Little Man by Jane VanCantfort

“Hey, hon, how did it go at the doctor?”

“I’m only five foot four and a half.”

My husband stood there, dropping his powerful shoulders while holding his hands like serving trays, and dropping his knees, quite the simian effect.

“Didn’t you tell them you were five foot six?”

“Yes, but the nurse helping me just gently shook her head.”

“Aww, it happens, though I’m sure I am shrinking, too.”

I patted him on the back, one more indignity of getting older. We always say getting older, never getting old, or simply being old.

I didn’t care if my husband was short since I had become part of the invisible elderly. I focused on expensive French flats and coloring my hair, rather than my wrinkled cleavage and corded neck.

“I don’t care if you get shorter and shorter,” I said. “It’s what inside of you that I love!” This was only partially true, of course.

“You’ve always been the sweetest thing!” he said, grinning back. Again, only partially true. We’d been doing this dance for 26 years. It was the second marriage for both of us, the one we called happy.

Just yesterday morning we were snuggling together, waiting for the coffee to brew, when I saw a protruding vein in his chest; the actual reason for the doctor visit was his high blood pressure. His soft chest hair was still the reddish color of his youth, his calves still shapely, but the vein put me off my game.

Nevertheless, I got on top, and I couldn’t help seeing my bulging tummy, my wrinkled skin (two pregnancies later),  and my deeply wrinkled cleavage from too much sun in my youth. Usually my extreme myopia saved me from this cruelty, but I had put my contacts in early today.

So we switched positions, he got on top, and he came right away, par for the course. I didn’t mind, as it gave me more time to get to yoga. Sex was an expected part of weekend mornings, one of my wifely duties. As a child, I was often told I’d make a good wife.

My first husband’s cheating was so corrosive, he even openly flirted with the midwife at my son’s birth, and just like that, my sex life, like my looks, became of small importance to me. And with my second husband, I’d often cringe at his sexual remarks and stiffen when he hugged me from behind while washing dishes.

I guess it was my destiny in a way, to run a house, to think of recipes all day, to grocery shop. I remembered going to my aunt and uncle’s house; they usually hosted the family at holidays, having a large house and a pool. I was directed to the dollhouse, while the boys played ping-pong. But I loved that dollhouse. It had tiny buffets that had drawers that would open! Tiny cookie sheets! You could open the fridge! And it had the perfect tiny family, too. Mom in an apron, Dad with a suit and briefcase, a boy, a girl, and a baby. Perfection. I loved rearranging furniture, a practice I keep up to this day. Cheaper than remodeling.

I got up to make him breakfast in bed, another weekend tradition. He loved a ranch breakfast like his Aunt Etta used to make, and was partial to pancakes or French toast, always with orange juice in the Waterford crystal goblet he had used since childhood. Or eggs Benedict, with avocado instead of bacon, and a fresh cup of French roast. These days he left half the meal on the plate, but our aging Labrador didn’t mind.

We always had a little singsong tone, our own household croon, born from talking to dogs or small children,. He had raised his three, with a divorce roadblock, and then helped me raise my two. Then his kids had grandchildren, so the “little voice” had little legs, as it were.

“I’m a member of the clean plate club!” he squeaked, reminding me of the little boy he had been, the classic redhead with freckles, a bit of a problem child.

“What are you going to do today? Work in your garden?” I answered in the same singsong fashion.

My tiny life: I was still working, though my job no longer had much importance to me or anyone else. I had gone from being a graphic artist in a city known for its history of original design, typesetting, and printing presses before the computer and laser printer revolution, to a rural copy shop in a strip mall. It was a day of reading emails and downloading files and writing up work orders for the technicians, and then packing the job up and billing. The job hasn’t changed much over the past ten years, except for the concealed carry permits and the social security statements and child custody legal paperwork of the heartland.

My husband had retired 5 years ago, or maybe longer, (the years get themselves mixed up when you’re my age), and spent his days in his garden or practicing his guitar or walking dogs at the local shelter. He took care of everything around the house except the cooking, cleaning, and laundry.

As I was going out the door for work Monday morning, he was still wearing his robe. He had the hood up and looked diminished, tiny even. The robe, a birthday present from me, was called a man’s short robe. Actually, it was a short man’s robe now.

He only came up to my shoulder, but of course I was wearing two-inch heels for the office. The dark blue hood of the robe, with the thick, curly white curls clustered around his face and poking out from under the royal blue terry cloth, made him look like an elderly boy, chilled after a swimming lesson. When I hugged him, I felt maternal.

I went off to work, I took my noon walk, I typed up work orders. My wedding ring kept slipping off my knuckle as I typed; I used to worry I’d never get it off, but now I worried I couldn’t keep it on.

My thoughts, though, went to the vintage dollhouse I was restoring. It wasn’t as nice as the one I grew up with, but I loved it nonetheless. I loved opening the little doors, admiring the staircase, the itty-bitty roast turkey on the platter, the miniscule apron hanging on a nearly invisible hook. I considered lace curtains, a tree by the front door, maybe an actual living bonsai, even the one that changed leaves in the fall.

