Things hadn’t gone well for us the past few years. It was mostly my fault. But I didn’t expect Lynn to leave. I didn’t expect that at all.
First, she lost her teaching job, then I lost mine. Budget cuts. We both began to drink more. But, she generally went off to bed before I did. Sometimes she wanted to go for a walk, do something together, but I usually declined. We didn’t fill our time very productively. We spent the mornings looking for work, we shopped and did those sorts of regular, mundane things, but mostly we watched television. From opposite ends of the couch.
She left one morning before I woke up. She put a note under the coffeemaker, which she knew was the first place I went each day after getting out of bed. It said simply that she needed some time alone, a new start; it said she might be back. It didn’t indicate where she was going. I called her family and friends; none of them knew where she’d gone. She’d left her cell phone sitting on the kitchen counter and didn’t respond to any of my emails, so there was no way to contact her. From the bank, she’d removed exactly half of our savings, to the penny.
That fall, I put myself on a few substitute teaching lists in neighbouring districts and began getting some regular calls. So, that paid the rent. The fall turned to winter, a mild one. I didn’t hear from Lynn. Not a word.
It became harder to sit alone in front of the television, so I started heading to different taverns in the evenings, nondescript places. I didn’t want to become a regular at any, so went to a variety. I could walk to a few; I took the bus to others. I’d sit on a stool at the bar. If the place served food, I’d have something to eat. I listened to the talk around me, but avoided conversations. It felt better to be around people than in my empty house. I thought about things. How my life hadn’t gone as I’d imagined it would. When I thought back to the dreams I’d had, or the plans that Lynn and I had made early on, I could hardly believe that I was the same person in those memories. What had happened? The bustle around me and the alcohol helped dim things.
I was sitting in one of those bars finishing my last drink before leaving when a young man came over from the other side and sat down beside me. He was holding a glass of beer. He nodded his head as we looked at each other and made a small smile.
‘You don’t recognize me, do you?’ he asked.
I studied him a bit more, then shook my head. ‘Sorry. I don’t.’
‘Well, that’s understandable. It’s been almost ten years since I was in your remedial math class. Junior year. Gene Perkins.’
I sat blinking until his younger face vaguely emerged in my mind. ‘Gene,’ I said. ‘My, you’ve grown up.’
He grinned, reached out his hand, and I shook it. As I did, I remembered a bit more about him. How he’d struggled in class, how surly he’d been, how he’d dropped out suddenly one day. I’d known he had problems at home, but not the details. He extended his glass and I clinked mine against it. ‘Here’s to seeing you again, Mr Norris,’ he said. ‘So, how the hell have you been?’
I shrugged. ‘You know.’
I paused, then nodded. ‘You? I wondered what happened after you left.’
He raised his eyebrows and took a swallow of beer. ‘Well, things got better for me,’ he said. ‘Considerably.’
He began a summary of his intervening years. His dad had been long gone, and his mom was put in jail, so he’d gone to live with a grandmother in another state. He finished school there and then joined the navy. He’d stayed in for eight years and had done five deployments to the Middle East. He’d also been on two humanitarian missions. He’d earned medals and was discharged with distinction. He was now working for a former crewmate selling highway guard rails. He travelled around the Northeast doing that. He’d just finished attending a work conference at a hotel up the street and had stopped in for dinner because the concierge told him the burgers were great. He’d had one and agreed.
I asked him if he was married and his grin widened. He took out a wallet and showed me photos of his wife and two little girls. He ran his finger tenderly over each photo after showing it to me and smiled at it. He replaced his wallet, looked at me more intently, and nodded again for a long moment. ‘So,’ he said. ‘There’s something I want you to know.’ He paused. ‘So, here goes. It meant a lot to me the way you treated me in class. I know I was horrible at math, but you believed in me. You wouldn’t let me quit.’
He gazed at me steadily, and his lower lip quivered. I tried my best to remember our interactions in class, but could honestly not recall anything noteworthy about them. He’d just been another kid like all the rest.
‘It really meant a lot to me,’ he continued. ‘Especially at the time.’ He clapped me on the shoulder, and wiped at the corner of his eye. ‘You’re a good, good man, Mr Norris. I want you to know that I’ve never forgotten you. And I never will.’
He stood up, took some money out of his pocket, and set a ten dollar bill next to his glass. The bartender had come over. ‘Another for him of whatever he’s having,’ Gene told him.
The bartender went away to mix my drink. I sat blinking, swallowing over something hard in my throat.
‘Well,’ Gene said. ‘Have to hit the road. Early day tomorrow.’ He extended his hand, and we shook again. ‘Been great seeing you, Mr Norris. Lucky.’
‘Thanks,’ I said. It was all I could manage.
I watched him leave. The bartender brought my drink over, set it in front of me, and took the money away. I tried to recall more about Gene, but couldn’t come up with much. I thought I might have spoken to him a couple of times after class. I thought I’d probably inflated his grades. I remembered allowing him to retake a couple of tests. But that was pretty much it. He’d basically just been another student like any other, although one with a few more troubles than most.
I left before finishing the drink. The air outside tasted like spring. I hadn’t noticed that. I began walking home. The trees along the sidewalk had new buds; I hadn’t been aware of those either. And in some of the flower beds along my street, I saw for the first time that crocuses had begun opening. Daffodils, I remembered, would be next. A little bubble of hope rose up in me. I’m not sure I could have felt more grateful than I did at that moment.
WILLIAM CASS has had a little over eighty short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies, including the winning selection in The Examined Life Journal's writing contest. He lives and works as an educator in San Diego, California.