"Lover for a Time"

"What are you going to do with your time now?" Gary looked up at Ray. There was much to be learned by Gary regarding the etiquette surrounding the death of a person's loved ones.

"Are you kidding me with that question?" Ray snarled.

Perhaps the question was too forward, ignorant, pointed. It had enough of something in it to chill the air and cause Ray to stumble a couple of steps before hurling a couple of books to the floor. He paused with one hand on his hip and the other rubbing the back of his neck as if feeling for the entry wound of the source of his sudden pain. He knelt slowly and reassembled the books he had thrown, grabbing a couple from packing and putting the entire stack of novels into the appropriate box.

He slid the box along the carpet through a trail of black ants.

"Damn ants. I'm tired of them coming in here uninvited. Don't they know this is my house?"

The anger in his voice was not entirely caused by the ants and their inveterate intrusion, but appreciated to help cut the tension caused by Gary 's ignorant question.

"Always walking across my floor, going somewhere, to a crumb I left on the counter, some water in the shower, a small piece of chip next to the coffee table, in the trashcans. Even in the freezer. You know that? I found a trail of dead ants going into the freezer. What could they possibly want in there?"

"It'd be another thing if you could invite them in when you wanted to." Gary joked, trying to bring back a more workable mood to the room. "Hey ants, here is something you can take. Make sure you're gone in ten minutes."

"Now that just about sounds like the worst idea I've ever heard. Why would I ever want any of them in my house? I don't even want them outside in the trash cans because they get all over my hands and pants when I take the trash out to the curb. No, I just want them to stay where they are, wherever their own land is."

Gary had given up trying to get his dad to talk about what mattered. He finished boxing the books.

"Anything else, Dad?"

"No, I think you've helped enough today. Thanks for coming over. I think I'm getting a headache."

They left the room through different doors, first Ray down the hall to the medicine cabinet to find something for the pain in his head. Gary shook his head at the whole sequence of events, finally leaving through the front door.

Ray returned to the room to find Gary gone. He shook his head at the door and made his way to the bedroom to figure out what exactly he was going to do with Emily's clothes. He was not like what he imagined some people were like when a loved one passes away, leaving all their belongings exactly as they had left them in a pristine monument to the past and their inability to grapple with the reality of their absence. He considered himself more realistic, down-to-earth. He had thought about selling the house and buying a smaller condominium when faced with the daily duties of housecleaning and yard work.

Grabbing a section of Emily's blouses, he lifted them from the bar in the closet and carried them to the bed, repeating this process until her side of the closet - shirts, pants, skirts, dresses, and sweaters - was in a dozen or so stacks on the bed. He stared at them for a moment. His shoulders hunched under the weight of many years.

He could smell her again in the room just as he used to be able to know her presence from her familiar wild clove perfume. He held up one of her black, knit sweaters still on its hanger and buried his face in it. He took a deep breath through the aged fabric and began to weep. His sloped shoulders rose and fell in spasmodic rhythm with his sobs. He sat on the edge of the bed and collapsed backward into the uncomfortable bed of hangers and cloves.

"What am I going to do now?" He lowered the sweater from his face to his chest and stared at the light fixture above their bed that he had forgotten to fix. His thoughts continued, "Why would God take her from me? I knew this was coming, but I never really thought it through."

He lay there awhile and then directed his attention to the dresser by the closet. He pulled out the top drawer, a drawer that he looked in only when putting away folded laundry. Although married to Emily forty years, he had never allowed his mind to look at the contents of her drawers, which he deemed her own private territory. He wondered what other things she did not know about him when she died, things which would most likely never be shared with anyone. "Emily," he gasped.

The top drawer contained her underwear, day-to-day articles on the left and racier attire in the back right corner. He brushed his hand over the satins and silks, envisioning her in the sexier ones, which he hadn't seen her wear in at least a decade. He was disturbed with how out of place they seemed there in the drawer now. He retrieved a trash bag from the hallway pantry and tried, as best as a single man could, to dump the contents of the drawer into the bag. He thought better of himself, finally setting the drawer on top of the pile on the bed, transferring the remainder of the contents into the bag, and restoring the drawer to the dresser.

