She had wanted to surprise him, to prepare dinner and get everything ready. He had wanted to go out, but she had a better idea. What idea, he had asked, but she told him he’d have to wait. And so, she had taken a half-day off and left work early, but the freezing rain had come unexpectedly, and the roads had not yet been salted. He wasn’t sure that anyone at the time knew it was needed since the temperature had dropped so suddenly.
He left the college late, unaware that his wife was not yet home. He usually called her before leaving, but had been distracted by a student wanting a last minute conference. He didn’t think much about it since he’d home soon enough.
The ambulance was gone by the time he arrived at the spot where her car had skipped into a tree, an old maple that stood skeletal against the fading light, but the sheriff was still there. The red and blue flashers on his cruiser had cast alternating shadows as he walked toward the professor, who waited in his car.
What’s going on, Sheriff, the professor had asked, but then saw the car.
I’m sorry, the sheriff had said. She’s alive, but that’s all we know. I’d better drive you. The professor nodded, handing his keys to a deputy who would bring his car later.
At the hospital he learned that she probably wasn’t aware of the cold when the hypothermia overtook her, having been knocked unconscious when the airbag failed.
That, perhaps, was a blessing.
A blessing, he agreed numbing.
She had been found too late; there was nothing to be done.
He continued to nod, mesmerized by the lights and beeps of the machines that were keeping his wife alive.
Do you know if she had a DNR? No, he had said. No, she did not.
She’s an organ donor, according to her driver’s license. What do want to do?
He stared at the doctor, uncomprehending. The machines continued to beep and blink.
When he finally got home, he found that she had purchased all of his favorites including a rolled roast for the rotisserie; it eventually spoiled and had to be thrown out.
He took all the leave he could, then a sabbatical, declined summer classes. She lie in her bed, unmoving, wasting away. He worked her arms and legs, massaged her muscles so they wouldn’t atrophied, preparing for the time when she would finally wake up, which he knew would never come.
His world narrowed to his home, now empty and hollow, his wife’s hospital room, and the vistas offered by history books. The ancient past was safe, a comfort. Those people were not dying; they were blessedly long dead. Traversing his own past, their past, that was now dangerous, a constant reminder that “they” were now a statistic.
By fall, he had to return to the classroom. Everyone murmured the proper, empty words. Time to return to the living, his friends had said. He’d nod and thank them, appearing to agree. He knew he would not rejoin the living until she did, which she would not.
He offered only his standard classes, the ones he could teach in his sleep, the ones he could phone in. It would be his last semester nonetheless. He should have seen it coming.
The end came on the heels a girl, a sub-par student used to getting by on her wits and charm, which included ample breasts that strained against her always too-tight blouses. She knew he was married, knew his wife was in a coma, but thought she could work that to her advantage. When she was unable to seduce him, when he refused her offer of sex in exchange for a passing grade, she went to the administration and accused him of what she had offered.
Her actions were so blindly selfish he could barely fathom what had happened. He lost his position, and with it, his insurance. The machines keeping his wife alive were expensive to run. He would soon be forced to pull the plug.
The student eventually recanted, but it no longer mattered. The damage was done and he knew he could not go back to that or any other school. It didn’t matter that he was innocent; one does not get out from under such charges. And besides, his wife was dead.
The day he was packing up his office, the student came to see him, begging forgiveness. Instead, he thanked her, saying he too had been selfish. He wanted to strangle her.
Through the entire ordeal, he had managed to hold it together, the days and nights beside her bed, the endless cups of bad coffee, the lack of sleep, the green line going flat, the green line screaming.
She had not believed in embalming so he was spared from seeing her dolled up, looking so natural.
During the prayers and eulogies, the trip out to the cemetery, even the lowering of the polished box into the earth, he held it together so well that he began to wonder if wasn’t he who was dead.
But then came the dirt, throwing the dirt into the hole, the dirt that would cover her forever. He couldn’t do. With both hands full, he sank to his knees and wept. Someone, he didn’t know who, tried to console him, to get him to his feet, saying it’s not what she would have wanted.
He shook them off and continued to howl.
By the time he had spent himself, everyone had gone and the sun was low in the sky. He stood and looked around, saw a shovel leaning against a tree, took it up and stood next to the hole. Some moments or hours later, a workman, an old black man he’d seen around town but had never spoken to, appeared at his side, and with more kindness than the man thought possible, said, here, let me do that.
The professor shook his head, saying no, he had to do it, but all he could do sink back to his knees and resume weeping, holding on to the shovel for balance. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up expecting to see the old man, but instead found the face of the girl, the student.
He felt her hand on his arm, urging him to his feet. He could not comprehend why she was there, what she wanted, but he stood willingly nonetheless. He let go of the shovel, allowing it to fall to the ground. She took his hand, beckoned him to follow. He hesitated but then complied, allowing her to lead him into the gathering darkness.