They named her Mary after Meredith’s mother. His granddaughter played with her mother’s braid but for the life of him, he could not remember the mother’s name. One night Meredith had told him he was a grandfather. He had never seen her but here she was now, his granddaughter and she looked exactly like Meredith. Those green glassy eyes and soft brown hair. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Stephen coming back. He had grown to be a fit man. He looked away from the baby and her mother as Stephen took a seat beside his wife.
Miss Dorthy stood up and made her way towards him. She and the rest of the gossiping pack would hopefully leave him alone now that there was no reason for them to come by the house. Dorothy wasn’t too bad but he couldn’t stand the constant rumors and judgments that were given light each time they met with his wife and those rumors and judgments would fill Meredith’s head and late at night, as they lay in bed, he would have to hear everything. He put on a sad smile as Miss Dorthy wrapped her arms around him and said how sorry she was for his loss.
“Thank you, Dora.”
“If there’s anything you like, anything, just let us know.”
“That’s kind of you but I think I’ll manage.”
“We don’t mind. We’ll be happy to do it. Mary was like a sister to me that means you’re my brother. So don’t hesitate to call.”
“She would have been pleased to hear such kind words. However, I’ll manage.” He repeated again. Miss Dorthy nodded quietly and squeezed his hand before leaving.
The priest looked over and asked if he wished to say a few words before the ceremony began. He cleared his throat and slowly the hushed conversations died down and the room was silent.
“I want to thank everyone that came out today. Meredith would have been very happy to know that she was loved by so many people. It is sad times that unites us at the moment and I’ll like to say that Mary was a fine woman, a good wife, and a great mother. As you all can attest to this, Mary had a short temper,” he smirked and a few in the crowd smiled too, “but no one I have known had a bigger heart than her. I’ll miss her dearly.”
He looked over at the Priest and nodded to let him know he was finished.
“Beautifully said, Jonathan.” Priest said. “Now if everyone may close their eyes and bow your heads so that we may pray for good Meredith to have a safe journey.”
He zipped up his jacket to the very top and raised his shoulder up to his ears as the wind picked up outside. The clouds were still threatening snow but had not delivered and he stared at the gathering clouds as his breath turned to mist. His son and his family came through the revolving doors and stepped outside. For a moment they all looked at one another. His son’s wife was clearly uncomfortable for she stared at the ground, carrying their baby in her arms. It seemed like Stephen wanted to say something to him as he cleared his throat or perhaps expected his father to say something first. But the two men remained quiet for the brief moment and that period of uncertainty passed and Stephen turned on his heel and made for his car, his wife and daughter beside him.
He wanted to ask him how old Mary was and what his wife’s name was and how his son had been all these years but he couldn’t manage to get the words out. Damn thing, it is, this thing in him, that won’t even allow him to apologize to his own son.
The doors opened again and this time Mr. and Mrs. Manson came out. Mrs. Manson had her fur cap on tight over her head and Mr. Manson told her to wait in the car.
“Sorry for your loss dear.” Mrs. Manson said to him before crossing the parking lot towards the black Chevy truck that was parked at the very first parking spot.
“Tough times eh?” Mr. Manson said. “It’ll pass. Believe me, they pass.” Mr. Mason was nearly eighty years old and if anyone knew about dealing with the loss of loved ones it was him. He had stood by and watched all the people he had grown up with slowly leave him, one by one. His own daughter had died in a wreck just four years earlier.
“How are you holding up?”
“How’s work been? I imagine you won’t be returning to the office for a little while eh?”
“I’m going there tomorrow.”
“They didn’t even give you any time to grieve?”
“They offered me a few days to myself but I rather work.”
“I see. Maybe that’s for the best. Get right back into the daily grind of things.”
The two of them shook hands and old Mr. Manson waddled towards his truck.
The thought of greeting each person one by one as the day grew colder was awful and he sooner leave than hear another consoling remark. Besides, it was Sunday. Every Sunday he had lunch at the cafe on 6th street, today was no different. Why should it be? He got in his Volvo and headed to the cafe.
