Stepping Stones

Stepping Stones
by Andy Bowers

“This story is dedicated to James Rufus and Zelma Martha Bowers,

for 75 years spent together.”—Andy Bowers

He’d been allowing his mind to wander out in the deepest reaches of nothingness; though at his age, he could hardly stop it if he wanted to. Then a sudden thought with a dangerous edge sliced through the depths to rouse him: Where am I? Oh, my God, where am I? His hands jerked out to clutch the arms of his chair, his head whipped back and forth. I’m on the porch. His chest muscles relaxed and let out the sharp breath he’d taken in. And just as quickly, the fear had passed.

Damn Old-Timers, he thought. It was the name he always used for Alzheimer’s disease. He knew it wasn’t right, but it seemed more appropriate. Gave you a better sense of how it worked, or rather, who it worked on.

He looked around some more.

I remember I sit out here every morning after my coffee while Elizabeth does her cleaning. But it seems like I always do something else after that.

Then a flicker of movement off to the right caught his eye.

Now, my mind may have slipped a bit in my old age, but at least my sight’s stayed true. And, if my eyes didn’t decide now was the time to go, that’s the Jones’ collie…Fred, or something…making his way right over here to mark my fence again, no doubt. Will the war over territory between the Jones’ collie and What’s-Her-Face’s boxer never—

“Hey!” he yelled out as Fred (‘or something’) bent his nose to sniff along the bottom of the fence. Damn it and I’d just had it painted at the beginning of summer. “Get out of there! Get!”

The dog stopped, twitched an ear, then went right on rubbing his nose across the fence posts.

And Fred told me—Wait…no, that’s right…Fred is the master, Frank is the dog—Fred told me he’d keep that dog, Frank, in the house or out in the pen. I guess I’ll have to shoo him off and go have another talk with Frank. Fred. Whoever.

But just as he managed to force his stiff body erect, he saw the dog trot off, having never lifted a leg.

Figures it’d take off soon as I was up.

His gaze followed the dog as it made its way down the block, meandering from one brief interest to the next until it was out of sight. Then his gaze made its own winding path for awhile before finding something of real potential: in the yard next door was a rainbow split from sunlight by a puttering sprinkler. The beauty of it held him transfixed for less than a minute, at which time the sprinkler abruptly switched off and receded into a hole in the ground.

He shook his head as if to clear the cobwebs.

I suppose I’d better go on and—What was I going to do? Damn, Old-Timers. Oh, yeah. I always go for my walk after I have my coffee and my sit on the porch. Elizabeth hates it, thinks one of these days I’ll get lost or forget to look both ways when I cross the street, but I don’t. I’ve got myself trained. I go once around the block, keeping the road on my right and the houses on my left. No matter how far gone I am by the time I get back, the site of our house always brings me to.

His hand instinctively reached for the railing as he made his way down the few steps that separated his porch from the ground. His eyes twinkled as he noticed the chalk drawings that covered his sidewalk. They go all they way out to the street. Maybe farther, he thought, but the fence cuts off the view. Well, they’re no masterpieces, but an artist has to start somewhere. Besides, they’re so vague an innocent, you can’t help but love ‘em. I can’t see why it bothers Elizabeth so much when the neighbor kids color up the walk like this. At least chalk washes off, unlike the yellow stains those mutts leave. Makes it hard to remember how much I love dogs. I miss Mouser. Now he was a real dog. Smart. And not one of those pure bred—inbred—freaks like some of the critters in this town with their poofy fur and custom tail snippings. Nope, he was just a Mutt with a capital ‘M’. I remember this one time when…

He stepped from the last stair onto the first concrete slab that led out to the street. As soon as his foot touched down, the rough chalk sketch rippled. Suddenly a crystal clear image flashed in his mind, complete with all the periphery senses—

His smiling mother holding him close the day he was born. The smell of her sweat. The sound of his own voice wailing in protest to the burning in his lungs as he draws his first harsh breaths. The warmth of her arms making the pain seem not so bad. The glow on her face and the look of unconditional love in her eyes.

Then it was gone.

…and he…

What was that?

