Time Like an Icicle by Liz Alterman

Time is our most precious commodity. That sentence looped through Leslie’s mind as she stood inside the dry cleaners waiting to pick up her husband Ted’s dress shirts.

Where had she just read those words? She could picture them beneath a photo of a whale, its steely tail shattering the ocean’s otherwise placid surface. Normally, she despised that kind of in-your-face inspirational bullshit, but now she understood the wisdom of that sentiment, especially as she’d just wasted a solid four minutes watching an endless parade of stripes, solids, polka dots, and patterns march past her. The shop’s employee, hypnotized by the garments’ slow rotation, stared into space, unmoving. This worker, maybe nineteen or twenty years old, looked as if she didn’t have a care in the world. And, of course, she probably didn’t. She was just putting in hours, allowing her days to blur into one another.

Leslie shifted from foot to foot and gripped the countertop until her knuckles turned white. Seconds before she was about to walk out and call Ted to tell him to get the blue and white button-downs himself, the girl handed Leslie the shirts and offered a half-hearted, “Thanks for waiting.”

Waiting and wasting time had become Leslie’s biggest pet peeves. She’d never been a patient person, but now she experienced a physical reaction to having moments stolen from her. The worst was the grocery store, teeming with shoppers who clearly had nowhere else to be and nothing better to do. Watching them linger, staring into frozen food cases as if they were visitors at an aquarium discovering some rare sea creatures, made Leslie’s palms itch. Like zombies, they stood on the checkout line looking down at their phones ignoring the most basic “paper or plastic?” causing her pulse to quicken. Seeing their arms hanging limp at their sides, as if these ordinary consumers were above touching their own toilet paper and chicken thighs, Leslie murmured, “Bag your own shit, motherfuckers!” in between performing the deep breathing exercises that were supposed to help but didn’t. She tried fanning through women’s magazines but found their self-care suggestions at odds with her compulsive need for the constant motion required to make every second matter.

Leslie didn’t have a moment to spare. Not anymore. Not since she’d received the second opinion that confirmed the diagnosis she, a nurse, had suspected weeks earlier.

Hearing the words aloud while a resident slipped her a brochure that spelled out the disease’s deadly path made it real in a way that started a clock ticking. It was as if someone had pushed the button on a stopwatch that was hidden at the bottom of her belly. When she was idle, she heard its tick tick tick reminding her to live. She couldn’t recall leaving the doctor’s office or riding the elevator down to the parking garage. Yet somehow she’d dragged her body, the one that was steadily betraying her, back to the car, and allowed herself a full five minutes to wallow.

The first three minutes she spent weeping into her trembling palms; the next thirty seconds were devoted to blowing her nose and wiping away the rivers of mascara that trickled toward her chin, and the last minute-and-a-half she spent screaming along to a classic rock station — the antidote that had gotten her through difficult times in high school and college. It wouldn’t have been her first choice but Alice Cooper “School’s Out” would have to do. She jacked it up and felt the windows of her minivan shake with rage on her behalf.

Beating her fists on the steering wheel in time with the drummer, she looked up and recognized an elderly woman from the waiting room peering in at her in confusion. For a moment, Leslie’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment and she nearly rolled down the window to explain herself. But she realized she couldn’t afford to waste that kind of time any longer. It was then that she made the decision not to tell anyone about the death sentence she’d just received. She threw the van into reverse, and peeled out of the parking lot shouting the ballad’s final line: “School’s out completely!”

School was nearly out for summer. Her kids had been talking about it for the past month but she’d been so preoccupied with her health it had barely registered.

She’d taken a half-day from work for the doctor’s appointment, but given this new information she decided she’d prefer an early retirement. Her husband, an accountant, wouldn’t mind. He’d been insisting her symptoms were caused by the fact that her work was so physically demanding.

At a red light, she’d pulled her cell phone from her purse, typed a short but professional resignation email that included the words “effective immediately” and pressed send before she lost her nerve.

Since that day, she’d decided to live each moment as if it were her last, determined to make the most of every second.

Her first step was to suspend her children’s cell phone service. She refused to watch her babies choose — choose! — to watch clips of strangers playing video games and cats riding Roombas rather than engage with her, the woman who gave them life. Life!

Naturally, they took it badly. “Why are you doing this? This is our summer! Our vacation! You’re ruining our lives! Why can’t you just be normal?” Her sons, ages fifteen, thirteen, and twelve, ranted for days, slamming doors, and glaring at her when they emerged from their rooms for meals, until they concluded that she couldn’t be swayed.

She wanted to take them on new adventures, create good memories that would be powerful enough to erase the bad ones that would come later.

Though she could feel her limbs growing weaker and more wobbly, she woke her children at four a.m. and drove them to the beach to watch the sunrise over the ocean. As they sat on the sand staring at the horizon, she thought of the whale and its tail: Time is our most precious commodity.

