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1984 – alfred jameson by jmforceton

6 Jun

September 17, 1979: He was looking at a blank screen. After a long struggle and false hope, Julia died of breast cancer. Two weeks later, September 29, Lisa, his granddaughter made her first appearance.

It was not until 1984 that he appeared to let Julia go; that was not the truth, he would never in his lifetime let her go, but he began to write then, and the pages of his life began to fill again.

At least he had the power to keep Mary Mayville alive forever.

*     *     *     *

Today, Saturday, September 29, 1984 was Lisa’s fifth birthday, and Lisa had made it clear she wanted to sail with her grandfather on her birthday. The day was sunny and cool, but perfect for sweaters and windbreakers as they motored out of the harbor on Julia IV with Lisa at the helm. Sixteen-year-old Paula complained about the all-day trip on the water, but had conceded, and was on the bow taking Lisa’s favorite sheer red jenny, otherwise known as a genoa jib, out of its sail bag. Their 13-year-old brother was with his best friend’s family for the weekend, at a soccer tournament in Nashua, New Hampshire.

“Grampa, I like the red jenny.”

“Well so do I.”

“Grampa, what else do you like?”

“I like you and your sister.”

“Will I be beautiful like Paula?”

“You’re both beautiful.”

“Grampa, I don’t have boys coming to see me.”

“Oh, but you will. Head off a bit to starboard…perfect. Ok Paula, go ahead and haul the jenny up.”

“Grampa, where is Paris?”

“Paris, what do you know about Paris?”

“You just went to Paris.”

“Yes I did. Paris is on the other side of this ocean, over there.”

“Can we go there today?”

“No, it would take us weeks and we don’t have enough food or water.”

“Can we go another time?”

Alfred hesitated a second, “Yes, maybe we can, maybe we can.”

“You always say Gramma liked it there. Is Gramma there?”

“I think she would be there if she could.”

“Was Gramma beautiful?”

“Yes, just like you.”

*     *     *     *

That year he was editor-in-chief and had insight into many complex current issues, all the same, there were so many things he didn’t understand. Fortunately, in his 1984, Big Brother was alive but not all-powerful, and couldn’t know how he really felt.

He would retire in 1989 at sixty-two. His second novel, with Mary Mayville as a central character, would be a best seller in 1991, changing his life again.

He was a full time writer and successful author. He loved travel and research into topics that interested him, digging for little known facts and obscure connections that resulted in commonly seen and well known events. He loved facts and truth, but only wrote fiction; in fiction, he could control the outcome.

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julia II, cape cod bay – july 4, 1964 by jmforceton

23 May

On a morning with blue skies and a few high clouds, Alfred and his tall, Madras shorts clad, seventeen-year-old son, AJ, are feeling warm sunshine on their faces, a brisk fifteen-knot salty breeze through their hair, and rolling four foot seas under them, on the foredeck of the Julia II, his well-found, wood, 42’ Friendship sloop, as they sort out lines to fly the jib wing-and-wing with the mainsail for the run downwind across Cape Cod Bay to Provincetown. Alfred’s sixty-four year old, scowling, father is at the iron, six spoke wheel, smoke from his briar pipe drifting forward past the deck hands as a fifty foot Hatteras cruiser powers across their bow leaving a five foot high wake in their path. AJ’s mom, Julia, is home, and will attend the fireworks display over Boston harbor that evening with her fourteen-year-old daughter and friends. The men will have corn on the cob, steaks, and lobsters for dinner on shore, followed by beers, firecrackers, and fireworks from the cockpit of the sloop, in rowdy, crowded, Provincetown Harbor. Alfred will not capture much in his journal tonight, but his memories of the day will freshen entries later in the week.

AJ goes below and turns on his transistor radio. A Hard Days Night, the Beatles new song, out this week, assaults the old man at the wheel. “What is that caterwauling. Sounds like the vagabonds that Sullivan had on his show. What’s Sullivan thinking? A shard dazed knight, doesn’t even make sense. They call this music. Close the hatch before I get seasick.” Alfred smirks as he slides the hatch cover down.

Alfred changes the subject, “So what do you think about the Warren Commission? Hard to imagine one guy could do what he did, alone.”