He stopped right where he was, both feet on the ground but his hand still clutching the rail. That seemed so real. And I haven’t thought of Mother in years. He stood for a moment longer to take in the lingering vibes from the past. I guess my mind has decided to devise some new tricks for me. But this didn’t really feel like a new trick. He felt like he’d been here/there before not just once or twice, but over and over again like an often watched movie.

And yet he couldn’t quite remember the next scene.

Slowly, his fingers relaxed and slid from the wooden rail. His feet shuffled forward but stopped just short of the crack that separated one concrete slab from the next, or one work of art from the next, for that matter.

He stepped over the gap and—

Being held again, but by a strange person. It must be okay, Momma and Dada are grinning at him. He is not in pain, however the stranger has just poured cold water on his head. He doesn’t like it and screaming his face red is his way of saying ‘would you kindly stop that.’

My Baptism? First my birth, now my baptism? I couldn’t possibly remember either. Especially since this damn—he smacked the side of his head—Old-Timers crept in. Heck, Fred has been living next to me for years now and I still confuse his name with the dog’s. Now that he thought about it, he felt bad. He was old enough to remember when you knew all your neighbors and, more often than not, treated them like extended family.

Wait, ‘Fred has been living next to me?’ I remember…No, here’s a question: Can I name our grandchildren?

Answer: Kenneth, Annie, and Joe are Alex’s three. Then Sue’s got Kylee and Chris.

Try another: What was the name of our last pet?

Answer: The last pet we had was that goldfish that our granddaughter Kylee won at the fair. The one her parents wouldn’t let her keep, and she wouldn’t let them flush—Gilbert. God, he got huge…

Ok, enough about the fish. One last question: What did we do on our last wedding anniversary?

Answer: I was having one of my better days. We ate supper at home. Then Elizabeth brought out a pair of presents. One from her to me, and one from me to her. I didn’t remember having bought her anything. However, she insisted that I’d picked it out and wrapped it. That she’d just signed it because my hands were too shaky at the time…

Now he was sure. For some unknown reason, the fog that had collected over his conscious mind had lifted away, exposing a thriving intellect. It had happened so fast, he hadn’t wanted to believe it. But if thinking is believing, or more accurately, if being able to think is believing, then I have no choice.

But why? Or how? It can’t happen. It doesn’t happen.

Then, in answer, another part of his mind drudged up a snappy reply. Neither does reliving snapshot moments of your life.

Flashbacks are not unheard of.

Not even the acid casualties of the sixties had flashbacks like these.

He’d lived through the era, and been there to see a number of his friends fall to the grim conqueror know as Excessive Amounts. Right. Then the only thing that can be happening is…

The answer was written in great-big-flashing-neon colors across his mind.

No. It can’t.

And just to prove to himself he was wrong, he stepped onto the next colorfully decorated slab—

He is alone in his parent’s driveway cheering himself. It is the first time he’s ridden his bike without training wheels and without tipping over. It was a moment of triumph he’d feared would never come. The previous year he’d had a horrible inner-ear infection that had left him with some permanent hearing loss in his left ear. He would later come to realize that it had also affected his balance. Learning to ride his bike had been a painful, but rewarding, experience.

And in continued, forced disbelief, the next—

Simple, sweet, and anxious: his first kiss.

Okay. That’s it. I can’t deny it. I’m dead. And all this—he waved his arms around for nobody’s benefit but his own—is some kind of surreal, almost existential, life flashing before my eyes…Thing. It’s quite possibly pulled from my own subconscious expectations of what should happen after I’ve passed on...

But if that’s true, and I’m pretty sure it is, then…What do I do now?

He looked back the way he’d come: at the sidewalk, the stairs, the porch. Then he turned around and looked at what lay ahead: more sidewalk, a fence…

Who knows what else… I guess I might as well keep going. What else is there to do?

In the next four steps he got to graduate high school, nearly die in a car accident, meet Sylvia for the first time…

Sylvia, oh Sylvia. A siren if there ever was one. She called to me and my heart responded. Anything she asked, I answered, be it in words or expensive gifts. Oh, Sylvia.

…and loose her.

Walking these stones is like riding the world’s cruelest roller coaster: the Heart Bender. You start in pain, rise to pleasure, then whoosh. Pain again. And here comes another high—

Hitchhiking and a pretty blonde girl asks if he needs a ride. The pretty blonde’s name is Elizabeth. When he sits down on the seat beside her, it turns out to be for life.

