Everything about the dark interior of this modest rancher suggested it might have been kempt in a recent chapter, but what light he allowed inside it now shone on a jumble of objects fallen to neglect. At this moment a sunbeam shot through a slice in the kitchen curtains and found his eye, prompting him to shield it with one gnarled hand while he yanked the curtain closed with the other. He nudged around yesterday’s dishes in the sink and fished out his favorite mug, the thick one with decades of stains inside the crazing in its surface; long ago it had been smooth and white, but there were no others like it and he could not recall how it even came to be in this house.
Opening the tap, he let the water run until wisps of steam rose from it, added a single drop of soap to the mug, and then washed it haphazardly with his fingers. As if this action were her cue, a beleaguered looking yellow tabby levitated effortlessly from the floor up onto the counter and arrived at his elbow, where she rubbed her head affectionately and purred. He reached over and scratched her softly between the ears with his wet fingertips, prompting her to push hard into his bicep. His potbelly put him at some distance to the cabinet above, and so he lifted his heels a little to fetch down a small tin, and with furrowed brow worked a dirty thumbnail under the pull-tab. Lifting it made the can whistle a little and belch out the unmistakable stench of wet cat food; how could any creature stomach it, he wondered. He plucked a butter knife from the sink and scraped the foul-smelling concoction into a plastic bowl that still held the dried remains of yesterday’s dinner, and with some effort, lowered it to the floor; the tabby’s head was in it at the same instant.
In the bathroom, he set the steaming coffee mug on the vanity and leaned in to scrutinize his face in the mirror; today demanded a shave, he mused. It would not hurt to visit the barber but there would be no time for that, so he did what he could with warm water and a comb. Finished with this minimal toilette, he opened the drain in the little sink, where accretional layers of toothpaste and whiskers escaped his notice. In the bedroom closet he yanked the pull string and a bulb flickered on overhead; he passed over one shirt and another, this one stained and that one missing a button, and another too wrinkled even for his negligeable standards. Finally settling on a tattersall plaid, he pulled it on over yesterday’s undershirt and tucked it into his trousers. There was not a single belt he could fasten around his girth, so he waved it off and shuffled out into the world dressed, if a bit unfinished on this cold, clear morning.
Because the outpatient lot was full almost to capacity, he circled around several times in the mammoth, boat-like sedan before finding an open slot not too remote from the building. Inside, a patient waiting area as crowded left him little choice except to wedge himself down into a seat between two other men, of an age and disposition reasonably similar to his own. He glanced at the pile of magazines set out on a coffee table, dog-eared and outdated, and concluded they were not worth the effort. Younger people scattered around the room were buried in the devices that eluded his generation; he could see exactly no utility in them. The man to his left had nodded off in his seat, and now his head tilted back and his jaw fell open while he slept. He felt the man to his right staring at him.
“What’re you in here for?”
He answered with bewildered silence.
“I said, what’re you in here for?” It was a question one prison inmate might have asked another. “I have a spot on my lungs the doctor say ain’t no good a-tall.”
He still felt uninclined to answer and instead closed his eyes and lowered his face into his hands while the man yammered on about the cancer growing inside him. He yearned for his wife and the soft shield of her, how she held him close at night and in the morning, how she would have thumbed through one of those dog-eared volumes on the table, now and then expressing surprise or horror or glee, and how she would have held it under his nose and said, looka there, can you believe that, and in so doing would have calmed his nerves and kept the people sitting inside this brutal space at arm’s length. He had no choice except to listen to the man hold court with nobody in particular while he marveled how every institution like this one looked the same, and wondered why they insisted on wallpaper and upholstery and carpeting and even artwork in muted tones of aquamarine and mauve. People in dire straits like these ought not be made to wait long hours in the company of senseless old men and cast-off magazines and aquamarine and mauve, he concluded.