Sam decided that he and his wife of 50 years would have a second honeymoon. Even if it killed him.
With the dogs running ahead of him like a collie skirmishing party, Sam made his way across the expanse of yard between the big Victorian farmhouse and the four-room share-cropper’s cottage that Henry and Betty inhabited. He wanted to arrive looking fresh, so he’d have a better chance of talking Henry into giving him a dose of the Viagra that was clearly making Henry’s love life so rewarding. Just in case anyone was looking out the kitchen window of the little house, Sam paused to rest by the garden. He coughed facing the peppers and tomatoes, hoping it would appear that he was merely checking the progress of vegetables. It was early enough in the season to worry about the newly transplanted seedlings. They were still vulnerable despite the compost heaped around the milk cartons sheltering the tender plants. But the same chill that threatened the seedlings didn’t keep the sweat from breaking out on Sam’s face. Surely no one could tell how hard he leaned against the dead plum tree. Though he hadn’t smoked for nine years, Sam wished he had a cigarette.
Sam finally reached the porch of the little house, intending to rest on the topmost step. But he no sooner sat down than the screen door yawned open and snapped shut, letting out a brief snatch of Betty humming something bluesy sounding. Her beautiful voice was the embodiment of domestic contentment.
“Hey, buddy. What’re you up to this fine morning?” Henry lit one of Betty’s Vantage Ultra Light cigarettes and flipped the spent paper match into the side flower bed. He looked at Sam expectantly, in the sly good-humored way he regarded everything since setting up this love nest with Betty and the Viagra. Sam wondered what it would be like to sleep with someone new, someone he hadn’t known when she was young and watched grow old on a daily basis. Rather than seeming exciting, the thought struck Sam as rather sad. Henry could only imagine what color Betty’s hair had originally been; Sam had a vivid memory of Sarah’s pre-gray hair and how its multi-hued chestnut lushness felt and looked against their skin.
“Since when did you start smoking?”
Sitting down beside Sam, Henry pulled straight the flannel shirt he’d obviously just thrown on over his unbelted pants. “A couple days ago,” he told Sam. “When in Rome, you know.”
“You know that’s bad for you…” Sam began, but couldn’t think what else to say beyond the obvious. The smoke from Henry’s cigarette made his nose itch. So did the smell of coffee – real coffee, not decaf – coming from inside the house.
“Yeah, I know.” Henry fanned the thought away like cigarette smoke that might irritate someone in close quarters. “But what brings you here today? Aside the pleasure of my excellent company, that is.”
“Well,” Sam hesitated, trying to work his courage up in the small space of the delay word. “You know our anniversary’s coming up. I was wondering if I could bum a dose of Viagra from you.”
Sam’s request stole the satisfaction from Henry’s face. “But you have congestive heart failure!”
Sam dismissed the notion along with the dogs, who streaked up from the west side of the house, passed nearly within touching distance and disappeared just as quickly along the east side of the house. “Yeah, well. It’s better,” he lied. “I’m healthy as a bandit.”
“Better?! You don’t just get over a little thing like that. What’s your doctor say? No way in hell would he give you a prescription for Viagra, not in your condition.”
“I shoulda known better than to ask a health-conscious expatriate. Repatriate. Whatever.” Sam spoke as if he were addressing the complaint to an unseen audience. “If starting smoking at this late stage in life is really all that health conscious.” Unfortunately, because of the farm’s isolation and Sam’s debilitating dependence, Henry was the only one he could ask.
“Damn right! This,” he said, holding out the cigarette as evidence, “might kill me slowly, but Viagra could drop you dead. Even if you weren’t a CHFer,” – Sam cringed to hear this cute acronymization of his condition (it made him feel like a member of some perky club or, worse yet, a support group) – “you’re on a beta-blocker for hypertension. It would make taking Viagra totally ineffective, for the same reason it controls your high blood pressure. So, even if this was a good idea – which it absolutely is not – there’d be no point….”
“But I’m not on a beta-blocker anymore,” Sam said truthfully. He hadn’t taken that pill for three weeks, the length of time required to become effective in the first place. He figured that would be the same period he’d need to get it out of his system so the Viagra could do its trick.
“It doesn’t matter, Sam,” Henry said.
Sam didn’t like the pity in Henry’s eyes, so he looked away. The dogs were doing laps around the little house, as if they were in orbit. Henry kept talking, but his words just seemed to bounce off the side of Sam’s head. “It’s not going to happen. Even if you did get an erection, you’d probably pass out. Now, if your doctor prescribes it, that’s one thing. But I won’t give you any Viagra. Sorry, big guy.”
“Okay, pal. Thanks anyway. Thought it was worth a try.” Sam heaved himself off the step, not meeting Henry’s eyes. He was tired as a bandit. “Catch you later then.”
“Oh, wait! No you won’t. Betty and I won’t be coming to supper; we’re going into Des Moines tonight and out to eat. Tell Libby not to set places for us.”
