“Where do you want this, Grandpa?”
Bill turned around and rubbed one work-roughened hand over his forehead, wiping away the sweat. “Put it over there, Jeremy.” He waved generally over to a blank spot on the far side of the small apartment. “Just anywhere.”
“Ok.” The teenager dodged around the stacks of boxes with the innate grace of the young and stood by Bill, concerned. “You okay?”
Bill mustered a smile. “Sure, Jeremy. Fine. Just tired.” He dropped onto the sofa and closed his eyes for a moment, then sighed and looked around the room. Whoever thought that 35 years could be packed up into a dozen or so boxes?
“Dad? Jeremy?” He heard his son on the stairs, puffing as he brought the last box up and dumped it on the stack.
“Over here, David.” His son joined them, hands on hips. My son, the desk jockey. Dave worked out and played tennis, and was in pretty good shape, but somehow he seemed soft to his father. Bill couldn’t help it – he loved his son, but he had a former factory worker’s innate distrust of people who earned money by sitting behind a desk using their brains instead of their hands.
Dave looked around at all the boxes, and said again, “Dad, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. Sure you don’t want some help?”
Bill laughed. “Son, I’ve got nothing but time. And now I’ve got something to do.” I would have driven your mother crazy, if… There was a tiny tremor around Bill’s mouth, just a little one that neither of the others noticed. “So don’t worry about me.”
For the next week, the apartment resembled a badly-run thrift store. Bill had meant to have a system about unpacking the boxes; after all, he and Jeremy had labeled them so they’d go in certain rooms and even done a brief list of the contents. Though he started out with the best of intentions, it hadn’t quite worked out the way he intended.
Eventually he managed to get almost everything put away and was down to the last couple of boxes. They held things he’d cleared out of his wife Evelyn’s desk, barely even looking at the items as he packed them away.
Most of what was in there was office supplies, and notes on things she’d been working on but never finished. He put the stapler, tape and other things aside, thinking he could donate them somewhere. He sifted slowly through the notes. Bill overruled the part of him that was ridiculing his impulse to keep the notes as an early sign of turning into a packrat and stored them away.
At the bottom of the box, there was a small brown envelop. He didn’t recognize it until he turned it over and saw the mailing label. For several moments, he simply stared at it. Slowly, he reached back in and took it out, opening it and shaking the contents into one shaking hand.
He lifted the locket into the light by the delicate chain and watched the engraving sparkle as it swung softly back and forth. Eventually, he opened it and looked at the pictures inside.
For their 25th anniversary, he’d found the photos her dad had taken of them as they got ready to go to their prom, had them reproduced and put into the locket. Evelyn had loved it and wore it all the time, right up until she’d had to go into the hospital. Then there were so many other things to think about – treatments and paperwork and being able to stay with her as much as he could – and he didn’t know what she’d done with it. When he finally had time to ask, it was too late, and she’d slipped away from him without another word. I wanted to put it in your hand in the casket, Bill thought. I wanted …
He shuddered for a moment, then picked up the envelope, put the locket back inside and replaced the envelope on the desk.
Bill caught an unfamiliar odor and sniffed the air. What is that? Is something burning? He realized he’d left the soup he was heating up for lunch on the stove. He hurried into the little kitchen and grabbed at the pan without thinking.
The handle was hot and it seared his hand. He jerked back and knocked the pan on the floor and soup went everywhere.
Suddenly, all the pain that he’d buried behind his stoic façade, behind the rule his father had pressed on him from the time he was old enough to understand – “Men don’t cry” – broke free. He lowered his head, hot tears streaking his face, dripping onto the worn work clothes that he’d put on that morning without thinking, as if it were just another work day and he could come home, and she would be there.
“Ah, hell, Evelyn. Why? Why did you leave me? Oh, honey, what am I supposed to do without you? What am I supposed to do?”