Josh Russell


A cop blowing a whistle directed traffic into and out of Piedmont, and when he waved her in, Kim thought she could almost recognize the tune. She wondered if she’d ever visit a hospital that wasn’t several hospitals stuck together, each building an example of its decade’s generic hospital architecture. The parking deck was an ugly afterthought, and the bridge from it to the 77 Building jiggled. HR was in the 1984 Building. A tiny diagram on the wall showed there were also Buildings 105, 95, 35, and 2004. The numbers didn’t appear to be intended to orient. There was no YOU ARE HERE dot. On the gleaming terrazzo there were yellow, blue, orange, red, and green lines, but corresponding lines didn’t appear on the map. She’d been nervous in the car, and now she felt sick.
Kim could see the sign for Endoscopy down the hall, and found it on the faded plan. To get to the 1984 Building, she needed to follow the hall to its visible end, past Endoscopy, and keep following it when it doglegged to the right. She checked her bag to make sure she had her résumé.
When she was but a few steps from it, the door to Endoscopy opened, and out came a man who in profile looked like her dead husband. It wasn’t Tom—she knew it couldn’t be Tom—but when she said “Tom?” and he turned to her and answered “Yes?” she made a fist and hit him in the ear.
He yelped, “Are you crazy?” and held the left side of his head. “Are you crazy?”
His cheekbones were slightly stronger than Tom’s.
“I thought you were someone else.”
He stared at her like she was speaking a language he had to translate word by word. His eyes were not as close-set as Tom’s, though the blue matched. “Someone else named Tom?” he finally asked.
“Yes,” she said, and started to walk away, hoping he’d assume she was indeed crazy and leave her alone.
Instead he followed her. “You owe me a favor.”
She pretended not to hear him.
“Hey,” he said, and put his hand on her shoulder.
She spun around and said, “I’ll punch you again.” When he laughed at her, he looked and sounded so much like Tom that she stumbled. Tom caught her elbow and held it. She didn’t tell him not to touch her.
“Listen, I need someone to say they’ll drive me home after I have my colonoscopy or they won’t let me have a colonoscopy, and because I don’t have insurance, I had to pay for the colonoscopy in advance, and I doubt there’s a refund policy for a colonoscopy. And I’m missing a day’s work for the colonoscopy. I knew I wasn’t allowed to drive, but I thought I could catch the bus, but now they’re telling me someone has to sit in the waiting room the entire time I have the colonoscopy.”
“You want me to drive you home?”
He let go of her elbow. “Just tell them you will so I can have the colonoscopy.”
A nurse in purple scrubs walked past and Kim almost said to her, “This man is bothering me,” but she knew he was upset by the way he kept repeating the word colonoscopy, and she felt sorry for him. He looked hungover and had dark circles under his eyes.
“You really do look like someone I know named Tom.”
“So you’ll do it?”
She didn’t want to. “Sure,” she said.

Kim followed Tom into the Endoscopy waiting room, which was loud with TV and filled with people looking at their phones, and up to the desk, where he almost shouted at the receptionist that his ride had arrived. He was sorry he’d said before he didn’t have a ride—he was just having trouble thinking clearly since he’d been fasting, you know, for the colonoscopy, and what he’d meant to say was that his ride wasn’t with him when he first came in, but that she was on her way, and look, here she was!
He was a clumsy liar in baggy sweatpants and a T-shirt with a picture of a squirrel on it. Kim was wearing her interview suit and grown-up makeup. She knew her fibs would work where his were failing.
“I’m his wife,” she said. Tom flinched. “We’re fighting.”
The receptionist smirked and nodded knowingly at Kim.
Tom was called back immediately.

The TV was tuned to the talk show Kim’s mother-in-law watched every morning, the volume so high it was as if the nitwit hosts were screaming at the celebrity chef who was making them an omelet. She closed her eyes, wondering how long she should wait before she pretended to go to the bathroom and snuck away.
Behind her eyelids she tried to keep separate the faces of the Tom she’d hit in the hallway and the Tom she’d often wanted to hit before he died.