I’d forgotten her face. Her YOUNG face. The smooth skin, full lips. Reddish-brown eyes, like fall leaves. She was so pretty, it was weeks before I realized how smart she really was. I think that was part of her plan. She used her looks as a diversion, it made it hard for me to focus on her reasoning. Less than a year and we were engaged. But before the marriage—

He receives a call from Benton County Police, his parents have died in a small plane crash. The pilot, his cousin Phil, has been airlifted to Cardinal Memorial Hospital, but is not expected to last the night.

I sat and cried through both funerals. First my parents’ as a double, and three days later, my cousin Phil’s. My grieving went through this bizarre phase. It’s kind of hard to explain, but I think I cried more for Phil at my parents’ funeral because I’d just gotten the news of his death, and more for my parents at Phil’s out of retaliation for him taking them away. On top of that, I’d never needed Elizabeth more than I did then, but I kept pushing her away. It’s a miracle she put up with me through that.

That she put up with me through a lot of things.

He stopped. His next step would carry him through the gate and onto the larger slabs the city put in to encircle the block. The one immediately in front of him was cracked and sunken in the center. Even now he can’t remember how many times he’d requested for it to be replaced.

This can’t be the end, I’m not yet out of my teens. Not to mention unmarried and childless. Hell, grandchildless.

He went through the gate—

He is at a party. He hadn’t seen Sylvia in almost a year. She is telling him all the dirty little things she wanted to do with him back when they were together, but was too afraid to. In fact, she wants to do them now. All of them. Right now. Come on. And it’s his turn to be frightened. Not because of what she wants to do, but because he wants to do the same things. But he is engaged to Elizabeth. Somehow, he finds the strength to turn Sylvia down, however the music is loud and his mumbled words are lost. She moves in closer as if to hear him better, but instead, slips in for a kiss. This is the moment: choice. He turns his head away to the left at the last second. He puts space between them. He leaves her behind.

As a dead old man, he did so again: he turned left and increased his distance from her. He defied her gravity—

Sick. Deliriously sick. The forms of the people around him are blurred. Some look like angels, others demons. One in particular looks like a circus clown holding a pygmy elephant. It sounds like someone is saying, “It’ll be okay,” but he’s not sure because the voice keeps warbling in and out. That and it’s hard to hear over his own hoarse retching.

Brain nearly melted down that night. Standing by my sick bed was the only time Elizabeth and Sylvia ever met. In light of the cold war that was going on over my bedridden body, I’m surprised I managed to have a fever at all. I still don’t know why Sylvia was there in the first place; I hadn’t seen her since…Since I snubbed her at that party.

He had an idea. Not an honorable idea, but one with a certain draw.

Spinning a hundred-and-eighty degrees, he looked back across the broken slab that contained the ghost of a siren. Ah, ‘the path not taken.’ There were a few chalk drawings before they abruptly stopped. They were hard to make out. The first looked like a crude children’s sketch of intercourse, the second seemed to involve an arm and a needle, and the last, well, he didn’t look at it long enough. Too much red.

‘Ask and ye shall receive,’ but that’s enough of that for me. I’d rather go back to seeing the life I did lead. He turned back around. Another crude drawing of intercourse? I wonder what that’ll turn out to be.

Elizabeth’s naked skin slides along his, her lips red from a hundred rushed kisses. It is the consummation of their marriage, a marriage that will last the better part of fifty years. ‘Til death do they part.

‘Til death do us part. Or rather, ‘til death do I part. Could this be it? The end of our time together? I can’t believe that. I won’t believe that.

He felt a sudden burst of guilt.

And how could I have even been curious about what my life would have been like with another woman? I’m sorry about that one Elizabeth. I’ll make it up to you. When I get wherever I’m going.

Slowly, he edged across the crack onto the next image.

Near-perfect bliss as represented by a comfortable chair, a sleeping child in each arm, and his favorite team with a strong lead going into the ninth.