It was true only she was realizing it all too late. Each evening, she was stunned by the way the seconds, the precious moments of every day, were slipping, swooshing, like water down a toilet.

She wished she could freeze time like an icicle, and keep it suspended, shining, out of reach of anything that could cause it to melt away.

Ted would be fine. Easy-going, with a knack for remembering recycling day, he happily ate cereal for dinner and rarely fought her for control of the remote. With a full head of hair, he would be deemed a catch in their suburban demographic. Women would be lining up with casseroles competing to console him.

But her children—she needed time to teach them things: how to sew a button on a shirt, the proper way to roast a chicken, what couldn’t go in a microwave, the importance of never showing up empty-handed — or worse, early — to a dinner party. The list was endless. She’d foolishly believed she’d have years to impart these lessons, but now she found herself forced to cram decades’ worth of life into a few short months. It was a bit like trying to squeeze a Thanksgiving feast into a picnic basket.

There was so much to savor and her boys had only just begun to show hints of the adults they’d become after she was gone.

When the sun finally set and fireflies polka dotted the darkness, she rounded up her children and took them swimming in the backyard pools of neighbors she knew were out of town.

“Isn’t this trespassing?” her son Brendan asked.

“Yeah, won’t we get in trouble?” her son Timmy whispered, his worry accentuated by the thwack of their flip-flops slapping down the sidewalk.

“Nah! They told me we should enjoy ourselves,” Leslie lied, wanting her children to remember her as a woman who, when faced with adversity, chose to cannonball her way through it rather than crumble.

She canceled their sports camps, the math tutor, even the week-long trip to visit her overbearing parents in Florida.

Timmy’s piano lessons were the one thing she continued. Leslie could objectively say that all three of her children were musically gifted but Timmy was the one who, if she were a gambling woman, she’d put her money on. With the proper guidance, she felt sure he could rise to the level of Chopin, or at least Rufus Wainwright.

In May, Leslie had fired “Negative Nora,” his longtime teacher, after she’d begun asking Timmy his thoughts on climate change and capital punishment. Not only were these questions inappropriate but also they were wasting time when Timmy should’ve been learning new compositions.

Leslie hired a replacement, Hal Baxter, who, though expensive, came highly recommended.

“He’d better be the second coming of Billy Joel at those rates,” Ted had said when she told him the new instructor charged $90 for 45 minutes.

After exchanging several texts, Hal and Leslie settled on a time — 3 to 3:45 every Friday. The first week Hal arrived at 2:59 p.m. and within minutes their home vibrated with music. He was so enthusiastic about Timmy’s talent, Leslie overlooked the fact that he ended the lesson at 3:42.

The second week, Hal ambled up the porch stairs at 3:02 and Leslie felt her insides tighten. She swallowed the harsh words frothing on her tongue when he complimented the potted geraniums she’d hung earlier that day.

The third week, Hal turned up at 3:04. He wasted another two minutes talking in a baby voice to the family cat, Snuggles, and discussing the weather.

“They say a storm’s coming through this afternoon,” Hal told them. “Gonna be a real doozy!” He rolled his eyes and nodded toward the rain jacket draped over his arm and the umbrella dangling from his wrist.

Leslie, who was conserving her voice, gestured toward those items and hung them in the hall closet. Then she retreated to the basement where she recorded the birthday videos she wanted Ted to show the boys after she was gone.

It was hard not telling her husband or children, depriving everyone of a chance to say a proper good-bye. But she was doing it for them, really. As a nurse, she’d witnessed the mercy of a quick passing, and, conversely, the devastation of an illness that lingered, sparking resentment and sadness that festered and spread through families like its own infectious disease.

Months earlier when she’d begun dropping things and heard the subtle, slurry changes in her voice, she’d started stockpiling pills and hiding them at the bottom of a Tampax box in the bathroom she and Ted shared.

Almost daily she wished the earth would open up and swallow her whole, like a Venus fly trap. But it couldn’t, and she didn’t want them to remember her as she’d soon become, a burden, a prisoner in her own body.

She was finishing up the final video for Billy, her youngest, on what would be his twenty-first birthday, when she realized the house was silent. She saved her message to the flash drive where she stored all the others, placed it in her pocket, and ventured back upstairs.

Entering the family room, she found Timmy alone on the piano bench.

“Where’s Mr. Baxter?” she asked.

Her son pointed toward the half-bathroom in the hallway.

“He’s been in there a while. I think he’s pooping,” he whispered.

As Leslie grimaced and Timmy giggled, the door opened. Before she could look away, Hal was walking toward her wringing his freshly-washed hands.

“Well, we’ve done some good work today! Just, you know, keep practicing, Timmy, and I’ll see you next week!”

