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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Penance

Scott stood in the living room, staring out the front windows at the rain coming down in sheets and thinking how quiet it was in the house. The kids were away at college, Sally was curled up on the sofa quietly reading and the only sound was the rain as it pounded against the roof. The waterlogged leaves on the trees, some turning yellow and orange, hung limply from the limbs. He took a sip of coffee and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much rain come down at one time.”
“Well, that’s the way it is in the fall sometimes.”
“Yeah, I know. But this is crazy. Three offshore hurricanes in a row. A week of rain. We’re never going to dry out.” He shook his head, just grateful that their basement was still dry. Suddenly through the sheets of water, he saw something in the street. He wasn’t sure, but it looked like someone riding a bicycle. “Oh my God, that old guy from up the street somewhere is riding his bike in this. What is he, crazy?”
Sally put down the book she had been reading, unfolded her legs, and walked over to stand next to Scott. She looked out the window and said, “Yeah, I saw him go down the road a little earlier, when there was a lull in the storm. He must have been heading to Grocery Mart or maybe the pharmacy.”
“I know he goes down the road every day. Rain or shine. But this is crazy; it’s almost as bad as a hurricane. Doesn’t he know enough to stay home where it’s dry?” Scott watched as the old man slowly pedaled his bike up the slight incline, a bulging plastic grocery bag dangling from the fingers gripping the handlebars.
A car drove by the old man, going much too fast, and barely swerved around him. A huge wave of water flew up from the tires and engulfed the old man. The car drove on and the old man wobbled unsteadily on the bike. In horror Scott and Sally watched as the bike fell, in what seemed to be slow motion, into the middle of the road, taking the old man with it. He landed in the middle of the traffic lane and didn’t move, not right away.
Scott handed his coffee cup to Sally, walked quickly to the door and grabbed the rain slicker that was drying on a hook nearby. “Somebody’s going to run him over,” he said. “I’ll see if I can give him a hand.”
“Offer him a ride in the truck,” said Sally.
“I will,” he said as he ran out of the door.

He didn’t bother with the hood and the rain ran down his neck onto his shirt collar; he was drenched before he was halfway down the driveway, running at top speed, praying he would reach the old man before another car came up the street. The man was just beginning to get up, but he was tangled in his bicycle, his long, dark coat wrapped around his legs like a cocoon. Scott reached him and stood between him and the traffic lane, his yellow slicker more visible to any passing vehicles than the old man’s dark coat.
The old man seemed unable to figure out how to get untangled from the bike. He crouched over the bicycle; the rain plastered his sparse gray hair to his head, and poured down his cheeks, emphasizing his gauntness.
Grabbing the man’s arms and helping him to stand, Scott asked, “Sir, are you all right? Sir? Are you injured?” Not getting an answer, he repeated the questions a few times as the man stood there, unresponsive but cooperative, not resisting as Scott lifted first one foot and then the other away from the bicycle.
Leading the man over to the stone wall Scott said again, “Are you hurt?”
Seeming to revive a little, the man answered, “Yeah, um, I think…yeah, I’m all right.”
“Okay. You had me worried,” Scott replied. “You wait right here, sir. I’ll get my truck and drive you home.”
“No. No, don’t have to, I’m fine,” the old man said answered slowly, like a man not used to conversation.
“I want to. You had an awful fall. And I’m sure you don’t live far up the road.”
“No, not far. But don’t go to any trouble,” the old man shook his head and stood up, but the two motions together were too much for him and he started to fall over.
Scott grabbed him and sat him back on the stone wall. “Look, either I’m driving you home or I’m calling an ambulance…”
The old man looked up at him quickly, “No, no ambulance. Must get home.”
“Fine then, I’ll take you. My truck’s right there,” he said pointing up the driveway. “Wait. I’ll be right back.” Scott trotted up the driveway, and climbed in his ten year old Ford Ranger. It started and he pulled into the street. Parking near the old man Scott put the truck’s hazard lights on before jumping out and running back to the old man. Scott helped him into the passenger street and was about to shut the door.
