A husband dies on a day like any other day. Open Nutella jar on the counter. The frustration of Tupperware lids that don’t match Tupperware bottoms. A smudge of watery sunlight — the kind that comes in after an early-morning May rain. Cheryl is on her knees in front of her fridge, arm completely immersed in wiping a cheese drawer, so the doorbell causes her to bang her head against the open freezer door and she’s still rubbing the sore spot when she sees the dismantled face of the highway patrolman on her back step.
And then: everything is exactly the same after as it was before. Still have to screw the lid back on the Nutella jar before you put it back in the fridge. Still have to let the dog out to pee before going to bed.
What did you expect? That the birds would hold vigil in the trees? That the postal service would take note and stop sending those ridiculously colorful Macy’s holiday circulars? That all the Tupperware lids would magically fit, or vanish from the kitchen island?
“So, pepperoni on half, olives on half, extra ranch?” Those are the last words her husband said to her. And when she got his phone back from the coroner’s office, she told herself she was only going to listen to the recording to hear that last call.
She doesn’t even make it home, just takes a left out of the Department of Public Health parking lot and then another left into a residential neighborhood. She locks the doors to the Subaru and reaches over to pull his phone out of the plastic bag they handed her.
Her husband was an executive at a trucking company that specialized in transporting wigs. And he had an app on his phone that recorded all of his calls. Six years of phone calls.
One more, she tells herself, when the line goes quiet. She’ll just listen to one more.
And that’s how she finds herself, three hours later, in the Subaru, in the dark, holding her breath as he says, “Great catching up, Bill” and the line goes dead.
Bose earbuds that she gets custom fit to her ear diameter. A new subwoofer and amplifier for the Subaru. She learns that if she keeps her hand on the cold grate of the speaker, the sound becomes a touch. The speaker emits a puff of air against her skin. If she turns the treble as high as it will go, she can hear him breathing between words.
She hears from him more now than she ever did.
A call to his mother, two years ago: “Doesn’t look like Sunday is going to work after all.”
On hold with Verizon, singing under his breath: penny a room at the hotel California…
To a colleague: “I’ve seen you golf, man. You’re not fooling anyone.”
“Yep,” he says when he answers the phone and he knows the caller. “Dave here,” he says when he doesn’t know who it is. “Hey you,” he says to her, his voice getting soft and stretchy, like an orange rind unpeeling from the flesh. “Hey you.”
A friend’s birthday party, the first time she’s left her bed in weeks, she parks out front of the restaurant and turns the volume up. His voice reverberates in the car – shaking the dashboard, shaking the window glass. She closes her eyes and pictures him not as a wispy angel above her, but beneath her. A god of the sands and worms and tectonic plates. His hand under the car’s metal frame. She half expects to feel his warm palm against the side of her neck. The hair on the back of her arms is standing up, from the car speakers or maybe something else.
No matter where you go, I’ll hold you, she imagines he’s saying, but really he’s just telling his assistant that he’s running late for the board meeting because of traffic on the 405.
A knock on the window. The concerned face of a friend. “You comin’ in?” mouthed through the glass. She nods, waits for the friend to head in to the restaurant, drives home instead.
She likes especially the sounds of him eating. Or when he stops to order fast-food and she can conjure up such a fleshy image: the slide of the little glass door, the static of the intercom, how he rolls on to one hip to pull his wallet out, phone crooked in his neck. “Hang on one sec,” he says to whoever is on the phone. “Have a good one,” he says. To gas station attendants, Starbucks baristas, beggars on freeway on-ramps. Have a good one.
She likes least the calls between the two of them. How the cadence of their calls is that one person is always talking fast and one person is always not really listening.
She doesn’t lose her job; her job loses her. Seven weeks of no-call-no-shows and she wakes up to find her cubicle knick-knacks in a cardboard box on her porch. A few months later, the house goes in a similar way; she’s listening to his voice full-blast on her headphones – “I think we need to look closer at these fuel numbers. I’m not sure that headwind is being properly accounted for” – when the Sheriff pulls up to evict her.
She doesn’t even pause the recording, just packs a suitcase and rolls it down the steps and out to her car.