“Damn right. Then Teddy’s plane crashes flying into Westfield last month, Joe Junior’s plane goes down back in ’44. Bobby’s got to be next. How can it all be coincidence?”

“That’s why I always like investigative reporting, putting the pieces together. You may be right, but there’s no solid evidence yet. I haven’t talked to Bobby since Jack’s wake.”

“Evidence, I say poppycock to that. It’s about wealth and power. They won’t find any evidence. Bobby’s still Attorney General isn’t he; how much is he involved in the investigation? You think Hoover or the CIA will ever tell the truth, even if they knew it? It’ll be a matter of national security, the military will be involved; we’ll never know.” The hatch opens and they hear, Yeah, Yeah, Yeahhhh. She loves you. The old guy groans.

AJ, now in the cockpit says, “So Dad, why don’t we get one of those new Mustangs, or maybe one of those Corvair Monza convertibles. Johnny’s Dad just bought one.?”

“A great idea, but until I make Assistant Editor, we may not have enough spare cash for bus fare to get you to Amherst in September. That’s why. And besides that, if we got a Chevy, it would be a Corvette not a Monza.” More groans from the old man.

Their leisurely run across the bay continues, and the conversation and sporadic music fades as the sail sinks into the horizon.

alfred – october 25, 1944 samar, philippines by jmforceton

16 May

It was 4:00 am, a hot humid night off the north coast of Samar, and eighteen-year-old radioman Alfred Jameson was in the tobacco smoke fog of the radio shack on the destroyer escort, Samuel B. Bradley.  Ship’s Captain Jack Cooper, and a dozen others who would normally be asleep, were packed in, listening to fragments of voice transmissions on the TBS, talk between ships, radio. Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet, about a hundred miles away, was destroying the Japanese navy’s Southern Force in the Surigao Strait, south of Samar, and they were all feeling confident; the war would have to end soon. Proudly they listened to the amazing, smooth, steady, precise patter of the battle.

At 6:30 am Alfred was just falling asleep when the first shell sent spray high in the air, three hundred yards behind the Bradley. Radio transmissions from Avenger torpedo-bombers were now confirming a large naval armada had just come through the San Bernardino Strait north of Samar, undetected to that point. Alfred’s small, slow, Task Unit of the Seventh Fleet, three destroyers, four destroyer escorts, six escort carriers, was under surprise attack by the vastly superior Japanese Central Force, and Halsey was nowhere to be found. Alfred thought to himself, today will be my last day.

Captain Cooper had just announced to the two hundred twenty men on board, “A large Japanese fleet has been contacted. They are fifteen miles away and headed in our direction. They are believed to have four battleships, eight cruisers, and eleven destroyers. This will be a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival cannot be expected. We will do what damage we can.”

An hour later, Alfred and the Bradley, carrying a rack of three torpedoes, were flying at thirty knots behind the larger destroyer, Percy Harrison, on a desperation, suicidal, torpedo run to delay four Japanese heavy cruisers closing in on the group’s defenseless, fleeing, American escort carriers. In the radio shack he could hear the chatter from the Wildcat fighter planes and Avenger bombers harassing the Japanese ships, as the Imperial battleships were lobbing three thousand pound, eighteen-inch shells from ten miles away, nearly point blank range for them. One rocketing overhead sounded like a boxcar ripping through the air. If one hits, I will die instantly; there would be no next breath.

Alfred froze for an instant, remembering lines of a favorite poem that he knew everything about, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, another battle that took place on October 25, ninety years ago in 1854;

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns’ he said:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

There was an explosion, and it was like an earthquake rocked the ship. He looked forward from the radio shack; the direct hit had vaporized the forward five-inch gun turret, it simply disappeared, and the nine men inside were gone. He couldn’t hear anything.

He saw a Japanese Zero fly into the carrier, Fanshaw Bay, up ahead. The plane hadn’t been hit? Why did the pilot do that? Another shell created a geyser just off the starboard bow, twenty yards away, too close.