Her bras were in the next drawer down. He jerked back a bit when he saw them all, laid out orderly on top of each other. He pulled a nude colored one from the top of the stack and held it in front of his chest, imagining Emily wearing it once again. The phone startled him, and he quickly placed the bra in the bag.

"Greetings."

"Hey, Dad, it's Debbie."

"Oh, hello." He remembered how he had begun saying 'greetings' after Emily had first recorded it on their answering machine. He thought about how he laughed when he had first called home and heard the machine.

"Are the plans still on for this evening?"

He wracked his brain trying to remember what plans. "Yeah," he said without a clue as to what the plans were.

"Great. The kids have been talking about it for weeks. What time should Gary and I bring them over?"

It all returned to him, the memory of the plans for Friday, how she talked him into babysitting the kids while they went out of town. Ray viewed Debbie as a daughter of high regard, whereas Gary was just ordinary. Gary had found a woman he did not deserve, like the story about the poor man who found a priceless pearl while diving. He hoped she did not ruin Gary the way the pearl ruined the man.

"Any time is fine. I'll start pulling out their sleeping bags here in a minute."

"Great. We'll drop them off in an hour or so. Our plane leaves at ten this evening, and we fly back Sunday afternoon."

"It all sounds like fun."

After she dropped the children off, Ray actually found relief, realizing how his mind would be distracted for a few days now.

On Saturday evening, Ray put in an animated movie for them to watch together in the living room, one room in which he had decided to leave most everything the way it was. He glanced through the door to the left of the television. It connected to the kitchen, decorated floor to ceiling with white and black tile. He recalled how Emily had been so excited to see Ray install it over a year ago. Through the hallway to the right you could reach the bedrooms and connect back up to the kitchen. It made the house suitable for two people but considerably vast for only one.

The kids were sprawled out on either side of him, Laurie sitting in the recliner to his left and Ben lying on the couch next to him with his head on a pillow in Ray's lap. Laurie, only 10 years old, looked like she had stolen her mom's eyebrows, chin, and almost everything in between. Perhaps her light hair would darken as she grew older. At 6 years old, Ben's stocky build, not fat but muscular, already reminded him of Gary . He had not always felt this way, but Ray wished he had received more of Debbie's genes.

Ray reclined his portion of the couch for the movie but promptly fell asleep, a habit he had developed during home movies. He did not wake up until hours later after the television had gone to soft white noise. Making out 10:43 in neon green on the VCR, Ray slowly lifted Ben's pillow from his leg to let himself out and returned it softly to the couch. He adjusted Ben's blanket to cover his feet and tucked it in around his body. Already in her pajamas, Laurie slept bundled in the recliner.

Ray could hear the soft pitter patter on the outside of the windows calling him to come for a walk. He enjoyed walking in a soft rain. He took pleasure in the renewing element of the rain on his face as he walked into it, the small explosions on his cheeks and the pavement and the cars as water collided with the thirsty world. Ray grabbed his plaid golf hat and overcoat, where he kept his cigars for occasions like this, and inaudibly closed the door on his way out. He took advantage of having the kids fast asleep, for some time alone.

He took a drag on his cigar and held it for a moment, feeling its warmth. The mild patter of water dripped from his hat onto on his overcoat and slacks. On the back of his head, the gray prickles from that morning's hair cut stood up. His thoughts returned. They had been waving their hands in front of his mind's eye all day. They were harmful, regressive thoughts.

He took a drag on his cigar and held it for a moment, feeling its warmth. The mild patter of water dripped from his hat onto on his overcoat and slacks. His thoughts returned, the thoughts that had been waving their hands in front of his mind's eye all day; harmful but regressive thoughts. Thoughts about Emily; an ache festered in his stomach and rose to his throat. "Why did she have to leave me?"

The kids fast asleep, Ray had some time to himself, to the thoughts that had been waving their hands in front of his mind's eye all day. For the most part, he desired to ignore the harmful, regressive thoughts.

