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THEY lived above a pizzeria. It was always hot. On winter mornings, the windows went white with steam. The grease got into their clothes and hair, and they became wet-looking, constantly, stinking of their own sweat and of the tomato-and-garlic that clung even to the dust of the place.

None of this entered their minds when they signed the lease. They were not adequately suspicious of its low rent and of the landlady’s nervousness.

“It smells like meat in here, kind of,” Lily said.

“Did someone leave the heat on?” Tom asked, running his finger along a windowsill.

It was empty and dark. The radiators were dusty. It had only a kitchen, a bathroom, and a room just big enough for a bed and a TV.

“I love it!” Tom exclaimed, opening up the cupboards and slamming them shut. “Look at these tiles! Are these original?”

The landlady, a small-chested, short-haired woman named Pam, gave Lily a look. She thought he was making fun.

“We’ll take it!” Tom said.

Lily nodded and said nothing as Pam pulled the papers from her purse. Tom was too eager. Lily had the feeling that she was being taken for a ride and that both Pam and Tom were in on it.

• • •

For the first week, they were like newlyweds. They rarely left the bed. Because of the heat, they walked around in nothing but their underwear. Lily liked the way Tom’s skin glistened.

Other people would have known. They should have. This was the crucial difference between themselves and the rest of the world: their general lack of sense. Six months in, they had become used to the smells and to the heat and to the way they carried the apartment’s odor with them everywhere.Six months in, and Lily could see that still they had no sense. Pam never answered their messages. They felt helpless to the bond of their lease and to the post-dated cheques they’d given her. There should have been someone to complain to, someone who was looking out for them.

It isn’t luck that separates strugglers from non-, Lily thought, the rich from the poor, etc, etc, it is just this terrible trusting love of everybody.

Though there was plenty of bad luck, too.

• • •

Tom had worked for a while on an orchard, picking fruit until his fingers were stained and swollen. Then he became paranoid about pesticides: “Steve rolls around in this huge tractor spraying the trees and we’re all just standing there, me and the Brazilians, and he’s wearing a white suit and a mask like he’s friggin’ nuking the place.” So he left the orchard to work at a factory, canning jams and bottling ketchup until the company became unable to compete with the Chinese and laid everybody off to refocus their energies on agri-tourism, which meant turning their money-losing orchards into pick-your-owns, patronized mainly by Chinese tourists. Then he found a job at a greenhouse, bringing a van full of roses and tulips and baby’s breath to florists all over town. He liked to watch the sun rise while he drove, he liked sipping his coffee and listening to talk radio, until one day he ranted to his boss about the uselessness of flowers, which you cut from plants just so they could sit in a vase and die.

“I don’t find roses romantic, not in the least,” he told Lily indignantly at the end of that day, when he came home to a message from Bonnie, his boss, telling him that he was no longer needed for deliveries.

“But they’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Lily said.

“What does she care what I think about flowers? It doesn’t mean I can’t drive,” Tom said, sitting on the bed in the middle of the room, since they had neither couches nor chairs.

She sat next to him and started to massage his shoulders. There was a dusting of pollen in his short beard and thorn-pricks on his forearms.

“You just have to find the right thing,” Lily said. “The thing that you love.”

“You’re the only thing I love.”

“You loved working in the orchard.”

“If society wasn’t so stupid, maybe I’d do okay. This is the society we live in, Lil. We’re nuking our fruit and importing jam from China. Then these idiots go and buy fresh flowers to give their wives. Fresh. What does that even mean. Fresh flowers.”

“I like flowers.”

“Oh, flowers are fine. It’s just the principle.”

• • •

Before the symptoms of MS started to show, and back when Tom still had a job, they could afford to rent movies and once in a while get take-out. Tom liked coconut curry and she liked pad thai and they would sit on the bed watching Hitchcock movies—Vertigo, or Rear Window—and discussing how things had changed so much from those eras. They were poor, but there was still a small pot of savings. He could afford sketchbooks and pencils. She could afford a croissant and a coffee on Friday mornings on her way to work.

There was a long list of things that Tom could have done with his life that included artist, historian, farmer, engineer, and horticulturist. “Maybe I’ll become a set designer for movies,” he’d said. “Maybe we could save up and buy some land.”

Though they weren’t married, Lily had made vows, and so she was patient for him to figure out what he wanted. His father died when Tom was seventeen and this was the first thing Lily loved about him. She loved him bent over crying, and how he woke up bewildered and wanting her there.

• • •

Lily worked as a personal support worker, a kind of nurse-for-hire. All of her clients were dying or incapacitated. She changed bedding, cleaned bottoms, sponged faces, bent knees. The hardest part of her job was the thing she was best at: doing it all without complaining.

Then the MS showed up. There was some shaking in her hands from time to time, and also a confusion about certain words. She would start out trying to say, “I think we should leave Pam a message about the cockroaches,” and she would get stuck on “cockroaches,” never finding the word, just standing there gaping while Tom watched her with his eyebrows raised.