“Wait! My bike. And my groceries.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll put the bike in the back and gather up your groceries. I’ll be back.” Scott ran to the bike and lifting it over his head, carried it to the bed of the truck and laid it gently on top of an old tarp that was bunched up, like a cushion put there just for that purpose. Then he dashed back to the front of the truck and searched the road for the grocery bag. After a couple minutes he found the brown plastic bag, which was crinkled and shiny, looking like a pile of wet mud. There were a few cans in it and he took the bag and ran back to the truck. “There you go. There only seems to be cans in there, I hope that’s all you had,” Scott said as he climbed in and handed the bag to the old man.
“Nope, nothing else. Just some cans,” the old man replied. “Baked beans, peas and chicken soup.”
“Oh, well that’s good,” Scott said. “My name is Scott, by the way. Scott Anson.”
“Joseph Brickler.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Brickler.”
“Joe,” he corrected. “Call me Joe.”
“If that’s what you want, sir,” Scott said, unsure about calling a man of his age by his first name.
“What’s this for?” Joe asked, leaning forward and tapping a small red bubble light on the dash board.
“I’m a Call Firefighter,” Scott answered. But Joe just looked at him, not understanding. “A volunteer fireman. I use the light in case of a fire in town, so I can get there faster.” Joe nodded his understanding, leaned back in the seat, and waited silently. But after a few moments of silence, Scott said, “Well then, Joe, I don’t know exactly where you live. Can you give me directions?”
“Yup, go up the street. You know where the turn for Green Street is?”
“I know where Green Street is.”
“Well, take that turn. I live about a mile down on the left.”
“Wow, that’s quite a ride by bike to get to Grocery Mart,” Scott replied. “You don’t drive? A car, I mean.”
“Nope. No car.” He fell into silence.
Scott continued to look at him, but he said nothing else, so Scott started the truck and drove slowly toward Green Street.
Scott’s few attempts at conversation were met with silence, so the drive was quiet except for the howling wind and the rush of the rain, until old Joe leaned forward and pointed, “that’s it, that left by the big maple tree.”
Peering through the wipers that were ineffectually smearing the rain across his windshield Scott answered, “Left? What left? I don’t see any turn…”
“Now,” the old man shouted. “Turn now!”
Scott stomped on his break pedal, coming to a complete stop in the middle of the road. “I tell you, Joe, I don’t see a turn here at all.” He rolled down the window and stuck his head out. Through the gloom and the sheets of rain he thought he could make out a darker area next to the maple tree and he noticed there was a mail box there. Hoping the old man knew what he was talking about, Scott turned into the dark hole.
It was a driveway, of sorts; it was gravel and there were two deep ruts with a grass berm in the middle. No car had driven down this driveway in a very long time. It was lined on both sides by maple trees, so that it would be in shadow even on the brightest day at noon. Scott put on his high beams in an attempt to pierce the gloom. They helped a little, but not much. The truck lurched from deep rut to shallow rut and back again.
“You ride your bike on this?” he asked.
“Yup, you learn where the holes are,” Joe answered.
The driveway seemed to go on and on. “How long is this driveway?” Scott didn’t dare take his eyes off the road to look at Joe.
“Don’t know. Quarter mile, half mile maybe.”
After a few more minutes of slowly driving from rut to rut, they finally pulled out into a large grassy area in front of an old fashioned New England farmhouse. The house wasn’t large and had a rickety porch across the front of it.
“Pull up here,” Joe said, pointing to a side door facing the grassy yard. There was a lean-to shed near the door, a chicken coop next to that and an old wire fence behind it.
“Okay,” Scott said as he looked around. This had clearly been a true farm at one time, but now there might be a few chickens hiding in the coop, but not much else. Peering through the rain and past the fence, he thought he saw new houses, big McMansions. “Are there houses back there?”
“Yup,” he answered. “Kept the fencing up. This one and one a little further back.”
“Did you?”
“Keep the kids out.”
“Oh. I see,” Scott really didn’t see, but wasn’t going to ask any questions. “Do you keep the bike in the lean-to?”
“Yup,” old Joe answered, reaching for the door handle.
