This story got honorable mention in the 2007 Stonybrook Fiction Contest.
The barn was enormous. It loomed over the fields of dead wheat as though holding its breath, waiting for the plants to spring back to life. Or maybe it was waiting to die. Its outer walls were all but gone now, riddled with holes that made the old man cringe with unpleasant associations. When the wind picked up, the few shards of naked grey plywood holding the structure together rubbed and creaked against each other. The noise was eerily like the wail that had escaped his wife when the solemn young man had come to the door in full dress uniform, holding that dirty yellow letter. The man couldn’t look anymore. He turned away from the moaning building and trekked back through the crispy stalks of wheat. He followed the path he’d cut so many times before, the ground hard-packed and dry under his boots, the scratchy dead plants clawing at his coat. He ignored their mute pleas, shouldering his way through the field with his head bent against the wind.
The house wasn’t far, just across the road and through a small copse of trees he’d planted for his wife, to shield her view of the barn. That barn brought back too many memories. He was always surprised that the good ones cut deeper than the bad. Either way, she couldn’t take the remembering, and so he’d agreed to plant a barrier, for her sake. He’d still wandered out every morning to stare at the barn, until the wind or the pain made his eyes water, blurring the view, and he headed home again.
She’d died shortly after the trees took root. The doctors had said it was heart failure, but he knew her heart had died long before her body gave out. Nonetheless, he missed the silences they’d shared after it happened. This silence of alone was different somehow. Without even the breathing and page-turning of another the house felt oddly still, as though the atoms in a room didn’t stir until he entered, and ceased to move upon his departure. For the first time in his life, the world as he knew it revolved solely around him, and it unsettled him. It made him feel too important. He still hadn’t gotten used to the empty sameness the house had about it now that she was gone.
In her absence the house had begun to sag with the weight of its sadness, now shared only with the old man. The cheery yellow paint had been peeling since before her death, but now the aged canary strips didn’t even try to hold on. They rolled out from the walls, sliding down the sides of the house like the skin on a blanched heirloom tomato. The roof had bowed inward, making it difficult to move around in the attic and giving the house a sort of cartoony sad-eyebrow look to it. The man had never tried to fix these things. He preferred to keep things as they were. Why bother to spruce up a house of death and shattered futures? No, he had resigned himself to this place, and to his solitude, for as long as he had to live.
All the same, it startled him now to see a car in his overgrown driveway. A Buick, like the old beat-up red one he used to drive to work in, only this one was green, a deep, almost black color that winked at him from between his dying trees, mocking their pallor. He approached the house cautiously, trying to shield his eyes from the wind without letting down his guard. As he rounded the first clump of trees he saw her for the first time, sitting on his front steps. He took her in silently: the young body, legs twitching with self-conscious impatience, the short skirt and tall brown boots over lurid orange tights, the salt and pepper turtleneck topped by a mop of unruly red hair still wet from that morning’s shower. He felt guilty for not taking better care of the steps, worried that her tights would snag on the rough wood. He cleared his throat to say as much and the girl looked up, startled, like the deer he often scared up on these early morning walks. She gathered her wits and stood smoothing her clothes for a moment, and then, before he could remember how to interact with a human being, she spoke.
“Good morning, Sir.” She was striding toward him now, a confident smile on her windburned face and a small hand outstretched before her. “I’m Jenny. I’m here from the college paper. We’re doing a story on the war, and they said in town that you were in the army before, so they sent me out here to talk to you about your thoughts…” Her voice lilted slightly as it tapered off, and she watched for his reaction beneath raised brows, plucked to a state of constant surprise. He cleared his throat again. She waited this time.
“I’m sorry, Jennifer. I haven’t really ever spoken to anyone about the war. I’m not sure I can.” He paused, watching her eyebrows slide back down, defeated. “I’m sorry you had to come all the way out here for nothing. Good luck on your story.”
He moved past her and walked up the steps, but before he could reach the door something made him turn reluctantly. She was still standing there, her right hand held flat at her side, shaking, still prepared for the handshake he never gave. Her shoulders were slumped, and he thought he detected the faintest sniffle, but he brushed it off as a runny nose on account of the cold. Still, when he went to turn the knob on the door he hadn’t locked in years, a small cooing sigh made him turn again. She was moving now, heading for the green sedan so mismatched with her bright tights.
