[by Dani Clark]
The pre-dawn darkness outside his bedroom window waned and distracted Nathaniel from his book. Wind stirred the maple trees outside. The tree leaves curled like rippling water and the branches reminded him of happy girls, dancing. The changing leaves had already become orange and red, and he thought of highlights in auburn hair.
Nathaniel shifted, bones in his back cracked, and he looked back down at the book. In the sonnet a beauty’s fairness faded. Nathaniel flipped through the book, halting at a sprig of wilted baby’s breath pressed into a page.
The horizon lit up slowly and Nathaniel smiled. The baby’s breath again, slipped into a heavy volume. Autumn did this each time he’d given her a bouquet, and here their relationship was preserved: tucked between the pages of classic volumes. Sometimes he’d find sprays of fluffed ageratum heads amidst passages of Marquis de Sade’s Justine, modest twists of monochromatic gardenia petals flushed the pages of Dickinson, and snaps of faded clover nestled in the stanzas of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Someone stomped past Nathaniel’s room and the metronome on his desk ticked awake under its own volition, pacing time between turned pages.
His calf muscles clenched when he got up from the bed and paced himself to the writing desk. He stopped to look out the window again and coughed, his phlegmy throat bellowing. The window encompassed an entire wall in his bedroom. The view clouded his brain with majesty. Outside a Persian cat crunched through a pile of veiny leaves. The feline skidded in the mulch.
A stand by the window held a pot of roses. Nathaniel tried to remember if they’d been there the night before. The petals crinkled with dryness, but their scent was sweet and musty.
He stroked a petal. The flowers retained their silkiness though they were deflated with dryness. Nathaniel brushed the stamen aside and began to rub the pistil’s stigma. It parted under his fingers like smiling labia, and he stroked the ovary underneath. He rubbed the flower as though conducting an experiment. The ovary gave no resistance. The rose quivered at his aggressive touch. It began to come apart, petals falling to the floor, stamen and pistil ripped and dry.
Nathaniel studied the petals scattered on the floor and resumed his way to the desk. His fountain pen squirted blue-black ink against the stationery, and he wrote:
Your lack of response testifies that I’ve acted unjustly toward you? I sit here every day, thinking about you when you don’t even care enough to correspond with me.
Don’t you know how much I miss you? Don’t you remember the wild bouquets I brought you? Your favorite pair of dancing shoes? It is a miscarriage of justice that I’m reminded of these things every time I read poetry or come across dead flowers.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen you but I remember the way your hair used to curl up after you took a shower. Those overripe strawberry strands stuck in the tines of your hairbrush and I’d stand there picking at it for you, in a steamy bathroom, prying your hair loose while you towel-dried and put cold cream under your eyes.
Your skin always flushed in that heated room. Your pretty nose with all those tiny pores, like the skin of an orange, practically escapes me now. You’ve been so selfish and elusive.
But, and this is where I sigh, sometimes I think it’s me who is overly sensitive.
You probably have adequate reasons for staying away.
My truth is that I know I was wrong. No one has ever wronged you as much as I did. I’m sure my worry over your silence is for nothing? You always let me make amends, and never stayed away for very long. Please join me for dinner this evening. You know where I reside if you’ve been getting my letters, even if I cannot call it home without you here.
Love to you,
Nathaniel folded the paper and slid it into a lilac-scented envelope. He inscribed Autumn across the face and tried to remember the street number that should come next, but couldn’t recall her address. It had been right there, in his brain. Only a few left turns and one roundabout from the avenue where he stored the memory of her russet hair. The place he’d indexed for later use.
“You old, haunted thing,” he uttered when the boxy metronome beside the ink well ticked again.
A woman in blue medical scrubs came to the door of his room, her brunette ponytail bouncing. “You need help calling the elevator, Mr. Rendeaux?”
When she said his name Nathaniel remembered her, annunciation too fast, gibberish to elderly ears. “Rendeaux, not Rando! I tell you every time, don’t you remember? Do you remember Autumn’s address?”
The laugh lines around the woman’s mouth drained and Nathaniel remembered her name: Pia—sometimes a patron saint of compassion. She met him there every morning. With tender lines constricted around her eyes and a sideways twist of the lips. Then he remembered where he was. And he remembered about Autumn; she’d gone.
“Autumn isn’t around anymore, ay?”
“She’s not, Mr. Rendeaux,” again with the lazy pronouncement. She lifted a cellular phone from the pocket in her scrubs after it lit up through the fabric. Her eyes dawdled over the screen before she slid the phone back and away.
“I see.” Nathaniel rested a hand on his walker. “The flowers in my room have died. I’d like to bring new ones in. Something lovely and alive.”
“Oh? What kind of flowers do you want?” Pia held the door while Nathaniel lumbered past her into the hallway.