“No, you stay here. I’ll put the bike in the lean-to and come back and give you a hand,” Scott said.
“Don’t need a hand.”
“Maybe not, but I want to make sure,” Scott answered. Seeing the stubborn look on Joe’s face, he smiled, “C’mon humor me.”
The old man looked taken aback at Scott’s smile and slowly he began to smile, too, “all right.” He leaned back in the seat and waited.
Scott jumped out and dashed to the back of the truck, grabbed the bike and ran to the lean-to. There was a cleared spot that was obviously where Joe kept the bike, it fit perfectly. Then Scott trotted back to the truck and opened the passenger door for Joe.
“Here, I’ll carry the bag,” Scott said, taking it out of the old man’s hands. He leaned in and put his hand on Joe’s arm to help him out, but Joe shook it off and climbed out of the truck.
As old Joe slowly walked towards the door, Scott walked beside him, his arm out, prepared to catch him if he fell. But he didn’t fall, he moved slowly but steadily towards the door. He reached the door which had a small overhang sheltering it from the worst of the rain. He turned to Scott, who was right behind him and reached for the grocery bag. He opened the door and stepped into his kitchen. Then he turned back to Scott, said, “Thank you much,” and shut the door.
Scott stood for a moment under the overhang, staring at the closed door. Then he shook his head, laughed and ran for the truck. He started the engine and slowly headed back home.
###
Two days later the rain finally stopped, at least for a while. Scott, wearing a flannel jacket against the chill, walked out to his mailbox, taking a circuitous route around his yard, checking for damage from the storms. There were lots of sticks down, a few broken branches, and leaves completely covered the grass. Scott nodded and said to himself, “Not bad. Could’ve been way worse.” He grabbed his mail and turned to walk up the driveway, but noticed something shiny in the street in front of his stone wall. He walked over and picked up a can of peas. Looking around Scott saw a can of soup that had rolled down the street a little ways. He picked that up, too.
Walking in the house, he called to Sally, “Hey, Sal, I found two cans that must have fallen out of old Joe’s bag the other day.”
She came out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a white dishtowel, “Really? You gonna to take them over to him?”
“I guess.”
“Maybe he’ll let you inside this time,” she said laughing.
“Not likely, but I’ll drop them off anyway. Might as well do it now. I’ll be back in a little bit.”
“Okay. Dinner won’t be ready for an hour or so anyway.”
“I’ll definitely be back in time for that. The smell of that pot roast has been making my mouth water every time I come inside,” he laughed, sniffing the air. “Though I don’t know why you keep making these big meals for just the two of us.”
“I don’t know, habit maybe,” Sally answered, shrugging.
“You should save these big dinners for when the kids come home to visit,” Scott said. “Not that I don’t appreciate your pot roast, Sal.” He walked over to her, gave her a kiss and laughed saying, “Just don’t overcook it, like you always do.”
Sally laughed back at him and said, “Brat! Get out of here and go do your Good Samaritan thing.”
Still laughing, Scott walked back out, climbed into his truck, and headed to Joe’s place.
###
Scott turned into the dark hole between the trees that was slightly more visible without rain. He held on tight to the steering wheel as the truck bounced its way down the rutted track. Parking the truck where he had parked two days before, Scott got out and walked up to the house. He knocked on the door and waited. Leaning to the side a little, Scott looked in the lean-to and saw Joe’s bike. After a few moments, he knocked again, harder this time and the door popped open.
He could hear a loud metallic growl and whine, the sound of a very old vacuum cleaner. “No wonder he can’t hear me knock,” Scott said to himself. “Joe! Hey Joe! I found some cans you dropped!” Scott stopped shouting. “What am I doing? There’s no way he can hear me. I can’t hear me. I’ll just leave the cans.”
Scott walked toward the unpainted kitchen table; it had been wiped down so many times the finish was gone on the top, but the legs still showed the maple stain it had when it was young. He walked across the old fashioned linoleum that was gray and speckled with red, black and white dots, and set the cans down on the table. Looking around, Scott noticed details about the kitchen. The counters were linoleum, too, with metal strapping around the edges; there was a huge porcelain sink with a built in drain board and the cabinets were pine. If the walls were once painted, the paint had faded to drab beige gray. But the room was scrupulously clean, not a speck of dirt on the counter or the floors, and the sink sparkled as if polished. Scott turned to the door to leave.