The day Kim told Tom she was pregnant, he acted happy, which surprised her. They’d been married for a couple of years then, and things had not been easy. She’d expected the news to cause trouble. They called in sick—both worked in the office of Tom’s dad’s pest control business—and spent the morning in bed having sex to celebrate what sex had led to, then went out for lunch, at which point Tom started drinking and his mood changed. Four beers in, he loudly wondered how she could be so stupid, stupid enough to forget to take a pill, stupid enough to think he wanted a kid, stupid enough not to know he thought about leaving her fat ass every day. Kim saw the people at the next table trying to act as if they couldn’t hear him. Tom saw them, too.
“Hey,” he said to the guy sitting to his right, “don’t I know you? You look really familiar. Don’t I know you? Are you on TV?”
It was a brilliant trick: Kim saw everyone’s attention turn to the guy Tom was asking.
Then Tom looked to the left and said to a different man, “Hey, don’t I know you? You look really familiar. Don’t I know you? Are you on TV?”
Now everyone was looking at Tom. He pulled out his wallet and dropped bills onto his plate of half-eaten spaghetti.
He got up, and Kim followed.
In the car, she thought about abortion. She thought about the cruelest ways to tell him that she, too, considered leaving him every day, but couldn’t come up with a version that didn’t sound like a weak echo of his meanness. She imagined him laughing at whatever she told him.
“Fuck, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just kind of freaked out, you know?”
She knew this pattern and fought against giving in.
“Hey,” he said, “don’t I know you? You look really familiar. Don’t I know you? Are you on TV?”
She heard herself laughing before she realized she was.

In the waiting room, the commercials were even louder than the show. Kim asked the receptionist if it was OK to get coffee and was told that it was, but to come back soon, because she would need to be there when her husband woke from the anesthesia.
She was unlocking the Camry when she remembered why she was at the hospital. Thinking about Tom and having the receptionist refer to the guy who looked like Tom as her husband had rattled her. She crossed the bridge to Building 77 once again, hurried past the door to Endoscopy, navigated the dogleg she’d seen
on the map, and found the passage to Building 1984.
A frowning HR receptionist time-stamped her résumé and dropped it onto a stack. “You could have emailed it, you know,” she said. “No reason to dress up and come here.”
Kim couldn’t tell the receptionist that she’d been out of work for five months, that desperation had driven her to pick up her suit from the cleaners and borrow her teenage daughter’s mascara, that dressing up and leaving the house made her mother-in-law hassle her a little less about not being able to get a job.
“Thanks,” she said.
The nurse in purple scrubs was in the hall, leaning against the wall and checking her phone, when Kim turned the corner. “Good,” the nurse said, “you’re back. He’ll be waking up soon.”
“Long morning?” Kim asked, trying to sound blasé.
“Butts and guts. Lots of fun.”
She led Kim to recovery and pulled closed the curtain behind her. Sedated, Tom looked like Tom had looked before he died—Tom dead for a decade, Tom who, if alive, would be thirty-seven. This Tom had looked like Tom had looked in his coffin. For a few weeks after the funeral, Ella, then three, had asked where Daddy was, then stopped asking, easy as that.
Kim poked Tom to see how deeply he slept. When he didn’t react, she lifted the blanket to make sure his ankle wasn’t marked with Tom’s frat’s three Greek letters. Instead there was a tattoo of Big Bird, from Sesame Street.
“You asshole,” she said anyway, as if this unconscious Tom were a conduit through which her years of anger could reach dead Tom, and immediately she felt stupid—this wasn’t dead Tom—but he stirred and turned his head away from her slightly, and this infuriated her.
“Why?” she said, but he interrupted her with a noise that was half snore and half sneeze.
His eyelids fluttered.
“I hate you,” she said, and was taken aback by how good it made her feel to say it, so she said it again—“I hate you, you asshole”—and then she slapped him.
He yelped and his eyes popped open. He looked confused and frightened. “What’re you doing here?”
“Is the patient awake?” the nurse in purple scrubs asked in a singsong voice from the other side of the curtain.
Kim wondered how much she’d heard. “He is,” she said.
The nurse pulled open the curtain and patted Kim’s shoulder. “The doctor will be with you soon,” she told her, not Tom.
“What are you doing here?” he asked Kim again.
“Sir, your wife is taking care of you,” the nurse said, and Kim knew she must have heard everything.
“She’s not my wife,” Tom said.
The nurse rolled her eyes. “Sir, anesthesia can make you confused. Just calm down.” To Kim, she said, “They all wake up like this.” She checked his pulse. “Just try to pass some gas, sir. Need to make sure everything’s working.”