Sue and Alex. I miss them young. When seeing how cute they looked sleeping made me forget all about how much they screamed when they were awake. Once they were older—old enough to feel self-conscious if they woke up to dad gawking at them—all I got was the screaming. It just goes to prove: ‘No matter how much some things change, others stay the same.’

God I love ‘em. I haven’t seen enough of them the last few years. Now that we all live in different states.

Almost absentmindedly, he continued on.

Standing beside him is his friend Tom. Together, they are waiting for their new boss, the outspoken Mr. Crowder, to return to his office. Tom, the son of immigrants, has been living the American Minority Nightmare: less pay for doing more work for a boss who doesn’t have the guts to degrade him to his face, the slickness to degrade him behind his back, or the intelligence not to degrade him at all; a boss that chooses to talk at him from the side through loud comments made to other employees. And Tom is sick of it. And because Tom is leaving, he is leaving. As soon as the boss enters the room, they are going to tender their resignations. Effective immediately. They only hope Mr. Crowder doesn’t notice the tuna salad—smeared liberally on the underside of his desk—until after they are gone…and the coworkers start to talk about the horrid stench.

I should have been worried about Elizabeth. She gave me a good chewing out that night. Sure she agreed with me that Tom was being mistreated and ought to have quit, but—But I wasn’t being mistreated, I was being paid quite well and had three other mouths depending on me to feed them. And what was I going to do? I told her I was going to ask her father for a loan and start my own business. She didn’t think that was a proper plan. I argued then that it was, even though it was just something that had come out of my mouth in self defense.

So I had to do it. I’d argued too hard not to.

Turned out her father was gullible: I got the loan.

Tom even came to work for me. He would save the company from financial insolvency more than once (ironically with money from a settlement won against our ex-employer, related to a case of racial discrimination that took three years of lawyer jockeying to solidify). We became close friends. And then business partners. He would be with the company all the way up until—

No. I won’t think about that.

I got the loan, started the company and Elizabeth’s dad got paid back. With interest. Only took me six years to prove to her I wasn’t wrong for quitting that crap job.

Don’t think I once mentioned to her the tuna salad we’d left under the desk; she would have gone through the roof.

I wonder how long it took the boss to find it?

Whoa, all this was so long ago…Childhood, dating, marriage, the birth of our children and telling my boss to shove it…

Now that I think about it, there’s a pretty big gap there. About a dozen years, if I’m calculating things right. I quit in February, the twins shared their thirteenth birthday in November…Yeah, about a dozen years passed by in the blink of an eye.

It’s just like getting older for real.

The next image would hurtle him yet another decade forward.

The overpowering reek of coconut-scented cream makes his head hurt. He pays absolutely no attention as his daughter-in-law applies liberal amounts of the off-white goo to her deflated belly. He’s too busy making faces at his first grandchild, Kenneth.

Now that was the best behaved kid I’ve ever seen. Hardly ever cried, listened when you told him something, practically never whined. Still, I’m glad Alex and his wife, Becky, didn’t stop there. Annie’s a little spitfire. And Joe, well, you couldn’t tell by the way he looks or acts that he’s adopted. In fact, Joe’s probably the one most like Alex out of the lot.

It’s a shame I won’t—didn’t—live long enough to see them grow older, have their own children. My great-grandchildren.

Had he known what he was to come next, he may have taken more time before continuing on. The following series of slabs would pile the weight of their sadness onto his shoulders. They would threaten to break him. He was about to witness the passing of the old guard, his own personal trail of tears—

Uncle David died of cancer: looks pale white in his casket.

His face tightened.

Aunt Betty was run over crossing the street: the casket is displayed closed, but they have pretty pictures of her smiling.

A tear glistened.

Cousin Lewis fell from a ladder onto a picket fence: looks amazingly natural in his casket, like he’s sleeping.

The first tear broke down the side of his cheek.

His brother also dead from cancer: he stares at the casket from across the room.

And so the flood began.

Tom, his best friend, committed suicide shortly after he lost his wife: another casket watched from a safe distance.

His shoulders slumped.

Aunt Eddie chokes on supper, no one is around to help her: he skips the funeral altogether. He spends most of an afternoon trying not to look at her obituary.

I can’t take this. I couldn’t take it then. Why again? Why do I have to see this all again? I don’t want to see any more. I don’t want to see any more.

