Copyright is held by the author. The bus stop scene was first published in Falling Star Magazine in 2012.
ALBERT SLID the key into the lock and closed his eyes before he opened the door to his parents’ house. The smell of dust hit his nostrils and a damp stuffiness sifted from the doorway like heat from an oven. Albert stepped inside and it seemed to him that even the carpet sagged with memories of his life in the house. The heavy knocker cracked sharply as he shut the door and the picture of his mother shifted as it always did with the impact. Albert nudged the frame even without conscious thought before he turned into the living room. He stood in the house in silence and listened to the pops and cracks from the old structure. He wanted to return the conversation but couldn’t speak.
He walked through the house and mentally noted what needed to be cleaned in each room. He found piles of books and trinkets from around the world in nearly every living space. Anxiety crawled up his throat as he imagined selling his father’s possessions. Every room had photos and paintings on the walls that would need to be sold. In the office there were computers his father had bought and adapted to even in retirement. On a small pine table sat the typewriter that Albert remembered as the expensive machine he wasn’t allowed to use for his college papers. The piano lurked in the corner of the family room and to Albert seemed like an anchor to every positive memory he had of his father. The way they had smiled and sang while his father’s hands flew across the keys. Or how he had let his son turn the pages during parties with friends gathered around.
There were stacks of Christmas cards in a drawer on the china chest that flanked the long wall of the dining room. Albert flipped them quickly and saw the faces of cousins and family friends age like a strip of old movie film. The china in the wooden cabinets with glass panels was protected from the layer of dust that had settled on every surface. There were serving dishes that his mom used for holidays and special occasions. Albert found a tin gravy boat that he remembered spilling when he was 10 during a Thanksgiving dinner. The top of the cabinet had become a depository for Richard’s mail and Albert noticed the majority was from organizations asking for money. He turned around at the far end of the table and looked back into the dining room to the second china chest he hadn’t examined yet. The thought of the work to clear this one room exhausted him.
He walked past the kitchen and its packed cabinets toward the staircase. He caught the captured stare of his parents and his younger self in the picture frames as he climbed.
After high school his mother had kept the room unchanged, but by the time he graduated college the room had become a combination guest room and storage unit. His bed sagged on the aluminum frame from the weight a stack of boxes filled with papers. On the top shelf of the closet he saw the plastic golden angel wings on his debate trophy protrude from a box handle.
The room smelled dusty, but held enough of its old odour that he could sense the slightest hint of childhood. The sun settled into the room through the closed pale yellow curtains and the warmth reminded him of days reading books and listening to the radio on his bed. He moved a box to the floor and sat on the foot of the bed. From there he could see down the hall to the opening of his parent’s bedroom. The house popped and creaked in the afternoon breeze and Albert closed his eyes to listen to the old stories.
The bedspread felt warm and the smells of dust and stale air faded. When he opened his eyes he focused on his parent’s doorway and a part of him expected his mother to walk out of the room with her bathrobe tied around her waist and her hair already done for the day. His father would follow, walk downstairs in his normal hurried way. The smell of bacon and sounds of Richard opening the front door to find the paper would come next. Then it would be time for Albert to join them for breakfast.
He sat for a while and waited.
The empty house stayed still and silent. Albert closed his eyes and strained to remember the sounds of his parents waking and beginning their early morning routine. The sound of water for Richard’s morning shower was the first thing Albert remembered. Next the creaky sliding closet door would open as Nancy grabbed her bathrobe. He remembered lying in his bed as a boy and listening to the sound of his parent’s voices bounce and echo through the vents until the distorted words reached his room. He remembered laughing as he imagined the voices coming from an underwater world where his father had to wear a deep sea diver helmet and walk slowly to get the paper. The conversations weren’t always happy, he could remember the fights when he was very young, but through the vents the sharpness of tone was muted and disguised.
