Spring 2021, Volume 30

Fiction by William Cass


 “So, Grandma,” I asked.  “What’s the best thing about being married fifty years?

The map of wrinkles that was her forehead constricted for a moment as she considered.  Then she smiled, put her hand on my grandfather’s, and said, “Spooning naked together.”

I felt my eyes widen while hers danced behind rimless glasses.  My grandfather stared off contentedly, it seemed, into space.  We were seated next to each other in the back room of Portofino’s Restaurant, but most of the other people there were already in the buffet line.  It was the same place they’d had their wedding reception, as well as their twenty-fifth anniversary party; Portofino’s was really the only venue in our town that had a room set aside for events like that.  Of course, I had no idea how the present turnout compared to their original reception, but there were less than half as many guests scattered among the circular tables as that last party.

I leaned across my grandmother at the table. “So, what do you say, Gramps?  Do you still like spooning with Gram?”

He looked at me with his rheumy eyes, then said, “You betcha.”

I watched her squeeze his bony hand.  They were wearing the special outfits she’d agonized over for months: his new gray suit, like a tent now on his shriveled frame, and the cream-colored dress she’d sewn for herself.  They both had corsages of blue hydrangeas pinned to their lapels that she’d arranged herself.  She’d told me a few weeks earlier that she’d carried those flowers at their wedding; she also told me at the same time that she wasn’t sure my grandfather would make it to this day.  Hospice had recently done another three-week stint at their house, but then he made one of his miraculous recoveries, so now they were on hold with him again.  I watched him lift the back of my grandmother’s hand to his lips and kiss it, and a shadow passed over me.  I hadn’t told anyone that my wife, Diane, had recently moved out; that day, I just made the fabricated excuse that she was at a weekend teachers’ conference down in New Haven.

A cackle of laughter arose from the make-shift bar over in the corner; I recognized my father’s, uncle’s, and older brother’s voices among those raised in that cluster of men.  It was a sultry central-Connecticut Saturday afternoon in early August with wan light trickling through the faded muslin curtains at the room’s two windows and more of the same from the scalloped sconces on the walls.  A mounted air conditioner whirred away in one of the windows.  The first guests through the buffet line had begun returning to tables.  They were mostly relatives of my parents’ generation or my own.  Not many remained who were contemporaries of my grandparents.  A few children, all cousins of one another, scampered around the room. 

“Come on,” I said to my grandparents.  “Let’s get some food.”

I helped my grandfather out of his chair, got him leaning on his walker, and we made our slow way to the buffet line.  My grandmother served herself first, then my grandfather shuffled
along between us pointing to things he wanted me to put on his plate; I balanced his and my own down the buffet line and back to our table.  By the time we were seated again, my mother and aunt were already eating in their places across from us.  My grandmother used my grandfather’s silverware to cut his food into tiny pieces, tucked his napkin into the collar of his shirt, and handed him his fork.  The men at the bar were finally drifting away to their tables.  My father, uncle, and brother stopped at ours to put fresh drinks at their places before going through the buffet line and returning with full plates of their own.  A quiet murmur fell over the room.  My uncle, who was three years my father’s senior, waited a respectable number of minutes before standing and tapping his drink glass with a spoon.  More tinkling of glasses followed and guests paused in their eating to turn expectant faces his way.

“Hey, everybody, welcome,” he said, his voice rising the way it did when he read the epistle from the lectern at Sunday mass.  “As you know, we’re here to celebrate Esther and Carl.”  He paused to smile down at them.  “For fifty glorious, remarkable years of marriage.  A little more than a half century ago, at Tucker’s Pond right down this street, Carl helped Esther up after she’d fallen while she was ice skating, introduced himself, and we are all the beneficiaries of their long history together that followed. There will be more toasts later on when the two of them cut their cake, but to begin these festivities now, let’s raise our glasses to them, in their honor and with our gratitude.”

All eyes were on the two of them as glasses were raised and clinked together, and someone shouted, “Here, here!”  Everyone waited for my grandmother and grandfather to clink their own glasses of water before sips were taken and attention turned back to meals and conversation.  The space on the other side of me had been reserved for Diane, so I had no one to clink glasses with; I just raised mine and set it back down.


