Copyright is held by the author. This is the fifth and final part of a week-long story.
CLEMONS SURVIVED his heart attack. I heard he is recovering nicely at home, tended to by his nurse of 30-odd years, Flora. I doubt he has friends. A man like him only needs faithful underlings who will serve his needs. I also heard he plans to return to the past — a pleasure trip this time, no more visits to the lovely and dead Cheryl.
Dr. Fields arrived late to the café. Winter had finally arrived in North Dakota, too late for Christmas, but just in time for Valentine’s Day. She entered stylishly bundled in smart-ware, the latest in cashmere winter clothing. I wore khakis and an old parka, not unlike an outfit my grandfather might have worn on his ranch.
I stood and extended my hand, but she gently shoved it away and wrapped her arms around me, snuggling close. Her breath was warm, her touch soothing. She held on tight, waiting until it became awkward, which took surprisingly long — a solid 30 seconds. With a smile and a laugh, she broke away. “So, Henry Robert Nelson, how does it feel to be part of the 13.6% sponging off the government?”
“Terrible. I’ve never not worked,” I said. “It was fine for a few weeks, but now I need something to do.” A pair of teenagers ambled by. Neither one of the boys wore a jacket or smart-ware. They both shivered in their university sweaters. I pointed to our table. “Have a seat, Jenny. I think you’ll like this place. The students give it an energy you don’t find at most coffeehouses, and there’s lots of chatter. The local scribblers hate it. Then again, they should be in their dens working, not showing off.”
Dr. Fields looked around and nodded approvingly. “A good space. The school has a solid reputation — challenging, but not too hard, a perfect place for the returning student.”
“Subtle,” I said, “very subtle.”
“You might consider taking a class or two,” Dr. Fields said. “It wouldn’t be the worst idea of the new year. Besides, the world needs more history teachers.”
She laughed. “Sure, why not? You are uniquely qualified. If you need money, I can help out.”
“I might take you up on that,” I said. “Please, sit.”
“Is the tea any good?”
“Tea’s fair,” I said. “The muffins are crazy good; you must try the chocolate ones.”
“Explains the extra pounds you’ve gained,” she said. She waved to the waiter, a student. The waiter held up two fingers. “I hope he means two seconds and not two minutes.”
“Patience,” I said. “Be kind to the help. I may be working here soon.”
She placed her gloves on the table. “I tried again to get you your job back, but… you know… Clemons.”
“Too powerful. I know. Besides, it was for the best. It was no longer a good fit.” I watched three young girls stride by. They could have been 13 or 31. I could no longer discern age. “I did hear Clemons gave another huge grant to the foundation, which means more researchers and more trips, and more time to prove the past can be changed. I can’t prove it, but I’ve come to believe the foundation believes it’s possible. It’s the only reason it carries on. It can’t be the love of the clients.”
“I don’t know what it believes,” she said. “The directors and the board don’t say much, which might say more than anything.”
The waiter came and took our order. When he left, Dr. Fields leaned over and for a moment I thought she might grab my hands again. Instead, she offered: “At least you’ve kept your pension, and you did get a respectable severance package. You won’t starve, at least not for a while.”
I patted my stomach. “Not for a while.”
“So, what’s the plan?”
“You’re either a mind reader or you know me better than I imagined. I’m going back to school. Teaching. I’ve been accepted. I signed up for classes today. I start this summer.”
“I mean,” she said, “about Jason.”
“I’m not going back. I can’t. No, I won’t. It’s not right.”
“Right or wrong doesn’t matter. Don’t you want to see him just once? Again, I can help with the money.”
“Of course I want to see him. I want to see him every day,” I said. “I simply can’t go back. I’ve accumulated enough sadness for a lifetime. Seeing Jason again would only add to the heartbreak. Living with his memory will have to suffice. Besides, memories should be companions, not destinations. ” I looked briefly at the students at the tables. “Being surrounded by all the students is difficult: At any moment I expect to see Jason turning the corner chatting with friends. Even now I expect to receive his call, telling me he will be late coming home. It’s hard. It will always be hard.”
“Yet, here you are,” she said.
“Yes, here I am. I’m staying.”
“Good. Well, the offer stands,” she said. “You don’t have to decide right away.” She paused and stared at a tall, blond, striking young man who sat two tables down. “Hmm. Maybe I should take a class or two.”
The waiter returned with our tea and two muffins. Dr. Fields sipped the tea and took a bite of the muffin. “You’re right — the tea is acceptable,” she said. “The muffin, wow. You’re right.”
“Oh, yes, heavenly.”
I raised my cup. “Simple pleasures.”