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January 30th 2017  |  0  |  Category: Fiction  |  Author:  |  215 views

by: Milton Trachtenburg
Copyright 2017

John Joseph Fitzgerald awoke early, as was his custom. He afforded himself the luxury of a languorous stretch like a domesticated cat. In the manner of a cat, his awareness was full. His myopic stare assayed the dust dancing in a ray of sunlight. Until he put on his spectacles, it could have been tiny fairies dancing on the wind or minuscule pedestrians crossing the Bridge of Sighs.

“Decision time,” he muttered. He knew the time for change had arrived when he found himself talking aloud to the empty rooms, once filled with laughter, anger, sadness and all the other emotions appurtenant to a marriage.

He stared at his hands for a moment, looking at them as if seeing them for the first time. You can tell everything about a person from his hands. Who are you, hands? He felt, more than thought, of the keyboard and how it felt under his fingers. Keyboards — it’s strange, really strange, how it was always keyboards for the hands and floorboards for the feet. The creative centers. Not the mind, but the hands and feet.

His mind drifted back through the labyrinthine pathways of his life. It was times like this he felt so old. His mind began racing; he slipped out of the mantle of the his confining reality which time had etched upon his face, his limbs, his muscles and felt exhilarated as in his memories his young legs carried him over the paths he had once engaged with ease and assurance.

Down which corridors shall we walk today? Life takes some strange turns. As he viewed the various souvenirs lining his internal trophy room, he wondered if life had any meaning at all. If someone hadn’t already said it, I think I’d ask, what’s it all about? For a moment, his mind, backed by a full twenty-piece orchestra, played the first few bars of a once-famous song about a man looking back upon his life. Does any of it have any meaning? What is it all about? Past longings and longed for passings. Is that all there is?

His reverie was shattered by the droning of the announcer on the clock radio. “…inutes before seven o’clock.” If only I could have set the clock two seconds ahead, I would know how many `inutes’ before seven o’clock it is. He laughed at his attempt at morning humor. Though John had been retired for a number of years, he continued to set the alarm. He believed that if he gave up this one last vestige of an earlier life, he would fade into non-existence.

The bed seemed like a magnet, holding him down in its soft, overnight warmth. He pulled himself up with a loud grunt and placed his bare feet gingerly on the cold, hardwood floor. He padded carefully over to his slippers, resting against a tall chiffarobe standing against the wall. No matter how cold the floor, he always left his slippers in a twin vigil in front of the ancient wardrobe, bought used many years earlier at a Salvation Army store when he and Helen, his late wife, were young and impecunious. I wonder if anybody famous ever hung their clothes in this old relic.

John shuffled back to the bedside and felt for his glasses on the nightstand, perched them on the bridge of his nose and prepared to begin the day. Now that he was alone, it was not difficult to maintain order when he chose to do so. It’s funny, all those years with the same person and now … He looked around him. Everything appeared to be both familiar and alien. The bed which was once a special place was now a hollow, white ghost, reminding him with a silent smirk what had been but could never again be. Like a stroke victim, the bed appeared alive only on one side. He carefully left the other side unused as if afraid that the previous occupant might return and disapprove. He looked down past his frayed pajamas and noted that the sole of one slipper was detaching. Just like me.

He padded into the bathroom and began his morning ablutions with his daily battle in front of the toilet. “My plumbing is as rotten as the plumbing in the house,” he muttered, as he stared down at the pathetic dribble emerging in front of him. He felt no pain, but realized how quickly his life had passed. He saw flashes of a young, strong man. He conjured up the dark, full head of hair and the strong, white teeth that flashed the smile his Helen always said was the first thing that attracted her to him.

He turned toward the sink, staring at his image in the ancient mirror on the door of the medicine cabinet. Spots, black spots. The mirror backing had peeled away. When he looked at himself, the image reflected back to him seemed to be covered with random spots. He looked down at his hands and saw that there were brown spots which he had never before noticed. Maybe I’m peeling off on the inside, too.

