by Len Kuntz
The old man watches the gurney cart out the latest, then saunters to his room, sitting on the edge of the bed, staring between his bowed legs as if looking past the carpet into an abyss.
Each week, one passes, and the next week another is brought to the home carrying the unmistakable scent of death into the foyer where their grown children pat a crooked spine and, without irony or meeting eyes, remark how wonderful Emerson Oaks is.
He has stopped making friends with any of them, has stopped speaking altogether. He tries not to reflect on Esther, what she might think of his obstinate behavior, his willingness to give himself up for dead without a fight, the same as all the other stone relics.
But Esther comes to him anyway, as a young woman with her cotton candy orange hair, as a middle-aged woman standing at the stove wearing nothing but an apron, flashing her bare buttocks in the air while asking, ‘Is there a draught in here?’
Thirty years without her now. A lifetime of loss, a death sentence in its own way.
He knows, of course, that there is more to soul mates than earthly bodies and urges, more than simple moments spent together on the planet. They will meet again after death and he will make it all up to her, will explain why he had to choose Margaret over her. He’s been preparing the words for decades. This time she will understand and love him anyway.
His mind is ready, but his heart is a stubborn beast, his body a rogue rebel, which is why he’s hoarded so many pills. Tonight, he will be the next one on the gurney.
Outside his room there’s a commotion, the high-pitched squealing only youth can concoct. Another troupe of girl scouts, he thinks. Sometimes it’s a batch of puppies, other times a gaggle of children, as if such things can undo time’s untethered spiral.
The knock on his door is so delicate he’s not sure he’s heard it until it comes a little louder.
He won’t answer. Why should he? But then he feels a pinch on his lobe, Esther’s teeth, that hard nibble she’d use when feeling frisky.
The girl at the door seems a ghost. Same marmalade hair, same splash of freckles, same mint green eyes and shirt pocket smile.
‘What?’ he asks, realizing this is the first word he’s spoken in months.
‘For you,’ the girl says, and hands him a plush bear cub.
‘What?’ he says again. ‘Why?’
The girl waves, crimping her hand like a bird’s wing, and leaves.
When he gets up and looks for her in the hall and foyer, she’s gone. The only people there are a few other patrons, slumped like desiccated polar bears on the sofa and easy chairs.
Back in his room, the old man gets into bed and curls up with the bear tucked under his chin. He remembers doing this same thing when he was a boy, and then much later, after Esther’s accident and death, him clutching a pillow this way with his back to Margaret.
He doesn’t cry or think, just listens to his breathing, noticing how each shallow rush is a steady step forward.
Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State and the author of four books, most recently THIS IS WHY I NEED YOU, out now from Ravenna Press.
You can find more of his work at lenkuntz.blogspot.com.