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Fiction #517
(published December 16, 2010)
Toms River
by Joseph Modugno

It is a fine autumn afternoon. Toms River is walking into the hospital. He is carrying flowers. Some are red, some are yellow, some are green, and some are blue. Overhead, a cloud is passing, and across the parking lot on a dirt strip there are some trees whose leaves are moving, but Toms does not stop to look at them.

Inside the hospital, the corridors are long, very clean and bright, and sharp to the ears and nose. Toms looks down one, then another. He rubs his nose. He furrows his forehead and squints through his glasses. Behind the big gray desk, there is a lady in a white square hat. Toms looks at her. Then he walks over and stops before the desk.

The lady is reading a magazine. Her face is turned down so that Toms can see the top of her white square hat. It is very white, square, and flat. Toms remains standing before the desk. The electric light overhead is very noisy and presses against Toms' forehead and temples. It feels hard, dull, and heavy, like a blunted stone. The lady looks up from the magazine, and, as she looks up, her face becomes animated.

"Why, Mr. River!" she says. "Hello! Good afternoon! How are you? I'm sorry," she says, glancing towards the entrance of the hospital, "I didn't even see you come in. I hope you haven't been standing there long, have you? Because you know me, Mr. River, when I get my head down into one of my magazine articles, why, there is just no getting it back up again, is there?"

The lady grins and laughs. She laughs very largely. After the laugh ends, there is silence. Then she blinks her eyes, and, just after blinking them, moves them to the flowers that Toms is holding.

"Awh, why, look at that! You brought flowers for your wife! Really, I must say, you surely are a sweet man, Mr. River. Mrs. River is a very lucky lady to have a husband like you."

The lady turns her head partially to the side and smiles at Toms. Her white square hat sits snuggly on her head. Then her eyes narrow and her head tilts the opposite way.

"Say, Mr. River, did you get a haircut? Or a new tie? I can't put my finger on it exactly, but I swear there's something different about you today."

The lady continues to stare at Toms. She puts her index finger to her mouth and narrows her eyes further. Then she shakes her head.

"Ah, no matter," she says, waving her hand. "I'm sure it's nothing significant. Sure it'll come to me later on, and then I'll say, 'Yes, that's what was different about Tom today!'"

The lady grins bigger and holds her index finger up in the air, and, as she grins bigger, her teeth come out, so that Toms can see them fully. They are very square and white. Like her hat.

Then the lady's cheeks turn red, she puts her finger back down, and says, "Well, I'm sure you want to bring those flowers down to Mrs. River, Mr. River, so don't let me keep you here by the ear any longer."

After she finishes speaking, the lady grins some more. When she is all done grinning, she leans forward out of her seat and across the desk.

"Just down the end of the corridor there, Mr. River," she points. "Last door on the—oh, deary, listen to me! Giving you directions to your own wife's room. Like you haven't been here a hundred times before. Like you don't come in every afternoon at half-past-four on the dot. Forgive me, Mr. River. I must be losing my mind."

The lady laughs and shakes her head.

"Well, be on your way now then, Mr. River. Go and bring those gorgeous flowers down to Mrs. River. I know she'll be just delighted by them."

The lady props her elbow on the desk, her head on her hand, and grins at Toms some more. Toms turns and starts off down the corridor.

"Bye, Mr. River!" the lady calls after him. "Nice talking to you as always!" she says, waving her free hand in the air like a leaf on a breezy tree bough.

At the end of the corridor, Toms comes to a door. He stops before it. He adjusts his glasses so that they sit more firmly on the bridge of his nose. He breathes, and, as he breathes, he can smell the flowers. They smell very fresh. Like warm milk and honey. He reaches for the doorknob. He turns the doorknob. He opens the door. Then he walks into the room and the door closes behind him.


"Toms? Toms River? Is that you?" She leans forward in the bed and peers across the room. "Why, I don't believe my eyes. Toms River." Her face is unanimated. Then it animates. "Oh, Toms, you've come to see me! And look it that! You brought me flowers!" She shakes her head. "Even after all these years, you still know how to charm a lady, don't you, Toms? Why, it's good to see that some things never change."

