Monday, February 25, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Things Look Nice by William Cass

Things Look Nice
William Cass
PHOTO: Jonas Lowgren

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical

Esther had picked the oleander from a bush that grew behind her back fence. It actually belonged to her neighbor. She dried a bunch of it in the sun on her kitchen windowsill until it was brittle enough to crush easily into bits between sheets of paper towel. It reminded her of oregano.

Several weeks passed before that amount of oleander had dried completely, which was almost a month after she was supposed to bring her old Sheltie, Gus, in to be put to sleep. She didn’t call to cancel the appointment, and no one from the vet’s office bothered to call her. The new vet was a tall, aloof man with horn-rimmed glasses whose office walls were covered with photographs of his windsurfing adventures around the world. New age music mixed with sounds from nature was always playing. He never remembered her name.

Esther had known their old vet since they’d gotten Gus as a puppy fourteen years earlier. The old vet had become a friend, but he’d passed away a few months after Ernie had a couple of years ago. So when the time came, and with the old vet and Ernie both gone, she couldn’t bring herself to take Gus to the new doctor and his photographs and his music. She just couldn’t. She decided to take care of things herself.

Gus stunk. He’d lost almost as much hair as he had left, was completely blind in one eye and nearly so in the other. He bumped into things. His eyeballs pointed off in odd directions and looked as if they were swimming in petroleum jelly. He’d been hit by a car within the last year and had lost the use of one of his hind legs. He suffered from acute constipation and arthritis, and spent most of his time sleeping and waiting to have his head scratched.

Still, he was her only companion and it took until after she rescued him from nearly drowning in the toilet bowl early one morning that she made up her mind. She’d bathed him in warm water with some of her own oils, sang to him as she toweled him off, let him eat his favorite biscuit from her palm, fought back the ache in her heart, then went out and picked the oleander.


Across the street, Steve was laying big bottles of pre-mixed cocktails into the freezer. They represented different varieties of a new product his company had recently introduced; each bore exotic or sexually suggestive names. His wife, Becca, stood with her back to him cutting zucchinis for the grill. She’d already put out the chips and salsa, marinated the chicken, set the table on the deck, chosen an eclectic assortment of CDs, and dressed. She’d finally had to shout at Steve for help in a voice that made their young daughter pause at the computer game she was playing in her bedroom. Becca now cut swiftly and with exaggerated punctuation.

Steve tossed the empty beverage carton out the back door. Becca stopped cutting abruptly, but did not turn around. She said, “You might take the trash out.”

Steve looked at the back of her and considered her girth. He decided with satisfaction that although they’d both gained some weight, he’d managed considerably better than she had. He shrugged. “I might,” he said. “Then again, I might not.”

But he went out the door and pulled the cans and recycling bins out through the side gate to the curb. Then he re-entered the house through the French doors off the dining room and lay back down on the couch next to the bottle of beer he’d been nursing. He returned his attention to the football game on the TV and tried not to think about the new receptionist at work with the long auburn hair who had suggested they have lunch soon.

Up the block and around the corner, Joe stood in his backyard watering the last of his many potted plants. He enjoyed the smell of the wet earth and the way the falling light filtered through the branches of the birch tree. The birch’s gold and curling leaves, spinning now in the faint breeze, looked as if they were holding on for dear life.

PHOTO: Pietro Zanarini
His wife, Michelle, stepped out on the patio and said, “Things look nice.”

He nodded and watched her survey the backyard. Like him, her features were serious and defined. They’d met as volunteers at a blood bank while they were both finishing college eight years before. Now her green eyes traveled over the neatly trimmed grass and plants and stopped at him. She asked, “You going to shower? The sitter will be here soon.”

“You go ahead,” he told her. “Last pot.”

He watched her dab at her damp bangs with the towel she wore across her shoulders. She’d just come home from her spin class. There were wet stains across the middle of her leotard. Through the screen door behind her, he could see their two children lying on the family room rug, coloring.

“I’m going to jump in then,” his wife said.

Joe nodded again and turned back to his watering.