Suddenly the noise stopped. The silence was deafening, Scott’s ears rang with a hum that echoed the previous noise. Then there was a sound, another growl, but this one wasn’t metallic. It was human. The growl was followed by a cawing sound, like a crow makes, but again, this was human. Scott stopped in his tracks and turned back towards the center of the house, he wondered if Joe was all right. Scott walked towards the sound, a doorway on the other side of the kitchen.
He walked into a parlor, old fashioned with hardwood floors covered by faded oriental carpets and lace curtains at the windows. There were doilies on the tops of the tapestry upholstered chairs and doilies on the tables. In the center of the room was Joe, the vacuum waiting behind him as he knelt in front of a wheel chair. In the chair sat an elderly woman with gleaming snow white hair. A pink shawl rested on her shoulders and lace peeked out from the shawl at her neck. From what Scott could see her skin was pink and almost wrinkle-free, as if belonging to a much younger woman. She opened her mouth and made that cawing sound again as Joe gently patted her cheek. Scott must have made a sound because Joe started and looked away from the woman.
“What are you doing here?” Joe asked, frowning as he stood, placing himself between Scott and the woman. Even in faded trousers and an old brown sweater vest with a torn pocket, he looked like a warrior, a knight in tarnished armor, whose duty was to protect the princess.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t mean to intrude. I found some cans you dropped the other day. I knocked but you didn’t hear me. I was going to just leave them, but I heard a noise and worried that you might be hurt or something.” Scott spoke fast, running the words together as he backed towards the doorway.
“I’m fine,” Joe said still standing in a defensive posture, blocking Scott’s view of the woman.
“Yes, I can see that,” Scott felt awkward. He had intruded on something private and didn’t know what to say. “Anyway, I left them on the table for you,” and he turned back towards the kitchen.
Joe followed him. “Thank you,” he said as he picked up the two cans from the table and set them on the counter.
Scott turned to answer him and saw that the woman had turned her face to follow Joe’s movements. He was startled to see a jagged scar that stretched from her right temple down her cheek to her throat, disappearing into her lace collar. It missed her eye but pulled the skin on her cheek, forcing that side of her face into an awkward, crooked grin. Joe stepped between him and the woman again.
“Good bye,” he said.
“Good bye, Joe,” Scott reached for the door knob, but turned back to look at Joe. “Are you sure everything’s all right?”
“I’m fine,” he answered. “We’re fine. We don’t need anything or anyone. Good bye.” He reached for the edge of the door, opening it wider, encouraging Scott to leave.
Scott had no choice, he walked out the door and Joe shut it behind him.
###
On Saturday, Scott walked into the Cozy Break coffee shop, as he did every Saturday. He waved to the other regulars and sat down at his usual place at the counter. Jeanine bustled over with a cup in one hand and a coffee pot in the other.
“Your usual, Scott?” she asked, setting down the cup and filling it with coffee.
“Yeah, Jeanine. Thanks.” She bustled away to toast his bagel. “Hey Frank, Jim, how’re you doing?” he asked the two men sitting across the U-shaped counter from him.
“Good, Scott. How ’bout you?” Frank answered.
“You know how it is with me,” Jim said. “So busy. Barely get a day off. More and more new houses to inspect. Can’t believe how many folks are moving here.”
Scott nodded at the two men to indicate he was fine and in the hope that Jim wouldn’t feel the need to give a blow-by-blow account of just how busy he was. Jim loved to play up his importance in town as the lone electrical inspector and exaggerated just about everything he did. But he was right about all the new people in town, they were moving out from the city in droves.
Jim opened his mouth to continue but was distracted when Bob Robinson came in. Bob was a fireman in town, on the job for twenty-five years. He’d lived in town his entire life, as did both Jim and Frank, but as a fireman with EMT training, he knew everyone’s secrets in town. He knew which husbands beat their wives and which people were secret addicts of prescription medicine. If the police, fire, or ambulance had ever been called to someone’s house, Bob knew the story behind it, and the history behind that.
