What I Should Say

by Sharon Fiffer

Appears in Other Voices #30

When my neighbor says to me, "Nice day for it," what I should say is that she couldn't possibly know what it is, and, not knowing that, could not possibly know whether or not the day is suitably nice for it.

"Mary," I should say, although I do not know for certain whether or not this is her name since her husband refers to her as 'hon' and 'Mar' which could be short for any number of other names, "although the weather is pleasantly warm for late September and I seem to be reading the newspaper and sipping a liquid which one might assume is coffee since it is eight a.m. on a Tuesday, you could not possibly know what I am doing, or what anguish it might be causing me. Oh yes, I might be frittering away my time on the Word Jumble, or I might be checking the movie schedule. I could be scanning the classifieds for garage sales. But, equally likely, Mary, I am reading a Wisconsin mother's plea for someone, anyone to return her missing eleven-year old daughter whose bike was found in a ditch. Equally likely, I am reading the obituary of a woman my age whose children, amazingly, are the ages of my children. I might be thinking, Mary, for just one second that I have indeed died and not realized it, and then I hear you, in a bright singsong, tell me I have chosen to expire on a day that is particularly nice for it."

What I do say is nothing.

I nod. I do not waste words. I pretend that words cost one dollar each. If I were to say, "Yes, Mar, it certainly is a nice day for it," it would cost me ten dollars. Even, "Sure is," would cost me two and I am not a waster. I am saving my words, putting them away for the future, a reserve against age and illness and disaster. After all, my husband might decide to leave when my daughter leaves for college. It's a common story. I might have to explain why his car is no longer in the garage. I might have to visit my mother's doctor when he decides to change her medication to one that costs more than she can afford. I might have to comfort my son if he falls off his bicycle. I might have to explain why, even though I am dead according to the obituary in the morning paper, I remain sitting on my front porch drinking a warm beverage that is, yes, coffee, and refusing to leave since I have no idea where I would or should go. Words could be necessary and one needs to conserve. Words may be our only true hedge against inflation.

I am not dead, of course. My husband refers to me as often surly and an employer once called me churlish. My children think of me as stubborn and my parents called me a recalcitrant child, so it's not entirely beyond the pale that if I were to die and that meant that I were to depart for somewhere on my own, I might conceivably refuse to leave the porch. But i am certainly not post-modern enough to believe in any of that nonsense.

No, I am here, front and center on my sunny side of the street reading an obituary in the newspaper of a handsome grandfather who repaired watches, and I begin to mourn my father who died sixteen years ago on a Tuesday very much like this one.

I mourn my father randomly. At stoplights, during soccer games, at Fourth of July parades, during the singing of the national anthem at night baseball games. The feeling, the actual pain of mourning is like a paper cut. A relentless stinging that refuses to throb, to cripple, to allow me bed rest. It

is pure pain. A sliver, a slice, a nail through my tennis shoe.

"Can you ever remember a more beautiful fall?"

Mary-Mar-Hon is mulching her rosebushes, bubbling over, spending words like there's no tomorrow. Eight dollars and insipid to boot. But I do remember my junior high French teacher, a woman who would likely have been a serial killer if she hadn't exhibited a flair for languages, marching in to terrorize my fourth period class and slipping on a piece of chalk, falling so

heavily, so noisily, so awkwardly that we were all struck dumb with delight. It was a brilliant fall and I remember it, so I spend the dollar. "One."

Then my eyes are back to the paper, to the grandfatherly watch repairman and I wonder what secrets he knew, which ones he kept. My father was a saloonkeeper and knew everyone's secrets, heard everyone's confessions. Good and honorable, kind and true. The day he died, he raised himself up in his hospital bed and said loudly, clearly, "It takes one to get in and two to get out."

He never regained consciousness.

None of us did really.

People brought potato salad to the house and my brother and I ranked it with two, three and four star ratings.

Cheever wrote a story about a man whose parents had died when he was fourteen and explained his character by saying that no one would ever love him enough.

That's a true story. Except I was twenty-nine when my father died and no one had loved me enough then.

"Oh," Mary says quietly, and I am as startled by this muffled sound as I would be if she had stripped to the waist and brayed like a mule. It is an "oh" filled with terror and knowledge.

When I look at her, she is staring at the narrow bracelet of wrist exposed between her pink garden glove and the long denim sleeve of her shirt. I stare, too, and see the bee, and although I might be ten yards away, I am sure that I see the tiny curtsy bow as the bee dips and stings.

"Oh," Mary says again, and although i could easily be twenty yards away, ! see her face clearly, her eyes draw mine in and say read my lips because I have no voice, and although I am too far away to truly know this, I believe her lips form the words, "allergic."

No one thinks that I am fast. I am too often clumsy and too often slow for anyone to believe how quickly I fly inside my own house, down the hall, to the guest bathroom and take out the ball-point pen-like syringe I keep for my mother, allergic to bees and deathly afraid, and I fly again out to my neighbor who has collapsed into her roses, breathing shallowly, eyes rolled back. My feet have not touched the ground, not once, and I give my neighbor, Mary-Mar-Hon, a shot of anti-bee, the adrenaline that will save her life and her head relaxes cradled in my arm, and 1 allow myself to know that I have saved a life.

This is a new experience.

Birth was as euphoric and leveling as it should and can be. Look what 1 did, you want to shout as you see your baby squirt out and, in the next moment, you think, any moron with a womb can do it, too. My post-partum depression was immediate, but temporary.

This giving of life by swift thinking and medical injection is a horse of a different color. No ordinary moron could have done this.

My neighbor is breathing normally, looking up at me, adoring me. Is this what god feels, I think and remember that I am much too post-modern to believe in god.

I do not know where this will lead, this cradling of my neighbor, her gratitude, my new fleetness of foot, my new responsibility as a life-giver. I badly want to tell my father what I did. Mary-Mar says, "You saved my life."

There's no denying it, so I nod. I badly want to say that it's a nice day for it, but it would be too self-indulgent and it would cost six dollars. "Thank you," Mary whispers.

What I should say is, "You're welcome."

What I do say is nothing.