Wait, I don’t have to, I can just—

I can just—

He wanted to stop right there and drop to the ground. Maybe curl up into a ball. Stay forever.

Can’t. Not here.

His arm swept across his face, tried to wipe away his tears, but, like a worn windshield wiper, only managed to smear them across his cheeks. He lurched ahead, barely escaping the pull of the dead.

Depression akin to a deep dark well. The kind with the rancid stench coming from inside. So many bodies have been buried beneath the cold surface that he’s afraid he’ll be next. His own mortality has been called into question as of late. The doctor says he has high blood pressure, precipitously high blood pressure. In reaction, he sold his business; he hadn’t been there anyway since Tom’s death: too many good memories he couldn’t handle. The very next day, he shut himself in his bedroom. He hasn’t left there in over two weeks except to use the toilet. Elizabeth brings him everything he needs. Right now she is bringing him what he has needed more than anything: a counter weight. It comes to him in the form of a baby girl. With the way the sun coming in through the window reflects, almost reverberates, off the newborn alabaster skin—and the way this shed light strikes Elizabeth, peeling the years from her face—he is enchanted. He wants to hold this little glory for himself; he stretches out his arms to receive her. Her name is Annie, she is his first granddaughter. And her mere six pounds ten ounces will be more than enough to draw his soul up out of the well.

He landed on his hands and knees, his eyes streaming sadness and joy from red sockets.

Too much, too much. Much too much. Two beautiful births, six wasted deaths. Like two glorious bookends surrounding a moldy old set of encyclopedias. I’m not even making sense to myself anymore. I gotta move on. Move on now.

Slowly, he crawled, leaving a gleaming train track of tears behind.

He is counting his blessings. Currently the top three are: Having a daughter smart enough to get her marriage annulled before being beaten a second time; having an ex-son-in-law stupid enough to show up at his door to beg for her back; and, lastly, his daughter gone from the house when aforementioned ex-son-in-law arrives. And he is taking full advantage of this unexpected windfall. He has one hand clutched on his ex-son-in-law’s neck, and the other itching to strike an already battered face.

Anger and blind rage tore through him like a tornado. He punched the concrete. Again. And again.

Heartless Punk. I gave him to my daughter and he beat her on their wedding night. He’s lucky I let him go when I did. Otherwise I don’t think I would have stopped. I would have—

Oh, God. I would have killed him. I was punching him and punching him, doing all I could to ruin his face, but what I hadn’t realized then was how hard I was squeezing his neck with my other hand. That’s why his face was turning all red and bulgy. Like a tomato. Later I would find out—talking to my lawyer before the trial—that the worst damage I’d caused was to his throat. I nearly crushed his windpipe. He had trouble eating for weeks. Long after all his other injuries healed.

Thankfully, the jury went easy on me; which was only mildly surprising considering my daughter’s heartfelt testimony as to what had caused me to react the way I did.

But if I’d killed him?

Just then, he noticed that he was kneeling at the end of his neighbor’s walk.

If I turn toward Bill’s house, I bet I can see what would have—No. I learned my lesson last time. ‘Be satisfied with what you have.’

I’ll be better off if I just forget about it, move on.

And he was—

Perfect bliss, which is almost exactly like near-perfect bliss, except the babies are grandchildren. They can be given back to the owners as soon as they start pooping or screaming. And the game’s a double-header.

All the pain and anger he’d felt up until now melted away. He rocked back and curled his legs up so that he was sitting Indian style on the rough concrete.

Now here would be a good place to stop forever. He thought of Elizabeth, and the difference between bliss and fulfillment. Well, maybe not forever, but for more than an afternoon at least.

The shadows around him lightened as the sun came out from behind some clouds. He looked up at the glowing ball.

It’s beautiful. Especially now that I can look right at it without it burning my eyes. So warm. So inviting. So…

Something about it caught his attention. He looked closer. Then he closed his eyes and let his other senses go to work.

He opened his eyes again, climbed to his feet.

It’s right there, hovering on the other side of the street. But it isn’t. I can feel it tugging at my body. It’s faint, like a tide, and yet, undeniable. Could that mean—?