She smiles at Toms silently. Then her mouth slightly crooks and she smiles at Toms funnily.

"Except, why, what's this, Toms?" she says. "We've gotten some new glasses, have we? You mean to say that after years and years of insisting by his wife that he should go out and buy himself a new pair of glasses, someone has finally gone ahead and done it?"

She curls in her lips and shakes her head.

"My, and are they handsome, Toms! Are they a handsome pair of new glasses indeed. And I guess it just goes to show, doesn't it, Toms, that even old dogs can learn new tricks sometimes. Or with enough nagging from their wives they can anyway."

She smiles and winks at Toms. Toms looks back at her. Her face is wrinkled and has brown blotches on it and her hair is white and falling out but her eyes, her eyes are blue.

"Well, come on, Toms!" she says, intoning with her arms. "Come on over here already and let me smell those lovely flowers!"

Toms starts across the room. At the foot of the bed, he stops. He hands her the flowers. She takes them in her arms and holds them out before her.

"Why, look it all the pretty colors! Let's see here." She squints and fingers through the flowers. "I see some are red. Some are yellow. Looks like some green ones here. And, oh, why, look it, Toms! Some are blue! My favorite color. You remembered, Toms."

She bends her head sideways and smiles at Toms. She presses the flowers to her chest. Then she raises them to her nose and smells them.

"And would you believe that. They smell just as sweet as they are pretty. Like warm milk and honey."

She continues to look at them, smiling. Then her eyes widen and her mouth opens slightly.

"Why, Toms! No! It can't be!" She turns to Toms. "Are these from our garden? Our own garden?" She stares at Toms. Her mouth bends at the corners. She looks back at the flowers. Why, they are! They are! She turns back to Toms. "Oh, Toms, you never cease to astound me. Truly, truly you do not. You mean to say you have kept up our garden? All on your own?" She continues to look at Toms. Then she looks at the flowers. "I don't know what to say, Toms. I just don't know what to say. I'm at a loss for words."

She raises the flowers to her nose and smells them. She closes her eyes. Then she opens them and looks at Toms. She looks him in the eyes.

"You are a good man, Toms. Toms River. You have been a good husband to me. And nothing to come, and nothing in the past, can change that. You understand that, Toms, don't you?"

She continues to look at Toms. Then she looks back at the flowers. She looks at them for a time. Then she sets them down on the table next to the bed. After that, she leans back in the bed, lets her head down upon the pillow, and looks away towards the window, through which some boughs of a tree with red and yellow leaves can be seen.

After awhile, without turning from the window, she says, "I remember the first plant we ever planted in that garden. Do you remember, Toms? I remember like it was just yesterday. It was spring, wasn't it, Toms? Yes, I think it was spring. And we had just been married. Just bought our first house. Little did we know then, huh, Toms, that it would be the house in which we would live the rest of our lives? Well, I guess that's just the way life goes. What makes it mysterious and beautiful and worth it all. Isn't that so, Toms?"

She smiles looking out the window. She is silent.

Then she says, "After we lost Mary, I wondered for awhile if any of it was really worth it at all. Before, I had never imagined that parents could do such a thing as bury their child. As come home one day from work and find a note on the table. 'Don't go upstairs. Don't look in the bathtub. Please, Mom. Just call someone and leave the house. I am sorry. I am so sor—' But then we did it, Toms, didn't we? And when we were done, life was still there. And not only that, there was a lot of it there, and for a long time, too. It took me awhile to understand that, Toms. To know what that really meant and how to live with it."

She continues to look out the window.

"It's sort of funny though, Toms, isn't it? Remembering? It seems like the more that time passes and the less you do new things, the more you remember. And the more you begin to remember, the more things come back that you hadn't thought about for years or even known that you could remember. Like just the other night, Toms, as I was saying my prayers before bed, I remembered my grandmother's hands. The long smooth fingers and the blue bumpy veins. The soft, silky skin that seemed at once so heavy and almost weightless, like a dampened leaf. How comfortably they held a spool of yarn and a pair of wooden needles. How smoothly and effortlessly they rose to make a single back cross. And how gracefully they—"

She laughs aloud. Laughing, her cheek bones go up, the skin around her eyes tightens, and her chest lifts and falls just perceptibly beneath her thin, white-cloth hospital shirt.

