This story has previously been published in the Ryder magazine fiction issue.
Found in April 16 edition of The Kennebec Journal
The small clock ticked in the corner of the room, marking out the minutes with its rhythmic sound and reminding me how late it was. Bernard Bailey, his back slightly stooped, flashed an aged smile as he rolled his wheelchair toward the tall stone mantle. There was a creaking as he settled into place, a sound I wasn’t sure came from the seat or his old bones. He sank back in its cushions as if he could not sit up straight any longer.
Signs of his taxing, open air job showed in his weathered face. The wrinkled lines that spider webbed across his forehead were clearly visible in flickering firelight that cast shadows off the crevices around his eyes. His grin was affable nonetheless.
“I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” he said, his hands rough and uneven on mine as we shook. They were covered in scars and cuts that formed an atlas across his palms. “It’s just little old me, turning a year older.” His breath rasped in his throat and I feared my presence was straining him.
“That’s my wife, Mary,” he said abruptly, pointed a gnarled, curved index finger at a framed photo. “Her birthday is-” he caught himself, “-was tomorrow, too. She always said that shared date was what drew us together. That we’d live forever, to celebrate birthday after birthday.” A look of sorrow crossed his face, and his voice lowered to a gentle sigh. There was grief in his haunted eyes, orbs like small oceans surrounded by high mountains and deep fissures. The tide rose and a small drop broke over the dam, rolling down the sandy bank of his cheek. “But nothing really lasts forever, does it?”
He invited me to stay for dinner but I declined, not wishing to tax him further. Perhaps tomorrow, I said. I pulled out of his drive as the sun leisurely sauntered down from its perch. I could see through the window where he sat, outlined in the glow from a single bulb, in the kitchen where I’d left him. As I watched he lifted a spoon, hand shaking, to his mouth. The last lights faded from the sky.
The next morning, Bernie met me on the porch of his little cabin. I was yawning as I handed him the wrapped plate containing a slice of cake my husband had insisted on baking. The sun itself had barely risen, stretching its arms up into the sky.
He accepted it with a kind smile and set it on the wooden rail as he pulled on his yellow rain slicker, a jacket he was rarely seen without. He explained the early hour between bites of the sweet.
“The morning’s the best time to go out on the water. It’s calm and quiet; no distractions. Best time for thinking.”
After he’d finished speaking, he set the empty paper plate on the porch step and pushed himself down the ramp to the ground. I offered to help him but he waved me away, opening the truck’s door and pulling himself into the driver’s seat. He folded up the chair and struggled to lift it into the space between the front and back seats. I fought with the urge to help him, not wanting to damage his pride, but before I could reach forward he had stowed it away.
Bernie turned the key in the old truck’s ignition, and after a time the dying splutter finally roared to life. He set a bunch of flowers he had picked the day before on the dashboard, clearing off the passenger’s seat so I could sit. “For the graves,” he said of the blossoms, but offered no further explanation.
We drove down the back roads in silence, the wind roaring through the open windows and the strong scents of earth keeping us both lost in thought. We reached town and, it seemed to me, slowed every block or so to wave or chat with early risers. A woman stopped him on a corner and handed a warm plastic bag through the window. “Happy birthday, Bernie, dear. Here’s the day’s first batch –pumpernickel, your favorite. I packed enough for you, too,” she said to me as Bernie stowed it on the dash, careful not to disturb the flowers. “I think it’s so nice that Augusta’s paper is doing a piece on our Bernie. He deserves it.”
Bernie accepted the compliment with a grin so wide it seemed to split his face in two. He nodded appreciatively, genuinely touched. I smiled as well, glad I accepted the assignment. The woman passed a bouquet of roses to me and I held them gently on my lap.
“For Mary. Send her my love and tell her we miss her.”
He nodded and reached across me to pat her hand. “I will.”
In a few short minutes, we’d reached the dock. I unfolded Bernie’s chair and helped him struggle into it. The gentle wind ruffled my hair as I pushed him, bringing with it the scent of salt and fish. He directed me to his usual perch near the small shack on the edge of the wooden pier, the wheels underneath him clunking on the weathered boards. He motioned to the plastic bucket next to the shack’s wall. “Rest your bones, there. The water’s no place for talk. I do all my jabbering on land.” I drug and upended it next to his chair and pulled out a notebook.