Could that mean it’s the light at the end of the tunnel? Or in my case, across the freshly tarred street?

His lips stretched wide in a smile that was just short of painful.

Maybe I should get a closer look…

It was the last day he would see his wife, his children and his grandchildren all in the same place. Only, he wasn’t spending time with the whole family. Instead, he was getting to know his recently adopted grandchild, Joe. Joe was signed up to start little league this fall. He liked Joe. He had talked Elizabeth into making a trip earlier that morning to the local mega-store for a wiffle ball and bat. She had adamantly refused to get the real things, to his disappointment. Now he and his new grandson were out playing in the back yard, physically speaking. In their minds, it was the World Series, bases were loaded, and Joe was up to bat.

Figures. Just my luck. Finally, I get a baseball player in the family—even if being adopted makes him a pinch hitter, of sorts—and I croak before getting to go to any of the games.

He shrugged his shoulders.

Oh, well. ‘Wish in one hand...’

The sun tugged a little less subtly. He looked ahead.

The rest of my life, represented in three more slabs. Just three more slabs.

Elizabeth tearing into her (last) anniversary present just like a child on Christmas. The way she unashamedly attacks presents has always been one of his favorite things about her. It’s why he has never passed up on a reason to give her something wrapped. Speaking of wrapping paper, it isn’t fairing well. Already the last mangled strips of the silvery stuff are fluttering, discarded, to the floor.

That was one of my good days. I’m thankful for that. Near the end there, good days were few and far between. It’s amazing I was able to find enough sense to go out and—

No, I remember. I didn’t buy her anything. She went through the trouble of getting her own present and wrapping it knowing I’d be angry with myself if I forgot our anniversary.

His mind curved onto a pleasant side street.

She’s done a lot of little things to help me keep my dignity in my declining years.

Like letting me take walks…

Or reminding me to sign the check for the water bill every month…

Or using people’s names frequently in conversation to help reinforce my memory…

The pleasant side street detoured onto a rougher gravel road.

I could go on and on, but I can’t thank her. I was too far gone towards the end to realize all she was doing. And now—Now, that I am able to put everything together, recognize the daily sacrifices that taking care of this feeble old cuss demanded of her, I have no way...

The sun yanked him forward; he didn’t fight it.

One slab in front of me, one more after that, and I can put this mess of a world behind me—

The kitchen floor is cold, the tile ugly. He doesn’t remember lying down. His chest hurts, mainly the left side. His mind isn’t so shot that he doesn’t realize he’s having a heart attack. Elizabeth is kneeling over him. Her tears feel good against his skin. “Don’t you dare leave me alone,” she says. “I promise I’m not going without you,” he manages to gasp out.

‘I promise I’m not going without you.’

Straining, he forced himself to a stop.

A voice spoke up inside of him, a voice from the deepest part of his soul, the part that doesn’t just know something is true, but KNOWS something is true.

This has happened before. I don’t go into the light. I make my way back home, I forget everything, and I come out on the porch. After a while I go for a walk. Every walk ends exactly like this: me staring at the last concrete slab to cross, part of me being pulled forward, part of me wanting to turn back. And every time I’ve gone back only to find myself in this same spot. It’s like setting up two mirrors to reflect a seemingly infinite image.

However, there is a way to make it end. Step out from between the mirrors, move on.

Then I guess that leaves me to answer the same question I’ve asked myself every other time: Do I go it alone, or at her side?

The pivotal answer…

He straightened his back and his neck, looked directly into the heart of the sun. The yearning he felt in response was far stronger than he’d expected. It took tremendous strength to hold it off while he thought his situation through.

Do I keep going in these sickening circles, or do I step off this emotional roller coaster for good?

Time silently passed…


Elizabeth. I promise I’m not going without you.’

He turned away from the sun and made his way toward home. It didn’t surprise him that going backwards the chalk drawings were just chalk drawings. Or that the pull from the sun lessened until he could barely feel it at all. He slowed only when he reached the first step to the porch; he knew that as soon as he left the sidewalk he would begin to lose his memory again.

He made his way up the stairs and across the porch. Already he could feel the gears to his mind alternately grinding and slipping.