Scott, as a newbie with only fifteen years residence in town, wondered if Bob knew Joe’s story, and was trying to figure out how to word his question when Frank looked out the front window and said, “Hey, look, there goes old Joe. Man, does he get around!”
“He sure does. More than once I’ve met up with him on the other side of town, when he got stuck cuz of flat tire or a change in weather. I’ve given him a lift home a number of times,” Bob answered, nodding at Jeanine as she poured his coffee.
“Me too,” said Frank.
Jim opened his mouth to claim good heartedness, also, but Bob beat him to it, “Don’t even try to tell us you’ve ever given him a lift, Jim. You’re too cheap to use the gas to drive him across town.”
Jim closed his mouth and glared at them, unable to deny the accusation as the others, including Jeanine, laughed at him.
When the laughter died down, Scott said, “I gave him a lift home during that awful rain last week.”
“You did?” asked Bob. “Did he let you in the house?”
Scott answered, “No, he sure didn’t. Said ‘thank you much’ and closed the door in my face.” Scott didn’t feel he should say anything about his second trip to Joe’s house. He had seen things he wasn’t supposed to see, and somehow felt as if he had done something wrong. He was afraid to reveal something about Joe that no one was supposed to know; Scott didn’t understand how, but it would be a betrayal of some kind.
The others all laughed.
“Same here,” said Bob.
“Me, too,” said Frank. “He doesn’t let anybody in. Of course, he doesn’t ask for help either.”
“True, you almost have to force it on him,” said Bob. “He’s proud.”
“I had to threaten to call an ambulance before he’d get in my truck,” said Scott. “What’s his story, anyway?”
“Well, there was an accident maybe twenty, no, must be twenty-five years ago,” said Bob. “I don’t know all the details, it happened in the city. Joe and his wife, Abby I think her name was, had gone into the city for dinner or a show, or something. Anyway, it was winter, the roads were icy, and maybe Joe had a few drinks. He lost control of the car, it flipped and was totaled.”
“Yeah, I heard it was a miracle that Joe wasn’t killed, too,” said Frank.
“His wife was killed?” asked Scott, turning his head to look first at Frank, then at Bob.
“Must have been,” answered Bob. “There was a small write up in the city paper, but back in those days, the local paper was a bi-weekly and no one saw it until it was too late to try to visit or anything.”
“Yeah, no one saw Joe for weeks, and then one day he was back and riding that bicycle around town. No one saw her again,” said Frank.
“Shortly after the accident, he stopped working his farm and a few years after that he sold off most of the land,” Bob continued.
“Yeah, he put up a double row of fences to keep the neighbors out,” said Frank.
“He mentioned the fences to me,” said Scott. “Told me they were to keep the kids out. I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
“Yeah, he’s a man who likes his privacy, he always did,” Bob said. “Even before the accident he wasn’t very friendly with folks in town. And afterward, well…he just shut everyone out completely. Doesn’t like to accept help and won’t answer any questions.”
“At the time, people asked him about what happened, but he refused to talk about it,” said Jim. “I noticed she wasn’t buried in either cemetery in town, so I asked where she was buried.” At their surprised faces he blustered, “I wanted to send flowers…”
“Right. You wanted to send flowers,” said Frank frowning at Jim and shaking his head. “No, you didn’t. You were just being nosy.”
“I was not. I…”
“Jesus, Jim, I can’t believe you did that,” said Bob, a disgusted expression on his face. “Nobody else asked him questions, beyond asking how he was. One look and you could see he was a broken man.”
“Really Jim, you’re something else,” Frank added. “Everyone knew how close Joe and Abby were, all those years together, just the two of them.”