“Listen, she’s not my wife.”
Kim could hear in his voice that he was becoming more lucid. She suspected that something was wrong the moment the doctor appeared—narrowed eyes and pinched mouth—and she was certain there was trouble when he began to speak in the slow and serious voice used to deliver bad news.
“I expected hemorrhoids, as you know, but I found a tumor.”
Tom looked from the doctor to Kim to the nurse and back to the doctor. “Tumor?” he said, his tone guilty, as if he’d been hiding it from them and had been found out.
“Can-cer,” the doctor told him, sounding out each syllable. “But this isn’t a death sentence.”
Kim knew the doctor thought he had to push the information through the fuzz of the fading anesthesia, but the way he was talking to Tom made her angry for him.
“What now?” she asked.
“She’s not my wife,” Tom said.
“Sir,” the nurse snapped at him.
“It’s OK,” the doctor said, “you’re going to feel disoriented and upset. It’s normal.” He handed Kim some paperwork. “You’ll need to make an appointment with a surgeon and an oncologist,” he told her. “Call his GP and have him make the referrals.”
“I don’t have a GP,” Tom said. “I don’t have insurance.”
The nurse and the doctor exchanged a look.
“She’s not my wife,” he added, and they appeared relieved that he’d changed the subject.
“I met her in the hallway and asked her to lie so you’d do the colonoscopy. I don’t even know her name.”
The nurse and the doctor turned to Kim, and she realized they wanted badly to be done with Tom. Suddenly it occurred to her that she could get in trouble.
“Stop being weird,” she said to Tom. “Get dressed and we’ll get breakfast.”
“I don’t want breakfast.”
The doctor patted Kim’s shoulder. Bickering spouses were easier to believe in than the story of a woman pretending to be a man’s wife so he could get a colonoscopy.

Tom told everyone Kim wasn’t his wife—the nurse in blue scrubs who helped him get dressed, the young, plump male orderly (his name tag identified him as Stanley) who came with a wheelchair, the men and women in the waiting room, the security guard in the hallway—and Kim felt bad, because Tom was clearly dismayed that no one believed him.
In the parking garage, she considered driving away, stranding him at the exit, where he’d be waiting with Stanley, cutting him free of the lie that had allowed him to learn the truth about what was inside him and herself free from thinking about Tom. But she worried again that if she did she’d get in trouble somehow—maybe they’d figure out who she was because of the résumé she’d left in 1984—and the possibility of trouble she couldn’t afford, combined with the idea of him sitting in the wheelchair insisting over and over that she wasn’t his wife until it became clear to the orderly that she wasn’t coming, made her sad. And, truth be told, it had felt good to say to him the things she’d wanted to say to Tom for years; it had felt good to slap him. She’d buy him breakfast and drive him home
She followed the signs to patient pickup and helped the orderly gently force Tom into the car. Though he’d stopped complaining that she wasn’t his wife, he nonetheless half-heartedly struggled as Stanley pulled the seat belt over him and clicked it, at which point he slumped, defeated.

“Do you like pancakes?” she asked as she turned onto Peachtree.
He glared at her. “Do I like pancakes?”
“My name’s Kim, by the way.”
“I don’t care what your name is.”
She stopped for a red light and waited for him to open the door and get out, but he didn’t.
“You’re young for a colonoscopy, aren’t you?”
“There was blood in my shit.”
Kim couldn’t think of anything more to say than “So, pancakes?”
He didn’t answer. Out of the corner of her eye, she tried to find features that made this Tom obviously not dead Tom. Surely, she told herself, time had made it hard for her to remember Tom’s eyebrow, ear, frown; surely the Tom of her memories was being replaced by the Tom sitting next to her.
“Red light!” he barked, and she stomped the break to avoid rear-ending the minivan in front of them.
“My bad,” she said. He coughed and didn’t look at her.

Kim took him to a place on Ponce with a fading and flaking mural of a giant coffee cup on the wall that faced the parking lot. She’d driven past it many times and thought it looked interesting, but she hated eating alone in restaurants, so she’d never stopped.
Tom followed her in and sat across from her. He had his eyes closed. She couldn’t figure out if this was because he was still slightly anesthetized or if he was playing an angry game of I-can’t-see-you.
