By Z.Z. Boone
Except for the blood pressure, Parisi is a healthy seventy-five-year-old. He swims at the Y four mornings a week, his spine is straight, he maintains the 34-inch waist he carried through college. His mind is sharp; he reads historical novels and sees an occasional play, and he can still knock out the Sunday Times crossword without having to wait a week for the solution. He does not confuse people’s names, or forget where he parked the car. He sees his doctor annually, a jovial GP named Klein, who today tells him that despite a slightly elevated reading of 120-over-80, and a bit of arthritis in his left hip, he will live as long as he wishes. “And after you do go,” Klein jokes, “We’ll probably have to wallop your still-beating heart with a stick.”
Parisi’s wife died nineteen years ago from a brain aneurysm and their daughter, Hannah, then twenty-seven and newly divorced, moved back home. When Hannah wasn’t working in the billing department at Danbury Subaru, the two of them would go to the movies, or dine at Olive Garden, or visit the library for a talk on Native-American basketry. They might even be mistaken for a couple—at least in Parisi’s mind—aging gentleman and no-longer- young woman.
They work well together. Parisi, a retired high school math teacher these past seven years, takes care of the house. Everything spotless. Never a leaky faucet, never a burned out lightbulb. Lawn cut once a week in the summer, walkway shoveled snow-free in the winter. Hannah feeds them and clothes them and handles the finances with the care of a corporate actuary.
Parisi is more concerned with the uptick in his blood pressure than his doctor is. Klein suggested buying an inexpensive digital monitor and using it twice a day. Less salt. Cut back on the alcohol, restrict caffeine intake.
Tess, when she was alive, knew how to keep him calm. For the twenty-eight years they were married—every morning and shortly before dinner—they’d go up into their bedroom while Hannah got dressed for school or did homework or set the table below. Tess would sit straight up on the bed, back pressed against the headboard, while he sat in the leather covered armchair facing her. They’d close their eyes and silently chant a monosyllabic word—his favorite being one—and Parisi would feel himself gently entering into this state of semi-conscious sleep. Some internal clock would accurately measure off twenty minutes, and when his mind reentered his body he’d raise his head and look toward his wife. He’d find her either still under, or staring back at him with a satisfied smile.
Parisi stopped meditating once she was gone and then, years later when he tried to renew the practice, found himself unable to do it. He had difficulty staying still. He’d constantly open his eyes to check his watch, and if he lasted the entire twenty minutes he was saddened to look over and see nothing but an empty bed.
It’s not the coffee or the alcohol or the excess sodium that’s making Parisi nervous, it’s Frank Shea. He’s one of the new hires at Danbury Subaru, a 50-year- old car salesman who’s taken an interest in Hannah. Parisi met him a couple of months ago when he stopped by the house. Glad-hander, belly out-to- here. Toothy grin frozen on his cleanly shaven puss. Parisi’s vodka was good, but had he ever tried Grey Goose? Do you know how much bigger this room would look with crown molding? That kind of stuff. Hannah starring at this phony the entire time like she was Catholic and he was the pope. The two of them finally left to have dinner at The Hideaway, a place a man doesn’t take a woman unless he’s looking for—as Parisi’s dad would say— “a little pushy-pushy.”
He waited up for her that night and she came in at a more-than-reasonable time. She was lighthearted in a way he’d seldom seen her. Talkative. They sat at the kitchen table and drank some wine and Parisi heard a capsulized version of Frank Shea’s life: navy veteran (“proud to serve,”), failed marriage (“he tried his best,”) son in graduate school (“Boston College, no less,”) a Dalmatian named Cash (“protective, but a real sweetie).
“Just be careful,” Parisi warned. “You hardly know this man.”
“He just strikes me as an operator,” Parisi said. “Something about him.”
Hannah stared at her father, shook her head slightly, stood up from the table.
“You can really throw water on things,” she said.
