The Red Sled by Kim Gunderson

Millie wakes up to find her husband of 50 years dead on the kitchen floor; by Kim Gunderson.

This wasn't how he was supposed to go.

He looked cold, lying on the white linoleum next to the stove, so she fetched their fraying grey afghan, the one they lay over their legs on chilly nights while watching reruns of Matlock, and draped it gently over him. He lay on his side, arms extended peacefully beside him, like a baby lamb resting after a good frolic. If he had been wearing his stocking cap, a contraption he had fashioned from her panty hose to keep his thick, wiry grey hair from standing straight on end overnight, she might have thought he had just taken a nap. Of course, he wasn't one to nap on the kitchen floor.

"Now, what am I going to do with you?" Millie said aloud, to check if he could hear her. She noticed a bit of blood behind his head. "Quit bleeding, would you? It's an awful mess." She reached down to press the stubborn cowlick on the back of his head into place, but it sprang back up defiantly.

The sun slowly made its presence known as it peered over her patio wall. California sun was often mocking, but today it was downright haughty. Every day without fail, it shone down, stringent and unmarred by clouds. It illuminated the houses lined up outside her window, straight and proper like catholic schoolgirls, daring anyone to step out of line. The order of it all was what had attracted Millie to this subdivision. Today, it could go to hell.

She picked the phone up from its cradle and dialed. "Alma? Sorry to trouble you at this early hour, but I'm afraid I have a bit of an emergency."

"What?" Alma asked, her voice thick with sleep.

"I don't want to tell you over the phone. Just come over and help me. Please," she said and hung up.

Millie went to the linen closet to fetch some towels. She wished she had white ones so she could just bleach them when she was done. Possibly, she could just bleach these tan ones and end up with white ones anyway. Dropping a towel to the floor next to her husband's face, she pushed it with her white sneaker into the red puddle. His head tipped up and then flopped back onto the towel. It made her jump.

"You quit being so skittish, Millie. You've got a job to do, by golly," she chided herself.

He would be embarrassed that Alma was going to see him in his pajamas, but she couldn't stomach the idea of changing him into his slacks and sweater in this state. He had always been particular about how he presented himself. The first time she saw him, nearly 51 years ago, was at her ticket booth at the train station. He wasn't ugly, exactly. Just not very noticeable. It was his crisp uniform that had made him stand out. That and his smile. He had a smile that invited you to peer right into his heart.

He strode up to her ticket window, smiled and said, "You are the prettiest thing I've seen in years."

She had picked at her fingernails, not sure how to respond. Since her high school boyfriend had broken her heart just two weeks prior, she hadn't thought she would ever feel beautiful again. She reached up to smooth her blonde hair, wishing she had taken the time to curl it that morning. She hadn't bothered to iron her blouse either and she was suddenly acutely aware of the haphazard creases across her chest.

His stubby hand splayed over his white Navy cap as he removed it, revealing a thick head of wavy brown hair. "My name's Harold and I've just come back from being squished like a sardine on a submarine for nearly six months and nothing would please this poor sardine more than if you would have dinner with me tonight."

She struggled to bring her eyes to meet his. When she finally did, there was that smile. Such innocence in its upward curl. Despite her parent's disapproval, she married him just weeks later.

Alma arrived, took one look at the limp shape on the kitchen floor and screamed. Millie should have known Alma would come to the back door which has a direct view into the kitchen. She always did. Millie also knew Alma never knocked. She should have waited by the back door to shield Alma from this view.

"Alma, I'm sorry. I'm afraid your father has had an accident."

Alma started towards her father. Millie grabbed her wrist.

"He's gone, Alma."

"No!" she shouted. "He can't be. Are you sure?" Alma said, tears brimming her eyes.

Millie nodded. She guided Alma to a barstool out of view of her father and ran her hand up and down her back. Alma pushed the palms of her hands into her eyes, her long, frizzy brown hair closing around her, like a curtain. Millie hated that mess of hair and had implored Alma to cut it for ages. When she was little, Millie kept Alma's hair cut in a cute pageboy, her bangs trimmed above her eyebrows so her round brown eyes were easy to see beneath them. Millie could still see that little girl, big eyes imploring her to read The Giver to her for the millionth time, and wished they could go back to those simpler days. Now, Millie thought Alma let her unruly hair go just to spite her. Alma worked as a freelance writer, so there was no boss to tell her to tidy up her appearance either. Millie would take up that fight again another time.

