Mr. White had stopped smoking back in ’85, when the first grand girl was born. It wasn’t because of the grand girl–she lived in Kansas and would only be seen every other Christmas. Sandy had bought him a coat for Christmas that year–camel? Had searched the city for it. She had always wanted it for him, but he could not figure out why. She bought the coat and he dropped the cigarette on it. It wasn’t the fault of the cigarette of course; it was that or the glass of scotch, and the sacrifice of the cigarette seemed obvious.
The Yarborough’s were having their Holiday party and their obnoxious music was only surpassed in stupidity by their sweaters, the noise of the crowd almost oppressive, but still. Sandy seemed to hear the whisper of the fabric above the cacophony of meaningless chatter as it the fur sizzled and died away. She materialized before him, fixed him with his ex-wife’s doe eyes before she vanished, tears in her wake.
He picked up the cigarette, made certain it was out and for many years did not light another.
Two years ago he picked the habit up again, as easily as he used to collect the paper. Griffin was in the hospital room just beyond the window, his body still warm but the Griffin he knew long absent. He wanted to think about other things and not the loneliness. How strange it was to be the last of the old guard not faded away. He imagined he felt Griffin’s soul pass him on his way out and it scared him a bit. So he stepped into the hall and walked out. A woman squinted into the sun and did not look down at him. He watched her, though, and she felt his eyes. She let the smoke curl about her face twice more before offering him a cigarette wordlessly. He accepted with a nod of his head that she did not care to see.
He smokes a pipe now, as he relaxes on the park bench. A woman sat there before he, and the bench is still warm from her. When he arrived he hobbled before her–although he did not normally do so, he was quite capable for eight-and-a-half decades–and she leapt to her feet apologetically.
As Mr. White tugs the smoke into his lungs he considers her haste and its cause. He decides that he was not dishonest–her guilt is her own affair. And besides–she should probably be on her way.
A speck of tobacco settles onto his tongue, and Mr. White plucks it away, staring down at it before wiping it onto his pants.
Ruby would be furious if she saw, but then she has been furious for awhile. That is her way. He wonders if she and Sandy will ever get along. Sixty-four years had not settled their mutual animosity, but he always held out hope. Ruby would never be her mother, but he had hoped…
The tobacco burns down as he contemplates her. Sandy.
He thought that he did right by her. He’s certain he did. What does a girl need? Food. Shelter. Comfort. He made certain she had an abundance of each.
She isn’t a girl anymore, but when she was he was gone. She doesn’t remember the nights he came home late. In her memory there is a gap where he should have been. She doesn’t remember him whispering stories to her or smoothing her hair.
He told her he loved her, he swears that he did, but he only said the words to the dark.
Into the dark was not enough.
He sat between them at the breakfast table, Ruby staring sternly ahead–“the breakfast table is for eating, and we do not speak while we are eating”--Sandy defiantly humming to herself. Often he felt “I love you” bubbling up, a sickness desperate to relieve itself, but the room was too cold to receive his words.
So he did not say them aloud.
The shadow of Mr. White’s thoughts is matched by the shadow that falls over the bench. He draws his cardigan tighter over his shoulders, bristling at his own involuntary reaction. He glances at the man to whom the shadow belongs, but the man’s words stop his assessment.
“How often do you come here?”
A strange question formed from the lips of a stranger, but Mr. White feels compelled to answer.
“Almost every day now.” The man beside Mr. White is silent, a still, unnatural silent.
“When will you leave?” The man asks carefully. Mr. White considers the question for longer than he should.
He could leave now, he supposes, but Ruby would not be home and it would be lonely. He could meet Sandy for lunch, but she would ask about the appointment, and she would sense the paper in his pocket in the same way she sensed the hole in the camel jacket.
She had that way about her, the ability to sniff out the mundane. She would not consider this mundane. She would be angry with him.
She would blame him. Why didn’t he do this thing that she said he should do? Why did he spend so many years here in the middle of the country?
She would look at the barn that they were to convert years ago and the dust settled on the RV and the passports that expired last winter. She would hurt, a palpable hurt, because this is not how she envisioned this.