“Anything with color. Dark colors; red, blue. Bouquets with baby’s breath.”
“Sounds beautiful.” Pia ignored her phone as it glowed in her pocket again. “Would you like to go for a walk in the arboretum this morning? The flowers and leaves are turning. They’re most beautiful this time of year. Their colors fade, they seem lusterless, but really they’re just waiting. Quiet and ready to go.”
“You young people think everything is waiting to die quietly, don’t you? I thought that too until I learned nothing is ever that quiet by design,.” Nathaniel placed a hand on his walker. “Now there’s a raucous! Waiting until the situation is just right. Not going quietly the way nature wanted it!”
Pia shifted her weight and Nathaniel tossed his hand in the air.
“I’ll go through the arboretum anyway. I need to drop this in the mailbox,” he lifted the envelope, crisp and new between dilapidated fingers. “I haven’t heard from Autumn in quite some time.”
Pia’s phone lit again, this time buzzing too. She let out a long, fluid breath. “Of course. We can do that.”
Outside, old people were led around like circus bears on leashes. Pia had Nathaniel stop and talk to every person they encountered.
“Mr. Rendeaux, have you met Madge?” Pia held Nathaniel’s arm as he tried to hobble past. “She’s a new resident here. Her daughter just gave birth to quadruplets. When Madge was younger, she had quadruplets too! Maybe you’ll get along better with Madge than you did with…” Pia’s phone rang and she stepped aside to whisper-shout into it.
Nathaniel and Madge faced each other like leaning towers with crumbling foundations.
“Quadruplets, huh?” Nathaniel watched leaves swirl in the air between two trees in the distance. The leaves whirred away from one tree, slantwise, as though gracefully offering a hand to the other. “Those must’ve been hard to push out.”
“It could have gotten difficult,” Madge’s hair stirred as the breeze picked up. The leaves circled behind them in a drowsy whirlwind. “Goodness is I have these birthing hips.”
Nathaniel thought of a potato sack pulled thin when he looked at Madge’s skin. Her hair, fine and stringy, shimmered the way silver coins do in sunlight. He wanted to sniff it for copper scent. By the texture of her thinning hair he supposed she’d been a brunette before her hair lost color.
“Do you have children?” She asked him.
“My wife and I almost adopted a little girl once, when we lived overseas. Didn’t work out though.” He muttered aloud the words, mulling the question like a deciding juror in a deadlock. “My wife.”
“Does she live here with you?” Madge continued the conversation gladly. Her teeth clicked past her lips when she talked. “I’ve only just gotten here. My son died and I’d lived with him ever since my husband passed away. My daughter is too busy with all those babies.”
“My wife never did move here, did she?” Then he remembered and turned to Pia, “why’d you bring me here to walk around with all these mossbacks?”
Pia still hush-argued into her phone.
“If Autumn is going to receive my invitation to dinner in time to get here I need to get this in the post. I haven’t seen her in a while!”
Pia raised her palm. He’d seen the palm before. It meant stalling attention.
“Well don’t let me and all these other old folks tether you to your job. You just stay there on the phone all day. I’m only your problem until you clock out.”
Pia hung up and turned to Nathaniel. “The mailbox is why we came this way, Mr. Rando. The mail hasn’t gone out yet.” Pia’s phone vibrated, the hum loud enough to hear, but she let it stay in her pocket. “What did you think of Madge? Did you hit it off?”
Pia and Nathaniel had already passed through the arboretum courtyard three times, looping the yard like skydivers caught in an updraft. All around the old folk coiled the terrace the way satellites revolve around a sun, while attendants fussed around them as possessively as the moon’s tug on Earth.
“Here’s the mailbox. Let’s not pass it this time. Then we’ll head in for brunch. How does that sound?”
“I’ve not worked up an appetite!” Nathaniel wrenched his walker from under Pia’s guiding hand and crouched over the box, moving slowly and stopping to cough into his shoulder. He kissed the envelope before letting it fall through the open slot.
For lunch he faced the window, from a long cafeteria table occupied only by him. He’d brought stationery from his room in case inspiration struck him. Leaves breezed along the ground outside, and he pulled his sweater more snugly around himself before he took up his pen:
I remember when the weather turned for us 45 years ago. Thunder and rain the day we’d planned to drink cherry juice and eat finger sandwiches between salsa dances in the courtyard, do you remember?
You woke up early to pluck the pits out of the cherries. You sat at the dinette, leaning right against the window. The wind and rain rushed at you from the other side, tormenting, but you were completely untouchable. You just pitted those cherries with a walnut pick as though the rain didn’t harass you on the other side of that glass. You ignored it the way a stubborn cat ignores mid-day traffic.
I leaned over you to look out the window, grumbling at the idea of a day spent indoors with records and board games. You licked the cherry juice dripping along the side of your hand and said, “We have plans today. This won’t last.”
