She was five when they lived on Darby Road. The house was small, a brick rancher with yellow wood floors and green bathroom tiles. In the afternoon before her father came home, her mother ran the bath until it was only a bit full. Then she put her in the tepid water and washed her with a soapy cloth. She was a daydreamer girl, mesmerized by the gentle touch, the wallpaper pattern of bird cages, the shadows of the pine needles slanting across the window sill.
“You got good and dirty today, little girl,” her mother never failed to say. “Now let me check that belly button. Promise not to be ticklish this time.” Their laughter made the dim little house seem bright.
Her mother’s hands were red and creased, the nails wide, plain ovals. In winter, the skin was rough from carrying in the fire wood, chapped by the cold winds. In summer, the skin was peanut butter brown and there were calluses from gardening. Looking up at her mother from the bath water, she thought the tired eyes were beautiful. They were brown back then, she would always remember. Later, they silvered with age.
Many years later, when she was a woman, she lived with her husband in an apartment in town. The walls were white everywhere, and the floors a dim gold that refused to honey with washing. It was a homely little place where each balcony faced another, exactly the same, across a square inner yard of tightly shorn grass.
His name was Andrew and she loved him very dearly. He was a gentle person. He taught her to do things he knew how to do, like change the engine oil, because she asked him how. When she told him she was lonely in the apartment during the days, he got her a small dog they named Spook, because his birthday was Halloween. The dog was a menace and it took her a long while to grow fond of it. She never told Andrew, though, because it had been sweet of him to think of it.
When her husband got sick, they went to many doctors. No one could cure him and in little time he went from golden to grey. On a windy March evening, as he lay in the hospital, squeezing her hand, he whispered that he wished they were home together. Despite its bone-colored walls and bare tables, he loved that place because it was theirs. She took him out of the hospital that night, despite the protests of the doctors.
At the apartment, she made up his bed on the sofa. She put the stacks of bills in a kitchen drawer so he wouldn’t see them. Spook climbed up and curled beside him. When he grew feverish and cold some hours later, she drew a hot bath and she took his weight full against her as she helped him into the water. Gently, she bathed his pale shoulders, the thin arms and neck. She was glad when he closed his eyes because she was not able to stop the tears.
He smiled at her and stilled her hands. He said, “Isn’t this bath full enough already, sugar?” He was kind enough to want to make her laugh, so she pushed up a smile for him and gave his nose a tweak.
When she got to his feet, she heard a last sigh and he was gone. Her knees and her back ached and she sank down to sit next to the tub. She found his hand and held it in hers until the water and his skin grew cold. Dawn was slanting through the apartment, a fragile light spilling into the hall.