By Scott Atkinson
(Originally published in Old Northwest Review)
Jerry and Bud were old men, and had been displaced from their former diner which, like so many things, was gone now. The bookstore café had been Jerry’s idea, but it had been a bad one. The store had only a slim history selection and its café was mostly full of young people who stared not at books or even other people but at phones. Their posture was terrible. He and Bud were the only two left from the weekly coffee group, the others having fled to places like Florida and Arizona, where the winter’s didn’t seep into one’s knees and shoulders. Or they were dead. Every week Jerry thought he should have just let the coffee group die, but he wasn’t good at that sort of thing.
Bud had just stood to order his second bagel, a decision he always pretended was a last-second splurge, though he did it every week. He stood slowly, favoring his bad leg, a maneuver Jerry had seen him do too many times. “1942,” Bud would say as way of explanation. He had not served in the war, but never bothered to say so.
“Are you a store member?” Jerry heard the girl at the counter ask Bud.
“I’m not a member of anything,” Bud said.
Jerry listened to them talk, to the jangle Bud’s change as he counted it, the ding of the toaster oven warming his bagel and the crinkle of the paper as the girl retrieved it. He enjoyed listening to faraway things. Like so much of the rest of him, his ears seemed to have forgotten to break down, and he enjoyed picking the sounds out of the air. It reminded him of the way Kim would pop bubbles when she was young, always with the same, delicate finger. His hearing had been a source of pride among his peers, but it also isolated him from the group. It was one more thing they would complain about that he could not take part in. He did not know the art of pretending to understand what people said in noisy rooms, all that nodding and smiling. It was one more way he felt behind. They were fleeing to Arizona, to deafness, to coffins. The world he knew kept disappearing.
Bud returned to the table, setting down his bagel and two extra packets of cream cheese so he had two hands—on the chair and on the table—with which he could begin his descent. Bud would lower himself as far as he could, aiming himself at the seat before his arms could take no more and he released his arms and took his calculated, grunting fall. Jerry weighed the same he had in the Navy to the pound. Watching Bud simply exist could be difficult.
Somehow it had come to this, that Bud was the only person he could think of to confide in.
“You going to buy that?” Bud asked him, and pointed in front of Jerry, to a book and accompanying CD of bird songs.
“I was thinking I might, yeah.” He picked it up and flipped through the pages once, watching the native birds of Michigan blur together. “It was actually Jan’s idea. We were out walking the other day and we got to talking about birds somehow. One of them was singing away and I had no idea what it was. I said, ‘I’ve been living in Michigan my entire life and I couldn’t tell you what a robin sounds like.’”
“Sue tries to get me to take walks too,” Bud said. “I tell her, I’m eighty-five. I’ve walked enough.”
Jerry sipped his coffee. He longed for a mug and the waitresses that had once filled them, smiling at him a little longer than they had the other guys, as though they shared something the rest of the group had lost. And each time they came by and poured more coffee into his mug it was as though they were pouring more sand into an hourglass that would never run out.
He had about an inch of cold coffee remaining in his paper cup. He refused to pay for another one, and Bud’s bagel was disappearing with wet, mechanical speed. If he was going to take the time to say what he had to say, he was going to have to make it last.
“Let me ask you something,” he said, and sat straighter He leaned forward and assumed the posture each would when discussing any topic that might be even the slightest revealing about themselves—it was one of authority, bordering on the academic, a scientific inquiry rather than a look into one’s own soul. “I have often wondered if it’s possible to love someone—you know, truly love someone—after your spouse has died.”
“I can tell you that for a fact,” Bud said, almost immediately. He was not between bites but squirreled the mass of chewed dough and cream cheese into his cheek and leaned forward, setting one elbow on the table, and spreading his legs apart so that his belly had room to droop between them. “Claire was my one true love, and she’s dead. The answer is no.
“Now, that doesn’t mean I can’t be with my wife,” Bud said. “And I would never tell her that, of course, because I wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings.” This, too, was offered up with business-like insight. Jerry nodded shallowly in agreement. “It’s not something we talk about. She knows Claire died what, thirty years ago. And she was divorced, so for her it was different. Well, you know. You got divorced.”
“Kathryn died,” he said flatly. He had not, in fact, been thinking about Kathryn, but he was thinking about her now.
“Right, but you got divorced before that, didn’t you?”
“A long time before that. Something like twenty years, wasn’t it? You see, that’s one area where you got, well, I shouldn’t say lucky. I don’t know what the word is. But Kathryn didn’t die until long after you two were divorced. Claire died while we were married. That’s tough.”