You kept squeezing nectar from those ruby fruits and the rain got lighter, clouds started shifting. Before mid-day we were on our way, just as planned. Oil in the streets reflected rainbows and the evergreen spikes on the pine trees were damp, but we went along, doing everything we’d intended.”
“What are you writing? Can’t you get peace from your pen and paper for one brunch?” Nathaniel peered up from his letter and saw Beth, the lady with dyed-hair from the room down the hall, across the table. He hadn’t heard her rumble over on her motor scooter.
“Beth,” Pia rushed to their table, “Remember that you aren’t supposed to sit with Nathaniel at lunch anymore. Since he got here first you need to find another place.”
“Oh, well look Nathaniel,” Beth pointed her scooter toward another table, “You have your own personal attendant now to help you walk with that scooter and shoo away anyone who tries to talk to your high and mighty self.”
“Beth!” Nathaniel shouted as she sped away on her motorized scooter, “You need that seat to take you everywhere because you’re such a fat lady. At least my aide offers me conversation.” Nathaniel looked up toward Pia, who crossed her arms in front of her, “When Beth sits around the house, she really sits around the house, doesn’t she?”
“Nathaniel, you’re the one who can’t get along. Remember what your daughter said the last time she visited here.”
Nathaniel waved her away and picked up his pen again,
Things turned our way all the time, do you remember? Not just the weather. Everything between us was so copacetic, and I know we have a fair shot at getting it back now, regardless of years that’ve passed.
But say, I should cut to it. No use skirting around what I should be diving into. This thing has been so long between us that I will not refrain or hold back.
I have to let you know that I’m sorry. Yes, I’m apologizing. I still have a lot of hope for the two of us, even though we’re both so old. I love you, even though we haven’t seen each other in so long.
“Honey, I’d like to sit right over there, with Nathaniel,” he heard a demure voice say. Madge slid onto the bench across from him, aided by her attendant who walked away after she was seated. He would have rather been alone, but wouldn’t mind watching her hair shine in the daylight. It sparked like threads inside a cornhusk when the sun hit it, filtered through the window. She looked at him and proclaimed, “The days are growing shorter.”
“So’s my patience,” he said and laughed.
Beth came back around and situated herself close to Madge at the edge of the table. The two women gabbed together. Nathaniel looked around for Pia, but couldn’t catch her attention from where she lounged in an overstuffed chair by the chess table and spoke into her phone. Madge broke from her conversation with Beth every so often to bat lash-less hazel eyes at Nathaniel.
Nathaniel hadn’t always disliked Beth. She was large and beautiful. A sheen of perspiration glistened on her skin. He thought of healthy auras and angel’s haloes as he looked at her. The inauthentic hair color she’d gone with did not speak to his taste though. It was a look on a lot of women who wanted to hide grays. When tired of looking at Beth his gaze alit on Madge’s clear locks again.
A tray with plates and bowls of food was put in front of him. He batted away the young worker’s hand, pinching the limb that barred him from mealtime.
“I want mayo for my jello, you!” He shouted as the server slumped off with shrugging shoulders.
“Well someone’s a grouchy Gus today.” Madge pushed a mouthful of Caesar salad onto her fork.
“I wouldn’t be so gruff if they remembered I always like mayonnaise to accompany my jello. I ask for it the same way every single day, but they never do it right.”
“Well don’t take your mood out on the ladies at this table,” warned Bad Dye Job Beth, “us ladies wanna eat our pa-tay-tas in peace.”
“You go sit somewhere else and tell them on your way out to get you an appointment at the beauty school! Couldn’t you just age gracefully without that who-knows-what in your hair? And I was here at this table first.”
“We are stayin’ put, let me tell you!” Beth’s corpulent finger pointed at Nathaniel, “and who wants to put mayo-nnaise on their jella, anyhow?”
“Who exactly wants to dye their hair blue either?” Nathaniel left the table, gliding along the linoleum floor with his walker in front of him. He tried to remember how to get to his room.
He passed Pia, still seated in a chair next to the chess table, and heard her laughing. Another attendant sat in a chair beside her and their voices sounded happy and unrestrained.
“Autumn, is that you? You received my invitation just in time! The main course was served minutes ago. The victuals today are quite pleasant.”
Two women were dressed in blue medical scrubs. One of them had brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Nathaniel saw her face in profile, a jagged chin and mouth hemmed in with little lines. She wasn’t Autumn.
“Finish your lunch already, Mr. Rando?”
“It’s Rendeaux. I believe the meat here is rancid and the service is terrible. I’m going to my room.” Nathaniel headed back toward the hallway.
“You’re going without me?” Pia called after him.
Nathaniel continued to walk, but was halted by an involuntary tickle in his sides. He tried to swallow the cough, but his body shook and the sound that escaped from him was between a throat clearing and gasp for air.