Sometimes I hate being right. Still I’m not gonna give up without a fight. It’s my mind, my memories. Then again, at least I wouldn’t have to remember that path I just walked. That would be a good thing.

He paused on the threshold.

Could that be why I developed that Da—(he caught himself, just in case) Alzheimer’s in the first place? No. That would be too convenient.

The other part of his brain chose to speak up again:

You mean like Sylvia being at that party or Herb showing up on your doorstep practically gift-wrapped?

Who’s Sylvia again?

Never mind.

He walked right through the solid oak door into an uninhabited living room. A hallway lead out of the room to the left, and an entryway to the right; he chose to check the entryway first.

Elizabeth walked by in front of him. She had a loaf of bread in one hand and a butter knife in the other; she set both on the counter next to the packages of cold cuts and veggies.

I got back just in time to catch Elizabeth making lunch. She makes one mean sandwich. I bet there’s nothing like it here in the afterlife. He sighed.

Standing off to one side, he watched her in profile as she deliberately crafted a masterpiece. When finished, she took the plate with the sandwich off the counter, along with a perspiring glass of iced tea, and placed them on the kitchen table. Finally, bones creaking, she sat down to lunch.

Across from her was a glass of water and an empty plate.

What’s with the extra place setting? If that’s for some other guy, I’m out the door, down the sidewalk and this time I’m not turning—

For a brief instant, the gears in his mind caught traction and slammed a pile of humbling memories right in his lap.

Yesterday she was wearing green and she set the table the same way. The day before that she wore blue and set the table the same way. The day before that she wore black and set the table…It goes on and on, in over a hundred different varieties, but—

But the extra table setting is always for me.

Sorry, again, Elizabeth.

He sat down at the place she’d set for him. However, since she hadn’t pulled the chair out for him, his body looked bisected by the table. His plate was now resting somewhere within his rib cage. He didn’t bother to wonder why his body passed through the things he wanted it to, but not the things he didn’t want it to. Not much of what was happening really made sense to him when he could concentrate. Now that his mind was getting slippery he didn’t dare try any more deep thinking.

The moments passed languidly by as he watched her consume her meal.

When she was done eating, she wiped her face with a napkin and got up from the table. She put away the unused dishes and silverware, then stood in the middle of the kitchen with the dirty dishes clutched in her wrinkled hands.

He looked in her eyes.

She’s going to cry. How can I tell her she doesn’t need to? Everything is fine, even the stuff that seems like it isn’t really is. Or will be.

She made her way over the sink before breaking down into hitching sobs. He heard her voice crack as it released his name.


‘Look. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere: I promised. Yeah, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve broken my share of promises over the years, but none of them to you.’ He seemed to rethink that, then added, ‘Since we got married.’ He stalked back and forth across the kitchen behind her trembling form. ‘Just say something if you can hear me. Or if you think you can hear me. I’ll listen. I’ve got as long as you’ve got.’ Already he knew he was stretching. ‘Just talk, ok?’

But she didn’t hear him: She couldn’t answer him.

Eventually her sobbing died down and she went into the living room, snagging the day’s newspaper off the table on her way past. He followed.

I knew that wouldn’t work. But what can I do?

Then, as if to give away the answer—as she always did when he let her look over his shoulder at a crossword puzzle he was doing—she turned on the TV. The baseball game was on. But only for a split second before the announcers did what they did best: glibly announced a commercial break.

What? She hates baseball. She’s always refused to watch it with me. She would always pull the puzzle section from the paper and do that while I—

And there was the answer—

She knows. I don’t know how she knows, probably some deep seated women’s intuition thingy, but she knows. I can relax.

She grabbed a pen off the end table and sat on the davenport. He sat down on the nice cloth chair with the fold out leg rest. His mind began to wander.

His hands shot out to grab the armrests; his head jerked back and forth. What was I— The game came back on. Oh, yeah, I was watching the game. Pause. Who’s playing again?

Damn Old-Timers.

© 2007 by James A. Bowers
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
This story is dedicated to James Rufus and Zelma Martha Bowers, for 75 years spent together.

Andy Bowers is an avid writer of fantasy and active at The Herscher Project and Elfwood. His work also appears in the first edition of "Superlative Tales", a pulp magazine parody published by Ink & Feathers Comics.