It hadn't been until he stood before the gravestone at the burial that he grasped the reality of his situation. He stared at the words engraved in the granite slab - Emily Gene Walters (1939-1999) and Ray Marshall Walters (1936- ). His hyphen did not seem fair carved next to her hyphen, not fair to her and entirely not fair to him. As he stared at the newly-placed granite slab that would grow moss soon enough like the other memorials, the hyphen made little sense to him, yielding no apparent value before what seemed to him a useless remainder of his life.

It took a couple more blocks, passing an aged Methodist church with a steeple and two vagrants in a vacant lot with a sign announcing new buildings were going up, for him to remember the hours he spent bathing her with sponges and rags and changing the bed sheets. "She knew I loved her," he tried to convince himself. Until then Ray had hardly thought about her as a part of his life. Instead, he had plodded through his mind, strolling along the beaten path past the noise that cluttered anything outside his tunnel vision focus, ignoring what might be in the corners, what must be lurking, lying in some niche that might let him know what life held in store for him if he ever stopped to notice.

He thought about the hyphen again, that lowly dash on his headstone that marked a life he still had to live. Somewhere in life's humdrum he had lost a focus he used to so clearly possess, to make a difference in the lives around him, to have some lasting impact on the people he cared for most. He wondered if he had done that for Emily, if he had been a source of joy in her final days. For minutes he could only remember thinking about himself. Many nights he had left Emily lying at home while he was at work or with friends or family. Pain in his stomach arose when he recalled the night he found her lying in bed holding the phone. She had either been holding to her ear, or it was still on its way there, her mouth gaped halfway open as if she were going to attempt to speak some comfort or goodbyes.

He returned to the front porch feeling refreshed and ready for sleep. He closed and locked the door behind him and hung his keys on the far right hook on the rack by the door. He noticed immediately that Ben and Laurie were no longer asleep in the living room. Worry chilled his composure. He walked slowly, more or less sidestepping toward the door to the kitchen.

He turned the light on in the kitchen. Finding no one there eased his walk, somewhat relieving his unfounded fears. Entering the hallway from the kitchen, he turned left toward the light switch one door down. A larger figure grabbed him from inside the first room, stepping into the hall and turning his arm behind his back, the impervious grip no doubt belonging to a man. His shoulders were shoved down toward the ground, hunching him over. He was forced into the bathroom. When the man finished binding Ray's wrists behind his back with tape, he pushed Ray face first into the bottom of the bath tub and flopped his legs over the side. Ray could not remember ever having been in such a painful position.

He heard lights flick on in the back room and muffled squeals emerge, perhaps sensing that help might be near.

"You two make sure to stay quiet in here."

Ray heard the man reenter the bathroom.

"I'll be gone in a few minutes, old man. Don't give me any trouble, and I won't give you any more." There was a moment's pause, during which Ray could feel the man glancing over his position. "You hear?" He expected Ray to answer but did not wait long enough for Ray to muster so much as a grunt before he left.

Ray could only see a few inches in front of his face and could not turn his body at all. Never having been this close to the bath tub, Ray now noticed the grime, hidden from his declining vision. A trail of ants weaved its way into his vision from small porthole window down to the drain. His hatred for ants exacerbated his situation. What did it matter anymore, his being there for the family, his fighting it out, his participation in the community, his living without Emily? His body crumpled upon itself a bit, and he groaned.

All at once he understood. Life had leased him a lover for a time. He began to question if anything in this life was truly his or just on loan.

The ants would disappear soon, leaving things exactly how they had found them, but this man was here for something that wasn't his, something priceless that belonged to loved ones. For a moment he thought only about his grandkids and their stifled cries. Gary and Debbie would find them like this. He should not have left the children alone at night. The fault belonged to him. He knew it.

Ray returned his gaze to the ant trail and managed a small smile. He appreciated the orderliness, each one following the next one down the trail. He was glad they would return to the window when they were done, leaving him alone.

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