A Burning and a Fever
by Jenna Dietzer
After 60 years of marriage, Mario and Mona were comforted by the stability and familiarity of the world they had created for themselves. Sunsets and sunrises on a two-story villa home that echoed of Venice and their youth—its bright coppery paint, two square windows like eyes in the front, a balcony draped with emerald-colored vines, and always a string of fresh laundry pinned to a clothesline that stretched the length of their backyard. Sunday afternoons were spent playing Scrabble and eating salted tomatoes off of paper plates. Mondays were reserved for trips to the bookstore, where Mario would pay for Mona's crosswords and his biographies and would always offer her the change. They relied on the subtle April showers and the clockwork deliveries by the mailman each morning, early beddings and early risings, but mostly they relied on each other. Many years ago, he taught her to read English, and she learned enough to recite "The Raven" and passages from the classics when they found themselves sitting in too much silence. In return, she taught him how to make love, and he learned enough to impregnate her with two wayward children, who grew up and grew out, but never grew to need them as much as they needed each other. Now he fed her, and she did his laundry. He helped her fasten the buttons on the backs of her dresses, and she helped him pull up his socks. Every evening Mario served platefuls of cappellini with veal or spaghetti marinara or another dish on two-tone black and white ceramic plates—meals so soft one could dissect them with a toothpick, because they both suffered from ailments of the mouth—while Mona set the table with the precision of trifold napkins and sharpened knives. They also knew, no matter how large or small their portions, Mario would never finish, and Mona would stare at his scraps until he put his fork down. Then she'd stretch across the table to steal the remains.
In spite of their differences their relationship seemed as harmonious as one could ask for. She had forgiven him long ago for talking to his toolbox as if it was his best friend, for forgetting to turn off the lights when he left a room, and for being a man and thus imperfect. He, likewise, forgave her her obsession with punctuality, for never replacing the roll of toilet paper in the bathroom, and for making him watch her grow old. They knew how to ignite each other's tempers, but chose not to, and they knew each other's preferred ways of making love, so foreign and absent now.
This evening, Mario and Mona sat with forks poised in their hands, ready to take the first bites of dinner, when a knock came at their door. It sounded once then twice then stopped altogether. The couple exchanged inquisitive glances. They weren't expecting anyone.
"All my cousins are dead now," Mona said. "It's your turn for unexpected guests."
"But my relatives are miles away," Mario complained, "or feet under ground. It's your turn."
Only one significant visit had interrupted their dinner before. A cousin from Mona's side had appeared on their doorstep a little over a year ago. He was a sickly man with a runny nose, recurrent cough, and anemia. Ten years younger than Mona, though he appeared more ailing than anyone they knew, other than themselves. His car had broken down two miles from their home on the way to a conference, and he didn't know anyone else in the area. So he knocked on their door and asked to spend the night. They gave him the couch in the living room and blankets for his unusually cold skin. Then Mario built a fire on the hearth and watched the man's creaking chest soothe under the weight of sleep before crawling into bed beside Mona.
In the morning, the cousin called a tow truck, thanked the couple for their generosity, and bid Mario and Mona goodbye. But before leaving, he inquired about a woman who had visited in the middle of the night.
"A woman?" Mario asked. "You mean Mrs. Tulouse?" They were standing on the porch, and Mario pointed to the yard next door, where an obese figure with a sun hat was weeding hydrangea bushes. "What could she have wanted?"
"No, another woman," the cousin said. He fell into a fit of coughing then and blew his nose. "She was more slender, tall, graying hair? She was quite lovely. It seemed as if you might have been expecting her, so I invited her in for tea." Mario and Mona shook their heads. The tow truck honked its horn. "Just wait!" he called and started hacking all over again. "If she visits again," he said, handing Mario a slip of paper, "would you please give her my number? I'll arrange to come through here more often if she's willing to entertain the idea of seeing a sick man like me."
They nodded their heads and waved good-bye. It must have been the medication, Mario reasoned, or a dream, as Mona suggested. They knew of no such woman. They thought they would never hear from him again, and they didn't. But a week after his visit, his son called to say the man had died of asphyxiation—not the carbon-monoxide-filtering-into-a-car kind or by the slow, fat fingers of a pillow—but by his own hand, a tissue, pressed too tightly to his nose during a fit of sneezing at another conference. The death surprised them just as much as his visit had.
