Mr. Christiansen Dies

Julie Reiser

On the tenth anniversary of his wife’s death, Mr. Christiansen woke up early using Mrs. Christiansen’s clock, a mechanical beehive which, at the designated waking time, issued forth a buzzing bee that circumambulated the hive 10 times. When the bee was done running its circuit, it disappeared back inside, and Mr. Christiansen wound the clock for the next day by twisting a small key on its underside.  

In the past, he used to daydream about various accidents that could happen to Busy Bee—getting bumped off the nightstand, being crushed by a falling body—but the thought of Mrs. Christiansen rushing in to rescue her precious beloved had always stopped him just short of executing his fantasy. He wasn’t sure he wanted to see just how much she cared for that thing. During their first decade of cohabitation, Mr. Christiansen had resented Busy Bee’s prominent place on his wife’s bedside table. After the second decade, he pretended Busy Bee did not exist. Now, in the fifth decade, Mr. Christiansen looked somewhat fondly on Busy Bee even though he couldn’t remember whether it had appeared after his first business trip to Phoenix or their first argument?

It bothered him that his memory wasn’t what it used to be. Last Tuesday, for example, he sat on the bed for more than two hours trying to remember if it was Mrs. Christiansen who placed his socks—rolled into tight, precise buns—on the left side of the dresser drawer or if that had been a recent innovation of his new housecleaners, Heather and Steph. Heather and Steph were twin-nieces of Tom, his old boss at Kennecott Copper Mine. He hadn’t wanted to hire them, but the Monsens, his estate’s trustees, insisted that he do so after Mrs. Monsen stopped by one afternoon and discovered a particularly sour smell emanating from his bedroom.

He didn’t like Mrs. Monsen—Mrs. Christiansen’s best friend for 40 years—and he didn’t like to say negative things like she did. Truthfully, he didn’t even like to think them. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in negative things. He just preferred not to dwell on them. Like, for instance, Mrs. Christiansen’s death. That was an extremely negative thing, he thought, and he didn’t want to dwell on it.  So he didn’t.

To be clear, he knew Mrs. Christiansen was dead—as in, her body was no longer alive—but ever since he discovered he could still communicate with her that hadn’t mattered so much.

It all started one day when he found himself alone in the bread aisle trying to determine whether it was Wonder Bread Whole Wheat or Arnold’s Wheat Berry that they ate.  As he was poking through the wrappers looking for a familiar sign, a sixteen-year-old blonde, chewing a wad of gum, walked right up to him. He turned to look at her. She turned to look at him. Then, looking right through him, she started blowing a bubble. He watched the bubble grow bigger and bigger as it accommodated the large volume of air she was forcing into it. And, for a brief moment, he lost himself in it.  

All big, pink, and expansive, he saw himself untether from her thin lips and begin floating, dirigible-like, over the bread aisle. Slowly, he migrated over to the produce department where he hovered over the avocadoes, and the eggplants, and, finally, the melons, where he paused to watch an ant crawl up from the bowels of the bin and traverse the taut skin of a honeydew. Around and around the ant went in diminishing arcs until it came to rest in a soft, fragrant depression forming in the fruit’s navel.

Then, without any kind of warning, he popped with a loud BANG! This sent a shudder—a shudder of knowledge—right through to the core of him: it was Wonder Bread that they ate.

When he returned home later that day, he realized that the shudder could not have come from himself or the girl or the bubble. Surely, it had come from Mrs. Christiansen! For who else would have known the answer to the problem of the bread? From this observation, he knew she was still there inside him watching. This revelation made him feel strange, but he was happy enough to let her know that he was glad to have re-discovered her, even if it was in this mysterious, semi-mute sort of way.

After the bread incident, he began talking to Mrs. Christiansen regularly, but only inside his own head. He didn’t want the Monsens thinking he was cuckoo and ready to be moved into Park Lane. It was difficult not to be able to consult with Mrs. Christiansen out loud—especially when he had to give his deposits to Kate, the teller with purple hair, or when Mrs. Monsen began discoursing on the lack of fiber in his diet. At times like that, Mr. Christiansen had to go deep inside and feel for Mrs. Christiansen’s shudder, which wordlessly advised him to stay quiet, keep his head down, and walk to Arctic Circle for a lemonade before he said anything he’d regret.

