The Slow-Cooked Sentence

How we communicated
one wet, bleak afternoon

Rachael Conlin Levy

The wintry sun hid behind sheets of cloud and rain so uninviting that I climbed back into bed by midday. “Are you okay?” you asked. “I’m tired and my neck hurts,” I said. You kissed my forehead and shut the door. I slept for hours, but woke exhausted.

From the bed I moved to the couch, where I nestled to watch the rain and drink a third cup of tea. “I’m too tired to support your effort to make dinner,” I said. You only laughed and insisted the help was unneeded.

“Not true,” I said. “You came in to ask questions while I was sleeping.”

“Only about the thermometer.”

“And then there was the shrimp,” I said.

“You wrote it on the list, and I didn’t know what you wanted.”

“What is unclear about the word thermometer?” I asked.

“Anyway, you came to me about the shrimp,” you said.

“That’s not true. How could I when I was sleeping?”

Through all of this, I studied my hummingbird as it perched next to the feeder in the miserable rain. To feel propriety for this tiny, wild male is presumptuous, especially since I’m already the mother of three larger wild ones, but there you have it. For almost a month now, he’s been hanging out in the rhododendron near the front door and chirps at me when I step outside. When there’s time, I stop to scan the bush’s interior until I spot his iridescent pink, then wish him good day. A passing jogger or two has noticed me conversing with the rhodie, but I consider it better to sow seeds of doubt about my sanity than not respond to a hello.

In the blue-gray dusk, my hummingbird disappeared, a decision was made to order pizza, although neither of us moved to the phone, and I watched our living room materialize in the darkening glass. Bookcase, chair and picture frames floated next to street lamp and parked car, and through this double-exposure walked a neighbor and his dog. I reached for the cup of tea, which had grown cold, and felt muscles pinch and constrict with pain welcomed after a day fogged by cyclobenzaprine.

“I’m not going to take that medicine anymore,” I said from my perch on the couch.

“I’ll put the shrimp back in the fridge,” you said.

“It’s all too much work.” I stared into the night, absorbing the heavy sensation of my skull balanced on a weak neck, reminded of how a newborn quickly tires from similar effort, until a teenage son passed through the room and I assigned him the task of ordering pizza. “I keep thinking about my dream, the one where I killed two people, and am carrying their heads in a bucket.”

It was a food-grade bucket. White plastic, five gallon, and exactly like those used to store water when I lived off the grid while growing up. One of my chores when I was 11 or 12 had been to haul buckets into the house. They were heavy, and I was young and weak, which meant my efforts sometimes ended in half-filled buckets and a freshly mopped floor. Mandatory lids came after my baby sister leaned in headfirst for a sip, like a hummingbird at its feeder, and lost her balance. There she was — head under water, feet kicking in the air — when my mom walked by and pulled her out. Now, I carried bucket and head in my dream.

“What do you think it meant?” you asked, but the arrival of pizza distracted me, and we moved to the table to eat and read in silence. Later I wondered if those heads belonged to me, that I’d twice beheaded myself, and this dream was a subconscious effort to be rid of the pain. Unable to peek under the bucket’s lid, and with you already gone to bed, I chased two Advil with a glass of wine and wrote down the theory here for you to read later.

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