BY ALLAN HUDSON
Allan Hudson lives in the seaside community of Cocagne, New Brunswick. Copyright is held by the author.
LLOYD MINSTER SETTLED frumpily into his new chair. He drained his busy head of the day’s events resting his foggy coloured mane gently on the plush leather. He drew in a huge breath through his nose, the aroma of the tanned hide of his cushioned throne, rich and pleasing. He pulled the handle on the chair side and a footrest responded like a storm trooper lifting his fatigued legs. On his lap, wrapped in several elastics were a cluster of envelopes that he had kept for many years, nothing special really, the result of a boyish hobby he started over 80 years ago. There wasn’t any room in one of the boxes for it but he couldn’t let them go, it would be losing his own sense of something unique, silly to anyone but him.
He shut his tired and elderly eyes, once a deep brown, now faded with old age. His wrinkled face was wide and square shaped by nature, cheap cigars and the rough seas that blasted winds and water upon his being as he fished the Atlantic Ocean from the time he was a bewildered boy alongside his father. His prodigious hands rested on the arms of the chair, the fingers splayed, they looked like baby squids. His husky torso was clad in his favourite blue and white plaid shirt that stuck outside of a pair of dark blue Dockers. He was wearing his Dora slippers his four year old granddaughter insisted her Daddy buy for “Gampy.”
He opened his eyes and they were about level with the two little girl explorers on his feet. Like many times before when he laughed at them, he remembered the delight when he wore them for the first time, tiny Gracie danced about overcome with little girl glee, clapping her hands and making him dance in his new slippers, she had a pair the same and he remembered the jolly fun. He laughed now with hearty guffaws until his tummy hurt. He caught a couple of laughing tears with his chunky forefinger.
As his vision cleared he looked around his new home. He had a large bedsitting room, his own washroom, ample fine furniture, a few antiques from his own ancestors and a closet full of good clothes. The walls were bare of course and bore a hellish pink. He had told his son Eugene changing the colour would be their first task otherwise he wouldn’t live here. Before Eugene left earlier he assured his old man that they would go shopping tomorrow.
“Don’t worry Dad, we’ll go up to Livingston’s Hardware in the morning and find something with a little less passion, something with some hair on its chest, to make sure people don’t think you’re an old funny guy with pink walls.”
He smiled thinking of his boy, wrinkles doubled around his eyes. It was a good thought, safe and cared about. His brief interlude was disrupted as he focused on the four boxes by the front door. They were simple banker’s boxes, bought flat, resurrected at your office type. They stood in a straight line in front of the closet, decked out with square brown lids. The significant red numbers on the top of each, from 1 to 4, made them look like toy blocks for an adult. In reality it held the most precious items, the bullion of his life. The contents were the dearest of everything he owned. They were his boxes of memories.
He groaned as he pushed back the stick and brought the chair upright, He winced as he began to rise; his left knee getting worse it seemed. His thought about his doctor who kept offering, then insisting he get a new knee but Lloyd reminded him,
“I’ve had this knee for 99 years young man. I don’t expect my journey to be much farther and I think I’ll bring it along. You can have it when I’m gone.”
At this point in his life he wasn’t too worried about becoming addicted to some drug. He was planning on drifting through his last years; the hardest strain he wanted to experience was the turning of the pages on his latest book, if the pills Dr. Gallant prescribed made life a little more passive, he was all for them.
He rose from his chair and the indented leather slowly filled out. Cautious short steps brought him to the boxes. As he shuffled by #1 he glanced at it knowing his son would take it tomorrow. It was full of legal stuff, last will, stocks, bonds, bank accounts, his finances. He farted as he passed the money cube, showing it tremendous disrespect. He stuck his tongue out at the box as well, grinned at it with a bit of unkindness as he reminded himself he never had to touch another cheque book or credit card for the balance of his days. He told Eugene so long as he had a $100 bill in his pocket he’d be as right as a starling in its nest.
He stopped and stooped over #2 lifting the edge, testing its heft. He bent with both knees as far as the pain would allow, picking up the crate with as much of his back as he could. The box probably weighed 15 pounds but Lloyd would be bragging to Eugene tomorrow how he lifted the 50 pounds with ease. He would swear it felt like 50 pounds.
He set the box on the coffee table that Taffy, his daughter-in-law, had given him. She had made it herself in her metal shop. The legs were twisted dark steel and fine metal polished copper coils provided an ornate rhythm around the sides. The top was bevelled clear panels, all different sizes. Under each one were sepia toned photos over a dark brown background. The photos were thematic and everyone was in some stage of laughter, alone or in familial groups. It was a work of art, of love.
As he stood before the box he thought about when Eugene was telling him before they left the old house that he would only have room for two boxes, so two couldn’t go. Eugene offered to store them at his house if they were important. They had been standing by the door then, the boxes, the last thing to take, were at their feet. With a pang of tenderness he remembered his son when the poor man delivered his news. Eugene had looked his father directly in the eye. Eugene’s were normally bright and green, at that moment they were hurt and soft. He could tell his son was trying not to blink, not to spill their liquid glaze. Lloyd spoke first to give his son respite,
“What is it Son? It can’t be that bad.”
“Oh Dad, you can only bring two. I know how much they mean to you.”
It bothered the young man with more depth than Lloyd could muster. He reached over to his father giving him a shy hug that embarrassed them both.
“I wish you’d come and live with me, why do you insist on being alone?”