Millie went back into the kitchen and dropped another towel towards the back of Harold's head and pushed it into the puddle, more gently this time. The blood changed course and began a small tributary heading straight up from the top of his head, a feeble antler sprouting from his silver hair.

"What happened?" Alma asked. She was breathing deeply, in through her nose and out through her mouth, like she probably did in her yoga classes. Alma tried to get Millie to go, but she didn't want to be twisted into a pretzel.

"Not sure exactly. I heard a loud thud and found him here, like this," she said. "What should we do with him?"

"Call the police, I guess."

"Will they do an autopsy?" Millie asked. She hadn't thought of this till now.

"I doubt it, Ma. You watch too much Law & Order. They only do autopsies when they think there has been a murder or something. I don't think they bother with feeble old men."

Millie went into the living room and sat on the davenport. The plastic cover made its familiar crinkle and she settled into its protected softness. The red wooden sled hanging over the fireplace that Harold had made for their first wedding anniversary caught her eye. She remembered the day they moved to California. He had been sneaking the sled into the back of the U-Haul.

"Harold? You realize it doesn't snow in California, don't you?" Millie had asked.

"A man can dream," he had replied.

As they were unpacking, Millie found him on a step stool carefully angling the sled just above the fireplace.

"Harold! You can't be serious! That doesn't go in this room at all!"

"What do you mean, Millie? It's the perfect place for it. From nearly every room in this house I will be able to glance at it and remember the carefree days we spent speeding down the hill in Michigan. Looking at it, I see your smile and hear your laugh."

So, it had stayed. Now, looking at it made her heart hurt, so she turned away and watched Alma dial the phone. Millie wasn't sure she had thought this all through. She thought the police would come, take him away, there would be a funeral, and then life would go back to the way it was. This was all too much.

"Ah, hi. Yes, I'd like to report a body," Alma said.

That's how she was going to say it? It was her father. A body. That is what he was reduced to? In one quickly spoken word, the man who had been her husband for 50, nearly 51 years, was now just a body. Their anniversary was just two weeks away, but she knew there wouldn't be any fuss. All the fuss had happened last year and now everyone was all fussed out. Out of money, too, she guessed. Their 51st anniversary would have been depressing. Probably just the two of them silently staring at each other over a tuna casserole. There would be cards. Guilt relievers for the lack of fuss this year.

Harold wouldn't have even known it was their anniversary. Just the other day she had reminded him, and he had waved his hand at her and said, "Aw, Millie. Quit your fooling. We just had our anniversary the other day!" He had shuffled into the den to watch Jeopardy at full volume and left her standing there, wondering.

"He's in the kitchen. He's my dad," Alma continued. The word dad came out small. "No. I didn't check for a pulse." She held the phone to her chest and shouted, "Ma! Did you check for a pulse?"

"Yes, I did. He's gone. Ask them what happens now," Millie said.

"Ma, let me handle this," Alma whispered, turning away from her.

Millie went into the back bathroom and peered into the mirror. As usual, the disappointment was overwhelming. She thought she looked like she should be the corpse. Her face was white, and her wrinkles seemed to have crumpled even more overnight. She pinched her cheeks to get some color in them and pushed up at the corners of her eyes to see what she might look like with a face lift. Not worth it.

"Millie, are you really being vain right now? Honestly." She shook her head and grabbed the sponge sitting next to the sink, rigorously scrubbing the stubborn calcium rings at the base of the faucet. Satisfied, she focused on her hair in the mirror. She rolled a few errant curls into a doughnut and put a bobby pin in to hold it in place. Her white hair did have a bit of a blue tint, but that was better than the slight yellow so many of her friends had. Their hair color looked like when dogs peed in the snow.

Alma was off the phone when she returned to the kitchen. "They are sending an ambulance. It should be here in just a few minutes."

"Why are they sending an ambulance? That will cost a fortune! And what will the neighbors think?" Millie started to walk into the kitchen to get a cup of tea, saw Harold, and changed her mind.

"Ma! What is wrong with you?" Alma asked, tears running unabashedly from her eyes.