“Okay.” Sam remembered special times he and Sarah used to eat alone, too: with candles at the table, or even in bed, with food they didn’t need silverware to eat, licking grease and salt – other things he couldn’t have now – from each other’s fingers and lips. Since the farmstead had become a private rest home, everyone always ate at the big house together. At least until Betty and Henry fell in love and started eating – either in or out – by themselves sometimes. Of course, they had to eat soft food because Betty suffered from a temporomandibular disorder; it robbed her of the ability to open her mouth more than an inch or chew anything much harder than an over-boiled potato. And the poor thing had been such an inspired amateur singer of torch songs until her jaw shot craps on her. Now she just stuck to humming. Sam thought Henry probably called her his “little TMJer.” No sooner did he regret this mean thought than Sam meanly imagined TMJ’s impact on oral aspects of their intimate life.
“Maybe you and Sarah’d like to come along?” Sam heard the last-minuteness in Henry’s offer, though he knew the invitation was no less sincere for it. “Yeah, that’d be fun – a double date. We could go to that good Italian restaurant where they have that tomatoey bean and pasta soup Betty likes. Maybe the used bookstore?”
“I’ll let you know.” Sam turned to leave as the dogs came running around the house again. They appeared to have reached escape velocity this time, because they raced off in the direction of the main house.
“Hey?” Henry called after him. “What about your anniversary next week – the big five-oh. Are you going to let us throw you a party or take you out? Got any big plans? Aside from your pharmaceutical plan for ‘something big,’ that is. Heh, heh.” This sounded like locker-room talk to Sam. And it must’ve come out sounding wrong to Henry, too, because he hastened to add, “I really hope that works out for you.” He took a last drag off his cigarette and flicked it out into the yard. Throwing a spark, it flipped end over end in a long arc until it landed in the grass, which was getting pretty long. They’d have to break out the old mower soon. Sam couldn’t remember putting Stabil in the gas tank last fall, but he was sure he had.
“Well, let us know about the anniversary. And supper out tonight.”
“I’ll run it by Sarah.”
But Sam never told Sarah about the invitation.
It took him a lifetime to re-cross the side yard. He thought about how he once bragged to Sarah that he had the libido of a football team. She said, straight out, “I have enough libido for a football team, too.” As if he wasn’t aroused already, she thought about it a second – long enough for that devilish grin Sam loved to spread across her sweet, sexy face – and amended, “Well, the first string anyway.” And she hadn’t been exaggerating. Not by much. They’d both contracted cases of “honeymoonitis” – urinary tract infections brought on by excessive, rambunctious intercourse – during their wedding trip to New Orleans 50 years ago. Sam remembered learning the true meaning of the phrase “pissing and moaning,” and how hard it had been to recover from the condition, even with sulfa drugs. But it had been worth it. Well worth it.
Sam slumped against the chicken coop and couldn’t remember the last time he’d made love to his wife. Actually, he remembered the last time very well, in Technicolor detail. He just couldn’t remember when, chronologically speaking, it had occurred. Hens clucked excitedly for food but ignored Sam when they saw nothing in his hands. Thinking about his problem in the lovemaking department made Sam feel hungover with weariness. Most nights, he had to sleep sitting up – in his recliner or propped up in bed with pillows – so he wouldn’t drown in lung fluid. The urge to lie prone was often overwhelming. There were times he absolutely ached to measure his flat length against Sarah’s, to feel the smooth familiar fit of their bodies.
But a strange kind of fear had grown up in Sam over the past few months, making it impossible for him to lie naked next to Sarah even on the rare occasions his lungs were relatively clear enough. Their bodies had become estranged. Some sort of barrier lay between them that was bigger than the flannel shorts he’d started wearing to bed. The shorts were his act of consideration. They’d always slept naked before and he thought it must be torture for Sarah to feel the press of his Johnson in the cleft of her sweet little behind when, because of his vascular problems, that limp traitor could do nothing more than stick to her like a slug in the slick of his night sweats. He said the shorts were for keeping his sensitive parts warm during frequent nocturnal bathroom trips. And Sarah accepted his explanation, though he was hot on the coldest nights and the nights were becoming milder.
Back when they were still trying, Sam once told Sarah how much he appreciated her patience with his problem. How long ago had that been? Her hair was significantly less gray when, again, in spite of her dedicated attentions, his Johnson had failed to heed the call to action. So, as a stop-gap measure, he had pleasured her with his fingers. He broached the subject as her breath slowed to a normal rate. “You’re really racking up the points,” is how he put it.
“Points?” she asked, lifting her hot flushed face from his chest. Her eyes focused on him with sharp curiosity. “I get points for this? You mean like green stamps?”
“Something like that.”
“You mean I can trade them in someday, when I accumulate enough of them, for something valuable like a toaster-oven or a fondue set?”
She thought it over. “Well, I’ve got enough points saved up now for the Mazerati, I think. Maybe the time-share condo.”
“Time-share condo, hell! You’ve got enough for the Mediterranean villa.”
“And the Lear jet?”
“The Lear jet too, Sweet Pea.”
“Hot damn! Will you come visit me at my villa? I’ll send the Lear jet for you.”
“You bet. Just make sure you give Raoul, your 17-year-old Puerto Rican gardener, that week off. I know you hired him for how he looks with his shirt off, not for how well he trims hedges.”