Mrs. Christiansen was good like that. She knew exactly what to do in every situation. Like the time they came home from seeing Turandot at The Capitol Theatre and found Jeanie Anderson—their neighbor’s daughter who had run away from home only to return with a butterfly tattoo and a belly the size of a beach ball—sleeping on their doormat. In that instance, Mrs. Christiansen simply opened up the door and stepped over her, not wishing to disturb what was obviously a peaceful slumber.

For her anniversary tonight, Mr. Christiansen was surprising Mrs. Christiansen by making a special dinner of all her favorite foods.  It would be a double-surprise for Mrs. Christiansen because, one, he would be cooking and, two, he had done this entirely on the sly. Since he usually consulted Mrs. Christiansen about everything, he knew she would be amazed at his efforts.

Most of the ingredients—the pineapple rings, the Stauffer’s potatoes—had been relatively easy to slip into his weekly cart without arousing her suspicion. The Spam had been the easiest: he just took out the last tin of hers that he’d been saving in the cupboard and dusted it off. The peas, however, had proven complicated. If he had walked up to any grocer’s freezer in the Great Basin and pulled out a bag of them, he might just as well have charged balloons, a sheet cake, and a “happy anniversary” banner to Mrs. Christiansen’s VISA card.

In their fifty years together, he had eaten peas in front of her exactly once, whereupon he was rushed to Holy Cross Hospital and saved from total anaphylaxis by the machinations of an unsightly, yet highly effective, nurse named LaJuana. Even though the peas had tried to kill him, Mr. Christiansen was secretly grateful to them because he suspected that, without their sympathetic intervention, he might never have received the quiet “Yes” to the proposal of marriage he proffered to Miss Sorenson, who would later become Mrs. Christiansen, from the edge of his hospital bed later that same evening.

Given their pivotal history, then, the peas had been absolutely necessary to indicate the specialness of the dinner, but they also necessitated deep cover on his part. He hadn’t liked the idea he eventually landed on, but, in the end, it worked out beautifully: he made himself fall—rather hard, actually—on the sidewalk outside Safeway just as a kind-looking woman was entering. She offered to help him up, but he shrugged her off saying, “Oh, I’ll just ice my hip with a bag of frozen veggies and be good as new tomorrow!” And, just like that, he sailed into the store, slipped the lethal orbs into his cart, and Mrs. Christiansen was none the wiser.

Today, one final item remained on his shopping list: Pioneer Taffy. In truth, the taffy—not the peas—was the true Achilles heel of his plan. Pioneer Taffy, Mrs. Christiansen’s absolute favorite, was sold in one place and one place only: the gift shop of The Beehive House. That it was located on the grounds of Temple Square was not an insurmountable problem in and of itself: he just needed to get in the Buick and drive one short mile to get there. But once there, the real problem was Sister Lois, the shop’s manager. Talking to Sister Lois meant he would, once again, have to explain why he hadn’t been attending church, as he falsely claimed he was when Sister Lois and her companion, Sister Margaret, paid their condolence call shortly after Mrs. Christiansen passed. Further, he would have to offer a reason why, at the time of his deepest personal crisis, he had allowed himself to be tempted by Satan into straying from the flock of the faithful rather than choosing the path of righteousness. And, finally, why he had not managed, in the decade since Mrs. Christiansen had passed, to see the errors of his ways and atone for his sins.

But there was just no other way to get the taffy. So, he got out of bed, showered, shaved, and put on his best suit. He drove to the ZCMI Mall, parked, and took his time walking up South Temple Street.  As he made his way toward the shop, he rehearsed various possible things he could say: He just hadn’t been himself after Mrs. Christiansen passed? or He just couldn’t bring himself to leave the house? or He had seen the error of his ways and was now attending the Monument Park Thirteenth Ward, instead of the Salt Lake Valley First Ward, with a good friend? None of these felt right to say but he would say one of them, if he needed to.  

When he arrived at the shop, he entered through the front gate into the garden and snuck up next to the window. Lingering near some stalks of snapdragon, he pretended to open and close their crimson jaw-petals while peering inside. He saw the taffy in a barrel close to the front door. As predicted, there was Sister Lois, all her raiment and glory knotted severely at the nape of her neck, standing at the back counter filling plastic sacks with scoops of horehound candy. The line of customers was long, so she’d have plenty of time to plan her attack. Had Sister Sarah been there, he might have stood a chance. But fate was having none of it.