“I can only imagine,” Jerry said, and drained the last of his coffee like a shot of bourbon.
“Did you hear about Jack Crintz? I think it was him I heard about. He moved in with his new wife and she still had her last husband’s things packed in boxes. Some of it I heard she wasn’t even going to pack up.”
“I don’t think I heard about that,” Jerry said.
Bud chewed thoughtfully for a moment. “I think it was him I heard about,” he said.
Jerry fiddled with his empty cup the way an ex-smoker will play with a pencil or a toothpick. He made one attempt to drain the small amount that had stuck to the bottom, but it spread too thin by the time it reached the edge of the cup and he found himself waiting, mouth open, under the cup for one pathetic drip. He put the cup down, a flimsy sound of finality that announced the meeting was over. They both stood and Jerry looked at the book of bird songs a moment and left it lying there. From the pile of change he left on the table (he refused to put tips in that audacious jar on the counter) he plucked one particularly shiny penny and put it in his pocket. He joined Bud at the door.
“Next week?” Bud said.
Jerry sat in his pickup outside the bookstore, waiting for the cab to warm and wondering where he would drive. He did not want to go home. He wanted to go to a place that felt like home. Until his former house has sold he would often return there, usually after his coffee with Bud, and sit in the lone lawn chair he left for that exact purpose. But the house had sold, even without him making the cheap improvements the realtor had suggested and with the absurdly high price he’d refused to lower. He couldn’t believe it sold, and when it did there was nothing to do but complete the sale and sign all the paperwork and take the money. To back out or make some excuse would be to admit to Kim and the world what she’d been accusing him of all along.
He drove, instead, to the cemetery. He had not been to see her in a long time—only once since he’d married Jan. A forgivable relapse, he thought. Something like a final fling with an old lover.
He automatically checked the date. It was not her birthday or the anniversary of her death or of her marriage to the man who had replaced him. A safe day to visit when it was unlikely anyone else would be there.
The more he’d adjusted to her being gone, the more comfortable he felt visiting her there until eventually it was the place he felt the most comfortable. Enough time had gone by for him to feel like forgiveness was inevitable and he could imagine all the other paths their lives might have taken if only things had worked out a little differently. There were days when those fantasies felt so real it was as though they’d really lived all those former lives that were more like manufactured memories than fantasies. If senility ever took him he hoped those would be what his mind was left with.
His phone rang as he pulled into the cemetery, rustling under the newspapers in the passenger seat of the truck like a busy mouse. He almost didn’t look, expecting it to be Jan. It was Kim.
“Hi, Sweetie,” he said, and he felt his voice soften automatically. Only she could do this to him.
“Hey, Dad. How’re you doing?”
“I’m good,” he said. “What’s up?”
“I just wanted to check on you. You seem kind of down again.”
Out with it, just like that. There had been a time when she’d been subtle and tried to hide her worry. That had been bad enough, when she had adopted his own parenting techniques and turned them against him. It was eerie to be on the receiving end. Now she didn’t even pretend. She’d gone and the strong woman he’d always hoped she’d be.
“I’m fine, sugar.”
“Okay. I’m glad. What are you doing today?”
“I just finished having coffee with the guys.”
“Good. I’m glad you’re spending your time with your friends. Jason and I were up talking about it last night, and he said he could come over and help you move some of those things if you needed a hand. I ran into Jan yesterday, and she said they were still boxed up in the basement.”
“Maybe I’ll call him,” he said, and pictured his son-in-law—a good man, the kind he’d hoped would replace him—carrying the boxes up the stairs one by one, carting off another man’s past like it didn’t matter. “I was actually thinking about doing it this weekend. I promised her, actually.”
“She said you promised before,” she said, and then laughed, making it a joke a moment too late.
He managed to laugh with her, and then waited for more. He wanted to ask about his three grandchildren, but he had just asked about them the day before. Dangerous to ask again. He would welcome repeating the conversation, following the same predictable twists and turns, but he didn’t want her worrying that his mind would slipping. He waited a moment longer for an invitation to dinner, news of an upcoming soccer game she’d forgotten to tell him about, he would have welcomed her scolding him again about the goddamn boxes, sitting there these six months since he’d moved in with Jan, but the line remained silent.
“Well,” he said. “I should get home to Jan.”
They hung up, and he turned off his pickup, letting it rattle to a stop, and stepped out.