The knock sounded again. Mona turned to Mario. "Who answered the door the last time this happened?"
"I don't remember." Mario shrugged his shoulders. He stuck a forkful of ham between his dentures and slid it back and forth on his tongue then smiled.
"You always were a stubborn old goat," Mona said. "I'll get it."
She left Mario in the kitchen and tottered through the living room to find out who had disturbed their dinner this time. It couldn't be Mrs. Tulouse. She had introduced herself on the day she moved in and had been scarce ever since, except when pruning her bushes. Sometimes Mona waved to her from her own garden, but that was the extent of their relationship. No knocking on doors to ask for sugar or flour. The children never visited anymore, only sent candycane-striped cards during the holidays with pictures of their own unfamiliar families inside. A shelf was dedicated to them in the living room. Perhaps, then, it was someone who had been sent by mistake to collect a bill again. Mario and Mona were never late paying bills; she made sure of that. And she had reminded the one man who dared inform her otherwise one time.
The hinges on the door creaked as Mona opened it. "Yes?" she said. "May I help you?"
"Is a Mr. or Mrs. Romaro in?"
Mona didn't recognize the tall woman who stood in her doorway. She didn't know why the stranger had come and, of course, her timing was all wrong. Mona's stomach growled as she examined their guest. "We don't want whatever you're selling."
Their guest cleared her throat. "Does a Mr. or Mrs. Romaro live here?"
"Then may I please come in?"
"Absolutely not," Mona said. She set one hand on her hip.
"I'm afraid there's been a misunderstanding," the woman said, "I need to speak to a Mr. or Mrs. Romaro."
"And who are you? The bank didn't send you, did they?"
"No. Not exactly."
"You stay right here," Mona said. "I'll get my husband." Perhaps Mario had forgotten he invited someone. "Mario! Veni! Your friend is here."
Mario did not answer. They waited. "Mario!"
Mario shuffled into the living room with sauce stains down his shirtfront and at the corners of his mouth. He squinted at the stranger, but could not distinguish her features. He wondered if he weren't developing cataracts. He couldn't even find his own mouth with a fork anymore.
"Do you recognize this woman, Mario? Is she here for you?"
"I don't think so. We weren't expecting anyone. What does she want?"
Mona scowled. "Do I look like a translator? Ask her yourself."
"What do you want?" Mario asked.
"My, it's chilly out here." The guest took Mona's hands in her own and gently maneuvered her way into the house. "Perhaps I can explain this better inside." She closed the door behind them, and Mona nearly hit her as she took back her hands.
"Just what is this all about?" Mona glanced at Mario, as if she expected him to explain all this to her, just as he had explained everything else since they moved to America years ago.
"I was wondering if I might have a word with you two," the guest said, "over a cup of tea." She examined the mantle where their children's cards were arranged and walked over to pick up the most recent one. "Oh, this is new. Have they sent you another since I visited? The little one is growing so fast."
Mona stuck a finger in her ear and wiggled it around. Her hearing hadn't been the same since last winter. "I'm sorry," she said. "I thought you just said you had been here before."
"Perhaps I'll get to meet them some day," the woman said. "But hopefully no sooner than necessary." She set the card on the dusty shelf again and turned to the couple. "Right now we just need to figure out who I came for tonight."
"Came for?" Mona said. "So you did meet—"
"Your cousin was a very genuine man, Mrs. Romaro. Kind and loving. And tonight I want to do for one of you what I did for him."
Mona looked at Mario, and Mario looked at Mona. Then they looked at their guest: the thick eyelashes and fingernails painted the color of Concord grapes, the pedestal of long legs in grey pantyhose, haphazard salt-and-pepper hair. They remembered the cousin's final request and the guest they believed never existed and the cousin's death. They took a step back. Mona grabbed for Mario's hand. "We're not going anywhere."
"I can see you're very confused," their guest said. "But I think I have a simple way of solving this. Just tell me which of you is more sick, and that will be the one I take tonight."
