Two by Two

"The neighbors are at it again!" DeeDee yells, so I grab the broom and stand in the hall doorway, waiting. Sure enough, I hear a light shuffle and then a long scrape, and then DeeDee yells, "OK, Robert, now!" and I start to beat the broom handle against the ceiling, carefully at first because of the framed cross-stitch on the wall of intertwined swans that DeeDee made for our thirty-fifth anniversary. But careful isn't enough for DeeDee, never has been. She was a firecracker when I met her, all red hair and Irish fists always thinking there was a fight, and she's a firecracker still. The cross-stitch falls. Its glass shatters. DeeDee doesn't notice.

I wonder how long we'll be at it this time. Yesterday was easy, just a few hits of the broom and then DeeDee announced the danger had passed, we'd scared them off for good. The morning before that I was walking through the hallway to bring DeeDee her coffee and I heard the steps start up, a faint strain of string plucked to rum-ta-ta, rum ta-ta from the ceiling. I knew I should hurry to the bedroom to distract DeeDee., but instead I stopped and leaned my head back against the wall, closed my eyes and felt the press of her back against my hand, the way she knew to turn with me, the pull and the sway . I thought of taking her hand right there and asking her to join me, but we're past that now.

There are bad days, more and more of them, days like last Tuesday. That morning the doctor told her she couldn't drive anymore. When she argued and then turned to me, pleading, he wrote it out on a prescription pad. On the drive home she wouldn't say a word, but as soon as we got in the door she announced that she heard them, they were coming, and I'd better get the broom. I almost argued right then, I almost put an end to it, but I didn't have the heart. Two hours we were at it. My arms were aching and my back hurt so badly I knew I'd be stuck in bed for the rest of the day, but who could quit with DeeDee so sure we were saving ourselves. Two hours. I wouldn't have blamed them if they'd called the cops.

Scrape-scrape. Shuffle-shuffle. That'd be the girl; she does everything in pairs. Once I saw her grocery bag break in the lobby and things came tumbling out in twos: a duo of apples, a perfect match of plums, a couple of whole frying chickens, each thing with its partner like the animals I painted on Michael's wall before he was born. Ten long years we'd been trying and we were so excited the day we found out that we stopped for paint on the way home from the doctor's. We stayed up late into the night, giddily laying down the long golden bones of the ark, the animals spilling out in jubilation, ready to forget, so quickly forget, the dark that had come before. Maybe I'll move in with Michael when it finally happens, and paint animals on the walls for his children. I think this sometimes, when it happens. Never what It is. Fifty-three years we've been married.

"Robert! Harder! You've got to let them know you aren't afraid! Give me the broom!" But I can't give her the broom, not now. It's too heavy, too heavy for me now, really, but definitely too heavy for her, and the handle's loose unless you hold it just right. I spent ten years pushing a broken broom around because each year I told myself I didn't need a new one, that year would be my last on the job. But always when the time came it was too hard to say goodbye. I remember the rhythm and I fall into it now. Sweep-sweep. Scrape-scrape comes the ceiling. Thump-thump I answer, and it's like we're dancing.

Who knows, maybe DeeDee's right. Maybe they are plotting up there. Maybe he takes her into his arms at night and whispers dreams for the future: the house they'll move in to one day, the baby that will come when they've stopped expecting it. Where I hear music DeeDee hears something else, that I know. They're young, she says. They don't have enough. One day they will come and take everything from the dotty old couple that lives downstairs. I look at DeeDee when she says this and I think, It happens.

I beat the ceiling harder now, I beat it hard enough to scare off anything lurking above, anything coming. I beat it hard enough to let DeeDee know I will always do this for her. I beat it so hard white plaster dust rains down on me, so hard I hear a shouted curse from upstairs, so hard an angry knock comes at the door. Two fists, not one. Rap-rap, rap-rap-rap.

"Don't answer it, Robert. Promise me you won't answer it." Deedee sounds like she's going to cry.

So I don't. Instead I take her in my arms and we lie down together on the sofa like we used to, moving slowly now but fitting together all the same, tight as two soldiers in a foxhole. I kiss the top of her head and breathe in the scent of lavender soap that has always been her and the denture paste that is her now. Just the two of us together on this trip. Now, while she still knows who I am. Now, while I still do.

About the author:

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and is currently an MFA candidate in Nonfiction Writing at Emerson College, where she is writing a memoir about death penalty work. Her fiction is also forthcoming from Monkeybicycle.