Kathryn’s headstone was a wide, flecked pink chunk of some faraway mountain, with her name and dates inscribed on the left side. The other was blank, waiting for him. Jerry had no wish to die, but hoped he died before he did. He couldn’t stand the idea of the man’s name there in his lifetime. He would be able to come here anymore, not knowing he’d see that name there. Her final and most lasting betrayal.
He never left flowers. He didn’t want anyone else to find them and know he’d been there—and besides, he’d put her husband through enough in the early years, all those late-night drunken phone calls demanding to speak with the woman he was still calling his wife. There’d also been the worst night, when he’d gone to the house and stood in the yard, fists raised, waiting for a fight that never came. There were days he still felt he was waiting for it. He deserved at least the chance to lose, once and for all.
He reached into his pocket, beneath his phone and pulled out the penny he’d saved from the café. He remembered arriving at her grave a long time ago, it might have been the first time and he’d found himself empty-handed. He’d reached foolishly into his pockets and pulled out a penny, so new it glinted even in that day’s dull light. He turned it carefully in his fingers. It was not the kind of thing she’d appreciate, but it was the kind of thing he’d always thought she would. He’d put it on her headstone and had since never stopped, always keeping his eye out for new and brilliant pennies and carried them on the chance he might stop by.
He looked at the lone penny. There were never any others there, nor on the ground, and he wondered what happened to them—if children, perhaps, dragged along to a place they didn’t understand to visit a relative they’d never met, saw it shining and snatched it up, unable to help themselves. That was what he liked to think, although there were other fantasies. He took some small pleasure thinking of certain people stopping by, finding them and being confused, and he wondered if that played any part in why he still did it. He liked to think of his memory being acknowledged, even if by a stranger who didn’t understand what they’d found.
It was a perfect penny,, somehow having so far survived the chaos of cash drawers and who knew how many pockets full of change and keys unscratched. He looked at it, let it catch the faint light. Birds he could not see sang their mysterious songs overhead. He’d read that morning flipping through the book he had not bought that birds did not actually sing, not in the sense people liked to think, anyway. Their signature tunes were warning signals, territorial threats meant to keep others away. He hoped he would never in some moment of frustration tell Jan this.
He looked around him, at the cemetery stretching off in every direction, at all the neat rows of the dead. He put the penny back in his pocket and got back in his truck. He drove around until he was hungry, then stopped at an Arby’s and ordered a coffee and the biggest roast beef sandwich they had.
Sometimes she thought she could feel his presence. It was not a ghostly or even spiritual thing, merely a strange feeling he was down there, in the basement, tinkering away at something and leaving her to wonder when he might finish and come back up so she could have some company. There were days she grew impatient with him, which she knew was ridiculous and she made herself laugh so that she’d know she wasn’t going crazy. Impatience with the dead.
Paul had never tinkered with anything, so it was odd now that she imposed this strange joviality to the lingering idea of him, as though, free of himself, he reverted to some more childlike presence she’d always assumed was in there—or hoped was in there. She never saw any evidence of it, but it was that faint hope--as much, she had to be honest, as her fear of leaving—that had kept them married. Paul was a retired English teacher, and had spent almost all of his time reading books he’d already read a thousand times before. She had sometimes asked him what he was reading and without looking up, only a slight sigh of someone who does not appreciate, but is used to, being interrupted, he would say only the last name of the author, which always made her feel stupid and unlearned. She’d made a few attempts at reading some of those names, but even on the rare occasions she did not feel confused by the text, or on the very rare occasions she found herself enjoying it, she still felt like she was unwelcome among the pages, like barging into him when he was in the bathroom. She knew they’d have none of the fun and deep conversations about books she’d envisioned, and in time she gave up, returning to the mysteries she’s always enjoyed, and which Paul never asked about. It was too bad, she thought—how many more books she might have read if not for her reading husband.
No, not a tinkerer, not one to spend hours in the basement. She had always said she didn’t mind that he was a man who didn’t do anything with his hands—or had she ever said that? It might have simply been a phrase she carried around with her in case it was ever needed. There was always the chance suspicion that someone would ask. About the car, about pipes in the basement, the kinds of things men tinkered with. Oh, he’s an English teacher, she was ready to say, in a way that was supposed to suggest that he was too busy, too smart, too something, for all of that, to make it okay that he spent all of those long, quiet hours in that chair with those books by himself.