They recalled the invitation to the cousin's funeral and their decline. The son's request for their presence was lengthy and heartfelt; his father had spoken so highly of them since the accidental visit. But Mario and Mona did not like funerals, especially for people younger than themselves. So they chose not to attend, preferring their solitude for the weekend as planned. Besides, it was half a days' drive away, and they had their ailments to attend to—invented ones that complimented their real ones of senility and old age, that kept them too tired, too sore, or too medicated for such journeys. It seemed one or the other always had some ailment, and it had became a competition. When Mario suffered from arthritis, Mona suffered from vertigo. If Mario was diabetic, Mona was incontinent. Mario had a rash; Mona had a toothache. Mario had a burning; Mona had a fever. And on and on until one of them complained of a cough that rivaled that of Mona's dead cousin. Then they stopped making excuses. They didn't want to invent hospital beds for themselves as well. So they sent a bouquet of dandelions, each with a rosette of leaves around the yellow head, in honor of the man who had visited. Since then their afflictions had grown from a trickle into an avalanche through no fault of their own, as these things so often do in the final years.
Their guest waited for an answer.
"I feel fine," Mario said. "How about you Mona?" Mario puffed out his chest and straightened his back to prove he was strong. But he could sense a spasm in the fingers of his left hand—his arthritis acting up again.
She glanced up at her husband and noticed the coy smile. She matched his stance. "Well, I feel fantastic." But she really felt a dull itch creeping up her back, stiff as a tree trunk, and ringing in her ears. They wanted their pain pills beside their plates at the kitchen table. They wanted, of all moments, to have the power to control their bodies again.
Their guest flitted her eyes between the two, noted their hunched backs and pallid complexions, each of their swelled joints and tufts of thinning hair. Their faces wrinkled in the same way. From the backside they could be mistaken for twins.
"I understand your resistance," she said, "and I can leave and come back tomorrow if you wish. But when I return one of you will need to come with me."
"Tomorrow?" Mario asked. "But her cousin had a week!"
"Tomorrow," she said. She turned and left, heels clicking behind her. The door shut on its own.
Mario's chest deflated. Mona moaned and pressed a hand into her lower back. They went to the kitchen defeated.
For a while they couldn't look at each other. They just stared at the cold food on their dinner plates. "How does a thing like this happen?" she finally asked.
"Don't blame it on me. I'm not the one who answered the door."
Mona lifted her eyes. "What was I supposed to do, Mario, just sit there while she kept knocking?"
"That would have been one option."
"Isn't that your solution to everything, Mario? Ignore it. Ignore your problems, and they'll go away. Ignore your children, and they did go away."
"Oh, no. Don't you blame that on me either. You always demanded more of them, like their love wasn't good enough. You were never satisfied with any of us. That's why they left."
"And if you weren't so stingy with your own love, maybe they would have come back!"
He stood up. "Can we please stop talking about this? I don't want to talk about it anymore."
"When else can we talk about it? I can't hear you when I'm in the grave, Mario. I can barely hear you now."
"You're not there yet." Mario reached over and grabbed the green pillbox. It was divided into seven compartments for the days of the week. The first three letters of each day, none of which Mario was capable of reading, were printed on the side. "But I almost was. Remember, Mona? That one time you screwed up the dosage. Giving me a double of the heart pill and none of that one for my cholesterol. I almost had to go to the hospital." He jerked it up and shook it. The tops opened. A rainbow of pills spilled out between them and rolled to the floor. Mona scowled then bent down on hands and knees to retrieve them. There were so many.
"Mona, please get off the floor." She continued picking, one by one and into the pillbox. It hurt to crawl on her knees. "Mona, can you hear me?"
"I'm not deaf, just hard of hearing. And yes, I can hear you shouting at me. It was an accident, Mario. I apologized a long time ago. Must I do it every day of my life as well?"
"I didn't mean to spill the pills. Please get up." She ignored him. He tried to take her by the wrist, but she pulled away. "Mona, you're being ridiculous."
"Am I? Maybe you should go then. You always said you wanted to go first so you didn't have to watch me grow old and die. Well, now's your chance!"
"I don't know how we've stayed together all these years, bickering nonstop. I can't take care of you anymore than I can take care of myself."
"You just don't want to take care of me. I got old and you stopped wanting me. But guess what, Mario? You got old, too. Just look at yourself. Look at us." Mona threw the pills in Mario's face.
Sixty years of marriage and they realized they knew each other no better in these last moments than they had known each other in the first. They couldn't recognize the words coming out of their mouths. He hated confrontation, hated to be a disappointment to her. She hated herself, hated what they had become—old and crippled, with no one to save them but themselves. Mona fled to the bedroom. Mario followed. He tried to take her by the waist, but she struck him across the face with her hand. Each fingertip bit at his cheek with the vigor of a mosquito bite.
