My short stories of love and loss have been published in various magazines and journals. Some of the shorter pieces appear in full below. Others are available for FREE download, as indicated.
The morning the movers were due, Gladys walked through the house with respectful steps, as though otherwise she might disturb its contents. Small chance of that. They were all in the front rooms, packed in boxes labeled with both their origin and destination, sheeted in heavy-grade plastic or under canvas tagged with the contents. Her footsteps clattered on naked floors. Gladys was tall, played tennis twice a week, indoors and out, depending on the weather, golfing almost daily in the summer, and had even run the half marathon a few years earlier, before it became too much for her knees. But today she was dragging, impeded by remembrance. The bare walls showed outlines of where the pictures had hung. The Appel, Miro and Picasso prints were packed away, but their departure was marked by the brighter tone where they had shaded the painted walls from the sunlight that shone through the western windows. Gladys studied her surroundings. The memories remained.
She paused in the dining room. Even with the furniture gone, she saw the table where their children had coughed up their formula as infants, spit out the vegetables as toddlers, and shoveled down full meals in less time than it took Harry and Gladys to eat their salad when their teenaged sons were in a hurry to go wherever teenagers go to get on with growing up. The table where Harry and Gladys had dined alone the last two years. The furniture would reappear in the condo, but in the new surroundings she would live in a diorama of what she once had.
"They should be here in half an hour."
That was Harry, her husband of 40 years, but maintaining the tone of a teen disappointed by reality. If it had been up to Harry, they would have kept the house, saved a carpet that needed vacuuming every other day, held onto three flights of stairs, heaving shopping carts, packages and all the other paraphernalia up the bumpy steps. She wouldn't miss the bumps. Harry had all his hair, a pension, and a lifetime of working at a desk in his office downtown instead of cleaning, cooking, shopping, carpooling, arranging play dates, hosting birthday and holiday parties, entertaining Harry's clients as well as their friends, clubbing, and all the other pleasures of wifedom and motherhood. No wonder Harry had resisted.
Gladys heard its arrival and looked out the window. The moving van was adjusting its position at the curb. On the outside, it looked like any other moving van. Inside, it would soon hold what was left of their furniture, the art, all their clothing, the Lalique and other bric-a-brac, and boxes filled with mementos. Gladys glared at Harry as he shrank in his easy chair, like a kid afraid of a visit to the dentist, instead of a middle-aged man with two kids out of college, plus another still attending, but who had announced he had no intention of ever living with them again. Harry was acting as though this were good-bye, whereas to her it looked, smelled and felt like good riddance.
When they reached the apartment building and the doorman held the front door open, Harry still looked forlorn. "Cheer up," Gladys said.
He shook his head, rejecting the suggestion. "I still don't see why we had to do this. The house was fine. With the kids gone, it would have been easy."
He was never good at diagnosis, she thought. "That's just it. With the kids gone." In Harry's case, absence not only made the heart grow fonder, it made it forgetful of all the effort – mostly, hers.
The lobby looked its age. Like her. Not old, but getting there. There was a small area rug surrounded by a cluster of chairs and a threadbare sofa just beyond the reception desk. The furniture shared a covering that suited the chairs, but embarrassed the sofa – floral-printed slipcovers on the chairs that distracted the viewer from their mid-century design, but whose larger version made the sofa look like an overgrown jungle covered in rotting plants and trees. In general, not a look that would cheer Gladys or anyone else she knew, but the thought of what awaited upstairs cheered her. It would cheer Harry, too, if he had taken part in the planning, shopping, and preparing of their new life, instead of just writing reluctant checks.
When they emerged from the elevator on the seventh floor, Gladys almost had to drag Harry down the hall. She unlocked the door to the apartment and held it open, inviting him into what she hoped would be both a new life and the preservation of a lifetime of memories.
The apartment did not look like the lobby. There were new parquet floors. Harry had refused to participate with Gladys in any of the restoration, as though that would postpone the inevitable. Their refurbished two-bedroom condo was now all wood and glass, except for the kitchen, which had a new porcelain floor and was outfitted with granite counters and appliances Gladys had bought on her own, hoping that the glare of stainless steel might enlighten
Harry to their new reality. The apartment smelled of fresh paint and a refreshed future. Harry looked around, moving from room to room without comment. Then he left, leaving the front door open, and Gladys stood alone in their new dwelling that echoed like a tomb with Harry gone.
Ten minutes later, Gladys heard the freight elevator open at the far end of the hall and the grunts of the movers and their carts as they approached the apartment. The two movers entered the apartment without Harry – just them, the packed boxes and the sheeted furniture. "Where do you want this?" asked the mover whose forearms were shaped like baseball bat handles and whose upper arms looked like their barrels, asking about their dining room table. The other mover, the short one with the strength to lift boxes and furniture twice his size, began placing their living room furniture wherever he liked, in the correct presumption that Gladys would change her mind at least half a dozen times before she was satisfied.