“Miss?” He regretted his decision as soon as she turned, her nose and eyes now as red as her cheeks. But the thing was done. “Well, it’s an awful long drive back to the college. Would you like a cup of tea or something to refresh you a bit before you get back on the road?”
The girl hesitated for a moment– she seemed to be realizing that being all the way out here, alone with a strange man, might not be the best idea, but she must have decided he was all right because she smiled.
“Do you have espresso?”
The man thought about the pot his son had given them years before, stashed away somewhere in the attic. He’d never learned to use it. He didn’t want to be awake any longer than absolutely necessary.
“I’m sorry, all I have is an old Coffeemate, and to be perfectly honest I’m not sure I remember how to work it.”
The girl smiled over-brightly, embarrassed at having been so demanding.
“Oh, it’s ok. I can just make it extra strong. That’s what I do in my room at school. My mom bought me a French Press pot because the coffee they sell at the cafeteria is just so bad, and I can’t live without my caffeine.”
She laughed nervously and probably would have kept right on talking if he hadn’t ushered her inside, holding the door open and silently praying that he had some coffee somewhere that hadn’t become a brick of dried mud in the dank under the sink. He led her through the living room where no one had lived for so long, down the long hallway where their bootsteps echoed on the wood floors, and into the chilly, immaculate kitchen. He apologized for the cold, lighting the gas under the old Viking stove and pulling open the oven door.
“That should thaw it out a bit. Sit down.”
She obeyed, lowering herself cautiously into one of the old rickety chairs, leaning her elbows on the stained oak table for balance while he rummaged around for drinkable coffee and plugged in the ancient Coffeemate. It looked like the kind of thing they have in motel bathrooms, right next to the complimentary shampoo.
“Oh, let me.” She leapt up from her seat, overzealous. He smiled and moved aside. While she took over on the coffee, he found some relatively dust-free cookies in the cupboard and put them out on a plate. “Mugs?”
He pointed at a cupboard to the left of the sink, his head out of sight under the counter. He emerged with the sugar bowl as she chose the mugs with care: a simple pale green one for herself and a large latte bowl with NYC on the side for him. He watched her watch the coffee drip excruciatingly slowly into the glass pot with a small plink and didn’t tell her that the cup she chose for him was in the back of the cupboard for a reason: he couldn’t look at it. It had been his wife’s favorite, given to her by their son after a college visit he’d taken during his senior year of high school. That was back when they’d all believed he’d go to college. The coffee was finally ready, and he brushed aside that memory as he did the rest, cobwebs in a cold damp basement, as she set the steaming mugs down with a heavy clunk.
She sat down across from him and began to dose her coffee with sugar and milk, studying him from behind her mug. They sat in silence for a bit, each internally sizing up the other. He was sure his staring was subtle, but then she probably felt the same way, and he could definitely feel her pupils boring a hole in his face out of the corners of her eyes. The girl reminded him of his wife when she had been alive, long before it happened. She used to look at him like that when they’d first met, summing him up with a shifty, sideways glance. Later he’d found out she was completely unaware of the games she’d played with her eyes: she was just nervous. This girl had the same self-confident façade, but it too melted away to the same open, earnest expression, the same warm crinkly eyes. He felt he could talk to this girl, maybe even confide in her, but as soon as the thought had processed he choked it back. This girl was young; she had a life at college with her little paper. She didn’t care about an old man’s troubles. He should never even have invited her in.
When she spoke, this time it was in a soft, almost inaudible voice, her eyes downcast at her hands on the warm mug.
