Gone

by William Cass
Leonard and Marge had been married forty-one years and were content.  They’d had the same jobs since they’d graduated from high school and gotten married in that small Connecticut city; he worked in the tool room at the gas company storage yard, and she was a waitress at a diner.  They’d lived in the same apartment above the diner all of their married lives.  It suited them.  There was a little landing that was large enough for two chairs, so they could sit there on hot, muggy evenings.  They had no close friends, but shared interests.  They enjoyed board games, they bowled and went to matinees together.  He collected coins, she liked to knit.  They attended church each Sunday.  Cooking and other chores were done in unison.  Reading was a pleasant pastime for both.

It was a morning like any other at work in the tool room when the owner of the diner called to tell Leonard that Marge had collapsed to the floor carrying a plate of eggs and toast and had been taken by ambulance to the hospital.  Leonard rushed there in his car, but arrived too late.  She’d already passed.  There was nothing they could do, the doctor told him.  Her heart just failed, he said.

Afterward, Leonard lived in a mild daze, un-tethered.   He made lists for himself of things to do to fill the time.  Sleeping was difficult.  He began taking long walks early in the morning and before bed at night.  Often, those led to the cemetery next to the river where Marge was buried.  He had a hard time concentrating.  He had little appetite for food, for anything.

He worked six more years, then retired in the early spring.  He planted butter lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, and herbs in clay pots on the landing; those took some tending.  He tried a few birding outings on Saturdays, but his interest waned.  He went to Bingo at church on Friday evenings a couple of times, then didn’t return.  His walks became longer.  He began taking all of his meals at the diner downstairs.  

In the fall, he came upon a stray cat in the alley behind the diner.  He started leaving milk for it in a plastic dish at the base of the stairs.  Gradually, he moved the dish up the stairs a step at a time until it was on the landing, and then just inside the back door.  The cat didn’t leave.  It was a calico, and one ear was badly mangled.  He often sat with it in his easy chair next to the living room window and watched the late afternoon winter light fall until the streetlamps blinked on.

He was sitting there one gray Saturday morning as winter turned to spring and noticed his reflection in the window: the eyes downturned at the edges behind his glasses, the strands of remaining hair above his ears, his mouth in a thin, short line.  He whispered,, “You’re only sixty-four years old.  You could live another twenty.”  He shook his head, regarded himself another long moment, then rose suddenly and went downstairs for a drive.      

He headed towards the shore.  He took the old county road, and traffic was light.  He passed tobacco fields that had been turned under, farms whose fields were separated by low stone walls, small villages, empty factories, woods.  After an hour, he came to the water and turned east, the salt twang in the back of his nose.  The light hung low over the sound.

Leonard pulled off in the second or third town he came to, and stopped the car next to a small park.  He got out and sat on a bench that faced the main street.  At one end of it was a police station with a windmill in front, and at the other a Colonial inn with a tavern attached.  Some stores were scattered in between.  Directly across the street was a small white church with its foyer doors open.  A woman about his age was setting out tiny paper cups on a card table on next to the walk that led to the church.  The blue dress and a beige cardigan sweater she wore look nice against the green bushes and white church.  Her movements seemed graceful somehow.

The streets behind the church toward the harbor dimmed from his view.  Vaguely, he heard a seagull call.  He watched the woman finish setting out the cups, take a burlap sack from under the table, and begin pouring rice from it into them.  He watched her try to tilt the bag, but it was heavy and clumsy, and the rice spilled out too quickly; as each cup filled, it tipped over.  Rice was pouring onto the grass.  The woman was laughing.  Leonard began to laugh, too.  

He trotted across the street to her and asked, “Do you need some help?”

“No,” she said.  She stopped pouring and looked at him, leaning the sack against her hip, laughing.  She had a round face with fine soft features and a small mouth.  “Maybe.  Yes.”

“Here,” he said.  He took the end of the sack and steadied it, while she resumed pouring.