Sundays were sacred to him. Every moment of the seventh day of the week was planned out and it was a day of solitary adventures. He woke up at seven in the morning and he made two packets of oatmeal and drank a cup of coffee. At eight he took his dog for a walk. After the hour walk, he came home and took a shower, shaved, read the morning paper as he had another cup of coffee and then, exactly at ten he went to his study to make ready the documents and papers he needed for Monday morning. He had failed to do any of this today as the circumstances were special. He decided when he got home after the cafe he would skip the evening news and use that time to prepare his work for tomorrow. Normally after he dealt with his work duties he would take an hour long nap before heading to his study once again to do some reading.
Meredith knew not to disturb him when he was in there but she would always knock around two to offer some tea. None of these things had happened this Sunday. But his obligations were over and now he was free to continue the rest of his day. Free. The watch let him know that it was almost three in the afternoon which was hard to tell from the heavy clouds. If it wasn’t for the watch he would have assumed it was already evening.
On his way to the cafe, the first drops of snow fell down from the sky onto his windshield where they melted and took shape of raindrops. He turned the wipers to cast aside the unwanted water. The snow grew heavier as he continued to drive until a thin layer of white could be seen on the dead grass of houses that flanked the roads on either side. He remembered how much Meredith loved to ski and how they would go to Austria every January for two weeks for that’s where the best snow rested and the best skiing happened. They had gone last year and stayed at the same hotel they always stayed at and each morning they woke up and got ready for the day’s activities and all morning and afternoon was spent cutting through the snow, going down the hills and the face of the mountains.
He had twisted his ankle the last time they went and he had to cancel his skiing plans just after two days. Meredith went on her own as he stayed back and enjoyed his books by the fireside. He knew she was seeing another man in the resort and his sprained ankle had given him the ticket out so, he didn’t have to put on a face in front of her and he could now enjoy his lonesome time. His ankle, even after a year, still hurt when he put too much pressure on it. Meredith had told him to go see a doctor and said he was too stubborn for his own good. This year he would go alone even though he didn’t enjoy skiing that much but he did like the countryside view and the people in Austria treated him kindly and there is really nothing like the blanket of snow that covers the fields which end where the white mountains rise. He wished to see that view a few more times before his time came. Besides, going skiing every January had become a part of his life, it was natural now and he had to do it.
Italy always interested him. The ancient beauty left behind attracted him to it but he had never been. Meredith preferred Austria for that businessman was there at that time of the year. She did not know he knew but he had known for years and he was content with letting it happen for it made her happy and his love for her had long been gone and he felt little of the jealousy an average man would have felt. He thought perhaps this year he’ll go to Rome and see the Roman forum, sit inside the granite bowl where the gladiators fought, go see the sight of Caesar’s assassination, watch an opera dressed in his finest tuxedo which he would have to buy beforehand for he didn’t own one at the present, get a guide to help navigate through the museums explaining to him the significance of each marble structure and each stroke of brush but then again, he didn’t want to go alone, not to a new country where everything was foreign from the air to the roads, from their speech to their food. It scared him to go alone. He had made peace with the idea of the constant life. Life in which you live the same days and same months and same years over and over again. He had made peace with that many years ago, maybe even as long ago when he needed his mother to buy him sweets. Maybe that’s why he stopped loving her and she went with another man.
“Hello there Jon. Didn’t expect to see you here today.” Carlton Hesswood said. Mr. Hesswood was an old man, his hair having left his head a long time ago and from the looks of it, he enjoyed his own cafes cooking more than Jonathan did. With his stomach leading the way, Mr. Hesswood came over to the table by the window where Jonathan always sat. Jonathan shook the man’s hand and Mr. Hesswood did not wait for an invitation before taking a seat beside him.