“We need to go to the nurse’s station sometime today so she can listen to your lungs,” Pia turned to the other attendant again while Nathaniel shuffled away.
Nathaniel heard the women talk after he’d left the cafeteria. He pressed the elevator’s call button, but still heard them chat from the hallway.
“What did he call you?” the other nurse asked.
“Autumn, he does that all the time.”
“Who’s Autumn? Is that the lady who visits him?”
“No, it’s his daughter who visits, and pays the stipend for a personal attendant. Autumn is the one who got away, I think.”
“Maybe Autumn was his wife? Didn’t you say once he’s a widower?”
“I don’t think so. I think the wife’s name was Pat, but I could be wrong.”
The other attendant was silent.
“When he came here all he brought were books. He really likes flowers though. He always asks me to bring him more. His daughter only orders roses, even though he seems to want all kinds.”
Nathaniel stepped into the elevator and watched the doors slide closed. Pia’s voice grated on him. He felt his body temperature rise with stress.
He walked down the second floor hallway, and stopped when he heard the steady metronome as he almost passed his room.
The roses had been taken away, but a few wilted petals still lay forgotten on the floor. He opened the closet door: a pair of pajamas, four pairs of slippers, faded t-shirts, the protuberant corners of a small box on a shelf above the hangers. Nathaniel reached for the box, ignoring the twinge in his calf muscles as he stretched.
He took the box to his desk. It was unremarkable; a box meant to hold shoes, plain, undecorated.
Petals and branches spilled out when he opened the lid. Some flowers were still thorny and waxen. Toward the bottom of the box lay twigs brittle with age, browned rose heads, and petals reduced to fragments and dust.
“Autumn,” he muttered as he began to unpack and examine each twig.
Night had fallen when he crammed the last thorny branch back into the box.
Beth whirred into his bedroom on her scooter, “Will you turn that rackety thing off? I have been trying to dry my new nail polish, but can hear it from all the way down the hall!” She pointed her electric blue finger at Nathaniel’s ticking metronome.
“You’re spying on my room?! No one can hear that small of a tick from that far away, and I did not tell you that you could ride that thing into this room!” Nathaniel pointed back at Beth. He tried to speak again, but white and red spots floating in his vision. He panted, his finger still raised toward Beth, whose eyebrows disappeared beneath her side-swept blue bangs in a look of surprise.
Pia came into the room. “Beth, you know you should not be in here!”
“I think he may have lost his balance,” Beth said as she reversed her scooter around Pia and out the door.
“Are you okay? Lie down in the bed, will you? The nurse is off-duty until tomorrow, but she’ll come to your room first thing tomorrow.”
“I will not get into bed! I have told you that the door to my room in this establishment needs a lock.” Nathaniel placed two steadying hands on his desk.
“You’re right, she should not barge in here. There are privacy protocols.” Pia felt Nathaniel’s forehead.
“If you agree with me, then we’re half-way there.” Nathaniel swiped her hand away.
“I don’t like how warm your forehead is. If you don’t feel well you should turn in.” Pia walked toward the door. “It’s bedtime soon anyway.”
Nathaniel shooed her away once, then ignored her an hour later when she came back to check on him. Other residents prepared for bed, banned from the commons rooms after finishing a last game of checkers and warming their bedtime cups of cocoa.
Nathaniel sat at his desk, quiet and still, with the closed box of wilted flowers on his lap. He pulled the letter he’d started that day at lunch out of his pocket, steadied his hand, and continued with a well-inked fountain pen:
The real issue here is: I have no reasons anymore to hold grudges, or pretend like the whole thing was you and me together, or just you altogether, when the whole thing was really all me, alone. I should have said this all that time ago, but I was selfish.
When I look closely I believe I was very much afraid of what we had. You and I were a collage of the most complimentary things possible, but I had to remove myself to understand that. The way our lives were together, comfortable and thriving. We still had the passion, but it surfaced differently after some years, and I thought that change hurt us.
All our years we had a tacit understanding of how we worked in our relationship together and separate from one another. Realistically two people don’t crash into each other, not in our world, and become so perfectly agreeable all at once. We hit it off understanding that we came together as individuals. Forward thinking for the times, no? Or maybe we were just another self-satisfying cliché?
I’m trying to say that I remember us. Our understanding about life and how it wasn’t quite that fairytale everyone else prepared for, but there was still something surreal and otherworldly going on when we were together. We were so connected and in touch with each other. I’ll admit I started to believe all that who-ya about soul mates and people being meant for each other, even though I’ve always been practical when it comes to that metaphysical la-lee-la.
I never got tired of coming home to you. We went on so blissfully for years. We were happy because we never forgot who we were individually, and so we stayed good for each other and for ourselves.
