Bill Fehlner sends this touching story, written this spring at the Writer’s Circle at St. Paul’s Centre for Creative Living.
The old man sat at the worn wood kitchen table. He could have been a carving, although there was an occasional blink and a slight tremor in his left hand. The kitchen itself seemed preserved – as if something had happened and time had almost stopped. A plate, an empty water glass, and one knife were sitting on the counter between stove and sink; a bread bag with a single crust lay by a jar of peanut butter.
The top of the table was in stark contrast to the kitchen counter. There were no crumbs or dust, just three objects, carefully aligned in a precise row before the old man. On the left was a fifty dollar bill, in the centre a small piece of paper with a handwritten list, and on the right a faded photograph of a woman, quite possibly in her thirties.
A neighbour appeared at the kitchen door. He paused a moment, and as he scanned the room the creases on his forehead seemed to deepen. He took a deep, quiet breath as he stepped into the kitchen. “Hi James. That sure is a good photo of your wife.” James nodded slightly, acknowledging the presence of his neighbour, Denis. James picked up the list and the fifty dollar bill and handed them to Denis without a word.
“Bread, peanut butter, and whisky. The usual. I’ll pick these up for you later this morning.” Denis waited for a response. James reached out, slid the picture of his wife to a spot directly in front of him, and smiled for a moment. The smile faded as he looked up “That’s all I need this week. Thanks for stopping by.”
After Denis had stepped out the kitchen door, James slowly rose to his feet, shuffled over to the counter and filled the water glass from the tap. He returned to the table with his water and looked intensely at the picture of his wife. He was just reaching into his jacket pocket for a small vial of pills when Denis appeared at the door again. James froze for a moment, then his face tightened up. Anger was written all over it. “I told you I had what I needed. Why are you interrupting me?”
Denis only said, “When I was putting the fifty in my wallet, I noticed a picture.” He reached in his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and carefully removed a somewhat wrinkled snapshot. He put it on the kitchen table next to the other picture. James looked down to see himself as a much younger man. Not only younger, but with a broad smile. James looked up at Denis, the anger replaced by deep sadness. “Those days have passed. I can’t turn the clock back.”
Denis went over to the corner of the kitchen, brushed a thick layer of dust off the only other chair in the room, and brought it over to the table. He sat down right across from James. “Take a good look at me. I’m not the man I was back then either.”
At first James just stared at Denis. It was true, the man in front of him had lost most of his hair; he never had got enough money together to replace that broken front tooth; and the left shoulder he damaged in a skiing accident always seemed an inch lower than the other. Then the anger flowed back. James snapped out “I don’t need your pity or your meddling!”
Denis responded softly “But I need your presence.” Denis pulled one more photo from his wallet and put it in front of James. There were four people standing at the foot of a ski slope. James recognized himself, his wife and Denis. James looked up at Denis with a puzzled look. “This was a long time ago. Who is that standing by you?”
“The woman I was planning to marry. You only met her a couple of times. Shortly after this photo was taken, she was killed in a hit and run accident.”
James looked more closely at the photo. Some vague memories stirred but that was all. James said, “I always wondered why you lived alone for so long.” Denis reached out and gripped James’ hand. “She was special. It took a long time to embrace life again.” Denis pushed his chair back, stood up and said “I’ll go buy those things now. My meddling is done.”
As Denis started to walk through the door, James called out “Just a moment, there is one other thing you could do for me.” James slowly drew his hand out of his pocket, stood up and walked over to Denis. “Here, take these old heart meds of my wife and drop them at the drug store for disposal. I won’t be needing them anymore.”