“Have you lived here all your life?” “Did you ever want children?” “How has age changed your outlook on life?” “Any advice for the younger generations?” Each question I asked was met by a pleasant smile and a thoughtful pause after which he would reply calmly and clearly, never mincing words. Then I quieted, unsure what to say next. Finally, I murmured, “How do you do it?”
“What,” he began, “live for this long?”
“Do you want the truth, or the answer that those young folks’ magazines want?”
“Whichever you prefer.” I leaned forward, intrigued.
“When someone asks me that, I tell them this story. When I served in the First World War I saw a buddy of mine, a man closer to me than a brother, get shot right in the heart. I knew he was already gone but I dragged him back to base. I couldn’t just…leave him there.” He cleared his throat and blinked hard. “Got shot for it.” He smiled sadly and tapped the leg that hung stiffly off to the side of his wheelchair, visibly shriveled and twisted even through the faded fabric of his jeans. “He died, of course. But I moved on because that was what he would have wanted. He was part of my family, and you do what you can to keep your family together. That’s what keeps me going: family. Dead or living, blood or not, that’s all you have in the end.”
The following silence was louder than any words. We sat for minutes or hours, I couldn’t tell; the time passed like thick honey across us. Finally Bernard asked me to help him into the little boat that rocked gentle at the side of the dock, stowing the chair in the wooden shack.
He settled himself on the rough wooden plank that served as a seat, seemingly more stable on water than land, and handed me a bag of bread as he fired the engine. It emitted a pleasant putter and propelled us speedily away from the pier and into the bay. We passed the sleepy ocean town, with its cheerily painted houses and bustling streets. I could see the town’s only stoplight, standing tall at the corner of Main and Green streets. Trees lined the sidewalks, dropping their bright green leaves onto the pristine stones below.
We floated along in silence, the quiet lapping waters at the hull of the craft nearly lulling me to sleep. The heat of the bread was a welcome contrast to the sharp chill of the morning, spreading warmth through my cold limbs. My eyelids had just begun to droop when he spoke: “We’re here.”
My head snapped up and I saw the great white curve of the Pritchet Point lighthouse straight ahead. Bernie maneuvered the craft up to the dock and threw a mooring line like a lasso, expertly looping it on one of the logs that held the platform in place.
He pulled a stowed cane from under the bench and struggle to his feet. His face showed the toil but he never complained, never made a sound. I followed silently, keeping hands outstretched just in case. Slowing my pace to match his, I listened as he spoke of his wife.
“Mary loved Pritchet Point. She came here every weekend, just to stare out over the water. She took up painting in the last few years; there wasn’t much else she could do, her heart like it was. She’d just sit on the dock with her feet in the water and a canvas on her lap and I’d say, ‘Keep dry, or you’ll catch a chill. You’ll catch your death.'” He stopped and busied himself with cleaning his glasses, his cane hanging loosely from one trembling arm as he rested his weight on his good leg, and I pretended not to see him crying. He cleared his weary throat. “But she was happy. I guess that’s more than most of us can say. That was the best part about my Mary, she was never down. Give her anything, any curve life cares to throw, and she’d meet it with a smile.”
I laid a hand on his shoulder, wordless. What was there to say?
We walked on, up the steepening path as it rose up a hill. Grass and weeds had forced their way through cracks in the cement, so that the uneven ground resembled a porcupine’s back.
He led the way through the gates of the town’s cemetery, passing a faded wooden marker sign that sat back a ways from the wrought iron fence. Bernard walked down the endless solemn rows with his leg dragging in the grass behind, drops of dew that had not yet evaporated in the morning’s sun clinging to the hem of his trousers. He stopped along the laborious way to say hello to old companions long gone from this world, occasionally to brush dirt from the top of a headstone. He left a flower on each grave of an old friend until the number in his curled arm dwindled to only a few blossoms. Finally he stopped at a white stone that caught the gleam of the sun: his wife’s.
Bernard Bailey, resident of Pritchet, Maine, for one hundred years, stared down at it. The roses hung limply in his hand, a few red petals shaking loose onto the grass and stones. He chewed on a piece of fresh, still-steaming bread as the rising sun outlined a silhouette as bent and withered as he was.
“Happy birthday, my love.”