When Walt had lost his wife, he lost the man he used to be. In group, he’d always let the grief do the talking, and he marveled at how people empathized with him when he felt as guilty as a murderer.
When Walt’s wife, Tammy was first diagnosed, it was a soft blip on his radar. She was fine because she looked fine. Tammy, a robust woman—not overweight but thick in her legs and shoulders—had the sort of ruddy complexion that feigned health. She looked like the kind of woman who could take on a bull and had the personality to match. It was Walt who was the weak one, the scared one.
And everything he was to his poor dead wife proved it.
His dad head been dead a few years, and then his mother had gotten the kind of old that didn’t hold up well in a bakery. She couldn’t be on her feet for long anymore, kept calling the crullers “croissants.” This meant that his mother had to go to the home, and he had to be a permanent fixture in somebody else’s dream, the thought a budding nightmare.
He wasn’t his parents. He hated pastries. And how was it that every desire he ever had in his heart was doused by somebody else’s bucket of water?
How had God gotten it so wrong?
These weren’t things he spoke about to Tammy, Tammy who had a faith that was as girthy as her upper body. She would have told him to stop that pansy talk, to be more like her brothers and just except what was real for once.
But what was real wasn’t always easy to discern for Walt.
He had met Tammy in the sixth grade, the last place a man should look for a wife. She was just a smaller version of herself, and maybe it was the extreme differences in their personalities that drew him to her. She was rough and a little mean and never said no to a game of kickball. He watched her once, chewing a piece of contraband gum in the school library only to remove it from her mouth and stick it under the table. He had been delightfully horrified.
It was all friendly and casual as kids, but then teenagedom fell upon them, and everything took a serious turn. That’s what it had felt like—being strapped inside a car with the doors locked and no way to open them. His heart and his body were in love with Tammy Clutterbuck whether any sensible part of him liked it or not. They played with fire, metaphorically speaking, when it came to knowing each other in the marital way. His parents were lifelong members of the Church of Christ, and even though he had had a relatively easy-going childhood, there would have been nothing easy going about telling them his sins.
Tammy didn’t get pregnant though. They were careful, as careful as two kids could be in the early fifties. He often felt like he had gotten away with something.
“There’s a price on your head,” he told himself a few years later when they were both at the University of Arkansas. It was something he had heard on Gunsmoke when he and a few of the other fellows were watching the coveted TV in the downstairs meeting area of their dorm. That’s what it had always felt like. Like he was outrunning someone, and one day—whether he tripped over his own feet, or the other guy caught up with him—he’d be toast.
Tammy would have thought this kind of thinking was silly if had told her. So, he didn’t. He learned to be the kind of Walt that got to hold her hand in public and share the backseat of his car in private.
This worked for a very long time. They got married—something small at his parents’ Church of Christ in Little Rock—and to continue the pattern, bought a tiny house on Blue Ridge Circle in Cammack Village. They had both graduated, Walt with an engineering degree and Tammy with hers in Chemistry. They found jobs, Walt helping to oversee the brand new L’Oreal plant and Tammy in a cardiovascular research lab not too far from the plant. Tammy smoked like a chimney, a habit she picked up at school playing bridge with the girls in her dorm. He’d meet for lunch sometimes, walking the six blocks to her lab and watch her from afar, standing with a group of her coworkers, the smoke floating signals above her head. In her white button down and brown pencil skirt, she wasn’t pretty; she was arresting—the kind of beauty that took a man a second to understand what exactly he was beholding.
They talked shopped at home over plates of American chop suey. Walt described the physical renderings inside the plant—giant machines that sounded like they could eat a man alive. And Tammy talked about the internal machine, the heart. She’d taken to stabbing devices into them and watching as the tissues reacted. Walt couldn’t help feeling a lone ache in his own watching her excitement.
Their entire family waited patiently for them to have kids. It was a subject Walt poked around with his foot like a soccer ball, but Tammy hardly ever wanted to play. He couldn’t understand it. Don’t you love me, Tammy? Don’t you want that love the grow? he always asked with his eyes but never his mouth.
He came home late one night. The eating machine had eaten someone, or at least attempted it. A factory worker had foolishly stuck their hand into the machine to fish out some lodged packaging and had managed to lose part of that hand. It was terrible, working on the gears and removing the lost parts of somebody else. He had managed to make a quick call but no answer. And as he put his key into the back lock, assuming Tammy had already buttoned up for the night, he could see her curled into herself on the loveseat near the window, a highball in hand. They had gotten that mini bar as a wedding present from Tammy’s Uncle Alfie who none of the family loved, except for Tammy. And when they heard of the kind of gift she had gotten from him, they were practically leading prayer circles out on the Brightman’s front lawn. “They all could use a drink themselves,” Tammy had said, laughing it off. But the bar had gone from a weekend treat to a daily habit. Walt didn’t mind a martini on Saturday evenings when they’d watch Lawrence Welk, and Tammy would sashay across the floor as if she were dancing with the man himself. Walt would always sit, a secondary character in his own home. But it was okay. Tammy had enough heart for the both of them.