Esther waited until the sun had set, then browned chunks of sirloin steak in beef bullion broth on the stove. She let the meal cool in Gus’s bowl on the counter while she sat on the kitchen floor and played tug-ofwar with him with his old knotted gray towel. He stayed interested for a few minutes, his purple gums bared in a strained, happy snarl. Then he groaned, farted, and went back to sleep with his head against her leg, a string of drool dangling from his jowls.

She thought of Ernie coming in with him from the back field where their little farm had met the river, the small dog diligently herding the lumbering cows. That was years ago before Ernie had begun building dollhouses in the barn, which had just been a hobby then. Eventually, he began selling them out of the toy store in town and they became quite popular.

When the store’s owner went into the rest home, Ernie finally gave up driving truck and trying to raise cattle and took over the store from him. Not long afterward, they moved into town, too. But almost every evening for many years before that, she’d watched the two silhouettes of Ernie and Gus approaching from the distance among the cows, the dark green stand of trees along the river’s edge behind them.

Esther held the crushed oleander for a long moment over Gus’s bowl, then swallowed and sprinkled it in with the meat. She washed her hands and stared out the window at nothing. She pushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear and blew out a breath. Then she brought the bowl out to Gus’s basket next to her tulip-backed chair on the brick patio. Quickly, she went back inside, lifted Gus into her arms, and carried him outside. She set him in the basket in front of the bowl, which he sometimes ignored. But this time, he sniffed once and began to eat immediately and voraciously.

PHOTO: da Binsi
Esther lowered herself slowly into her chair next to him. She looked away from Gus over the garden. The light had a liquid quality. The birdbath sat empty and dry among Ernie’s sweet-smelling roses. A spray of bougainvillea over the arbor had passed bloom. The sky’s blue was already deepening toward dusk. She bit her lip. 

The evening train’s whistle blew. It clacked by the town’s central intersection a short distance away. It was a long train heading east toward the Cascades. Esther breathed slowly and listened to it pass.


The sitter they shared first came by Steve and Becca’s house pulling a wagon. Their daughter was already waiting on the front step in her pajamas and slippers holding a stuffed elephant. Becca wrapped her in a blanket, set her in the wagon, and watched them head down the street.

She clicked off the television and looked at Steve lying on the couch. They were quiet for a long moment staring at each other. Becca nodded her head, looked at the clock on the mantel, “Well, the sitter’s come and gone. If our guests are lucky, they’ll get to see you in your sweatpants and your special orange T-shirt with the holes.”

Steve thought of their first kiss on the swings down by the lake after the Fourth of July fireworks. He stood up, stretched, picked up his beer bottle by the neck, and sauntered by her to their bedroom.


It didn’t take Gus long to finish the bowl of food. Before he could lower his head again, Esther scooped him up and held him on her lap. Except for the dwindling sound of the train, the evening was almost silent. Esther sat very still and scratched Gus lightly behind the ears as she had thousands of times before. He sighed, as always, and settled his head on top of her knee.


“Here comes the sitter with Hillary,” Michelle called.

Their son and daughter, three and four, ran to the front door and down the steps to greet the wagon. A short while later, Michelle and Joe were walking up the street to Steve and Becca’s.

Joe asked her, “Is this Game Night 3 or 4?”

“Don’t know.”

“What started these things, you remember?”

Michelle shrugged. “Oh, I think Becca thought it would be a return to simpler times, the child in all of us, something like that.”

Joe thought about how Steve and Becca had helped them find the house and get settled when Michelle’s company had suddenly given her the raise and transferred her up to Seattle from Portland. They’d left the life they’d enjoyed there reluctantly, but things had worked out all right. Steve had put in a good word with someone he knew at the school where Joe had eventually found the teaching position. At the time, they were only acquainted with one another vaguely through Steve’s brother who’d been a college friend of Joe’s. So, it was true that Steve and Becca had been unusually welcoming. Joe really wasn’t sure how much they had in common, but they’d settled into a pattern of getting together once or twice a month.

“It’s a pretty evening,” Joe said.

His wife nodded and said, “There’s Steve.”

They waved to the big man who stood on his front porch. He raised two bottles to them and called, “Green hangover or brown?”


Gus had twitched a few times at first; then his breathing grew shallower and shallower until it gradually stopped altogether. Esther kept scratching his head and looking at Ernie’s flowers, lit now in the first blush of new moonlight. She cried quietly in small gasps, almost like tiny coughs.

