"Down to Earth"

CrossTime Science Fiction Anthology Vol. VII (2008), pp. 35-43, September 1st, 2008

Steve Dimeo Down to Earth Steve Dimeo A month after Lettie's February funeral, I woke up groggy from another bad night and padded into the living room of our "dream house" we'd built five years ago. I meant to start a fire in the hearth below her mantel ashes. But then that's all I did. Started. Lettie brightened me with that small pink smile I had missed so much. "Hi, honey. I'm home\" Her voice tinkled thin like a note from a xylophone. Wrapped in her favorite pink faux flannel bathrobe, she was knitting from her normal perch on the mauve Penney's sofa. "I can see that," I said, my mouth dry. Was I still somehow in bed dreaming all of this? "But how?" She scrunched herself down conspiratorially like a little girl who'd done something naughty and gotten away with it. At the same time she seemed to fidget–or maybe her figure "twitched" as if she were an image projected from old film stock stuck momentarily in its sprockets. It could even have been jitters from not yet getting my morning dose of coffee. "I escaped!" "'Escaped'? From heaven?" She narrowed her large brown eyes at me "Let's just say the afterlife's not all it's cracked up to be." "Heaven–isn't 'heaven'?" "There aren't exactly streets of gold, Dev. In fact, streets at all would be a luxury. It's more like a fog that feels like thick cotton you have to grope your way through." I was remembering how I'd clutched the minister's hand while he held hers as her coma deepened, listening to him say she could now "let go" and "walk into the light of the Lord." And how less than an hour later, I had to watch her head loll to the side of the blue snowflake-patterned flannel pillowcase as she gave out one last soft breath. "You didn't like being in the arms of Christ?" The minister's phrase again, hardly mine. "It's not really like that, honey. It's more like you turn into those bits of mist." She had riffled through the Bible three days before she actually died, repeating that she found consolation in soon becoming "part of God's memory." "But if you're a part of God now, how is it He's let you come back?" She giggled. "He doesn't know!" "The All-Knowing?" "God's more like a slow explosion that spreads itself pretty thin over the cosmos. A huge cloud can't keep track of every little thing it covers." "You mean," I said, "God suffers from some kind of divine Alzheimer's?" She smiled again. "More like the right universe doesn't know what the left's doing.'" As above, so below, I was thinking. I leaned to reach for her hand. It felt like a rose petal. Then I bent to kiss her lips. Wings of a butterfly brushing against me. Something was definitely there, no question about that. When she bent forward to receive me, the lapels of the robe broke open a little. Underneath she looked as alluring as ever. No mere spirit, this. "God's got to miss you eventually," I managed. My mind was registering all kinds of possibilities, some not very promising. "Should we wrap you in lead shielding or something to keep you safe?" "He's not exactly Superman, honey," Lettie said. "Anyway, I wouldn't worry. Compare it to ferreting out one piece of sand from a long white beach like the one we walked on in Poipu. For all practical purposes, I'm lost. But I've found you–and you've got me for now. What else matters?" "Nothing, I guess." But how long would this last? It might help knowing how she'd gotten here in the first place. "Were you able to come back because we loved each other so much?" She laid the knitting needles down in her lap. "Always the romantic!" she smiled. Once again I thought her movement made her waver. I blinked. That seemed to help 'steady' her. "But I'll just bet that's part of it. Remember what I said before I died?" "'It's not so much the dying that bothers me,'" I repeated word for word. "It's the separation'." "We still had so much to live for," she nodded. We had both just retired from government jobs when we found out she had one of the worst kinds of leukemia. "I know," I said. "1 didn't really want to die." "I thought your reading the Bible helped." "Somewhat," she said. "But remember that last morning when you helped me to the bathroom?"