Paul never even wrote, something she imagined all English teachers did, at least in secret. After he’d died she expected to find some papers, some tucked-away manuscript he’d never told her about, maybe something that would shine a light on who the man she married was. He reminded her in some ways of one of the stories of his she had read, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” except it was their relationship that grew more infantile with time, not him. The older they got, the less she felt she knew him.
He had never seemed to like teaching much, even when he was brand new and she his student. It was more as though there was nothing else for him to do, and so he did it dutifully, disseminating the knowledge he had to all the unfortunate people who did not yet have it. He never talked about his students, or his classes, only occasionally of the other faculty, and only then to complain about the people there he did not like which, it seemed to her, was all of them.
She’d been in love with him for just over one semester—her last, also his first of teaching. He’d been solemn then, but coming through the face of a twenty-three-year-old he seemed wise, like someone full of secrets of the world, promising a lifetime of insights and mysteries and discoveries. She saw him as a mine she might never get to the bottom of.
She only thought of these things on days like this, when Jerry was gone long past the time he said he’d be home. Home. It was their home, and beginning to feel like it, but something was also missing, like the last coat of paint on a house, some small lacking thing that prevented you from being able to say it was finished, done, and no longer needed worrying about. Oh, if he would just move those boxes. She had long ago stopped caring about solving the mystery of Paul, resolving herself to the fact that there was no mystery. She just wanted those boxes gone, gone, gone. Goodwill would do. At this point she’d be happy even to see them at the curb. She told people she wanted them gone for Jerry’s sake, but really it was for her. It was time for a life without Paul. She no longer felt bad for feeling that way.
She called Jerry, the kind of man she should have married or held out for. Sure, she thought, she wouldn’t have had her son, but she would still have had children and wouldn’t have known any better. It was a horrible thing to think, but it was true. And now here was the man she should have married, and did marry, not answering his phone. He often made excuses, saying he didn’t understand his new phone, but he never missed a call when it was from Kim—which was fine. She liked watching him talk to his daughter. It was an insight into the man she’d married, that side of him she seldom saw but was the part of him she’d most wanted to marry. You’d just think he could figure out the phone when she called, was all.
She was sitting at the dining room table, staring at the clock above the old stove, bought when she and Paul had first moved into the house. She didn’t like thinking of that. She’d packed up everything she could, and if she could have packed up the stove she would have done that, too. She would have packed up the entire house, crammed it all down into a bag if she could have and left it at some lonesome curb, all except from perhaps her son’s room, unchanged all these years, and a few odd corners that felt uniquely hers, still hers to share.
She had considered cremating Paul. He had not left any wishes, and it seemed simpler, but she had decided against it. If she cremated him, she’d have his ashes, and then an urn, which she would have to put somewhere, and she simply didn’t want him lying silently around the house any more. Better to put him in the ground.
But then there had been his things, all those books, mostly, which she had gone around the house collecting and boxing in the basement, getting them out of the way. She hadn’t realized until after she’d done it that she was creating another urn, one whose out-of-the-way presence in the basement seemed more ominous that if she had stacked all his books on the kitchen table. Packed together as they were, they were more shrine than urn. They called to her from the basement, this strange new version of her husband, like Edgar Allen Poe’s tell-tale heart—another story of his she’d read, which had kept her up all night.
She considered calling Jerry again, but only twenty minutes had gone by since the last time she’d called, and she did not want to be a nag. She sat. When thirty minutes had gone by she began to call but set the phone down and waited another seven minutes, wondering if he’d notice if she called so systematically, every half hour. It was not simply that he was not home, but that she got the sense sometimes he was avoiding home. It’s not as though there was much he had to do in the way of errands. If that was the case, if he was toiling away and could not wait to be home and returned, exhausted and relieved, she could wait for that all day. But he was only at his coffee group, which now consisted of one man—Bill, perhaps?—who she got the sense he did not even like very much. And weren’t they happy, the two of them when they were just drinking coffee together here at the table, he over the newspaper and she over the crossword, the silence like a knitted blanket around everything? She thought so.
Forty-two minutes had passed. She called on the forty-third, a prime number, not divisible by anything. When he didn’t pick up, she left a message. She was cheerful. She said she was just checking in. She was looking forward to seeing him. “I hope you’re having a good time,” she said.
It was dark when he arrived at home, and quiet. The early dusk of winter had set while he was on his third cup of coffee at Arby’s, which offered free refills, even if you had to get them for yourself. Jan was not downstairs. It was too early for her to have gone to bed. They both had the habit of staying up each night past midnight, something they’d confided in each other early on. For Jerry it was a secret shame; early rising was one of the very few habits he hadn’t retained from his Navy days. Early in their relationship they’d stayed up one night late talking on the phone like giddy teenagers, and after they were married they would say up together in those dark hours that belonged to them alone.
