For his eighty-fourth birthday, Mrs. Horn gave her husband a metal-detector. Not just any metal-detector, mind you, but the SCANTRON 5000, complete with adjustable height function, detection volume adaptability, and detachable waterproof treasure baggie. Mr. Horn was a bit confused by the gesture, given that he'd never considered himself a metal-detective and had absolutely no idea where his wife might have snatched up the notion that it was an activity for which he had any sort of aptitude or interest. Nonetheless, he was touched when he thought of what trouble she must have gone through to get it. (Mrs. Horn had a degenerative muscle condition and had been confined to a wheelchair several years ago.) So he thanked her and parked her and her chair next to his ratty brown Lay-Z-Boy. He put the SCANTRON under the coffee table next to the four piles of Readers' Digests, and, settling stiffly back into the old recliner, reached out and took Mrs. Horn's papery, age-spotted hand. They nodded off to sleep like that, holding hands, while the afternoon swirled past the windows.
If this were all there was to it we should be satisfied. It could be enough: an elderly astronaut and his wife, a Scantron and a peaceful afternoon. Why shouldn't we read completion into the simple act of handholding? Who's to say that's not exactly all the Horns had ever wanted? But there are, I grant you, certain questions that arise.
Let's backtrack for a moment, say, to 1973. The year Mr. Horn became head engineer at NASA. Back on earth Mrs. Horn found herself lonely. Bobby was off at college already so, when there was nothing left to polish in their modest Cape Canaveral home, Mrs. Horn had an affair with the neighbor, Morris. Theirs was a casual arrangement. On Saturday mornings Morris would push his lawnmower over and trim Mrs. Horn's grass, after which they'd make love on the dining room table, then share a cool pitcher of lemonade on the back patio. Morris owned a small chain of pawnshops and delighted in giving Mrs. Horn items of curiosity. A pewter elephant paper weight in the mailbox, scarlet swatches of Chinese silk rolled up in the daily paper, a medallion made of real Taxco silver in the shape of an ancient Aztec deity--gifts of that nature. Mrs. Horn, for her part, found the gestures charming, though they did little to deepen her interest in Morris.
We're going to jump ahead for a minute to 1989 where Mrs. Horn's legs give out for good. In other news, Mr. Horn takes an indefinite leave-of-absence from the space program. The cold war is over.
The honeymoon of 1947 took place in a rented hacienda on a Cuban beach. Mrs. Horn in a pink polka-dot bathing suit tucked against the tan length of her husband, the hammock creaking softly. Mr. Horn traced constellations for his wife with the tip of his cigar, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia, Coma Berenices. She pretended she saw them. He told her that, one day, man would reach the moon. Mrs. Horn already felt closer.
After Morris came Clive, an anthropology professor from Tallahassee who liked to summer at the Cape. He wore linen pants and always carried a walking stick. Mrs. Horn found him a bit ridiculous.
Though one might be tempted to judge Mrs. Horn for her infidelities, couldn't it be Mr. Horn who is to blame? Mrs. Horn assumed his long nights were spent in the company of other rocket scientists, but would such a scenario be free of temptation? Who's to say there wasn't a busty blonde rocket scientist orbiting with him? And what about his perky Ann Margaret look-a-like receptionist? One thing is for sure, whatever Mrs. Horn's assumptions or justifications, they were made far from her husband and did little to alleviate her loneliness.
When she lost control of her bowels in 1996, Mrs. Horn was slightly thrilled. They never had company and Bobby, now married to a therapist, rarely visited. Which meant the only soul to witness this degradation was Mr. Horn. Her own discomfort was nothing compared to his, and this gave her a sense of vindication.
1977: Mrs. Horn just knows he won't be coming down this time from orbit. Half-crazed with house silence, she's crouched in the bedroom closet, sobbing into his crisply folded trousers, organized and hung according to texture and color.
1984, Mrs. Horn is cheerful, is Spring-cleaning. She's got a little something going in the crock-pot and is expecting her husband any minute. Suddenly a shattering-- Mrs. Horn, wild at the window, tossing keepsakes. Next comes the rainbow of dress shirts nesting on the lawn, followed by a storm of men's size 12 leather shoes, the double wedding ring suicide plunge into the ivy bed, and finally, the shredded remnants of a picture--found hidden among his things--of a woman bearing a striking resemblance to Ann Margaret, floating down to earth. Every day--Mrs. Horn shouting over her shoulder at the neighborhood as she speeds away--is crash day!
Of all the phone conversations that took place in 1989, few were as awkward as the one between the Horns after five years of separation. Though, granted, it could have gone much worse. Mr. Horn, even after learning of her condition, could have remained cold. Mrs. Horn might have changed her mind and hung up, thinking, surely he was not the only option she had left. Instead, they spoke softly, falling back into a familiar pattern. Deliberately Mr. Horn let a silence gather, and she broke it, as he knew she would. His answer was yes, more than yes. Again he wished for the words that would change everything back. Again, failing, he knew the gesture would have to be enough. Within a week Mr. Horn's sedan served as down payment for a conversion van that would hold a wheelchair. Their first floor guest room was converted into the master bedroom. A tear-stained Dear John letter was left for John the insurance adjuster who enjoyed fishing and sex, but didn't have the time or inclination to care for a handicapped, soon-to-be-former, mistress. And so Mrs. Horn, reluctantly, rolled back into Mr. Horn's life for good.
A month ago she woke suddenly. Her arms wouldn't move, but that had been happening more and more often in the past year, so it wasn't the paralysis that had frightened her. Perhaps a shift in air pressure or unexpected draft? She heard the sink running in the bathroom, realized it was the first time in over a decade she'd woken up without him lying next to her. Something moved in her chest. She fell asleep again as soon as he returned.
Perhaps she should have said something more before the end. Given him something more inspired than a metal-detector. She could have bestowed her forgiveness, or at least asked for his. Then again, these two were beyond speaking at that point when words were clearly not enough. And who's to say she didn't get it right? Who's to say Mr. Horn won't, one fine Florida morning, have nothing better to do than take his Scantron out from under the coffee table, brush off the year's accumulation of dust with the sleeve of his blue flannel bathrobe, and step out into the backyard? Can't you just picture him, eyes on the ground for the first time in ages, waving it back and forth, back and forth, slowly scanning the grass? What will he think when the thing starts beeping frantically over the ivy bed? Then imagine his surprise when he stoops down and his old, yet still agile, fingers turn over the dirt and touch something small and hard. The wonder of finding the long unaccounted for wedding rings after all these years, glittering in his hand like newly discovered stars. Mrs. Horn knew the story all along.
About the author:
Lindsay Walker is originally from southern Illinois. She earned her B.A. in English & Spanish from Tulane University where she received an Academy of American Poets prize in 2005. She is currently poetry editor for the literary magazine Juked, and has been published most recently in The Jabberwock Review, The Bare Root Review, Voix du Vieux, Stirring, and 971 Menu.