Dozens of pastel toasters and electric hand mixers from the fifties hung on the walls, but the waitress wore a Motörhead T-shirt. A silver hoop pierced her lip.
“Coffee?” she asked.
“Yes, please,” Kim answered.
Tom slowly opened his eyes and stared at the waitress. “Hey,” he said to her. “Beth, right?”
She grinned at him. “You’re Blake’s friend.”
He nodded and smiled. “Coffee would be awesome.”
Kim watched him watch Beth walk to the coffeepot.
“Do you want to talk about cancer?” Kim asked.
“No, thanks,” Tom said.
Beth brought their coffee. Kim studied Tom while he gave his order—pancakes, eggs, bacon, grits, large orange juice, raisin toast, fruit cup. So intent was she that it took her a moment to realize he’d stopped talking and that he and Beth were staring at her.
Kim looked down at the menu and read aloud the first words she saw: “Biscuits and gravy.” She sipped her coffee so she wouldn’t have to make eye contact.
When Beth had crossed the room, Tom asked, “Is this how you spend your mornings? Kidnapping people from the hospital and taking them to breakfast?”
His voice was sharper than before. Either, Kim thought, the drugs were wearing off, or he was feeling less freaked out about the tumor, or both.
“I’m just trying to be nice.”
“You sucker-punched me and called me an asshole and slapped me.”
Kim flinched. He’d been more awake than she’d thought. “I—” she started, but he interrupted her.
“I need to wash my hands,” he said, and pushed back his chair and got up.
She felt foolish. What did she think was going to happen when she half abducted some random guy who looked like Tom ten years ago, some guy who’d just been told he had colon cancer and needed surgery he couldn’t afford? She should have told the truth at the hospital. When he came back to the table, she decided, she’d offer to pay for an Uber if he didn’t want a ride, maybe send him flowers if he was willing to give her his address.
Beth was back. A busboy in an apron stood behind her. There were many plates.
“Tom told me to give you this.” Beth showed Kim her middle finger. She tore the check from her pad and slapped it down beside Kim’s fork. “Whenever you’re ready, ma’am.”
“He left?”
“I’m sorry, didn’t you understand the message?” She flipped off Kim again.
It made Kim feel old that her first impulse was to demand to see a manager, not throw coffee or a punch. Instead of doing any of those things, she handed over her credit card.
The busboy was walking past holding an empty takeout box, and Kim snatched it from his hands, sure that if she asked for one, Beth would spit in it.
“Thanks!” she said chirpily, before he could complain.
She piled the huge breakfast into the container and realized that running up the bill with pancakes and fruit cup and eggs was also a middle finger. Tom had never intended to eat any of it.
When Beth came back for the check, Kim drew a dark X across the tip line.

In the parking lot, she sat in her car and checked her email, hoping for a message from one of the many places she’d left a résumé. There was only a note from Ella’s math teacher about sloppy homework and low quiz grades.
Beth came out with the busboy and they passed a lighter and leaned against the parking lot mural and smoked. Kim watched them, remembering the innumerable cigarettes she’d smoked when she was a waitress, in the breaks between wrapping silverware and making huge pots of sweet and unsweet iced tea, between flirting with line cooks and counting tips. This was her life before Tom, before sharing a house with a mother-in-law with dementia, before a teenage daughter getting a D+ in math, before worrying that unemployment benefits were about to run out.
His paperwork was on the passenger seat. The text at the top of the page noted that a likely tumor had been discovered, biopsied, and tattooed. Kim wondered what tattooing a tumor involved. Below the notes was a grid of sixteen pictures of Tom’s colon, four rows of four. The first dozen were of similarly shiny and weirdly clean yellow-pink tunnels. In the middle of the bottom row was a snapshot unlike the others—a bloody nub next to grayish pimples. It looked like someone had rubbed out a cigarette in his large intestine.
Kim got out of the car and walked over to Beth and the busboy. “Hey, Beth, right? Tom’s sick.” She held up the report. “I need to take this to him. Can you tell me where I can find him?”
Beth again showed Kim her middle finger. “Listen, Mom, how many times do I have to deliver this message?”
“You’ll get old, too.” She’d meant it as a threat, but it sounded more like an apology.
Beth flicked her cigarette at Kim and walked away.