He opened his eyes and saw the hallway still empty and the house still funeral silent. He stood from the bed, which let out a creak, and walked to his parent’s room. From the doorway he could see the bed, made in military fashion, and the dressers still filled with clothes and topped with his mother’s makeup and brush. If not for the dust layer he would have thought the room was simply waiting for Richard to come home from work or Nancy to lie down to read a book. He stepped into the room and smelled his mother’s perfume. He inhaled quickly at the permanently fading scent. The perfume bottle sat on the dresser with the mirror that had been Nancy’s morning station. The scent wasn’t strong, but enough to pull at Albert’s heart and water his eyes. He turned toward the closet, which was closed. The door let out its familiar creak as he opened it and he saw his mother’s bathrobe on the same hook it had rested during her life.
He placed the sleeve in his hand and felt the soft cotton. It wasn’t the same bathrobe that she’d worn when he was a child, but it was the same style, always the same for her entire life he guessed. He remembered laying his head on her lap when they had movie night when he was a boy. He pulled the bathrobe from its hook and held it close to him and inhaled deeply. The scents of her perfume, shampoo and everything else that he identified with her rushed out of the fabric. The memories of hugs, tears and breakfasts cooked while still in pajamas overwhelmed him. He reached into the pocket and found two Kleenex and collapsed to the bed. He cried freely, the tears cascading over his cheeks and onto his arms, which grasped the bathrobe to his body. Sobs broke free from his chest and it felt as if each one pried open his chest more than the first. His chest, he realized, had tensed so much it had drawn his shoulders in. He cried until he could breathe easier then returned the bathrobe to the closet.
He skipped the two bathrooms and Richard’s office upstairs. Each step down the stairs felt scary steep and he nearly stumbled down the final steps and out the front door. His hand shook while he found the keys in his pocket to lock the door, start his own car and then dial Libby.
“It was too hard. I had a panic attack, I think.”
“It’s OK. You don’t have to do it all at once,” her voice sounded close to him even through the phone and he switched to speaker mode to let the calming tone fill the car. “I will be there to help next time and we can do it together.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, with tears that clogged his voice. He apologized not because he felt shame, but instead to let her soothe his pain.
“Don’t be. You were brave to go in there and even walk around. I’m so proud of you.”
When he returned to the house a week later with Libby they brought five boxes and a roll of garbage bags. They started in the living room and worked with the mindset of hired cleaners. Albert had to imagine himself that way to manage the grief. He found it easy to dump books and DVDs into the box for Goodwill, but items like the fireplace set that Richard used to stoke massive fires during holiday dinners seemed to grow heavy in his hands.
From the street with the for sale sign planted firmly next to the mailbox, Albert looked back at his childhood home and noticed the same feelings and recognition he experienced at his 15-year high school class reunion. The house looked familiar, but aged and, in some ways, unrecognizable. The real estate agent handled potential buyers and before Albert had a chance to grow regret in his heart they had an offer on the table for the list price.
The night they closed the sale he drove through the neighbourhood and turned down the familiar street. A moving van parked in the driveway stood out like a pimple on a model’s chin. It flaunted it’s unfamiliarity at his conscience. As he drove slowly by he noticed the living room lit by what appeared to be a brand new light in the corner. Inside he could see a family with their boxes and smiles. They didn’t know him or his family. He wondered if they appreciated the years of life they were at that moment intruding on. He pulled away and left the neighbourhood jealous and hurt that his home now cradled new memories.
My cliff, my end
This place feels familiar. The walls are white and there are pictures of mountains and flowers on the walls. I have a device to help me walk that I push down the carpeted floors between my bunk and the mess hall.
There is a man who sits with me and eats what I eat. I do not know if he is a friend or not. He seems nice. The food is acceptable, but it is a very different restaurant. I don’t order my meals, but a waitress in a white uniform brings me steak or eggs no matter what meal. There is always dessert, which is fine. There are cookies like my Nancy makes and sometimes brownies with bits of chocolate that crunch when I bite. There is a young man who will cut my food for me like I am a child. I am perfectly capable of feeding myself. He lectures me about eating my vegetables as well and will take away my dessert if I do not finish.
