BY RUSSELL HEIDORN
This story was first published in Sentinel Literary Quarterly in January 2019. Copyright is held by the author.
“GET OUT of the way, ya old geezer!” the kid yelled as he and several others whizzed by on their skateboards right in front of the supermarket.
Gus stepped back, almost dropping the groceries as they sped down the sidewalk. “Darn kids,” he muttered, then laughed at himself for saying something so typical for an old man. He chuckled and continued following the customer out to her car.
Sometimes on Saturdays the kids would zip by several times, trying to get him to drop the bags. Eventually Gus would lose his hold and the bags would drop and bust open, spilling their guts over the sidewalk. Dennis would come out and yell at him for being so clumsy. Gus would clean up the mess while Dennis retrieved a fresh supply of groceries and a thousand apologies to the customer. All the while, the kids would hang by and laugh.
Gus did his best to ignore them. He’d been on this planet for eighty-three years now and it’d take a lot more than a bunch of kids to rattle him. Besides, he had more important things on his mind.
Gus placed the bags in the trunk of the lady’s car. “Thank you for shopping at Mason’s”, he said.
The young lady muttered something about him being so slow and drove off. Gus stood and watched as leaves rustled in the car’s wake. It wasn’t the first time that happened either.
When Gus was in Korea, the locals there had so much more respect for their elders. They were treated like great men whom children adored for the stories and adults revered for their wisdom. Certainly that was not the case here.
As Gus turned to go back inside, he noticed Mrs. Patterson walking up to him. She was young, early-seventies maybe, petite with grey hair and always wore a dress. “Those young boys almost crashed into you again!” she said.
Gus shrugged, but said nothing..
“Why do you let them do that?” Mrs. Patterson continued. “All their mothers shop here. You should tell Dennis to talk to them.”
“It wouldn’t help. Kids don’t listen to their mothers these days.”
“Still. I can’t believe you put up with it,”
“Yep, I have a dangerous job . . .” Gus replied with a smile. “I’m a regular double-o-seven.”
“Oh, Gus,” Mrs. Patterson laughed as she touched him his arm. “You’re so delightful.”
Gus eyed the reflection of Mrs. Patterson and himself in the window as they walked towards the door. He was still tall for his age, 5-10, and slender with thinning grey hair, thick eyebrows and hazel eyes hiding behind wire-rimmed glasses.
“I’m buying fixin’s for stew,” Mrs. Patterson asked. “You like stew?”
“I like stew,” Gus replied.
“Well you should come by. I haven’t made it from scratch since my husband died.”
The idea of hot stew as a last meal popped into Gus’s head, but no. “I appreciate your offer, but I can’t tonight,” he responded.
“Oh Gus, it wouldn’t kill you to come over at least for a little while.”
Gus glanced at Mrs. Patterson and looked her up and down. She was so young and full of energy. Would it kill him? Hmm, it just might. But that wasn’t why he declined. As the automatic sliding doors squealed open to allow them to enter, Mrs. Patterson took his silence as a further decline.
“Well, OK, perhaps next week then? I’ll bring leftovers tomorrow and you can see what you missed,” She said as she grabbed a cart and walked away.
“Tomorrow. I won’t be here,” Gus muttered to himself as she disappeared around the pumpkin display. Mrs. Patterson was always inviting him over or bringing him soups, cakes and casseroles. Her treats were the best part of Gus’s existence. Once a week or so, he would stop by just to taste one of those gourmet coffee cakes still warm from the oven. He never stayed long, but for a short while it was heaven.
Gus sighed heavily. But no, not today. Besides, Heaven was the last place he’d be going. And even if by some divine pardon he did get there, how could he face them? What would he say? So even on this, his last day, he was determined to serve out his time as promised.
“Hey Gus! We’re not paying you to stand there!” Dennis yelled.
Gus smiled with embarrassment and scurried back to lane three and started bagging groceries for a young lady with her two children.
“You need to double-bag it!” she barked. “Otherwise, they break open. Why can’t you make the bags stronger?”
“Yes ma’am. I’ll make sure they’re thicker next time I make a batch,” Gus replied.