“He works at Coffee Kingdom, over in EAV,” the busboy told her. “Total dick, FYI.”

Kim disliked East Atlanta Village, its trust-fund bohemians and belligerent panhandlers. The last time she’d found herself there was for a street festival Ella begged to be taken to. Her mother-in-law had tagged along so that she could go to an antique shop where she remembered buying things in decades past. The festival annoyed Kim—needlework samplers of obscene rap lyrics, weird overpriced baked goods, local bands blaring sloppy covers of songs she’d never heard—and the antique store had become a braiding salon, which first baffled then enraged Doris. It had rained the entire time, so Kim was surprised by blue skies when she parked in front of the coffee shop.
Through the plate glass she could see Tom behind the counter, smiling. The guy working the espresso machine had a matching grin. They looked as if they’d just shared a great joke.
Most of the people in the line Kim joined were dressed like she was: on their way to interviews, or very late for work, or running adult errands at once halfhearted and desperate, like midday adultery, or leaving a résumé at a hospital in the hope that they’d be hired to sort files. Everyone at a table had a laptop and Buddy Holly glasses and looked like they’d slept in the jeans and T-shirts they wore.
When her turn came, Kim could almost see, through his forehead, the gears of Tom’s brain grinding as he tried to remember her. He was, she recognized, very stoned.
“You left this in my car.” She handed him the colonoscopy report.
The edges of his smile twitched. He looked at the pictures. “Oh, shit,” he said.
His worried face was so much like Tom’s worried face that she couldn’t offer more than “Yes, well,” and then, remembering where she was, “Small decaf?”
Tom filled a paper cup and slid it across the counter. “Shit,” he said again, looking at the snapshot of his tumor.
“Are you OK?” Kim asked.
“Come on, let’s go,” the guy behind her in line whined. “Dude, large latte,” he said to the other barista.
Kim stepped aside and the guy glared at her, tiny angry eyes sunk in a pig’s face. He flipped a folded bill at Tom, and it fluttered to the counter. Tom picked it up, smoothed it carefully, rang up the order, and slowly made change, all of it in coins. When he cocked his arm, Kim took two steps back, feeling what was coming. Tom side-armed the fistful of quarters and nickels and dimes at the impatient man’s chest. Coins bounced off his tie and shirtfront and clattered on the floor. The other barista called out “Large latte,” as though nothing had happened. The guy glared at Tom for a few seconds, then moved down the counter, picked up his coffee, and walked out, leaving behind every cent.
“Jed’s going to fire you when that tool complains,” the other barista said. “I mean, dude, the fuck?”
Tom picked up the doctor’s report. Discombobulated by the racket the coins had made on the floor and the sudden silence following, Kim thought he was coming around the counter to give the paper back to her, and she held out her hand. He walked past and out onto the sidewalk, still wearing his apron. She followed.
“You got me fired,” he told her.
She was confused. “You threw change at someone. And no one fired you.”
“Why are you here?”
Kim tapped the paper he was holding.
He looked down at it and said again, “Oh, shit.”
“None to be seen in those pictures,” she said lamely.
He squinted his bloodshot eyes at her. “Weed on top of anesthesia is hitting me hard. I’m super hungry.”
“I’ve still got all that food you ordered.”
“Don’t be mean.”
“I’m serious.”
“For real?”
“For real.” Kim unlocked the Camry and opened the passenger door. The smell of pancakes wafted out.
“Can I have your coffee?”
She handed it to him, and he got in. Kim made her way to the driver’s side and joined him. He found the takeout box.
She started speaking, because, unlike her Tom, this Tom didn’t talk with his mouth full of food, and she couldn’t bear to sit in silence: in profile, the resemblance was even stronger.
“The last time I was in EAV was for some street festival. It rained, and Ella bitched and moaned about the weather but wouldn’t leave, and my mother-in-law couldn’t stop talking about how black people were ruining everything.”
Tom barely looked up from his food.
“The guy you look just like is—was—my husband.”
“Divorced?” he asked, eyes on eggs and fruit cup.
“Dead. Ten years ago. Car crash.” Kim was still amazed he’d been sober, and the woman who’d T-boned the Honda drunk. She’d assumed the opposite when the police came to the door late that Tuesday night.
“I married him because I was poor.”