“I’m sorry about out there, me crying and everything. You were nice and all, and I know I shouldn’t have bugged you so early and it’s really insensitive of me to assume people will want to talk to me, it’s just this is my first year away from home and I guess coming out here I thought I might get a feeling of family. And then when I saw you I thought I might at least get a great interview for my first story and all the seniors would think I was smart and not just a little freshman. And so when you said you couldn’t talk I felt like a bad reporter on top of being a social failure and I’m so lonely and I just, I guess I just kind of broke down. I know I shouldn’t have cried and I should be loving college like everyone else and I know I’m missing my life by being sad all the time but I just–”
She stopped talking at the warm touch of his hand on hers. She looked up at him, startled, and seemed for a moment to see how concerned he really was. Her eyes grew big and shiny at the weight of this stranger’s caring, and at the sight of her tears the old man felt embarrassed. He got up and bustled around for more cookies while she wiped her eyes on the back of her hand, careful not to smudge her mascara. When she was finished, he sat back down and cleared his throat again. He hadn’t spoken this much in years, not since it happened.
“Listen, it’s normal to miss your family when you leave them. I’m sure they miss you even more. And I think it’s admirable that you’re doing things like the paper, I wish I’d gotten more involved when I was in school.” He smiled what he hoped was a comforting smile and nudged the plate of cookies across the table. She bit into one gratefully and only flinched a little at its dusty flavor. In return, he took a sip of his coffee, even though he hadn’t touched the stuff since his wife’s death.
He hadn’t realized how long they had sat together. It had been such a comfortable silence, a completely unexpected ease. This early part of the day usually passed like an eon, but now the morning was half gone with a blink and some old cookies. The sun was fully up now, and streaming through the kitchen windows. Bits of dust danced and shimmered in the beams, reminding the old man that there was still life in this house. Following his gaze, the girl also noticed the light, and with a small sort of gasp looked at her cell phone to check the time.
“Oh, I’m sorry but I have three other people to interview today. I’d better head out if I’m going to catch them.” She began to clear the table of dishes and general debris, sweeping the crumbs into one hand with the edge of the other, but he put his hand on her forearm to stop her.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
She smiled, brushed the crumbs into the sink, and gathered her things. He watched her bustle out of the kitchen, watched the life seep out of the room, following her down the hall and into the living room. He followed too. He walked her to the car and opened the door for her, but she didn’t get in right away. Instead she stood facing him, filling the angle between the car and the open door. She raised a hand as though to touch his face, then seemed to think better of it, alighting instead on his flannel shirtsleeve.
“Thank you for the coffee, I’m sorry I bothered you so early,” she said softly. He shook his head, raised an open hand as though to block her apology before it could reach him.
“No,” he said, his voice gravelly and fatigued even from the few minutes of conversation they’d shared. “No, please. I want to thank you for coming out here. It’s been a long time since I’ve talked to anyone. Anyone at all.”
She smiled and got into the seat, but left the door open. He found he was desperate for her to stay, even just a minute more.
“Listen, I know you’ve got a lot going on up there at the college, and I don’t have much of a family atmosphere to offer, but I make a mean lasagna and I get cable TV, all that HBO and movie channels and the like, and if you ever were to get lonely, or just feel like stopping by, well that’d be ok. But if you’re too busy, or you just–”
This time it was she who put her hand on his, sandwiching it between the cold metal of the car door and the warmth of her tiny palm. She looked up into his worn, grey face for a moment, then she smiled again and said “I would love to come by sometime, if you’re sure I wouldn’t be disturbing you.”
“Not at all.” He was relieved, and also frightened of what he’d gotten himself into. He’d have to tell her eventually; she’d wonder if he had any children. Even if she didn’t ask, he’d want to confide. But was he ready for another life to collide with his own? He wasn’t sure he could handle the worry, the late night fear gripping his throat, the irrational uncertainties. No matter, it was done, and there was time to adapt to all that again. She sat down and swiveled her body, pulling her legs into the car and facing the steering wheel. He checked to make sure she was all in before closing the door firmly and stepping back a few paces from the Buick. She started up and backed slowly down the driveway, curving to the right before putting it into drive and pulling out onto the road. As she pulled around she looked back up at the house and the old man it owned and waved. The man waved back slowly, trying to smile as she drove away.
He stayed outside watching the road until he could no longer hear her car, then he slowly turned and made his way back up the driveway to the porch. Tomorrow, he thought, looking at the ragged wooden steps, tomorrow I’ll sand.
(Did you enjoy reading this? Want more like it? Check out my full-length memoir, Navel Gazing!)