"I'm not ready for company," Millie said, hurrying about straightening the pillows on the couch and wiping crumbs from the tablecloth. There were more crumbs on Harold's side. There always were. Even before his stroke he had been a sloppy eater. She saw his face before her, slightly slack on the left side, and watched his lips move in their crooked, bemused way, crumbs sneaking out before he managed to swallow them. She had tried not to watch, but with little by way of conversation between them, it served as entertainment.

"Mom," Alma said, striding quickly towards Millie, grabbing her shoulders and turning her so they were facing each other. Millie found herself enclosed in Alma's arms, her own trapped at her sides. Millie's shoulders drooped. She felt Alma's body jerking and her own followed suit. Her head slumped onto Alma's shoulder. Tears ran down Millie's cheeks, dripping onto Alma's sweater.

"Sorry," Millie said, pulling away, righting herself, and wiping her eyes.

"It's okay, Mom. You don't always have to fix everything." She heard the sirens in the distance and braced herself. The first uniformed man appeared warped through the stained-glass window in the front door. She opened the door and a man who couldn't possibly have even graduated from high school was standing there. He looked like he was playing dress up. There was a brawny woman with him who gave Millie a bit more confidence.

"Hello, Ma'am," the boy said in a somber voice. "We got a call that there had been an accident?"

They must have a script. Just like on TV, Millie thought. She showed them in and led them to the kitchen. "There he is, just how I found him." The boy in the uniform deftly went to his knee next to Harold and felt his neck for a pulse. He looked at the female officer and shook his head.

"I'm sorry Ma'am. He has passed."

Millie nodded, folding her arms across her chest. "Now what?"

"The officers will ask you a few questions and take care of the rest. I'm very sorry for your loss," the female EMT said. Her voice was deep and soothing.

Another knock sounded at the door and Alma went to open it. Millie heard their walkie talkies before she saw them and figured it was the police.

"Hello, Ma'am. I'm Officer Girard and this is Officer Landers. Would it be alright if we asked you a few questions?" He removed his hat as he spoke and revealed a shiny, bald head. Millie wasn't much of a fan of bald heads. Harold's hair had turned silver, but it was still just as thick and wavy as when they first met. It was one of the things Millie loved about him.

"Do I have a choice?" Millie asked.

"Unfortunately, not, Ma'am. But we will make it quick."

Millie invited them to sit at the dining room table and asked if they would like any coffee or tea. Best not to forget her manners. Although, she was grateful they declined because she didn't really want to step over Harold to get it for them.

"So, tell us what happened," Officer Girard said.

"I heard a loud bang and found him there like that. Except for the blood. That started a bit later and it got bigger, so I tried to mop it up a bit."

"Had your husband been sick or acting strangely lately?" the other one asked.

"No," she looked down to hide the lie and began picking at a hangnail on her thumb. Just last week, Harold sat across from her at this very table and asked her to remind him who she was. He said she looked familiar and he felt a fondness for her, but he couldn't quite put his finger on her name. Since the diagnosis, she knew this was coming, but it was still a shock.

The officers asked a few questions and time passed as though Millie was underwater. Their voices warped and muted as reality creeped into her consciousness. Harold wouldn't be sitting across from her complaining about eating tuna casserole again or wondering who she was. He wouldn't wake her with that loud cough followed by the guttural hacking that sounded like he was attempting to push a lung out through his throat. No more snoring, Jeopardy at full volume, brown school-teacher socks spilling out of the laundry basket, or complaints about her cribbage night with her girlfriends which meant he was on his own for dinner. No more shaking of the ice in his glass as a cue that he wanted another high ball. No more walks hand in hand along the river or whispering "I love you" from his twin bed over to hers. She inhaled and felt as though she were floating, hovering above all the activity in her home.

"Mrs. Ross?" the bald officer asked, "Mrs. Ross? Are you okay?"

"Yes, yes. I'm fine. Could you repeat the question?"

"I assume your husband was under the care of a physician?" he asked.

"Yes. He had a million different problems. Had a stroke about five years ago, high blood pressure and, of course, dementia. Those are the big ones. Honestly, I'm surprised he made it as long as he did. Stubborn old coot," Millie said. She spoke quickly. Her heart was pounding so loudly that she had trouble hearing own words.