She tried to think of Ernie and how proud he’d been of that first row or roses: yellow and peach hybrids he’d worked on for years. He’d taken a runner-up ribbon for them at his last flower show. Between those roses and the birdbath, Esther had dug a little grave earlier in the day. She planned to put Gus’s old basket right down in the hole with his blanket and a few of his other favorite things.

But she was in no hurry. Except for the movement of her fingertips on his head and the occasional reach she made for Kleenex in the pocket of her cardigan, she sat perfectly still.


PHOTO: Deborah Austin
Steve and Joe leaned against the railing on the deck; they were already on their second drink. Ostensibly, they were in charge of the bar-b-que.

“So what do you hear from your brother?” Joe asked.

Steve snorted a laugh. “Almost nothing.”

“Work going okay for you?”

“Won this patio furniture last month.”

Steve raised the lid on the bar-b-que, let out a cloud of smoke, and pushed the spitting chicken around with a pair of tongs. “Won dartboards, luggage, golf shirts up the ying-yang. I can’t complain.”

Inside, Becca and Michelle were slicing sun dried tomatoes and Kalamata olives for the salad.

Michelle said, “That’s a neat necklace.”

“Thanks. Steve likes it when I wear jewelry. Why don’t you throw out that foo-foo drink and have a nice glass of white wine?”

“All right,” Michelle said. “If you think Steve won’t be offended.”

Becca took a wine glass out of the cupboard, poured wine, and set the glass in front of Michelle with a satisfied smirk.

During dinner, Steve and Joe switched to beer, but their wives shared the same bottle of wine. As usual, Joe fell well behind in the drinking department. The conversation meandered over a variety of topics until Michelle said, “We had an interesting question posed to us at a sales meeting this week. What livelihood would you pursue if you could be bankrolled for whatever amount you needed for as long as you liked?”

They all looked at one another smiling.

Becca asked her, “What did you say?”

Michelle frowned. “That’s just it. I honestly didn’t know.”

“I’d start a big three-part nightclub,” Steve said, gesturing with his beer bottle. “On one side, a strip joint for guys; on the other end, the same deal for ladies, a Chippendale- type thing. In between, you put a plush dance place for both with all the bells and whistles; a couple of floors, Kamikaze’s a buck apiece anytime. Waiters and waitresses run around in skimpy little jungle outfits; call it, ‘Adam and Eve.’” He raised his eyebrows, took a long swallow of beer, then said, “Would that idea go, or what? A place like that couldn’t miss.”

“Very clever,” Becca said.

Steve looked at her and asked, “What would you do, honey?”

She returned his stare evenly. “End hunger. World peace.” She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe find a way people like us could choose our kid’s college now and have it paid for when they grow up. Maybe invent a safe, effective diet pill.”

Steve nodded seriously and said, “I see.”

He picked up her hand and kissed the back of it. Becca let him, but looked at Joe and said, “Well?”

Joe sighed. “I think I’d start a nursery. The plant kind.”

“I can believe that,” Michelle said. She smiled. “Have you seen our backyard lately?”


The moon had risen high enough to spill its blanket of soft light. The night had grown cooler; a little fog had drifted in from the west. Esther smoothed the last of the rich, black earth over the grave and patted it down gently with the back of the shovel. Then she lifted a softball-sized, green-gray rock, smooth and speckled like a trout, and set it down on the grave’s depression. She’d gotten it from the river at the back of their old farm. Since she no longer drove, it had taken several hours of bus connections and that long walk up and down the county road to get it.

She stood still and listened to herself breathe. She was no longer crying; she was all cried out.


Joe and Michelle did the dishes while Steve poured brandy into big snifters. His company’s logo was etched cloudily into the sides of the glasses. Becca came into the kitchen wearing a big smile and carrying a game of “Twister.” The box was ripped at three corners. She presented it to them like it was an award and said, “Ta da!”