Every time you listen to your headphones at a higher-than-average volume, the tiny hairs in your ears are worn down, until eventually they can’t transmit the electrical signals from noise and you start to lose your hearing.
So over time, she stops being able to make out the roar of the garbage trucks on Tuesday mornings, the tick of the toaster oven when she heats up a frozen waffle, the laugh track of a Married with Children rerun on TV.
She doesn’t mind it though. It makes her closer to him. The rest of the world receding as he gets crisper, louder, clearer. Now when he makes a joke, she laughs as if he made it only for her amusement.
She buys a speaker that is taller than she is, places it next to the side of the bed he used to sleep on. When she puts her feet on the carpet next to the speaker, she can feel his words in the pads of her toes.
She starts sleeping with a man who lives in the apartment upstairs from her. He doesn’t look like her husband but he has the same way of unclasping his watch in one smooth movement. She keeps her earbuds in, and if he thinks it’s weird, if it scares him, he doesn’t say.
After a month of so, she doesn’t even bother with the earbuds. Just replays her favorite call – a Superbowl related call with his brother – on full blast. The bass shakes her butt cheeks against the bedsheets. Rattles his keys where he leaves them on her dresser. When her husband chuckles at his brother complaining about the Rams, she can feel the chuck of that chuckle bursting inside her chest cavity. If the vibration of the sound travels through her vaginal walls, makes his penis itch, the man from upstairs says nothing. He fucks her complacently, obediently, eyes locked on a freckle on her shoulder, both of them serious and silent like two strangers working out alone at a late night gym.
Her husband’s voice around them both, a rhythm, a guiding force. They generally both finish around the time her husband says, “alright, give my love to Nance and the kids.” Lie next to each other in the silence after the call disconnects.
“You got to get back out there, man” her husband consoles a friend whose wife left him for a woman she met at an artist’s colony. “Love isn’t meant to eat us alive.” This is a year before he died.
She now sees that he has a way of speaking that is almost poetic. Tells his employees, “we aren’t saving babies here,” when they get overwhelmed at work. “I’d like to stay married, thank you very much,” when a client asks him to fly to New York over Christmas. “Nothing’s free,” when a deal seems too good to be true. Not that we’re talking a master speaker here. He says Nip it in the butt instead of Nip it in the bud. He uses the word travesty to mean tragedy. Pronounces moot point like mute point.
She starts rationing out calls. Listening over and over to favorites — a lunchtime order of Jack in the Box while on the phone with a college friend, a time he is asking his assistant for help thinking of a good anniversary gift, a yawning call to her from a work trip to Iceland. In six months, she’s gone through four years. At this rate, she’ll won’t even make it to Christmas before she’s heard every new word he’s ever going to say to her.
His voice is all she has — no, not metaphorically. Literally. Everything else is gone: to-do lists, paychecks, a sympathetic-looking goldfish, her health insurance, calls and texts from her friends, any sense of what day or time it is.
Then there’s only one call left that she hasn’t heard. It’s from six years ago when he first got promoted.
The life insurance money has run out. The heat is off in her apartment. So is the water. The man from upstairs hasn’t been by in weeks.
She has dragged the tall speaker into bed, to lie next to her body. Her nipples, belly, collarbone, forehead rest on the metal. Her body has gotten so used to shaking that lying still makes her itch.
“You there?” he says. His voice like hot water against her ribcage.
A long silence.
“Yeah, I’m here.” It’s her, younger and warmer. Her voice spreads over her skin like a meadow.
“You doin’ okay?”
“Something like that.” What’s wrong? She can’t remember now, just has a faint memory of their old house, standing in the kitchen, watching the curtain get tossed around by the breeze.
“Want me to duck out of here early?”
“No, I’m fine.”
A long silence. He’s unconvinced.
“Really, I’m fine.”
“It’s gonna’ get better, hun.” He tells her, “this is just temporary.”
And that’s the last thing he’ll ever say to her.
Emma Pattee’s stories have been published in Bellevue Literary Review, Idaho Review, Carve Magazine, and Citron Review. During the day, she works as a freelance journalist covering feminism, mortality, and climate change. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Cut, Marie Claire, CNBC, and Elle. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and runs the Portland chapter of Women Who Submit.