The Magic Hour

Magic HourThe dog is there again today, near the intersection of Leland and Malden. It is sitting in the same spot, underneath the dead oak tree with the burnt-black branches that twist toward the sky like worms writhing on the end of a fishing line. Betty told me once, right after we moved in, that the tree must have been struck by lightning, that nothing else could have blackened it like that. But I’m not so sure. I get the impression that it rotted from the inside out, getting darker as it died by inches.

I wonder if I should have brought a bit of bread or a hunk of cheese with me, something to give to the dog, who is scrawny and getting scrawnier by the day. But a single meal won’t keep it alive much longer, and Betty would not want me to waste any food. So I stare straight ahead as I round the corner, pretending I don’t see it, pretending I can’t feel its eyes poke pinholes of longing into my face and chest and back. I keep pretending until I turn the next corner, onto Beacon, and retreat out of sight.

I live on Beacon, just a bit further up the street, in a one-bedroom apartment that is part of a retirement complex almost entirely inhabited by widows and widowers in their seventies and eighties. At sixty-two and sixty-three, Betty and I are the youngest residents. One of the only couples too.

We moved in about six months ago, but we haven’t gotten to know everyone in the complex yet. Mrs. Baker, who lives to our right, brought a pecan pie over the week we arrived. And Mrs. Cromwell, who lives to our left, has been sharing her bumper tomato crop with us all summer. But I’ve only spoken to the other tenants on our floor briefly, on my way out the door for an errand, or a walk.

Stepping into the foyer of the building, my morning paper tucked under my elbow, I allow the front door to slam shut behind me. Mrs. Cromwell and Mrs. Baker are too deaf to be bothered by the noise, and Betty is a heavy sleeper. Then I plod to the one-bedroom unit at the end of the hall, slip inside, and sink into my favorite chair. It’s my favorite because it’s near a south-facing window, and the late afternoon light that clings to its worn corduroy hide has this warm, sort of cobwebby quality to it. Like, if I stuck out a hand, I could scoop some of it up, save it for later. Betty had a name for that type of light, that time in the late afternoon when the sun has begun to dip below the horizon but has not yet disappeared completely. She called it magic light, the magic hour.

At our place in Florida we used to spend the magic hour on our back porch, drinking whisky sours and watching birds flit around a feeder Betty set up in our backyard. She gave each of the birds a name, usually something to do with its coloring. Like, she’d call a blue jay Bluebell or a cardinal Redwing. I used to tease her, tell her that dozens of birds, blue and red, were coming to the feeder and that she was calling each and every one of them the same thing. But maybe that wasn’t the case. A cardinal crashed into one of our windows once, breaking its wings in at least two places, so that a russet ooze of blood spread across its crimson plumage, blotting the more beautiful red out entirely. We never saw another cardinal come to the feeder after that. So maybe there had really only been the one Redwing all along.

When we moved I brought the bird feeder with us. I thought that we could still sit together, when the light was right, and wait for another generation of Bluebells and Redwings to find us. But Betty sleeps through the magic hour most days now, and when she is awake she doesn’t seem especially interested in birds.

I doubt she’d be interested in a dog either. I tried to get her to play with the puppy Mrs. Cromwell bought for her grandchildren a couple of months ago, when the kids let it outside for a game of fetch. But Betty didn’t want to leave our apartment. And when I encouraged her to at least admire it through the window, when I asked her if she liked the dog’s curly, cotton-ball hair, she just muttered something about white dogs getting dirty easily and shuffled back to the bedroom. I didn’t mention the little white dog again after that, and I have never mentioned the big gray dog I keep seeing under the dead oak tree, even though I find myself thinking about it often.

