Fiction by Patricia Gosling
In the darkened room, Lillian’s breathing was the only sound. Josef sat on
a chair next to the bed, watching her sleep. She seemed calmer now, withdrawn
into a shadowy place full of dreams. He reached over to smooth the hair from
her forehead and the jerky movement of his elbow knocked a bottle of pills to
the floor. It rolled under the bed and clicked along the floorboards before
coming to rest against the wall. He was supposed to give Lillian her medication
soon, but somehow he couldn’t summon the energy to retrieve the vial. He
leaned his head against his clasped hands and listened to her breathe.
After a long while Josef stood up. His knees were bothering him again,
particularly the left one, and he bent to rub the stiffness away, massaging gently
around the kneecap with cautious fingers. In the living room a small lamp cast
shadows into the corners, but he did not turn on another light. He sat on the
brown tweed sofa that they’d had reupholstered only last year and folded his
hands in his lap as if waiting for a bus. This was the hardest time of day. Early
in the evening the weight of caring for Lillian would roll off him like a river,
leaving him hollow and weak. In the corner, the leaves of the philodendron
sagged under a layer of dust and Josef wondered, as he did every night, if he
shouldn’t get up and clean them off.
There was a light tapping at the door. Josef tilted his head, wondering who
it could be at this time of night. When the tapping continued he hauled himself
off the couch and pressed his eye to the peephole before undoing the locks. It
was Mrs. Wojcik from across the hall. She was going out early in the morning
and wanted to know if there was anything he needed.
“You’re out of eggs,” she said, pursing her mouth, her eyes like black
pebbles in the dim light. “Should I pick some up for you?”
Josef nodded. The scratching of the pencil as she wrote this down
reminded him of mice scrabbling in the walls.
“Anything else? Milk, coffee?”
He rubbed his hands over his eyes. “Yes, milk,” he said finally. “And some
bread if you wouldn’t mind.” He liked the pumpernickel from the German
bakery down the street. He knew she would know which type to buy. They
had been neighbors for more than thirty years.
“How is she tonight?” Mrs. Wojcik asked, peering past Josef into the living
room, as if Lillian were not confined to her bed, as if she had emerged from the
bedroom and was sitting on the couch.
“About the same,” he said.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you. What will you do if her condition . . .
Josef sighed at this wearisome remark. Mrs. Wojcik watched too many
medical programs on television.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m trying not to think that far ahead.”
He closed the door on Mrs. Wojcik’s retreating back and wiped his hand slowly
across his face, wishing he had been able to give her a better answer.
After she’d had the first stroke Lillian made him promise that if she had
another he would not send her to a nursing home where careless hands and
unfamiliar eyes would guide her into death. She wanted to die in her home, in
this apartment, where they had first set up house together.
Josef had never intended for them to live in the apartment forever. It was
only to start out in. When the first child arrived, they would move into a larger
place, maybe even out of the city, farther out into the bland suburbs that
stretched all the way to O’Hare and beyond. In the early days of their marriage
they had driven up Lake Shore Drive and through the fairytale towns strung out
along the water, ogling the houses and their cool green lawns, daring to dream,
their fingers clasped together, resting on the vinyl seat between them.
When Josef and Lillian failed to produce a child they became—surely
not resigned—but settled, accepting. Their future stretched out before them
like the plains of wheat that surrounded the city, forever and forever rippling,
out of reach, unfathomable. They were not particularly religious, but they both
felt their childless state must have been part of some larger plan and they did
not complain, not even in the privacy of their darkened bedroom at night.
They consoled themselves by joining clubs. The Lions Club and the
Rotary Club for Josef, and for Lillian, the Neighborhood Beautification Society
and the Ladies’ Auxiliary. They played bridge one night a week with a couple
who lived on the sixth floor of their building. And every Saturday night they
went to the movies. They had become, each in their own way, thoroughly
Not that Josef wasn’t surrounded by memories of the Old Country. Polish
was still the principal language in many households in the neighborhood. Shop
windows displayed signs in Polish. And he had his own shifting memories of his
childhood home in Warsaw where he had lain in bed at night listening to the
rumble of voices below in the overheated parlor. Voices anxious and stumbling,
like the mice pattering in the attic, urgent and pattering then halting and slow.
