Bill Webb had been dead less than a month when his wife Nan came down for breakfast one bright morning and found him sitting at the kitchen table waiting for her. The funeral was long over, the cards sent, the mourners gone, and the flowers donated to charity. This was the real Bill, in his finest sweater and slacks, not the wasted stranger in a hospital or the waxed exhibit at the funeral parlor. This was courtly and contented Bill, sitting with a straight back, smiling at her.
She had been wandering the silence of their Victorian home, packing his things, making decisions, incredulous that she could still breathe without him, eat, sleep, go on without him, when one sunny morning in September, there he was, waiting for her to join him, waiting for her to put on the kettle and open the paper so they could read together.
"Why, Bill," she said. "I'm so glad you're back. Been a busy three weeks, I can tell you. The kids were great. They helped a lot, but I've missed you."
He smiled again and held out the paper.
Forever young, forever fair, is what they say of an untimely death, but Bill's was not untimely; his was a life played to its last full light. Together, they had been brilliant, she with her sense of style, he with his quiet poise. They were a unity that neighbors invited to their parties, a smiling hydra that walked lockstep around the manicured blocks of a summer evening, nodding pleasantries. They floated through a haze of comfort and pleasure, and, as age crept in, they enjoyed the graceful opposite of youth, connected in the settling of affairs, the satisfaction of lives lived whole. She assumed they would live forever in that golden jelly, welcoming guests to their gracious home, welcoming the years, sharing the pains and joys of life. She would laugh at his jokes, wonder at his wit, and he would praise her garden, her knitting, her cuisine. It would always be that way.
She filled the kettle and pulled out his favorite tea. So it began, that morning in lazy autumn, the next stage of their lives together.
Sometimes, she felt him reading over her shoulder as she lounged on the big sofa in the living room. Or she might be watching for birds at one of the many picture windows in the house and she would know he wanted a turn, so she'd place the binoculars on the table, just leave them there so he could pick them up and look when he wanted to.
During the second week that Bill was back, the Library Guild dropped off a glossy square box the size of a serving tray.
"Mr. Webb asked for this some time ago," said the slim librarian from the bookmobile. "So sorry for your loss. We thought you still might want this, nevertheless . . ." The young woman's voice trailed away uncertainly and she wheeled and retreated to her library van.
"Why, how thoughtful of you, Bill," said Nan as she peeked inside the box. "It's a jigsaw of that painting we saw once in London, the picture of pictures."
With the jaunty moves of a boy, he bounced over to look. They retrieved the card table from the basement, set up in the drawing room and dumped the chunks of color on the soft felt of the surface. First, they had to develop a plan. There were twenty-five thousand pieces in this complicated puzzle of a painting of a room full of paintings. They began by picking out the border pieces.
Nan vaguely remembered the original canvas. She and Bill had seen it many years ago, while on vacation in England. According to the puzzle box, the painting depicted the Raphael Room in the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy and was completed by Johann Zoffany in 1778. It was part of the Windsor Royal Collection and must have been on loan at the time, displayed in one of the public galleries. Ever the careful academic, Bill had pointed out that the painting contained objects not normally found in the Raphael Room at the Uffizi. For example, there was a sculpture of a hybrid creature with the body and head of a lion, a snake for a tail, and a goat's head emerging from its back. She remembered Bill had said that the sculpture was called "The Chimaera," usually located in another part of the Uffizi. For aesthetic reasons, Bill explained, the artist had decided to move the Chimaera into the Raphael Room. Standing in the soft light of an English gallery on that summer's day, she could see Zoffany hoisting the great stonework upon his shoulders, moving through the Uffizi's marble halls.
"Artistic license, my dear, artistic license," he had said when she asked him why.
That was the sort of thing that Bill was doing these days, moving objects around. He would move her knitting from one room to another. She might set down her wool and needles in the drawing room at night and the next day search everywhere, only to find them by her usual place. Uncanny, the way he knew what she might like to find next. He also straightened the pictures on the walls, which was good of him. He usually did that at night while she was sleeping.
