Fiction Section: Framed Fiction
Diane L. Merkel-Fiorito for the last few years has traded fiction stories for essays and research papers as she pursued her Master’s Degree in Childhood Education and Literacy. Now that that is complete, she has picked up her fiction writing again. Teaching has helped her grow as a writer and vice versa.
Just Around the Corner
Diane L. Merkel-Fiorito
A gentle breeze sweeps across my body. Strands of wiry, silver hair tickle my cheek, sticking to my ruby painted lips. The air strokes my wrinkled palms and I think I could feel his hands in mine. I don’t want to let go, so I squeeze. I squeeze so tight that when I finally open my fingers, I can see dents in my skin from where my nails had been. I’ve stood on this ground every day for years, never once free from the guilt for being on the opposite side of the dirt from him. Every day that passes brings me closer to him; I am so close, I could almost feel his breath on my face again. Our reunion is just around the corner now. My heart won’t hold out much longer; that is what all those doctors keep telling me. To be honest, I don’t even know how I lasted this long. Parts of it have been chipping away since the moment he was taken from me.
I turn my wedding band so the stone faces up on my hand; it’s constantly swirling and sliding around my bony finger. I say a quick prayer and talk to him for a few minutes, just the same way we would before going to bed each night when he was still beside me. I let him know how I am doing and what I’ve been up to, reminding him that it won’t be long before I’ll see him again. I tell him the score of the Yankee game, what lotto numbers came out the day before; I read him his horoscope and tell him what’s new in politics. These are the four things he would look for each morning when he sat on his brown leather recliner with his New York Newsday. He always liked leather furniture; he said it was easier to clean. He may not be in that recliner anymore, but I would imagine that these are things he would still like to know.
I crouch down; my knees crack on my descent and I roll through the balls of my feet onto my knees. I fear I won’t be able to rise up again. I rummage through some rocks and pebbles in pursuit of the most perfect one, dirt filling in under my fingernails. I decide on one, light gray in color, about the size of a grape. I slowly return to a standing position and place the rock on the top right of the large stone of the same color. My eyes lock with the name on the stone and the two dates beside it. The tips of my fingers graze the smoothness of the top of the stone.
“I must go now. I’ll see you tomorrow,” I whisper before heading back toward the winding gravel path. I walk alongside the road. A line of cars with bright headlights march passed me before pulling over up ahead, like the A-train pulling into the next station. I try to get a glimpse of the people in the limo. I remember what it was like sitting in that first car just behind the one that transported him. Sometimes it feels like centuries ago; sometimes yesterday.
Only minutes pass before I am back in front of my home. Home? That’s a funny word…it hasn’t felt like home for years, just a stack of bricks surrounding some furniture and a lonely old woman. I had reservations when he convinced me to buy a house just around the corner from a cemetery, but now, as creepy as it may seem, I take comfort in knowing his body is so close to mine – even if I can’t see it, even if I can’t touch it, even if it has no face.
Once I enter our little cape, it is life as usual. I make a cup of Earl Grey and a sandwich; it’ll be ham and Swiss today. I check my blood sugar and give myself a shot of insulin as I wait for my tea kettle to whistle and then I head out to the Florida room. This is my favorite spot; the reason I allowed him to talk me into buying this place. A little bird, a sparrow, I think, plants itself atop a branch on the big oak just outside my porch. She looks in at me as if she wants to come in and join me, her beak poking the screen wall. I stare back at her, hoping she does not rip through my screen, until she flutters off. She grows smaller and smaller on her flight into the blue and then, as if by magic, she is gone.
“Hey, Mrs. McAllister,” the voice of a young boy shifts my attention from the disappearing bird.
“Oh, hello there, young J.C.”
“How ya feelin’ today, Mrs. M?”
“I’m well, dear, and you?”
“Ahhh…okay, I guess. We lost again today.” J.C plunked his mitt and duffle bag down on his back porch.
“Oh well. Winning isn’t everything. Did you have fun?”
“I always have fun!”
“Well, then, that is what counts, isn’t it?”
“I guess,” he replies as he flips open his cell phone with one hand, reads something and laughs, “but losing so much sucks,” JC continues, tapping buttons on his phone with his thumb.
“I understand. So, what position did you play?”
“Hold on a sec, Mrs. M,” replied JC, as he continues pressing the phone buttons.
“Times sure have changed since I was your age.”
JC closed his phone and stuck it in his jacket pocket. “What did ya say?”
“Oh, nothing, dear.”
“Hey, do you mind if I come and hang with you for a few?”
“Of course. It it’s okay with your mom.”
“Oh, she isn’t home. She went out with her boyfriend and I don’t want to sit in the house by myself. It’s so damn…oops sorry, darn boring. Plus, sometimes I get scared.”
