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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 32 page 13


Cat contemplates door.

13 Steps

by Charlotte Beck

Fredrik wakes to Jean’s snoring. Instead of gently placing a hand on her shoulder to turn her away from him as he normally would, he lies still and lets the sound irritate him. He is reluctant to touch her. They argued last night and he is still angry. He pushes himself up and feels around on the floor for his slippers. They are a size too large, a gift from Jean’s grandchildren, who have no idea what to give an aging couple who have everything, everything except time.

Jean feels Fredrik move beside her but pretends she is still sleeping. She hopes she wasn’t snoring. He teases her about it, but she finds it embarrassing. She was waiting for him to reach over and run his hand along her arm. She needs to know that despite their argument, nothing has changed. Instead, he gets out of bed. She senses his tall frame stretching in the dark. He prides himself on his physique. He’s fit for an 80-year-old. He exercises every day and encourages her to do the same. But her waist thickened years ago and she is content with a leisurely walk now and then.

Fredrik guesses Jean is awake by the subtle change in her breathing, but he can’t bring himself to acknowledge her. He shuffles to the door; hurrying will send the wrong message. It’s not that they won’t make amends, it’s just that he’s not ready. And he’s hesitant to break the hush of the morning.

The darkness in the hall is absolute and there is no light switch at this end. The walls are covered with family portraits, reminders that Jean and Reuben were married for decades and raised a family in this house. Aside from the fact that he has to grope his way forward, Fredrik doesn’t mind that he can’t see the photos right now. Jean and Reuben were as established in this small town as the branch manager at the bank and the couple who run the hardware store. At first the locals treated Fredrik coolly, as if they couldn’t accept Reuben’s sudden death or Fredrik taking his place, but they have warmed up to him in the three years since Fredrik and Jean got married, some confiding that they are relieved that Jean is no longer alone.

Fredrik’s absence in the bedroom is palpable and Jean shifts towards the window. Fredrik yelled at her yesterday. She’s not sure if it was because he was angry or if he was just trying to make himself heard. He says she needs a hearing aid. She hates to admit it, but he might be right. Her world has become muffled and confusing. She’ll tell him today that she’s ready to discuss it. She’ll even ask him to make the appointment. That will satisfy him. She is delighted with her decision and imagines Fredrik’s arms around her as they make up.

Fredrik feels his way down the hallway, touching the wall on either side of him. The house sprawls on one floor. There is a finished basement, but Jean and Fredrik don’t spend much time there unless the grandchildren are visiting. The carpet is thick shag, from the 60s. It doesn’t make a sound. Something warm and soft rubs his legs. Snowflake, Jean’s white cat. Fredrik was never a cat lover. His mother had no patience for them and his wife, Lena, was allergic, but he’s got used to Snowflake. It’s not unpleasant to have a cat nestled in his lap while he watches tennis on TV or reads the newspaper. Lena would laugh if she were there to see him. He wishes he could stop missing her. He stoops to scratch Snowflake behind the ears.

“There you go, Snowflake, now don’t wake Jean — not that you could.”