by Tom Gumbert
“Best of luck, Carl,” Randy says extending his trembling hand, his gaze falling short of my eyes.
Looking directly into his eyes, I grasp his hand as firmly as my arthritis will allow, and pump once. This is something my father taught me. Men of good character look others in the eye and give a firm handshake. “Thanks, Randy. I know this was just business. No hard feelings,” I lie in a soft and steady voice.
I drive a few blocks before gasping for air, clutching at my chest, trying to relieve the weight of my failure. Thirty of my best years and I’m cast away like scrap. My eyes blur, tears spill onto my cheek before I can catch them. Damn. Sixty years old and reduced to a sniveling wimp. Man up. At the traffic light, I wipe my face with a handkerchief and blow my nose. I take a deep breath and exhale.
The blare of the horn from the car behind me rudely informs me that the light has changed. I give a quick wave in the mirror, receiving a one finger salute in response. Class. Forget texting, makeup application or talking on cell phones, trying to get one’s mind around something like this is the ultimate distracted driving.
I’m trying to imagine the conversation with Rose, and shake my head. She’s a worrier—spent most of our life together, the better part of four decades, worrying about me. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve told her that I’ll be okay. For the next few miles I practice in my mind before deciding that the conversation will work itself out, it always does. Rose is a generous and forgiving partner. Relax…enjoy the ride.
The drive home is thirty minutes through the beautiful scenery of southwest Ohio. Gently winding highway along the banks of the Ohio River, so calm today you would think it was a lake, the sunlight glimmering off its surface. Hills rise majestically on either side, the remaining leaves on the trees vibrant red and gold. I hum a tune from my youth, unable to recall the exact lyrics. Something about how the night moves. Was it Seger?
I roll up to the mailbox at the bottom of the hill. Three medical bills, a letter from the insurance company and another from the Sheriff, with Final Notice printed in large block letters. I jam them into the glove box. Not now.
If she’s surprised to see me home at this hour, she doesn’t let on. “It’s a beautiful day,” I tell her. “Perfect day for a trip to a park,” I suggest. “I’ll make us a thermos and then we can go.” The house is quiet, except for the sound of the coffee maker and I’m thankful she doesn’t force me to lie about my intentions.
When the coffee finishes I pour it into the thermos, pick Rose up and press her to my side. I’m careful with each step as we make our way out of the house and to the car. Gently, I slip the seatbelt around her, give her a smile and a quick pat before starting the car.
School has let out and the park fills with children, eager to accept the gift of the warm afternoon sun on a late autumn day. Young mothers converse on a bench near a playground as children frolic, climbing and chasing each other, yelling and laughing as they do. Rose and I watch silently from the car. The children conjure memories of when Rose and I were a young couple, coming to the park to watch the children play, imagining the day we would bring our own. I smile at the recollection and slip my hand onto Rose’s neck.
One of the mothers looks in my direction, says something to the woman next to her who also looks back before both women get to their feet and leave.
“Do you remember how happy we were?” I ask Rose. She doesn’t reply. I wonder if she’s remembering the happy times, or thinking of when the doctors told us that we would never have children, reliving the devastation. Now, like then, words of comfort fail me. I worried about Rose and she worried about me. I suggested we could adopt, but she said that if God didn’t want us to be parents well then, we shouldn’t be parents. Instead, she taught school and I did my best to move on.
After that, once or twice a year, Rose would ask me to bring her to the park, and we’d sit in silence for a few hours, watching the children play, holding hands and thinking about what could have been.
I came here for a reason and I summon the courage to get to it. “Rose, honey,” I begin, “I have some news. I don’t want you to worry, but you deserve to know.” I sigh, look away and search for the words to continue. She sits silently waiting for me to begin, patience having always been her virtue. Turning back toward her I announce, “I lost my job today. Nobody’s fault, just one of those things. Automation, the need to be more efficient, more competitive, they had to make cuts. Downsizing, they said. Anyway,” I shrug as if this news is inconsequential, “I’ll find something soon,” as if that’s an easy thing for a sixty-year-old man to do.
She says nothing, but I can tell she’s worried. She stares at the glove box until I open it and remove the letters. “Is this what you’re worried about?” I ask, waving the letters?