Where did all the dreams go? He thought back to his days in school. He looked at his hands again and pictured the perpetual blue stains, which if he looked closely, almost seemed to still remain. In the early years, the stain was on his index and middle finger from his Waterman fountain pen. Though the old dowager leaked worse than a bureaucracy sinking from a scandal, he gave the intricately crafted instrument full credit for the beginning of his writing career. He loved that old pen with its gold point. So many words flowed from it. Then, one day, it died — it no longer drew ink. That was the first real loss he suffered. The first of many. Helen said that the writing came from within me but I gave all the credit to the pen. It was my muse.

“Come on, Jackie. Get the day started. Get some breakfast in you and give your engine some fuel.” He turned his head, startled. “Who said that?” He relaxed as he recalled all of the mornings in his mother’s kitchen. He pictured the dark oak table with all of the chips and scratches, and four place mats. Now there’s only one … It had been his mother’s voice. “Yes, mom, pour it on!”

John glanced about his own kitchen, as if he was seeing it for the first time. It used to be so bright and cheery. One of these days I’ve really got to get this place fixed up. He opened the cabinet and surveyed the contents. This ritual had been part of breakfast for well over a half a century. He knew what his choices would be, but spent this solitary moment contemplating the alternatives — Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies.

It was Monday, so he knew that he would pick the Corn Flakes. He had been performing this little ritual for so long now, that to change the rules might alter the fabric of life itself. He removed the cereal from the cabinet and shook the box to make certain that there was enough for a bowlful. John reached over and removed a cereal bowl from the drain board. He no longer bothered to put his dishes away after his meals. There were so few of them left.

He examined the bowl, the last remaining from the set of dishes his mother-in -law had given to him and Helen for some unremembered occasion. The bowl had a ragged chip on the edge, giving it an almost predatory look. John sometimes thought that it reminded him of his mother-in-law, but when he was in a kinder mood accepted that he hadn’t had a bad relationship with her. He thought about calling her sometimes, but since Helen passed on, it was just too difficult, and her hearing was so poor that he almost had to scream into the phone to be heard. Helen dead too soon and his mother in law nearing entry into her second century of life.

With care, John placed the bowl down exactly in the center of the place mat and turned to the refrigerator. His mind flashed back to the times when, as a boy, he would raid the ice box. He shivered with joy as he thought about the ice man carefully climbing the rickety back stairs with fifty pound a’ ice for the lady. His mother would let him count out the five dimes to pay the man, and in the summer, she would always offer the man a glass of lemonade with a piece of ice. John remembered the iceman’s hands – big and powerful and always red. He recalled the cry of gidyap as the ice man urged his tired, old horse on to the next stop.

He wasn’t certain how long he had been standing in front of the open refrigerator. Funny how sometimes I just seem to forget where I am. Too much time and too little to do with it. One of his mother’s sayings about idle hands flashed through his mind, but he could not recall the rest of it. John tried to remember what it was that he wanted in the refrigerator. Oh, yes, milk. Milk for the cereal.

The milk container date stamp certified that it had passed its expiration date some time earlier in the month. One sniff told John that the contents had passed over as well. He poured the remaining milk down the drain and rinsed the container. He placed it gently in the trash can.

John stared at the Corn Flakes box and thought back to the time when he was as young as the child playing on the face of the box. The park, which back then seemed to him a magic place, stretched beyond the horizon, its mysteries unassailable. He thought of the statuary and the variety of strange buildings which he had believed to be haunted. He vaguely remembered a huge lion in a field and recalled seeing it years later and not being particularly impressed by its size. His more recent memories were of a small statue on a pedestal — bleak and grimy with age.

