Saturday, March 19, 2016

Earl, Stephanie Anderson

Earl
By Stephanie Anderson

“It’s time.”
The call came late in the morning like a knock on the door from an expected but unwanted visitor. The grey sky hung loosely while a heaviness crushed his chest. It’s time, this inevitable time he’d been waiting for has finally arrived, and now he must go. 

Now he must go.

Slowly, he pushed his legs and arms through clothes, delaying the moment he’d walk out the door. Around him the walls boasted of a life fully lived that had gone stagnant: pictures of happy faces on outdated pieces of furniture piled high with dust. She’d left and he’d stopped caring. 

What was the point anyway?

He made his way to the kitchen, pouring stale coffee into a chipped mug. Dishes had been carefully stacked in the sink, rinsed with the intention of being placed in the dishwasher. Eventually. She’d taken care of him for longer than he’d like to admit, and the bitterness that she was gone still sat festering in his gut. 

At a time in his life, he would have been described as handsome: dark, curly hair that framed his boyish face, complete with wide blue eyes and an impish smile. He had been a runner in what seemed like another lifetime, naturally long and lean. She’d met him at a bar looking just like this. He went on group runs with friends once a week, and they crashed at a bar after they were finished. He’d sat down next to her, flushed from activity and just the slightest glisten of sweat. The guys around him were, as always, loud with laughter and raucous conversation, bumping into one another as they scrambled for beer.

Laughing with his friends, he was pushed into her accidentally, spilling some of his drink on her shirt. Turning his head to apologize to whomever he’d accosted, he was met with a deep set of dark brown eyes. Dark brown yet bright, laughing along with him despite the stern look she wore on her face. The promise of a smile flirted at the corner of her smooth, pink lips, giving her away.

“You’ll pay for that,” she’d scolded.

“I’m sorry for my friends,” he’d responded, apologetically. “And I always pay for my transgressions. How can I make it up to you? Another beer?”

“I do like beer,” she’d said thoughtfully as she blotted at her damp shirt with a napkin. “But I like dinner better.”

His eyes moved over her features, taking in her high cheekbones and thick blonde hair, pinned back from her face and wavy. She’d waited expectantly, and it took him a few moments to realize what she was asking.

“Dinner in exchange for a ruined shirt. I’d say that’s a pretty good deal,” he’d said.

“Considering how much this shirt cost, you’re making out pretty well,” she’d informed him, a friendly challenge behind her eyes.

“Well, I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Would you like to grab a table someplace quieter?” he’d asked.

Her mouth spread into the most brilliant smile, making her look simultaneously girlish and mature. It was beautiful. 

“‘I’d like that.”

The old memories flooded him in the cluttered kitchen, threatening to spill down his cheeks, now rough and weathered from age. The sure hands that had spilled his beer so many years ago, the strong hands that had held hers in front of family and friends as they exchanged vows, the steady hands that had swung their children in the midst of giggles on warm summer days, were now thin and uncertain. They rested on his belly, which had grown over time, but most noticeably after she left. 

There was a part of him that wondered if it was even worth going. But he’d promised.

The afternoon sun had filtered like curtains through the tree limbs as they’d laid on the ground, his arm behind her head, their hips touching. Since their first dinner in a crowded bar, they’d spent nearly every day together for an entire year. He loved her laugh and listening to the stories she’d write; she was enamored with his sense of adventure and absolute silliness. 

Propping herself on her side, her head resting on her hand, she’d searched his eyes with a rare seriousness.

“You’ll never forget me.” She’d stated it like a fact.

Laughing, he’d asked, “How could I forget you? You’re my everything.”
Her eyebrows came down heavy over her eyes, her expression pleading. “Just promise.”

Concern filled him. “Promise?”

“Promise you’ll never forget me,” she’d said.

“What’s going on? What’s wrong?” he’d asked, sitting up now.

She’d shaken her head. “Nothing. Just promise me. I just...I just want to be sure of it. I just want to know that some day, even when everyone else forgets, you’ll remember. That even if I forget, you never will.”

He’d searched her eyes, sensing her urgency. “I will never forget you. I promise,” he vowed, solemnly.

A small smile returned to her face, and she’d nestled back into the warm crook of his arm.

He’s not sure if she’d known her future, what was to haunt her decades later. It started with the occasional forgotten word, which she’d shrugged off as the result of being overly committed, overly busy. One day he’d received a phone call from her, confused as to why she was in the grocery store parking lot and would he please come pick her up? It became clear, though, the day they were babysitting their youngest grandchild, an energetic boy with a mop of golden hair who never sat still. 

“Who is this lovely boy?” she’d cooed.

The boy giggled, running away, enticing them into a game of tag.

She’d turned to him and cocked her head, the plainest look of contentment over her face. “Who is that boy?” she asked him. “I’d love to have a little boy like that some day.” 

The cold seeped into his stomach, the gnawing anxiety of what he’d known for a while, what she had known even years ago, finally realized. This was real, this was his life. Her life, slipping away.

The diagnosis came just a few weeks later.

At first, he was able to care for her at home. But the disease progressed more quickly than anyone could have predicted. After a year, and with much reservation, she was placed in assisted living. She’d left him alone, but long before her things were gone.

The deterioration continued, both hers and his. It had only been a few months since her placement, but to him it felt like a lifetime. He couldn’t learn to live in the walls of his home, their home, without her. Their life together ceased to exist as he knew it, therefore he ceased existing. Three times a week he would go to visit her, giving him a schedule, some semblence of routine. 

She didn’t know him, and hadn’t for a while, so the nurse would remind her that her husband was there to visit. She didn’t know who she was, or the rich life she had lived. But he remembered. He’d promised, and as much as he had tried, he couldn’t forget. So he remembered for her, telling stories of their life: their wedding, their kids, their home, their adventures. She hung on his every word, lost in his weekly stories. He hung on every word, lost without her.

With each visit she spoke less until his most recent visit, when she stopped talking altogether. They knew it wouldn’t be much longer, so he waited for the call.

“It’s time.”

The drive to the assisted living facility took less time than usual, Fate eager to finish her story. He made his way to her room, where she was surrounded by nurses and family. They’d been waiting for him. She’d been waiting for him. 

As he walked in, recognition lit her eyes, and she pulled aside the mask providing her oxygen, the promise of a smile flirting at the corner of her thin, pale lips. Mustering all of her strength, she reached out to him and, in a faint whisper, sighed the last word he would ever hear her say.

“Earl.”


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