Years ago—before those secretive and rebellious teenage years, and prior to her leaving home to live in some godforsaken suburb of Buffalo—they’d been a team. It was a relationship his wife, the family disciplinarian, encouraged. Parisi particular loved taking his daughter into class and passing her off as some pre-school prodigy. They had several rehearsed routines—some original, some gleaned from television—and his favorite involved dressing her up like a miniature librarian is a conservative pantsuit and tortoiseshell glasses.
“This is my daughter Hannah,” he would say as she stood in front of the room striking a scholarly pose. “She’s very into ornithology, which is…”
And here Hannah would interrupt in a faux British accent.
“The scientific study of birds, their behaviors, and their threatened habitats.”
Parisi’s students would begin to look from one to another, smiling and shrugging, and that was exactly where Parisi wanted them.
“In fact,” he’d say, “She even has the ability to communicate with our feathered friends. Would anyone like to hear Hannah do a bird call?”
The class, knowing their option was between this and abstract algebra, would express their enthusiasm.
“In that case,” Parisi would say, “Hannah, please give us your best bird call.”
The girl would clear her throat, push her glasses further up on the bridge of her nose, cup her hands around her mouth, and in practiced Brooklynese yell, “Hey, Boid!”
In the car on their way home, Parisi would smile and say, “Got ‘em good.” And Hannah, still in character, would sit straight in her seat and stare skyward out the passenger window.
On Friday morning, she tells her father that they have mice. That when she went to the kitchen pantry to get out the coffee, she noticed the bottom of the oatmeal box had been chewed through.
“Should we call somebody?” she asks.
Parisi shakes his head and tells her he can handle it. He takes a carton of eggs from the refrigerator and begins to help her set up for omelets.
“Maybe we should get you a cat,” Hannah says.
Parisi purses his lips, shakes his head. But there’s something about the offer—the pronouns, perhaps—that bothers him.
“I’m thinking I might not be home after work,” Hannah says as she chops mushrooms on the counter by the stove.
“Why? What’s up?”
“I might spend the night at a friend’s house.”
Parisi won’t even voice the man’s name. “The married guy?” he says.
Parisi gazes over as his daughter rakes the mushroom bits into a bowl. She’ll never be mistaken for a fashion model—her skin still erupts like a 16-year- old—but she’s tall and solid.
“If you don’t want me to go,” she says, “Just say so.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
Hannah exhales through her nose, takes the knife to the sink, begins to rinse it off.
After she’s left for work, Parisi takes his blood pressure using the monitor he’d bought at Walgreens. It’s up a bit: 125 over 83, and when Parisi studies the chart that came with the monitor, he sees his numbers fall within a yellow-shaded area labeled “Prehypertension.”
It’s September, but unseasonably chilly. As he drives out, Parisi notices a couple of his neighbors, people that he now only acknowledges with a wave of his hand, as they cover their grills and take in their outdoor furniture. Their children are arriving home from school, kids with names he doesn’t even know.
At Stop&Shop he considers buying poison pellets in a box shaped like a wedge of cheese. It’s less messy, but Parisi fears that once poisoned, the mice will die inside the walls and the stench of death will surround them like fog. He looks for conventional traps—the traps of his childhood—wooden slabs with a wire spring hinge. What he finds are flimsy plastic lookalikes, four of which he begrudgingly drops into his cart.
Back at the house, he baits them. A smear of peanut butter in what looks like a minute salad bowl. He pulls back a lever and listens for a click. Then, he puts the four traps on different shelves in the pantry, opens a bottle of merlot, and begins setting out the things Hannah will need to make dinner: the cutting board, the potato peeler, the colander, the garlic press. Hannah never does come home, and around nine-thirty, when he calls her cell, he gets voice mail.
“It’s Dad,” he tells her. “I’m just checking to make sure you’re still alive.”
An hour or so later, when he hears nothing, he pours himself a glass of wine, sticks a Stouffer’s frozen lasagna in the over, and sits down in front of the TV.