A woman pushing a stroller walks past the front of the car, staring in at me and I lock eyes until she looks away. “Look,” I say to Rose. “A letter from the insurance company.” I hold it up, setting the remaining mail on the seat beside her. “It’s sure to be good news,” I say with mock confidence. “I bet this letter,” I tear open the envelope, “is magical. I bet it makes all the others disappear.” I smile at her.
I read the first line. We regret to inform you that in the matter of your claim, our final decision is to deny – I put it back in the envelope, and look through the windshield at the children as I try to formulate my thoughts, find my words.
“Excuse me, sir.”
The voice at my window startles me.
“Can you tell me what you’re doing here?”
The voice belongs to a young man with short-cropped hair, wearing a police uniform. He fills my window, one hand resting on his nightstick, the other on my door.
“Doing here? Why, just watching the children play.”
He frowns as he looks at me, pausing before asking, “Can I see your driver’s license?”
“My driver’s license?” I ask incredulously. “I’m not even driving. What’s this about officer?”
“Sir, you need to remain calm and show me your driver’s license.”
I fish my wallet out of my back pocket, muttering, “I don’t understand. When did watching children play become a crime?”
“Sir, it’s not, unless you are a sex offender.” He takes the license from me. “I’m just going to check this out. Do not get out of the car.”
Stunned, I watch him in the rearview mirror as he goes back to his cruiser, which is parked behind me, trapping me in my parking spot. “Did you hear that?” I ask Rose. “He thinks I’m some sort of pervert.”
On the playground, most of the activity has stopped. Children and parents alike stand and stare at the drama unfolding in front of them. The children are merely curious but I can see disgust on the faces of the mothers, some who are now talking on cell phones while one holds her phone up. “What is she doing?” I ask Rose, and then it hits me. She’s filming me.
My stomach turns. “You have got to be kidding me.”
The policeman is back at the window, holding my license between his thumb and index finger. “No charges under sexual offender,” he says confirming what I already know. “You do have an outstanding fine, though.”
“Fine? For what?”
“Speeding. Looks to be about 30 days past due.” He leans in the window and I lean away. “I don’t want to run you in,” he says quietly, conspiratorially, “so if you promise to take care of this right away…”
“Sure, yeah,” I say taking my license from him. “Absolutely. Sorry I forgot, I’ve had a lot on my mind.”
“What are you doing here?”
I sigh. “Just having a conversation with my wife,” I say, gesturing toward the passenger seat. “And watching the children play. It’s something we like to enjoy from time to time.”
Glancing over he raises an eyebrow, as if noticing her for the first time. He looks away, shakes his head and claps me on the shoulder. “Take care of that ticket right away, and have a safe trip home.”
He returns to his car and my indignity at being run off is blunted by the realization that everyone at the park is looking at me and no one is smiling. With shaking hands, I start the car.
The sun is setting as I pull to the top of the boat ramp, my car facing the river. I’ve run through the possibilities a hundred times. “I’m sorry,” I whisper to Rose, as if I’m afraid she might actually hear me. “I don’t know what else to do. I’m exhausted, and lonely and about to lose everything that remains of us. God I miss you so much.” My voice catches as I reach for her.
I release the seatbelt and pull her to me, holding her in my arms, the urn warm from the afternoon sun. “You said to give it a year, and I did. It’s time.” Reaching into the console I remove the vial. Six pills remain, the last of her medication. Unscrewing the lid, I tilt my head back and feel them slip into my mouth. Drinking directly from the thermos, I wash them down before slipping a CD mix of our favorite songs into the player. I sway gently with her, remembering the dances we’ve shared. “You’re still the one — that makes me strong, Still the one — I want to take along,” I sing along to the music.
I remove the lid and sift my fingers through her ashes. Lifting the urn, I pour her over me. She clings to my tears, and I put the car into gear. “I love you.”
Image: Prerow Pier by Marcus Pink via Flickr.
This was beautiful and heartbreaking, Tom.
Happy that you liked the story. Thank you for the kind words, Karen!
Terrific piece. Very moving.
Thank you, David. I appreciate your comment.
“I pour her over me…” Wow, Tom. This is a hell of a story. Brilliant work.
Thanks so much, Christina!
You told such a moving story with such depth in so few words. Very impressive writing! Thank you!
Thanks Jennifer, I appreciate the kind words!
Just read this, and I am so glad that I did. I enjoyed your tight minimalist prose–very arresting. It is reminiscent of Meinke’s “The Cranes.” Good job!