But as weeks wore on and stress from family gatherings at Thanksgiving or wayward comments from well-meaning aunts about the status of Tammy’s womb flooded through the phone line, Walt noticed his wife drinking a little more than she should. He wanted to talk to her about this, but he only managed to toss it on the mound of everything else he hoped to one day talk about.
“How’s your girlfriend?” Tammy hiccuped. She placed her hand, the one that was highball-free across her lips like a lady.
“Fantastic. Sent me home with a little extra cheesecake. Want a piece?” Walt slid into their usual banter as he slid off his shoes. Her eyes looked glassy, but she giggled a little bit.
“I bet she’s a real Betty Crocker.”
“And you should see the rugs at her place! Those carpets could be in a Hoover ad.” He sat next to her, too close he could tell. And this time she didn’t giggle.
“I can’t help it, Walt. I can’t help that I’m not like the other women.” Walt didn’t ask what she was talking about because they both knew what she was talking about. His was wife was so intelligent and such a hard worker. And even though he, out of everyone, wanted her to stay home and raise his kids, her pain broke his heart. He would never have to make a choice and her life seemed like nothing but choices.
“I’m not a monster,” she said, taking a hardy swig of her drink. She wasn’t. Walt knew that. But he could recognize the feeling of being alone in a sea of people. Even in college, the women Tammy roomed with, went to classes with were either there to find a husband or killing time until Mr. Right would one day show up. Tammy never thought that way. Her life was a grand symphony, and nobody had the right to be the conductor except her.
“Of course not. And besides, even if you were one, it’s nothing my girlfriend can’t fix with a little lemon meringue.”
“Oh Walt,” Tammy said, rolling her eyes and sloshing her drink. Walt pretended not to notice when some soaked into her blouse.
Walt got up and kissed his wife lightly on her hairline. She closed her eyes a second too long with her head tilted up. When she opened them, she smiled.
In his room, Walt undressed and got ready for bed. He had made himself a sandwich as Tammy made another drink, and now as he was getting into bed, he could hear her laughing at the Red Skelton show. Under the covers he closed his eyes, making a list of all those things he’d get the nerve to talk to her about. One day.
It was unfathomable. His wife had cancer. Tammy, the solid oak of a woman he had kept happy all these years. He tried not to think about the cost of that happiness, how it had meant never having kids and never speaking his mind. It almost felt like they were on equal ground now, Tammy growing a tumor on her liver and Walt growing a phantom one in the back of his throat.
His parents were dead at this point. And the bakery was the crippled sibling he looked after day after day, having left the factory years ago. It didn’t struggle, it thrived. But only because Walt had severed off parts of himself so it could do so.
While Walt had been at the bakery, Tammy was still in the lab. The TV shows changed but the highballs remained. Tammy went from a beautifully robust woman to one who looked slightly ill all the time. She was too thin but still big-boned, so there always seemed to be a looming quality about her. If she hadn’t felt like other women back then, Walt knew she certainly must not now.
At night, even before the diagnosis, he held her. She smelled of her whisky and all those years she believed she was right—that she wasn’t like those other women.
But Walt knew better. He had seen her eyes when she held her sister’s newborn baby. And when they’d stroll down the sidewalks, Tammy would train her eyes ahead as a stroller passed by. Walt knew Tammy was wrong. Maybe she wasn’t exactly like other women, but there was a yearning there for a child. She was just scared. And that fear went from destroying her hope to destroying her liver.
So many years stacked up, and when Walt looked around, he was surrounded by baked bread and intense loneliness. They never made any real friends, at least not together. Walt had started going to AA meetings in the late seventies. He was the foreman of the plant at that point and convinced his wife he had to stay late once a week to sort through paperwork. But he was really sitting with a bunch of people just like his wife who let him ask his questions and share his pain. Each one of them—the greasy guy who delivered pizzas or that one woman, Rochelle, who got busted trying to sell her three-year-old for booze—each one of them became his wife, and once a week, Walt was able to bare his soul.
One day, Tammy coughed up blood. It was a sunny Saturday, and Walt was going through the motions, listing off things they could do together even though he knew his wife would inevitably opt for a nap. He was looking at her face, her pale-yellow skin, when she covered her mouth to burp. He was preparing to joke with her, say something about his girlfriend never exhibiting her bodily functions in his presence, when he saw blood on the hand she had covered her mouth with. She looked at it like it was the letter in the mail she had been waiting for.
When they went to the doctor, she asked him to wait in the car. And then she asked him to wait in the car every appointment after that. “How can she ask me that?” he said to Carmen, a young Hispanic woman in AA who was two years sober.
“Maybe she’s ashamed,” Carmen said in a way that indicated Tammy wasn’t the only one.
The closer to death Tammy got, the more constricted Walt felt. The knot grew right out of his throat and into all the cells of himself. He was dying, maybe not literally, but everything he had never said was loudly breaking him down.
Eventually, she had to be hospitalized. And eventually, she was too weak to tell him not to come to the hospital. When she was sleeping or dazed from all the pain medication, he started to come unglued.
