timer, all right?”

Harold does so roughly.

“Now, as I said, we are going to take our honeymoon this year—to Florida. I had an acquaintance, a man I know, check the car over, and we will leave tonight, immediately following your show. Don’t worry, I’ll pack for the both of us. The way I figure it, we have at least two weeks down there to really live it up. It will cost at least $200 per day, but the way Nancy and I figured it, if we plan correctly, we can fit quite a few things into a fortnight.

“Two weeks? Harold, we’re skimping as it is.”

Harold brushes the objection away with his hand. “That’s part of the reason we’re taking the trip. The pills are—no, let me start over. A few years ago, when you had to retire, I found an investment through an acquaintance of mine. I thought I’d make up the difference quickly and slip the money back into the account. It, well, didn’t quite work out—but all I needed was a little bit more capital. I like that word. Capital. We’d get back quite a tidy sum, it would just take a bit. Investments, you know. You understand that I couldn’t just drop this on you without getting at least the initial investment back.”

“What are you saying? How much did you lose?”

“Not everything. No, no, certainly not all.” Still trying to be regal, he adds, “We still have the house, yes? It’s smaller than we’re used to, but we don’t need much any more, right? And the car is in fine shape. An asset. But, Millie you’re getting distracted. The point is that we have enough for our honeymoon. Our honeymoon! I’ve mapped it out, let me show you.”

He walks briskly to the folder and pulls a single paper from it. “We arrive at the Ohio border, then Kentucky, Tennessee (all wonderful places, I’ve heard) and then we hit Georgia. Georgia, Millie, and right there—”

“Harold, stop it. Just stop it. Stop fantasizing. I swear I’ll kill you if you don’t stop fantasizing. Don’t walk away from me. Get back here and answer me. Tell me, in plain words: how much of our savings went into that investment scheme?”

“Now, see, it wasn’t the investment. You’re getting confused again. It was the pills, mostly. I couldn’t tell you how expensive they were because I knew you’d refuse them and say we couldn’t afford it. The investment was just to make up the difference. And it’s a hell of a thing that it didn’t work out. But, but, love, I still think you’re missing the point. I’ve given up fantasizing. I have. This is real. We do have enough money for a honeymoon. I’ve figured out how to get us out of this scrimping—it’s beneath us, don’t you think?”

“What the hell kind of an answer is that? I want you to answer me, like a man, what did you did to—why do you keep walking back there? Stay in front of me when I’m speaking. What are we going to do after this honeym—”

As an answer, Harold peels the blanket back from the rifle. They watch each other for a moment. Harold, ashamed, looks away first, but he doesn’t try to conceal the gun. Millie turns back to the television, babbling to herself.

“Harold, what … ? Never mind. I don’t want …”

“I can explain this Millie. Just give me a moment, please—”

The egg-timer rings, startling them both, and neither move to stop it. It rings and keeps ringing for too long, and Harold finally runs over and kills the noise.

Trying to return things to normal, Harold covers up the rifle with the blanket. He plugs the television back in. Millie has talked uninterruptedly to herself the whole time. “I-I just want to watch my show. We’ll watch my show and then we’ll talk about this. Like adults—no, no I don’t want to talk about this: there isn’t anything to discuss. You don’t talk about things like this. I just want to watch my show, and then …”

Harold begins to walk away, but she reaches out and stops him. She pleads with her eyes, and pulls him down into the arm of the chair.

“You’ll stay until the end of my show, won’t you Harold? Promise me. Until it’s over, promise me.

Harold sighs and blackness falls: “Yes, Millie. I promise. I’ll stay.”

Millie is asleep in the chair, alone. Night has fallen finally. There are gaps in the wall where pictures have been removed. Harold enters from the stairs in back with a suitcase and small valise. He sets the suitcase by the door and puts the valise in front of Millie.

He paces during his soliloquy, while Millie remains asleep. “Mildred—we’re packed. Everything is set . . . you probably have figure out that I’m not coming back from Florida. Hear me out, I have prepared what I want to say: I have in the past two years abdicated my responsibilities, both as a husband and as a caretaker. I do not deserve and do not ask to come back and be with you. It took me a long time, too long, to accept this. But I have, now, and have accepted the consequences. This is something I must do. I want you to support me in this decision, Mildred, but I am prepared . . . ”

At this point, words run dry. He kneels beside Millie and takes her hand. She is still sleeping.

