Justine sold home-canned peaches at a farmer’s market in the neighborhood. I first saw her lolling in blue jeans, awaiting customers. I was allergic, I told her. But I bought three quarts and laid them by.
When we were married the caterers put peaches at the end of the buffet line, our own little private joke. Family heaped upon us greeting cards swollen with cash. An old tradition, one of her uncles explained to me: you empty your pockets on a wedding day, give whatever it is you have at the moment. We took the odd bills and laid them by. There was cake, with our miniature, plasticky selves atop, destined to a year’s freeze.
We honeymooned in Paducah. We took pictures by the river and pretended interest in the national quilt museum. Thousands of quilts, the docent told us, lay in storage on the other side of town. We saw only the most precious. We bought souvenirs and laid them by.
From early-dead parents Justine’s had inherited a house and an instinct for fatalism. Bum-ticker for her father and, she always said, her mother’s heart wouldn’t hold out alone. So at any small misfortune, a stubbed toe or the shattering of a coffee pot on the linoleum of her mother’s kitchen, Justine was assured the universe slanted against her.
We couldn’t live in that house, which held too much. We emptied Justine’s childhood into cardboard boxes, now tucked away at a storage facility off the highway. They molder. We forget about them except for the rent due on the fifteenth.
And then what becomes of life but work, mugs of coffee in quiet corners, the tumbleweeds of dog hair blown across a hallway rug? We always had plenty of time.
During weekdays Justine stood behind bulletproof glass at the local branch of First People’s. I taught history at the high school. After the gas bill and the car note and the mortgage on our corner ranch-style we still had a little left to lay by for the future. So, we did.
I recall one afternoon, early in our marriage, when Justine emerged from the bathroom and as if it were no great matter, announced that no, we would not be having a child after all. She told me I could look in the toilet myself if I did not believe her.
Easy, then, to scuttle whatever desire we had in the first place. We went back to Paducah. We renovated the bathroom. We had so much.
One Saturday morning we went to an estate sale on the other side of town. A man there talked to me about his deceased mother. In the basement he showed me three chests of children’s shoes, some unworn since the early 1980s, some like new. A collection, the man told me, of inestimable value. When I asked him if any of the shoes had belonged to him, he said no, of course not, not even the ones he’d worn.
And anyway, Justine’s disappointment was so temporary, our son arriving just two years later, a wriggling creature of pure want. We doted on him. We cast his feet in plaster. We took fourteen thousand photographs, now ghosts on hard drives and memory cards. His grandparents began a college fund. Savings bonds arrived as birthday gifts. We laid them all by. Let me count the ways I love you, Justine would tell the baby gurgling his crib, never to find the end.
When our son, the one I know now, the one with knobby knees and an affinity for spiders, replaced our baby, we wished we’d taken advice. They had told us, after all: steal that baby away and lock him somewhere he’ll never age, keep him for those days when at the whiff of baby powder your toes will curl and you will gasp at how many, many days can pile up in living.
As if to put a fine point on it—the pain in my hip. Months wasted on restorative yoga and a mound of painkillers. Then the doctors turned out my insides. We looked at a ghostly grayscale of the accumulation between my pelvic bones.
Dr. Simon Li, not a year or two older than I was, whispered my prognosis. I asked him what I should have done differently: more exercise, more omega acids, more prayer? Nothing, he said, would have been enough. Justine nodded beside me.
And then the old story: the drugs and radiation and vomiting into a plastic bucket and quitting work and finding hope its own mire through which one must pass. Finally, I am reduced to a countdown, a scarcity.
Justine came to my room this morning without our son, and I told her I’d wished he would have come for one more memory of his father. But Justine would not have him remember me this way, all intubated and overdrawn.
Still, I say to Justine. It is better than nothing.
She is right. It’s not for his sake that I wished he’d come. He is among the few things I still hurt to want, just to look for a few moments at the toggle of hair curled under an earlobe.
My wife hushes me. Impossible to parse mercy from resignation. Yellow roses sit in a vase in the corner. Someone has placed a bird feeder beside outside my single window. I wait for the sun to shine at the right angle.
At the side of my face Justine places her palm, soft like the skin of a new peach at harvest, and I ask her if this is it, the moment for which we had saved so long.
Alex Luft's work has appeared in Yemassee, Midwestern Gothic, The Coachella Review and other magazines. He is a reader for Quarterly West and currently lives in Chicago.