“Awful hearing about Meredith. My condolences go out to you and your loved ones.” His large hand and even larger fingers heavily pressed down on Jonathan’s knee as he talked. Outside the snow fell calmly for the wind wasn’t strong enough to disturb its fall. “Did everything go smoothly?” He asked about the funeral.
“As smoothly as it can” Jonathan replied.
“That’s wonderful. Always a kind woman every time I met her.”
“That she was.” Jonathan looked over Mr. Hesswood’s shoulder to see the waitress coming his way with the menu.
“He doesn’t need that.” Mr. Hesswood said smiling to the waitress. “The usual Jonny?”
“Two roast beef sandwiches with extra mayo and some fries with extra salt on the side.” He winked at Jonathan. “Anything else?”
“Glass of red wine.”
“Ah yes of course.” The waitress, Sarah, had already written down the wine order. Jonathan thanked her.
“Didn’t think you’ll be coming in today if I’m being honest.”
“Thought you’ll be too busy you know…with the arrangements and all that.”
“A man’s still gotta eat.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
Jonathan picked up the ketchup bottle and it was heavy enough for his needs.
“How are you holding up?”
The snow had gathered on the brick wall outside the window so that a layer of pale snow filled the bottom border of the window. The snow fell quickly.
“It looks like its going to be a bad one.” Mr. Hesswood said watching the weather.
Jonathan nodded in response.
Cars passed back and forth, their arrival being headed by the cylinder light that protruded from the front and their departure waved by the faded red of their brake light.
“I gotta take care of a few things. Give me a moment and then I’ll come back and talk some more.”
He didn’t care if he came back, he preferred he didn’t but he simply nodded. He looked across the window, at the brightly lit restaurant and a couple in their finest clothing entered through the dark stained doors. He had always meant to eat there sometime. The food was supposed to be expensive and one was expected to be dressed nicely and he had never eaten there before even though it was the best place in town to eat. Meredith went there with her friends and she raved about the steak. Maybe someday.
The waitress came shortly after. “Heard about Mary. I’m sorry.” She said. Her fingers fidgeted with the fingers of her other hands. She looked around not knowing what else to say.
“Thanks,” he said. He wondered how many times he had said “thanks” today. He had dealt with the passing of many people before. This was nothing new to him.
“Could I get you anything else?”
She smiled her sad smile the same one everyone at the funeral house gave him. She went to a different table where an elderly couple sat shoulder to shoulder. He could only see the back of their heads. There was something about seeing an elderly couple that always caused him to wonder if the two people still loved one another after so many years and if so, how did they manage to keep that love alive?
But he wasn’t even sure if he ever loved Meredith. Cared for her? Sure. Loved her?
The roast beef sandwich tasted exactly how it tasted each Sunday. The extra mayo covering up the undercooked roast beef while the onions, tomatoes, and the mustard masked the taste of the stale bread. He shook the fries to get rid of as much salt as he could so that on the plate there was a thin layer that resembled the pale snow on the windowsill which had grown since the last time he looked outside. He washed it all done with the wine. The wine was cheap, bought from the local liquor store on 17th street but for some reason, the cheapness of all the foods combined satisfied his taste. If he had gone to a different restaurant, one known for its quality he wouldn’t have been satisfied but it was odd, as if his taste buds adjusted to the standard of the incoming food, for knowing that the food served here was mediocre at best, it still filled him the same as a Michelin star restaurant. As he finished up the last piece of the sandwich Mr. Hesswood came back carrying two glasses of whiskey.
“Let’s have a drink for Meredith.” Mr. Hesswood said sitting the whiskey down in front of him. He didn’t want to but he couldn’t say no. It always irked him when he had to deviate from his normal schedule. Whiskey wasn’t the part of the program but today was a special day so he made an exception.
Mr. Hesswood raised his glass and said, “To a lovely wife and mother.”
The warmth from the hard liquor flowed from his throat all the way to the pits of his stomach. It had gotten quite dark outside, darker than before. He no longer could make out the falling snow without the aid of the street lamps. He checked his watched and saw that he was behind schedule. Normally he and Mr. Hesswood only exchanged pleasantries. To his despair, Mr. Hesswood was still seated beside him.