She had staggered the three feet from her hospice bed to our master bath before I folded her back into the small twin hospice bed. We both kissed, each saying, "I love you, honey"–her first, me last. The coma deepened in the next nine hours while 1 tried to keep her lips moistened with oral swabs. I watched her right palm palpate at me like a kitten's paw with the small pleasure of the mint-flavored moisture, her lips moving slightly as I wet them with the swab, pleading in a whisper, "Help me, honey." Every two hours, I kept syringing die pain-killer through the side of her mouth. I felt so helpless. Her eyes never opened. "All too well," I said, voice cracking. "I heard you–like an echo in a cave." I'd been reading her some of what I'd written already in her memory but couldn't keep at it for long, choking up too much as I sat beside the bed and watched her like that. "But I couldn't wake up enough to tell you how scared I was." "I could tell," I said. Her breathing grew so ragged and irregular even the night before that I lay awake most of die night in the bed opposite her. Something had clearly worsened. "I got terrified when I knew I was close to leaving for good." "The hospice nurse told me some of what was coming," I said, not wanting to remember. Almost more lady-like than normal, she'd suffered through five minutes of what the male nurse Terry had explained was Cheyne-Stokes respiration–the "death rattle" I'd only heard about before. Then her breathing settled into a slower pace before, just fifteen minutes later, she died. Lettie now fixed my eyes. "But you know more than anything what made me come back?" I tensed, not knowing yet how to deal with this. I was both elated– and afraid. Elated that she was here–afraid I'd have to go through losing her again once "God" finally realized she'd gone AWOL Then she answered with something I never expected: "It wasn't just that I didn't want to die. I hated being dead!" For a moment the thickness in my throat stopped me from saying anything. Then I blurted, "I hated having you gone." Lines came to me from a poem–more epigrammatic than poetic–by Donald Hall who lost his wife in 1995 to leukemia when she was only 48: You think that their dying is the worst thing that could happen. Then they stay dead.

"I mean," she said, "I've missed all the things being alive meant." "Like what?" I needed her to cite them for me now because I wasn't sure what the worth of my living was any more without her. Food, TV, books, the daily paper, movies I used to love–nothing meant what it had when she was here to share them. Even favorite dishes like crab Caesar salad and shrimp fettuccine had lost their flavor. It seemed like too much trouble to make something for only me, let alone eat what I had on hand. I'd lost five pounds after she'd gone–and, down to 135 already from our low-fat regimen, didn't have it to lose. "Well, for starters," she began, "I don't suppose you've got any frozen fat-free yogurt?" "Just vanilla," I said. I hadn't eaten much of that either though it had become one of our "staples." After this long in the freezer, the half-gallon had surely crystallized by now. "That'd be okay with a little malt sprinkled over it." I still had the malt. She liked to mix it with our fat-free milk. Though I never used it myself, 1 hadn't been able to toss out the jar. It was still "hers"–and somehow "her." "But, honey, I've really been dying for some TCBY pralines and cream!" Then she caught herself. "Sorry. It just came out that way." "I don't care," I laughed. "I've missed everything about you, even your puns." She glanced down at her knitting. It looked like she was making me another set of slippers. I'd worn holes in the last ones she'd left but couldn't bring myself to throw them away either. "Me too you," she said. It had been our favorite rejoinder, especially when one of us said, "I love you." "But that's only one teensy thing. There are so many others." "Like what else?" I hoped I could at least offer her some of what she wanted. She hadn't exactly given me much warning. She gazed up, seeming to look beyond–or maybe through?–me. I squinted back at her, not sure yet who was the more insubstantial one. "Gosh, where do I start?" Still a Milwaukeean at heart, she was one of the few still using expressions like "Gosh" and "Gee." It fit with her long-held preference for Disney movies. "Remember the macadamia nut ice cream we had in Kauai? That for sure!" "Strike one, honey." We had gone there for our 25'h anniversary just two years before learning she had mysteriously come down with this rare disease. "Isn't there something I'm sure to have?" "Gee, almost anything," she said. "Good and Plenty? Rice Crispy bars? One of those Cosmopolitans the way you made them just my way?" "Well, that's one hit to center field," I said, "though I meant anything healthy." "What difference does that make now? What difference did it make before!" 'Good point." We had eaten low-fat since her gall bladder attacks in '92, then even more faithfully after her heart attack from a blocked artery back in 1998, probably brought on by her having gained back twenty pounds which she lost a year later. From 2000 on, though, she'd returned to the same svelte weight as when we married in 1976. Yet none of this mattered. She still got leukemia–no one could ever tell us how or why or from what–and died just three months from the time we found out. In another month, she would have turned 58. "You missed only food?" 1 prodded. She tucked in her chin, eyeing me with arched eyebrows. "You know better than that, honey. I've missed all earthly pleasures!" That had always been what I'd loved about her from the beginning, her being so down-to-earth. "Well, that's reassuring." We had both learned what pleased the other–and didn't mind whiling away a whole afternoon in bed by opening something other than just the books we liked to read there. "I'd like to sit down beside you on the sofa again and watch couples ice skating, too," she went on, "or even take in movies like my 'Barefoot in the Park' or The Little Mermaid' on our big-screen TV," "Our favorites haven't been favorites without you," I said. "I know," she said, catching my eyes. "I'm anxious to help us both get back to how it was. I'll be able to read more Nora Roberts, knit sweaters and scarves for you, or just go shopping together, especially during the holidays. We had such fun on our sprees at the malls!" "Remember those times you invited me into the changing rooms at stores like Nordstrom's or Petite Sophisticates when I helped you on–and especially off– with your things?" "You did have a way of making my trying on new outfits–well– more interesting, I'll give you that." "You helped."