“How could you have been so selfish? We could have had such a beautiful life. Such a…” The beeps from the machines she was hooked to would throw him off. He’d come back to himself as if he were a stranger watching this interaction, shaking his own shoulders with disgust.
“I’m sorry,” he’d say weakly, the “almost” of saying everything he never said strong enough to buckle his knees.
She died when he was alone in his bed. He had come home from a long shift at the bakery and played with the idea of going up to the hospital to berate her and ultimately himself or come home to sleep off the sympathetic looks his employees wouldn’t stop giving him.
A nurse called. Walt remembered her voice. Soft and flat in his ear like she had a whole list of death she had to get through.
Carmen from AA told him about St. Andrew’s. He knew it as the beautiful church building downtown he’d often stare up at whenever Tammy was still willing to take walks with him. He called and Pastor Luke’s secretary, Dorothy, helped him set everything up, down to the undertaker who prepared her body.
That body, when he saw it in the coffin, wasn’t the body he had always known. He had already prepared himself for that, seeing her body hadn’t been the one he’d known for a very long time. But there was something about her not being anymore that made Tammy look like a shell. Like Walt had her remade out of the thinnest of plastics.
Everybody came. The engineers from his old job and some of the plant workers, the bakery employees, and all the people who used to do strange things to hearts with his wife. Walt pretended it was because they were all close friends, that these were the people they had had barbecues with and had raised babies together. But neither of these things were true. These were the people who sensed a deep sadness in them both, and maybe this was a way for them to rid that sadness from themselves.
He went up, self-conscious of the sea of eyes on his back, but he bent over and kissed Tammy’s forehead anyways. He took in every inch of the face that was no longer his wife’s and said goodbye to all the things they never did. All those things he had never said.
After the funeral, and a few restless nights, and the sound of his unsaid things scratching at the back door, he decided to go to church. Pastor Luke was a likeable guy, not too much machismo but not a ninny either. He stood at the pulpit comfortably but also with a sense of concern like he could feel the bits of broken his parishioners tried to hide in their pockets. He spotted Walt in the crowd, a small and patient smile on his face. After service, he didn’t shake Walt’s hand, he hugged him. And he told him about the grief group that met every week.
Walt started going and never stopped. For a few years, that group was a haven. And then his heart paused one evening when Marge walked through the door. Marge hadn’t been beautiful in a traditional sense, but also not in the way Tammy was either. She was a large woman, bolstered by her grief, and Walt felt like there was nowhere else to look. No one else had captured his attention like she had in a long, long time.
When he talked to Marge, he could sense her bits of broken that she kept in her own pockets. She had a knack for stuffing them down. But slowly, he slipped his hand in hers until she started to release a few.
He wasn’t expecting what happened at the bakery. It ripped at him worse than if his own flesh had been torn off. He was the one who had asked her to work there. He was the one who didn’t push back when she requested the night shift. He had just been grateful she wanted to work there at all.
And then their date. How he had longed to sit and just stare at her for a while.
He couldn’t blame her for disappearing. He wanted to blame her. He wanted it to be like it had been with Tammy, frustrated cries at someone who didn’t even know you were there. But he didn’t get mad, he waited. He waited for her to show back up even though he had her address from her employment papers. He worked “73 Alberta Lane” through every inch of his brain until the words no longer made sense. He even went out there one night, just once. He drove through a trailer park and found a double wide that looked so dismal in the dark, Walt feared it wouldn’t have looked any better in the daytime.
Oh, how he had wanted to go inside to find her. But it was nearly ten at night, and the only light he could see was a soft glow from one end of the trailer, presumably a bedroom. Walt knew then that Marge would never come back.
So today had been a head scratcher. After all these years, there she was on a stool, chatting Gerry up like they were old friends. He felt fortunate to have seen her first so he had the chance to gather his wits about him in his office. He took in two deep breaths and then walked out to whatever the future might hold.
He didn’t know what to say about the boys, so he didn’t say anything. The one was so young, he supposed it was a grandson. He remembered Marge’s daughter, Whitney, and figured she must be old enough now to maybe have one of her own. But the other boy—Garrett—Walt knew was somebody different. And he caught himself daring to do the math in his head.
“I miss you, Marge.” He made himself say it because for so many years he had missed a woman who was dead before she even started dying. If he would have been brave enough to say that to Tammy, would she be here right now? Would Marge never had to endure what she did in that alley?
These were answers only God knew, and even though everyone in their right mind would have been angry at Him if they had the same sort of questions, Walt wasn’t in the slightest. Looking back, he had just been a man, lost in the sea of doing and saying. But now he was learning how to just be.
Walt gathered himself in his office, belly full of breakfast, and peeked through the crack in his office door. Gerry was sweeping the squeaky-clean floors and humming the I Love Lucy theme song. He smiled until that old familiar strain of fear reminded him of his promise to sit with Marge, to care for her.
He had failed before. Who was to say he wouldn’t fail again?
From the novel I”m writing, A Bird Alone. To check out my other books, click here.