Their second line of attack with the jigsaw puzzle was to sort the rest of the pieces by color. This they did, tackling the task with the purpose of miners. Little mounds of jagged red and gold and teal grew like ore around the edges of their card table. Next, they launched their age-old competition: they would outdo each other in the number of pieces they placed in the puzzle. Bill would show Nan the ones he wanted to fit and she would do the job for him, keeping careful track on a bridge score sheet of how many pieces each had accomplished by day's end.
Not only could Nan remember seeing the original painting in the gallery in England but she could also remember the Raphael Room itself in the Uffizi, a rich red-velveted chamber choked with treasures. But she could not recall the myth of the Chimaera.
"Bill, I remember you told me about the Chimaera, but I forget the story. I know the three heads are important, but I can't remember why."
Bill guided her into the study where his art books still stood on the bookshelves, not yet packed. Using his little step stool, they found one on Zoffany and pulled it down. They sat together on the loveseat and looked up the painting in the index, then read the ancient stories of the "Chimaera of Arezzo." They sat there a long time.
"So, Bill," she said, when they finally closed the heavy volume as the afternoon light dimmed in the large picture window, "I think. . . I guess. . . the Chimaera is a symbol, is it, a symbol of everything important?"
Bill nodded, happy that she understood.
There's nothing missing, is there? It has everybody's greatest fear, snakes; it has everyone's desires, like fertility and vitality; and it's also about conquering evil spirits. Amazing. I loved those vacations with you. I always felt grander when we came home."
Bill patted her arm and went back to the jigsaw puzzle.
The memory of grandeur now inspired her. She put aside her black blouses and skirts and switched to the outfits Bill liked. Soft sweater sets and rich scarves came out of the boxes in storage. She began wearing jewelry again, but understated - Bill didn't like ostentation - and dabbed on rouge before they set out, even if it was just a walk or a drive to the pharmacy. He let her know he appreciated these little touches on her part. He held the door like a gallant, bowing with a flourish. She sailed out as in all the years before, a duchess linked with her duke arm in arm, strolling through thought and time.
After Bill had been home for about five weeks, Mr. Perry, their bank manager called.
"Mrs. Webb, we're preparing to flow the trust funds to you once the Will has been through probate. I'm calling to see which account you wish to be used."
She was confused. Bill had never spoken to her about a trust fund.
"Account? Trust funds?"
She had to make a special trip into the city to see Mr. Perry at the bank and learn about term deposits and dividends and common shares. She drove back home in a daze. It was unbelievable that Bill could have arranged all these things and never told her. What arrogance. When she walked in the door, she told him straight out what she thought: he should have trusted her; she was not a child. He stared intently at her until her voice faltered and she stopped talking for a moment. When she continued, she agreed that she would not have been able to handle it; she was flighty and undisciplined; he had been right to place it all in the hands of the bank. But damn, why hadn't he taught her? When he adopted that lofty look of his, gazing sternly down his nose, she stomped out of the room and slammed the door. Thankfully, he stayed put all day and did not reappear upstairs or later in the car. She went for groceries and when she came home to him, he was still in a frosty state. He shrugged his shoulders when he saw her and swiveled around in his chair, squaring a rigid back to her. In the evening when they sat at supper together, he did not look at her. It was only much later, while reading in the living room, that she decided to draw him out.
"I was wrong, Bill. As usual, you were right."
He smiled knowingly and went back to his book.
When he was alive, Bill's approach to problem solving was usually artistic rather than scientific, and more or less effective. One spring early in their marriage, a snake settled into the garden and she and the kids discussed at length what to do, researching snake elimination and snake poison and snake management. Bill, on the other hand, disappeared downstairs and emerged a while later with a sign that said, "Beware of Snake." That was his solution. No histrionic thrashing about with a hoe, no calling of the authorities, no extensive consultations. He just set out a tastefully lettered sign that he created in his basement workshop using calligraphy and special paints. The sign stood in the garden for years and kept away annoying children, at least those who could read, and was a conversation piece at garden parties long after the snake had gone.