"Once we get confirmation of his illnesses from his physician, we should be able to release the body. We'll get a few pictures to take back to the office, but there doesn't appear to be foul play," the other officer said, "so they should be able to take him directly to the mortuary and you can make arrangements from there." Millie thought she had never heard sweeter words. Doesn't appear to be foul play.

After the funeral, months passed and eventually Millie got used to her new routine. She increased her cribbage time, enjoyed occasional weekends with her granddaughter, removed the plastic cover from the davenport, and even sat on it while drinking her wine. She watched reruns of Law & Order and reclined in his chair.

She wished he hadn't asked it of her.

Over dinner one night, he had blurted, "I don't want you to bear it all. Please help me go."

"Whatever are you talking about, Harold? You are talking nonsense again," she'd said, looking down at her plate to avoid his eyes. She was afraid she would find them inhabited.

"Millie, I'm serious," he'd implored. She had pretended not to know what he meant and tried to convince herself he didn't realize what he was saying.

For months, she succeeded in pushing this conversation to the back of her mind. They had good days when they laughed on their walk along the river and he squeezed her hand like always. But the good days were getting crowded out by the bad.

A few months ago, Harold had been himself. They attended a dinner party at their friend Sue and Al's house just a few blocks down. He held Millie's hand as they walked along the curved sidewalk between the patio homes with their manicured shrubs. He had commented on how he needed to do a better job keeping up with their yardwork. When they arrived, Harold greeted Sue and Al way he always had, with a joke about Sue's cooking the reason for Al's growing belly. Sue had raised her eyebrows when her eyes met Millie's. She hadn't seen this Harold in months. He remembered each of the guest's names and asked after their children with genuine care as had always been his way. He recounted stories of his ineptitude as a father, complete with the tale of Millie finding two-year-old Alma running naked in the parking lot of the hotel while he watched football, oblivious. It was on nights like this, admittedly rare, that Millie knew she could handle him at home.

Millie was washing her face that night when he called to her.

"Could you help me with these laces?" he asked.

She knelt before him and worked the knots that his twisted, arthritic fingers couldn't free.

"Millie," he said, "I know about Alma."

Millie's head shot up to meet his gaze.

"What?" she asked. He put a thick finger to her lips.

"It never mattered to me. She was as much mine as any child could ever be," he said, his glowing eyes boring into her soul. Millie's mouth went dry and her heart pounded. She looked down to avoid his loving gaze.

"How long have you known?"

"Since you agreed to marry this poor sardine," he replied, his clumsy hand reaching to stroke her hair. She flinched at his touch and pulled away. His hand fell to his lap, palm open. Millie set his shoes next to the dresser and helped him into bed.

"I love you, Millie."

Her throat constricted. She struggled to breathe as tears welled in her eyes.

"Thank you, Harold," she said, stretching his stocking cap over his head. "I hope you know how much I love you. And how grateful I am for you."

"I do."

When his vacant stare had all but eclipsed the adoring one, she had researched his dozens of medications and found that one, given in too high of a dose, could cause heart failure. That was what was supposed to happen. She envisioned him just not waking one morning. Thinking of him stumbling down the hall towards the kitchen that terrible morning, she wondered what had gone wrong. She had figured she would have to try again the next night with an even higher dose, but the dosage had been enough to cause him to fall and hit his head on the stove.

Had she really done it? Most days it seemed like a bad dream. But then, the image of him lying on the kitchen floor floated before her eyes, forcing her to remember. She had done that to him. She had thought it was best. What he wanted.

She had to concentrate to breathe. She had to tell Alma the truth. It would feel better to get it out there. She wouldn't have to cope with her guilt alone. Alma would understand.

Making her way to the phone, she took slow, careful steps so as not to pass out. Alma answered just before her phone went to voicemail.

"What is it, Ma?" she asked, slightly out of breath. She heard her granddaughter's voice whining in the background. She looked at the clock. 3:36. They must be on their way to ballet.

"Sorry. I forgot this was a bad time. I'll call later."

"No, it's fine. I've been meaning to call. Can't believe he's gone. Seems like just the other day he was showing me his latest wood carving."

Silence yawned as Millie garnered courage.