I’ve never had much luck with pets myself—I killed every goldfish I ever owned in a matter of months, and the guinea pig I bought from a former coworker lived for less than a year. Mrs. Cromwell tells me that dogs are supposed to be harder to care for than the little pets, a lot harder, and I barely manage to stay on top of my chores and keep track of Betty’s hospital appointments as it is, so it wouldn’t make sense to commit to caring for a dog. Besides, when I do have free time, I like to spend it relaxing, watching races and working on crossword puzzles. Today is a Sunday, so the New York Times crossword puzzle is more difficult than usual. It takes me two hours to finish it. Or almost finish it. I doze off before figuring out the last five or six clues.

When I wake up, the sun is hanging lower in the sky—its light is softer, warmer than it was before—and Betty is crying again. I push myself up out of my chair and pad across the carpeted floor to our bedroom. She has crawled out of bed and is sitting on the floor, clutching one of the feather pillows I gave her for her sixtieth birthday. She is pulling the feathers, one by one, out of the pillow and sobbing over them. When she sees me she sobs harder. “You’re a phony,” she yells. “A fake.”

Doctor Orkin tells me that I shouldn’t take these rants personally, that I should try to remain calm, for her sake. I do take them personally, of course, but I’ve gotten good at hiding how much she upsets me. Today, for instance, when I bend down to take the pillow from her, I do it with a smile, and I keep smiling even as she rakes her long nails across my cheek and digs her teeth into the tender skin of my arm.

My grip is stronger than hers, and I am able to wrench both the pillow and my arm away from her before she can do any real damage to either. I hold the pillow behind my back and count to twenty, silently. Then I set it back on the bed with the others, knowing that she has already forgotten about it.

“Are you getting hungry, dear?” I ask her, eyeing the clock beside the bed. It is two in the afternoon, and she hasn’t eaten yet today—she hasn’t wanted anything. “Would you like some grilled cheese? Some tomato soup?”

She pauses, considering the question carefully. Then she nods. “Yes,” she says. “And cut the crust off the sandwich, please.”

This surprises me. She hasn’t shown this much interest in food in months. “Sure,” I say. “I’ll bring you soup and a crust-less sandwich.”

And so I busy myself for a few minutes in our little kitchenette. It’s like something out of a Barbie playset, but it’s not completely useless. There’s a full-sized fridge, at least, and a stove; the back burners don’t work, but the front two are fine. I heat the soup over one and the grilled cheese over the other. Then I cut the crust off the sandwich, set it on a tray with the soup, and take it back to Betty.

She is in bed again, under the covers, with her head on the feather pillow she was torturing moments before. When I set the tray down beside her, she does not at first acknowledge it, or me. I think for a second that she’s asleep, but she’s not. She’s staring out the window at the bird feeder, where two finches, rosy-chested and chirpy, have perched. The afternoon sun is bathing them in light and warmth, their feathers licked by fire.

“Look at that,” I say softly, worried that the birds might take off if I talk above a whisper. “The magic hour is here.”

Betty does not raise her head to look at the birds. She doesn’t need to, to disagree with me. “No,” she says simply, her voice as breathy and soft as mine, but not for the same reason. “It’s gone, gone all away. And only the ugly ones are left.”

“I don’t know about that,” I say, confused. It’s not unusual for her to get her words mixed up, especially when she’s upset, but “only the ugly ones are left” is a strange thing to say. “Those finches are pretty, aren’t they?”

“No. Not anymore.” Her voice catches in her throat as she says this, and I fear that she will start crying again. But she doesn’t. Instead, she squeezes her eyes shut for a moment. And then, suddenly angry, she reaches for the tray and knocks it off the table.

The plate of grilled cheese doesn’t make much of a mess, but the bowl of soup does. It arcs across the room and breaks against the far wall, its contents spraying outward. Chunks of tomatoes cling to the wallpaper, the carpeting, the bedspread—transforming the pink pastel bedroom into the site of a gruesome crime scene. It is not really the red of blood, though. That’s darker. It is the red of cherry popsicles, of cardinal feathers.