Leslie looked down at her watch: 3:40. He’d wasted six minutes at the beginning of the lesson, who knows how long befouling her powder room, and now he was going to skip the last five? She thought of Ted. She could imagine her husband making the calculation and barking, “That bastard just robbed us of at least $20!”

But to Leslie it was more than money. It was time.

“Stay here. I’ll get your pay,” she said, her words underscored by the first crack of thunder.

As she pulled her purse down from the hook in the hall closet, she saw Hal’s rain jacket and umbrella. She removed them from the hanger, stuck them deep inside an empty backpack, and zipped it closed.

She walked back to the family room and handed Hal his $90.

“We’re going to take the rest of the summer off,” she said and watched Timmy’s eyes widen in delight behind Hal’s back.

“Nice, enjoy yourselves! Let’s get in touch in September!” Hal said, easing the cash into his wallet.

Leslie nodded. She wouldn’t be here then.

Rain lashed against the windows and the wind blew brittle leaves off the trees as she and Timmy walked Hal to the door.

“Ah! My rain jacket and umbrella!” he said as the lights flickered.

“Yes, you need those today,” Leslie said opening the front door for him.

“Right, I brought ‘em and you hung ’em up for me,” he said, waiting.

“Hmm, I don’t think so,” said Leslie.

Hal looked to his student for confirmation but Timmy rubbed his nose against Snuggles’ pointy ears and avoided eye contact.

“I did, sure I did! You took them and put them in that closet!” Hal grew anxious as the wind sent the storm door knocking against its frame. “I wouldn’t forget them. I hate to sit through my next lessons sopping wet. Plus, I’d been watching the forecast all day.”

She knew she was taking a chance when she asked, “Timmy, you don’t remember Mr. Baxter having a jacket or an umbrella, do you?”

“Nope, no jacket, no umbrella!” Hearing Timmy play along made her heart swell. Just a few short months ago, he’d have outed her to Hal in a heartbeat, but now after the past few weeks of spending all their time together making pies, floating in lakes, listening to The Beatles’ entire body of work, she’d been able to win back her children. She’d successfully deprogrammed them from the stupidity of YouTube and the rap music that was nothing more than a series of poor rhymes and overused obscenities. She thought she’d felt them sliding back under her spell, just like when they were little and she’d blow bubbles under the oak tree as they sat in her lap mesmerized. This confirmed it. Someone more refined might call it grace, but to Leslie it felt like a fucking miracle and it proved that time, and how you spent it, was the only commodity that mattered.

“I think you’re mistaken, but you’re welcome to look for them.” Leslie stepped back and opened the closet.

Hal stared at the empty wooden hanger that had held his items moments earlier, and rubbed his wrinkled forehead. “I could’ve sworn –”

“Check the car, maybe,” Leslie said shutting the closet firmly.

As they watched the teacher shuffle toward his sedan, hopping over puddles and shielding his head from the driving rain with his coffee-stained manila folder of sheet music, Leslie took a deep breath and felt calm for the first time in months.

“That was so fun,” Timmy said. “But why’d you do that?”

She’d thought about how she’d wanted to tell her sons that their time was precious, that they shouldn’t let anyone waste it, but words were just that — words. This would create a memory that she hoped Timmy would carry with him.

“Because our time is precious,” she said, “and Mr. Baxter didn’t respect that. Having the chance to spend so much time with you these past few months — it’s been a gift.”

Timmy smiled, exposing the dimple she loved, and kissed Snuggles between the ears.

***

At dinner, Timmy asked her, “Can I tell everyone, Mom? Please!”

Before she could answer, he yelled, “Mom stole Mr. Baxter’s coat and umbrella today. It was awesome!”

No one was listening. They were busy marveling at the shrimp scampi she’d taught them to make.

***

That night when they got into bed, Ted asked her, “Did you really steal the piano man’s coat and umbrella?”

“They’re in a backpack in the hall closet. You can donate them,” she said.

“You’re different lately,” Ted said rolling over to face her. “Bolder. “More alive. I like it.”

That night they enjoyed the kind of primal sex Leslie imagined jungle animals having — rough, hot, deeply satisfying.

After, she said, “Let’s turn off the air conditioner, open the windows, and listen to the rain and the crickets.”

She went in the bathroom and looked outside. Summer was nearly over. In the moonlight, she saw yellow leaves littering her neighbor’s pool. She reached beneath the sink and found the Tampax box.

She spilled the pills into her hand, swallowed and floated back to the bed where she rested her head on her husband’s shoulder. Ted was already snoring when she slipped the flash drive beneath his pillow.

She drifted off to sleep dreaming of whales swimming peacefully beneath the ocean’s surface, time always their own.


Liz Alterman is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s and more. Her recent fiction can be found in the spring 2019 issue of Chaleur Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter here. Her website is here.

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