“Love in the Age of Global Warming,” by Alice Hatcher

Dec 20th, 2016 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

Eva Wright announced her wedding engagement with little forethought one cold April morning, during an uneven thaw at the end of an unseasonably long winter. She’d been wandering for hours along slushy Chicago streets, admiring the frost glittering on the petals of tulips, when she decided to visit her father, if only to fill the empty hours of a quiet Saturday morning.

“It’s been awhile,” Thomas Wright said. He averted his eyes from his daughter’s frayed sweater, an affront to fashion that recalled the color of withered limes.

Thomas’ second wife Peggy glanced at the living room carpet. “You should remove your shoes. So you don’t get sick, I mean. They’re all wet.”

Eva settled into a leather chair. “Life’s too short to worry about getting sick.”

Thomas stiffened for an instant and then sat down on a claw-footed couch.

“It’s been so cold.” Peggy smoothed her skirt and sat down beside Thomas. “If the planet’s getting warmer, you’d never guess from these Chicago winters. This is the coldest –”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Thomas said. “It’s about unpredictability. Extremes.”

“You don’t need to lecture me about–”

“I’ve been seeing someone,” Eva fingered a button dangling by a thread from her sweater. “He says we’ll all be under water soon. He’s 92, and he has a lot of perspective on things.”

Peggy cleared her throat. “It’s wonderful that you volunteer. The elderly need visitors. My friend used to run bingo tournaments at Elysian Fields. It ended up being too depressing, though, and she quit. She couldn’t stand all that sag. All that sickness.”

“I’ve actually been living with him. Since March.” Eva slid the button off its thread and slipped it into her pocket. “His name is Vernon, and we’re engaged.”

“Engaged?” Thomas paled.

“We’re living in his nursing home. I guess I should say our nursing home. Off I-55 in Brighton Park.”

“That’s not a very nice neighborhood,” Peggy clutched a string of pearls resting on her chest.

“Vernon doesn’t have a lot of money. He gave most of it to the American Cancer Society. He said if other people want to live forever, it’s their own business.”

“He’s 92.” Thomas massaged his forehead. “And this isn’t about money?”

“If you’re worried about him, he has a war pension. It’s not like he’s taking advantage,” Eva said. “Our reason for getting married might sound crass–”

“I’m guessing it will.” Thomas leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees.

“–but some of the residents thought it wasn’t right that we were living together.”

“I see some of them still have their marbles,” Thomas said.

Peggy rose from the couch to adjust the thermostat. “I feel cold all of the sudden.”

“Most of the center’s residents are happy for us.”

Thomas rested his face in his upturned palms. “I’m sure the men are happy for him.”

“The women are, too. It was just one crank who complained. He didn’t think it was fair that a non-resident was staying every night. Without paying. The management talked to us, and we decided to circumvent any dispute by getting married.”

Thomas lowered his hands. “Legally, are they allowed to do that? Force you to cohabit as man and wife?”

“Don’t be so litigious,” Peggy said, sitting back down.

“I’m not going to sue anybody.”

“Then legalistic. Lawyerly. Whatever.” Peggy fished two mints from a bowl on the coffee table. “You don’t need to correct me all the time.”

“I just want to understand the situation,” Thomas said.

“Then don’t be rude.”

“We thought it would be easiest to stay where he is. We don’t have much to move, but–”

“–Don’t you need to be a certain age to live in one of those places?”

“You’re playing lawyer again,” Peggy said. “Boring everyone to tears.”

“I’m not playing lawyer. I am a lawyer. The point is, I don’t think my 28-year-old daughter should be living in a nursing home.”

“They won’t kick you out if you’re married to a resident. It’s in the by-laws.”

“So this is for real. And if God blesses the union, will the management let my grandchildren live in the nursing home, too? When they’re toddlers, they can eat mashed cauliflower and stewed prunes in the cafeteria. Get home schooled in the bingo parlor.”