I stare at the not-blood, at Betty for a moment. Maybe because she senses my anger, or maybe because her own has been spent, she is now contrite. She retrieves the sandwich from the floor, makes a show of brushing a speck of dust off it, and brings it to bed, where she nibbles at it silently. I clench and unclench my jaw as I watch her eat and try to remind myself that she is not doing any of this on purpose: she isn’t trying to hurt me. Soon, I feel calm enough to pick up the pieces of the broken bowl and carry them back to the kitchen, where I keep several rolls of paper towels stashed away—several, because accidents like this are not uncommon. I retrieve one of them and am about to return to the bedroom when Betty calls out again.

“It’s all ugly now, Ben,” she says, her voice louder and clearer than it has been for weeks.

Something about the turn of her phrase, the tone of her voice, reminds me of one of our first dates: the one we spent at the conservatory in Lincoln Park, when we saw a pigeon whose eye had been torn straight out of its socket and left dangling against its tiny beak. I can still remember Betty’s face so clearly, the tears that streaked across her taut, smooth skin when she saw the pigeon, the way her brow furrowed when she told me that she hoped she left this world before her life was nothing but pain and ugliness, the way I laughed nervously and told her that her life would never be like that.

I’m not sure whether she’s talking about ugliness now because she’s remembering the same bird, or because she sometimes spouts non sequiturs when she’s having a bad day. But I can’t shake the idea that she’s thinking of the pigeon too. And the more I think about that bird, the more convinced I become that, if I were to return to our bedroom, I would see in the gleam of her eyes, the glare of the window, that the magic hour is over for her, for good, that the bright eyes and brighter laugh that made me want to kiss away her tears in the conservatory that day and lie to her about what the rest of her life would be like have been dimmed for good now, and there is nothing but darkness ahead of her.

I don’t like to think this way. That’s why I try to stay busy—taking walks, watching races, plodding through crossword puzzles. To avoid this kind of thinking. There are no races on today, though, and I’ve already finished—or nearly finished—my crossword puzzle, so I decide to busy myself in the kitchen for a bit, wiping down countertops and washing dishes. The smell of soap, the same lemon-scented soap my mother used to buy, calms me. There’s something so soothing about the monotony of housework, the back and forth motion of a wet sponge sliding across granite. The birds outside are soothing too, their warbling chirps loud but never shrill. I look for them through the window hanging above the kitchen sink, to see which ones are at the feeder today, and I notice that the Cromwell kids have brought their dog outside again. They are taking turns attempting to pedal a unicycle around the cul-de-sac while the dog, not nearly as small as it was a few months ago, sits by the curb, watching and wagging its tail. The little white dog reminds me again of the large gray one I have been seeing on my walks, the one I have been ignoring and refusing to feed, the one whose eyes are every bit as pain-filled as that pigeon’s. As Betty’s. And suddenly I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t continue to watch it slowly starve to death under that hideous old oak tree. So I toss my sponge in the sink and root around in the fridge for a moment, until I find the package of cocktail wieners I bought last week. I stuff the package into my pants pocket and head out the door, hoping that the dog will still be sitting under the dead oak tree, that the magic hour isn’t over yet. The last rays of dying light slant across my skin as I walk and warm up my fingers, my forearms, my entire body.

Lindsey Anderson

About Lindsey Anderson

I live in Chicago and work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where I edit art books and catalogues for the museum’s press. I was recently awarded a Jane Anderson scholarship from Roosevelt University, and I’ll be enrolling in an MFA program there this fall. In my free time, I play roller derby for the Windy City Rollers (my derby name is Fay Wray Gun), and I write about contemporary art for the online magazine Sixty Inches from Center. I also currently serve on the reading committee for Carve Magazine.

I live in Chicago and work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where I edit art books and catalogues for the museum’s press. I was recently awarded a Jane Anderson scholarship from Roosevelt University, and I’ll be enrolling in an MFA program there this fall. In my free time, I play roller derby for the Windy City Rollers (my derby name is Fay Wray Gun), and I write about contemporary art for the online magazine Sixty Inches from Center. I also currently serve on the reading committee for Carve Magazine.

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