Esther went back inside and heated up a can of minestrone soup. She poured it into a bowl and brought it into the living room. It sat untouched on the little table next to Ernie’s old red recliner in the living room where she sat. She pulled some old photograph albums from the bookshelf next to it and flipped slowly through the pages under the creamy light from the brown shaded stand-up lamp behind her. She began with a tattered album of black construction paper pages full of snapshots mounted with faded white L-shaped anchors, then made her way up through the albums that had gold spiral rings, then through those that were like three-ringed binders with pages sticky as flypaper, and finally the plain albums with eight plastic pocket pages just the size of the photographs. The pictures for particular time periods had decreased in volume over the years. Most of the photos were of Ernie or Gus or the two of them around the farm or the house. They’d never traveled much; they had no other family.


Steve and Joe had moved some furniture out of the way and they’d set the Twister mat up on the family room carpet. The teams were Becca and Joe versus Steve and Michelle. They laughed a lot and fell on each other. When it was Steve’s turn to spin, he stopped the pointer wherever he liked: usually in a spot that would demand the most contortions. Once, he bumped against an end table and a framed photograph fell off it onto his lap. It was of his wife’s nephew in his high school graduation gown. Steve turned the photograph around to the rest of them and asked, “Why do band geeks always look like band geeks?”

They laughed some more. Becca had put on an old Rolling Stones’ CD that added to the levity, and they grunted into positions until condensation formed on the edges of the windows. Finally, they all collapsed on the sofa. Michelle glanced at her watch and exclaimed, “Oh, my God, we have to go!”


Esther put the photograph albums back neatly, fingering them tenderly. She tried to concentrate on what lay ahead the rest of the week: morning rosaries, a rug she was hooking, the flowers to tend, some tomatoes and beets to can, walks without Gus, a volunteer shift at the church thrift shop, letters to write, a new book to read, a bath or two, meals.

She remembered suddenly that it was trash night, and she walked into the dark kitchen and out the back door. The fog had thinned and drifted low to the ground. A few stars blinked through the sparse high clouds and the moon was brighter still. Esther pulled her cardigan tighter around her and began to drag the old silver trashcan down the driveway.

Steve and Michelle carried the empty brandy snuffers back to the kitchen while Becca went for their jackets. Joe carried the sack of empty bottles out the gate to the recycling bin at the curb. He set the bottles in the bin, then stood and watched Esther struggle with the trashcan across the street.
He trotted across to her.

“Here,” he said to her, “let me give you a hand with that.”

“Thank you kindly,” Esther said and gave him a small smile. She followed him to the end of the driveway. “Just there is fine, on the edge of the grass.”

PHOTO: Richard HB
Joe steadied the can, pushed down the lid, then brushed his hands together. He looked at the small woman in the gray cardigan in front of him, plain and stooped. The breeze lifted and on it came the scent of lilac. He looked over her at the bushes of late bloom against the corner of her garage, their purple shades dim-white in the moonlight.

“Those can’t be lilacs,” Joe said. “Not at this time of year.”

Esther nodded. “My husband planted them.”

“Do you cut them back in summer?”

“Earlier,” Esther said. “Just after they’ve passed the first time.”

“Then you get a second bloom.”

“If it’s a mild fall, yes.”

“Well, they’re lovely. My wife carried them at our wedding.”

Esther smiled and walked over to the low bushes. With her old, strong fingers she pinched off a few stems that held full foliage and carried them back. She handed them to Joe and said, “Give these to her.”

Joe let his breath out slowly. The flowers’ fragrance wafted between them. He nodded.

“And give her a hug,” Esther said. “You mustn’t forget that.”

Joe said, “I will. Thanks.”

He watched her shuffle up the drive, enter the house, and close the door behind her. It was so still that he could hear the tiny burp-burp-burp of a helicopter landing at the air station several miles away. He went back across the street.

Michelle was waiting for him on the curb. “I told them goodnight for us,” she said. She was wearing his big sports coat over her own thin jacket. She pulled her hair free from under the collar and looked over his shoulder. She asked, “Make a friend?”

Joe handed her the lilacs. “These are for you.”

Michelle took the flowers, dipped her face into them, and smiled. She said, “They smell like love.”

Joe nodded, held her close, then took her free hand. He squeezed it. They started up the street.


Esther saw them go from her darkened front window. The house was warm. Faint, familiar smells were there. So was the ticking of the grandfather’s clock. Watching the young couple pass under the streetlamp, she couldn’t really have imagined a better ending to the day. In fact, had there been any other, she doubted she could have bared the grief.

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