Gus recognized the lady from the apartment complex. Laura Inglewood, a single mom. She shopped here every week and they passed each other occasionally on the sidewalk, but she never noticed him. The kids knew him though. Austin and Emma. Laura worked nights and many days the kids played outside while she slept. Once as Gus was walking by, he grabbed Emma chasing a ball into the street almost getting hit by a car. He never said anything. Laura had it hard enough as it was. Instead, Gus always made sure he was there to watch when they played.
“Don’t pack it so full!” she scolded. “What am I, Superman? How am I supposed to carry them when they’re so heavy?” Gus apologized and noticed Dennis glaring over. Gus took some items out and started a new bag — oops, wait, gotta double-bag it.
He glanced back at Dennis who was training in a new cashier supervisor — young kid, clean cut, well dressed but with an earring in each ear. He was fresh out of college, which was how Dennis hired them. Most of the time they’d just boss everyone around like a prison guard. And when they realized the job wasn’t that easy, they’d move on. Those who stayed eventually mellowed, like Dennis.
“Yeah, he’s slow and clumsy and I should really let him go, but I can’t,” he heard Dennis say.
“I get it,” The new kid said. “But I learned in college you can’t be sentimental. You have to put business first.”
“Really? I was always thought you put people first?” Dennis replied.
“That’s old school. Mom and Pop shops are drying up. If you want to survive against the big chains, you have to change the way you think. Most places have people bag their own groceries now. It’s faster for them and cuts costs for us.”
Gus recognized the new kid. Trent Larson. It was about ten years ago when Trent was just another kid on a skateboard. Now he was all grown up but hadn’t matured at all, just like when Dennis first started. Gus chuckled even though he felt sorry for Trent. He still hadn’t learned that the only real teacher is time.
“I don’t know.” Dennis replied. “He’s been here before I started forty years ago. He’s as much a fixture as the sign out front. Besides, the kids really like him. I think it’s the personal touches that’ll help us survive the chains.”
Laura was a walker, so Gus didn’t need to carry out for her. The skateboard kids would be disappointed, he thought. Austin and Emma each took a bag and grinned while Gus pressed his finger to his lips while Laura grabbed the other bags. Gus thanked her for shopping at Mason’s, but she said nothing and quickly hurried out the door.
Gus punched out at six, put on his coat and started the walk home. Like usual, Gus stopped off at the library. Normally his routine would be to drop off a book and pick up a new one, but this time he just dropped them off. Over the years he had read fiction, philosophy, psychology, politics, history, biography, self-help books, even tried a couple of encyclopedias. Now he was onto children’s books.
Gus deposited Goodnight Moon and several others and continued on to his one-bedroom apartment. Leaves rustled past his legs as the wind danced them down the sidewalk. One flew up and caught his coat sleeve. The leaf’s spine had curled up as it dried, much in the same way of Gus’s own spine. He couldn’t stand up straight any more without his lower back complaining. Gus brushed off the leaf as the wind joined it with the others. Gus closed his eyes. He liked the sound of the leaves rustling. It was restless and peaceful at the same time.
Gus reached his building and took the elevator up to the third floor. Halfway down the hall, he stopped when he saw them waiting by his door.
The younger man he already knew. Cooper. Tall, slim, and always wore the same crisp black suit. He was clean cut with a plain face and average features. The other man was older, forties, and looked weary. He had thick curly brown hair, baggy brown corduroy pants and a blue dress shirt, holding a single suitcase.
Gus stood for a moment. He was nervous and relieved. His time was over now, but what was in store for him next he didn’t know. He sighed and walked towards them.
“Hi Gus,” Cooper said. “Nice to see you again.”
“It’s been a long time, Cooper. You haven’t changed a bit and I mean not one bit.” Gus replied, then eyed the other man. “Is he the replacement?”
“Yes,” Cooper replied. “This is Stuart.”
“Hi,” Stuart said weakly. Gus eyed him over. He was an introvert, shy and nervous.
“Come on in,” Gus said as he unlocked the door and ushered them in.
The apartment was simple but clean. The furniture was sparse and old – sagging couch, coffee table, side table, small shelf with a TV, an old bookcase stuffed with books, a small roll top desk with an old clock on top, a dining table with two chairs. There were some modern appliances like a microwave and a small flat screen TV but that was it. The walls were barren of any pictures or art.
“I’ll make some tea,” Gus offered as he hung up his jacket and walked into his small alcove kitchen.