"I did at that," she smirked. "And don't forget my joy just watching things grow in our garden!" She had built three raised garden beds the summer before she got sick, planting tomatoes that did so well we had to give away baskets to our neighbors. "And how I've missed getting all gussied up in those Victoria's Secret and Jones New York outfits you bought for me, or going out on our 'dates' like when I bought the best seats in the house for the play, 'Beauty and the Beast'!" "One of our best ever," I said wistfully. "It was easy to tell who the 'beauty' was." She pursed her lips. "And the beast!" "King of beasts," I reminded her. She raised an eyebrow. "A prince at least." 'I've been demoted?" "When you're lower, you're better," she said, affecting Mae West as she often did. "But you know what, honey? I've even missed everyday things like just putting on make-up after taking a nice warm shower with you whenever we'd get ready to go out–or 'in,' as the case might be!" I studied the healthy, natural flush to her face. "You don't seem to need to worry about that now." She looked over at herself in the gold-framed mirror I had bought her a year before that now hung on the only wall in our front room free of pictures. For a second I thought the mirror wobbled. I made my eyes shift instead to the other photos of us at our favorite places–Ishnala, the restaurant with the tree growing through its middle, near the Wisconsin Dells, the setting sun white through the trees behind us; Leavenworth, Washington, with gentle snowflakes dusting us as she huddled against me in her white fur cowl; beaming at the camera, my arm around her, Las Vegas' night lights at our backs from the Top of the World lounge at the Stratosphere. "I see what you mean." She ran a hand along her cheeks smooth and rosy as they had been when I first met her, even while she lay on the bed after she had died as though even then she were trying to return to me. "Anything besides a Cosmo I can get you right now?" I said. 1 wanted to do whatever I could to keep her here. She sat back, trying to wriggle herself deeper into the padding of the sofa. She seemed to have difficulty doing that. "For now," she said, "I'm just happy being home with you. Let's not borrow worries." Her favorite expression. "How do we know when that absent-minded Force up there finds out you're gone and–how am I supposed put it?–wants you back into the fold?" She blinked at me impishly. "The 'flock,' you say?" The 'fold,' I said," I grinned–then froze. Was uttering what I feared going to make it happen? I didn't want to break the spell–or whatever it was that caused this. But that is when something began to change. At least that's when I first fully realized what had been happening all along. She had moved ever so slightly. It was more than just the tentativeness of her image I thought I'd detected before. "Are you–okay?" I said. She looked down at herself. "I feel kind of– funny." Then I realized the problem. She was "taller" there in the sofa. I knelt to peer closer. "You're 'higher'!" My voice itself shifted to a higher pitch now. "Hmmm," she said, sliding a hand back and forth beneath her. There was definitely a space now between her bottom and the top of the sofa cushion. "And without a Cosmo yet." "Lettie!" I chastened. "This isn't the time for levity." That had often, in fact, been her complaint about me "And yet–° she smiled."–'levity' does seem the operative word." She had levitated another inch. "My God," I breathed. "Could 'He' or 'It' be taking you away already? You've just gotten here!" "It's like I'm caught up in one of your 'Star Trek' tractor beams. Like I'm–how does that old commercial go–'Fluffy, not stuffy'?" If this were nothing more than another of my fantasies I'd try writing down later, I couldn't do any better than a Mars bar ad? I shook my head, half-expecting to hear marbles clinking there. "Well, I am still a spirit," she admitted. "But remember that scene in 'Mary Poppins'?" Well, if this were merely another dream, at least I was referencing a classic. "You mean where Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews keep laughing with Ed Wynn, rising all the way to the top of the ceiling while they do? So we have to get depressed to keep you down to earth?" I'd definitely had enough of that since her death to last me two lifetimes. "Who knows?" Lettie said. "I'm new to all this, too." Still in a sitting position, she floated at least a foot higher than earlier. "So