My buzzing cell phone on the nightstand next to my bed awoke me the next morning a little after five.  I pulled it to my ear with my eyes still closed and answered, “Hello.”

“Well,” my grandmother said.  “He’s gone.”

My eyes snapped open, and I sat up straight in the blush of dawn.  “What do you mean?”

“Your grandfather.”  Her voice was even, quiet, calm.  “He passed away during the night.  With his arm around me.”

“Oh, Grandma.  When?”

“A little after one o’clock, I think.  At least that’s when I woke up and noticed that he’d stopped breathing.”

I’d begun to cry.  There was just soft static on the line between us for several moments until I could regain myself enough to say, “Have you called anyone else?”

“No.  I was hoping you could do that.  But I didn’t want to wake you too early, disturb your sleep.”

I’d shut my eyes and was pinching the bridge of my nose.  I heard myself mutter, “Jesus.”

“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, Tom.”

I shook my head, blew out a long breath, and said, “I’ll be right over.”

I dressed quickly.  Before I left, I called Diane’s cell phone.  I could tell by her muffled answer that I’d also startled her awake.  I blurted out what had happened. 

“Tom,” she said, “I’m so sorry.”

I heard a man’s sleepy voice say, “What’s wrong?”

She whispered, “Shh.”

I ended the call.


The funeral was just four days later.  My grandmother insisted on having things taken care of right away.  My grandfather lay in an open casket at the front of the church dressed in the identical outfit as the previous Saturday.  My grandmother also wore the same cream-colored dress, but had arranged a fresh corsage of hydrangeas on her lapel.  When I stopped to pick her up to go to the church, she was waiting on the front porch fanning herself with her purse against the heat; as I held the car door for her, I asked her if she wouldn’t rather wear something dark, and she simply told me, no, and got inside.

Father Kelly, the priest who led the service, had been a close friend of theirs for many years.  He was about their same age and had been coming over to their house for dinner once a month since shortly after they met.  They’d bowled on the same team until that became too much for all of them.  When he was in his forties, he took one of my grandmother’s watercolor classes at the community center and started accompanying the two of them occasionally afterwards on their weekend painting excursions.  My grandfather had also been an usher and had served on the
church council for decades, so their association was a tight one.  Once hospice became involved, Father Kelly began stopping by the house almost every day.  Because of that, it didn’t seem so
unusual that instead of staying at the lectern for the eulogy, he walked down from the altar to stand in front of my grandmother where she sat in the first pew.  She reached out her hand, he took it, and then he just spoke directly to her about my grandfather while she smiled and nodded. 

The people at the service were basically the same ones who’d been at the party several days earlier and filled only the first few rows, so we could all hear what Father Kelly said.  Even though his voice wasn’t loud, it echoed in that cavernous church.  Diane had met me there and sat next to me in the row behind my grandmother.  When I began whimpering partway through Father Kelly’s remarks, she put her hand briefly on my knee, then took it away.  The late morning sun threw shafts of dusty, colored light through the tall, stained-glass windows.

My grandmother had vetoed any reception following the funeral; she’d let everyone know beforehand that she wanted their anniversary party to be her memory of a last gathering of well-wishers.  Heavy-bellied clouds were gathering by the time we got to the cemetery after the service for the burial, and Father Kelly kept proceedings there brief.  Diane stood next to me for that, too.  Our only child, Ben, was buried a dozen or so feet away at the edge of the family plot, his little headstone new enough that no moss had encroached upon it like the others.  I didn’t look over at it, and I don’t think she did either.  My grandfather’s casket was lowered into the earth, and people drifted away quickly once final condolences and embraces had been exchanged.  Diane waited her turn to hug my grandmother.  When they separated, my grandmother laid an open palm against Diane’s cheek and they exchanged small, sad smiles.


Then I watched Diane make her way across the grass to her car along the cinder lane and drive away, the back of it growing smaller in the distance until it had disappeared altogether.

My grandmother and I were the last to leave.  She was quiet in the car, her hands folded still over her purse on her lap, staring out her side window.  Glancing over at her, I realized that aside from the morning I’d arrived after her phone call about my grandfather dying, I hadn’t seen her shed a tear.   The same was true about Diane after Ben’s death.