Scott let the argument flow over him as he thought about Joe’s story and what he had seen with his own eyes. He knew something these old timers, the coffee shop coots as Sally called them, didn’t know. He could straighten them out if he wanted. Abby wasn’t dead. He could tell them that she was alive, physically anyway. But somehow that didn’t feel right. It’s funny, he didn’t know Joe; before that rainy day he’d never even spoken to him, but now he felt a kind of loyalty to him. Thinking about Joe and his life taking care of Abby, Scott wondered how he did it. How he devoted his life to Abby, and closed everyone else out. Scott tried to think what he would do in the same situation, but of course his life was different, he had his kids, too. But still, he had been thinking how quiet his house was with the kids grown up and gone. He wondered about himself and Sally, their life together. He loved her, of course he did, but could he do what Joe had done and give up all outside life for her? Scott wasn’t sure he had the same strength that Joe did; he had to respect Joe for that strength. So he would keep his mouth shut, Joe didn’t want the world to know, and the world wasn’t going to find out from Scott Anson.
###
Scott woke to a pounding on the front door. The glowing numbers on the clock showed it was 2:30 in the morning. He crawled out of the covers and felt his way to the blanket chest at the foot of the bed. He forced his feet into the flannel pajama bottoms he found there and felt around some more but couldn’t find his tee shirt. Stumbling over to his work boots by the closet, he stuffed his bare feet into them and grabbed a flannel shirt from the closet. As he forced his arms through the sleeves he fast-shuffled out of the room, his laces clacking on the floor and the tongues of the boots slapping his shins.
Once he got out of the bedroom he closed the door so the noise wouldn’t wake Sally and put the hall light on. He walked down the hall and into the living room, putting lights on as he went. The pounding never stopped. He snapped the front light on and unlocked the door. Swinging the door wide he was confronted by Joe.
“Help me!” Joe practically shouted. It was raining again. Joe’s raincoat was buttoned all askew. He wore pajama bottoms and slippers, no socks. He was pale and his eyes were opened wide. He grabbed the door frame and stood there, panting.
“Joe, what’s wrong?”
“I can’t wake her,” he shuddered as he spoke and looked up at Scott.
“What do you mean you can’t wake her? It’s the middle of the night.”
“Something woke me. A noise, I don’t know. I got up and checked her. She didn’t look like she was breathing. I tried to wake her but couldn’t,” he paused and stared at Scott. “You can help, can’t you? You’re a fireman.”
“Joe, you should’ve called an ambulance.”
“No. No ambulance, you help me. No one else knows,” he grabbed Scott’s arm in a surprisingly strong grip and tugged.
“Okay. Okay, Joe, let me grab my keys and a jacket,” leaving Joe in the doorway he ran back to the bedroom, tying his boots on the fly. He fumbled in the dark for his truck keys and his cell phone. He came back out, grabbed a jacket off the hook and followed Joe back out into the rain. He unlocked the truck with the remote and grabbed Joe’s bike, which was laying on its side in the drive. “You get in the truck, Joe. I’ll put your bike in the back.”
Joe didn’t need to be told twice; he climbed in and slammed the door. He leaned forward in the seat, as if by sheer force of will he could make the truck start moving.
Scott got in, started the truck, and headed for Joe’s house. Except for the sound of the rain and the wind, the ride was completed in silence. Scott glanced over at Joe a few times and saw Joe’s face, pale and set with fear; he still leaned forward, silently urging Scott and the truck to go faster.
After the short ride, Scott turned down Joe’s rutted driveway. “Sorry, but I have to slow down, Joe, if I don’t want to rip up my undercarriage,” he said.
Joe barely glanced at him, nodded, and continued to stare through the windshield.
Another few minutes and they pulled up beside the house. Joe jumped out and ran for the open door. He hadn’t even shut it when he’d rushed out. Turning, he waited impatiently for Scott to catch up.
“Hurry! She’s been alone too long,” he whispered in a sharp voice, as if afraid to disturb her sleep.
“Okay, Joe. Where is she?”
“Here in the bedroom,” he tore his coat off, dropping it on the floor, as he led Scott across the darkened parlor, through a door on the far side and into a large bedroom that spanned the house front to back.