“You know Jon if there’s anything you need you can always ask me, my man.”
“Thank you.” He wiped the corner of his mouth with the napkin and laid it down over his plate.
“Anything. Don’t hesitate to call. In fact, why don’t we do lunch tomorrow afternoon.”
“I work tomorrow.” He looked over Mr. Hesswood’s shoulder again and caught Sarah’s eye as she picked up the empty plates from a table where a family of five had been sitting. Jonathan mouthed the word “bill please” and she nodded.
“Ah, they got you working so soon. That’s bad luck.”
“It seems so. Perhaps another time.”
“Anytime. Just come on by you know where to find me, heh.” He smiled
Sarah came over with the bill. He already knew it was going to be fifteen thirty-five and then a three dollar tip meant eighteen dollars and thirty-five cents. He reached into his wallet and took out exact change. He shook hands with Mr. Hesswood, telling him he had to go.
“Ah come here.” Mr. Hesswood wrapped his big arms around his slim figure and squeezed him tightly. He felt the tips of his ears go hot and he cleared his throat, as he patted the big man on his back. He was glad when Mr. Hesswood finally released him.
He heard his dog barking as he stood outside his front door fumbling through his keys. His front yard was covered with a white blanket. He opened the door and immediately something came flying at him, weeping and jumping on its hind legs, its white tail flailing around, hitting his legs as he shuffled inside and shut the door behind him.
“Okay, okay, calm down now, Ralphy sit. Sit. Sit.” but the dog didn’t listen. Inside it turned around and ran towards the cabinet where his food was kept.
After taking off his boots and jacket, he went and poured Ralphy’s food in his bowl and as the bowl touched the tiled floor of the kitchen, the dog’s snout was already inside it and he was vacuuming up his food.
He passed the spotted couch that his wife had picked when they first moved in together and climbed the wooden staircase to the second floor where his study room was. He fumbled through the set of keys again and found the matching one and opened the door. The smell of leather met him as the leather seats on one end of the room flanked the fireplace. On the other side was his table and three chairs, two for visitors that rarely came and one his own comfortable leather chair that over time had contorted to meet his figure. Beyond it was his leather-bound copies of textbooks and other books that were neatly placed by alphabetical order in shelves that his wife had bought. He sat down and the dog came in after him. Ralphy curled up in its usual spot on the rug in front of the unlit fireplace. He opened the drawer to his right and pulled out a briefcase which had his work documents. He replaced the ones that he didn’t need with the ones he needed and ordered them from the most important to the least. The most important being Mr. Benjamin’s tax returns, with whom he had a meeting early tomorrow morning. He made sure the three blue pens and two black pens were in their proper place and that he had exactly twenty business cards inside. He then briefed himself with Mr. Benjamin’s documents so that tomorrow the meeting could go as smoothly as possible. Mr. Benjamin was a property owner looking to purchase a strip of land. He required all his tax papers so that he could present them to the bank for a loan of twenty thousand dollars. It was a pretty simple case. The kind he dealt with on most occasions. Still, he prepared for he always did so. It was part of who he was.
Normally he heard his wife cooking at this hour. Today there was no sound. The house was dead. He had never thought his life would turn out this way. He closed the briefcase and stared at the empty fireplace. When he was little he didn’t think he would be alone in his fifties having wasted his life, for all the things he thought mattered, didn’t, and all the things he wished to do, he failed to do them. He had an excuse for everything, though. Each moment of his life he had an alternative reason for why it didn’t pan out the way he had wished. Now, with gray in his hair and an empty home, he had ridden that false wave and that wave was coming to an end and there was nothing he could do about it.
He thought of his granddaughter and smiled to himself. She was so beautiful.
Ralphy yawned and stretched its front legs and then the back ones. His tail wagging. He snapped out from his thought and his chair scratched the wooden floor as he stood up. He didn’t even know where those thoughts came from.