Do you remember when the shift occurred? I do. It was unfortunate and the single-most deprecatory thing that’s happened in my lifetime. It could have been a specific time period in our relationship: the shift. As though it were an aging process that started under the roots, like a landslide. As if our bond were the waterlogged nutrients built up in the soil, too much for the roots to absorb. Then one day our saturated foundation became so slick with goopy sediment that our roots couldn’t hold anymore and the mud spiraled away off some hill right out from underneath us. Trees tumbling, earth, the whole hillside just kaput!
That’s not what happened at all. There was no slow build up. I remember the exact day the shift happened. I can even narrow it down to an increment of ten or twenty minutes.
It happened early one day, I woke up and lit my morning cigarette. I was more achy than usual because the weather turned cold. You were in your studio room dancing out a new tap number. You had soft music going, but those tap shoes rapped on the floor evenly. The sound of it grated against my nerves. Each tap caused a ribbon of pain to announce itself as a migraine and run across my eyes from one temple to the other. I looked in the bathroom mirror, my jaws were clenched, the teeth shuddered in my mouth, clicking to the beat of those damned heels on the wood floor. It made me angry. I’m ashamed now of my anger. The steadiness of your dance, our comfortable relationship, my reflection, it all angered me.
My face looked jowly. I had grey patches all over my skin. Among the endless dance classes we taught together, the Jazzercise, the multi-vitamins and herbal teas, I’d acquired a spare tire! I was ashamed of myself and that’s when I started taking it all out on you.
I drank a bitter cup of coffee in the kitchen and mulled over impending mortality. You came to the kitchen, bribed by the buttery warmth of caffeine and cocoa in the air, and I saw you differently too.
This is where I have to brace myself to tell the absolute truth: You looked older, but you were still so beautiful. We’d both aged, but you looked less exhausted than I. There was so much more zeal in your step. You smiled, the lines around your mouth looked eloquent rather than clenched and old.
I can only fathom my own jealousy caused what came next.
You leaned over me to grab a cup, and put your hand on my stomach. Right on the fatty place I’d just noticed in the mirror, and I was so worried you’d see me the way I’d seen me. Ugly and old. So I moved your hand and grabbed your derriere and said, “Whoa. Something’s growing here!” and jiggled your buns with pinching fingers.
Do you remember that specific occasion? That was the shift. We’d been living together so happily. Didn’t need marriage or families. Weren’t going to give in on our ideals. I didn’t want you to see me, or to leave me. But that was the very instant we both started to pull away.
A rift. A schism. You backed away and your face curled with the look I’ve seen you make after clearing the fridge of decayed tilapia and said, “Excuse you?” But there really was no excuse for me.
Truth was I had no real problem with any part of you. I thought if I started making little remarks, bringing your flaws up every so often, you’d have a moment like the one I had. You’d see yourself in the mirror and turn inward on yourself. Then you wouldn’t notice how ghastly I’d become. Then we’d go back to that understanding we had at the very beginning. We’d be at that same place again, like new.
The problem was that you had never left that page. It was I who’d moved on to these other thoughts, wracked with a lack of confidence and self-judgment.
Now decades have passed, and we haven’t seen each other in so many years. The time lapse doesn’t matter at all though. It didn’t matter in any of the love stories. None of the heroes and heroines we played in our dance theater care about time lapses. My Tristan and your Isolde, our Tita and Pedro, or Scheherazade and her king.
You transformed into something older, but not grotesque. I was the haggard one. The ethereal loveliness radiated throughout you entirely.
Your hair, the auburn pieces, only lost a bit of luster. They weren’t fine and smooth anymore, they started to stem flyaways here and there. Instead of a great wave of silky hair you had frizzier, rougher matted locks. That charming color never faded, not at all. Just the texture changed. Your hair became like tendrils of knotted hemp on your head.
Your skin changed too. It went from feeling soft to feeling the way parchment feels. Dry, wrinkled, thin, a little transparent, marbled with blue veins that cropped up along your limbs. Those veins caused verbal dissonance between you and me, but I thought of graceful moldings like patterns carved by rain streams on tree bark when I saw that color on your skin.
Remember those tiny spider veins you groaned about? Sometimes it was just as bad when you noticed flaws in yourself. Had I simply said what I thought of those tender little lines of mahogany that traced your thighs and calves you wouldn’t have been so ashamed by them. They were like calligraphy marks across your skin, exotic like the rest of your transforming body.
We still managed to have fun. Around that time we danced at the Smithers’ wedding. The pianist kept time, the monotonous stamping pattern of it beating back and forth to our rhythm, but we cut a rug so deep all the other couples watched us. The bride looked at us while we spun on the dance floor. She watched you though. Not envious of you for being with me, but of your twirl, and lift and spark.
I’d say everyone at that reception looked us over with envy. We were happy. Only alone together did my manners change. I’d complain about your cold toes against my legs at night. I’d get grumpy, the old man already, and then you’d humph and roll to your side of the bed.
