The News

Helen gave her husband one more hug and kiss, celebrating that, for the first time in five months, Pete had swallowed solid food. A hard time, but they’d made it, like they’d made it through so much over 52 years. She felt guilty leaving the nursing home earlier than usual, but wanted to surprise Pete by turning up in the morning sporting a long overdue haircut, color, and perm.

      This afternoon, on his first outing, she’d driven him up and down Pittsburgh hills, daffodils and forsythia glowing under gray March sky. Pete glowed, too. Her heart lifted to glimpse his old spirit.

       At dinner, he’d savored his nursing home fare. She and the nutrition aide watched him focus on employing every motion and sequence he’d re-learned. Tongue, lips, and jaw coordinated, routing food down the correct side of his throat. No choking. Nothing lodging in the lungs. He grinned like a boy. Swallowed, chewed, swallowed again. “Great meal. My compliments to the chef.” How she’d missed his stale jokes.

       Later, it felt good to lean back in the hairdresser’s chair, hands rubbing her scalp, warm water flowing over her head. She didn’t mind the stink of the permanent or the tugs of curlers being rolled tight.

      At home, she nibbled cheese and crackers, then crawled into bed, falling into deep, dreamless sleep, no longer fighting against being alone. When the phone rang at 4 a.m., she had to make her priest repeat, repeat, and repeat why he was calling.

B.K. Atrostic is a Pittsburgh native based in Maryland. She received an M.F.A. from Pacific University.