During the next two hours, they continued their trips down to the truck, then back up to the apartment, positioning the furniture in the master bedroom, and in the second bedroom that Gladys thought of as the den but would tell Harry was his office. The apartment was filling up.
When the movers hung the blinds, as well as the drapes that she had purchased without Harry last month in preparation for the move, when he surrendered to her wishes but refused to participate in implementing the decision, the apartment had an entirely different look. Gladys struggled for the right word to describe it. If Harry were there, like any good lawyer he might have helped her do that, just as he could have assisted in directing the movers and opening some of the boxes that held their clothing that had to be hung in the closets and placed in the dressers. But Harry had been missing in action throughout. No wonder, really. Probably afraid of acknowledging the triumph of the decoration, and the reconstruction of the kitchen she had done without him. He ought to be ashamed of resisting the move, making her do all the work.
"We got it all up here now, ma'am," the bigger mover said. "Your deposit will cover the bill. Probably won't be a refund, though." He suppressed a smile at the very idea. "Hope you like your new place." Then they left.
After they were gone, Gladys sat on their old couch in front of the new window, looking at her surroundings, getting used to them. That was when she heard the front door open, and Harry entered, lugging a huge potted palm through the door. They had never had large plants in their home. "Found this in the alley." He had an anxious look.
The tips of the leaves were brown, and some of them were wilted. One side of the pot was chipped, but it could be turned to face a wall. "We'll find a place for it," she said. And if he watered the plant when required, they might even smooth-out the scar together. #
The Loop, Chicago, Illinois
Blades reached her just as the light at State and Washington turned green. He took her elbow, stopping her under the Macy’s clock that overhung the street, demonstrating that time hangs heavy as well as ticking short. Spring already. Blades’s shirt was plastered to his back under a tweed sports coat wrong for the weather, but that would probably be right for the season when the wind changed and blew in from the lake. There were no birds chirping over the Loop. Just pigeons depositing their opinions. No flowers in the air. Just the smell of fast-food joints and the odor of his armpits. No music, just his heart, crushing through his shirt. He counted to five before trying to talk. Twenty years earlier, he would have lost his breath at her beauty—blonde hair tumbling down, teasing her blouse, and a walk that wavered between the promise and danger of sex. These days, he was short of breath just from his job. No need for the added excitement of trailing a target. Even one who looked like her. Served him right for playing the ponies and needing to watch his shekels.
“I have some questions since we spoke,” he said.
“I’d like to buy back the introduction.”
They were walking again, purse hanging from her shoulder, banging her hip. Blades panted with every step. She abandoned him when he leaned against a building across the street. Served him right for not affording a cab. Learning her destination without the distraction of his sweat and shortness of breath would have let him take the offensive. Now, assuming he managed to spot her and catch up to her ahead, what he could do about it was the obvious question.
Once breathing as easy as he could these days, Blades resumed in her direction. She might have stopped at some window long enough for him to find her. If she entered a store, he would never know which one. But that was unlikely. She was the kind of woman who didn’t buy for herself. She was bought and paid for by his client. At $150 a day, Blades himself was for sale.
After another block, Blades got lucky. It had been a long time, but he hadn’t forgotten the smell of success at the hunt. She was looking at a display of diamonds, all too big for his wallet.
“Please don’t run again,” he managed to say. “I’m getting too old.”
“Getting?” She apprised him. “You were ‘got’ some time ago.”
He ignored the repartee. He had already told his client about her rendezvous the night before, at the Hilton. In the old days, he would have slipped the desk clerk cash for a key, entered their room with camera in hand, and caught them in the act. Eased his client out of the marriage without paying her a nickel. These days, he had no evidence. Just his testimony. Maybe he could trick her into admitting it on tape. He patted the recorder in his left hip pocket.
“Last night I saw where, when, and with who,” he said.
“With whom,” she said. She remained fixated on the gems, speaking in a tone indicating that he didn’t matter, but that she would humor him.
“Let’s talk about it.”
“Let’s,” she said. “But in private – the alley.”
Now she was looking at him, appearing to size him up. What he wanted. If she took him seriously, she might sign the settlement agreement he had in his pocket without demanding any payment. Then he could keep the cash for himself. She nodded at the gangway between their building and the next. Agreeing on solitude and a quieter setting, he followed her there.
After just a few steps, Blades was panting again. Halfway in, she stopped. He managed to say: “Your husband is willing to make a deal, if you agree to it right now, without involving any lawyers. I’m glad I caught up to you.”