I never minded any aging on your part, I only pretended to. Not the toes, the wrinkling skin that puckered like lichens hugging a tree, or the short tufts of silvery hairs that spread over your lip and chin the way moss subtly grows over bark. I knew for every enchanting thing that transformed in you, something more awful and wordly happened to my own body.
My slurs wheedled their way in though. You stopped walking around the house cinched in corsets like you did before. No more Anaïs Nin reenactments between us. Your breasts began to sag like round bark knots unerring in devotion to the law of gravity. I caught you secreting them away, pulling at the straps of your brassiere to give them lift.
It hurt me to see you take my words so hard. Usually you sloughed off the words of man like transparent water drops slinking off a reptilian back. You never planned a counter attack to my cruelty because you didn’t have any bit of malice in you. I grew worse in my assaults on my own.
There were tiny surges of invigoration when my words deterred you from seeing the haggard old puss I turned into. You never said a thing when my belly bulged with stress and ulcers. I never knew if you could tell I’d ground my teeth to stubs while I slept, or that my temples always throbbed with migraines. The thing you noticed was my gait, how hard it was for me to keep up with you after a while.
You won’t believe it when you see it, so I’ll prepare you for it: I’m in an old folk’s home! Get your laughs in, because I bet its karma. I bet you’re out there somewhere, graceful and svelte as ever in your old age. You probably wouldn’t even want to see me this way. All hunkered over, leading a walker everywhere. There’s no boyish charm in that.
Please forgive me for that last day together. I don’t know if I can still my hand as I relive this. I still feel terrible. It was those kitten heels. I’m sure you remember. You walked along and those shoes hit the pavement, and the clack they made was so steady.
I could have told you the truth about the thin, lacing migraine that unraveled across my forehead, but instead I laughed at you in those shoes. They looked so blessedly beautiful with your long calves, but I told you they were abominable. I said you were too old to hold the illusion of pulling those shoes off. And you’d had it after that. No more of me for you. It had gotten to be too much. Too adversarial. Too cyclical.
I confess I don’t recall the exact words we flung at each other, but I know they were harsh. They had meaning and resonance too because you were gone after that. That’s the most grotesque transformation that took place. You left.
You know, I tried again after you. After the greatest love of my life I tried again with others. It always came apart the same way though. A loose ball that gently unraveled after months or years of me subtly picking at it. Finally one stayed because her body; her skin and organs and muscle, weren’t made of what normal women were made of. She was made of something tougher and less tender, less mammalian. Her molecules and atoms were less susceptible to heartache and mean words.
She and the others didn’t matter though. I kept badgering, kept stinging, kept ridiculing because I wanted them all to leave. I watched them all go gladly. As soon as another one slinked away it was a chance for me to go ahead and find you. I searched, but I’d only turn up the next one, and the next one, another one who wasn’t you and didn’t lead me to you.
I’ve wanted you back all these years, but by the time I saw it was all me I had no idea where to look. Your family was scattered, and I didn’t think you’d gone to be with any of them anyhow.
There was nothing at all in my marriage. Maybe her hair was similar, it lit the same way yours did when caught in sunlight. But still… It’s been years since even that and it only came so close as an imitation.
She knew about you. Whenever she and I fought she’d tell me she regretted not having someone to hold me up against the way I held you on her. She wished she had someone to think back on, an earlier version of me to compare with. There wasn’t anyone other than me though, and no one failed her the way I did. We lived overseas when my health got bad, and even though she tried so hard to fix me, I just thought about you finding me there, and us reuniting in some fantastical way.
I failed her for you. I’m sure you’ll take me back after you read this letter, because I’m turning a no-bullying leaf. I’m going to deliver it directly with no more procrastination.
I won’t idly place this letter into the mailbox like all its predecessors. I’ll find you, Autumn, and we’ll reconcile in person. Before I hand you this letter I will preface it by telling you how special you are to my memory. And how time has only acted like a marinade to sweeten our love.
“Once more for luck,” Nathaniel puckered his lips as he bent over the lilac-scented envelope and graced the folded paper with a kiss.
The words he’d purged revitalized him. His calves ached as he slowly jitterbugged across the carpeted floor. Back muscles creaked a warning when he tried to dip to the floor in a swing move known as the death drop, but when he thought of how Autumn would echo the words he’d written for her he felt renewed again.
Nathaniel walked down the airy hallway, shuffling across the linoleum in slippered feet. In the elevator he buttoned his cardigan against the breezy air that swirled as the contraption glided down. On the first floor a draft padded around the building on mystical toes, like androgynous Ariel stirring up a tempest.
The sun still slept. Nathaniel hadn’t realized it was so early. He brushed the chill away with thoughts of warm reconciliatory satisfaction.