After I got home, I went into Ben’s bedroom.  It was the first time I’d been in it since he’d died the year before.  When that happened, we simply closed the door and left it untouched.  All of his medical equipment—the oxygenator, vibrating vest, suction machine, sat monitor, nebulizer, mister, and the rest were still arranged under his raised hospital bed, and his little wheelchair was in its spot in the corner.  I turned on his music box, and while the reedy melody played and its tutu-clad hippo spun in the middle, I thought back to when the dysmorphologist first explained to us the level of Ben’s severe disability and medical fragility about a week into his stay after birth in the NICU.  He called it an undiagnosed genetic syndrome.  After he described their plans for tracheotomy and G-tube surgeries, which he said should help Ben some, my wife asked him about developmental and life expectancy.

The doctor paused, pursing his lips, then said, “Well, developmentally, probably never more than a few months old.  And it’s usually the accumulation of pneumonias that eventually are too much for kids like Ben.”

“How long?” The glare she fixed him with was hard, cold.

He paused again, raised his eyebrows, and showed his palms.  “Can’t tell for sure.”

“Typically, then.”  It came out as almost a hiss.

He shrugged.  “Usually about a handful of years.”

He’d been right; Ben had made it just past his fourth birthday.  Afterwards, we did that closing of his bedroom door and didn’t talk about it much.  I supposed at the time that we were just dealing with things in our own ways.  She began going to bed right after dinner, and I would channel surf until I was sure she was asleep, and then open a bottle of wine and sit drinking it while I clicked the remote.  She started attending yoga classes several times a week and spending long periods of time during the weekends, she told me, lesson planning and grading papers at her
classroom instead of at home.  But I never suspected anything until that July evening after I returned from work and found her waiting for me on the edge of our couch with her suitcase at her feet.  She told me that she didn’t love me anymore, that she’d become involved with someone else, that she was leaving.  When she stood up, I reached for her, but she shrugged under my arms.  I heard the front door click behind her, heard her car start at the curb, heard it drive away, then fell to my knees.

When the music stopped and the spinning hippo stood still on its tiptoes, I took a last look around, then left the room and closed the door again.  I went into the kitchen, sat at the counter, and sent Diane another email asking her to come home.  I’d emailed, texted, or left voice mails with the same basic message each day since she’d left, and she hadn’t yet answered one.  After I sent the email, I thought about what my grandmother had said about she and my grandfather spooning together naked.  That had also been Diane’s and my preferred position for sleep early in our marriage.  I wasn’t sure exactly when that had ended, but knew it was shortly after Ben’s birth.  At first, she transitioned to underwear and a tank top, but that was replaced pretty quickly with sleeping pants and a T-shirt.  I followed suit, and we stayed mostly on our own sides of the bed.  I wasn’t too surprised that our lovemaking also became almost non-existent around that same time.  I blamed that on fears of conceiving another baby like Ben, which was something I worried about myself.


Because of my grandfather’s death, my father and uncle had closed our family’s insurance office for the week.  My brother and I, along with a couple cousins, worked there with them, so I had
a few days left before it reopened with nothing much to do.  At some point each day, I stopped by to check on my grandmother.  She was usually on a stool in the garage painting at her easel.  That’s where I found her Friday afternoon around four.  She was in the midst of a palette-knife still life, which was a technique she’d begun to favor over watercolors later in life.  She was dressed, as always, in one of my grandfather’s short-sleeved plaid shirts and her old, paint-stained khakis.  Her subject was a bowl of fruit and straw-covered wine bottle arranged on a purple cloth draped over my grandfather’s workbench.  The walls of the garage were covered with their paintings, as were most in their house: my grandmother’s vibrant watercolors and recent palette-knife renderings along with my grandfather’s more precise and muted oils, representative of his draftsman’s background.  The paintings couldn’t have been more different in style, but were all very well-done.

“Hello, there,” she said, stopping to look at me as I came up to her side.  She held the palette-knife in front of her like a baton, a dollop of orange paint at its tip, and blew a strand of stray white hair away from a corner of her glasses.