“There are worse reasons.” Tom dropped the fork into the empty box. “You were, like, what, thirteen when you got married?”
Kim snorted. A kid on a skateboard clacked past on the sidewalk while zipping up his jacket, casually ollied a fire hydrant, landed in the street in front of a moving bus, and headed down the centerline on Flat Shoals.
“Who’s Ella?” Tom asked.
“My daughter—who’s thirteen, and better not be getting married anytime soon.”
“Kids today,” he said, and tipped her coffee cup to get the last drops.
The setting was different, but she recognized the conversation’s rhythms. Had they been in a bar, there would have been a couple more drinks and an exchange of information intended to make things less anonymous before one of them suggested they go. In a coffee shop, now would be the time to suggest the bar.
“We live with my mother-in-law,” Kim said. “Doris has dementia, and some days she thinks Tom’s still alive and will be home soon to yell at her about what a bitch she is to not let him go to Florida for spring break with his friends.”
“It must be hard to be a single parent.” She recognized a seducer’s impatient smile. “And the dementia stuff must be hard, too.”
Kim imagined his room in the apartment or house he shared with the friend whom Beth, the waitress at the breakfast place, had mentioned. What was his name? Blake? The unmade futon, the bong atop the IKEA dresser, the ironic thrift-store or yard-sale painting, the box of rubbers under the bed. Selfish sex during which no one took care of anyone except themselves, and no one apologized.
“She thinks he’s still alive?” Tom said.
“Some days.” She was growing impatient with how slowly he was getting to the moment where he put his hand on her knee, so she put her hand on his.
“Do you think she would believe I was him?”
She pulled her hand back. “What?”
“The only insurance I can afford has a five-thousand-dollar deductible.”
“You want me to let you pretend to be my dead husband so you can scam my demented mother-in-law out of five thousand dollars?”
“I have cancer, remember?”
“Get out,” Kim said.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding.” He put his hand high on her thigh. “I know you want to fuck.”
“You old cunt,” he hissed.
Cold blew in when Tom climbed out. He slammed the door and stood on the curb for a moment, his back to the car, then headed down the street.
When would it end? Kim wondered. Everybody demanding favors, wanting their messes cleaned up. And what did she get in return? A waitress’s middle finger, and some Tom look-alike calling her a cunt, and Doris yelling that it was Kim’s fault Tom was dead on the days she was lucid enough to remember he was dead. She took a long breath and turned the key and the reliable Camry started. Above East Atlanta’s low buildings, the early spring sky was a flawless blue. Kim had hoped Tom would be fired until she looked down at the picture of his tumor. Five-thousand-dollar deductible.
She pulled away from the curb, drove past him, pulled over, rolled down the window. When he was parallel with the car, she called, “Get in.”
“Fuck you,” he said, almost under his breath.
“You forgot this.” She waved the report.
He tried to reach in and grab it, but Kim pulled it back.
“Get in if you want it.”
He pursed his lips and obeyed.
“You OK?” she asked.
“Are we going to do it?” he asked.
Doris was home. After school, Ella went to drama club. Kim didn’t have to pick her up until five. It could work.
Tom smirked and nodded. “My place is only a few blocks away.”
“No, not that,” she said. “The money.”
“Aw.” He sounded like Ella when Kim told her she was grounded for the weekend for saying something mean to her grandmother or not doing her math homework.
“You need five thousand dollars.”
“You really think she’ll believe I’m her dead son? She’s that gone?”
Kim couldn’t be completely sure—Doris had good days and bad, and there was no way to predict which today would be—but it was the only option. “It’ll work,” she told him.
“How’d we meet?” he asked when she stopped at a red light.
“Jesus, how stoned are you? The hospital, remember?”
“I mean how did you and dead Tom meet? What if she—Doris? Mom?—quizzes me? What’s my birthday? Did I play little league? Did I call her Mom?”
The light turned green and Kim drove through the intersection. Was Doris gone enough?
She was about to pull over and tell Tom again to get out when she remembered the days when Doris had to be reminded of the words for fork and dog.

“We told his parents we met in a class at Emory, but really we met in a shitty bar where we got into a fight over whose quarters were stacked first to claim a pool table—mine were. I never went to Emory. We told them we fell in love in
Shakespeare seminar.”
Kim saw Tom’s lips moving, as if he was repeating her words to memorize them.