They sit me at a window and I watch cars drive up. There is one that will take me away, but I do not see it yet. I count the cars as they come into the parking lot to keep track of deliveries and such. There is a process of course. I pay special attention to any large vehicles to make sure business is handled appropriately. I have not seen my taxi yet and it seems as if it is very late. I have flights to catch for my Vienna meetings and the airport is an hour away with good traffic. People come in and out of the cars and walk through some moving doors. They appear for the most part to be happy, which is all very good. No one else seems concerned with the cars. They all seem content with this prison.
The door behind the mess hall is always locked. I have tried to open it and was rebuffed by a woman. They keep very close watch on all of us but I have plans for an escape should I need to. If I were forced to eat tasteless mashed potatoes without cookies I would leave sooner.
There are others here that look lost. Sometimes they think I am someone else. There was an old woman who asked my name. I don’t know it, but I know I’m not as sick as her. I feel sorry for her. She doesn’t know where she is. I do not remember her name. There is someone coming to meet me for business today but I do not know what he looks like. There are men who walk around, but none of them have hats on like businessmen. There is a man who is wearing a hospital gown who talks to me when I eat supper. He does not look well. He talks more than he should with his condition, but I listen all the same. I do not know his name either. He has long white hair that needs to be cut short. I know that I am not sick because I have a proper shirt on. I can not find my hat, but I think I know where it is. I have a flight tomorrow and I will need the hat.
There are other men here who are sinister. They move through the halls like ghosts and you have to be quick to spot them. There is one who will lock eyes with me if I catch him at the right angle and he is very angry but does not look away. I do not dare look away because I know he means me harm. One of the men lives in my bathroom and I can see him from my bed if I sit up. He hides somehow because I never find him when I go in to look. I do not trust him or the others. I have complained about these men and the unit commanders ignore me. I imagine I will have to make my complaint more official.
The mess hall is a short walk from my bunk, which has my name on it. There is carpet on the floor and I push the metal device as quickly as I can down the hall. I move fast because there is a cliff that chases me whenever I walk. I do not turn around when I walk because it will catch me. Always forward is the key.
There is football on my TV almost every night. People visit me. When I see people in my room the cliff stays away. I have a chair that leans back with a rest for my feet so I can sleep. There is a woman who helps me lay down. She stays with me and helps me find a book to read before bed. She tells me her name is Elizabeth and that she is my daughter, but I think she is wrong. I have a son who is 10 years old and very bright.
I am scared when no one is there but me and the cliff. It hovers on the ground near my bed. If I look over the edge of my mattress I can see the greyness and how very tall the cliff is. There is a voice from the cliff now that asks me to walk off the edge. I’ve never been so scared. A boy called Alfred or Albert sleeps in my room sometimes and will help keep the cliff away. I can keep the cliff away by walking the hallway, but it’s just outside the door. I don’t want to fall. I know what happens.
I see Nancy sometimes. She comes to me with the cliff and talks to me. There are other voices too. They ask me to go, but I don’t know where they want me to follow. I think they want me to fall off the cliff, which does not make sense. Nancy would not want me to fall. I lie in the bed with the sheets pulled to my chin like when I was a boy and I wait for the light to return or for someone to chase the cliff away. I cannot sleep with my end so near.
I know why I’m here, but can’t remember where I am. I’m sitting on a green metal bench under an enclosure that looks like a small shed with windows for sides instead of walls. A black man sits on the bench next to me holding a plastic sack in his lap. The bag says Subway but I know I’m not in a subway. He is wearing a shirt that matches the bench and I see Subway on his chest. He doesn’t look like a subway driver. He doesn’t have the right hat like the ones in New York. I don’t know if I am in New York. There is a poster on the side of the enclosure with words on it I used to know. One is “schedule.” I remember where I am. “When is the bus coming?” I ask the coloured man sitting next to me.