At one time, it was probably two small rooms and the dividing wall had been removed making one huge bedroom, which was a good thing because the room was jammed with furniture. There was a huge four poster bed in the center of the far wall, and at the foot of the bed was a small cot, with the covers jumbled in the center. Spaced around the walls there were three bureaus, a bookcase and an armoire. A recliner stood in the corner near the bed with a pole lamp beside it. Two nightstands, both covered by stacks of books, and a blanket chest rounded out the jumble of furniture. The furniture was large, over-sized pieces, old fashioned and ornate in design, with curlicues and cherubs carved into the wood. Her wheelchair stood waiting next to the bed. Scott noticed all of this with half his mind as he walked up to the bed, and pushed the wheelchair out of the way.
Abby lay on her back, eyes closed, snow white hair a halo around her head. Her face was relaxed, making the ugly scar less noticeable. Her hands lay outside the covers, one by her side, the other touching the lace at her throat. Scott reached out to find a pulse in her neck. There was none. He felt the other side, and then her wrist. Still nothing. Not wanting to say it, he turned to Joe. Joe’s face told him that he already knew, but Scott had to say the words.
“I’m sorry, Joe. She’s gone.”
“No! No, she can’t be. She’s just sleeping.”
“I’m sorry Joe, but she’s not sleeping. She’s gone.”
Joe believed him this time. Slowly, he walked over to the bed and sat on the edge, facing her. He reached over and started smoothing her hair.
“I’ll call it in to the police, Joe.”
Joe didn’t hear him, or didn’t care. Scott stepped out of the room and called the police on his cell phone. As he spoke, he looked over his shoulder at Joe and Abby. Joe held her hand and gently patted her cheek as he spoke quietly to her.
Scott went into the kitchen to give Joe privacy to say goodbye to Abby. As he waited for the police and ambulance he again wondered if he would be able to do what Joe had done and devote himself to a wife who couldn’t even communicate with him or respond in the most basic way. He couldn’t imagine the silence in the house. The more he thought about it, the more confused he became. He loved Sally, but sometimes he wondered what their life would be like without the noise and activity of the kids. What would they talk about for the next thirty or forty years? But if she was injured, disabled in some way, he would never leave her. He owed her loyalty. No, not loyalty, something more, more than love, even. Something that he saw in Joe’s face when he looked at Abby.
###
They came and very efficiently verified that she was dead. Joe seemed unable to speak, so Scott explained what had happened. When they tried to put her body on a stretcher, Joe silently protested as if he would stop them, but Scott and the police officer stood in front of him.
“They’ll take good care of her, Joe,” said Scott. “She has to go to the hospital, for now. They’ll call you to find out what funeral home to use.”
“No phone,” said Joe.
“Somebody will come and talk to you tomorrow,” said the young police officer, a recent transplant to the town. He had all the information he needed for now and wanted to get going. He followed the EMT’s and the body out the door, leaving Scott alone with Joe.
Scott didn’t know what to say or do. For all intents and purposes, Joe was a stranger, but somehow he felt responsible for him.
“Are you going to be all right here, Joe?” Scott asked standing awkwardly in the kitchen.
“I’ve never been alone,” Joe answered as he looked around the kitchen and into the darkened parlor.
“Well, um, I know you’ll be um, lonely without her to talk to…”
“Lonely? That’s not it. I don’t know what to do now.”
“I know, Joe. You’ve taken very good care of her for a long time. You should be proud of that.”
“Proud! No. For twenty four years I’ve watched over her. She was my life. It wasn’t a job or a duty, something to be proud of. It was just what I had to do,” Joe slumped into a kitchen chair and stared out the still open door.
“Had to do?” Scott asked, frowning in puzzlement. In Joe he saw a man who had given up everything to take care of his disabled wife. He seemed admirable. He certainly hadn’t had to do it.
“Because I should have protected her. I couldn’t save her, so I prayed, ‘please just let her live and I’ll spend the rest of my life making it up to her.’ And she lived.”
“Yes, Joe, she lived. And you took good care of her,” Scott answered.
“But I’m not ready! I wasn’t allowed to finish!”
“Finish! Finish what?”
“Taking care of her. She’s gone and I’m still here,” Joe took a large shuddering breath and stared up at Scott. “I don’t know what to do now.”