He found her upstairs in bed, reading. She was under the covers, and in pajamas. The lamp on the nightstand beside her was the only light on.
He stood in the doorway, trying to think of what he’d say if it were a normal night.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi,” she said in a small, mousy voice. “I called.” It was almost a question.
He shook his head. “This damn phone,” he said. He pulled it out of his pocket and looked at it lying flat on his hand like some alien object. He shook his head again. “What’s that you’re reading?”
She tilted the book in her lap so she could see the cover. It was by one of their favorite mystery writers who occupied the thin, darkly shaded sliver of space where the two circles of their reading interests overlapped. He’d bought it the week before at the bookstore before Bud had arrived and had been meaning to catch up with her.
“I grabbed a book all about bird songs today,” he said. “Came with a CD and everything.” He chortled, shook his head in the same high-eyebrow way he had moments before. “Left the damn thing sitting right there on the table. I can see it sitting there right now.”
She smiled at him weakly. It was difficult to tell if it was forced or if it had come from somewhere else, only just breaching the surface despite everything.
“Well, I think I’m going to watch some TV. You want to come down?”
“I think I’ll read a bit. It’s a good one.”
“I need to catch up with you. Well,” he said, and went back downstairs.
He sat in front of the TV and turned it on, found a show he normally enjoyed and let it play, half-watching. It was a late-night marathon of the show and he drifted in and out of it, realizing sometimes that a new episode has started without him noticing the last one had ended. He hadn’t dozed off (he didn’t think so, anyway), his mind had been travelling through space and time. It made him think of the Twilight Zone. When he turned off the TV he was almost surprised to find that he was in the present, that he was an old man in a quiet house.
He went upstairs to see Jan and found her asleep. It was just after nine o’clock.
He went back downstairs, and when he reached the bottom he did not turn right, as he’d intended, heading back to the living room, but instead turned left. It was a last-moment decision, barely a decision at all, the kind he’d made more than once in the Navy. The right course presents itself and you take it, no hesitation, and you keep going. It was like jumping in the water, the kind of decision you can’t take back.
Except that he wasn’t in the water. He was only on the basement stairs, and the TV and his bed and even the mystery novel were all waiting for him up there and he could turn around and return to any of them at any moment. He kept moving, pushing himself toward the point of no return.
The first box was heavy, back-cracking heavy, and felt almost solid. What could be in there, he wondered, but he did not look. He carted it up the stairs like any unpleasant task he’d been assigned in the Navy. It was something that needed being done. He had never had any of the unpleasant tasks during those four years that other military men had had. He’d never shot anyone, never marched prisoners anywhere, never been the one to send a torpedo into an already crippled ship, but he felt like this was the closest he had ever come. I’m sorry, he muttered more than once, the way he thought an executioner might before he carried on with the dirty and necessary task assigned to him.
And yet it felt good to move. He would sleep like a young man who has worked hard all day and earned his rest. He would ache in the morning, and he might complain of it, but he would take pleasure at feeling the life in his arms and legs and back, all of them returning to duty.
The decision, the plan, had come to him all at once. He would pack each of the boxes into the back of his truck and leave it waiting for the morning. He would set his alarm early and shut it off quickly and sneak out of bed without Jan noticing. He would get in his truck and drive the boxes to a storage facility he often drove by. He could see it now, all those neat rows of stone grey doors. That was where he would take the boxes. He would put them in a new unit and the door would rumble home and slam home with a concussive, conclusive bang, like a gun shot. He would ask the proprietor for one key, and then he would take the key home. If she was still asleep he would make breakfast, and he would sit and be so jovial that she would wonder just what it was that was going on today. He would clean all the dishes and wait for the moment, when he could properly approach her. He saw it happening there, in the kitchen, as he dried his hands and turned around. He would give her the key and tell her what he’d done. He would tell her where the unit was and that she could go there as often as he wanted and that she never had to tell him when she did. He would kiss her, but quickly, because he did not want to give her the opportunity to show her reaction. He didn’t want her to have to worry about the look that would come across her face, the tears that the past sometimes forces upon us. He would walk out of the room and leave her there for as long as she needed, and the next time they saw each other they wouldn’t talk about it and it would be just one more thing in the past.