“We won’t be having children.” Eva folded her hands in her lap. “Vernon got a vasectomy right after he came back from Europe. When he was 23. He served in World War II.”

“That’s awfully young,” Peggy said, shaking her head.

“He didn’t think it was right to bring children into this world –”

“Maybe he had a point,” Thomas said.

“He landed at Normandy Beach and spent a year in Europe. He saw refugees and bombed-out cities everywhere he went. How self-destructive the human race is.”

“That sounds so depressing,” Peggy said. “I have loads of friends with hobbies. They play golf. Go on cruises. People can choose to be happy.”

“You mean to say he’s a fatalist,” Thomas muttered. “A real philosophical type.”

“He figured any children that survived to adulthood would only get drafted and killed,” Eva said. “Or die from atomic fallout.”

“Is that what he thinks, or what you think?”

“It’s what we both think.”

“A vasectomy in his 20s.” Thomas said. “This conversation’s making me think I should have done the same thing.”

“Vernon understands me.”

“A 92-year-old who grew up listening to Glen Miller and jacking off to posters of Betty Grable. This is the guy who understands you?”

“Don’t get nasty, Thomas. She’s–”

“He probably voted for FDR, knowing the kind of bums she’s dated in the past.”

“He’s young at heart,” Eva said. “He lives every day like it’s it last.”

“Why the hell wouldn’t he?”

“He doesn’t get worked up about everything. He knows there isn’t much time left.”

“And you find this comforting?” Thomas asked. “That he’s counting down his days and feeding his last food to the pigeons?”

“We’re a lot alike. He knows life is fleeting. Things. Possessions. They’re all meaningless.”

Thomas closed his eyes. “I failed as a father,” he whispered. “I suppose it was inevitable.”

Eva settled into her chair and studied a framed oil painting of kittens while her father composed himself. She was fully accustomed to the awkward attentions of strangers, including those in her own family. She was, after all, the daughter and granddaughter of two very successful suicides.


Thomas Wright had long known of the suicidal strain in his wife’s family. He learned of it eleven months after Eva’s birth, at a cocktail soiree held on a rooftop terrace eighteen stories above Lakeshore Drive. He’d been mingling with the senior partners at his law firm when he spied Eva’s mother, Julia, struggling to stay upright on four-inch stilettos. Excusing himself, he made his way to the cash bar.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” he whispered.

“It’s the anniversary. Of my mother’s death.” Julia lifted her glass. “I never told you much about her, did I?”

Thomas cupped Julia’s elbow and guided her away from the bar.

“She committed suicide. Arsenic. The day after we dropped the second bomb. On Nagasaki.” Julia blew air through her lips to mimic the sound of an explosion. “She said it was a grotesque experiment. On babies.”

“You’ve reached your limit,” Thomas said. “You’re drinking on an empty stomach.”

“I’ve had loads to eat.” Julia drew a skewered olive from her drink. “They say my mother loved these.”

Hearing someone call his name, Thomas looked over his shoulder and left his wife in the dubious care of a jaded bartender. Minutes later, Julia stepped up to a railing and leaned forward. The soles of her Italian shoes slipped, and without a word, she entered a terminal nosedive, away from the incessant chatter of her husband’s tedious colleagues.

“Tragic,” his colleagues offered at the funeral.

“Inevitable,” he answered each, inaugurating a relentless suicide watch focused on Eva.

Within weeks, Thomas had developed exacting routines to monitor his daughter and the successive nannies driven away by his unreasonable expectations and impossible demands. Every evening, he hovered over Eva’s crib and scrutinized his daughter for signs of psychological distress. He pathologized each of her expressions, misapplying a rudimentary knowledge of abnormal childhood development gleaned from his growing collection of psychology textbooks. His most dire diagnoses followed routine diaper changes. With a harried nanny beside him, he’d examine Eva’s pudgy limbs and press her stomach with his fingertips.

“There’s something wrong with her,” he’d remark.

