by Hannah Cassidy
“Endings, endings, always the endings,” the old man mutters to himself as he fumbles for his keys. He pats his front pocket, back pocket, jacket coat, and checks the folds of his wallet. He hears barking through the door.
“Oye!” he shouts. “You know who it is. It’s me, you old man. It’s Ele. Who else would it be?”
He continues to mutter until he feels the familiar imprint of metal in his breast pocket. He swore he put it in the folds of his wallet. He always puts it in the folds of his wallet.
The key slides in the hole and he grunts with satisfaction as the lock clicks and opens his house. The house he bought with his own money, signed the contract with his hand. The ink dripping from a pen engraved with his name on the side. The pen was a gift from his father after he published his first novel. The hand—long-fingered, callused and pale with scholarly form—was inherited from his mother.
He pushes the door open.
“Ach! Reuben, you old man. Don’t jump. Don’t you know old men are not supposed to jump? Do you see me jumping?” Reuben, grey around the muzzle and eyes cloudy with cataracts and general blindness panted and slobbered on the old man. “Yes, Reuben. I am home again. What a miracle, no? Not as if I come home at the same time every day. No, this is a surprise, right?” The old man closes the door behind him and places the key in a bowl on the shelf near the door. The bowl is full of spare keys, pepper spray, pens, paperclips, on old lighter, and dog treats. “Right, Reuben. Miracles are good things. We should celebrate them. You are the wiser of the two of us.” The old man feeds him another treat before limping to the kitchen to start on dinner.
. . . . .
The old man does not like his new editor. Too tall. Nervous. Wears too much makeup and visibly dyes her roots. Her striped button-up and black creased pants make her appear even taller like a grasshopper, like a diner straw.
“Ele, you still haven’t changed the ending.” His editor, Sarah, says this with an exasperated tone but because she is perpetually nervous, it comes out whiney. “Yesterday on the phone, you promised you’d work on it.”
Ele snatches the manuscript from her hands nearly cutting himself on the fat rock of an engagement ring on her finger. The woman has to be at least thirty, he reasons. Kids wait so long to get married these days. They waste their time over things like dyeing their roots and creasing their pants and posting something witty on the internet. Silly. At her age, Ele was already married eight years. His child was seven years old. Meira was so lively then, glowing with marriage and walking their child to school.
“No? Look at this section. I changed it completely.” He pointed to a highlighted portion of the manuscript. Sarah sighed as if to say look at how patient I am. I am trying so hard to be patient.
“All you did was add a little bit of banter between characters. We don’t need more dialogue. We need a different ending.”
It was always we with her. What did she know about writing novels? Ele’s old editor never said we.
“This is an Ele Alderman mystery novel. Where is the famous Alderman plot twist? This is supposed to be a thriller. Where is the thrill? The Alderman novels always have a plot twist at the end. Your readers are expecting it.”
Ele does not like her tone. She had been waiting for him impatiently when he walked in the cafe door. She was sitting with her long deer legs crossed tapping her pen against the table as if she has been waiting to use that tone. As if Ele wasn’t exactly on time like he always is.
“You want to hear a mystery story? My dog is eighteen years old. The vet said he probably wouldn’t live a day past fifteen. He jumps around like a newborn, happy as a horse. Three years he should be dead but he is not. That is a mystery. So?”
Sarah twists the ring on her finger when she is nervous. He noticed this right away when they were first introduced when his old editor, Leo, retired.
“So should I kill my dog because the vet expects him to be dead? Because everyone thought that he would no longer be alive?”
There she goes, twisting away.
“Can we please focus on the topic at hand?”
Ele could see that Sarah is sweating. She had been sweating since he walked in. Cara, his daughter, she used to sweat like that. She used to sweat before her performances at the school plays. Meira would sneak behind stage and powder her face until she was caked with the stuff. It was shake off her when she moved about– the more in character, the more of a dust storm she created as it flaked off like fairy dust.
“I am on topic. You want to kill my dog because you expect him to be dead. You predicted it and you have found yourself in a place unknown. That is the plot twist. Be happy! You have not killed my dog.”
Sarah visibly deflates.
“This book will not sell.”
“I am not trying to sell my book. I am only writing it.”