When I got home that night, I couldn’t see my husband. He wasn’t in any of his usual places, not by the bookshelves, not in the bathroom, not on the deck. I finally saw him standing in front of the fireplace. It wasn’t a particularly dark corner, and it rattled me that I didn’t see him.

“Wow! My eyes must be going. I didn’t see you standing there!”

“Guess you didn’t look very hard.”

Oh, so that was his mood I saw, and I decided to tread carefully. “Did you leave the gate open?”

“No, I shut it.”

“Don’t you remember I said to leave it open? The Fed Ex guy is delivering a package by seven.”

I smiled and shook my head, silly me, forgetting something he muttered to me 9 hours ago.

“Oh, the deck flag fell down again!”

“Yeah, you can’t put it up that half-assed way. You have to use the staple gun, not just some Mickey Mouse tape job. And are you watering out there?”

We used to keep a woven basket of our pre-dinner munchies on top of the fridge, and I noticed it was on the kitchen counter now. I kept my mouth shut, knowing I was relentlessly picky and small-minded about our house. Could it be he couldn’t reach it anymore?

I made a flatbread pizza with pesto and artichokes, one of my faves, but I just didn’t feel hungry for it, and neither did he, so we just ate child-sized portions, and I ended up putting most of it back in the fridge.

Then, it was time for our usual news/commentary show. My husband yelled in frustration at the president’s latest antics, as now it seemed the rule of law was being circumvented. Conspiracy theories also drove him nuts, and he hated the racism of the backlash about football players taking a knee. When he yelled, though, his voice seemed higher to me, easier to tune out. Because of his poor hearing, and because he always commandeered the remote, I watched silently. I often wanted to comment on the information but had learned that only he could pause and talk.

When the news was over, we chatted about our neighbors, the tenants, what to plant in the garden, just small talk about our lives, and he went to bed early, almost the bedtime of a baby. I still had that blessed hour before I fell asleep that I had as an exhausted working mother, but now, after just a few minutes, the book fell out of my hand, or I couldn’t keep my eyes open, especially the left one.

When I came to bed, he was a little lump on the left side, and for once he hadn’t hogged the duvet. I slept a heavy deep sleep. When my bird-sounds alarm went off, I turned to him. I was so used to his hand resting on my hip. Sometimes I cringed at the possessiveness of the gesture. For a moment, I thought he wasn’t there; but he was all the way to the side.

I got up and made the coffee as usual, and he still slept soundly, snoring softly. I woke him up to serve him his coffee, just one small cup these days, and I heated up one of the scones he liked, with Irish butter melted on top. Maybe I gave him too much butter; perhaps hastening his demise; I resolved to switch to a lighter spread so I wouldn’t feel so like I was poisoning him, like a king’s consort.

He liked to monitor his blood pressure before taking a sip of his coffee; he was testing his new meds, hoping for at least a small improvement. When I came in with his coffee, he was half seated with both pillows behind his head.

“Did you use the blood pressure monitor?” he asked.

“No, I haven’t used it. Why?” I said.

“The cuff isn’t fitting right. It used to be snug around my bicep.”

“I blame the cat. She’s the one who messes with stuff around here. What was it?”

“153. Still not where the doctor wants it.”

“But it’s better, right?”

“Right, right…. still popping all my meds.”

A brief pause, and then: “Can I get some orange juice too? And could you zap my coffee a little? It’s gone cold.”

Mornings we usually chatted about the news, afraid that something insufferable had happened overnight, but not today. Just a volcano and a Middle East conflict and another Black person shot by the police. I scrolled through my phone, swiftly switching from news to photos to Facebook, half listening to his plans for the day, and I noticed my husband’s voice had changed; I think my sinuses may have been blocked, as his voice was muffled, or was it higher pitched? It had the raspy quality of a teenage boy’s voice, in the process of changing. I wasn’t fully listening.

When I got in the car, I had to push the seat back. I went through the motions of the day, praying for the week to be short and the weekend to be long. But the weekends were empty these days, just chores and eating too much food and early to bed. We both had a little too much interest in the birdhouses, which were painted in bold, primary colors, and contained different bird families. Yes, we had become those people: hobbits in our cozy little shire.

When I got home, he was wearing his custom cowboy boots that he used to trot out only for special occasions, as they were too tight.

“Wow, you are wearing those? I thought they were uncomfortable.”

“No, they seem to fit a lot better now. I put neatsfoot oil on them.”

“How did your day go?”

“Oh, the usual. It was a quiet day, just puttering around.”

The dog came up and pushed his head into my husband’s crotch, an awful habit of his, which women visitors always hated but my husband had always encouraged, but the dog didn’t fit anymore and backed away in confusion. My husband backed up too, and his boots seemed to flop around his ankles, like he was wearing his father’s shoes.

I made dinner, and my husband said he would serve himself; I guess I had a tendency to give him too much. It was his turn to say grace.

“Thanks for our little corner of the earth, and the birds and the bees that are so busy on it.”

It sounded to me like a child’s Sunday school prayer, not his usual style. We watched our news show, and he was quieter than usual, and went off to bed by 8 p.m. I went downstairs to play with the dollhouse. I dusted the master bedroom, and made the little sleigh bed up with a new foam pad. All the room needed was a flat screen TV. When I came upstairs again, he was snoring softly, like a baby in a bassinet.