“She didn’t fancy her applesauce, and a bit of indigestion is sure to be normal,” one Irish nanny insisted, stymied by the insurmountable challenges of her job.

“She’s just like her mother,” he said.

“Sure as God she is, if her mam ever filled her nappies,” the unwitting nanny said, ensuring her own dismissal by making light of family tragedy.

Week after week, as apricots replaced applesauce, and stewed prunes replaced apricots, Eva’s indigestion only worsened; with a different nanny, Thomas engaged in the same rending of linen shirts and satin ties. As Eva developed from a fussy infant into an inscrutable toddler, Thomas treated each of her birthdays as cause for rumination on the brevity of life. On her fifth birthday, Thomas watched her unwrap a porcelain doll with fluttering eyelids and soft ringlets of harvested human hair. Eva evinced no interest in the doll. Its unbending arms and immobile expression hardly warmed a heart bent on the glittery stickers au courant among kindergarten girls. In her disinterest, Thomas saw indications of an underlying affective disorder characterized by an inability to sustain meaningful attachments.

Relative to his wealth, Thomas invested little in Eva’s future. He never started a college fund. Eva was, after all, a risky investment with assuredly diminishing returns. As such, she became the subject of whispered speculations at summer barbeques, when the extended Wright family gathered in Thomas’ backyard to eat grilled hotdogs and mushroom canapés. Shortly after her twelfth birthday, Eva spent once such gathering sitting alone in the backyard, just beyond the pale of paper lanterns, eavesdropping on intoxicated adults.

“I saw Eva poking a dead bird with a stick earlier.” Eva’s aunt sipped her wine spritzer. “I hope she’s not taking after her mother and grandmother. With that morbid streak.”

“Strange to think suicide’s hereditary,” her uncle said. “It’d be hard to pass on the genes. I guess some people only get depressed after the kids show up.”

“It’s tragic,” Eva’s aunt said.

Thomas stared at a shriveled hot dog lying on the grill, above a bed of ash. “It’s inevitable,” he stated.

An hour later, Eva sat down beside her father. All around, pulsing fireflies competed with suburban porch lights in a desperate mating display. Mosquitoes meant for fleeting lives circled sweaty arms and electrified themselves in a nearby bug lamp.

“I read mosquitoes only live for a day.” She lifted her glistening eyes to her father. “Do they fly into the bug zapper because they’re sad?”

At that moment, Thomas recognized his own potential for a nervous breakdown and pledged to escape the lingering horror of his first marriage, however desperate the requisite measures. The following July, he wed Peggy Fairley, the least qualified secretary at his law firm. If her filing errors suggested a distinct lack of familiarity with the English alphabet, her effervescent laughter echoed in the chambers of Thomas’ heart and drowned out his memories of madness. Thomas loved Peggy with abandon.

As Thomas withdrew from his daughter, and kitten figurines and mauve furniture began to appear throughout the house, Eva sought refuge in her bedroom. Throughout her adolescence, she spent hours at a time smoking Marlboro Reds and staring at Polaroid images of her mother, noting each similarity between her own features and those fading beneath yellowing gloss finish. She anticipated her own death, invariably imagined as a suicide. Conditioned by foregone conclusions, Eva wandered joylessly into adulthood. After college, she enrolled in a mediocre law school and then accepted a job at a large gas company. She never adopted the life of a corporate lawyer, though; she never bought a Lexus or elected stock options.

“Rust never sleeps,” she told colleagues. “And most people die before cashing in.”

For three years, she renewed short-term leases on a second-floor apartment in a dilapidated house and surrounded herself with cheap furniture from downscale chain stores. She shied away from close friendships, convinced of their inevitable brevity, and avoided long-term romantic entanglements, opting for casual encounters with incurably fatuous or terminally ill men.