The voices would lull him to sleep and his dreams would be overlaid by a vague
anxiety, like shadows in the dark. People would come and go late at night,
always talking, talking, hushed and hurried.
They got out just in time. Somehow Josef’s father had known, arguing
relentlessly with his university colleagues about what was going to happen.
Most of them thought it was preposterous, the world Josef’s father spun out for
them should the Germans invade Poland; they had talked late into the night,
using crisp logic to discuss away a situation that would later be too horrific to
Until it was too late. But Josef’s father had gotten them out. They had
stayed briefly in Paris and then several months with distant relatives in New
York. Josef was eight when they moved to Chicago. His younger sister
Katarina had died from scarlet fever during the long trip, and except for the
shadow of this tragedy, his family was safe and they set about starting a new
life in the strange and raw city that rose out of a flatness that Josef had not
thought possible. In Warsaw his father had been a professor of physics, but
in Chicago the only job he could find was in a meat packing plant, where he
stood in the cold all day stripping the flesh from hanging carcasses while
Hitler’s armies marched across Europe.
They prospered and lived a comfortable life—although nothing like the
elegant, bourgeois existence they had abandoned. The only thing they had
rescued from that time was the old clock that now stood on a table in the living
room. His mother had carried it all the way to America in a hat box. But
everything else was a distant memory: the burgundy velvet sofas and brocade
curtains, the cut crystal glasses and china plates. Gone, too, was his mother’s
habit of playing the piano in the parlor in the evenings. He remembered her long
pale fingers and the way her hair, rich and dark, had been coiled on the top of
her head in a shining roll.
Lillian’s family had not been as lucky and for years she had nightmares
about returning home from the Austrian countryside to find the house empty and
their neighbor in anguish, trying to get the story out in gasps and cries.
She had been lovely when he met her for the first time at the birthday party
of a friend. He was a shy twenty-one and she was nineteen. The way her dark
hair curled at the base of her neck, graceful as a swan, had trapped Josef’s
breath in his lungs. When she cast her dark eyes downward, her lashes fell like
a veil across her cheeks. He had taken her into his arms and spun her around
and around the polished floor, until dizzy, they collapsed together, laughing.
Josef hauled himself up from the sofa and entered the small kitchen. In the
dark he brushed the supper crumbs from the counter and dragged a damp
sponge across the table. Mrs. Wojcik came in the afternoons to help him with
Lillian and bought things for him at the market when he remembered to give her
a list, but he did not feel he could ask her to clean the apartment as well.
Fortunately, he did not make much of a mess on his own. Earlier in the evening
he had made a light meal of black bread and onions and cheese. He did not
have the energy or desire to do much cooking. And what he did cook turned
out rather badly.
Right now, what he missed most about Lillian was not her youthful laughter
or the way she used to fuss over him, but her magical ability with food,
especially her pierogi. Josef’s mother had taught Lillian how to make them
when they were first married, and in that deft way she had with her nimble
hands, Lillian’s pierogi surpassed even his mother’s in the delicacy of their
flavor. Josef would stand in the kitchen doorway, watching Lillian preparing
and rolling the dough, her cheek dusted with flour, her body rocking smoothly
back and forth as she rhythmically worked and flattened the dough. Now
Lillian had only enough strength in her right hand to squeeze his fingers in a
feeble embrace. But often he yearned for Lillian’s cooking, and felt ashamed.
Leaving the dishes in the drainer, he pulled open the drawer where the
bills were kept. Shuffling through the stack of paper, he slid out his bank
statement and stared at the dwindling figure, hoping he had enough to tide him
over until his next Social Security check arrived. There was an old snapshot of
Lillian in the drawer, taken about ten years ago. He lifted it out and held it up
to his face. She was still full of life then, with a spark in her eye, love in her
touch, even after all that time together. Even when they were both old, she had
still been able to make him feel as he had when they first met.
Lately she had been begging him to help her die. She could not talk
because of the stroke, but she still had enough strength in her hand to scrawl
pencilled notes, barely legible, Josef, please let me die. The use of the word
‘please’ in every note made Josef’s heart seize up. Even in her present state,
Lillian had not lost her manners. She would continue to say please until the end.
But he could not do it, could not contemplate doing what she asked. How
could he? After fifty years together. How could he give her the pills, hold the
water glass to her lips, watch her swallow and sink slowly into death?
