You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their feet because that’s the only part of themselves that they can really see. Except their hands, you say, and that’s good too. Rings and nails and polish and whatnot. Swollen joints. Keloids on the inner wrist. All very telling. But the feet, that’s something else.
I used to scorn my sister for admiring her own bare appendages, flexing her arches to point her hot-pink-polished toes. Her ankles were thin but her legs were so short she had trouble reaching the pedals in even a smallish car. In the end she was hit by a truck, and so maybe she died because she was a little old lady in a BMW, T-boned by a cowboy in a big, black pickup, the kind with tinted windows and blinding chrome. Her fault, but anyway…
One time I saw a TV celebrity at the grocery store. She was shopping the aisles, leaning on her cart like her own weight had become too much for her. She was wearing sandals and so there, below the famous face, the longed-for body, and the legendary legs, were her hideous bare feet, like a pile of dog shit sitting right there at the edge of your otherwise snow-white living room rug. Thick nails, fungus, mold, bunions, callouses, the works. It made me gag. Seriously. And after that I could never bear to watch her in anything again.
How I loved my husband’s feet, though, especially when we first came together as a couple. How I held them and caressed them. They were graceful but strong, and now that he’s gone they’ve become the first thing about him that I really miss.
I have a friend who shares photos of her feet in shoes on Facebook and Instagram. She wears ballet flats of every color. To match her panties, she says.
My granddaughter takes snapshots of her feet too. It’s the only kind of selfie she knows how to take, so there are hundreds of images of her sweet feet on my son’s phone. He shares those too and always it touches me to see her perfect, tiny toes.
I’ll have to get rid of my husband’s shoes. He bought nothing but the best and kept them well. He threw them out himself if they were damaged or worn in any way. He cared about his possessions.
I wish I was a larger woman, like my mother was. She could wear my dad’s shoes herself, and after the old man lost both his feet to diabetes, she did just that.
I open my husband’s closet. I slip my hands inside his boots. I bury my face in his shirts. He’s gone two weeks now. I miss him. Not that I want him back, exactly. Just, there’s a void here where he used to be, a hollow center that he left behind in my perceptions, here in the empty spaces of this house the two of us shared for almost forty years.
I boxed up his clothes and then unboxed them and spread them out over our bed, and then I climbed in and lay on them, writhing on my back, trying to get his smell to stick to me, like a dog rolling in dung.
After he succumbed and what was left behind was his putrid mess, I cleaned everything up in here and disinfected it all as best as I knew how to do. Now the house around me looms, as if it were some kind of gothic castle, a maze of infinite rooms that I wander through, calling out his name.
Nobody has tried to get in touch, but I unplug the phone anyway. I lock the doors. The pantry is full. We had the foresight to stock up, and now I want for nothing. All there is to do is watch and wait. Day 81. Day 82. Day 90. 110. 130. And so on. I’ve lost count.
He called this our Splendid Isolation, which was meant to be a joke. I thought that made it sound fancy and chosen, but it was neither of those things.
Then he was coughing and sleeping all the time. Eventually he locked himself away in his office, and at mealtimes I left food outside the door for him, but soon enough he wasn’t taking it in. He ramped up the volume on his radio so I wouldn’t be able to hear him moan, and when I turned off the power to see whether he was all right, there wasn’t any sound at all, and now he’s gone altogether and I am here alone.
“Stay put,” he said before he closed the door and locked it. And, shaking a finger at me, “That’s an order!” So I have stayed and I am put, right here in our house, like a gewgaw on a shelf that hasn’t been dusted in years.
My footsteps echo on the hardwood floor and soften on the carpet as I pace from here to there and back again. I catch all the sounds of myself now. I see remnants of where I’ve been and what I’ve done along the way. This and that thing out of place. Sponge in the sink. Coffee in the pot. A stain on the towel that hangs on the backside of the bathroom door. And on the television set in the kitchen, the news of the world blares. Death counts. Graphs. Fires in the streets. Fury in the air.
I stand at the sink and slurp up the last of the milk at the bottom of a bowl of sweetened cereal. I read the back of the box as if I might still be the child I was in a different time and a different place—empty-headed, hopeful, and blind.
I’ve been taking care of things all right, here on the inside, while on the outside the weather warms. Spring has sprung and the lawn is wild. I water the indoor plants—my violets on their glass shelves in the piano room, the rubber tree in the living room, the spider plant in the kitchen, the philodendron in the den, and the hoya in his office, where I now sleep on a mattress on the floor. He pinned the hoya’s spreading tendrils up along the window frame so it’s like a curtain of green leaves, and now it blooms, a sign of life, of hope. The tiny, star-shaped flowers are velvety and dripping with nectar. The plant belonged to his mother once upon a time, and now it belongs to me. I’ll care for it and keep it safe in faithful memory of my husband and his mother both.
The day is sunny and warm. There are robins on the lawn. A hawk flies past. The hummingbirds are returning. Life goes on for the birds and the bees and for me too, whether I like it or not.
Out there in the world the storm gathers, and in my yard shadows move, the clouds coalesce, my heart races, and my blood thunders through me, limb to limb. Because there’s someone out there, and at first I fancy it’s him. Like he’s risen again, somehow. Like it was all a mistake and now here he is, a silhouette thrown down upon the grass on a sunless afternoon.
But no. I hear the mower start up, and that tells me it’s only our gardener come back to work for us again. He sees me at the window and stops his mowing, waves. I duck away. Does he know that my husband is…gone? Does he know that I’m in here all alone now? I hide in the empty closet, waiting for him to leave.