“I can’t stay,” Cooper replied as he casually looked around. “You’ve kept the place nice I see,” he added.
“Well, it’s not the Bellagio, but I do all right.” Gus replied.
“You do more than all right” Cooper replied. “You’re the best tenant I’ve had, despite the visits to Mrs. Patterson and befriending the neighbourhood kids.”
Gus looked at him. “You know about that?”
“Please!” Cooper replied. “But, it doesn’t matter. You’ve not failed your task in 50 years and that’s what matters.”
Cooper motioned for Stuart to take a seat at the table. “I have to go,” Cooper said. “I have other matters to attend to. Show him the ropes and I’ll be back in the morning.”
“Whatever you say, boss,” Gus said with a smile.
Cooper nodded and left.
Gus finished heating the water and brought two cups of tea to the table, then made a second trip for milk and sugar. Stuart proceeded to add several spoonfuls of sugar and milk to his tea while Gus drank it straight up.
“So what’s your sin?” Gus asked.
Stuart glanced up as he stirred. “Armed robbery,” he sighed as he stirred his tea. “I was young and strung out on cocaine. I didn’t even think twice when I shot him. And for what, a hundred bucks? He was an immigrant and a father of six trying to start a new life.”
“Mmm,” Gus said and he sipped.
“What about you?” Stuart asked.
“Me?” Gus said. “I never fit in after Korea. Ending up drinking . . . a lot. I was driving smashed one evening, hit a car and killed the whole family — husband, wife, two kids.”
There was a long silence as Gus stared into his tea as if searching for something.
“And yet you lived?” Stuart asked.
“Yep, year in the hospital, two years in therapy just to earn a lifetime in prison. I’d still be there now if not for Cooper.”
“Me too. I asked him how the hell he got me out, but he wouldn’t say.”
“I think of it as a work release program.”
Stuart didn’t smile. He was clearly not in the mood for Gus’s jokes. He just fidgeted as he drank his tea as if he couldn’t get comfortable. He was probably anxious and a bit scared, just like Gus on his first night.
“So what do I have to do?”
“It’s not time yet.”
“What time does it have to be?”
“You choose your own, mine is 8:46 pm. That’s the time they died. You hungry?”
Gus pulled two chicken pot pies from the freezer and heated them in the oven while Stuart wandered over and browsed the books. He took a couple out, paged through them and put them back.
“You read all these?”
“Yep, many more than once.”
Stuart wandered to the desk and studied the clock on top. It was tarnished and looked heavy with three faces on it. The large one in the middle was a standard clock with 12 numbers, an hour and a minute hand. A smaller one on the left had a sun in the centre with twelve strange symbols surrounding it with a single hand pointing at six. The one on the right was the same except it had a crescent moon in the centre and the hand pointing almost at 12.
“You have family?” Stuart asked.
“Somewhere I guess, you?”
“Mom and Dad died. I have a sister in New York. She stopped visiting when my appeals ran out. I’ve thought about reaching out to her, but Cooper says no.”
“Yeah. In some ways family endures more pain than you do. All they could do is stand by and watch helpless. Probably best to let them move on.”
They spoke little during dinner. Gus told him about the jobs in the area, how to earn enough to make a living and still keep things simple. At 8:45 an alarm clock went off on the side table next to the couch. Gus went over and shut it off.
“It’s time,” he said.
“What do I have to do?”
“I’ll show you,” Gus walked to the roll top desk and opened it. Inside was a small stack of bills with an opener and a cup with pens. The cubbies on the top were all empty. Gus opened a single drawer in the centre of the cubbies and pulled out an old skeleton key. Gus inserted it into a hole in the side of the clock and turned it as he listened to the spring deep inside increase in tension. After a dozen cranks, Gus removed the key, placed it back in the drawer, closed up the desk and sat back down.
“Is . . . that it?” Stuart asked.
“Yep,” Gus said. “Remember to do it every day at the same time.”
“Well, if you don’t, it stops.”
“And what happens if it stops?”
Gus thought for a moment. “I don’t know. Cooper’s not very forthcoming. He just said don’t let it stop.”
Stuart got up and paced the floor. “I don’t understand. How do I redeem myself then?”
“Cooper said he was offering me the chance to redeem myself. How does winding a clock do that?” Stuart asked.
“What did you think you’d be doing?”