Lloyd remembered the warmth as he patted Eugene on the back and said with a benign voice, “I love you son for your goodness but I want my privacy and I want you and your family to have yours. There’s nothing worse in a house than a cranky old man. Besides you two are too lovey-dovey for me, always cuddling and patting each other’s behind and the cute names you call each other; I find it quite sickening really.”
The irony at the end of his speech shifted the mood. Father and son soon broke into laughter and the merriment accompanied them with the boxes. Lloyd had asked Eugene to bring all four to his new pad, as he called it and he would cull out anything that didn’t stir up any emotion from the past. He vowed to have it done this week.
With that last thought he removed the cover chucking it on the couch, telling the room out loud, “Now’s as good a time as any to toss away some of my past.”
He realized he couldn’t stand much longer. The box was too high on the tables so he placed it on the floor to his right and sat down. He dug out the first thing he found. He knew it would be there, he made sure it was there on the top. It was a white cardboard about a foot long and three inches wide. The edges were frayed like an old friendly shirt collar, indicative of the many times it was handled. Along the cardboard’s center a blue faded ribbon was glued forming a silky embroidered spine. He held it in both hands, the long fingers reverent and protective. He held it to his heart and it emitted a vision so pure and sorrowing and sweetly joyful as could be possible. At that instant he knew with all certitude that this was the only memento he truly cherished. He experienced an intense awareness that the rest really didn’t matter. The memory the ribbon provoked schlepped the old man away. He leaned back on the sofa and remembered the day 30 years ago when Eugene came into his life.
He was 55 years old. His parents had died recently, within a week of each other, old age claiming one; old age compounded by loneliness took the other. He had been approached by a neighbour to rent the old homestead to the man’s grandson. The man explained that the youth was fatherless and troubled. He needed to be away from the vices of the large city life. Lloyd was against the idea in the beginning but when he met the lad he felt sorry for him, he was only nineteen and his girlfriend was four months pregnant. He remembered laughing inside at the young boy when he proudly exclaimed to Lloyd that he was going to be a famous poet someday. They stayed for six months. With their rent two months past due, he watched them sneak out in the middle of the night. He stood on the deck of his darkened house and made out the silhouette of a furniture-laden half ton pulling out of the driveway, its lights conspicuously out.
He was angry when he remembered they had no furniture when they came. They were leaving and stealing his rent money and his furniture also. The little bastards he thought. He could see the clock in the kitchen, it was just past three. The tired old farmhouse stood dark, even the outdoor lights had been extinguished. The night was dim with the moon being a faint cuticle in the sky. Unorganized clouds sponged up the faint starlight even. Amazingly an odd thing happened; he felt the skin tighten on his neck. He swore he could see a faint aura over the house. It wasn’t lights of any kind but a sense, a presence he felt.
He reacted as if his parent’s place was on fire hurrying back to his kitchen to retrieve his flashlight. He didn’t even bother to put on his boots but ran across the field in his stocking feet, lamp in hand. The field had just been mowed, stiff bristle poked through the fibres of his socks, some cutting. He knew his feet were bleeding but sped up reaching the house breathless.
He gasped and gulped trying to ease his breathing. He tried the front door as he drew large breaths and it swung open with a disturbing yawn. He stepped into the hallway and from the recesses of the darkness came the saddest, softest whimpers he had ever heard.
“The uncaring little turds,” he said out loud thinking they had abandoned a puppy. His booming voice had a startling effect, a weak tiny voice wailed from upstairs. He felt dizzy for a moment then as he realized they had left their baby. He rushed upstairs cursing the selfish teenagers. The sobs grew louder, more shrill as he followed the sound coming from the far bedroom. The lonely pleas suddenly stopped when he entered the chamber. Moving his light about the room he soon found the source of the noise in the night. There was a heavy corrugated box on the bed, the kind the grocery stores ship bananas in. He walked slowly to the bed almost scared of what he might find. The box jiggled as he approached with something moving about inside. He neared the red and white carton shining his light into the box. The bright beam startled the wee creature and it cried out in protest. Lloyd moved the light from the baby but kept the child in the penumbra.
The baby quieted, it didn’t look as if it could even see it was so small. There was a yellow and white quilted blanket wrapped about its small frame. It pursed its tiny lips. Its nose was red, smeared with moisture. Its eyes were the size of dimes and as dark as his old cellar, no cornea visible, just two innocent and harmless pools. A wisp of brownish down covered the immature dome. The baby’s fontanelles were apart and the infant’s heartbeat pulsed in the soft spot. Its fists were like tiny pink walnuts that batted at the air. Around one thin wrist was tied a blue ribbon.
Nothing stirred, neither moved but the baby knew someone was close, a mystery undefined. The stillness was soon shattered as the tiny lungs proclaimed in the only language it knew, “pick me up.” Lloyd set the flashlight on the bed and cradled the small body in his muscled arms. He cooed and chanted softly a lullaby he heard many years before. The sobs soon ceased. The baby’s eyes stared into the nether blinking back the sleep. It was almost as if it didn’t want to miss this moment but weariness over came the child, the fragile lids grew lazy. Soon the baby was sleeping, never stirring as Lloyd carried it to his house. Crossing the field late at night, a week old baby asleep in his arms was the last of the memory before he dozed off, slumped over on the couch.
Two hours later the pain hit him in the chest. It was if someone struck him with a wide plank. It burnt like a hundred fires and covered all his upper body. The room’s lights were still on as Lloyd Minister gasped his final breaths, the cardboard and ribbon crushed in his grip. His last thought as he lay there dying was his son’s voice when he left that night: “I love you Dad.”