They had just been hit for the third time, only one of the six thousand horsepower Westinghouse turbine engines was running, and the radio had been knocked out. There were bodies in the passageway and on deck, as Alfred, checking shipmates for pulse, made his way to the stern. The Bradley and two other destroyer escorts were now making smoke in a failing attempt to hide the fleeing carriers.

10:00 am: The Bradley was dead; the order to abandon ship had been given. Guys were going over the side into the blood and oil-covered water. Alfred hesitated, took a look at the shrapnel wound in his left leg, put the other leg over the rail, then jumped. A few minutes later, the stern of their destroyer escort sank, and the bow pointed to the sky, and backed into the sea.

Twenty minutes later, a Japanese cruiser steamed by a hundred yards away. There were sailors with rifles at the rails, but they did not shoot. He had been ready to dive deep if they had fired. From nowhere the thought entered his head, if I hadn’t joined the Navy I might have started freshman year at college, and be in class on a Wednesday, maybe English Lit.

A short while later, he jumped off the raft to swim to Brian. Alfred was six foot two and broad shouldered, and Brian was struggling to make it to the raft. The wound to his head was horrific, but he was alive, and Brian was one of his shipmates he knew the best. All Alfred could think of was Brian’s picture of his beautiful blond wife and baby daughter standing in front of their ’32 Ford pickup truck on Brian’s parent’s farm in Iowa. He managed to get him back to the raft, and they pulled him in. Alfred stayed in the water.

That night he was getting tired, and tried to pull himself onto the raft. A gunner’s mate he didn’t know punched him in the face; it was about survival. The raft was already overcrowded and in danger of swamping. He understood, as he slipped back into the salt sea.

It was late afternoon, and he was dozing; It’s Julia, back in June, waving as I board the Bradley in Charleston Navy Yard in Boston. She is so small in the distance in her royal blue dress with the white wide brimmed hat. The three hundred foot Bradley is so small lying next to the huge six hundred foot British heavy cruiser. We’ll have a wedding if I make it back.

They waited all day to be found, but all they could see were aircraft in the distance, as it got dark. Two men died that afternoon and were allowed to sink, hopefully not attracting sharks.

In his dreams that night, He is in his father’s corner office at the newspaper; his father’s pipe is belching a smoke cloud to the high ceiling. They are talking about after the war, and his joining the paper or going on to college. He is telling his stern father about Julia.

Alfred had been in the ocean, hanging on to the side of the raft, for twenty hours. It was 6:00 am, and he could see the first color in the east as the quiet ocean rocked him. Two more men, who had been floating near Alfred, disappeared that night.

Alfred thought for a second about Amelia Earhart, and the character, Mary Mayville, he had created as a kid. He had crashed her plane not far from here, but had not allowed her to die, as Amelia had seven years ago. Did Amelia end up in the ocean alone, or did the crash kill her suddenly? Someone in the water, three or four hundred yards away, screamed, “SHARKS.”

They were making love, consumed with each other. Then it was 3:00 am, and they were sneaking out of his dormitory at Milton Academy. Something bumped his leg; He awoke instantly. Terror, he screamed; his heart was pounding. Nothing happened. He was gently rocking in the wet darkness. He switched hands on the raft and was asleep.

He was thinking of Julia the first time he saw her at the social on the Milton campus. They talked, they danced, her perfume, her smile, her hand held on after the dance. He touched her a hundred times that night, and this.

He woke up later and noticed Hector, who had been beside him, was gone. Someone said he had swum away from the raft in the middle of the night, thinking he could get home in a short while. He was gone.

He was twelve or thirteen and playing football this afternoon. Mom made him breakfast. Two eggs over easy, toast with butter, grilled ham, hash brown potatoes, and a big cold glass of orange juice. Now the second morning, he opened his eyes. When the waves lifted him he could see a rain squall line in the distance muting the sunrise light and fell asleep.

Two hours later at 9:02 am, the crew of the one hundred seventy five foot patrol craft, PC-635, found them. Captain Cooper correctly answered, “St. Louis Cardinals,” to the question, “Who won the last world series?” after which young Alfred yelled, “NOW GET US OUT OF THE WATER YOU SON OF A BITCH.”

a conversation between floors by juleshg

18 Apr

“Shoot, I have to get this,” Jason looked apologetically at Lisa as she hit the up button on the elevator.  He tried to juggle his briefcase and reach for the cell phone in his pocket without spilling his unopened coffee cup.

