Friday, August 23, 2013

Finders, Keepers

She had just answered Final Jeopardy when her terrier jumped from the couch and scrambled to the front door, alerting Dolores with his tiny bark of someone's presence.  She assumed it was the postman preparing to deposit today's stack of bills, catalogs, and magazines into the mail slot.  Instead of the familiar sound of swishing envelopes, however, she heard the dog emit a low growl.  Maybe a cat or another dog, Dolores thought.

"Hush, Tipsy.  Mama's coming."

Dolores grunted as she pushed herself off of the sofa.  She wasn't an especially old woman or even a large woman, but life had weighed heavily on her shoulders for many years.  

Since Dolores hit puberty, there had rarely been a moment in her life in which she hadn't cared for someone.   
As a teenager, she tended to her younger siblings as her mother slowly succumbed to cancer.  In her mother's final months, Dolores took on the role of both parent and nurse.  Her insomnia could be traced back to those nights of lying in bed, awaiting the sound of her mother's moan, of her siblings' cries.  She would rock her younger brother as he struggled against her thin body, reminding her over and over through his sobs that she wasn't his Mama.  She would cover his ears as her mother would howl in pain, demanding Dolores "put the child down and come to her aid."  

The Dead Mother by Edvard Munch
Though it had been 47 years, Dolores still carried the secret shame of her initial feelings the morning she reached for her mother's hand and found it stiff and cold:  relief.  

Her mother had insisted that she not be embalmed, pointing out that her insides had rotted so there was no need to preserve what was left of her outsides.  Dolores knew that her mother's decision could also be attributed to the modest woman's repulsion of being naked on the table of the local mortician.  Dolores still cringed when she thought of bathing her dead mother’s body for the last time.

Tipsy was dancing a four-legged jig by the time Dolores reached the door, his nails tap-tap-tapping on the hardwood floor.  There still hadn’t been a knock.  Dolores pulled back the curtains beside the door.  There was a man sitting on her front porch steps.  His back was to Dolores, but his gray hair and posture indicated he was of advanced age.  His head was cradled in his hands.   Dolores couldn’t help but think of her father.

Jonas Wilbanks was not a bad man, but he had handled his wife’s illness and subsequent death very poorly.   His wife had always handled the children and household responsibilities, and being at home was overwhelming and frustrating.   He felt completely useless and, eventually, hopeless.  Instead of rising to the occasion and stepping up for his family, though, he avoided them and generally came home only to sleep and eat.  He justified his shortcomings in his own mind by increasing the financial provisions which he provided, requesting first consideration for any overtime at the factory where he was employed.  People around town criticized the man for practically abandoning his children and ailing wife, but Jonas kept his head down and worked harder.  The morning Dolores met him on the front porch with the news of his wife’s death, Jonas wailed and wept like her passing was a complete shock and surprise.   He was drunk for an entire week following her burial.  And the next week.  And then pretty much every day following, especially once the foreman’s sympathy waned and he fired Jonas Wilbanks.  

Hands on Head by Immortelle
Jonas was a broken man and would remain so the rest of his life.  Instead of starting a life of her own, Dolores remained at home, playing the role of mother to both the younger siblings and her own father.  Just shy of her 26th birthday, her youngest brother quit school, found work, and left home.  Dolores felt like a very old woman, and she felt older every time her Daddy would stumble home, often bloody and bruised.  She would lie awake as she had over a decade before, only this time it was her father who cried in the night.  When he’d grow quiet, she’d tiptoe down the hallway and find him sitting in her mother’s chair, asleep with his head in his hands.  

It took her two years to finally walk away and begin her new life.  

Dolores unchained and opened the door but did not cross the threshold.  Tipsy ran to the man and began giving him a once over with his tiny nose.  


The man didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge her or the dog.  She noticed hearing aids on the back of his ears.

“Sir?” she said, a little louder this time.  

The man turned and looked up at her.  His face was friendly but lined with sadness.  He immediately grasped the handrail and carefully hoisted himself into a standing—yet slightly stooped—position.

He was dressed in a short sleeved button up shirt and wrinkled grey slacks.  His hair was silver but barely thinning as with most men of a certain age.  Behind his glasses were striking blue eyes, rimmed in red as if he'd been rubbing them profusely.  

Holding the rail, he made his way to the top step.  Dolores made no attempt to close the door or even back away. She couldn’t read minds, but she knew this man meant her no harm.

“Is there something I can help you with, hon?  Are you looking for someone?  Are you lost?  I have a phone—“  

“They told me you died, Bea.”

“I’m sorry?”

“They told me but I didn’t believe it.  I knew you’d be here waiting if I could just get to you.  But all those doors, those locks, those damned locks. I couldn’t get to you.”

“Sir, I think you are mistaking me for someone else.   My name is Do—“ 

But before she could finish, the old man covered the two steps between them much more swiftly than she imagined possible.  

He wrapped his arms around her.  She could feel his body convulse ever so slightly as he quietly sobbed into her shoulder.  Almost automatically, her arms embraced his body.  She patted his back and soothed him, shushed him.  

It had been so long since anyone had touched her, much less held her.  Her husband had been dead for almost six years, but she had no interest in dating and had politely declined when her friends tried to introduce her to "eligible" men.  