He stared from the box to the bowl and paused for a moment. Cereal without milk. Life without meaning. The latter thought popped into his mind, unbidden. John poured a bowlful of cereal and absentmindedly began chewing the dry flakes. The crunching sound seemed to be echoing throughout the house, mocking his forgetfulness about checking the milk. When he finished, he went to the stove to heat water for instant coffee, then remembered that there was no milk. He turned away in frustration, shook his head and quickly cleaned his bowl.

“Get your things. Time for school!” John jolted and looked for the source of the voice. School. So long ago. He saw flashes of the old stone building, blackened with age, the cornerstone dated 1844. John recalled the teachers and the students, but many of the names were lost to him. Several came to mind and he smiled as he replayed brief encounters in his mind. My third grade teacher … I’ll never forget how kind she was to me. When John’s first book had been published many years later, he sent her a copy. By that time, she had been elected to the City Council. He had never been prouder than the moment he received a letter on official city stationary from her office. The letter even contained a few remembrances of their shared year. She remembered me.

Pangs of loneliness swept over him thinking how isolated he had been much of the time. He saw the concrete playground with students running and shouting. In the corner, against the iron fence was a frail boy, observing the children at play. In his head, he was catching the ball and making the tag. “Jackie, throw the ball in, will you?” Clumsily, he retrieved and returned the ball to the game, touching it for the only time that day. If people knew how much joy a kid gets, just touching a game ball, they would include one with every parenting kit. Even the kids who can’t play ball, need to touch it every once in a while.

Years flashed by. School, college, the first time with Helen. His writing, discovered while working in some meaningless job which provided him with too many hours with nothing to do. The first attempts were simple notes about Daily events or feelings he was experiencing. After a few years, he found that he was able to sell his short stories to journals and magazines. Without planning or intent he began seeing himself as a writer. John never had the ambition to make a living out of his talent, so he went on with his meaningless job, selling an occasional story for a few extra dollars.

Helen became the center of John’s world. He enjoyed their evenings together. They wanted children, but, as Helen would say, “Some things aren’t meant to be.” Helen reminded John of his mother — well organized and always appearing able to deal with anything life dealt her.

In her last years, when she was in her last stage of cancer, she would sit and cry in silence as John attempted to take care of her house. She never complained about the pain and there were many nights when she would bite her lip so she wouldn’t wake John. “Your sleep is important,” she would say. “After all, you have two jobs.”

She always called his writing a job, even if weeks would go by when he wouldn’t touch the keyboard, as she called his old manual Remington, bought soon after his Waterman pen died.

Helen died as she had lived, with quiet dignity, in her own home. John got drunk afterward for the first time in his life, but two days later, he was back at work. He never again sat down at his keyboard. He felt that part of his life forever close when Helen died. For several years, he would spend hours pacing the floors at night, unable to find a balance in his life.

John looked at the meager array of dishes on the drain board. He took a ragged towel out of a drawer and began absentmindedly rubbing the already dry dishes and the bowl and spoon he had used for breakfast. The towel snagged on the chip in the cereal bowl and a long thread pulled out of the already threadbare towel. Not many threads left. For a change, he put the pieces in their proper place in the cupboard.

Wandering through the house, as if taking inventory, John noted how old everything had become. Helen’s beautiful brass planter was almost black now. The wall paper, which they had spent a summer carefully choosing and installing was graying, and peeling in spots. He thought of his own life which was also graying and peeling.

John walked into the living room and sat in the chair next to the little telephone table for which he and Helen had spent a day searching. He picked up their frayed address book and searched through it. John turned the worn pages searching through the names. This one’s been dead for three years. Haven’t talked to that one in . . . how many years?

For a brief moment he was distracted by the recollection of his favorite pizza parlor. A pizza would be nice. I know the place still exists. At least they did a couple of weeks ago.

He contemplated his alternatives. The way his mind worked, all of his decisions were expressed as alternatives. His decision was firm. He would either end his life today or savor the joys of a Giovanni’s pizza. His usual luck prevailed. It was Monday and Giovanni’s was closed.


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