Nan noticed that Bill did not play the piano much anymore. He used to send waltzes and serenades wafting through the house like sweet perfume. Now he barely touched the piano and when he did, the sound was so faint as to be virtually silent, not the vigorous attacks she remembered. In the old days, he would render Rachmaninoff and Chopin with robust relish, a kind of Russian panache. She found that his music books were more likely to rest opened at pages of pastorales - soft, gentle tunes that could lull a person to sleep. He also did not create the old elaborate dishes: special vegetable soufflés, cassoulets, cakes dense with fruit and nuts, concoctions that took weeks of planning and preparation. Years ago, he would make onion soup and the house would bloom with the scent of caramelizing onions. He would prepare the ingredients the night before and then assemble the soup on the following day with the care of an artist. But he was still the same Bill: just as when alive, he left the dishtowels neatly folded and positioned at clever angles on the counter. She appreciated these little touches.
He also did other thoughtful things around the house when she was sleeping, or away on errands during the day, or just outside on the verandah. She would think he was there all the time, sitting beside her taking the autumn sun, and later she would realize that, no, he had been busy in the house, straightening pictures and positioning flower vases and finding stray puzzle pieces.
Always sophisticated and poised, he directed her imperiously, guiding her through the morass of daily chores with unerring direction. She was most grateful for his help when she had to drive into the city to see the eye specialist. Usually, she took the bus or a taxi for these trips, but one day she had many errands and decided to keep on going right downtown. It was while she was at the pharmacy that he must have gotten into the car, because he was there when she returned and prepared to turn down to the city center. All the way down, he helped her to negotiate the traffic, warning of a yellow light here, pointing out cyclists there.
There were so many little tokens of his kindness. She would find the newspaper opened to her favorite sections. She would see his bookmark in a book at a page he wanted her to read. He moved silently through the house. He never shuffled his slippers while alive, and he certainly did not shuffle now.
He liked to hear her chattering, she knew, because he followed her around like a puppy, leaning against a doorframe with long legs crossed, fingers caressing a champagne flute and smiling at her, watching to see what she would do next. He seemed endlessly fascinated by her activities and that delighted her. While alive, he had always been interested, yes, but he had also busied himself with his photography, his painting, and his sculptures. There was none of that now that he was dead. His projects were packed in boxes, ready for the grandchildren or the Brothers of Hope. But his interest in her never waned. She felt she could talk to him about anything, anything at all.
He would tease her with the rise of an eyebrow, with the wink of an eye, with the shrug of a shoulder, with the pursing of lips, a silent clapping of hands, with the slight movement of a trim foot. He never actually said, "I love you" or, "You are very dear," but then, he had never said those types of things when he was alive, so why should he do so now? But he did seem more passionate somehow. Perhaps it was just her imagination, but she thought he was more attentive. Indeed, he appeared only for her. Their cleaner never remarked on his presence and the grocery boys did not comment on him sitting in the car. Passersby did not seem startled when he took her arm as they walked down the street to the florist.
He was especially conversational in the evenings, when they sat together in the living room. She might be knitting, reading, or watching television and he would sit down on the sofa opposite, usually in slippers and dressing gown, and he would perhaps have a cup and saucer balanced gracefully on one knee. There would be the click of her needles and the soothing rustle of his favorite atlas or the intriguing flash of prints in one of his many art books. Comfortable noises. He helped her choose the music - usually Bach fugues or Mendelssohn slumbers, but he loved more recent things too. Infused in both their minds from repeated playing was Joni Mitchell singing, "I've looked at life from both sides now." He would nod when she spoke and gesture with his hands, or wag a slippered foot at certain statements. He seemed more relaxed now that he was dead and didn't have to deal with the stresses and strains of daily life.
But despite these wonderful attentions, Nan found that sometimes Bill was more of a pest than when he was alive, hectoring her through subtle gestures to be more tidy, more methodical. As for him, he never made a mess, never spilled a drop. His place at the table was always pristine; his side of the bed never unmade. It made her feel slightly rebellious. She even caught herself one night skulking downstairs in the dark to cheat on the jigsaw puzzle. What had gotten into her, what naughtiness? He would be indignant in the morning when he found out. And what if he came downstairs while she was cheating? He didn't, but she pried away the pieces she had fitted and arrayed them on his side of the table the way she had set his soup for over sixty years and sneaked back to their bed like a child who had eaten all her mother's sweetened coconut.