She hit him again.
Again and again. She felt she could go on forever like this, smacking him into loving her again. Maybe she could smack them into the past, to a time when they could know what the other was thinking without speaking a word.
Blood burned beneath Mario's cheek. He stared at his crazed wife, let her smack him over and over again, until he grabbed her by the arms, forced them down and back, until their full bodies pressed against each other.
And then he felt it. He hadn't felt it in years. It wasn't like those times when he was young, when he could get it right, but would lose it all while fumbling in the dark for a mouth or a breast or the condom. Embarrassed, he'd blush in the dark while she, Mona, breathed softly and waited for him. And when he'd finally found the thing, oh, the peeling back of the wrapper and the dropping and fumbling in the dark some more. He was a klutz even when making love.
But Mona took the time to help him search, with her hands on the floor, then over his body and down his spine, mapping out the roads with her fingertips and her thighs, with her kisses, her tongue, her breath. She tasted so sweet. Even now, with the dry folds of skin pressed into him and rivulets of lipstick coming from the core of her mouth, she tasted sweeter than ever. He remembered.
And it wasn't like those times with the pills, the routine and mechanical intimacy of Viagra. Where he knew he would do it, he had to do it, he must, he must finish. But it was all expected. There was no surprise. And even if he lost the desire in his mind, he could not lose it in his flesh. The embarrassment lingered, but for a different reason. When he lost his ability, he thought he had lost her. He just stopped trying. But now he knew it wasn't true, that she had been his all along. Why had he been so embarrassed to tell her? Mario dug into Mona, trying to bury the memory.
Then she felt it, too. But not the way he did. She ignored the angles of his body and the way they racked against hers like bent puzzle pieces. She paid no attention to the creaking of bone on bone or the wheezes from the back of his throat; she could not hear them. Instead she remembered a day in the distant past, when she had planted the first bulb in her garden in America and how Mario had taught her how to say "flower." She kept fumbling over the word, pronouncing it as "flo-ver" or "flo-where," because its equivalent, il flore, did not require such an acrobatic dance of the lips and tongue. Then one day Mario took her face in his hands and pressed his lips against hers. "Like this," he said, drawing her lips into a kiss. "Say the last syllable like this. With me now. Flow—"
He coaxed her lips forward with his own, and they parted upon his release. "—wer" she said, almost effortlessly. "Flower." She never forgot the word after that.
But the thing itself took a while to grow. She remembered her worries about the soil—was it too moist? too dry?—about the light—too much? not enough?—and about her own capabilities as its caretaker—could she be trusted to handle such a fragile thing? But in spite of her misgivings, a single pink petal unsheathed itself. And though it started as a fragile and uncertain thing, each spring it would reappear.
When she felt Mario plant himself in her, Mona imagined she was that petal, imagined she was that word, and exposed herself again to a love with as much rarity and impermanence as the day lilies sitting between them in a vase each night at dinner.
It was over before either of them knew it. But they stayed wrapped in each other until slivers of dawn peeked through the curtain, Mario staring into eyes he couldn't entirely distinguish, but could imagine, and Mona nodding her head at whispers she could not hear, but could feel.
They had found the answer living between those sheets; they would go together. In the morning, Mona let her hair linger on her naked shoulders instead of pinning it up, and Mario sank his bare feet into the carpet instead of asking her to help him with his socks. They held hands and watched the sun rise and waited. But another hour passed and they still heard no knock at the door. They tiptoed from their bedroom and searched the house, around the balcony and through the drape of fresh, pinned laundry, past the toolbox and beside the lily beds, until they met each other again on the front porch step. Their guest was nowhere to be found, not a trace of her dark fingernails or a lock of salt-and-pepper hair.
Story Copyright © 2008 by Jenna Dietzer. All rights reserved.
Next: Flotsam by Simon Kewin
About the author
Jenna Dietzer is a working writer and English professor living in Greensboro, NC. This story contains her first geriatric sex scene, but probably not her last. She's the author of several short stories – published in The First Line, The Mangrove Literary Review, and Unmoveable Feast – as well as the author of a couple very bad novels that were never published. Maybe this year she'll write a good one.