With three weeks to live (estimated) Dante called his wife (ex) knowing she would answer.
“I have to ask you,” he said.
“What is it now?” she said, then, “Sorry.”
“A couple of things, actually. One, should I put in skylights. Two, should I go with carpet or wood strip.”
She let out a long breath but would not hang up, that was certain. He sensed that no one was with her.
“Ricky says skylights always leak,” she said.
“I think they should open,” he said. “To let the heat out. Your wraparound windows let in so much sun that it gets pretty hot in there, and you know how I feel about air conditioning.”
“You do whatever you want,” she said.
“I’m asking your opinion,” he said.
“My opinion doesn’t count. You’re going to do what you want no matter what I say.”
“You want to fight with me? Now?”
“No, Dante, I don’t.”
“Then what should I do?”
He heard sharp hollow sounds outside like an armful of lumber dropped to the ground.
“It sounds like you want to put in skylights and a wood floor,” she said.
“I don’t want to know what you think it sounds like I want to do,” he said. “I want to know what you think should be done.”
“I think skylights and wood floor.”
“Is that your honest opinion?”
“It’s not like I’m going to live there.”
He didn’t say anything.
“Hello?” she said.
“How are you doing?” he said.
“Okay, I guess. . .things could be better.”
“Trouble on the home front,” he said.
“You could say that. But it’s awkward, you know, to talk about.”
“You can always talk to me,” he said.
She would if it killed her, he knew.
“Ricky’s being a jerk,” she said.
“He stays out till four in the morning. When he gets home he stinks of cigarettes and booze.”
“I could never do that,” he said, and when she didn’t say anything said, “Does he hit you, too?”
“God no,” she said.
“So he’s the best. I mean overall.”
“I guess you could say that.”
He was going to say “You’re the one saying it!” but didn’t.
“Does he do his share?” he said instead. “Around the house I mean, taking care of it.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “He’s excellent about that. He knows everything there is to know about everything.”
“Exactly. Sometimes he gets up at five in the morning to work on a project.”
“After drinking till four?”
“Not on those days, of course, but he hardly ever does that.”
“Does it bother you that I’m dying?”
“What? Of course it does.”
“Just checking. I’m starting an experimental treatment. If it works they’re talking full remission, total cure.”
“That would be wonderful.”
“It has a five percent chance of success.”
“That’s too bad,” she said.
He didn’t say anything.
“Hello?” she said.
“I know you’re a little old now,” he said, “but are you two thinking about kids?”
“Like you said,” she said. “I’m getting a little old.”
“Not too old, though, and what with him spending all his free time, I mean when he’s not getting bombed at the bars, you’ll have a nice little bungalow to raise a kid in, and neighbors practically on top of you with other kids for it to play with. True, you don’t own the place, which makes it strange that he spends so much time and money fixing it up, and I hear the town’s talking eminent domain about your block, or something, but still.”
“I’ve decided that skylights are a must,” she said.
“You mean you’ve been thinking it over, as we talked, and made a final call?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Hm. And here I thought you didn’t care.”
“I care very much,” she said.
“Dante. . .”
“I need to call Price right now to tell him to get started on the skylights and the floor. Time is an issue. Would you agree that time is an issue?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Well! This has been an enlightening conversation. Thank you for talking to me again. I know how difficult this must be for you.”
“Dante. . .”
He hung up. He was standing in the foyer, just inside the front door and at the base of a long flight of stairs leading to three bedrooms on the second floor. Taking care in the placement of his feet, he made his way over to the new addition. On the threshold he led with his cane, using it to support himself with one hand and holding tight to the doorjamb with the other, lowering one foot and then the other down the two inch precipice to the plywood subfloor. After a rest, he set off across what Price, his general contractor, called “the family room” or sometimes “the great room,” where a large screen television would go there, a twelve piece sectional along there, beneath the wraparound windows, and a coffee table there, end tables there, perhaps a chair and ottoman there, perhaps a piano over there, in the alcove.
Looking through one of the large panel windows he saw, down below on the lawn, Price in a conversational huddle with his workers, all of them smoking, their sun-dazzled faces screwed up. He rapped crisply on the glass with his cane. Price came inside through a slider leading to a nearly completed new back deck, his work boots clumping on the subfloor and making it creak.
“Yes, Mr. Kohl?” he said.
Price, like most general contractors, was well fed and tanned, from the looks of him about the same age as Dante. An even stippling of sweat, as though applied from a spray bottle, covered his face and neck and the exposed parts of his arms below the sleeves of a tight pocket-t.
“Whew!” Price said, passing his fingers over his brow. “Sure you don’t want air in here?”
Dante was comfortable in a sweater hanging slack from the shoulders, as on a wire hanger. There wasn’t much of him left.
“There are cold drinks in the refrigerator,” he said. “Tell your people to help themselves.”
“Thank you, Mr. Kohl,” Price said.
“And they can take a dip in the pool if they want.”
“Thank you,” Price said.
“I’ve decided to put in skylights and to go with the oak strip floor.”
“Whatever you say, but I’m afraid that’ll add to the job.”
“Of course. It’s no problem.”
“I mean time, especially the floor.”
“So I’ll need to be paid first.”
Price was looking out the wraparound windows at the intense green of Dante’s six acres.
“In fact, I’ll need to be paid for everything first.”
It took Dante fifty minutes to ascend the threshold, mount the stairs up to his office (one of the bedrooms on the second floor), descend with a claw-like grip on the banister, negotiate the precipitous threshold back into the new addition, and make his way over to the windows on the far side of the room where he saw Price down below on the lawn, again smoking and talking to his workers, one of them shirtless now. All their faces turned, when he rapped on the glass with his cane, and smiled at him triumphantly waving his wallet in the air.
James Alexander's fiction has appeared online in previous incarnations of Unlikely Stories, as well as in BULL, Gadfly, Sleet, Pif and elsewhere, and in print in New Pop Lit.