The double doors did not yield to his grip, so he scuttled to the mess hall and looked for an unlocked side door. Circles of smoke misted into fog through a cracked window in the cafeteria and he saw a bent figure cloaked behind the curtains.
“Who’s hiding back there?” Nathaniel croaked, the smoke sticking to his old voice.
“It’s just me!” She bellowed as embers fell from a shaking cigarette tip.
“Who’re you again?” Nathaniel moved closer, breath heavier with each step. “Oh, just Madge.”
Madge peered around the curtain; “I come here some mornings to wake up like a normal person, before I was an old fuddy-duddy.” She looked him over with a dull expression, “what’re you up to?”
“I have something to deliver.”
The wrinkles around Madge’s eyes popped as she dragged from the cigarette filter. The curtain dwarfed her, though she seemed sturdy in her petite frame.
“We didn’t know they were so dangerous when we started, did we?” Her peaceful smile didn’t reach the eye wrinkles, “When we learned the truth we were already hooked.”
“I never smoked,” Nathaniel looked at the glow on the tip of Madge’s cigarette. “How old are you anyway? I bet you’re younger than you look. Those things age people. Anyway, I can’t dawdle, today’s a big day. I’d suggest I’m making arrangements to take myself away from here, but I wouldn’t want to rub it in the faces of those who must remain miserable.”
Madge pursed her lips, the smile eking to her eyes finally, “I’m not miserable here. As long as I never have to change another diaper.”
“I hold my pleasure in much higher esteem, I suppose.”
“Beth was right about you, Nathaniel,” Madge paused and put the cigarette to her lips. She pulled and the tip of her cigarette withered, reduced to ash as she inhaled. When she spoke again smoke circled her words. “You aren’t the only one here, everyone is having some sort of hard time. If you were nicer to people you wouldn’t be so lonely. You’d even be helpful.”
Nathaniel walked away, his gait only disturbed by the soft tap of his slippers against the floor.
A doorknob in the kitchen turned under his grasp and he skirted out.
The wind was harsh. The trees swayed. They reminded him of carefree women, dancing with their arms in the air, hair flowing around their bodies.
He hobbled to the bus stop and sat on the bench, hunkered inside his cardigan, curled toes inside his slippers.
Time passed, no bus came. Light came over the horizon slowly. The aroma of coffee and pastries whirled in the air. Two businessmen in suits and a young woman in dirty jeans joined him at the bus stop. The businessmen glared into electronic tablets and cellular phones. The young woman leaned her face into a book beside Nathaniel on the bench.
Demons met his gaze unflinchingly from the cover of the young woman’s book. Her jeans had holey knees. Her viscous hair looked spray painted purple, too light for black, but too dark for red or violet.
Nathaniel looked harder at the girl. She shivered through lace sleeves that covered her arms with tapestries. The colors in the fabric wove into grotesque figures like the characters on her book cover. He leaned in and thin hairs on her arm stirred in the wind. He realized her sleeves were tattoos, not fabric, and tried to focus on her face. His eyes bugged when he saw the metal lynched in her nose, like a shrapnel horseshoe hanging from between her nostrils, held in by steel balls on either side. A pain in his arthritic toes and knuckles shrieked.
“Excuse me,” he waved at the woman, “why’d you go and do that to your face?”
The girl blinked into her book a few times and slumped lower on the bench.
“You just don’t look like the type of girl who’d do that to herself.”
She flicked her eyes upward. The two businessmen shuffled, infallible in dedication to their electronic devices.
“From where I’m sitting you look like you have fishing tackle in your nose.” Nathaniel knocked on his knee with curled fingers and chuckled. “And you could be so pretty, if only you washed that hair out and— well, from a distance you look like you have long nose hairs dangling out. You don’t look like someone who’d let herself go like that though.”
The young woman closed her book and looked over, not directly at Nathaniel, but toward his walker. “It’s there because I want it there.”
Nathaniel laughed, thankful for the interaction, “But what if you want a boyfriend someday? He wouldn’t be happy to see that in your face every time he went to kiss you.”
“I’m married actually,” the young woman said as her bus pulled up to the curb, beeping loudly.
“Really? You’re married?” Nathaniel followed the girl, clamoring along with his walker and rheumy toes in tow.
She wiggled the finger on her left hand and Nathaniel caught the sparkle of a black diamond on her ring finger.
“Well, I’ll be.” Nathaniel gasped as the businessmen scurried around them to get on the bus. “What does your husband say? He has no problem with them even though they’re so unnatural?”
“I’d listen to what my husband thought about it over some gnarly old square who can barely walk or breathe on his own. You have to drag that clunky thing around with you because you’re barely able to stand on your own and you call me unnatural?”
Nathaniel stood still as she entered the bus and its doors slid shut behind her before the bus moved along. He took a few steps back and sat on the bench again, stinging.