She had been blessed with almost three decades of marriage with her dear Erwin, but marriage had not provided the kind of escape she so desperately sought from her childhood home.  

Self 24 by David Roman
She and Erwin met after he returned home from his tour in Vietnam.  He never spoke of what he’d done or witnessed while he served his country, but Dolores had a hard time believing he’d been so broken prior to his deployment.  Erwin was a kind man, an honest man, and he loved Dolores.  But she often wondered if his love stemmed mostly from his dependence on her.  For days, sometimes weeks, Erwin would “go into himself” as Dolores called it.  He wouldn’t leave the bedroom, wouldn’t eat, often wouldn’t even speak or acknowledge Dolores was in the room.  She would endure these days of living with a shell of her husband by keeping busy—cleaning the entire house top to bottom, planting a new garden, baking pies and cakes for all of the neighbors.  She would only stop to sleep, eat and check on Erwin.  Each time, Dolores waited patiently for the door to open and for her husband to emerge, to hold her, to live again.  She would then make the most of the time they had together, forcing herself to focus on the life they were living and not the imminent threat of withdrawal that always loomed in the not so distant future.  

Then one day, the door never opened.  

Two hours later, Dolores found herself still entertaining—or rather being entertained by— the older gentleman whose name was Robert Tatum.  She had made coffee and found two honey buns in the pantry for them to eat.  He wore a bracelet with the name of a nursing facility only three-quarters of a mile from her own home, which was also Robert's former home with his wife.

She had not encouraged him to call her Bea, but she hadn’t corrected him since they met on the porch.  Though he was obviously the victim of some sort of dementia, he still possessed wit and charm.  He was currently reliving the early 80s and asking Dolores if she remembered the name of this chalet or that quaint cafe.   

The afternoon passed quickly.  Dolores made grilled cheese sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup for dinner.  She hid a grin when Robert mentioned that her cooking had improved.    
They ate mostly in silence, broken up by Tipsy’s occasional whine for a bite of bread crust.  About a half hour later, as Dolores carried the dishes to the sink, she found herself humming a song under her breath.  When she returned to the dining room, Robert was staring at her.  He didn’t look upset or alarmed, but he wore the sad expression she’d first seen on his face.  

“You aren’t Bea,” he said, very quietly.

“No, Mr. Robert, I’m not Bea.  I’m Dolores.  I live in this house now.”

“And Bea—“

“I’m not exactly sure, but I think she passed away.  I… I can try to find out.  My neighbor has a computer with the Internet.  Maybe I could look it up?”

“No, “ he whispered, “no, there won’t be any need for that.  My Bea is gone.”

He slowly stood, his hands visibly shaking.  

“Are you leaving?”

He dropped his head and slowly sat down.  

“I don’t know how to get back there, back to that place.”  

Dolores had grown accustomed over the years to seeing men cry, to watching them crumble.  She had carefully, so carefully, swept up the broken pieces over and over.  She had gently, so gently, pasted them back together, using bits and pieces of herself to fill in the cracks left in those she loved.    

But watching the tears stream down Robert’s face opened a door inside her heart that had closed the day her husband had been carried from their bedroom.  Dolores had filled the years alone with weekend trips to visit nieces and nephews, with reading groups and ladies’ bowling league.  She had adopted Tipsy from the local shelter and nursed him back to health, both physically and mentally.  She filled her days with talk shows and crossword puzzles and subscriptions to a dozen different magazines.

If anyone asked, Dolores was doing just fine.  Some might say she had even flourished following Erwin’s death.  

But Dolores was lonely.  No, not lonely.  She was alone.

She hated coming home to an empty house.  She hated eating most meals by herself.  She hated having no one with whom to share the insignificant tidbits of her day that don’t justify a phone call to a friend.  
Most of all—and she had never admitted it to herself until this very moment—she hated having no one in her life who needed her.  She didn't necessarily desire love or affection.  She didn't need to be wanted.  

She wanted to be needed.  

After a lifetime of meeting the needs of everyone in her life, she had tried to convince herself that her senior years would be her time, that this time of rest and solitude could be the silver lining to the dark cloud that had followed her for so many years.  But Dolores didn’t know how to be alone and she surely didn’t understand how she was supposed to spend the next however many years she walked the earth solely meeting her own needs.  She couldn’t imagine anything less fulfilling or a more pathetic way to conclude her life.  

She walked to Mr. Robert Tatum and placed her hand on his shoulder.  He reached up with his own hand and, without looking up, placed it on hers.  

"Mr. Robert, I need to ask you a question..."

She had never been so sure of anything in her entire life.



a.j.g. said...

This piece began months ago with NPR's "Three-Minute Fiction" contest. The challenge was to write a piece of fiction in which a character finds something he or she has no intention of returning. I decided that the "something" in my story would be another person. I toyed with the idea of a child, but figured that plot would show up in others' stories.

Long story short, I actually made a short story longer when I missed the deadline for submission and opted to "flesh out" this piece from under 600 words to over 2,000.

polarbear1986 said...

I love stories like this. It ended, but I wasn't ready for it to.
And at the same time, it kinda hits home in a strange way, now that I think about it.

Elisa said...

Well done. I think you have tremendous insight.

Gina Jewell Cowsert said...

excellent Sis, I'm ready for the next installment. You need to finish it.