George Hall sat upstairs in his favorite chair, the one with the torn red fabric and the one that squeaked when rocked, and flipped through the channels. Not much to see: a commercial for pills here, an ad for insurance there. It was 2:00 a.m., after all. Most viewers, he knew, had gone to bed.
But he had no reason to go to bed. He’d rather spend his time here. Let’s see if I can find something good, he thought. He remembered he stumbled upon a movie a few years ago — he couldn’t remember the title, but he knew Tom Cruise was in it — and he ended up watching it.
He surfed a bit more, and then he stopped for a second, and he inhaled sharply. He didn’t know what he was watching, but he saw a scene that featured a bunch of kids swinging from a tree and into a lake during what looked to be a hot summer day.
It reminded him of the time he was about to do a massive cannonball into the middle of the lake but belly flopped because he saw her and was not paying attention. She was so beautiful, so breathtaking — the swish of her brown hair, her lovely eyes. He shook his head and returned to the dark room. Now there was a trailer for an upcoming summer flick. He missed the title.
Where was he now? What life was this? Struggling to raise himself from his bed, barely keeping down dinner. And those hands: wrinkled, weak. Once he used them to work on cars, to caress. No. Not now.
He heard noises downstairs. The creaks of pipes, he guessed. But he wasn’t paying too much attention, because he changed the station again, and he saw a show that reminded him of the time he took her dancing. It was not long after he saw her at the lake. He was walking down Main Street when he passed her. She told him she was going to get ice cream, and he said he was, too. So they went off together, and then they spent the night twirling and laughing and dancing around the local club, until its owners told them they had to leave.
It was like that when they went out the next day. They met in a field, and they sat down on the ground, talking until the sun went down and until it returned the next morning in an explosion of color. He knew then they would get married. And he was right. They dated for about a year, and then he proposed marriage–which she enthusiastically accepted. Theirs was a quiet wedding. Only twenty relatives and friends showed. But that was fine with them.
Another noise. A shout or something. He ignored it and continued surfing through the channels.
He felt deflated. Here he was: an afterthought. No, truly. He looked at the television and began to get frustrated. Leaving him here with this thing, this box. And what did it do? A few hours of entertainment, perhaps? Maybe a day’s worth?
They rarely called. Only when he nagged them. But then he could tell; he could hear it in their voices. Slight twinges of annoyance. There were other signs, too. The hurried hangups. The uh-huhs. He knew they zoned out. And why? Did they realize? Did they know what it felt like?
He remembered a time not so long ago, when he stood at the top of the stairs and imagined himself tumbling down into the void, into somewhere beyond, where there was no more pain and no more hurt. But he took one step, and he stopped and shook. He couldn’t do it. No, he couldn’t do it.
He sighed. He looked outside. A lone car drove by. A vagrant stood near an alleyway, hunched over, as if about to vomit.
They fought once. Hard to believe, but they did. It was out in the driveway. They’d returned from a concert, and she said something funny or looked at him weird; and he was already in a bad mood, itching for confrontation–if it wasn’t her, it would have been the waiter at the restaurant they ate at just after the show or the driver in front of them who was moving too slowly. Earlier in the day, he had a customer who accused him of doing the wrong repairs on his car, only later to realize he had made a mistake. But George couldn’t get over it. He stayed on edge.
He shouted at her; he shoved his finger in her face. His face turned red, and, internally, he could feel his blood vessels constrict. He breathed heavily. He didn’t notice she recoiled, eyes wide with fear and surprise. He didn’t see how she pressed herself against the car.
There were others watching. Neighbors saw them from their windows, and they shook their heads. They tsked. The perfect couple, they thought to themselves. Ha. Not so much. It was something the neighbors always remembered. They’d snicker in the supermarket. They’d laugh when George would arrive alone, even though she wasn’t too far behind.
Fake, they said. All of it.
Regardless of their comments, the fight was truly an aberration. But even this he wished he had right now. It would be something tangible, something he could recognize as real.
This? He wasn’t so sure. He wondered often if everything was a dream, and he’d get out of bed twenty-five again.
His mind drifted to that day–six years ago now, but it existed permanently in the present–when he woke up and saw she wasn’t breathing. He shook her, shook her again, and then he started yelling for her to get up. Please, please get up, he said. Please. She was pale. He managed to make a phone call to his kids and to a priest, and when they arrived, they saw him slunk over her body. He could only whisper: “She’s gone.”
The birds started. A few scattered chirps and then a torrent. He looked over at the clock: 4:30 a.m.
He closed his eyes, turned off the television, and slipped into an uneasy sleep. He stirred when the sun hit him in the face and the birds, improbably, seemed to get even louder. The clock read 7:00 a.m. Two and a half hours, he said to himself. He rubbed his eyes. And then the doorbell rang. Huh? Who? At this hour? he thought. But then he remembered: an early visit from the grandchildren.
He always liked seeing them, but today, he wasn’t in the mood. They were three and six, his son’s kids, a boy and a girl. They had such high energy. He should have called to reschedule.
He opened the door to find them standing there, big wide smiles on their faces. Each held a card they’d made in school. He looked for his son and saw he’d already driven off. Typical.
“Hello, hello. Come on in, kids. Come on in,” he said.
“Hey, Grandpa,” they said in unison.
“Come sit on the couch. Why don’t I set up a movie for you? What would you like to watch?”
“Oh! That new Disney one. The one that just came out,” said his grandson, aged six, not yet outgrown such things.
“Sure. I think I have it,” he said. He’d always try to purchase any of the new releases. He went over to his DVD collection, found the one he needed, and put it in. The kids sat rapt and tuned out the rest of the world.
That would have their attention for an hour and a half or so. In truth, he had a bit more thinking to do.
He went into the kitchen, sat down, and relaxed. He shut his eyes for a moment.
He was at the lake again, waiting to jump in, waiting for her. As he always did. As he always will.