With a sigh Lisa reached over and grabbed the hot cup to give Jason a free hand.  “Look, we are going to be late.  I’ll go up ahead to the office.  You take your call and meet me up in suite 510 when you are done. “

“Thanks,” he said blowing her a kiss as she stepped onto the elevator.

Lisa walked to the back wall of the small car and leaned against the mirror before noticing that she still had both coffee cups.  Great, she thought, I am only a few weeks pregnant and I am already getting absent-minded.

“Thirsty?”

Lisa looked over at the older lady standing on the other side of the elevator and smiled.  “No, just tired, really tired.  I…”

Before she could finish her sentence the two ladies were shaken by a sudden stop of the car and a flash of the lights overhead.

“Are you OK?” Lisa asked the older lady who was clutching elevator rail in an effort to stay balanced.

“Oh, I’m fine dear.  How are you?”

“I’m good.”  Lisa crouched down to put her purse and the coffee cups on the floor before crossing the elevator to open the emergency panel.  It was an old building with a beat up phone and she lifted the receiver to see if she could get help.  After a few minutes chatting with the security guard downstairs Lisa hung up the phone and turned to her companion.

“Well, good news and bad news.  The bad news is that it will take at least 30 minutes to get someone here to fix the elevator.”

“Oh dear, the good news…?”

“We have two fresh cups of hot coffee.  Can I help you down to the floor?  We may as well get comfortable.”

The older lady smiled and laughed.  “Thank you dear.  My name is Margaret and coffee sounds delightful.”

“Hi, Margaret.  I’m Lisa.”

The older lady chuckled quietly as she settled down on the floor and stretched out her thin legs.  “My daughter Rose is going to be having a fit downstairs.  She is always telling me how busy she is and about all of the appointments she has to re-arrange just to take me out of the nursing home for a few hours.   I almost feel sorry for the repairman who has to listen to her while trying to get the elevator running again.”

“Jason will be on his case too.  He already had a really busy day planned and had to move two meetings just to get here for this appointment, let alone an extra half hour while they spring me from the elevator.”

The two women laughed and toasted with their paper cups.

“So, what brings you out today, Lisa?”

“I’m pregnant,” Lisa said looking down at her cup.

“I am sensing that may not be the best news,” Margaret said quietly.  “I don’t mean to pry but I am a stranger on an elevator and completely impartial.  Who better to tell your secrets too?  Plus, I have been around the block a few times myself.”

Lisa looked up with a grin.  “I think I’m more shocked than anything.  Jason, the baby’s father, is thrilled.  I wasn’t planning to have a baby for a few more years and now I feel like I am in a run-away cart that is heading downhill and picking up speed.  Everything is out of control.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.  I’ll get married I guess,” Lisa said with a shrug.  “Jason is a nice guy and he’ll be a great dad.  He has been wanting to get married for a while now and I’ve been stalling.  My mom will be thrilled to see me married to a successful lawyer but will be horrified that I’m ‘knocked up’.”

Margaret cackled.

“In my day, a woman in your situation was either sent away to live with relatives out-of-town or in a white dress at an altar within the week.  That’s what happened to me.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes,” Margaret said with a smile.  “I was in love with a lovely man named Alfred but his parents hated me.  It broke my heart when he moved away to take another job and I poured out my heart to a very nice boy named Peter who had always had a crush on me. “

Lisa smiled as the other woman blushed.  She gave her a light poke with her elbow encouraging her to go on with the story.

“Peter was a dear man and was so kind to me.  At first I was just trying not to hurt his feelings but before I knew it, I realized that I was a little sweet on him too.  We had not known each other for very long but one night we went out and one thing lead to another…. Well, I guess I don’t have to explain it to you.”

Lisa laughed at the teasing.  “Did you marry him?”

“Oh yes.  Peter was not the sort of man who would have stepped away from his responsibilities.  When I told him about the baby he went right to my parents and asked for my hand.  We eloped to Niagara Falls the next day and I had Rose seven months later.”

