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In Passing


His mother held on until her 80th birthday, a few weeks ago, although he wasn’t sure if she had much enjoyed it or even if she was sufficiently aware. She couldn’t blow out the single candle shaped like the number 80. The next target had been the nation’s birthday which held no special significance beyond it’s face value but when you’re dying you need to focus on small, short term goals like a drunk lurching from lamppost to lamppost to get home. Margaret, his mother, didn’t make it to the next lamppost so Telford found himself drinking, more or less in her honor, though that was a poor excuse since the drinking was not that unusual nor requiring of any outward significance.

Telford takes out his wallet, a billfold his mother would have called it, and from a small compartment produces a key. He opens the gate and walks into the courtyard, to the back where there is a fountain in front of an ivy covered wall. Water spurts from the top of the fountain, runs into a collecting bowl which overflows and cascades to the pond at the bottom where a pump pulls it back up through the column and out the top in an endless cycle. Or so he imagines. The fountain is a mossy green and looks very old but you can never tell because new things are sometimes made to look old and old things are reworked to look new. We should make up our minds.

He takes a seat at the wrought iron settee closest to the fountain, the hard seat pressing against his tailbone as he slouches to put his feet on the opposing chair. The air is warm and humid though not as much so as yesterday and he is a little bit drunk and has no difficulty drifting off into a shallow sleep.

Telford heard the voice, a female voice, as if from a great distance, thinking it came from his mother. He had been dreaming but the images flew from his mind as he opened his eyes after the nudge at his shoulder. She stands before him wearing a robe, his mother would have called it a housecoat, cinched at her waist. She is neither particularly young or especially old. Hints of grey in her hair, a few creases at the corners of her mouth and eyes. Attractive, still and all, with a pretty smile and kind, expressive eyes. She introduces herself as Claire. Extends her small hand which Telford examines before he takes it in his own.

“Are you okay?” Claire asks.

“Just resting. I remembered the courtyard. In passing. ”

Telford straightens himself. Takes his feet from the chair across from him. Claire sits.

“How did you get in?’

“I have a key.”

“So you live here. I haven’t seen…”

“No. I live farther down the boulevard. I lost my keys. My real keys. The apartment keys. Most likely at Ruby, the cafe, which is closed now. I’ll just rest here until sunup. An hour when it’s suitable to contact my landlord and gain entrance…. Or I’ll kill time till Ruby opens at eleven.”

“…” Claire’s mouth is agape. She looks as if she is about to speak but holds her thoughts.

“It’s not the first time this has happened, I’m afraid. Misplacing my keys. I lose things. Often.”

“…”

“I knew a couple who lived here.” Telford points to the building adjacent to the courtyard. “They gave me keys to look after the place and walk the dog while they were away. They moved. I kept the courtyard key. I like it here. It’s peaceful late at night. I hope you don’t mind. Are you going to report me?”

“No. i like it here, as well. I’m an insomniac.”

Claire says this with the solemn seriousness of someone declaring themselves a recovering alcoholic or a Jehovah’s Witness.

“They lived in unit 4,” Telford says referring to his friends. “Until they divorced. Jimmy moved first and then, later…”

“Linda.”

“You knew her?”

“No. I live in her apartment now. Well, it’s not her apartment now. it’s my apartment now. And I live there….instead of her. I get pieces of her mail now and then. Junk. Nothing important. Solicitations from the cable company, banks offering credit cards, that kind of thing. I throw them in the garbage.”

“I see.”

“I imagine people in big companies writing the solicitations and sending them out and someone at the post office sorting them according to zip code and they end up in the bag of my postman who probably knows Linda no longer lives here but he has choices. He can return the letters to  the post office and explain their undeliverability or he can toss them in the garbage himself, which he probably isn’t allowed to do, or he can put them in my box for me to dispose of. And most of them, these people handling Linda’s unwanted mail, believe they are doing work. A job… For which they get paid.” Words erupt from Claire like water pumped through a fountain.

“Jobs and money. So they can continue to live and get unwanted mail of their own.” Telford looks, unblinking, at Claire who doesn’t respond. “I lost my mother recently not to make an excuse for my behavior,” he says.

“I’m sorry. And here I am talking about mail.“

“No need to be sorry. It’s just that your story reminded me of the futility of life is all. And yet we cling to it desperately.”

“My oh my! What happened? I mean, I assume she died. Your mother. I assume that’s what you are referring to. But I mean how and …why/“

“Hollowed out by cancer like a fallen tree trunk in a forest. A rotting log. A modern disease, is cancer. A result of our poisonous air and water and food. Stress. Or just living too long. The why is a question out of my jurisdiction.”

 

“Do you want coffee?”

“I wouldn’t mind.”

Claire gathers her slight self from the chair and walks away. She returns several minutes later carrying an an old electric percolator, like the one Telford’s mother had used, and two small cups. She had changed into a pair of jeans and a light-weight sweater so thin that the pert nipples on her small breasts provoked the material. It wasn’t a come-on, Telford thought. Claire just wanted to be comfortable.