“He called her Momma.”
“Momma,” he repeated. “Momma. Momma.”
She tried to remember how Doris had acted when she left the house earlier. All she could recall was her mother-in-law asking why Kim wasn’t wearing pantyhose if she wanted to look nice. Did Kim not own pantyhose? Doris had wondered.
When, a couple of blocks later, Kim turned onto Memorial, Tom said, “Where’re we going?”
He chuckled. “Bougie.”
They rode in silence through a few stoplights. Kim wanted to turn on the radio to fill the quiet, but it was tuned to NPR, and she didn’t want to hear him snicker again.
“How long were we married before I died?” he asked as they passed the basketball courts at East Lake Park.
“Five years.”
“Was the car crash my fault?”
“No, which was a surprise. You were a drunk.”
“OK, cool.”
Kim turned onto Candler.
“Do I have brothers or sisters?”
“Only child.”
“Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Have brothers or sisters? Where are your parents?”
“I’m a grownup.” She pulled into the driveway and turned off the ignition.
“This is it?” Tom said.
The brick ranch looked shabby and small beside the huge new house some dentist had built next door the year before. Since Doris was too cheap to replace the worn-out roof, a dark patch of shingles showed where there had been a leak. “They used to be rich,” Kim said. “Kind of.”
Tom followed her to the front door and into the house. The living room, she realized, looked like the living room of an old person, full of fake antique furniture and a huge collection of dusty bagpiper figurines. TV noise came from the kitchen. Nancy, Doris’s elderly toy poodle, came to greet them, wagging her entire body.
“Should I know this dog?”
She nodded. “That’s Nancy.”
He picked Nancy up and she licked his face.
“Stay here,” Kim said, and walked through the dining room into the kitchen. “Doris?” she called. “Guess who’s home early from work?”
Doris was sitting at the little table in the breakfast nook, staring out the window, her hands wrapped around a coffee mug as Fox News muttered on the counter television. She bopped her head slightly as if to the TV’s beat. Her hair was a cloud of thin white curls, and Kim suddenly felt sorry for her rather than mad about her insults and mean parsimony.
“Momma?” Tom said from the doorway, and Kim and Doris turned to him. He was still holding Nancy. Over his shoulder, hanging on the wall, Kim noticed the high school graduation picture of Tom she’d seen so many times she’d forgotten it was there.
“Momma?” he said again. He looked nothing like the grinning kid in the mortarboard. “I’m home. I need five thousand dollars. Do you have five thousand dollars for me?”
Doris looked at Kim, puzzled.
“It’s Tom,” Kim said. “Tom’s sick. Tom needs money for the doctor.”
Doris nodded, as if slowly understanding. “Wait here,” she said.
At first Kim felt relieved—Doris was going to give him the money—and then disgusted with herself for taking advantage of a confused old woman.
“Does she have cash?” Tom asked once Doris was gone. “Check might be a problem, right?”
Kim walked past him into the dining room and stared at the picture of Tom.
“Oh, fuck, that’s him?” Tom asked. He shook his head. “I don’t look anything like that douchebag.”
Doris reappeared, pointing a tiny handgun at Tom.
“Give me the dog,” Kim told him, and he handed over Nancy.
Doris had one eye closed and was squinting down the short barrel with her open eye. “Get out,” she calmly told Tom.
“It was her idea,” he said, and tipped his head toward Kim.
“That’s not true,” Doris said. The gun looked like a toy in her frail hand. “How dare you!”
Kim was stunned. It was the only time Doris had ever taken her side in an argument.
The noise was louder than the sound Kim had imagined such a little pistol could make. Tom fell, but Kim could see the hole high on the wall behind him. He scuttled across the carpet on his hands and knees, whimpering. Nancy was barking excitedly in Kim’s arms. He reached up to open the front door and tumbled out.
“I’ll kill you if I ever see you again!” Doris yelled after him.
Kim crossed the room and closed the door, not looking to see which way he ran. She put Nancy down and the little dog hopped up onto the back of the couch and barked at the world outside the window. When Doris wrapped her arms around her, pulling her into a tight hug, Kim could feel the gun pressed flat against her back.
“He’s gone, Kim.” Her mother-in-law’s voice was calm. “That wasn’t Tom. Tom’s gone, but you’re going to be OK.”