I doze and dream and then wake in the dark, and at first I don’t know where I am. I stand up and shake myself clear. I open the closet door and peer out. Silence. Dark sky. Bright stars. A moon wanes on the horizon. I call my husband’s name, but it echoes back to me so it’s nothing but my own voice hammering at my ears. I creep through the guileless spaces until I come upon a slip of paper taped to the transom window of our kitchen door. I wipe it with sanitizer and the ink bleeds, but I can still make out the scrawl all right: Hello, Missus! During this difficult time I wanted to let you know how much I love your house and your yard. Many thanks to you and the Mister for keeping me on. Also I couldn’t help but notice your hoya in the window. It’s beautiful! I have a 100-year-old one as a family heirloom. Be well, and thank you for your business. Yours truly, G.
G? Skulking around outside my castle? Peeking in my windows to see what he can see?
I worked for hours last night, gathering up all the Mister’s things and stuffing them into two big, black trash bags, and now I’m all dressed up fancy in an old, forgotten summer dress—yellow with smocking across the bodice and a splash of black blossoms on the skirt. I bought it to wear… Where? To a party somewhere, with matching yellow pumps on my dainty little feet, as I recall. But that was long ago, and now my toes are swollen and bent, my nails are thick and untrimmed, and my soles and heels are callused and dusky with accumulated grime, so I step into a pair of more forgiving slippers instead to shuffle outside for the first time in too many weeks to count.
I wonder whether I might be immune because of the contact that I had with the Mister before he succumbed, but I was never sick so likely not, and I take the recommended precautions, just in case. A white construction mask that I found in the garage, black leather driving gloves, sunglasses, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes.
I drag the trash bags to the car, one by one. Open the trunk. Haul them up and in.
I’m afraid of the air around me, and I try to hold my breath against it, but that’s impossible and soon it bellows out of me like a sob.
The thrift shop is closed. Locked up. Windows barred. There are signs on the door that scold: Go away! Go home! Stay safe! I consider just dumping his stuff there on the pavement and driving off, but what if there’s a camera and what if someone sees me? Like the guy in the police car parked at the end of the block? There’s nothing for it then but to give up and go back home.
G is here again. He’s out on the back porch and he’s hollering: “Missus! Missus!” He sees me at the kitchen window, and he takes off his hat and crumples it in his hands, all humble-like and harmless. He claims he’s sorry to bother me, but he has something he wants to say. “It’s important!” And, “It won’t take a minute.” So I crack the door just a little bit, trying to be polite while, at the same time, standing my ground, but he takes the chance to push on past, talking a mile a minute so I don’t understand him, and I don’t know what he wants.
I look down at my feet. Barefoot. Filthy. When did I shower last? Legs bare too. Dress crumpled, hands clenched, and I’m screeching, “Stop!” So now he turns and looks at me, top to bottom, then bottom to top again. When he smiles, a gold tooth glints in the corner of his mouth, but his eyes are jolly and he holds up his hands, black with dirt, just like my feet. “No offense,” he says, then turns away again. His boots are thick-soled, heavy and worn, and he’s tracked in mud on the white carpeting in the hall. I’ll never get that clean, I think, and look up again to see him slipping into the Mister’s office, where I sleep. Now I realize what it is he’s after. He wants to see the hoya. Its petals dripping nectar.
He’s touching them gently, then licking his fingertips clean.
It’s high noon and hot, and maybe G is still out there trimming the hedge, watering the roses, mowing the grass, blowing the leaves. I don’t know. I didn’t look. I’m busy myself, decontaminating the residue of his presence here, but try as I might, I cannot get this carpet clean again. The Mister warned me, he said, “Don’t buy white,” but I didn’t listen. I wanted an unadorned space for us, with gray walls and black trim. “Let’s us be the color here,” I said. But now I scrub and scrub on my hands and knees, then stand back to examine the result, but still the shadow of G’s presence lingers and will not be removed.
I don’t know how he got in. Didn’t I lock the doors? Didn’t I close the windows? Didn’t I draw the drapes?
Does he know something I don’t know?
Maybe I let him in myself. Maybe I welcomed him with open arms. Maybe I wanted him as much as he wanted me.
His hands are rough. My skin is frail. I check for bruises. My muscles twitch and my bones ache.
He’s opened me up and put himself right there where he insisted he belonged.
There’s been rain. The world drips with it. The trees are soaked. The grass is flooded. The street shines silver past the gate at the end of the driveway outside the house, which sags and steams. It’s all of it been washed clean. Even the footprints on the white carpet have disappeared.
Maybe I won’t get sick after all. Maybe the virus has been vanquished. His virus. And mine.
Here, behind the hedge and the fence and the curtains of the shadowed trees, I’m closed off and hidden from the world. No one sees me creep out onto the porch. And down the stairs. And on around back to the garage, where my car is parked as I left it last night. The black garbage bags are still in the trunk. I heave them up and out, stop to catch my breath, then drag them, one at a time, over the wet grass to the worm-ridden mudhole out back.
I dump what little remains of the Mister out upon the slime.
The matches are quick to light. Smoke billows and ashes fly, lifted by the wind.
Can you hear the sirens above the crackle and the pop? Can you smell the smoke? And the intoxicating fragrance of the Mister’s burning boots?
I stand close, waiting my turn to be fed to the rightful reckoning of these unforgiving flames.