“Which one, sir?” he says.
“I take the 5:30 home from work sometimes,” I tell him.
“Sir, are you from the hospital?”
Underneath my dress shirt I can see a blue fabric that itches when I move. I see a plastic band around my wrist where the watch Nancy gave me after our wedding, on January 10th 1945, should be. I can read the words on the plastic. They are my name, Richard Leddy. “My name is Richard Leddy,” I tell the black man. “I know where I am but I don’t remember why I’m here. It will come to me soon.”
“I’m Jim,” he says reaching out his hand.
I shake his hand and he looks at my wrist. “I lost my watch,” I say. “Nancy can find it.” I look past him and can see the cliff lurking just behind the enclosure. It’s coming for me but the black man can’t see. It is not his cliff.
My cliff is close to me for the first time since I hugged the side of a barn in France with bullets singing around me. I remember it was just beyond the length of my arm as I curled to the wood and earth. My world was small then. It fit me, my pack, gun and just enough barn and dirt to stop the bullets.
“It is my cliff, my end,” I say, pointing to the edge of my world. “It’s like Christopher Columbus in the fourth grade with the ships over the edge. You have one too.”
The black man nods. Good, he understands.
The cliff begins sliding away like a train on rails and a bus fills the street left in its wake. “The bus keeps it away,” I say and start to stand. I am smiling and feel strong for the first time since I fell by Albert’s pool.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” the black man says. “Why don’t you stay here and we can try to find someone to help.”
“Get out of here nigger,” I say.
“I know you don’t mean that, sir,” he says and offers me a cookie from his sack.
I swipe it from his hand and sit down on a green bench.
“I’m going to go find you some help, OK?” the black man says. “It’s just across the parking lot so don’t move.”
I nod and he walks away.
I hold the oatmeal cookie in both hands like when I was a boy. My mother always kept cookies in the house. I would play and go to school and have a cookie before bed. I eat slowly. My fingers are sprinkled with crumbs. Nancy will be mad if I wipe my hands on my pants. I lick the cookie pieces and wipe my hands in my pants pockets. I am scared. I don’t know why I’m here or where I am. I can see the cliff in front of me now just at the edge of the sidewalk. I am alone now. It is me, the green metal bench and the cliff. I stand and walk toward the ledge, dragging my bad right leg behind me. I stare down the abyss. It is so tall I cannot see the bottom. The chasm is terrifying but inviting. I wonder what I would find if I stepped off.
A horn blast to my left and a bus rushes toward me. The cliff slides away again. I am at a bus stop. The doors on the bus opens and I see a woman holding her baby sitting in the front seat. The baby is in her arm reaching for the bottle. Nancy’s hair is brown and long. The baby, it must be Albert, takes the bottle and starts to drink. I reach out and call her name, but she doesn’t hear. She is caring for our baby. Nancy looks at me, but doesn’t smile or reach for me. I grab a rail and hoist myself on the bus. “My love,” I say. I cannot help crying. I grab her arm.
“Get the hell away from me,” she shouts and rips away. She pulls the baby to her chest and runs to the back of the bus. I try to follow her down the aisle. I want to hold her. I reach for her again and she screams. Now Albert is crying too. There is too much noise for him to sleep.
Hands grab my shoulders. People are dragging me away.
“Nancy,” I am screaming.
“Mr. Leddy we have to go,” says a man wearing a blue suit like my shirt. He leads me away from the bus. “We have to go back inside the hospital.”
“Albert was here,” I say, but I cannot remember where I saw my son.
“We can call him later if you want,” the man says. A black man pats me on the back as I walk past him. I look behind me and see the cliff closing in on me, cutting my world smaller and smaller. Soon I will not retreat or fight its advance.