For a quick moment, he contemplated doing the dinner without the candy, but he felt a deep rumbling in his belly and knew it just wouldn’t be right. As he stood surveying the scene, however, an alternate solution presented itself. It was less than honorable but, nevertheless, totally viable: he could just steal the candy and avoid having to talk to Sister Lois altogether. What was the worst that could happen anyway? The bishop had probably already dis-fellowshipped him by this point.

He stood up, straightened his collar, and walked briskly into the store. Once inside, he turned his back to Sister Lois and pretended to look at pile of The Deseret News placed, rather auspiciously, next to the taffy. As he pretended to scan the headlines, he stuck his hand deep into the barrel and siphoned a fistful of the soft, wrapped candies into his front pocket. The precious cargo securely stowed, he walked straight out the front door. When he got outside the gates, he paused, looked at his watch, mouthed an “Oh my gosh,” then sprinted away lightly, as if late for an important meeting.

By the time he got back to his car, his heart was pounding and a pang of reflux had geysered up into his throat. It had been two decades or more since he’d run like that, and, at first, he thought the burning was just from the running. Then, to his total horror, he realized it was more likely an after-shock of anger from Mrs. Christiansen, who, after all, had just been granted a bird’s eye view of his theft. How could he have been so stupid and forgotten about her?

He hoped she wasn’t so angry with him that she would boycott the entire evening. Never a large woman, Mrs. Christiansen, could still be quite fierce. Once, when he had forgotten to telephone exactly 30 minutes after landing in Seattle, Mrs. Christiansen, thinking the marriage over, packed her bag and went to stay with her sister, Mrs. Swenson, on Devonshire Drive. While there, she had no knowledge of Mr. Christiansen’s call—placed exactly 60 minutes after landing in Seattle—nor any of the two hundred other calls he made during the next three days.

“Ice in those veins,” her brother Jacob said when he came to pick Mr. Christiansen up at the airport.

Mr. Christiansen sensed there was “bad blood” between the two of them, but every time he had ever asked Mrs. Christiansen about it, she turned away and pretended to rotate cans in the cupboard or swat at an invisible fly.  He hadn’t wanted to dishonor her by asking Jacob about it directly while she was still alive. And now, Jacob was too far gone in the web of Alzheimer’s to be of any help.

When Mr. Christiansen returned home, he put the taffy into Mrs. Christiansen’s favorite Waterford dish, the one shaped like a cross, not the heart, which was his favorite. When he was done, he walked over to Mrs. Christiansen’s bookshelves and scanned the rows of her records until he found La Vie en Rose. Perhaps this would soothe things?

He lifted the turntable’s lid with his two pinky fingers, then fitted the record’s hole over the player’s stalk. He let his fingers go and watched the disc slide gently down the small pole. Once the album was on the rubber pad, he lifted the needle and placed it on the smooth part just before the etched grooves. The record was scratched after the third song, “A quoi ça sert l’amour,” but he knew it would play perfectly until that point.

Mrs. Christiansen had discovered Mrs. Piaf when she went to The University of Utah to take a class in the extension program. At the time, he hadn’t known why she picked painting to extend herself with, but he sensed it was important to let her extend herself in whatever way she wanted. So he didn’t complain too much, either about Mrs. Piaf or about the painting Mrs. Christiansen eventually brought home—a still-life with calla lilies and a halved papaya.

On the sixth night of her six-session class, Mr. Christiansen opened the bottom drawer of their dresser and pulled out the stacks of tiny clothing. He placed them in a plain cardboard box, which he tied extra tight with twine and walked over to the Nelsons. When he got back, he took the silver rattle, still intact in its cellophane box, and left it out on the hall table next to his briefcase so he could return it to Tom.

When Mrs. Christiansen came home later that night and saw it, she smacked him and ran into the bedroom. So he picked it up and placed it on the top shelf of the hall closet.

Taking three deep breaths, Mr. Christiansen walked over to the sideboard and opened the top drawer. As he did, a small plume of Enjoli, Mrs. Christiansen’s perfume, wafted up. He closed his eyes and concentrated on her smell. When it finally dissipated, he opened his eyes and rooted around until he found what he wanted—an embroidered tablecloth from his Aunt Ruth. He pulled the rectangle of white cloth out and placed it on the table. It was the last of Mrs. Christiansen’s untouched things, and its edges were crisp, as if she had just pressed it yesterday. He could tell her ironing from anyone else’s, especially the twins’. He closed his eyes and ran his hands all over it, really taking the feeling of the cloth inside himself. Then he opened up his palm and cupped the whole of the cloth to his face.  He inhaled deeply and was rewarded with an even stronger cloud of her smell.