“Were you happy?”  Lisa stared at the other woman intently.  Margaret saw desperation in her eyes:  like a drowning woman watching for a lifeboat.

Margaret reached over and put her hand on Lisa’s knee. “We were married for fifty years and I loved him dearly.”

Lisa took a deep breath and sighed.   “I don’t know if I can do it,” she confessed.  “I don’t know if I can just get married and live happily ever after.”

You don’t have to my dear.  It’s a different world than when I was in your shoes.  Maybe it was easier for me not having to choose.  Looking back I don’t know what I would have done if I would have been given an option.”  Margaret shook her head.  “I don’t envy you.”

Once again the lights flickered and Lisa and Margaret felt the elevator begin to move.

As the doors opened the women looked out to find Rose and Jason waiting frantically on the ground floor and Margaret gave Lisa’s hand a squeeze.

********

“answered questions”, paris, may, 2004 by jmforceton

14 Mar

“Answered Questions”

A slender young woman with short, straight, black hair stood, arms crossed, and wearing a Bowdoin sweatshirt, is framed in the second floor window of her apartment looking out at the park across the street. She was thinking about their time together, that week here in Berlin, the most incredible of her life.

They planned to meet again in Paris in three weeks time and talking to her grandfather Alfred, days later, Lisa learned that he too would be in Paris. He was promoting a book and would be staying at the Hotel Crillon the month of May. Because she had the quickest mind of any of his six grandchildren, she had always been his favorite and he offered her the gift of a room there. She accepted and it was decided she would arrive three days earlier than she had originally planned so that her grandfather could show her some of the city. She told him she was meeting friends. He didn’t press for details.

It had been four days before the trip that she had become concerned. She had never been three days late. She couldn’t be pregnant. To anyone watching her, her life was normal as she made the final arrangements for her holiday. She followed through with her plan to buy the red strapless evening gown. She tried to finish her book about Amelia Earhart but couldn’t bear to read the ending. She changed her picture on her Facebook profile from, her reading on the beach at Ft. Lauderdale, to, her reading in a leather chair in a dimly lit corner of her den. None of her friends asked why. She had enough vacation time accumulated in her position at the U.S. embassy in Berlin to allow her to take more days off than she originally requested and she did.

For her, the world had changed. Inescapable thoughts kept running through her mind, questions that she had never thought she would have to deal with. A baby, her baby, his baby, all the ways her life could change. What would he say, what would he do? She learned that she should wait until day seven to take the test. She couldn’t stop her mind, options, questions, and thoughts drifted through uncontrolled. Never in her past had she spent time thinking about pregnancy, her unexpected pregnancy. She had never considered it might happen this way.

The trip itself and the first days in Paris quickly passed. Her grandfather Alfred took more pleasure in presenting the city to her than anything in his life. She loved the twinkle in his eye when he saw or heard anything that pleased him. It was an amazing three-day tour, Pantheon, Sorbonne, Luxemburg Gardens, Notre Dame Cathedral, The Louvre, The Eiffel Tower, Centre Pompidou, Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge. It was exuberant spring. The sky was clear, bright. He was happy and she would do nothing to distract or disappoint her grandfather, yet her mind, for those three days, grew more restive.

She had delayed as long as she could. Her mind remained in turmoil as she took the test kit into her small bathroom at the Hotel Crillon. Ten minutes and a lifetime later she emerged.

Relieved, invigorated, perhaps exhilarated, Lisa left the bathroom ready to restart her life. In that room she had realized and resolved that pregnant or not she must and would move on in her life. She would not look back but forward. If she had been pregnant her grandfather, Alfred, would have been one of the first to find out and, without thinking, she knew he would have supported her in everyway he could.

Her meeting with her new friend, her lover, was not for another hour. He was not the father of their child, not yet anyway. She decided to clear her head, take in the fresh spring air, and walk in the Tuileries Garden that her grandfather loved so much and had twice taken her in the last three days. There was a bench she liked, near the pond where the young children sailed their lifelike toy sailboats. New blossoms were everywhere. There was no place she knew that was better to just sit, relax, and gather one’s self. “Merci” she said to the doorman as she glided through the front door of the hotel and turned in the direction of the gardens.