“Well, then…come on over, “ I reply, opening the screen door for him.
JC removes his Yankees cap; his black curly hair is flat and molded in the shape of the cap. His ears stick out from behind his hair, and his olive cheeks are sunburned. His white uniform is grass stained, and his baseball cleats dusted with dirt.
“Would you like a glass of juice or something?”
“Nah, that’s okay. I’m not thirsty.”
“So, tell me. What is it that you are afraid of?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m just afraid of being alone, I guess. Don’t ever tell any of the guys on the team that. They’d never let me live it down. It’s just that Mom goes out all the time now ever since Dad left and when she is home, all she does is take medicine and sleep.”
JC rolls his baseball between the palms of his hands and then rhythmically tosses it into his cap.
“She never even comes to my games anymore. I guess it’s better off. She’d be pissed with me for always losing.”
“Oh, JC. I’m sure she wouldn’t be upset with you for that.”
“Hey, Mrs. McAllister! I had a great idea! Can you come to my next game? This Thursday at 11.”
“Oh, honey…I don’t know. I…”
“Do you have to go see Mr. McAllister?”
“Mom says you go to the cemetery every day to see Mr. McAllister.”
“Why, yes I do.”
“He must have been a real nice man.”
“He certainly was. What makes you say that, JC?”
“Because you’re a real nice lady. You must miss him a lot.”
“Very much, but I know I will see him again.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, I just know.”
“I miss my dad a lot, too. I wish I could see him again, but I know that’ll never happen.”
“And how do you know?”
“Because he doesn’t want to see me. That’s what Mom said. I wish I could come live with you, Mrs. M.”
“Oh, sweetie. That is very nice, but…”
“I know, but I can’t.”
I give him a half grin and take a long sip of my tea.
“Are you gonna eat that?” he asks.
“I was, but I don’t feel hungry anymore. Do you like ham and swiss, JC?”
“Why don’t you take it home with you? I am quite tired. I think I should go lay down for a bit. You know these old bones can’t keep up with you, young JC.”
“You’re not that old, Mrs. M,” JC laughed, “Well, have a nice nap. I’ll see ya tomorrow.”
“And I will see you, too, JC.”
JC places his hat back on his head, grabs his ball and the sandwich, and heads next door. He opens the back door, stops, looks back at me and waves. And then he was gone. I gaze at the stoop where JC once stood for a few moments before retreating up to my bedroom. Leaving my clothes on and the comforter on the bed, I lie down on my side of the bed; I never dare to roll onto the other side. The room is silent, except for the ticking of the grandfather clock. It was way too large and out of place in our tiny bedroom, but his father had left it to him, and he insisted on keeping it.
As I lay there, I try to remember what it was like to feel his chest pressing in and out of my back and his snoring in my ear. Sometimes, I would lightly nudge him, accidentally on purpose, hoping to disrupt his sleep and stop the snoring, at least for a little while. And one night it did stop. The heavy breath in my ear, the rhythm of his chest against my back. I didn’t turn around; I didn’t want to. I took his cold hand and squeezed as hard as I could. Nothing. “Andrew?” I spoke softly. “Andrew, are you awake? Andrew!!”
I rolled over; he looked so peaceful. He even had a slight smile on his sweet, young face.
“Andrew, please wake up,” I calmly pleaded. “Andrew!”
I rocked him back and forth to force him awake, but I knew the truth. He was gone. I jumped out of bed and placed the call I was so afraid to have to make. The paramedics arrived within minutes, did what they had to do, and then they, too, were gone, and I was alone.
I guess I’ve gotten adjusted to the solitude after all of these years. I lower my eyelids and curl my knees toward my chest. My thoughts turn to young JC; how so very different we are, yet so much the same. I wonder how his father could have left him, and why his mother didn’t spend time with him. Did they even know how lucky they were to have him? Andrew and I tried for years to have a baby. I never understood why we weren’t meant to have a child, but we learned to accept it. Even though there are so many years separating us, I often thought of JC as my little boy.
My thoughts jumble and lose their logic as I doze off and fall in and out of sleep. I awake a few minutes later. I open my eyes. There is a little bird outside my window sill. I wonder if it is the same one that was threatening to tear into my screen room earlier today. Perhaps she has come by to sing me a lullaby. I smile at her.
“Hello, little bird,” I whisper and then once again shut my eyes.
The ticking of his father’s grandfather clock fades, and the chirping of the bird now sounds so far away. I assume the bird is flying off again, but I don’t open my eyes to look. I toss and turn for quite a while. I am so very tired, but cannot fall back asleep. How can I possibly sleep with this pressure on my back and this snoring in my ear? Warmth radiates throughout my hands and into my fingertips, and I know I am home.