“Now, you’ve got it all wrong!” she objected teasingly. “It said right on his resume that he was good with bushes.”
Though she blamed herself for an inability to bear live children, Sam knew that Sarah had never failed at anything. He, on the other hand, must disappoint her at every turn, though she somehow always succeeded in turning his faults into playful near-triumphs. She was a saint. She deserved better.
After supper and the TV news, Sam let his wife get comfortable in bed before he joined her. He stepped over a dog lying protectively across the doorway, noting that the night was cool enough for the wedding-band quilt Sarah’s mother and sisters had made them. After 50 years, it was worn and faded. But the complex, interwoven pattern still made him a little dizzy to look at.
Sarah’s head was bolstered by her doubled-up pillow as she read over the top of the 20-year-old black cat that slept across her throat. It looked like she was wearing a fake beard, one that purred. She smiled at Sam as the bedsprings groaned, accommodating his weight. Disturbed, the cat gave him a dirty look. As always, the smell and feel of the Sarah-warmed covers stirred him. Gently prying the book out of her hands, Sam said, “I asked Henry for a dose of Viagra today.”
“What?!” Sarah sat up so fast the cat became airborne with alarm. “You didn’t... He didn’t...” She lifted the covers to determine the status of his Johnson.
Sam pushed the bedclothes back down. “No, he wouldn’t give me any,” Sam said.
“Well, I guess not! But why did you...?!”
“I really wanted to please you, Sweet Pea. Hell, I wanted to please myself, for that matter. It’s been so long since we….” Sam made outward circles with his hands, helpless to finish the sentence.
“Oh, honey.” Sarah hugged him, stilling his restless hands. “If you wanted to get me something hard and hot for our anniversary, you could’ve just bought me a new smoker.”
The compassion in her voice angered Sam. “Damn it!” He pounded the bed between them with his fist. She drew back. “It’s not a laughing matter. It’s been a long time since I’ve been a proper husband to you, a real man for you, like you need. I thought about going back over to the little house tonight while Henry and Betty were out and stealing the stuff. But I wasn’t even man enough to do that.”
Sam looked at the flatness of the blanket over his lap, not at Sarah. When she didn’t say anything, he said, “But I thought what might happen if I... if something went wrong. Henry would get the blame, and we don’t need any more trouble.”
“Didn’t you think of me?” Sarah asked. Her voice wrung out his sorry heart. “Did you think how I’d feel if you... if something went wrong?”
“But I was thinking of you!” Sam looked at Sarah. There was no reproach in her face, or pity; just sadness, love and maybe a little wistfulness. “Even if I did... die, I would’ve given you some pleasure for once. I’m not much of a husband as it is, you wouldn’t be out much. And maybe it’d be nice to go out in a blaze of glory. Because loving you is so glorious, dear, remember? Instead of wasting away like some old...”
“Stop it! Just stop it!” Sarah never got so mad. She had Sam’s full attention. “Is that what you think? You think I stay with you out of – what? Obligation? Pity? I’m no martyr, and you know I don’t have an altruist bone in my body. I love you, you jack-ass! I wouldn’t pity you if you were the last pathetic man on earth. Anyway, you seem to be pitying your own self just fine without any help from me.”
Sarah crossed her arms tightly across her chest. “I’m sorry, Sam,” she said stiffly. “I just don’t see how you dropping dead on me would be doing me any favor.” A tear detached from the corner of her eye and lost itself in a delta of well-etched laugh lines.
Sarah sniffled. Then she giggled. “Can you picture that?” Sarah uncrossed her arms and squeezed Sam’s flabby bicep. “I’d be trapped under you, you’re so big. It could be hours before someone found me.” Her laughter took on a hysterical cast. “And think of the rescue operation! Talk about ‘Jaws of Life;’ they’d have to bring in a winch to haul you off me!”
Sam was laughing now, too. “You’re the only wench I’ll ever need,” he assured her.
“Damn – hup! – right!” Sarah’s laughter had turned into hiccups. “I guess I should be – hup! – on top, then. When did life get so – hup! – silly?”
They both had tears in their eyes when they smiled at each other. Embracing, they laid back in the bed they’d shared for so long it had conformed to their bodies – lower and wider on his side, higher and narrower at hers. Sam adjusted his arm to cradle Sarah’s head and rubbed her back until the hiccupping spell passed. He was careful not to tickle her; she was the only person he’d ever heard of who was ticklish not on her ribs, not on her feet, but on her back.
“Besides,” she said softly, nestling against him, “I want homemade love.”
“Homemade love? What’s that? Like hand-cranked ice cream?”
Sarah laughed. Sam was glad his question had come out sounding vaguely obscene and funny enough to please her. He felt romantic as a bandit and held her closer than he’d dared to for months.
“Kinda,” she replied. “Love that’s not artificial, not store-bought. Love that’s real. Love like this.”
Looking into her eyes, Sam saw every Sarah he’d ever known, somehow superimposed. There were Sarahs of all ages, from each phase of their life together. And they were all loving him profoundly, eagerly, hopefully. In that moment, Sam rededicated himself to loving her as well as he could for as long as he could.
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