“The bugs, the bugs, the bugs,” she said, finally, pointing wildly around.

Cockroaches fell from the doorframe when they entered the apartment and were constantly collecting in the periphery of her vision. She woke up once with one squished under her back and spent the rest of the night sleepless and curled up in a ball near the window.

“I hope you don’t have Alzheimer’s,” Tom said, laughing.

“Maybe we could fumigate? We’ve got some money in the bank.”

“We’re not fumigating,” Tom said. “I’ll figure it out. I’ve got nothing better to do.”

• • •

Sometimes she returned home to find him sitting on the bed, surrounded by notes, scribblings and sketches of cockroaches and fruit. His eyes were starting to look bugged, the skin around them darkening, and she thought about that Kafka story they’d read in high school.

“Do you think it’s legal?” he asked.


“What they’re doing down there in the pizzeria. It can’t be legal.”

“What do you mean?” She flicked on the kitchen light so that the bugs scattered. “Making pizza?”

“There’s something not right.”

She laughed and found that her hands were numb when she tried to open the fridge. “My hands are asleep,” she said.

“Hands don’t sleep.” He was looking out the window with binoculars.

• • •

It took months to get a diagnosis. By that time, she was having trouble walking too, and had lost control of her bowels one terrible morning while riding the bus. She tied her sweater around her waist and got off quickly, three kilometers from her stop, and hobbled over to the nearest Tim Horton’s where she tried to wash up in the bathroom.

People found her strange. Her hair was perpetually oily, her skin acned, and now she shuffled around on shaky legs. When she produced money to pay for something, or when she spoke clearly and correctly, people looked surprised.

Deb, a client, a forty-something paraplegic, asked her what was wrong.

“I don’t know,” Lily said.

“You should really get that checked out,” Deb said.

“I am. I have.” She’d been to three appointments already.

“You really need to go to the doctor or something.”

The Young and the Restless, playing in the background, called her attention, and they both watched it until the next commercial, though neither had been following the plot. Then, Deb turned back to her. “You need to see a doctor. I should know. If anything, that’s something I know.”

But Deb knew nothing about this. She had been a victim of a hit-and-run and now she had a spinal injury. Bad luck. Every day, Lily had to help Deb out of the bed and into a wheelchair to push her around the property, her husband’s property, so she could have some fresh air.

“I’m happy enough to stay in bed today,” Deb said, every day. “There’s so much TV to catch up on. And too many books to get to.”

They had a large backyard that backed onto a ravine, and the husband had paved the trails with asphalt for her. He worked constantly. “Now that I’m like this he has to make even more money,” Deb said.

Lily had allowed herself to feel a kinship with Deb, the only one of her clients who was a woman close to her own age. She did not begrudge her the rich husband, but felt that they shared something, both having fallen in love, both being happily in love. Lily, because of the force of her feeling, thought that what she and Tom had was rare. They’d been so smug, and stupid too, and she cringed to think of the way Tom had talked about money. “Don’t these bozos know money doesn’t buy happiness?” Like it was nothing. Like he was better than everybody.

Now, Deb’s wealth stupefied her, and her sighing comment, now he has to make even more money, was nauseating.

“Don’t let life get you so down that you give up,” Deb said.

There was the apartment, the roaches, deadbeat Tom, the unexplained symptoms. Why hadn’t she given up? This is what it feels like when you hitch yourself to the wrong horse, Lily thought. In the rush of that feeling—regret, wasn’t it, and how it was now too late—she pushed the wheelchair too quickly and Deb had to brace herself.

“It’ll be all right. You’ll be on the other side of it and you’ll be all right.” Deb was crying now, and Lily, after a long silence, finally thought to offer her a kleenex.

• • •

Her appointment with the neurologist came a week later. In his office, she was so stunned, she said, smiling, “well, it’s nice to know what’s wrong, instead of wondering all the time,” and Dr. Fenn had given her an odd look.

She understood his look now. At the library on the way home she’d skimmed a few websites. She would deteriorate. She would probably lose her job. She would need drugs she couldn’t afford. Even the prescription he’d given her cost as much as her half of the rent.

“You have to get a job,” she told Tom as soon as she got home. “A good job.”

Tom held her while she cried, wiping her face, pushing back her hair with his palms, then they had sex on the bed, quickly. He fell back beside her. “I love you. I always will.”

“You’ll need to get a job. One with benefits.”

“You’ll get disability, won’t you?”

“Tom, you have to at least try. Please.”

“We need to find a way to sue the pizzeria.”

And what if he did get a job? There was still the unrelenting heat, the cockroaches threatening to fill their throats in their sleep, the seventeen stairs from their apartment to ground level, the two buses to the doctor’s office, the four block walk to the library where she’d have to go find out about government grants and disability benefits, where she’d have to pay to print forms and wait in line for an hour every day just to get on a computer.

