“I don’t mean to be a bother,” he says and then stops as if he has forgotten what he is going to say. Unsteady hands jitter his tray as the coffee and soup flirt along the edges of the cup and bowl. “This is the first time I have left my home in eight days. Gracie passed away and I have eaten alone since.” His eyes shift to the floor and then come back to me. “I saw that you might be alone and was hoping you might indulge a man with a sick heart by sitting with him.”
I am taken aback as the plastic container carrying my Caesar salad pops from the sudden indent of my thumb. This man in a rain-spotted wrinkled button down shirt and gray slacks awaits my response.
“I wouldn’t ask you to speak or even pay any attention to me. It would be help enough just to sit and have a meal with someone other than an empty chair and the ghosts within my mind.”
His gnarled hands try to steady his tray again. I am not sure what to say, I have an unbridled urge to embrace him, instead I press my lips together forming a smile, nod and intertwine my forearm within the crux of his elbow. It is as if I can feel the ache of his loss shudder through me.
I guide him to the nearest table and set my water and food down and then reach for his tray.
“I have it,” he says. I wait for him to sit in case he needs a hand. “I wouldn’t be worth a pinch of salt if I sat before a kind young lady like yourself. Please sit.”
I do and then watch as he settles in. It isn’t long before our paper napkins find their rightful place and we begin to eat.
He wipes his mouth and then seems to notice that I haven’t looked away from him.
“Don’t let me stop you from doing what you normally do. I meant it when I said I didn’t want to be a pest.”
“You’re not a pest.” Regrettably, these are my first words spoken.
“Fiddle with your phone or whatever it is people do these days.”
“I left my phone in my office.”
He shrugs his shoulders.
“Sounds like things just keep getting better for you. Absent phone, weird old guy asks for your company . . .”
“It’s not as bad as you might think.”
“I’m shaking things up?”
“Will you tell me about her?” As soon as it escapes my mouth, I know I have intruded. “I’m sorry—I . . .”
“No need, I asked you to join me,” he says. His fist tightens around a balled up napkin in his left hand. I doubt he is aware of the strangulation. After a moment his hand relaxes and the tension drains from his face. “Unselfish. She’s unselfish . . .was unselfish. I have trouble with the tense.”
“I don’t mind,” I say.
“Good, because I haven’t been able to manage it well lately.” Two fingers stretch through the handle of his coffee. “That’s awful,” he says after a healthy sip.
“Yes, it is,” I chuckle. The second taste is equally repulsing. “Then why go back for another?”
He looks around his setting in a melodramatic way.
“I’ve got nothing else.”
I am met with a smile and blue eyes that seem to be sparking back to life.
“Let me get you something better to drink?”
“Oh, the trouble,” he says as he dismisses the thought with a gesture of his hand.
“It wouldn’t be.”
“Gracie made awful coffee too,” he says ignoring my second offer. “She did all the work. I hadn’t realized just how much, bills, keeping house, cooking . . .”
“Are there any kids that can help you now?”
“They have their own lives and an ocean between—it’s too much.” There is pain here. Pain I am not willing to prod. “In my haste I must apologize, I have yet to formally introduce myself. Harrison Clark. Harry to most.”
“I’ve always liked the name Harry. It reminds me of strength and honesty.”
“I may be the first one to disappoint you then.”
“I doubt that,” I say.
“I have failed your criterion half a dozen times since I sat down, never mind these last days: I stood in my kitchen for an hour. Just stood there.”
“To ask a stranger for company is courageous and some might say as honest as anyone can be. I think you’re being hard on yourself.”
“Perhaps if I knew your name we would cease to be strangers.”
“Yes,” I say. “I was hoping you wouldn’t have noticed. Maybe I’m the dishonest one.”
“That’s fine. It’s a different world.”
“It’s nothing of the sort. I’m not sure I should tell you my name.”
“Yes, yes, fine. Like I was saying you can never be too careful. I should have taken the clue. Smart girl. Smart girl,” he says as he shakes his head and then sips his coffee.
“No it’s not that. Promise me you’ll be okay.”
“Gracie,” I say. An inaudible gasp holds him for a moment. I reach for his hand. “You said you would be all right.”
“Of all the people in the world . . .”
I fork at my salad while he absorbs our wild happenstance.
“Of all the days and all the places, why here today?” I ask, cutting the silence.
“I don’t know,” seemed liked a nice place to get out of the rain. Why?”
“I’m here for lunch three days a week. It’s a work thing. You wouldn’t happen to be heading this way tomorrow would you?”
A heavy sigh escapes him.
“Yes,” I say.
“Sure. You want to have lunch with me again?”
“Beats being alone, right?”
The lunches became dinners and dinners became countless nights in. I became his caretaker of sorts. Sundays were ours. I never missed a game of chess or an opportunity to tidy up despite being scolded at every chance. I learned all about Gracie and their life together. She was a woman of gumption and industry. It was easy to understand how he could love her for fifty-seven years.
But now it is my turn to endure the present and dote on the past. There will be no more secrets over terrible coffee or playful chiding during the occasional cleanup. I miss him. My Sundays are quiet again and I am left with nothing more than the ghosts in my head and an empty chair.
This is the first in a dozen or so short stories. More to come.
I’ll see you between the pages.