The old man is a fixed object attached to the chain link fence dividing his backyard from ours. A stereotype in an aluminum lawn chair, clad in white t-shirt with denim overalls. While everyone else uses a lawn sprinkler, Bud spends the day wielding a cigar in one hand and a garden hose in the other, aiming it at a few choice areas of his yard, leaving the rest to turn yellow and die.
He wheezes and guffaws as I stand over my shaggy mutt, Rocco, who’s pooping and staring at Bud with his shining plaintive doggy eyes.
“Jeezus. Where’d you find that mangey little thing?”
“The animal shelter.” Turning my back toward him, I scoop Rocco’s shit.
Bud churns out one outdated joke after another, his round belly looking like it would pop if someone stuck the bib of those overalls with a pin. How many blondes does it take to change a lightbulb? Did you hear the one about the blonde and the brunette on the airplane?
Running a hand through my platinum hair, I sigh. “Nope. Haven’t heard that one.”
Doris emerges from the backdoor, looking every inch like a Doris. Wide plastic tortoiseshell frames resting on her bulbous nose, pastel colored sweatshirt with a screen print indicating a stop at a visitor’s center on an RV trip.
“Bud, stop your yapping and let that young lady alone.”
“See now? You got me into trouble with the ol’ battle axe.” He points at his wife with his cigar.
Doris shakes her head and hands him a steamy mug of something.
The way they tease with corny jokes and insults reminds me of my grandparents. Never cutting, always quaint. The way that might be extinct one day.
Later, Luke stares out the kitchen window, watching Bud and Doris. “Look at them.” He turns to me, eyes bright, all his teeth showing. “Total relationship goals.”
I glance outside, then back at Luke, trying not to cringe at the phrase “relationship goals.”
“Yeah,” I nod. “They’re cute. Straight out of a sitcom.”
“Someday, when we’re old and gray, we could be like they are.”
He leans in for a kiss and that’s when I catch it: the first silvery shimmer in the auburn hair at his temples. We haven’t even finished unpacking. Homeowners for less than a week and already, a wave of someday is crashing over me, pushing me into the dark.
Out for a walk with Rocco, we encounter Doris in a magenta satin jacket, toting a bowling bag. She’s on a league. “I started when I quit smoking thirty years ago. You can’t get rid of poisonous things unless you fill that time with lively things. I keep trying to get Bud to come to the bowling alley but he’s happy in the backyard.”
We take the dog into our own backyard. Bud’s in his usual spot, in his usual chair, wearing his usual attire. After the mandatory polite exchange, I escape into the house, leaving Luke to soak in the banter and offensive old-timey jokes.
Ignoring their chatter floating in through the open window, I ferret through a box, unearthing the Playstation and a bong. Digging some more, I find the Altoid tin with a couple buds of weed. I stare down into the depths of the box, wondering if these are poisonous things. If they will one day be exchanged for a bowling bag and satin jacket. Or if they are my bowling bag and satin jacket.
The back door squeaks open. Rocco pads in behind Luke. He’s inspired to take up gardening after five minutes yakking with Bud, who’s outside choking through another phlegmy coughing fit. Luke doesn’t seem to notice as he babbles about lettuce and cucumbers. He’s basking in his imagined future. I smile and nod, hoping he can’t see me suffocating.
The day of Bud’s funeral, his arms are crossed over his chest as he lay in a box, wearing a stiff-looking suit, bearing no resemblance to the backyard fixture. When I take trays of lasagna or baskets of muffins to Doris, the tortoiseshell frames are gone, replaced by swollen red rims that appear raw and painful.
Playing in the backyard with Rocco, there’s a silence, a loneliness that feels ominous, like the empty space is a stranger that doesn’t want us here.
Then the coughing.
My initial and irrational thought is that it’s Bud’s ghost, hacking and wheezing from the great beyond.
I go next door to check on Doris, the satin jacket abandoned, draped over the back of the couch. House, reeking of thick tobacco smoke. The pastel tourist shirts saturated with toxic yellow stink.
A stack of cartons on her kitchen table. Then more coughing. A struggling wet rattle as though she’s trying to expel a living thing gripping the inside of her throat.
I make Doris a cup of tea in her orange kitchen decorated with sunflowers. She slouches next to her stockpile of grief, manifesting as cancerous poison. Clearing her throat, she says, “At least he went first. If I’d gone first, Bud never could’ve coped. I spared him that suffering by surviving.”
If you live long enough with another person, maybe coping isn’t possible, so you fill the empty space with deadly things.
Luke and I scarf down plates of spaghetti, and I recount the bullet points: the tobacco stench of the house. Doris coughing up a lung over her cup of tea. The morbid mercy of Bud dying first.
Luke’s face softens. His eyebrows raise as though I’ve just presented him with a puppy. “It’s weirdly romantic, isn’t it? How she’s in a hurry to catch up to him?”
Before he can follow it up with something awful like, “total relationship goals,” or “we could be like they are,” I hear Doris coughing her way closer to her dead husband. I push my chair back and cross the room to the window, temporarily closing out the sound, the future, and inevitability.
Rasmenia Massoud is the author of three short story collections and several stories published in places like The Sunlight Press, XRAY Lit, and Reflex Press. Her work has been nominated for The Best of the Net and her novella Circuits End, published by Running Wild Press, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2019. A second novella, Tied Within, was published by One More Hour Publishing in 2020.