Walking around the outside of the Place it occurred to her that there was more than the usual noise and congestion, particularly on the other side of the Obelisk. See looked over but it obscured her view. She also thought that her grandfather had told her he was going in that direction when he left the hotel some time ago. With a hint of anxiety she hurried past the entrance to the gardens to get a clear view of whatever was happening on the other side of the Place. She saw a cab and a Mini. Apparently there had been an accident. She felt momentary relief, then she noticed the man and two women, one a striking, young blond, taller than she was, walking together, away from her towards the Champs Elysée. “Was that him?” Now she hesitated, confused and a touch disoriented, perhaps it was just recent emotions catching up with her. Without thinking, she moved to have a closer look and weaved through traffic, cutting across to the center island. “That can’t be him, but it looked like him.” She was too far away to be sure.

She crossed again to the opposite side of the Place. Snarled traffic, horns, and angry cabbies assaulted her already heightened senses. She reached the curb walking briskly now and turned onto the granite-paved walk of the Champs. Still a good distance away, she saw the three stop at a red-canopied café. As they moved to a sidewalk table they walked past, Alfred?

The man she was following turned slightly as he sat. It was Jimmy. He was smiling and his hand was on the blond girl’s shoulder.

At that point she stopped and walked over to a nearby empty bench and sat, no longer following, not aware of the gentle spring breeze and the strolling cheerful people filling the broad, tree lined, walk.

After a short time, she stood up, walking slowly now in the direction of the hotel, passing the Obelisk, remembering her grandfather telling her that the name, “Place de la Concorde”, was chosen “symbolizing the end of a troubled era and the hope for a better future.”

Her cell phone chirped, it was a text message from Jimmy. “I was going to surprise you and get there early but got tied up. I’ll be a little late. See you soon.”

She would not cry. Instead she thought, “another test”. Lisa knew more questions would be answered before this day would end. She also thought, “Amelia would have walked over to the table”.

Links – week 9  “Pregnant? Thoughts” , week 8  “Number Talk” , week 7  “Monolithic” , week 6  “Committed?”

weather by ingridf

21 Feb

Alfred held court on a chair outside of Green Bean café every morning through the summer between nine and noon. In the winter he took the booth inside, just inside the door. He raised his hand in greeting as all the locals and regulars passed. He pronounced the weather holding up his small transistor radio as his symbol of authority.

“Rain, rain today,” he would say, “Don’t forget your umbrella.” Everyone knew him but didn’t know him. He was a part of the urban landscape but no less necessary or comforting than that first coffee of the day. He was a smiling face, a friendly greeting, but he was also a bit frightening in his lonely intensity, his need.

His favorite was Maggie, the young waitress who worked in the café. She was unfailingly kind to him, and would fill up ketchup bottles and sugar containers on his table. He told her tall tales that left her smiling and she would tease him, “Tell me another one, Alfred,” and would wink saucily at him.

There was some business with her father who had shown up one day, watched her for a week and then blown out just as quickly. Weeks where she had arrived at the cafe, her eyes red and her face patchy with crying, and he felt real rage at this man who would hurt her. He believed that Maggie would be the ideal daughter: thoughtful, loving, kind and funny. She reminded him of his first wife and of the hopefulness he had felt.

Lately, she had started dating a young man named Paul who made young Maggie smile like he had never seen her do. Maggie slid into the booth across from him, “Alfred, do I have a proposition for you,” she said beaming to him.

“Oh darlin’. You are lovely but I fear yer a bit too young for me,” he said, winking.

She laughed and touched his hand, a crafty look in her eye, “How would you feel about a double date?”

“Oh dear. You need a date for a father-daughter thing?” he asked, “I’d be proud as punch to do that. I would be good father.”

For a moment, she said nothing. She smiled, her eyes welling with tears and she held his hand. “Oh Alfred. You would.” She wiped her tears away and said, “But I…,” she blushed, “I have someone I’d like you to meet. Her name’s Margaret, she lives in Paul’s building, she’s awesome and she makes the best apple pie you’ve ever had. Better than anything you’ve ever had.”

