In Bed

Fiction by Phyllis Carol Agins, Fall and Winter 2014/2015

For Mémé

It’s the same question that begins each stretch of daylight in this maison de retrait in the south of France.

“How are you today, Madame?” the nurse asks as she washes each arm, under flattened breasts, never exposing more than a bit of flesh in the hot air that surely cannot harm.

She answers, “Chocolat.”

“When your son comes,” the nurse reassures. “I’m sure he’ll bring some.”

But what Madame wants to say is: Once I had a bar of soap. One side was orange—scented like the blossoms that fragrance the city in the winter. I’d pass by the trees in January, when everything else sleeps. The opening blossoms caught me, and I’d tie a sprig in my hair so I could carry the scent as I walked. The other side was chocolate—dark and dangerous. I guarded that soap, washing with it only on the special days when my husband returned from the port. Like an animal following a trail, he’d discover me. Lick the small of my back, breathe in the orange chocolate from the nape of my neck, follow me from room to room. Turn to me at night and make love for hours before the sun returned, while we wept together because we were so close. I lost that soap years ago—even before it disappeared from use. But every time the orange trees blossom, I can feel my husband’s touch, even now—years after he first rested in the earth.

The nurse hears nothing but smiles as she leaves. “À demain,” she calls.


Some days, after the sun has quietly disappeared from her window, Madame smells the vapors of ground lamb that will soon arrive under its plastic cover. Then her son appears.

Ah, Maman,” he whispers, burning her cheek with his kisses. His eyes are always moist, his pupils softening behind a fluid film. “I stopped right after I left work. I wouldn’t come without. Look what I’ve brought you today,” he laughs. “Don’t worry about the nurses. We’ll eat this before dinner.”

He holds out a white box tied with a pink ribbon. The ribbon tumbles to the floor, and the walls of the box fall open.

She sees inside the box. “Chocolat,” she says.

“That’s right. Three layers—white, milk, and dark. And look at all the cream, Maman.” He feeds her mouthfuls of cake and holds the cup to her lips so she can drink.

She wants to tell him: When you were young, you loved to cook beside me—even more than your sisters. We baked éclairs together on Saturdays. We watched the puffs cool and then pumped in the cream. The last was the chocolate glaze. You were so patient, waiting in your big apron, leaning over the pots, one on top of the other, with the water boiling beneath and the chocolate melting above. And then you drizzled on the glossy mixture. Finally, you’d pull the spoon to your mouth and lick it, returning to the pot with your fingers. I kissed your cheeks and tasted your freshness and the chocolate at the same time. I think now you buy the cakes for yourself as well, so you can remember the days when we cooked together, and everything was still new, and you were young enough to dream. Do you dream still, mon fils? she wants to ask. Do you taste a future like when you were young and you’d talk of your plans? How you’d discover this or that; how the world would open like this box just did, and time would unfold before you—a mighty river of hope that stretched into the future?

“I’ll come later this week.” Her son wipes her mouth and chin. “And I’ll bring you another chocolate sweet,” he adds as the ground lamb appears in its puddle of mashed potatoes.


“Wasn’t that nice of your son?” asks the attendant who comes to wish her good night. He points to the empty bakery box and takes a spoon from her table to offer the last of the chocolate. “No use letting it go to waste.” Then he adds, “I love the dark the best. Which is your favorite?”

Then he turns off the light and closes the door. “Bon nuit, Madame,” he whispers.

She wants to confess, needs to say: I know who I am now between these sheets. All the days I visit time. I see my mother and she teaches me to cook so I can show my son and daughters. I learn to choose the right vegetables in the market. My husband finds me and kisses my neck, and my children touch me. Their small hands rest in mine, and I burn with love. We laugh as we walk along the sea, searching for whales and dolphins the myths once promised. I watch my mother die, and I breathe through childbirth, delivering three infants who scream into life. Then my daughters breathe and pant, and their children are in my arms, and later we all buy ice cream next to the sea, while my husband laughs before he dies and blesses me for loving him. I am alone in my bed, but all those years continue—deep and rich.

She considers for a moment. “Just like chocolat,” Madame whispers to the darkness.


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