After the blame and hurt she would be afraid. She would be like a child again and he would not have the energy to raise her again. He isn’t certain he did the job right the first time, although she turned out beautifully. He should tell her that. He should tell her that she’s beautiful.
“In a few,” he responds to the man. The man seems to wait for his answer. Mr. White feels that the man would wait for forever, if required.
Of course, he is no man.
Mr. White turns to stare upon him. He stares back.
It is as if looking into a mirror. He looks as Mr. White looks, and more.
He looks healthy and strong and well-traveled. He has the lips of one who has said “I Love You,” perhaps even too much, the lips of one who kissed the grands just this morning.
His hair is an earned gray, dusted by sun and rain and snowmen. His legs are stiff from horse and doggie and an errant game of hide and seek.
Mr. White sees Sandy is his eyes, and Ruby too. Even here they are not perfect. But the words were spoken, haltingly and at the wrong time. He gave them to them in disrepair, yet they discerned his meaning.
Mr. White imagined Death many times. He envisioned many forms. He did not anticipate his jealousy, how angry death would make him.
“I’m not ready,” Mr. White declares.
“Aren’t you?” Death replies.
Mr. White is uncomfortable, more uncomfortable than he’s been in a long while. A warmth settles over him, and he knows that the warmth belongs to Death. It is different than he imagined.
More comfortable and soft.
“Can I ask you a question?” Mr. White asks.
“Ask,” Death answers.
“Why are you here?” Mr. White demands.
“You sent for me,” Death demures.
Mr. White ponders this. Did he? Certainly he was exhausted–the business of dying is exhausting. Every night he imagined two things–Ruby discovering a paper that he did not shred, somehow reading between the lines and discerning the winding down of the time he was given. The second imagining is always death–cloaked and grave, sweeping him from his body with a well hewn scythe blade.
Yet he did what he could to avoid both of those, he is sure. He kissed Ruby just this morning, and she seemed to warm to it. They are not happy–happiness left years before, but they are comfortable and at his age comfort is more than most people expect.
He shuddered when he considered every sunrise might be the last he laid his eyes upon–surely he did not long for death.
Death must be mistaken.
“I didn’t,” Mr. White assures Death. Death stares into Mr. White, unmoved.
“Then send me away.” Death commands. Mr. White moves his lips, but the words will not out.
Mr. White stands abruptly. He makes his way to the entrance of the park before turning. He can discern only Death’s shape from a distance, but he knows that Death’s unseeing eyes are focused on him. Mr. White returns to the bench.
“I don’t want you to follow me.” Mr. White declares.
“Why would I have to follow you?” Death asks.
“Why do you look like me?” Mr. White asks.
Death stares again into Mr. White, but he offers no answer.
“I want to see Sandy first.” Mr. White states.
“Why?” Death asks.
Again Mr. White considers Death’s question.
“I want to tell her that I love her.” Even to his aged ear Mr. White knows that his response sounds flat.
Mr. White opens his mouth to pose another question, but a sharp pain dulls his senses and stops him.
When the pain passes he gazes at Death, his face so sure and clear.
“Will they be alright without me?” Mr. White asks. Death gazes at Mr. White, but again he does not answer.
“Is it wrong for me to want to go?” Mr. White asks.
Death pauses before replying. “You were always on your way to this moment.”
They will miss him. They will be angry with him. Sandy most of all.
He wishes he could send words to her, but there are none.
Mr. White is selfish, he has always considered himself so. In death he had hoped it would be different, he hoped that his life would be laid out linear and bare, and the essence of who he was would be picked through and presented to those he left behind.
He turns to tell Death that he is ready, but he finds himself alone.
Dinner is with Sandy and Ruby. They do not speak to him. He considers telling them, but there are no words. There were never enough words.
At the door he pulls Sandy to him. She stiffens in his grasp, but she at least does not pull away.
He says, “I love you,” but only in his grip and in his eyes. He hopes she can understand.
Selfishly he is glad that he will not be required to witness the depth of her anger and despair.
When Ruby goes to bed in her room Death is there in his room, waiting for him.
Mr. White felt brave and well-lived as he pulled Death to him, and as he began to chill he considered Death’s familiarity and comfort. How close Death had been all the while. How sweet it felt to close his own eyes, and draw himself into eternal sleep.