“Come on then,” he said to the dog who followed him out the door and back down the staircase.
He had an odd feeling that in some way he was trespassing in some other persons home. The house was in mourning and the still air and lifeless sounds made him carefully descend the stairs, making as little noise as possible in order to allow the wooden walls their moment of peace. His watch showed him that it was a quarter to eight and he made his way to the kitchen to prepare his green tea which, he had every night before bed. Usually with Meredith who also enjoyed the hot beverage especially in the winter time. As he crossed the living room something caught his eye. It was a picture frame whose glare had struck him. The nearby curtain was slightly parted so that a slither of light came in and lit a perfectly straight path from the window to the picture frame. He was pulled into the room which he hadn’t entered in years for the smiling face of his son called him.
He picked up the picture frame whose thick borders were decorated with little yellow and red flowers and inside the frame was his son, wearing bright green board shorts, smiling his toothless smile as he sat on his shoulders, his little hand waving towards the camera. Beside them was Mary. She wore a white sundress which was tied down at the waist with a leather belt. She was holding her sunhat with one hand and by the way her hair was waving out, the wind must have been something special. Her other hand waved at the camera just like Stephens did. The sand on which they stood, glittered in the picture for the sun was strong that day and could be seen behind them, lighting the waters. A wave must have just broken for the sand around them was dark and the water was far away. Beyond that, another wave was on its way.
It was Sunday then too. Prior to his surrender of life. Or maybe he had already given up. He could see the old man with the brim hat and Hawaiian shirt that took that picture for them. On his shoulders sat his last hope. His son, in years to come, to take the burden off of his back and take it on his own younger, stronger one. He believed he still loved Meredith then but he couldn’t be sure. He had yet to meet that woman at the bar of the Atlantic Hotel with whom he realized his love for his wife had long ago drifted away as the sand drifted into the ocean behind them. He never really loved her. She was just there and she was there for him to take care of. She served as an excuse for pretending to love his life. But he did love his son. Still loved him after his expectations of what his son would do for him never came about. He was glad that his son took a different path. Glad that he had kicked him out the house, all those years ago. Glad that his boy was different. Otherwise, he would be stuck too. The endless moving ground and all you do is lift your legs up and down as the ground underneath you keeps on moving and its the same thing, over and over again. He was going to ride it out.
He put the picture down and his son’s face lit up once more by the light sneaking in through the parted curtains. He saw what the picture was seated on. The cover had a thin layer of dust and he wiped a clean streak with his forefinger which, he cleaned on the side of his leg. He rolled the cover back and dust flew in the air and settled on the picture frames. After all the years of disuse, the stainless black top that protected the keys looked up at him. He lifted it up and it creaked. The dust had gotten in somehow and the white keys were coated with it and so were the black ones.
He sat down on the stool in front of the piano and squared his shoulders, resting his fingers on the white keys. He pressed his forefinger down and the house was quiet no more. The ring of the tune stayed in the air long after the key had settled in its original spot. Ralphy looked up with his head twisted sideways. His fingerprint clearly visible in the dust. He pressed the fingers of his right hand, one by one. First the thumb. Then the forefinger. Followed by the middle and behind it the ring and closing it out with the little finger. He pressed them over and over again and the tune played without rest, filling the mourning home with life. Now his other hand had joined in and the black keys with their heavier tone mixed in and blended in with the quicker and lighter tunes of the white ones and he played the songs his father had taught him, which somehow his old wrinkled fingers still remembered and he felt himself sitting straighter, he could feel the blood flowing from his heart to the tips of his fingers which were youthful once more as his arms moved on their own hitting keys which they knew would produce the right sound and he didn’t feel the mourning house or his companions death or the barking dog, as it barked at the foreign sound emanating from what it must have thought to be a dead piece of furniture and he didn’t feel his fingers pulsing, aching from the restless playing or his foot tapping on its own and the vein on his neck bulged as his trance continued, with his eyes closed, letting instincts take a hold of him, the same Instinct that was buried in him deep for they were of childhood days when life was still cast with white light and dreams seemed close enough to grasp in his hands and a trickle of sweat slid down the side of his face but he didn’t feel it but the song was coming to an end but he didn’t want to stop but he had to, for the end was necessary to the brief life of the tune for without the end it would be incomplete, without the end it would be unnatural, without the end it would be purposeless and the end came.
He stopped playing but the music continued in his head and for a moment he sat there with his eyes closed. There was dust in the air and dust on his black pants and all over the picture of his son and wife and the other framed pictures that decorated the top of the piano. The scene of the crime had his fingerprints all over it as the last ember of the tune died away and the house fell silent once more. The silence was worse now than it had been before. It was as if hope dying had a noise and that noise was quietness. He cleared his throat and looked over his shoulder, expecting to see an audience in black suits and bow ties and women in their finest gowns and for a second he thought he heard someone clapping but only his dogs lolling tongue met his sight and the empty room beyond it. He shook his head and quickly stood up causing the stool to screech backward and toppling over, alarming the dog, who jumped backed and barked at the swaying stool which aimlessly rolled from one side to the other, eventually coming to a rest. He put the keys back in their coffin as he shut the top forcefully and pulled the cover over them. The house mourned another life. He turned and picked up the stool and placed it by the piano and hurried out of the room. His dog followed.
Two clicks and the fire came alive. He placed the pot of water with the green leaves already inside it. As he waited for the water to boil he went over to the cupboard and grabbed an almond for the dog. He failed to get the dog to sit and after four or five tries, he just tossed the almond at Ralphy and it bounced off his snout as he tried to get it in the air. It was half past eight and he stared out of the frosted kitchen window and watched the snow fall. It fell lightly now and it would fall all night and in the morning he would have the shovel the driveway before leaving for work. He wished he had taken that time off now. The thought left him. He thought he heard someone applauding once more or maybe whistling in appreciation only to realize it was his teapot that whistled. He tore himself away from the mesmerizing grace of the peaceful snow and lifted the pot off the flames and the whistling slowly died off. He poured the green tea into his cup. He turned the stove off and placed the pot in the sink to wash later. He was already behind schedule. It was his fault. He had allowed deviation in his routine.
“Let’s go to bed.” He said to the dog. His green tea steaming leaving behind a trail for the dog to follow as the two headed back up the wooden stairs, this time he kept his eyes straight and didn’t look at the glare that still came from the picture frame. He placed the tea on his bedside table and made himself comfortable in the bed. Ralphy curled up by his feet. He took a sip of the tea and felt warm. He read each night for an hour before bed and today was no different. He opened up the thick leather-bound copy of Gibbon’s history of Rome. He had read it before many times and each year he read it again. It was like his bible. It reminded him how important continuity is in life and how hard and long the fall can be when one introduces a multitude of variants in one’s life. As he read, however, he found it difficult to keep his mind on the task at hand. The words of Gibbon that normally brought him so much joy for the words he read played in his mind a moving picture of events long past with men dressed in strange attire holding so dearly to what they have known their whole life but today those pictures didn’t move in his mind.
Instead, all he could see was his son on his shoulders and his wife beside him. Behind them the wave. The wave that had slowly risen, larger and faster until it reached its peak and then, began to descend, naturally without a mark of interference, it weakened and lessened and slowly came towards them, breaking and flowing on the already darkened sand, darkening it some more as it receded just behind their feet, pulling away the sand and pebbles with it into the ocean and becoming lost. The once strong, weakened. The once tall, broken. The once alive, dead. That was life and he knew he had ridden the wrong wave, his peak was the wrong one and now his wave had broken and was receding and he knew also that he could do nothing about it.
He finished his tea and crawled out of his bed to wash up. He turned the light off and he laid down on his bed, setting the time on the alarm for six in the morning so he could repeat his life until he was pulled all the way down to the ocean floor.