“There’s a wedding,” she said.  She looked at him again and smiled.  “Young couple.  It’s almost over.”

“Are you the pastor’s wife?”

“Nobody’s wife,” she said.  Her eyes were kind.  “Just helping out.”

As they finished the last cup, the organ’s wedding march peeled inside the church.  Moments later, people came streaming out of it.  The woman handed them cups of rice as they came, and they lined the walk leading to the church steps.  Leonard took a step away from the card table, but continued to look at her.  A shiny car pulled to the curb in front of the church with streamers tied to the door handles and aluminum cans to the rear bumper.  Leonard walked further away to the sidewalk, still watching the woman.  The newly married couple emerged on the top of the steps, beaming, and a joyous shout arose from the assembled guests; the bride raised her bouquet of lilacs.  Leonard swallowed and forced himself to cross the street.  He got in his car and drove away before the shower of rice began.  In his rearview mirror, he saw the woman watch him go and raise her fingers as if to wave.

~

That spring, Leonard skipped planting the pots on the landing.  He began going to church only on occasion, and then mostly for the music, leaving after the last hymn.  He tried building a birdhouse to hang from the eaves, but didn’t finish it.  With the summer’s longer days, he sometimes walked a third time after lunch.  He found himself gazing out the window when he worked on his coin collection or tried to read.  He lingered over meals at the diner, thinking; often his coffee cup was refilled several times after he’d finished eating.

~

It wasn’t until the early fall that Leonard returned to the town along the shore.  He drove down in the late afternoon, the sun low in the sky, dust floating in it.  He parked where he had before and walked across the street.  The church was shut up tight.  He circled it once; no one was there.  Leonard stood where he had on the grass with the woman months before.  A boat belched a loud horn in the harbor.

“So,” Leonard said.  “So.”

He walked down the street to the tavern and went inside.  It was small, full of dark wood, empty except for a young man behind the bar who stood with his arms folded.  He was watching a silent television mounted up on the wall and had a towel over one shoulder.  Leonard sat down on a stool at the bar.

The bartender came over and asked, “What’s yours?”

“Ginger ale.”  Leonard took some money out of his pocket and set on the bar while the bartender poured his drink and set it on a coaster in front of him.

“Staying at the inn?” the bartender asked.

Leonard made a slight shake of his head.  He took a sip of his drink, then asked, “Say, do you happen to know a woman who helps out at the church up the street?  About my age, I guess.  Round face.”

“Miss Olsen,” the bartender said.

"I don’t know her name.”

“That’s her.”

“Do you know how to find her?”

“Nope,” the bartender shook his head.  “She left.  She was taking care of her brother until he died.  Then one day afterwards, she was gone, disappeared, poof.  Moved someplace, but no one knows where.”

Leonard felt his shoulders fall.  He looked at the bartender, blinking.  “Gone?”

“About a month ago.  Nice lady.”

The bartender wiped at a spot on the bar with the towel.  Another couple came in the bar and settled themselves into a booth by the window.  The bartender went up to them.  Leonard took another small sip from his drink.  He took his glasses off, rubbed his eyes, then replaced them.  He heard the bartender say something to the couple, and they all chuckled.  He breathed heavily, fingering the bills he’d set on the bar, then left.

~

Leonard spent long periods of time sitting against Marge’s gravestone at the cemetery.  About a month after his second drive to the shore, he sat there as the light fell toward evening.  Moss had covered the base of her grave over the years.  It was cold.  Above the trees, he watched a tiny bird, grey, perched on a telephone wire, preening itself.  A fingernail slice of moon loomed in the inky sky to the side of it.  Leonard watched the bird lift, hover in the air, and then land again on the same wire a few feet away.

“Go,” he whispered to it.  “Go, please, while you still can.”
William Cass has had a little over a hundred short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Halfway Down the Stairs.  Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.  He lives in San Diego, California.

© 2014, William Cass