"I never was such a fine knitter myself, was I, Toms? Remember that one winter I tried to knit you a new pair of wool socks and they came out looking more like some kind of Soviet ear muffs? Well, they were good for the children's snowman anyway. Odd, Toms, isn't it? Despite the hard times, I never remember being cold in the winter. It seemed we always found some way to keep our home warm. Even if it was just our imaginations, or our love for each other."

Looking out the window, she is silent. Her eyes seem on the verge of closing. Then they reopen fully.

"That wasn't the first plant we ever planted together though, Toms, was it? Or the first tree we ever knelt beneath. Those things came much earlier, didn't they, Toms?"

Her face reanimates and she slaps the bed with her hand.

"Why, Toms, we were just children! Just children, Toms! Remember?" She shakes her head. "To think we were ever really that young. It's strange, Toms, isn't it? And to think that two people could ever know each other as long as we have."

She is silent, looking out the window.

"What do you remember best about it, Toms? I remember the trees in the summer. The sound their leaves made in the breeze. It was like silver wind chimes. Like holly bells. And the yellow and black patches beneath them. The way they shimmered when they moved across the grass in the sunlight and how fresh and green they smelled. And the clouds, too, Toms. Of course I remember the clouds. How we used to lie on our back and look up at them and imagine all different sorts of wonderful things, shapes and animals and continents. The way they flowed down the sky, long and slowly, like ships on some great river ebbing to the sea, and how cool and silent their shadows felt when they passed over your hand or eyelids."

She closes her eyes.

"Sometimes, Toms, when I close my eyes, the memories are so fresh, I feel like I can just reach out and touch them. Like they're just beyond my fingertips. It brings tears to your eyes, doesn't it, Toms? The memories.

She opens her eyes. Just beyond the glass, in the yellow afternoon light, the leaves are ablaze and stirring on the boughs of the tree.

"I'm dying, Toms. I am dying. You know that?"

Ahem. Ahem.She turns towards Toms. She looks at him.

"Yes, dear?" She is silent, looking at his eyes. Then she smiles. "Oh, why, of course, dear. She lifts her arm and points. The door just behind you there. The light switch is on the left."

Toms turns and starts towards the door.


Toms turns back.

"Would you mind drawing the curtain please, dear?"

Toms stands still. Then he takes a step back towards the bed and reaches for the curtain. He begins to draw it.

"Thank you, Toms," she smiles, as he draws it. Then she turns back towards the window.

Toms turns and restarts towards the door. When he gets to the door, he stops. He reaches for the doorknob. It is cold to the touch. He turns the knob and the door opens. He peers inside. It is dark. With his right hand, he feels inside and to the left. A light comes on. He walks in and closes the door behind him.


Before the curtain, Toms stops. He raises his hand to adjust his glasses so that they will sit more firmly on the bridge of his nose, but then pauses. He lowers his hand. Then he raises it again, takes off his glasses, folds them closed, and puts them into the breast pocket of his coat. He breathes and exhales. He puts his hand into the side pocket of his coat. Then he reaches up and draws back the curtain.


After Toms River had shot his wife twice in the body and once in the face, he turned the gun to his temple. The angle wasn't quite right though, and so he just took a piece off his skull. As he lay on the floor on his side looking up, with the bright wet blood and cool water pooling around his head, he could see the flowers on the table by the bed. Some were red, some were yellow, some were green, and some were blue. And beyond the flowers, through the window, he could see the boughs of the tree, the leaves stirring in the breeze, and beyond that still, the vague and fuzzy outline of a cloud. Then the crowd closed in and Toms couldn't see anymore.

Joseph Modugno is a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he studied English and Journalism.

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