Hannah’s marriage was to Jason Billerback, a man she met in Buffalo, where she was attending a sales management seminar. Not a terribly romantic story. He rear-ended her at a red light one afternoon, got out of his car, walked up and announced that he was sorry, but he’d just drunk an entire bottle of whiskey. He begged her not to call the police, and gave her all his pertinent information. They exchanged numbers. That night he called her at her hotel and asked her if she’d like to watch the Buffalo Sabres play hockey.
Jason worked for someplace called Heavenly Hubbies, this handyman service that would send guys out to do odd jobs around people’s houses. The marriage lasted three years twice as long as Parisi originally gave it—up until the time that Jason—who would come home every night with a cake, or some gelato, or those sprinkled-topped cookies—came home with the clap.It was a present Hannah was not happy to be regifted with, and they parted (in Hannah’s words) “smart enough to keep a safe distance.”
Since then—at least to Parisi’s knowledge—very little. No serious boyfriends, no secret trysts, no faceless, slavering computer hookups. If Hannah has missed the companionship she knew as a wife, she’s kept it private. An occasional blind date, Tuesday night mixed couple’s bowling, the infrequent “girls’ night out.”
Parisi asked about Jason one afternoon while they were replacing a step on the wooden front porch.
“He’s living in Erie, P.A., far as I know.”
“Do you ever miss it?”
“The sex?” she said, as she measured a length of 2×10.
He hadn’t meant that, but for some reason he nodded his head.
“It’s like when you quit smoking,” she told him. “Eventually the craving lessens.”
Lately, Parisi’s been having this dream where he’s standing on a sheet of steel, maybe twelve feet square, suspended high off the ground. There are cables in each corner running down to the ground, but they’re tucked well underneath.
Below, unnoticing, the world goes on.
Parisi’s only choice, other than remaining where he is, is to dangle off the steel’s edge, swing his body in the direction of the nearest cable, release his grip and hope to grab hold. Risky. He can feel the heat of the metal warming the bottoms of his shoes, and notes that the edges are beveled like blades. So far in these dreams he’s paced back and forth, or stood frozen. And once, on his stomach and looking down, he saw Tess who seemed to be going on with life quite well without him. It was the closest he’d come to making a decision, but before he could act, he awoke. He didn’t sit upright in bed bathed in sweat like some character in a movie. But he did wake up as confused as if he actually was up on that expanse of polished steel.
It’s 5 a.m., but he’s been awake awhile, listening for the sound of tires on gravel, the gentle opening and closing of the front door. What he does hear is something faint, unfamiliar. Something falling, plastic striking ceramic tile. Parisi slips into his robe, plods downstairs barefooted, opens the pantry doors and notices one of the mousetraps out of place. He quickly locates it, flipped on its side, on the floor by the potato bin. He sees the mouse, its side pinched by the trap but still alive. It twitches and stares up him, terrified eyes the size of peppercorns.
Parisi figures he’ll take it out to the trash can, trap and all, and walks out to the hall closet for the broom and dustpan. But when he gets back to the kitchen the trap stands empty, a section of its plastic trap-arm chewed through, a tiny sliver of skin with gray hair like dandelion fuzz on the floor next to it.
He picks the now useless trap from the floor with a paper towel and throws it into the trash. His heart is beating hard, his daughter still out, some mouse with its side ripped away hiding god-knows- where. He puts on coffee, sees that his hands are shaking. He knows this isn’t a particularly good time, but he goes into the bathroom, gets the blood pressure monitor from the cabinet, removes his robe. He straps on the cuff, sits on the toilet lid, rests his arm on the edge of the sink. 139-over- 89. He’s still in the yellow, but now he’s borderline and fast moving toward the orange colored area labeled “Hypertension Stage 1.”
He hears a set of footfalls on the front porch. In the kitchen he finds Hannah retrieving her coffee mug from the drain board.
“Have fun?” he asks.
Hannah walks to the fridge and takes out the skim milk.
“Don’t ever do that to me again,” Parisi says. “Don’t ever stay out all night and ignore my calls.”
“I was enjoying myself,” she says coldly. “You slipped my mind.”
She pours herself—only herself—a mug of coffee and heads for her bedroom.