The clock on the table struck its muffled notes, counting the hour. To
deaden the noise, Josef had packed the mechanism with cotton wool and the
sounding of the hour spread out into the room as if coming from a long way off
and under water. Ten o’clock. He should have given Lillian her medication
over an hour ago. Josef returned to the living room and held his breath, listening
for a moment to the mice scrabbling in the walls. He folded up the newspaper
and placed it on the table in the hall. He straightened the chairs in the dining
room and then padded down the hall to the bedroom. The door was ajar and
he looked at Lillian’s sleeping form, her hands rigid at her sides. He went back
to the kitchen to retrieve a broom and used it to knock the vial of medication
out from under the bed. Bending down he picked up the bottle and studied the
label. He rolled the bottle in his hand and the pills rattling inside reminded him
of a jar of marbles he once had as a child. There were several other bottles on
the nightstand. Josef stared at them for a long time. His body swayed and
trembled as if he were ill with fever. Then he opened all of them and laid their
caps gently on the table top. He filled a glass of water from the pitcher by the
bed and gazed sorrowfully at his wife’s face. She seemed to be sleeping
peacefully. He did not want to wake her, did not want to have to look into her
eyes. Josef leaned down and planted a kiss on her forehead, a dry brief kiss,
wholly inadequate, but it was all he had left to give her.
He backed out of the room and closed the door on the silence. He would
just tap on Mrs. Wojcik’s door so she would know he was going. Then he
would slip out of the apartment building and into the night.
It was cold and sharp and clear; only a few stars shone through the city’s
exuberant lighting. The street was nearly empty and Josef plodded onward,
head down, hands in the pockets of his coat. He felt revived by the cold and
gulped the metallic and bitter air into his lungs and held it there until his eyes
swam with stars. He had always liked the city, the clamor and crush of people
in the streets. The tall buildings, the bustle of commerce. Once, as a child, his
father had taken him to a science museum that was filled with mechanical exhibits.
It was the only time Josef heard his father talk about the work he’d left behind.
When they had first arrived in Chicago, his father had tried to find a position at
the University, but they were already overwhelmed by foreign immigrants and he
was turned away. He had worked at the meat packing plant for two years and
then started a business selling refrigeration systems. He never talked about
physics the way he had in Warsaw, where the parlor was always filled with his
colleagues, happily arguing.
But at the museum, his father had come alive. He led Josef around the
exhibits, pointing and talking in his soft voice, the guttural consonants of his
native Polish rustling like doves in the cavernous rooms. They stopped to look
at an exhibit demonstrating the principle of gravity: a high platform inside a
vacuum chamber where two objects were suspended: a wooden ball and a
tightly crumpled piece of paper. Josef’s father asked him which of the two
objects would reach the ground first and Josef, a bright boy of ten, proudly
announced that the ball would hit the ground first because it was clearly heavier.
His father reached up and pulled a lever and the two objects were released
from the platform. They hit the floor at exactly the same moment and Josef’s
father laughed out loud, a deep ringing laughter that Josef hadn’t heard for a
long time. “The speed at which an object moves toward the earth is
independent of its weight,” his father said. “Although the ball has greater mass,
it has more inertia. Those two things cancel each other out.”
They moved on to other exhibits, but Josef was no longer interested. He
was embarrassed for not knowing the right answer, for not guessing
instinctively the influence of gravity on objects, both heavy and light, as if this
knowledge should have resided inside of him, in the ebb and flow of his blood,
passed on silently from father to son.
In the darkness of the bedroom, Lillian opened her eyes. There was a
small night light burning, just enough to see by. The apartment was quiet, the
only sound her own breathing. She waited for the blood to move in her useless
limbs and turned her head to look at the clock on the nightstand. The medicine
bottles stood in neat rows, their caps removed. Lillian looked at them for
several minutes before she realized what it meant. Josef had given in to her
pleas. She listened for the sound of him moving about the apartment, but she
knew instinctively that he had gone out, was probably even now swimming in
his beloved pool with the dolphins. There was nothing about her husband she
did not know; in nearly fifty years together, their very breathing had become
synchronized. She knew every line on his face, the sound of his footfall, the
smell of his skin. Their long, quiet life together, like vines intertwining, had given
them a special feeling for each other’s needs. They had never been apart. All
her family was gone, killed in the war. All she’d had was Josef. Lillian closed
her eyes and tested the strength in her right hand, hoping it would be enough.