Pressed up against him like this, the cloth, stiff-starched though it was, still had a hint of softness, not all that dissimilar to Mrs. Christiansen’s wedding dress, the one he’d let drop to the floor that first night. He had slipped it off easily, unlike her later dresses which had taken some force. But this one, when it fell, he remembered it made a pleasant shush.

Mr. Christiansen went back to the kitchen, put the kettle on to boil, and looked in the cupboard for Mrs. Christiansen’s last canister of hot chocolate. Nothing. He checked another cupboard. Still no luck. He thought about checking the high cabinet over the fridge—though why it would be there would be a true mystery because neither he, Mrs. Christiansen, nor the twins liked that cabinet because everything in it was always made warm by the fridge.  Still, he thought he better check, so he bent over and pulled out the folded stool. He pushed the hinges down and locked them into place. Then, he took a step up. He pulled on the cabinet’s knob, but it was stuck.

So he yanked again, only harder. This time, the door flung open easily—too easily, actually—and the easiness of it sent him flying off the stool backward, which caused him to hit the back of his skull on the stove’s handle, which then propelled him forward into the edge of the opposite counter, which pitched him backward again onto the lower cabinet’s knob, where he snagged his occipital ridge and hung for a few moments until he slipped down onto the linoleum, where he came eye to eye with a large, but well-crafted, cobweb that had obviously escaped the twins’ attention.

He tried to sit up but found he couldn’t. He tried to roll over onto his right side but found he couldn’t. So, he decided to rest there—all sprawled out in an unpleasantly familiar way—for just a moment.

Jeanie Anderson had just had it that day, just had it, what with Taylor hitting Madison like that. Who knew where he came up with these ideas of his? To think she’d had to be called by his primary teacher to come get him because he’d just given Maddie a black eye? She just knew she’d be hearing about this from everyone: Mrs. Monsen, the bishop, her mother! What gives, Taylor? Huh? You must of gotten this from your father!  That man! She was so stupid to believe he had loved her. What the fudge had she been thinking? I mean, really, how could she have been so stupid to believe a guy like that? One with an earring and all. She’d messed up everything, just like her mother said she would, and now here was Taylor starting it all up again for her when she’d just managed to get herself a car and a job at the CinePlex. And, Taylor, what in the H-E-DOUBLE-TOOTHPICKS are you doing back there? Stop playing with the window! What the? Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! That couldn’t have been, could it? Oh my gosh, oh my gosh. Mrs. Christiansen! Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. What were you doing out in the street? Somebody help me! SOMEBODY PLEASE!

Was it a moment?  He couldn’t be sure because he couldn’t see the tiny clock in the stovetop. It looked a bit darker than before, but he couldn’t be certain that his position on the floor wasn’t making things look dimmer than they actually were because, in all his life, he’d never once thought to lie down on the floor and look up at the world this way.

But now that he was looking at it, really looking at the worldthis big, beautiful, magical world!—he realized something new: that everything was okay, just totally okay.

Then a thought intruded, possibly his last thought ever: not once had Mrs. Christiansen lain down on this linoleum and looked up to see the world this way.

Not once had she ever!

As the sun began to set, he watched the spider pluck its way back and forth across its web, those silky, patterned strands laid out to snag any inattentive ant or errant crumb sent spiraling out of life. The web flickered red, then orange, and, finally, a dark, inky blue. When it became totally black, Mr. Christiansen stopped being able to see, but he felt the spider walk up onto his face and begin inspecting every square millimeter of it. Around and around, the spider mapped every angle, divot, curve, and indenture in the personal latitude and longitude of his face.

When it was done, the spider hopped off and returned to its web. The web bounced a little as he walked back onto it, and he felt the stickiness and pull of the little diamond beads of glue under the small, tender points of his legs. And he felt the urge, oh my god the beautiful urge, to spin.

Just spin.

Julie Reiser is a senior student of Doen Roshi in the Lost Coin Zen lineage. She is the director of The Professional Communication Program at Johns Hopkins University. She is also an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. Her short story, “The Hippie Picnic,” was a runner-up in The Writer Magazine’s “Tell It Strange” Contest in 2014. She is currently at work on a novel set in Antarctica fifty years after the seas have risen. She can be reached at julie.reiser@gmail.com.