That is, until she met Vernon Johnson at a failing art theater, just before a matinee of Casablanca. Vernon made small talk about unpredictable weather and environmental disasters, and Eva shared her heavily salted popcorn. After the film, Eva helped Vernon cross the street to get to his bus stop. Enchanted by his pale eyes and depressing stories about the Second World War, she suggested dinner, and Vernon invited her to his nursing home for tapioca pudding. That night, she found herself thinking about Vernon’s weak handshake and worn trousers and realized that she’d fallen suddenly, deeply and hopelessly in love.

Over the next few months, Eva and Vernon met for matinees of black-and-white classics and documentaries about the destruction of rain forests. They sat on weathered park benches and fed diseased pigeons. When Vernon finally confided that he couldn’t father a child, Eva embraced his bony frame and wept with joy. She stayed over at Vernon’s nursing home for the first time that night, and in the flush of new love, braved curious stares to eat mashed bananas in the cafeteria the following morning.

Eva kept only a toothbrush at Vernon’s nursing home until the early arrival of staggered cold snaps that amounted to winter. The first snow fell in October, blanketing fallen leaves and freezing debris in clogged gutters. Temperatures varied wildly, spiking and plummeting in rapid succession. Snow melted and quickly re-crystallized. Roads buckled, cracks appeared in foundations, and roof tiles curled.

The stain appeared one Sunday, in the grey light of a sunless dawn. No larger than a quarter, at first, it spread across Eva’s bedroom ceiling throughout the day, leaving rust-colored streaks and bubbles in softening plaster. That evening, she watched the stain assume the grotesque shape of a Rorschach blot and drifted into dreamless sleep. On Monday, she returned from work to find her landlord in her apartment, examining large clumps of wet plaster lying on the floor.

“Your downstairs neighbor called.” He shook his head. “My contractor’s up to his ass in work because of this weather. Could take weeks to get to this.”

When he left, Eva called Vernon and shared her predicament.

“You’re the apple of my eye,” Vernon said, “I’ll lower the bed railings for your arrival.”

Eva knew, then, that by marrying her fortunes to Vernon’s, she was simply bypassing the misery of a predictable midlife crisis and embracing the wisdom of advanced geriatrics. A month later, she made her way to her father’s house to announce her engagement.


“We want a small wedding,” Eva said. “With a reception at the VFW clubhouse. We’re going to invite friends from the nursing home and some veterans Vernon knows.”

Peggy glanced at Thomas, now slumping in the corner of the couch. “We could plan something fun. Set up a registry at Macy’s. The Newberry Library has a gorgeous courtyard.”

Thomas turned to Peggy. “Have you ever been the Newberry?” He struggled to his feet and crossed the room to a buffet lined with bottles. “I hear they have books there.”

“Don’t be sour,” Peggy said. “We could have a nice reception and invite our friends, too.”

“Does Macy’s sell wheelchairs?” Thomas asked, filling a highball glass with scotch.

“Don’t go to the trouble,” Eva insisted. “Everyone’s on a fixed income, and we have everything we need.”

Thomas stepped up to a window and surveyed a patch of dirty snow. “Do whatever you want.”

“We’d like to get married as soon as possible.”

“Probably not the worst idea,” Thomas said. “In the circumstances.”

“That’s what Vernon said. I think you’re going to like him.”

The father of the bride-to-be never gained the pleasure of Vernon’s acquaintance. Five days before his wedding, Vernon died during an extended nap. Eva was sitting beside the window, reading to the sound of hail on the roof when Vernon’s shallow breath expired with a final, unmistakable rattle. She placed her book on the nightstand and sat down on the edge of the twin bed she’d shared with Vernon for eight months. She held Vernon’s hand and studied the creases in his face until his fingers grew stiff and the light faded beyond the curtains. When the hail subsided, she called the management to report her fiancée’s all-too timely death.