“Do you remember that show you saw about a month ago, a program about that prison in Florida? It was on a Wednesday night. We were switching medications then, you were probably a little woozy and fell asleep. Well, I remember it. I remember it exactly, and I have not been able to forget. I did research about it, and I found that the TV was right—everything they said was true. You’ll have all your prescription costs taken care of. The housing facilities are as good as any hospital, and as far as I could tell you’ll have access to doctors all the time. And good ones, who are used to taking care of older people. Run-down people. Plus, the weather is far better for you down there. You’ll be well protected, and you’ll be fine down there, absolutely fine.

“I didn’t want to tell you this and get your hopes up, but there’s a new medication coming out, a real improvement, I hear, and the way I read things, people inside—well, people who the government takes care of will be the first to get a shot at it. Too expensive for everyone else.”

Unable to take it, he suddenly gets excited again, and he picks up her hand. “Just think about that! A miracle drug, and the government picking up all the costs! No more scrimping or scrounging. No more worries, not a single one. You’ve just got to do this one thing for me, Mil. Just one thing. A few seconds, and it will be over. I can’t do it myself: it’s not right and it’s not moral, and it won’t help you if I do it alone. I know you’ll forgive me and I forgive you ahead of time. Everything will be so much better after it’s over. And remember, we’ve still got our honeymoon beforehand! Two weeks together, and they’ll be better than anything we’ve had in a long, long time. That’s how we should be: in control of our lives, not . . . not dwindling away like we are now. But you’ve got to help me, Millie. I can’t do it myself.”

He leans to her and kisses her once, then once more, before withdrawing. He puts the valise on the table in front of her and walks to the door, where he pulls on his jacket, picks up the suitcase, and leaves. The door stands ajar and the room is hushed with dark.

Silence hangs for a long moment, and then the egg timer goes off. Millie rouses, but slowly, and the timer continues to ring. The longer it does so, the more intense its ringing grows, jumping in stages. Drowsy, Millie finally manages to get it shut off.

She looks for Harold, wondering why he wasn’t there, and notices the missing pictures on the wall. She settles back into her chair, pretending she didn’t see—but then there’s the valise in front of her. After hesitating, she opens it and pulls out a bottle of her pills as if she’s never seen them before.

“Harold? All my pills are here. . . Where—?”

The wind picks up and the door slams against the wall. Millie tries to shout, but she lacks the voice to do it. For the first time all day, she unwraps herself from her blanket and gets out of her chair to shut the door. But before doing it, she takes a cautious look outside.

Car headlights illuminate her. They flicker on and off against the walls as the car struggles to turn over and start. Millie slams the door shut against the wind and light with both hands, holding it closed and locking it before returning to her chair. Outside, the car sputters, so Millie turns up the volume on the television to drown out the noise. It doesn’t work, and the noises do not blend but clash.

At last, the car catches, and outside Harold revs and revs and revs before falling the noise falls to a seductive purr. Millie sits up in her chair to listen, even shutting off the television. With trepidation, she tiptoes to the window. Barely audibly, she says, “Harold . . .” before withdrawing. She pulls a blanket over her shoulders and tries to sit down again, but soon squirms as if someone is fighting over the chair with her. The car gives one more ferocious rev. Like a horse spurred by a gunshot, she runs to the doorway. She stops, returns to the valise, and returns to the door. It takes a few breaths and a moment of rest before she can open it. The blanket is still around her shoulders, and, suddenly not able to run any more, she takes a slow step outside into the light. “Harold?” She doesn’t bother to shut the door behind her.

Inside the room, papers rustle in the wind and lift off the tables, scattering themselves on the floor. A picture frame standing on a small side table falls face down. After a long moment, headlights swing through the room as the car backs up and turns. Blackness falls and we hear a faded honk, as if they’re excited to finally be leaving.

 

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