She’d had enough of dying, enough of this half life with the humiliation of the
bedpan and catheter, the wasting away of her once vigorous body. She closed
her eyes and tried to conjure up the smell of alpine air, the sight of dizzying
mountains capped with snow, the flush of wildflowers in the meadows. She
missed the mountains, hoped that where she was going there’d be mountains
It began to snow and the large wet flakes spun down through the air.
They brushed Josef’s upturned face like the wings of moths and he lifted his
hands to capture them on his fingers. The swimming pool was only three
blocks away, but he paced himself, trying to revive his tired mind with great big
lungfuls of icy air.
There it was: the old men’s club, now an office building. But long ago in
the twenties and thirties it had been an exclusive club for men, with a swimming
pool and steam baths in the basement and a restaurant and private dining
rooms above. The people who worked in the offices were allowed to use the
pool, but hardly anyone did—there were more modern places across town—
and at night it was closed. But Josef knew the guard and he let him slip in
through a side door late at night. He looked at his watch. It was exactly ten-
thirty. Josef treaded lightly down the alley to the side door. He pulled it open
and let it fall closed behind him with a thud. The guard was somewhere else in
the building. They had agreed to pretend that this small infraction of the rules,
this miniscule crime, was not really happening. It was better that way, for both
Groping his way down the stairs to the basement, Josef reached the
bottom and pushed open the door. The pool glowed turquoise in the dark, its
eerie subterranean light rippling on the walls, which were painted to resemble
an ancient Minoan temple. The faded blue dolphins were oddly lifelike; they
seemed to undulate and glide as they swam along the perimeter of the room.
Josef turned his back to the smoked glass mirrors before slipping off his
clothes. It pained him to witness the slow disintegration of his body, his thin
white legs and withered buttocks. Naked, he stepped toward the pool. He
lowered himself onto the edge and dipped his feet in the warm water until it
swirled to his knees, then pushed off with his feet and glided out into the center.
The water buoyed him up, gently caressing. He felt light, lighter than he would
ever feel on solid ground, and he closed his eyes and dipped his limbs in and
out of the water, like a bird, gliding on air.
For a few minutes he was able to abandon himself to the pleasures of
swimming, to forget his anguish about Lillian, the endless spinning out of days.
His troubles seeped from his mind, and into this void floated a cherished
memory. He was swimming with Katarina in the sulphury waters of their
summer bathing place in Austria. The smell of sulfur floated up and pricked his
nose, and Katarina, who had just that year learned to swim, floated on her
back beside him. Her giggles popped like bubbles in the steamy air, and her
dark curls floated out behind her head like drowned seaweed. Josef and
Katarina held hands in the water and kicked their legs like frogs and then
like dancers, spinning a pirouette in the sulphury steam.
As if he could sense the exact moment when Lillian took her last breath
and sank into darkness, Josef’s body stiffened and he floated on his back like
a cork bobbing on an empty sea. But then he kicked his legs and stretched
out his arms, grasping for Katarina. He glided back and forth in the blue water,
following the dolphins in their eternal rounds.
Patricia Gosling is the co-author of three non-fiction books. Her fiction has
appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, and
Miranda Literary Magazine, among other publications. A Connecticut
native, Gosling has lived in Morocco, France, and the Netherlands. She
currently lives in Malaysia, where she works as a medical writer and editor.
On “The Influence of Gravity”:
When I was a student living in Chicago I used to go to a Polish deli in
my neighborhood to buy dark rye bread and pickles and homemade
pierogi. The black-clad women behind the counter spoke no English and
I loved going there as it had the flavor of foreign travel. In Chicago I
came into contact with many people in immigrant communities—a big
change from my small-town Connecticut upbringing. I used to wonder
what it was like for these people, mostly from Eastern Europe, to be so
far from their country of origin, trying to find their way in a new land.
Then, when I moved to Europe, I was struck by how immediate World
War II still was for so many people. I started to think about those who
had left their countries as refugees and those who had stayed behind
and what it means to live in two worlds: how we fashion our own
realities through language and memory. That was the starting point.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 2, Number 1
Copyright © 2007
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to material
published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors