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Once Again

Once Again

Romy stubbed out his cigarette on the balustrade of the balcony of his small apartment and flicked the butt into the empty street below. He liked standing in the warm winter sunshine and resisted going back inside. He spent most of his time inside, so he enjoyed these moments of quiet reflection. Life had become a strain. His health had deteriorated and his job had become even more stifling and insufferable. Each day, day in and day out, he hammered heavy bolts into the hinges of car doors. It never changed. It paid well, but his brain had turned to mush. Of course, the mindlessness of his job allowed his imagination the freedom to soar through the mysteries of the universe. But even these flights of fancy had become wearisome. And his nights were generally taken up by his drinking and smoking, the two things that his doctor told him he needed to quit, the only two things that seemed to take the edge off his tedious life.

He was dying. He didn’t need the doctor to tell him this. And whatever was eating at his insides didn’t bother him, no, it was the living that he couldn’t stomach. As far as he was concerned, he couldn’t die soon enough. No one at work knew of his condition, which is the way he wanted it. He didn’t want anyone to know; it wouldn’t matter anyway. He wasn’t going in for any treatment, so no matter what anyone else said, it wouldn’t change his mind. He was through with all of it.

Besides, what did he have to live for? His life consisted of a meaningless series of unalterable conclusions, each one pounding him deeper and deeper into oblivion. He had fucked up his life beyond repair. His wife left him shortly after the youngest of his two daughters moved out. He never blamed her. He never gave her anything she couldn’t find with anyone else. Life seemed to unfold like this for him. One thing soon began to look like everything else, until finally nothing could be distinguished from anything else, and life became a drunken blur.

He coughed into the handkerchief that he’d begun carrying around with him, and lit another cigarette. He stood and looked down into the quiet Sunday street. People were in church, he guessed, or at home enjoying another cup of coffee before they threw themselves into their busy lives. Other people liked staying busy. He didn’t. He enjoyed sitting here in the sunshine and smoking his cigarettes, slowly dying.

He flicked the butt into the street, not thinking about it. He walked inside, poured out a glass of whiskey, walked back to the balcony, lit another cigarette, and stood, sipping whiskey and smoking. His life had been reduced to these two simple pleasures. And soon it would be over and he didn’t care. He smiled at the thought that one day he just wouldn’t show up for work, and his shift boss would ask his fellow workers if any of them had seen him, and no one would have, and the day would go on as usual, except they’d have to pull someone from another line to fill in for him to hammer bolts into the hinges of an endless line of car doors. He’d been pulled off his line once when another worker failed to show up for work. Removing tape from the inside of door panels was an even more tiresome job than the one he did. He’d been thrilled to discover his wasn’t the most boring job on the assembly line, but the next day, when he’d returned to his usual place in line, the thrill was quickly replaced by tedium.

He thought about his daughters; they were the only things that had turned out right in his life, but he didn’t get to see them much. One lived in California somewhere, he wasn’t sure where, and the other one lived in France. France, for god’s sake! How had she managed to end up there? He’d never visited her there. He wasn’t about to get on a plane and fly across the goddamned ocean. She called him from time to time, and he always enjoyed hearing from her. He worried about her, though. It was only natural to worry about his daughter, but she seemed to be taking care of herself. He was proud of her, proud of both of them. They had gone off on their own and made something of their lives. He remained behind, but he could still take some pleasure in knowing they were living exciting and adventurous lives. His life, on the other hand, was slowly and surely coming to its inevitable conclusion. And he was all right with this. He had the warm sunshine, and his whiskey and cigarettes. And he looked forward to hearing from his daughters.

He flicked the cigarette butt into the street and walked back inside and refilled his glass. He thought about a time in his life when it seemed filled with so much promise, but that’s probably true of everyone’s life. He didn’t guess his life was any different than anyone else’s. Oh, he guessed there must be people whose lives had turned out better than they ever could have imagined; they were the lucky ones. Or were they? If you had everything, then what could you reflect back on? He guessed he liked being able to reflect back on his life and kick himself in the butt for not doing more or being more successful. It all came to the same thing in the end. There wasn’t anyone keeping score, except in his own twisted mind. If you let go of the notion of winning and losing, then one life was as good as another. He wasn’t in any position to judge his own life, let alone anyone else’s.

Time and time again, he reminded himself that this was most likely a cop-out. But he didn’t care, because he was pretty sure that each life ended like every other life, the only difference being the number of people who attended the funeral. He laughed and lit another cigarette. Each cigarette he smoked represented a slice of his life, and each ended up as a butt in the street or litter in a trash can somewhere. He smiled at the irony of it. Sure, he could change his perspective, but why? What difference could it possibly make?

He finished his whiskey, tossed the cigarette butt into the street, and walked back into his apartment and put on a pair of shoes. He’d decided to go for a short walk in the park down the street. The fresh air would do him good, maybe even change his perspective. He wasn’t planning on a life-changing moment, but it was a warm November day, four days before Thanksgiving, and he wanted to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather.

As he prepared to walk downstairs and out into the bright November sunlight, the line from Moby Dick came to him: Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet . . . – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as possible.

He liked this, even though today was far from a “damp, drizzly November in his soul.” He liked the part about “involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses.” That’s rich, he thought. Melville had a gift with words. Involuntarily! He laughed out loud. Our whole lives are made up of involuntarily doing one thing or another. And “coffin warehouses,” for god’s sake! Whatever happened to coffin warehouses? He’d like to see the return of coffin warehouses. And funeral processions. No one even had a funeral anymore. Everyone was cremated now – or buried in shifty silence. We should bring back the long, somber funeral processions in which the casket is carried along the street on the shoulders of pallbearers, people pausing to pay homage to the dead. He had lived, after all, he had made a small mark, even though it wasn’t worthy of mention, the fact is he had lived once, and now he was dead. One should at least remove his hat as the deadman passed by.

 

He paused at the door to his apartment, turned around, took up his whiskey glass, and walked out onto the balcony. He lit another cigarette and blew smoke, along with his breath, out into the cold November sunlight, feeling a pang of despair at his loss of hope – and the loss of love. The whiskey warmed his spirits and it occurred to him that love is easiest found when one is alone. Of all the mysteries of the universe, love is the most illusory, and easily lost in the chaos and confusion of living, but easily found again when one is alone, when one has only his own soul to touch. The tragedy is that one can’t hold onto love for long, even when one finds it, because it is shy, and looks for the first opportunity to slip quietly back into the darkness.

He threw his cigarette butt into the street, drained his glass, walked back into the apartment, set his glass on the kitchen counter, filled a flask from the whiskey bottle, and walked out into the corridor that led to the stairs and downstairs and out into the street, walking in the direction of the park. In the early morning, the park was quiet, but he knew it would fill up later in the day as people spilled out of church or became bored with the dullness of their Sunday mornings. He noticed an old man sitting on a bench with his cane across his lap. The old man seemed to be staring out into space, talking to himself, and Romy wondered why he was alone.

As he approached the bench, he slowed to consider whether he should sit down next to the old man. The old man looked up at him and smiled, and his smile was so disarming that, without thinking, Romy sat down.

“Good morning,” the old man said.

“Good morning,” he said. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it? Especially for November.”

“It is, indeed,” the old man said. “I was just telling my wife that very thing. One never knows what to expect this time of year; I guess it can be said of any time of the year. The longer I live, the less surprised I become at sudden changes in weather, or the less surprised I become at sudden changes in anything.” The old man held out his hand. “My name is George.”

“It’s nice to meet you, George,” he said, shaking his hand. “Mine is Romy.”

“Romy,” George said. “That’s an unusual name. Is it short for something?”

“Not really,” Romy told him. “I’m not sure where it comes from. Like most names, I guess, I never asked about it when I was young. Before I had the chance to realize it was unusual, I had been called Romy so long it seemed quite natural to me.”

“Yes, I suppose that is the case with most names,” George said. “We become quite used to them before we think about what they mean, or where they come from. Now, my name came from my grandfather on my father’s side. My father’s name, on the other hand, was Victor. I never asked my father why he named me George, after his father. Looking back on it now, I should have asked him. But there probably wasn’t any reason. Names are picked out of thin air, I think.”

“I agree,” Romy said. “Life consists of a series of inexplicable, unrelated incidents.”

“I think you’re right,” George said. “Even though everything seems to follow some logical progression at the time, in retrospect we begin to understand how unrelated the events that make up our lives really are. A series of coincidences. What brings you out so early on a Sunday morning?”

“Nothing really,” Romy said, offering the pack of cigarettes to George.

“Oh, no thank you,” George said, patting Romy’s knee. “It’s a pleasure I had to give up a long, long time ago.” Romy lit a cigarette and blew the smoke into the air away from George.

“I hope you don’t mind if I smoke,” Romy said.

“Oh, no, not at all,” George said. “I can still enjoy the aroma.” Romy pulled the flask from the inside pocket of his overcoat and offered it to George.

“Now that is a pleasure I haven’t given up altogether,” George said, taking the flask from Romy. He unscrewed the cap and took a long drink of the whiskey that warmed his chest and then his belly. “Ah, that’s good. When my wife was alive, she frowned on my drinking, but I was able to sneak in a drink now and then.” George smiled at the memory of his wife. “I’ve always believed that a touch of whiskey now and then was good for the heart.” He handed the flask back to Romy.

“Well, I’m no doctor, but I know that it certainly hasn’t hurt my heart,” Romy said, tipping the flask toward George before taking a long pull of the whiskey. “In fact, my heart has been so ripped and torn by the women in my life that whiskey has been my only salvation. You know, George, I have come to realize that love is a dying thing, and it’ll kill you quicker than anything else. But I thought you said that you were just telling your wife how beautiful the day was?”

“Oh, it’s just a thing with me, even though she’s no longer with me, I talk to her every day,” George said, refusing the flask that Romy offered. “I was in love with my wife for sixty-three years; I’m still in love with her, and there isn’t an hour in the day when I don’t think about her. I can’t imagine my life without her. We came here often, this was one of our favorite places.”

“I’m sorry to hear she’s gone,” Romy said. He took another long pull from the flask.

“She died a year ago – on Thanksgiving,” George said. “I held her hand right up until the final moment. She held on as long as she could. Her forehead was still warm when I kissed her and told her goodbye for the last time. I take that back, it wasn’t the last time; I kissed her forehead in the funeral home before she was cremated, but that time it was cold, and I knew then she really was gone. I held onto the memory of that last kiss in the hospital for a long time. Even now, when I think about her, I think about the hospital, after she’d lapsed into a coma from the heart attack. She didn’t suffer, they told me. But she was already gone; the light had gone out of her eyes; she had such a brightness in her eyes before, the deepest, bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. When I looked into her eyes, I knew she wasn’t there anymore. Still, it was hard to choose to take her off the respirator. But she needed to go. She wouldn’t have wanted to live like that.” Romy looked over at George, who seemed to have drifted off.

“That’s tough,” Romy told him. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” George said. “I’ll never get over her, and I like remembering her. I just wish it wasn’t from the hospital. But that’s how life unfolds sometimes. We can’t always pick and choose our memories.”

“That’s for sure,” Romy agreed. “My wife left me when I was at work, just packed a couple of bags and left; she didn’t even leave a note. I guess I wasn’t too surprised, but it still hurt. I should have been a better husband, but I always thought I was doing the best I could. I guess we can always do better.”

“Well, you shouldn’t beat yourself up too much,” George told him. “Life gets busy, and we can’t always see what’s most important, even when it’s right in front of us. In fact, it’s usually what’s right in front of us that we see last because we’re always staring off into the distance. It’s human nature. And we don’t realize it until we’ve lost what’s most important to us. I was lucky, Ella always kept me grounded. She’d never let me drift off too far.”

“Yeah, you were lucky,” Romy said. “But it must be hard on you now, to have been so much in love with one woman, and now to have to go on living without her.”

“I don’t think of it that way,” George told him. “She’s still with me, every day. Oh sure, I miss holding her hand, and sleeping next to her, I miss her laughter, and her warm smile, and sharing the little things that we shared, the little things that were our secrets.” George looked over at Romy. “You know, you kind of get used to having someone around, even when sometimes you need to be alone to collect your thoughts. During all those years with Ella, though, I never wanted to be alone; in fact, whenever I was alone, I always longed to be with her. Oh, it wasn’t that we never had our disagreements, because we did. It isn’t always easy living with someone else. But I wouldn’t trade the sixty-three years I spent with Ella for anything else in the world.”

“Hell, I barely made it twenty years with Karen,” Romy told the old man. “It seemed as if once the girls moved out, Karen changed; she became distant somehow. Whenever I tried to talk to her, she was quick to change the subject. She never wanted to hear about my day at work; it began to annoy her; everything I did annoyed her. She needed something else, I guess. I’m not sure what, but it was something that I couldn’t give her. Maybe it was something that I hadn’t ever given her. She was a good mother, and then when she no longer needed to be a full-time mother, she became something else. Until one day she just left. She’d left me a long time before that, I guess. But that day, I’ll never forget. I came home from work and she wasn’t there. Only the things she didn’t take with her. This is what I was left with, all the things she no longer needed, and I was one of those things.”

“You can’t dwell on the past,” George told Romy. “It just becomes too painful. Do you think I could have another drink?”

“Absolutely,” Romy told him, handing him the flask. Romy lit another cigarette, looking out at the few people who had begun gathering along the path around the park, mostly couples walking side by side, talking and laughing. It is natural to want to be with someone else, Romy thought.

Romy felt the warmth of the sun on his face as it crept higher in the sky; it was unusually warm for November, especially so close to Thanksgiving. He never thought about holidays much anymore; they’d mostly become nuisances filled with so much phony good cheer and laughter. But maybe he wasn’t being fair. It’s possible that holidays brought people together, and laughter and pleasure naturally followed. For him it only meant a couple of days break from work. And a couple more days of dealing with his loneliness. He didn’t want to be alone, but it just worked out that way. George was alone, too. George handed the flask back to Romy, and Romy took a drink, letting the whiskey warm his insides. He looked over at George.

“Do you have plans for Thanksgiving?” Romy asked the old man.

“It will be hard for me this year,” George told him. “I’m not sure what I’ll do; I haven’t thought about it much.”

“Yeah, holidays suck for those of us who are alone,” Romy said. “I never get too excited about the holidays anymore. I try to just get through them the best I can; I’m always relieved when they’re over, to be honest with you. I never get to see my daughters because they live so far away. I guess I could try to get out to California to see my oldest daughter, Chelsea. She lives somewhere in the Bay Area, I’m not sure where exactly. But I could find out, that’s no excuse for not going to see her. My other daughter, Alicia, lives somewhere in France, somewhere near Paris, I think. France, can you believe it? She’s a musician; she went to study music in Paris and never left. I’m very proud of them.”

“You must be,” George told him. “I think that’s wonderful.”

“It wasn’t anything that I did, I can tell you that,” Romy said. “I think they got to where they are in spite of me. Karen had a lot to do with it. In so many ways, she was driven; and she came from a very musical background. Both of her parents were musicians. I often told her it was too bad that she’d given up music; she’d tell me that music took time, and she just didn’t have time for it anymore. Her mother raised seven kids and still managed to play in the symphony orchestra. Whenever I reminded her of this, Karen would get angry at me, telling me the only reason her mother was able to play in the symphony was because Karen had pretty much raised her brothers. She’d had to work like a dog so that her mother could go off and play her music. Karen didn’t have much of a childhood since she was the only daughter. She told me that her daughters weren’t ever going to be subjected to the same inequalities. They’d live the lives they chose, not the lives someone else chose for them. She’d be damned if they’d ever have to give up their lives for some man. And neither of them got married; probably never will. I think Karen ruined that for them. But they’re probably better off single.”

“In any case, it sounds as if they are very successful. I hope they are happy,” George said.

“Yeah, me too,” Romy said, taking another long pull from the flask. He threw away his cigarette butt and lit another one. “I smoke too fuckin’ much. It’s a nasty habit, but what else do I have?”

“It sounds as if you have a lot to be thankful for,” George said. “Ella and I never had any children. We wanted them very badly, but it just never happened. It wasn’t as if we didn’t try because we tried all the time, if you know what I mean.” George smiled over at Romy, tapping him on the knee.

“I can’t even say that about my marriage,” Romy said. “After Alicia was born, Karen stopped sleeping with me. She told me that she just didn’t feel like it anymore. I asked her what in the hell that meant? How can you just lose your desire for sex? It didn’t make any sense to me, but it wasn’t my choice. I just had to live with it. But I didn’t like it, you can be sure of that, and I told her that as often as I could. She just refused to talk about it. It was then, I guess, that I began to realize our marriage was headed for a bad end. I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did. But still, I missed her after she left. Can you believe that?”

“I can,” George said. “We get used to certain things, and when those things are no longer around, we have to adjust; the trouble is that we don’t adjust very well. Man isn’t equipped for emotional change. He can get used to freezing temperatures, and lack of sleep and food, all sorts of deprivations, but he just doesn’t adapt well to emotional upheaval.”

“Upheaval is right,” Romy said. “She sure as hell up and left me, and left a whole lot of disorder behind; the fuckin’ bitch!”

“Now, you shouldn’t blame your wife, I’m sure there were reasons behind her needing to leave,” George said, trying to soothe Romy. “One can never say for certain what goes on with someone else. We just can’t get inside their heads – or hearts. And women especially go through all sorts of hormonal changes. It isn’t the same for a man.”

“Hormones had nothing to do with it,” Romy said. “She left because she wanted to punish me. For some reason, she felt as if I’d done something wrong and she wanted to impose her own justice. She wanted me to suffer. But I’m not going to give her the pleasure. I might be alone, but I’m not suffering; I’m glad she’s gone; I’m better off.”

“It’s probably healthier to assume this attitude, whether you actually believe it or not,” George said.

“I do believe it,” Romy said.

“I know you do,” George agreed. “Belief is a funny thing; we can convince ourselves of the craziest notions. Like aliens from outer space. Do they exist? Who knows? But have they really visited Earth? Not likely. But we can convince ourselves they have, and even convince ourselves that they have plans for us. What could they possibly have planned for our future? If they took the effort to get here in the first place, they no doubt already had something in mind. But nothing’s come of it. I guess one explanation is that they came, and, sorely disappointed in what they saw, returned to wherever they came from and, as quickly as possible, forgot all about us.”

“Yeah, I can buy that explanation,” Romy agreed. “What could anyone find interesting or inspirational about us? We are a lost tribe.”

Romy suddenly felt a chill and looked over at George, who seemed quite content. But it seemed to Romy that the temperature had suddenly dropped. He pulled up the collar of his coat. “It seems colder,” Romy said. George looked over at Romy and then looked out at the growing number of people walking along the path around the park. George thought about Ella, and he thought about death and what it would be like. He wasn’t afraid of dying. He wanted it to come, and to come quickly and painlessly. He would be relieved to be done with this life.

Romy lit another cigarette, and George thought that Romy did smoke too much. But it was his life. We choose our own paths, he thought. Or do we? It was a question that always puzzled him, but he never thought about it for long. Some things can’t be easily explained, or understood, so he didn’t dwell on them. Finally, he said to Romy, “I probably should be getting back; they’ll be serving lunch soon.”

“Do you live close by?” Romy asked him.

“Yes, just a block away,” George said. “I live at the Senior Housing Community; it is warm and safe and the food is tolerable. I don’t mind it at all.”

“I’ll walk with you,” Romy suggested.

“That’s not necessary,” George told him as he stood up. He steadied himself with his cane.

“I don’t mind. I don’t have any plans; a short walk will do me good,” Romy insisted.

They walked slowly, George shuffling along. Romy smoked, blowing smoke into the cold air. It suddenly occurred to Romy that he didn’t like Sundays. It was sad, but he didn’t really like anything.

They reached the front door of the Senior Housing Community, and Romy held the door open for George and accompanied him inside. It was warm. George shook Romy’s hand and told him that he’d enjoyed their conversation.

“I’ll be OK from here,” he said. “I live just down the hallway on the first floor.”

Romy smiled and told George that it had been a pleasure and he hoped he’d run into him again. George nodded, turned, and walked through the lobby and disappeared down the hallway. Romy stood in the warmth of the lobby for a few minutes before leaving. He walked briskly back toward his apartment building. The rest of the day would be a struggle for him. He pulled the flask from his pocket and took a long drink, thinking that while this might help in the short term, it certainly wouldn’t bring him any peace in the long term. He lit another cigarette. His life was measured in long pulls of smoke and  whiskey.

He went upstairs to his apartment and out onto the balcony and stood at the balustrade and looked down into the empty street. If he leaned as far out as he could without toppling over the balustrade, he could see the park. He thought about returning to the park, but then he thought, what was the point? His answer to everything: What was the point? He was struggling more and more with making any sense of his life. He had pretty much messed up everything in his life, how was he ever going to turn it around? What had he to look forward to? It occurred to him that he was just as lonely as George, only forty years younger. How was he going to get through the next forty years of his life? He saw no way out.

 

Monday was a typical Monday at the plant, everyone talking about his weekend as if it were some earth shattering event. Romy didn’t care to hear about what everyone else did over the weekend, it all came to the same thing: they were back here on Monday, in the same dead-end job that they’d left on Friday. And it all repeated itself over and over again. Who was fooling anyone else? But, Romy thought, if they wanted to believe their lives had meaning who was he to shatter their illusions? On the other hand, he had every right to speak his mind. They were fools and should be reminded of the meaninglessness of their lives. But it wasn’t his responsibility. No, he had his own demons to wrestle with. At least, he could take some comfort in the fact that because of Thanksgiving it would be a short work week. But that also meant he had to get through four days off.

He should go somewhere. But where? Where would he go? He didn’t have time to go out to California. Besides, Chelsea probably already had plans. Why wouldn’t she? Everyone had plans, right?

At the end of the day, several of the men from the plant were going to meet down at Rounder’s Bar. Romy decided to join them. He really didn’t like any of the guys he worked with at the plant, but the noise and confusion at Rounder’s were a welcome diversion from the solitude of his apartment. It was senseless chatter, which was OK by Romy. They’d talk about football and cars and hunting, though none of them played football or worked on their cars or even hunted. He didn’t hunt either, but he didn’t talk about it as if he did. He wondered what it would have been like to have lived in a time when it was necessary to hunt for one’s survival. Maybe his life would have had meaning then. Now, everything is too easy. We simply stop at the grocery store and buy whatever we need and carry it home. Too easy. We have become dull and unimaginative, and as human beings are out of touch with nature. What is to become of us? We will farm ourselves out of existence. That’s it, farming will kill us. Man’s own resourcefulness will do him in. How ironic is that?

The bar was packed. Rounder’s Bar opened not long after the automobile plant first began operations in the early nineteen fifties. The founder, Billy Rounder, has been dead for over twenty years, but his sons took over, and now their sons work there. Over the years, the décor has changed to match current times. At least, that’s what the patrons have been led to believe, when, in fact, all Rounder’s ever did was install big screen TVs to draw in more people during football season. Romy crowded his way to the bar and was lucky enough to find an empty stool. He ordered a whiskey and right away stuck an unlit cigarette in his mouth, cussing the “no smoking” signs. He was puzzled by the conversation among the men. What was it with these guys? At work, they talked about anything but work, but now, when they were away from work, they talked about nothing but work. Men really are stupid and unimaginative.

He sipped his whiskey quietly, looking around at the jostling crowd, at all the stupid, smiling faces. He was reminded of high school, and how the stupidest, most unimaginative kid in class was always the most popular, as if the class clown, like the jester in a Shakespeare play, knew something everyone else didn’t. And maybe the class clown did know something everyone else didn’t. Romy knew one thing for sure: the education system was a waste of everyone’s time, the students, the teachers, the parents, even the administrators. It was designed to kill creativity and imagination. Why would it want to turn all those unique and creative minds into one heap of sludge?

His high school freshman English teacher had it right when, on the first day of class, he’d told them they’d be doing him and themselves a huge favor if they’d just jump out the fifth story window now. Romy should have done it. But it wasn’t too late, he thought. And that’s when it occurred to him he didn’t want to be around for another Thanksgiving. He had nothing to be thankful for. He looked around at all the stupid faces, strengthening his resolve. Nothing was going to change, he didn’t care how many TVs Rounder’s installed. It was just more noise.

By Wednesday night, his plan to end his life had become more definite. He only had one thing he wanted to do before he stuck the gun into his mouth, and that was to say goodbye to George. He wasn’t sure why, but it gave his life a little bit of meaning. He didn’t want to leave a completely meaningless life behind; no, he wanted at least one person to think about him after he was gone. He had to believe that George, as he looked out on the people walking aimlessly along the path around the park, before turning his attention back to his wife, would smile at the memory of those few hours they’d spent together on the park bench. If nothing else, George was loyal, and there was something to be said for loyalty.

On Thanksgiving morning, Romy was up early, standing on his balcony with a cigarette and glass of whiskey. The whiskey warmed him against the chilly November morning. The street was empty. People were either traveling or home getting ready for their Thanksgiving festivities. He hoped they had something to be thankful for. He was sorry he didn’t.

Should he call Chelsea? No, it was too early, and, besides, what would he say? Maybe he should try calling Alicia. He had always liked Alicia. She was determined to remain different, even if it meant a life of struggle and turmoil. Maybe that is what it took to keep the spark alive, a fierce creative independence, a loyalty to one’s own imagination, and the utter turning away from what everyone else swallowed so greedily, convinced it was a spoonful of pleasure. She would stay true to herself, he didn’t need to worry about her. His suicide wouldn’t weaken her loyalty to her own wild imagination. If that’s what her father needed to do, good for him, she would tell herself.  She would stay loyal. It isn’t easy, but it’s the only way.

He went into the bedroom, put on a heavy sweater and coat, and took his glass of whiskey out onto the balcony and lit another cigarette. He drank the whiskey slowly, and with each sip, his resolve was heightened. He thought about Chelsea and Alicia – and even Karen. He wondered what Karen was up to. He hadn’t talked to her since the divorce three years ago. He’d heard that she’d moved back to Minnesota. On those rare occasions when he talked to his daughters, they never talked about their mother. He wondered if she was in a relationship. It didn’t really matter; it really didn’t help his situation to think about her at all. Their divorce had been angry and bitter. It’s sad, but after twenty years of marriage, neither one of them could come up with one nice thing to say about  the other. How had such bitterness overtaken them? It happens, he guessed.

When he’d finished the whiskey, he stubbed out his cigarette and threw the butt into the street. He left the apartment and walked downstairs, through the lobby and out into the street. He walked briskly toward the Senior Living Community, his breath stirring up the cold air. He thought about lighting another cigarette, but he was cold and didn’t want to stop. He went through the front doors of the building where he’d left George four days before and walked to the front desk. The attendant didn’t seem to know who he was talking about when he’d asked her where he might find George.

“You know, George, a little man in his eighties, walks with a cane,” he said.

“I’m sorry, but that doesn’t ring a bell,” she said.

“I don’t understand,” Romy said. “How many George’s could you have?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have anyone named George,” she told Romy.

“What do you mean you don’t have anyone named George?” he asked. “I dropped him off here last Sunday; he lives here.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but no one who fits your description lives here; and we don’t have any George living here.”

“May I look around?” Romy asked her.

“You must sign in first, and wear a visitor’s badge,” she informed Romy. She held out a form for him to fill out and sign, and then handed him a visitor’s badge to pin to the lapel of his coat. After filling out the information and signing the form, he walked down the hallway into which George had disappeared last Sunday. The hallway was lined with offices and storage rooms. Half-way down the main hallway, Romy looked to his left down another hallway with numbered rooms on both sides. Romy assumed these were residents’ rooms, but he saw no one. He continued down the main hallway until he saw the dining area through double doors. He walked inside. Two old women sat at a table playing cards and drinking coffee. He asked them if they knew George. They looked at each other, trying to come up with someone who fit George’s description. They shook their heads. “I can’t think of anyone,” one of them told Romy. “Has he just moved in?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Romy told her. “I’m pretty sure he’s been here for at least a year. His wife died a year ago, and I think he moved in shortly after she died.”

“I’m sorry,” she told Romy, shaking her head. Romy looked around. He didn’t understand, the whole thing seemed unreal. He was sure he’d dropped George off here last Sunday. George couldn’t have just disappeared – not in four days. He walked to the kitchen and asked two men in white chef coats about George. They looked at each other and shook their heads. “Sorry, man,” the younger of the two answered. “Can’t help you. There’s another old folk’s home on 3rd Avenue. Maybe he’s there.”

“No, I brought him here,” Romy told them. “Last Sunday. He told me this is where he lived.”

“Sorry, can’t be of any help to you,” the young man said, returning to his Thanksgiving meal preparations.

Romy thanked them and left the dining area. He walked back to the lobby and left without returning the visitor’s badge. He remembered it after he’d already walked half a block, turned around and returned to the apartment complex. He laughed as he returned the badge to the attendant, telling her he was sorry. She smiled and told him it happens all the time, even though he didn’t believe her. He left, and once outside, lit a cigarette before heading back toward his apartment complex. He blew the smoke into the cold morning air. He walked past the entrance to his apartment building and headed in the direction of the park. Maybe he’d find George there. The bench they’d shared four days ago was empty. Romy walked along the path that wound through the park but saw no sign of George.

He stopped when he got back to the bench and sat down and smoked another cigarette. He wished he’d brought his flask. It was still early, but he didn’t feel like sitting here all day. He was beginning to believe he’d imagined George. If he were going to imagine someone, why an old man? Maybe someone was trying to tell him something.

City workers were stringing Christmas lights in the trees in the park. Romy watched absently. He was sitting quietly, in an utter state of bewilderment, when an old woman approached the bench. She hesitated for a minute in front of the bench before she sat down next to Romy. He paid her no attention. She stared at him for a long time before finally patting his knee. Romy looked over at her.

“Hello, young man,” she said. She had a brilliant smile and Romy looked into her deep blue eyes sparkling in the morning sunlight. “You seem to be lost in thought.” He was mesmerized by her deep blue eyes; he’d never seen eyes that were so captivating before.

“Oh, good morning,” he said, finally. “Lost in thought? Yes, I guess so. Something strange has just happened to me that I’m having a hard time grasping.”

“Oh, and what is that, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I was here last Sunday, on this very bench, where I’d met an old man, a very kind, gentle man. We talked for over two hours, and then I walked him back to the apartment building where he told me he lived. It’s not far from here, the Senior Housing Community just down the street. But when I went to see him there today, no one seemed to know anything about him. I was told he doesn’t even live there. I don’t understand.”

“That’s where I live,” the blue-eyed woman told Romy. “Maybe I can help you out. What is his name?”

“George. He was probably in his eighties, small, and he walked with a slight limp with the aid of a cane.”

The old, blue-eyed woman looked at Romy for a long time, as if she hadn’t quite understood what he’d said.

“George?” she asked.

“Yes, do you know him?”

“It was my husband’s name,” she told him.

Romy looked at her, taking a cigarette from the pack he’d pulled from the inside pocket of his jacket. He was about to light it when it occurred to him that the blue-eyed woman might object, and fumbling, he returned the cigarette to the pack. Noticing his embarrassment, she patted his knee and told him she didn’t mind if he smoked.

“George used to smoke,” she said. “I was finally able to convince him to quit; he died a year later.” She paused, remembering. “I shouldn’t have asked him to quit; we have so few pleasures in life. But that was a long time ago.” She laughed. “It’s funny, but George had a limp, had it ever since he was a young man when he fell from the running board of his brother’s car and was run over. But he refused to use his cane, except around the house. He was so stubborn. He only started using it just before he died. A beautiful cane he’d gotten from his grandfather, who also limped as a result of a childhood injury and who also refused to use the cane. Men, I swear. And they say women are vain.”

Romy was thinking, trying to put things in some order. The coincidences began to pile up. “It’s funny that you say that,” he said. “George, the George I met here last Sunday, told me he used to smoke, but his wife had asked him to quit, so he did.” The old woman with blue eyes studied Romy.

“What else did he tell you?” she asked.

“Nothing much,” Romy told her. “He loved his wife very much. Ella, that was her name. He adored her, and his eyes lit up whenever he talked about her. He was with her right up until the end. She died quietly in her sleep. In the hospital.” The blue-eyed woman continued to study Romy, trying to comprehend what he was saying.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“What doesn’t make sense?” Romy asked.

“What you’re telling me,” she said. “None of it makes sense.”

“But it’s just what George told me,” he said. “I’m not making it up.”

“No, no, I don’t think that at all,” she said. “I’m Ella. My name is Ella. George and I used to come here all the time, to this very bench. It was one of our favorite places.” Romy looked at her.

“That’s exactly what George told me, that he and Ella used to sit on this bench, that it was one of their favorite places in the world.”

“But that’s impossible,” Ella said. “George has been dead for twenty years.” Ella and Romy sat in silence for several minutes, neither of them knowing how to proceed. Romy lit a cigarette. He was trying to understand what was happening. Was he dreaming? He looked over at Ella; tears streamed down her cheeks. She was a beautiful woman, he thought. He imagined how beautiful she must have been twenty years ago. He understood why George had loved her so deeply. If George had been dead for twenty years, who had he talked to Sunday? Who had he accompanied back to the apartment building? None of it made any sense.

“I talk to George every day,” Ella said, finally. “And today I came here to be with him. This place was very special to us, Thanksgiving was very special. Even though we never had children, we always had each other, and we were both thankful for that. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about George and tell him about my day. It keeps me going; it gives me something to look forward to. George was always so gentle and understanding. He never raised his voice to me, never got angry. Sometimes I wished he’d just blow up, but he never did.” Ella smiled through her tears. She reached over and patted Romy on the knee. “I’m sorry, young man, I never caught your name.”

“Romy,” he told her. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Yes, it is a pleasure,” Ella said. “I’d like to stay a while longer, but I really should be getting back. They always have such a nice meal on Thanksgiving; I wouldn’t want to miss it.”

“Of course,” Romy said. “Would you mind if I walked with you?”

“I’d be honored,” she told Romy.

They walked slowly, arm in arm, back to the apartment building, along the same route that he’d traveled just four days before with George. Inside the warm lobby, he told Ella goodbye. She smiled and reached up and kissed his cheek and he felt her warm tears against his cheek. She walked slowly but steadily through the lobby and disappeared down the hallway on her way to the cafeteria. Loneliness pressed in on him as he thought about Karen – and Chelsea and Alicia. He hadn’t been a very good husband – or father. He should have done things differently. Through forty-three years of marriage, and even through twenty years of death, George and Ella kept their love alive. It wasn’t too late for him. It is never too late, he knew this now. After one last look around, he turned and walked out, walking briskly back to his own apartment, but along the way he thought about Ella and George, and smiled when he asked himself: What would Ella tell George today?

 

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