I lifted the grocery bag I held.  “Brought you a treat.”  I opened the bag so she could see the carton of vanilla ice cream and bottle of root beer inside.

She smiled and said, “Yum.  Go ahead and get those started before the ice cream melts in this heat.  I’ll be along in a minute.”

I went into the kitchen through the screened door at the back of the house, found the tall, frosted, polka-dot glasses and skinny straw-spoons in their corner of a cupboard, and began making our root beer floats.  They were a traditional treat she’d constructed to the delight of several generations of youthful family members.  But I was nearly thirty and hadn’t had one with her in at least fifteen years.

She came into the kitchen as I was putting the ice cream in the freezer, lifted one of the glasses, and said, “Let’s have these on the front porch.  There’s shade there and usually a little breeze.”

I followed her through their living room and outside.  We sat in the red tulip-backed chairs that she and my grandfather had occupied over the years most fair-weather late afternoons and set our glasses on the little table they’d used for their ginger ales and hands of gin rummy.  Every now and then, the small breeze she’d predicted lifted little propellers from their big maple tree in the front yard and spun them crazily onto the grass.

She made a slurp with her straw and said, “These are good.”

“Tried to make them just the way you used to.”

“You did a nice job of it.”

I stirred the ice cream in my glass, then looked over at her and said, “So, how’re you making out?”

She shrugged.  “Oh, you know…”

“You seem to have it pretty well together.”

“Oh, I’m grieving, you can be sure of that.  Just try not to show it when other folks are around.”

I nodded slowly.

“I’m not sleeping well.”  She looked over at me.  “I miss feeling him up against me in bed.”

I nodded some more until she said, “I saw Diane a few weeks ago in West Hartford.  I’d driven over there to that art supply store I like.”  I stopped nodding, our eyes holding.  “She passed by on the sidewalk in front of the store window holding hands with a man who wasn’t you.”

I felt myself blinking, a burning sensation behind my eyes.  I turned, lowered my head, and sighed.  I heard her set her glass on the table and her small hand gripped my wrist.

She said, “What the two of you went through with Ben would challenge any marriage.”

I looked up and stared out over the grass.  The back-up bell of a delivery truck clanked away down the hill at the grocery store.  After it stopped, she said, “Do you still love her?”

“Yes, very much.”  I paused.  “She moved out in July.”

My grandmother put her other hand over her chest.  “Have you been in touch with her?”

“I’ve tried calling or writing every day since she left, but she won’t respond.”

“Then you need to go see her.  Speak to her directly.”  She gave my wrist another squeeze, then released it.  “Tell her how you feel.”

I looked over at her and nodded a last time.


On Monday afternoon, I drove to the school where Diane was teaching summer session classes, found her car in the staff lot, parked nearby, and waited.  She appeared shortly after the dismissal bell rang, walking towards the parking lot arm in arm with a tall, bearded man.  They were laughing together, and the look of unabashed delight she gazed at him with was something I hadn’t seen on her face in years.  I opened my car door and stepped out.  But instead of heading towards Diane’s car, they got into one near the front of the lot, with the man behind the wheel and Diane in the passenger seat.  The car started towards the exit, and I ran towards it.  Just before they reached the street, Diane turned my way and our eyes met.  The look that overtook hers was a mixture of shock, disdain, and weary sadness.  She shook her head at me, and I watched her lips form the word, “No.”  Then they were gone, accelerating up the street.

That night, I finished one bottle of wine with dinner, and part of a second flipping through channels on the television.  I waited until I felt drunk enough to hope for sleep to come to climb into bed.  In the darkness, I took off the covers and sheets, turned on my side and pulled the two pillows Diane used to my chest.  I buried my nose into the top of the one closest to me; it still held her scent.  I raised my legs up under the bottoms of the pillows.  My window was open, but there was no breeze, just the hot, humid air against my naked body.  I thought of my grandmother and wondered if she was doing something similar in her own bed.  The last northbound train for the night passed in the distance followed by the bark of a neighbor’s dog.  I squeezed the pillows tighter.   




BIO: William Cass has had over 200 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received three Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. His short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, is scheduled for release by Wising Up Press in late 2020. He lives in San Diego, California.