There used to be a time when he would play tricks on her, and he did so now, mercilessly. She first noticed it with the newspaper's daily crossword puzzle. She and Bill always set up the same competitive game as with the jigsaw: he would tell her the letters to place and she would keep track of which words were hers and which were his. One morning, he was waiting for her at the table, grinning. He had won the crossword puzzle, just by reading carefully and calculating the answers down and across in his head. That was the amazing thing about Bill: he could do complex problems mentally, never had to write them down. Then she noticed similar antics with the other puzzle, the jigsaw. Some evenings they would search everywhere for a last piece to complete one of the little paintings within the painting. She would lift the cushions of the Chesterfield and Bill might poke around beneath the furniture. They would give up and go to bed. The next morning, she would find he had placed the missing piece on a chair or on a corner of the rug. He was such a tease. But he was a wonderful advisor, just as always.
She consulted him, for example, about the disturbing greenery beside the house. Although their neighbors were generally friendly and helpful, there was one exception. The Sutherlands had moved in next door a year ago and proceeded to landscape what had once been an airy space of grass and flowerbeds. For years, from their kitchen picture window, the Webbs had enjoyed the whimsy of birds and butterflies. Upon arriving, Mr. Sutherland promptly dug up the flowers and arranged for a large and ugly bush to be planted right beside the Webb house. Their view was consumed by this ragged green monstrosity. The thing had arrived full-panoplied, stately waving from a flatbed truck like a diva on parade. The workers grunted as they muscled the plant into place and down into the cavernous hole they had dug. Bill and Nan had watched the tree thrive for several months before Bill became ill for the last time. He had always shared her horror of the thing, but there hadn't been a lot of time to discuss what, if anything, they might do about the problem. The tree was overstated, an expression of bad taste. But the neighbors were stubborn, and, at the time, Nan had her hands full anyway. She had to prepare Bill's medications, and take him to his doctors' appointments. After he went into the hospital, pretty much everything in the house went into stasis. But now that the funeral was over and Bill was back, she could discuss the matter with him.
"The thing is ugly, dear, you have to agree."
Bill arose from the table and went to the window to look out. He jutted his jaw to one side in thought. Then he shook his head in disgust and went back to his chair at the table.
"We need to kill it," she said, surprised at her own bluntness. "You're always telling me, Bill, 'For every problem, find three solutions.'"
He agreed, she knew, because his eyes crinkled and that dancing smile came back.
"So," she prodded, "what's the first thing we could do?"
He stretched his long arms, looked up at the ceiling, pondered awhile, and then softened his face into a mischievous look. He stared fixedly at the watering can in the corner by the door. She laughed at the blatancy of the suggestion.
"Well, that's a good one, Bill: feed it a soothing drink of vinegar. Slow and gruesome. What would be a second method?"
A boy's mischief sprang in his blue eyes and his face opened in a wicked grin. He stepped beside the stack of newspapers ready for recycling and pointed to an issue deep in the pile. Sure enough, this was the issue featuring an ad for "Broadleaf Weed Killer." She read the captions, muttering some of the claims aloud for him to hear: "Place a drop of our product on a leaf of each weed in your garden and they will meet their demise within weeks"; "Virtually undetectable"; "Won't harm your lawn."
"Excellent, Bill. Positively diabolical. Now, what would be a third way? Something completely different?"
He went to the window and looked out, staring intently at the plant. It took her a moment but then she saw that he was focusing bad intentions. What fun. Bill favored the last of the three methods; he could participate in that one. And so that is what they did. They stood there each morning at the kitchen sink, side by side, and directed malevolent thoughts at the ridiculous plant, he with his face in a mighty grimace and she with the sternest glare she could manage. And indeed, over the next weeks and months the tree yellowed and sagged despondently as the autumn days shortened.
At night when it was dark, they couldn't see the plant. Instead, Nan could see her reflection in the broad kitchen window. When she turned around to look at the clock on the opposite wall, she could see an image of the window in the clock face, and even a reflection of her own reflection. Bill stood off to one side, just out of sight, so that she couldn't see him. How strategic of him, she thought, making sure that no one outside could see him, and especially not the Sutherlands next door.