Sarah twists the ring on her finger with more urgency. The big rock on it turns quickly, going round and round. Like the earth, it goes around and around and never pauses, never stops, never changes. Always the same.
“Alright,” Sarah sighs. That tone again. “I don’t have time for this today. Why don’t we come back to it and focus on other revisions? Your acknowledgments, for example.” She keeps talking but Ele is not listening anymore.
He feels abruptly tired. Maybe he should have called today’s meeting off. He has not been sleeping well and he doesn’t like taking the medication. Meira would not like this. She would make him take it anyways and he would grumble and after a good night’s rest, he would thank her again and again. Always knew what he needed. What he needs. He remembers.
“I am sorry,” he interrupts his young, sweaty editor. “I must go to buy eggs.”
It is almost 4 pm. He almost forgot he needs eggs. It usually takes him twenty minutes to walk home from the cafe but if he plans to stop at the grocers he doesn’t know if he’ll make it home by 5 pm. Reuben expects him home at 5 pm. The woman next door usually does his grocery shopping but she is out of town for her son’s graduation. Both of the women living there are gone. He should have canceled the meeting today. He needs to go buy eggs. He’s eaten eggs for breakfast for forty years straight. Meira liked to scramble them nice with spinach and onions but he eats them plain now, over easy. She liked making him eggs. What is an egg, she liked to say. It is a seed, an idea. You must eat ideas or your brain will decay, it will empty itself, become nonsense. An empty brain leads to an empty heart and Ele is too old to be walking around with an empty heart. He is frail, has bad knees, and has been chronically underweight for a while now. If the brain and heart are empty, he’ll be too light. He’ll float right up to the heavens like a balloon.
“I must go buy eggs,” he repeats. Ele is sweating too now.
“Now?” Incredulous. A different tone. “You have to go buy eggs right now?”
“The market is on top of a hill,” he explains gently, apologetic.
The rock slows in its orbit around the editor’s finger. A sigh. A closed fist.
“Fine. Fine. What does it matter? I have an appointment anyhow.”
Ele holds in his sigh of relief when he sees her forlorn, dejected expression. He will certainly make it home before 5 pm. He wants to explain to his nervous, sweaty editor. His eyes are no good. He can’t drive anymore. He doesn’t want the surgery. Walking is good for his health. That’s what his doctor told him. He wants to tell her his doctor wants him to walk more but the market is on top of a hill so it’s not a walk he’s used to. Reuben is waiting for him.
“What’s your appointment?” He asks instead. Sarah looks visibly uncomfortable by his question but he can’t tell if this discomfort is any different than her usual anxious expression.
“Downtown. At a studio. I’m taking wedding photos,” she answers in chopped sentences. She looks queasy as if it had not been her intention to answer the question. “I’m getting married,” she adds uselessly.
“A wedding?” Ele perks up. Ele remembers taking his wedding photos. He was so nervous at the time only having met his bride twice before: once at his cousin’s bar mitzvah and again when his parents came home to dinner with Meira and her parents in tow. She wouldn’t look at him for most of the night. She sipped her tea and made small talk about her studies while the parents made the arrangement. She wore blush which made her look clownish or feverish against her pale skin framed by her dark hair. Her pale face gave the impression that she stayed indoors. Her glasses, thick-rimmed and bulky gave her all-around appearance something to be desired. But Ele had not cared at the time; he had liked her immediately. He did not think of her as sickly but academic, scholarly, secretarial even: the perfect wife to a writer.
“Yes,” Sarah replies. She glances at her phone.
“Ah, tell me who is the lucky man? What’s his profession?”
Sarah smiles slightly.
“She’s in real estate.”
Ele grunts. An awkward pause. He has made her uncomfortable. He had, as his wife used to say, put his foot in his mouth. Sarah takes pity on him. Perhaps she sees he is also sweating like her.
“Her name is Carmen.”
Carmen is a good name. Meira would have liked the name. Cara would have liked the name. Similar age. Cara would have liked her blouse; would have gone right up to her and told her she liked it and started a conversation and then fifty minutes would pass and she would be late for dinner but she would have a business card or a phone number and a story she would tell at the dinner table. Ele loved hearing her stories almost as much as he loved telling them.