“I don’t know. Working in an orphanage? Feeding the homeless? Preaching the dangers of drugs? You know, making a difference.”
“Well, maybe every time you wind the clock, an angel gets its wings.”
“Enough with the jokes! Can’t you be serious?”
“Fine,” Gus said as he sighed. “Think of it like this. What were you doing in prison?”
“What do you mean?”
“You had a life sentence. Nothing to do but die, right?”
“Now you’re out. Cooper selected you. Not a lot of people get a chance like this. Does it really matter what you have to do?”
Stuart looked around the small apartment. “So . . . now what?”
“Sometimes I watch television. Most of the time I read.”
“Then what happens?”
“Nothing. You wind the clock every day until Cooper comes for you.”
“What happens if you miss a day?”
“I’ve never missed,” Gus said.
Stuart shrugged. “Not much different than prison, is it?”
“Perhaps it’s not supposed to be.”
So what’s next for you?”
Gus walked over to the bookcase and put the books Stuart had touched back in their rightful places. He had pondered that question a lot. What would be waiting for him when Cooper came in the morning? Was it Heaven? And if it was, would they be there waiting for him? Would they forgive him? “Good question,” he finally said. “I’m sure Cooper will do what’s right.”
“Who is Cooper anyway?”
“Good question. How old do you think he is?”
“I don’t know — 30?”
“Yeah, what would you say if I told you Cooper was the one who found me over 50 years ago? Same face, same hair, even the same black suit. As I’ve grown into an old man, he hasn’t aged a day.”
“How can that be?”
“Don’t know. And I wasn’t the first.”
“That would make him . . .”
“Perhaps as old as that clock,” Gus replied.
“So is he an angel? God? The devil?”
Gus shrugged. “Or perhaps he’s just has a really good plastic surgeon.”
“So every day you wind that clock and you don’t know why?”
“I do know why.”
“Because Cooper asked me too”
“Enough talk. I’m tired. You take the bedroom.”
Gus laid down on the couch. He curled into a ball and covered himself with a plain brown blanket and closed his eyes. “Go on,” he said. Stuart watched him for a while, then sighed, got up, grabbed his suitcase and went into the bedroom closing the door.
There was a knock on the front door.
Gus woke up. Outside the sun was cresting the hill, spilling its light over the landscape. The wind was still restless, causing a rustle of dead leaves that sounded just like the rain that revives the earth in spring.
It was morning. Gus got up and realized he was still wearing his clothes. He walked over to the door and peered through the peephole. It was Cooper. He opened it and Cooper came in.
“Did you fill him in?”
“Is he going to work out?”
“Well, he’s not me, but he’ll do.”
Cooper smiled. “Good, you want to shower or anything before we go?”
Gus glanced around the apartment, the books, the desk, the clock. “No, I’m good.”
“Don’t you want to at least say goodbye?”
“No.” Gus paused. “Just . . . tell him to watch out for the kids on skateboards. Oh, and tell him that Mrs. Robinson makes the best stew.”
Gus grabbed his coat and paused. “Can I ask you something?”
“If you must,” Cooper replied.
Gus motioned around the apartment and then at the clock. “I never once questioned you, but now I have to ask. What’s so special about the clock? It is magic? Does it keep the world spinning or something like that?”
“No. It’s just a clock.”
“Then . . . why?”
“Well, had you still been in prison, who would have taught Dennis how to run a business, or those elementary kids how to appreciate their elders, or Trent about tolerance? Who would have helped Mrs. Patterson over the grief of her husband? And who would have saved Emma from that car? Redemption is not about big and miraculous things, it’s about doing little things every day.”
“So it wasn’t about the clock?”
“Yes, it was about the clock. Had you not been here to wind it, you would have not done all those things. You spent your life helping others in your own way. As far as we’re concerned, your debt is paid.”
Gus frowned. All this time he was focused on the clock when that had nothing to do with it.
“It’s not what you expected, is it?”
A smile slowly crept across Gus’s face. “No. It’s not. But then again, life never is.”
Gus plopped the keys on the table and followed Cooper out the door.
Russell Heidorn lives in suburban Minneapolis and scatters his time between work and family while pursuing his dream of writing. He is currently working on a novel about a suburban man who scatters his time between work and family while pursuing his dream of writing. However, any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.