how do we keep me down on the farm after I've seen Paree–or should I say Devie?" The name I'd gone by as a kid, what she called me endearingly sometimes when we were alone and intimate. I thought of the line from "our" film, "Casablanca." "We've got more than Paris to worry about here," I said. "Could you maybe try eating your favorite snacks to regain your–gravity?" "Maybe," she said, looking down with some fear now herself, "ghosts can't weigh more than that famous 21 grams." Oddly, we'd read an article in the newspaper just before she'd died about that controversial conclusion drawn by Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill, Massachusetts, in his 1907 experiment. "What other 'ballast' could keep you anchored?" Surely more misery couldn't be the answer. This "second chance" deserved a better ending. I decided to reach over again and kiss her before she got too high for me to reach. After all, she was the "spirited" one who still didn't know the limits of her new liberty. Did I feel her bounce slightly as our lips met? The earth shook," Lettie smiled. "Not the earth," I said. "The air." "Oh, my," she said, her lips an "o." I guess at first she feared an indelicacy. "Not that," I said as I leaned to the side and saw that it was like an electromagnetic field, holding her aloft yet letting her somehow ease lower. "Could it be this simple?" "You mean," she said, reaching for my mouth, "I need the kiss of a 'prince' to 'stay grounded'?" I resorted to the same twisted form she used whenever I'd wake her up in the morning with a kiss and whisper that it was time to get up and go to work. "My own 'beeping sleuty,'" I ventured. "Except that I'm not 'beeping' any more." "Thank God for that!" Then I tucked in my neck, reluctantly peering upward. I hoped the Big Guy–or Girl–or the Exploding Blob or whatever It was–didn't hear me. If It existed at all, maybe It still believed in Old Testament "smiting." "You mean it's as simple as a kiss?" She tightened a small fist. "We can do this!" The very same phrase she'd used after starting the chemo that hadn't worked for long. "I think," I mused, "our loving not only brought you here–but will keep you here." But we knew our love that had only magnified the last five years together hadn't stopped the leukemia, hadn't prevented her from dying. Why would it work now that it was too late? "The Second Time Around" came on our easy-listening music station piped throughout the house from our satellite dish. That made us both laugh. Then we caught ourselves. What now? "This isn't just some fantasy," she noted too obviously. "If kissing works this well, what about–" I grinned. "We'd better make sure you stay put, then, hadn't we?" I clutched at her hand. We both felt the shock–as if we'd gotten it while standing in bath water. She set down her knitting needles and rose up on her own. Her feet actually touched the carpet now. "You mean," she said, head tilted, "we'll somehow have to keep– what?–'making love' to make me stay?" "A veritable 'hell,' isn't it," I said with a crooked Clark Gable smile. "What about shopping?" "I'm sure we can fit it in," I comforted her as I opened her robe and took her to me. "We'll just have to hold each other a lot while we do." And I'd hang on tightly to be certain I kept her tethered here. "Gives a whole new meaning to 'coupling,' doesn't it." "Didn't you say you also missed watching things grow?" "Oh, my!" she said at my other reaction. And we set about making our own heaven right here on earth.

Steve Dimeo

This story honors my wife who, shortly after our 27th anniversary in late 2003, died suddenly of leukemia. The last 40+ years since earning my Ph.D. (University of Utah) and teaching English awhile, I've published articles in places like Amazing, Cinefantastique, Video Magazine, and, most recently, True Romance and The Writer. One story won Tall Tales Press' $250 2nd prize in its fourth annual (2006) contest. Twenty others have appeared in magazines like Oui (when Playboy owned it), Michigan Quarterly Review, Crosscurrents, Descant ("Fantasy Figures" won the then-$100 1984 Frank O'Connor Award), Woman's World, Amazing Stories and Wildfire. I've placed over forty poems in such periodicals as Princeton Review, Blue Unicorn ($25 3rd Prize in the National Writers' Club 1983 competition), The Oregonian ($50 1st Prize in a 1996 contest). Byline, 2003 Emily Dickinson Anthology, Alabama Poetry Society's Love Poems 2003 (2nd Place), Rattle and Freefall.