“You didn’t catch up to me, I fell back to you. If I had to, I would’ve walked backward to get rid of a witness. This is Chicago. The cops will just assume it’s another killing in the streets. Unusual for downtown, but still . . .” She had a pistol in her hand. Too small for more than a round, but it would do the job, and the street noise would muffle the sound. Breathing easy for a change, Blades closed his eyes and waited. #
It was one of those days that bridges winter with spring, when you’re uncertain what to wear or how many layers are needed. The kids were at their friends' homes, or shopping at the mall, whatever was in vogue. The day was undemanding.
We were at the kitchen table, Elaine’s back to the door, so she was facing me as we drank our coffee and discussed what to see that night. It was our turn to choose the movie, and I wanted to meet our group’s objective: light on the violence, spare us the death. I was looking at Elaine, but the window was also in view, and beyond her, our yard and the morning sun that was driving the sullen clouds away.
A ravine wrapped around our house. We had no backyard, but did have a 30-foot-wide side yard that ended unfenced at the bluff. When the winter ravaged the habitat of the animals that enjoyed nature's bounty in spring and summer, they had to forage for food on our plateau. I told Elaine about a brush of brown against the sky. When she went to the door, I followed. Any visit from the ravine in the daytime was strange, especially as the melted snow now provided water and food at the base of the bluff. But sometimes, when least expected, a stranger calls.
Outside, a stag stood at the base of the slope that led from the side of our house to the flat of the yard. The sound of our door should have sent him scurrying back into the ravine, but he was unimpressed by our presence. Instead, he looked down. Our gaze joined his at the body of the doe that lay at his feet.
His antlers stretched as wide as my outstretched arms as he shadowed the side of his mate. They were a still-life painting—life and death. There were no bruises or marks on her side, but it was unlikely she had crawled into the yard to die of old age or disease. They must have been scampering across the street, cavorting the previous night, free of snow and caution, when she had been struck by a car. If so, then she had made it into our yard hours earlier, and he had borne witness while the night gave way to the light of the day.
I called the police, stating that it was not an emergency, although in retrospect it was for the deer. I explained what had happened. The officer was unsurprised. Hardened to dismemberment and death, he was prepared for calls such as mine. There was a nearby resource that would come for the corpse. While we waited, we watched the stag as he stood by his mate. He was silent, not hinting at his loss.
A father and son arrived about an hour later in a small flatbed truck with a winch. Their payment was the carcass. They drew chains around the doe and dragged her to the front of the yard, over the flowerbed and onto the driveway, where they raised the body onto their truck. The stag watched.
Within fifteen minutes, they had secured the doe, lifted and chained the rear panel in place, and driven away. After the vehicle was off the driveway and down the street—a one-truck funeral cortège—the stag moved across the flowerbed to the place where his mate had last rested. There was a stain there, not blood, rather, a moist spot flecked with tufts of hair, as the body of the doe had retained enough moisture to condense against the driveway’s cold tar. The stag sniffed, shook, raised his head as though seeking the source of the scent, sniffed again, and left.
Did the stag recall their life in the ravine, the sound of the leaves rustling beneath their hooves, how it felt when he mounted his mate, watched her nurse their young, burrowed beneath the winter snow, gulped the stream that flushed the bed of the ravine in the spring, the warmth of her body at night? Or when he brushed his nose against that spot, did he just recall the essence of her scent? What was it that he recalled?
I do not remember Elaine's expression as we watched. I do not remember what we said, or how we walked back to the steps and up to the kitchen, or going through the kitchen door, or what she was wearing, or if her hair was shoulder-length as when we got married or cut short as I later liked it, or how we finished our coffee, or what movie we saw that night. It was a morning like every other Saturday morning, a day like every other day, just as all mornings, days, and times blend together into experience, sensation, remembrance, and loss.
So I do not remember how Elaine looked or sounded on that specific day, on that exact morning, at that particular time, nor on any other morning, day or time. They blend together into one morning, one day, one endless season when we were young, middle-aged and old. All together, just like that. I only remember snippets of sound, snapshots of sight. And her scent. #
I am alone on the plane. No wife. No kids. No deals. Going overnight for the funeral and a visit to my cousin, Mary Lou. I've avoided this visit for years, ever since her "accident,” her family winking at the word. I'm a lawyer who prefers analyzing deals, crafting contracts, and tracking negotiations. I have a hard time with make-believe. When I read fairytales to my kids, I pretend I believe, but the last time I lived in imagination was before law school. These days I want to understand how things work, instead of how they might. One reason I never let Uncle Morry know I was in town was that I was uncertain whether I could successfully pretend I bought the story. The other reason was my unease for not meeting with Mary Lou that fateful night. But my wife, Valerie, expects me to attend the funeral, and my memories, reawakened by my uncle’s death, demand it. I won't see Uncle Morry, as the casket will be closed, but I will see Mary Lou. And ask forgiveness for not having answered her call for help so many years ago. (For an emailed copy of the rest of Making Up, click below.)
Copyright © 2020 Dick Carmel - All Rights Reserved. The moral right of the author has been asserted.