Parisi wants to follow her, throw open her door like he used to do when she was little, demand the consideration he’s due. Instead, he goes upstairs and starts to load his gym bag.
Which is when he spots it. It’s walked into Parisi’s bedroom like a domesticated pet, stopped close to his lowboy dresser, gazed around the room as if appraising it. It’s maybe three feet away, and Parisi could probably stomp on it if he was wearing proper shoes. For what seems like minutes, neither of them moves. But then the mouse, perhaps sensing a human presence, scurries underneath the lowboy.
Parisi quickly slips on a pair of Crocs, returns to the kitchen, and takes two of the traps from the pantry. In the hall closet, he finds a flashlight and broom. Back in his bedroom, he resets the traps, one on each side of the lowboy. He considers the possibility that the mouse has found a new hiding place, but when he gets on his stomach and shines the light underneath, there it is pressed against the baseboard.
He uses the handle of the broom not to try and pin the mouse, but to send it in the direction of one of the waiting traps. His plan works. The mouse scurries in the direction of the open doorway, and in a second Parisi hears a snap. He’s quickly on his feet, just in time to see the mouse’s body stiffen, its life slipping from its minute body, its raised tail gently lowering like the page of a book being slowly turned.
For Hannah, Saturday is a half-day. One to five. Usually, she makes a big lunch for them; today it’s a huge cobb salad and a warm loaf of garlic bread. It’s mild enough outside that, wearing sweaters, they can eat on the porch. Hannah brings out a couple of beers, and Parisi recognizes it as an apology of sorts.
“I’m thinking of selling the house,” he says once they’re settled.
“Come on, Dad,” Hannah says. “Why would you do that?”
“I’m not sure I can take another winter.”
She asks him where he’d go, and he corrects her.
“We,” he says. “We could go anywhere. Florida. The Carolinas.”
“What about my job?”
“There are jobs everywhere,” he says.
Hannah takes a swig of her beer, toys with her salad, finally puts down her fork.
“Frank thinks I should move in with him,” she says.
“And what do you think?”
“I think I’m almost fifty years old and look at me.”
Parisi breaks off a hunk of garlic bread, even though his appetite is gone.
“It wouldn’t be immediate,” she says. “Not until his divorce is final. I’ll be like twenty minutes away.”
“Maybe Frank can recommend a good home health aide,” Parisi says.
“You don’t need a home health aide,” Hannah says. “Look at yourself. You’re as fit as a man half your age.”
“I thought we were a team.”
“Don’t do this,” she says. “Don’t pull this shit. ‘Daddy’s little girl.’ I’ve always hated it.”
Parisi raises his eyebrows. It’s this gesture he uses: Excuse my stupidity. I didn’t realize. Hannah wipes her mouth with a napkin and stands.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“It’s all right.”
She crosses around the table, stops behind him, drapes her arms over his shoulders.
“I have to leave for work,” she says. “Can you wrap this and we’ll eat it tomorrow?”
“How about tonight I take you out to dinner?” she says. “Red Lobster.”
“I got the mouse,” he says.
Hannah gives him a hug and a slight smile.
“Well stay vigilant,” she says. “There’s never just one.”
Parisi watches as she pulls away from the house, a wave from the car window as she drives past.
I don’t even remember her getting a driver’s license, he thinks to himself.
He clears everything from the table, takes it all inside, covers the food and places it neatly in the refrigerator. He considers going to the Y, but suddenly fatigue overtakes him and he feels the need to lie down.
In his bedroom, Parisi slips off his Crocs and sits up on the mattress, back against the headboard. He closes his eyes and the word comes to him effortlessly.
He’s aware of a few images: the mouse under the dresser, the blood pressure monitor, Hannah’s salute from the car minutes ago.
And then there’s nothing but drifting, as the present becomes the past, and Parisi finally feels himself beginning to relax.
Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, published in 2015 by Whitepoint Press. More recent fiction has appeared in New Ohio Review, Eleven Eleven, 2 Bridges Review, and The MacGuffin. Z.Z. teaches creative writing at Western Connecticut State University.