"Ma? You there?" Alma asked.

"Yeah. You know, um... He asked..." me to, she almost said, but the lump in her throat swallowed her words.

"What? What did he ask?"

"Oh," Millie paused, fingering her white lily pendant, "He asked about you and Nora every day. Thought you'd like to know that."

There was a long pause and then Millie heard a small sniff.

"Thanks, Ma. That means a lot."

"Okay, run along to ballet. I don't want to keep you," Millie said.

"See you Friday."

"Of course. See you then."

Millie carefully set the phone back into its cradle, her hand lingering there as the tears slipped slowly from her eyes. Harold's grandfather clock beat its steady rhythm, imploring her heart to join its cadence.

On Friday, Nora bounded through the door anxious to show Millie her latest ballet routine. She loved Millie's wide kitchen; its island-less middle the perfect dance floor. Her ballet slippers swished and tapped as she spun, arms bowed overhead. Millie smiled.

"My goodness, Nora! Next stop, the Bolshoi!" she said, clapping her hands under her chin.

"Grandma don't be silly! I don't want to move to Russia! I plan to join the American Company Ballet!" Nora replied, twirling.

"Ok, Ma," Alma said. "I've packed all her stuff. Don't let her stay up past ten. I know it's the weekend, but she gets cranky when her routine is disrupted."

As if I hadn't raised you, Millie thought, but she had learned to keep her mouth shut when it came to her granddaughter.

"Of course, sweetheart. Don't you worry. She's in good hands. You turned out alright, didn't you?"

"Thanks, Ma. I'd better run. See you Sunday!" Alma grabbed Nora's twirling waist long enough to plant a kiss on her forehead. "Be good for Grandma. Love you, Pumpkin!"

"Love you too, Ma," Alma said, moving over to kiss her mother's cheek.

At bedtime, Millie pulled Harold's worn copy of The Giver from his shelf and brought it into Nora's room.

"This was your grandfather's favorite book. He taught it every year. I'd like you to have it," Millie said. "Can I read a bit of it to you?" Millie asked, sliding under the quilt beside her granddaughter.

It was almost December, she began, her voice cracking despite her best efforts. Nora placed her small hand on Millie's head and smoothed back her poodle curls. When Millie had finished the first two chapters, she closed the book and slid out of Nora's bed.

"No! Grandma! Keep reading!" Nora pleaded. "I have to know what Jonas' assignment will be at the Ceremony of Twelve! Will he really not get to play with his friends anymore? Why does he have to grow up so fast? Please, Grandma!"

Millie smiled, "Patience is a virtue, little lady. We will read more tomorrow." She paused at the door and turned back to see Nora's face peeking out above the covers, "I love you, bug."

"Love you too, Mimi."

Millie relaxed in the tub after Nora fell asleep allowing the warm liquid to ease her weary joints. She hummed lightly and thought of all the times Harold had commented on how beautiful she was lying in the tub. It hadn't mattered to him that she gained a bit of weight or added a few wrinkles. He hadn't even seemed to notice. She climbed out of the bath and wrapped her now white towel around her shoulders, a faint hint of bleach reaching her nostrils. She felt his embrace around her. He made his presence known from time to time. Not in a strange way, but a comforting one. She was getting used to life without him, but that didn't mean she didn't miss him.

Millie closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. An image of herself and Harold, young and lithe, sledding long ago outside their cottage in Michigan rose before her. It was a perfectly still winter day. The sun was shining, glinting off huge snowflakes that danced their way down to land softly on the earth. She heard her own laugh, free and innocent, and felt his admiring smile as he watched her speed away, down the hill. Then it was his turn. She pictured him sitting on the red sled he had made for her 50 years ago, back when he was in honeymooner love with her and could still swing an axe. His blue hat that she had crocheted for him sat lopsided on his head as he turned to smile at her, "Go on, what are you waiting for?" he asked.

And she pushed.


  1. A sad examination of responsibility and morality...very difficult having to make decisions for a loved one. I sort of expected Millie would be caught eventually, perhaps she will still in the future...she'll have to live with that fear in addition to her grief and her guilt.

  2. This captures a desperate situation with the right amount of stark unhappiness and shock at a loved one's deteriorating. I hope Millie tells someone for closure.