The Caregiver

by Carolyn Oliver

The shape of the tin in Josephine’s pocket brought to mind one of her mother’s pork chops, sizzling in a shallow pan with onions, mustard, handfuls of garden greens. Cream, if there was any. Josephine was hungry. She hadn’t cooked in weeks, had barely been home since Charles was admitted. That morning she’d told the attending physician that she could hear her husband’s veins sucking up the heavy drip of the TPN like straws, and was promptly prescribed an afternoon of fresh air—off hospital property.

The Copley Square farmer’s market was a pleasant surprise. She’d joined the crowd humming around its edges, choosing long French radishes and pale butter on her first lap of the stalls. On the second she reluctantly edged into the cacophony of earnest students, office workers, parents wearing their babies like medals, all lined up to buy bread from two men whose spotless aprons made Josephine feel self-conscious about her rumpled clothes.

As she rummaged in her pockets for cash, the tinny music from someone’s headphones emerged from the din and pecked at her attention, the way the tone of one hospital monitor suddenly seemed to matter more than others. Evidence of life. She looked up, pointing to a baguette, and the baker wasn’t gone, exactly, but replaced, as if someone had put a second transparency over one already settled on an overhead projector. A tall woman in a magenta wrap and huge sunglasses, white bob untouched by the wind scraping the plaza, swiftly tucked a small silver tin into Josephine’s pocket. Startled, Josephine turned, stumbling against a man tugging off one headphone, shouting his order. But the tall woman was already only a slant of deep pink slicing into the crowd.

The unfamiliar weight slapping her thigh urged her to hurry, and soon she was sitting on a bench in the Public Garden, just far enough from the water that she couldn’t hear the toddlers on the swan boats, or the geese. Obscene, those honking creatures out in the world, and Charles barely strong enough to moan. Taking out a pocketknife, she spread butter over hunks of bread, pausing sometimes for a bite of radish. She tried not to hear the whisper of Charles’s breath as she ate, staring at the tin.

When only the heel of the bread was left, she gingerly lifted the lid, expecting to find a joke—a child’s rock collection, a spring-loaded snake, a deck of cards. But the heavy little tin was empty, save for a sudden stillness draping over her.

Once, years ago, she’d put a conch to her ear and heard not the roar of the sea, but a great open silence, like the sound of her mother’s house after a storm had passed over. Like the sound of plants growing under hot skies.

The teeming noise of life returned when she snapped the lid shut. Josephine started the long walk back to the hospital, her fingers drumming a faltering heartbeat against the gift.


Carolyn Oliver’s very short prose and prose poetry has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Indiana Review, Monkeybicycle, Jellyfish Review, jmww, Unbroken, Tin House Online, CHEAP POP, Midway Journal, and New Flash Fiction Review, among other journals. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net in both fiction and poetry. Carolyn lives with her family in Massachusetts, where she serves as a poetry editor for The Worcester Review. Online:


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