The weekend came at last, and my husband wanted to show me how to access his accounts. He bent close to the computer screen, and I got the feeling he could see better if he sat on my lap; it actually looked like he might fit. But I kept the thought to myself.

On Monday, I went off to work as usual, and he was wearing one of my t-shirts, a pair of his grandson’s abandoned shorts, and his belt through the loops twice. But he claimed to be okay, and I reluctantly left the house, taking my time to organize my purse, and add an item to my shopping list while I sat in the driver’s seat.

This wasn’t one of those problems I could hash over with my co-workers. I put it out of my head somehow all day, a trick I had learned as a single mother; don’t think about the problems at home at work or the problems at work at home; a field guide to staying sane.

I called out as soon as I got in the house. My husband was nowhere to be found. I went into the bathroom, with fear and dread in my gut, and found him next to the sink, as small as a toddler. He had brought a stool to the sink and had toppled off of it, tumbling to the floor. 

I gathered him up in my arms, shocked by the knot on the back of his head and the gash on his forehead, and carried him to the bed. I couldn’t take him to the hospital, not in his condition. And his clothing was crumpled under him, falling off his legs, falling off his shoulders, his belt obsolete. He was half moaning, but I couldn’t make out the words.

I couldn’t call the kids either, I realized, they would have no idea what to do. I stood by the bedside, looking at my tiny husband, and decided to live in the moment, as therapists and yoga had always encouraged me to do. I gently cleansed his bloody head, and put some CBD oil on the wound too. It looked like a salve that the old women healers might have made, a witchy poultice. Then I put a band-aid over the gash, and tucked him in. He kept on speaking gibberish. Rest was probably best. I sat by the side of the bed until his breathing seemed regular, remembering when my son had his appendix out and got an infection, and I stayed in his hospital room for two weeks. I looked out the window and saw the brightly painted birdhouse he had built in better days, with the birds nesting in the twilight. Always strange how the world keeps turning.

I woke in the middle of the night, half collapsed on my husband’s side of the bed, and he was even smaller. I lay next to him, barely able to hear him. So I put my ear right next to his lips, checking to see if the baby was breathing.

“You’ve always been the one for me,” he said, his voice sounding like a cartoon elf. 

“And you have always been the one for me!” I said,

“I better tell you all my passwords, and how to start the tractor, and where I order the hay….” I had to have my ear directly over his tiny mouth to hear him.

“I set up the dollhouse downstairs for you,” I whispered. I had to tell him sometime. I couldn’t keep it from him, just like my enormous student debt.

I had always tried to make a nice home for him, after all.

At this, he began to wave his tiny arms and he seemed to be shouting, but I backed away, out of earshot.

“Okay, never mind, don’t worry. Just rest now, and somehow we will figure this out in the morning,” I whispered soothingly, and somehow he was able to calm himself; perhaps he was easily tired at that size, needing so much more energy with all those tiny movements, like a bug on its back frantically waving.

No more man-splaining, that I could hear anyway, no more tirades, like when I backed into the horse trailer in the Mercedes. He’d no longer be the man who had affairs with his subordinates, no longer the man who was skeptical of a woman with a tool in her hand, or peering under a hood, no longer the man who always commented on a women’s appearance, even his three year old granddaughter.

Now I felt magnanimous, like a goddess, or an Amazon, here to help this scared small creature find his way. I felt larger than life, free, with an odd energizing relief. I went down to the basement to get the house ready.

The next morning, he would fit into my pocket, so I called in sick, feigning flu. I went downstairs with him, holding him next to my ear like an ear bud, and still I had to strain to hear him telling me what to do. The sound was closer to the buzz of an insect now.

He always used to joke about household projects he was roped into, like who is going to put those shelves up? “You and the mouse in your pocket.”

I opened the door of the dollhouse, and popped him inside. I slammed the front door, making the tiny doorbell ring a little. Then I quickly wrapped a bungee cord around the house, holding the door in place. I had to get to the bank. He pounded on the tiny French doors, though he was so tiny it barely made a sound, and then he raced to the second floor and pounded on the bedroom window too, but I had to go.

It wasn’t until I was in the car that I remembered I should have given the poor little thing some food and water; I would do that as soon as I got back. I was back in about an hour, and I went to the dollhouse, with a sandwich cut into the smallest pieces my sharpest knife could cut, and a bottle cap filled with his favorite sparkling water. I would have to figure out showering and plumbing I realized; the tiny toilet in the house wasn’t operational, of course.

I opened the door, but he didn’t seem to be in the house, I even pulled back the tiny covers on the master bed. I noticed some dust in the corner of the room, and blew it without thinking.

And he was gone. Just like that, no sign of him. I had to stand on my tippy toes to see into the upper floors of the house. Dust to dust, I supposed. I would have to report him missing. I’d miss him, my life companion. What would I do without him?

Jane VanCantfort has an MFA from the University of San Francisco in Creative Writing. She lives in the Sierra foothills with her husband and pets.