“Oh… I don’t know. I don’t know about that,” he said. He looked down his own weather-worn hands, the egg stain on his knitted vest and then up at Maggie, who was looking at him hopefully.

“It would … it would mean more than I can say. I want you there,” she said.

Alfred found his heart pounding in his chest. No one had wanted anything from him but a forecast of blue skies for many years.

“Please,” she asked.

Alfred didn’t know what to say, but found himself smiling and nodding… Unable to say a word. He felt blue skies ahead after years of rain.

***

links to stories “coffee” and “the smell of cinnamon

be well by mpeonies

21 Feb

Alfred brushed over his hair with his palm, feeling the lightness, the near baldness, his age. He was sixty-five now, and felt as if the first half of his life sped by, while the latter moved as slow as water. He threw on his black corduroy blazer now, pinching out the few specks of dust. He made sure that every button of his dress shirt was done, and threw himself a serious grin in the mirror, as a parent would do to a troublesome child.

It was his birthday today, and family would be there. Loud aunts with big mouths and smiles would be there. Shy, tiresome cousins would be there. Sara would be there.

Most of everything at the party was as he imagined. The platters of butter croissants and cheese finger sandwiches, his favorites, sat in the light of an otherwise dimly lit room with gloomy floral wallpaper—the kind that made you feel you were in a rundown motel. But Alfred wore a smile, making noises of content as he munched on the food. He never paused in his eating, of course, so as to avoid actual conversation with relatives. It was easier for him to laugh, mouth closed, occasionally spurting out crumbs, giving hugs and handshakes all at once. Alfred always felt there was something fake about relatives, about himself in relation to them especially. He could not tell them he was a lonely man, spending half of his days wandering and sleeping, doing annoying puzzles, wondering where his life had gone, that he was a divorcee and his wife had left him because she had become bored and tired. Instead, he gave the semblance of a freethinking, clumsily brash man. He laughed a lot, and never cared to be sincere about it, but it got him pats on the back and things were better that way, he thought.

But one of his aunts, the one that planned the party, had invited his wife. She entered the room an hour before the party’s end. Alfred took a few minutes to make meaning of her appearance. It had been a year, but she seemed more fragile. Her walk was faster, but the lightness of it suggested that she had lost weight, energy. The long strands of her grayish hair still highlighted the glow of her face. Her eyes were as young and brown and big as they always were. They never changed. Alfred dropped his sandwich onto a platter, pushing aside an aunt who had been chattering to him for maybe an hour now, and raised both a hand and a smile at his wife.

“Sara!” he screamed.

She fixed her hair and looked down, timid and overwhelmed. Alfred smiled and laughed aloud, “Oh! Too old and wrinkly to look at now, am I?!”

Sara raised her head, and glared at him, as if she was opening her eyes for the first time. Alfred felt her glare. It was something between pity and guilt. Alfred returned a sad smile, something between pleading and confessing.

“Happy birthday, Fred,” she said loudly. Alfred took Sara’s hand lightly into his, and began to walk around the room. His Aunt Sandra was standing near the table of food. Alfred headed there first, and immediately reached over for another sandwich. He smiled, mouth closed.

Sara stood on his side, holding a worried look. Aunt Sandra posed questions, giving no time for response, returning to her own reflections, thoughts, and the rumors she had heard. Looking over at Alfred, Sara recognized the look of anxiety that sat on his face. And she, too, reached over for a sandwich and placed it in her mouth. And the two went on the rest of the night, clearing the platters of food and staying silent, occasionally giggling at their own folly.

At the end of the night, Sara was ready to leave. Alfred walked her out of the house, and the two said nothing as she stepped into her car. Before closing the car door, Sara looked straight ahead and then looked down with a sudden burst of laughter. “I think I might explode from all the food…” she said. Alfred joined her in laughter.

“Be well, Alfred,” she said with a sad drop in tone.

“I’ll try,” he shrugged.

Then, Sara left. Alfred walked back into the house. There was the sound of trash bags ruffling and glasses clinking together. There was chattering.

An aunt remarked to another. “Aren’t Freddie and Sara so adorable? They even eat the same, did you see?”

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