Claire pours two cups of coffee. Telford puts the cup to his lips. Sips carefully. Too hot to drink. It smells like real coffee you drink in someone’s kitchen at a dinette set on a floor of linoleum instead of the harsh, burnt liquid you order from the chain store after you wait behind the girl ordering a tall, skinny, latte with a caramel drizzle.

“I lost my mother about a year ago,” Claire says. A third and final stroke. I’d come back from living in Paris. For seven years. Almost seven years. To attend to her. I’d been back in the States for barely a month. I went in, in the morning, with her tea, I thought she was still asleep. I put the tray on the nightstand and called to her. Then I nudged her before realizing she was gone. I mean she was there in the bed but she was no longer in there. Not, no longer in the bed but in her. So I sat down and took her hand in mine. It was still warm. That was how close I had come to seeing her one last time. I mean I saw her but it wasn’t her by the time I saw her. She really hadn’t been her for some time. The strokes and all.”

“…”

“I’m sorry. I do this some time,” Claire says, lifting the coffee to her mouth.

“Do what?”

“What I was doing. Rambling like that.”

“Have you ever seen the old t.v. show Green Acres?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure.”

“Zsa Zsa Gabor. Eddie Albert.”

“Yeah. Maybe. I think so.”

“There was a character. Hank Kimball. He was always correcting himself mid-sentence.”

She looked at him vacantly.

“Never mind.”

“I sat and drank her tea while I waited for the life squad,” Claire said.

“…”

“Not a life squad exactly because she wasn’t alive… But that’s what they call it. A life squad that often comes to collect the dead.”

“Not a bad way to go,” Telford says.

“What do you mean?’

“In your sleep. Perhaps not knowing what is happening. My mother died an excruciating death.”

“I don’t think there is a good way to go.”

“I suppose not but, you must admit, some are better than others. Freezing to death, for example.”

“I hate being cold.”

“But you’re only cold for a little while. Then you go to sleep. And never wake up. Versus say fire. Hideous pain, I would imagine. Likely why hell, which I don’t believe in, by the way, is depicted as a place where you burn eternally.”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“Sure.”

“That’s why I came over and nudged you, you know. I’m sorry to have awakened you. I was checking. I don’t have my glasses. I couldn’t see you breathing. I was checking to see if you were alive, you see.”

“Otherwise you would have to find a way to dispose of me. Like Linda’s mail.” Telford can visualize Claire in her glasses, her hair pulled up on her head, wearing a smart, conservative dress.

“Something like that,” Claire said.

“Do you feel cheated?”

“How so?”

“By your mother. Luring you home from Paris by her sickness only to die right away.”

“I never thought of it that way. I’ve thought about returning though. To Paris. To my art. I probably will. Eventually.”

“You’re an artist.”

“Of a sort.”

“I’d like to see. Your art, I mean.”

“I sold what I could and left the rest behind. Gifts to friends. I haven’t worked since I returned. I mean I’ve worked. I’m working at the art Museum. Administratively. Events.Tours. Photographing exhibits. I mean I haven’t worked as an artist. Since Paris. Since I returned to America. I can’t seem to paint anymore than I can sleep. We’re out of coffee. Should I brew more?”

“Not unless you want more. I’m fine. Excuse me.” Telford can hold it no more. He walks behind the fountain where Claire can’t see him and relieves himself on the ivy. Washes his hands in the fountain.

“I’m sorry. When you have to go you have to go.”

“You could have gone upstairs in my apartment.”

“Urine is good for plants. The ammonia. Like fertilizer.”

“I’ll have to remember that,” Claire says, laughing for the first time since they met.

“But you’re a woman. You’ll have to be careful with the cactus.”

“How did you know I have a cactus?”

“I didn’t. I just… It was a joke.”

“Oh.”

A cat has entered the courtyard. The cat stops to stare at them. Claire extends her hand. The cat comes forward to sniff her. Rubs his cat-head against her leg. The cat looks at Telford suspiciously. Possessively. Then slinks away.

“That was Tom. The community cat. A stray.”

“He looks well fed. Cared for.”

“We all feed him. The neighbors I mean. When the weather turns cold I take him in. He appreciates the warmth and food but he gets restless, wants to be outside. Free.”

“I understand.”

“I’m going inside. I need to force myself to sleep for a bit before I have to go to work.”

“Okay.”

“You can come in and sleep on my sofa if you like.”

“Thanks but I’m fine. I like the sound of the fountain and the crickets. I like the warm breeze.”

“You’re like Tom.”

“I suppose.”

Claire stands and walks to the building. Before she enters she turns and says, “It was nice to meet you.”

“As well,” Telford says and waves.

He puts his feet up on the chair Claire vacated and closes his eyes.

 

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