Buses came and went in front of him. He couldn’t remember which one to take so he sat on the bench, shivering. Drizzle began to patter on his face and shoulders. People filtered in and around buses that came and went. The drizzle hit harder and turned from sludge to rain. Dense droplets landed on his head as he pouted on the bench.
A breathless woman jogged up to him and said, “Mr. Rando? Mr. Rando, we’ve been looking for you all morning.”
“Well, yes! For hours. Madge said you had something to deliver so we checked the mailbox. We looked in your room, everywhere else inside. A bus driver called and told us an escapee was sitting at the bus stop, watching all the buses pass by.” Pia knelt over, trying to control her panting with hands on her thighs as the rain pelted her scrubs. “And there we were, looking all over for you, inside.”
“Oh yes, I did have a letter to mail. But you see—“ Nathaniel bit back the words and coughed. The cough racked his body and sounded phlegmy, strong as if it were tearing skin from his throat.
“Can you walk? You need to be inside.” Pia leaned toward Nathaniel, “You’ve been out here a long time, just sitting in the rain. Casual as ever when I ran up. Sitting at the bus stop as though you’re waiting for someone to arrive. Everyone indoors is scouring the place, the entire morning routine uprooted for you. I’m going to tell your daughter this happened. Well, can you walk?”
“Of course I can walk! I’ve been walking for years!” Nathaniel stood and crashed back down. Invisible fingers pressed against his spinal cord, and every time they squeezed Nathaniel felt his bladder loosen. He sneezed and ribbons tightened around his head.
Two strong orderlies guided Nathaniel up the walk and back inside. Pia ignored her vibrating phone, shaking like an active grenade in her pocket. As Pia tucked Nathaniel into bed he held her wrist and whispered with a shaky voice, “You know, Autumn would still care about me even though I’m a geezer. She wouldn’t mind it. She’d think it suits me eloquently.”
No matter how they bundled him he couldn’t get warm. His arms tingled. He felt as though his stomach were a plundered stalactite mine, an excavated hole in his icy chest cavity.
Pia called in a doctor. Orderlies and nurses shuffled about the room. Every morning the doctor asked, “How long was he out there? Just outside at that bus stop? With the weather turning?” Then he’d shake his head and say, “well, it doesn’t look good.”
Pillows were fluffed, sheets and elderly hands pressed. Residents slowed their wheelchairs or walkers as they passed Nathaniel’s room, gawking past the open door like rubberneckers at an interstate catastrophe. Sensitive volunteers lingered for extra long visits in Nathaniel’s room, mourning him to his face while they pressed his jelly hands between their meaty ones. Insensitive volunteers read Nathaniel’s charts and eyed his room for valuables and leftover kitsch upon learning his next of kin was out of state.
The doctor made his morning visit on the third day and said, “anytime now.”
Pia shooed everyone from the room and turned her cellular phone completely off. Only she and the doctor hovered over Nathaniel, splayed in his bed, sweaty and tossing in delirious reveries.
Above the bed, Nathaniel saw a light in his eyes like the sun reflecting off the ocean. In his delirious state he didn’t realize the light was just a handheld device the doctor pointed at him, to see if his pupils reacted.
Nathaniel caught a dark silhouette, lit by a bright halo. His groggy eyes peered. “Autumn. You’ve returned just like I imagined.”
Pia stood back, but her outline remained in Nathaniel’s vision.
“I understand why you never wrote back.” Nathaniel swallowed, a dry gulp like cotton raveled on skin. “You’re going to forgive me, aren’t you? I’m so happy you’ve returned.”
Pia looked at the doctor, who stood in the room, dumbly, not moving the light in his hand. “Who’s Autumn?” he asked.
“Of course I’ve forgiven you,” Pia leaned toward Nathaniel, in the light.
Nathaniel placed a shaking hand into her hair. The strands felt like melting glaciers to his dry fingers. “I knew you’d be here for me in the end. I held on for this.”
Pia brushed her hand against Nathaniel’s face. She leaned over the shaking man. Her breathing lips dipped onto his dying mouth and she kissed him.
Nathaniel’s eyes closed and his shivering body stilled. Pia left the bedside. She walked over to the desk and finally dismantled the irascible ticking metronome.
The rustling trees stood still for a moment, then their branches and leaves spirited in the air again like happy girls, dancing.
Dani Clark earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from St. Mary’s College of California in 2011. Her most recent fiction credits include pieces in S/tick Magazine, Literally Stories, Crack the Spine Literary Journal, Slink Chunk Press, and Pure Coincidence Magazine. Dani writes quarterly news articles for San Francisco’s Western Edition newspaper and is also the Director of Volunteer Services for an Oakland-based animal rescue. When not working or writing Dani’s favorite pastimes include snake-wrangling, cultivating kombucha tea, and socializing feral kittens.