She slumped against him and watched out the window, too tired to bother making spaghetti.

• • •

Every morning, there was the sound of the ovens cranking on. Clanking and whirring industriously. Lily got up to get towels, which she soaked in cold water and then brought to the bed. She put one cold cloth on Tom’s torso, and he stirred.

“Maybe I should ask Deb?”


“One of my clients. She’s got tons of cash. She already gave me a cane she didn’t need.”

“What if she gets so pissed off that you lose your job?” Tom said. “What about your mom?”

“We can’t ask her. She’ll just want us to pay her back.” Lily sighed, picked up the towels, and took them to the bathroom to wring them out. “I don’t know what you do all day,” she yelled to him. “I don’t know why you aren’t out looking for a job.”

She had once loved him so much that it would overwhelm her at the oddest times, while folding laundry, at the amazing length of his jean’s legs. There was nobody else, now, and she’d done it to herself, made a shelter of her love like nothing could ever go wrong.

She had to beg him to come to the library with her so she could print the applications for various subsidies, to find out what she was entitled to. He walked with her, finally, holding doors open and waiting patiently for her to catch up. She gave up walking with the tortoiseshell cane Deb had given her, which was just another appendage, and instead got into a slow bowlegged rhythm. Tom carried the cane across his back, his elbows hooking it on either side.

While they were standing in line at the printer, a girl of eight or nine said to her mother, “why does that lady walk so weird?”

The mother laughed. Then, trying to smother her laughter, said, “I don’t know, sweetie.”

Tom heard this and his anger might as well have been shooting through Lily’s own body because that’s what she felt when he turned around and pointed a knobby finger at the little girl. “You should learn some manners,” Tom said.

The girl was frightened and backed up into her mother. “What’s the matter with you?” the woman asked, quietly.

“You should really teach your child when to shut her mouth,” Tom said.

A potbellied man at a nearby computer stood up and pulled at his belt self-importantly. “Is there a problem here?”

Lily could see how it looked to them, Tom with his beard and his bugged-out eyes.

“This young woman insulted my wife,” Tom said, leaning in towards the man with his smelly, bearded chin jutting out.

The potbellied man frowned at him. “Sir, maybe it’s time for you to leave.”

“Why should I leave?” Tom said. “Anyway, we’re waiting for our printouts.”

“Let’s go,” the man said, and they were both so amazed by his confidence that Lily just stood and stared while Tom ended up outside on the wheelchair ramp, pacing and ranting with the cane raised in the air.

A librarian gave the potbellied man a relieved smile and the girl and her mother looked at Lily smugly. She waited until her prints slid out of the machine, then joined Tom outside.

He was still pacing. “Who do these people think they are? You can just speak to someone like that?”

Lily sat down on the curb. She was breathless. It was already starting to get dark and the intersection in front of the library became dotted with streetlamps and headlights. “Let’s go home,” Lily said, but wasn’t sure that she had the energy to move.

“I could have gone to university. They don’t know anything about me.” He paced in and out of her vision, once in a while pitching a piece of litter across the parking lot with the cane.

“Tom, if the medication works,” Lily started to say, but she was crying with frustration, not even sure how the sentence would end.

They had been out there a long time and no one was coming in or out of the library. She turned around and saw that a crowd had gathered at the front window, a row of unfamiliar faces pressed against the glass and staring at them. Behind them, the potbellied man was speaking to the librarian, who was on the phone, and then he was walking towards them, towards the door, and then poking his head out. He had his hands on his hips. “I want you to know that we’ve called the police. You might as well clear out, then.”

“The police. For what? Let’s call the police, let’s call the police. Right, right. Fuck the police!” Tom stopped pacing and stood looking at the man.

Lily was still watching the strangers’ faces, which were mostly smiling, or wearing raised, excited eyebrows, and then they weren’t smiling anymore, they were pointing and horrified. She looked back at Tom, who had raised the cane over his head with one hand and who had a knife in his other. A kitchen knife, their kitchen knife. Probably not very sharp but glinting nonetheless in the light of the buzzing streetlamps.

She looked at the potbellied man, who appeared unfazed, who appeared not to notice the knife, who appeared, even, to find the whole scenario comical, as though he were the school principal and they were just a couple of troublemakers. She hated him so much then that she said nothing. Instead, she caught his eye and smiled sweetly at him until it was too late to close the door on Tom, who lunged now, the cane already in contact with the potbellied man’s shin, the knife gripped in his hand.


Liz Windhorst Harmer’s fiction and essays can be found in PRISM, Grain, The Malahat Review, The Dalhousie Review, The New Quarterly, and elsewhere. In 2014, she was nominated for two National Magazine Awards, one of which she won. Her unpublished short story collection was a finalist for the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. She lives in southern California.

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LF #035 © Liz Windhorst Harmer. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, February 2013.


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by liz windhorst harmer