Life with Bill had never been dramatic, but it was certainly interesting. She remembered the accumulation of years less as a roller coaster and more as a gentle glide through time, sometimes soaring in a breathless arc through the sunny seasons and at other times swooping down to touch the evening dew. She had loved him, that was certain, and she loved him now in his present form as much as she had loved him then. And he had loved her. Their offspring, she reflected, was one proof.
Ah, yes, the child. She remembered that night. She and Bill were a young couple with promising careers and a beautiful home and had just hosted their first party. All the guests had departed and there were the two of them, in their finery. They scampered up the stairs, giggling like fools. Later, all that summer, she was proud of her pregnant belly. That child was now the tall, accomplished pianist, Geraldine, aged sixty, with children and grandchildren of her own and a busy professional life.
"Remember, Bill, that first party we threw? How everyone came and had a wonderful time?"
He smiled and looked at her. And then he winked.
"Why, Bill," she said, tilting her head at a girlish incline and turning away like a coquette. "I think you're flirting with me."
His smile grew proud. Any broader, and it would be a leer. And indeed, he folded toward her in their bed that night and her womb once again throbbed as when life was new and young and early. Ever caring, ever knowing, he was a wise and gentle lover. They slept like treasured children, warm, well fed and safe, their bodies curled like hands in a worn and wrinkled apron at the close of day. The next morning, they lingered over breakfast and did not talk very much.
The sun rode low. The leaves were on fire. Squirrels were frantic, working hard at fattening up. Bill and Nan sat quietly sometimes now, no conversations, just watching the birds through the picture windows. They continued their routine of tea and meals and music on the stereo, and worked steadily on the jigsaw puzzle in the afternoons. As the sun slanted into late fall in November, they were almost finished with the sculptures in the foreground.
Bill would sometimes appear rather faded, while other times he would be squarely visible, large as life, sitting in his chair, waiting for her, smiling and expectant. Most of the time, though, his touch on her arm was becoming faint.
In early December, her eyesight began bothering her again. Bill must have overheard her phoning the clinic to make an appointment, because when she returned home, he greeted her at the door with a worried look. He helped her out of her coat and followed her into the kitchen, staring intently. She shrugged and began to hum a ditty from their early years, something about silver and gold. But he was not fooled, she could tell. He paced back and forth, one finger on his top lip. Then he stopped, placed his elegant hands on his hips, and looked at her firmly.
"Right, Bill," she agreed, "it's just a test. Nothing definite. You always say I slay so many mythical dragons for nothing that conquering the 'real' one will be a romp." She smiled at him and put the kettle to its gleeful task for tea.
On the morning of the winter solstice, Bill wasn't in his usual place. Somehow she knew better than to go searching through the house as if she had misplaced him like a fine watch or a special pen. She knew he had gone. Silently in the night, he had left, leaving all his projects, his books, his fine wines. He had things to do, other people to see. He had no doubt gone on one of his jaunts, possibly to Spain to study sculpture, or to Mexico to paint, or to Austria for the concerts. Wherever he was, she knew he was having a lovely time.
She went into the drawing room absent-mindedly, their daily ritual of the last few months. There in front of her was the last piece of the puzzle, on the corner of the card table. Bill must have found it before he left in the night. She put the piece in place then stood back to admire the completed puzzle, Zoffany's painting of paintings. The last piece was the eye of the Chimaera's lion head.
"Chimaera," she whispered, aware that Bill could no longer hear her. "Creature of myth, creature of fear, but also of vitality, of triumph over evil."
When the phone rang, she picked it up vacantly.
"Mrs. Webb?" The voice of the eye specialist came over the line. She was half-listening, mesmerized by the Chimaera's eye.
"Your test results are in. Nothing serious - just a little debris in the vitreous fluid, something to be expected at your age. 'Floaters' and 'flashers,' we call them. No need to come in now until your next regular check."
Nan knew she would no longer travel the rooms of her life wondering when Bill might appear in the door and shake his head sternly at some opinion she might put to him, or peer over her shoulder pointing to things she needed to change, or test her with complex riddles.
The Library Guild answered the phone right away and she arranged for pick-up on Tuesday at ten. Then she broke the puzzle into a pile of jagged jewels - part of the commons, held by all - and swept the bits into someone else's future.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Gail Taylor. All rights reserved.