The weather on the day of the funeral proved as uncooperative as Vernon’s failing kidneys. Heavy rain began to fall early in the morning and continued, unabated, throughout the day. Discarded fast food wrappers disintegrated on the streets outside the church, and the runoff from overflowing gutters washed across sidewalks and into roiling sewer-bound streams. Despite the mud clinging to her heels, the bride-cum-bereaved was lovely in borrowed black lace.

In honor of Vernon’s thrift, Eva had avoided cancellation fees by keeping her reservation for the wood-paneled reception hall at the VFW clubhouse. There, she drank warm champagne and chilled prune juice with bingo champions and world-weary war veterans with stiff fingers, clouded minds and uncertain legs. She switched to whiskey when she met Seamus Sullivan, an arthritic from Belfast.

“One year from now, a few more of us will be gone. In ten years, the whole lot of us.” Seamus drew a flask from his jacket and handed it to Eva. “Not you, of course.”

Eva shrugged. “Who knows how long any of us have?”

“That’s the one certainty,” Seamus said, nodding.

Eva spent the next hour watching her guests shuffle back and forth from the open bar on canes and neuropathic feet, complaining all the while of ill-fitting dentures and diabetic diets. Thomas drank himself into a stupor, furtively sipping and then openly guzzling from a flask of expensive scotch. Peggy avoided talking to anyone, completely unnerved by so much sickness and sag. She approached Eva only to distance herself from a conversation about incontinence.

“The cake is lovely.” She strained to smile. “I forgot sheet cakes can be good.”

Seamus lifted a fork to his mouth with a trembling hand and took a swig of whiskey to ease the passage of frosting.

“This is how he would have wanted it,” Eva said. “Having his friends here. The ones still left.”

“Seamus’ eyes grew misty.” Now’s as good a time as any.” He drew a thin box with rusted hinges from his oversized suit. “Couldn’t be bothered with the registry. Mixing bowls. Four-hundred-the-fuck-count sheets.”

Eva prized open the box and unhooked a tarnished silver star from worn velvet backing.

“Your man got that for gallantry in action,” Seamus said. “He gave it to me after I went on my first date in this country. Hell, everyone who gets out of bed in the morning should get a medal.”

“It’s beautiful.” Eva kissed Seamus on the cheek.

“It’s a shame he’ll miss his honeymoon. He always wanted to see the sea one last time. A clean beach that wasn’t littered with bodies.”

Peggy wiped a line of perspiration from her face. Eva rubbed the medal between her fingers and remembered the first time she kissed Vernon.

In accordance with established by-laws, the nursing home allowed Eva to retain her room until the end of the month. She spent weekend mornings lying in bed and listening to the wind, and quiet afternoons playing canasta and eating fruit cocktail in the cafeteria. On her last day in the nursing home, she took a train downtown to scatter Vernon’s ashes over Lake Michigan.

At the water’s edge, she surveyed a line of rusted pilings and watched mottled gulls skimming waves for floating garbage, mesmerized by their graceful movements and the endless sky burial of trash. Dead fish and foam containers floated on iridescent rainbows of oil. She gripped the urn’s chipped base, glanced at an oil refinery on the south shore, and then released Vernon onto a littered beach.

That night, she packed Vernon’s silver star and worn slippers into her tiny suitcase. She lay down in an unlaundered flannel shirt and took in Vernon’s comforting smell, and to the sound of wheezing in the next room, imagined starting a new life, or at least a new day, in another apartment. She buried her nose in Vernon’s sleeve, knowing that whatever happened, she’d known love, and that she’d soon be tying her tubes in deference to a dying planet.


In addition to publishing scholarly work in academic journals and fiction in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Beloit Fiction Journal, 34th Parallel Magazine and Albuquerque Arts, Alice Hatcher has placed creative nonfiction in Gargoyle Magazine and poetry in The Storyteller. In 1995, she lost control of a remote-control model airplane after it went out of range, and she’s still wondering where it crashed. She loves subways but is terrified of public busses, especially in Tucson, where signs above exits discourage but do not prohibit the discharge of firearms.

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