“Real estate is lucrative. A good match,” Ele nods his approval.
Sarah smiles awkwardly, seemingly embarrassed by his approval. Why should she be embarrassed? Cara was like that. She would tilt her head and give him this same smile. Oh, Papa, she would say. Times are changing; you are an old dog, too late for you to learn new tricks.
“Yeah,” Sarah agrees politely. Another beat of silence before Sarah clears her throat and packs her things. The highlighted manuscript disappears into a tote bag, crumbs are dusted from the table, and the last dredges of coffee are swallowed. Sarah stands. Ele should stand too. It takes him a while to stand because of his knees and hips and age. He should do it now while Sarah is also standing. He is on the clock. Reuben is expecting him before 5 pm.
“I’ll work on the ending,” he tells Sarah. She is typing on her cellphone. Her shoulders are tense. Relax, he wants to say. You should not strain your shoulders like that. It is no good for your back. It will ruin the photos. The camera catches everything; it will catch the bad shoulders. It will catch the strain which could ruin the marriage. Your bride will notice. She’ll comment and worry. It is no good to worry before the wedding. Worry when the baby will come. Worry about what color to paint the walls and whether or not to install the mobile over the crib for fear it might fall on the baby in the night. Worry that the school bus will be late and your child will not stop clinging to your side because it is her first day of junior high and she is nervous. Do not worry before your wedding. Do not worry about the photos.
“You’ll work on it or you’ll change it?”
Ele sighs. Sarah is a good editor. Always asking the right questions, being careful. Cara liked asking questions.
“My daughter,” Ele says. “She was going to get married in that way.”
Sarah stops typing. A thumb hovers over the screen.
“In what way?” Her voice is quiet.
“To a woman,” Ele says. “She would have been a very beautiful bride.”
“What happened?” Sarah asks softly. Even softly she is nervous. It is so easy to be nervous.
“Her bride married another woman. She buys my groceries now — this woman. She is out of town this week, so I have to buy the eggs myself.”
“I see,” Sarah says carefully. She sees. Good. It is good she sees. Nervous people have a hard time seeing he knows.
“She sounds thoughtful. I’m sure your daughter appreciates that she looks after you.”
My daughter is not nervous, Ele wants to say. She is gone. She cannot appreciate it because she is in the dirt. She is composting into something new. She is sleeping in the ground and her mother is there beside her making sure she does not get nervous. They are calm; they are not worrying about anything.
“Yes. Yes, she is very appreciative. Very much.” He is nodding, can’t stop nodding. Sarah smiles. Why does she look so nervous? She wishes him well before heading for the door. The door jingles and she is gone, taking her creased pants, her sweat, and her worry to the studio downtown. He should have told her he would change the ending. He looks at the time. 4:15 pm. He cannot worry. He has to go. Reuben is waiting for him.
. . . . .
The watch on the old man’s wrist reads 4:55 pm when he finally reaches his porch steps. He fumbles for his keys, patting down his pockets and flipping through the folds in his wallet until realizing he has dropped it in his breast pocket. Odd, he thinks. He could have sworn it was in his wallet. He hears barking through the door. The key slides into the lock and it clicks open to Reuben. He jumps on the old man making him laugh even as he wipes slobber on his pant leg.
He drops his key in the bowl next to the door and grabs a handful of treats.
“Reuben! Yes, Reuben, I am home again. At the same time no less. This is what you expect, no? You expect that I will always be home at the same time. The key turning in the lock. You don’t know that I went to the grocers myself. I was almost late. I had to get eggs myself this week. You have no idea. The line at the market was ten people long and it took me so long to find the eggs. I did not think I would be on time but here I am, Reuben! It is a surprise, no? It is a miracle. This is a miracle!”
He pets his blind dog and kisses his head. He sets the eggs on the dining room table and picks up more treats from a bowl on the table also dedicated for miscellaneous items and dog treats. There are bowls like this all over the house. Ele is meticulous with his bowls. If it is not in his pocket, it is in a bowl. These bowls. These bowls are miracles. He tosses Reuben another treat and watches him gobble it up without even chewing; he just swallows the thing whole. This, too, is a miracle.
“You have no idea,” the old man tells his dog. He gives Reuben a final pat before he heads to the kitchen to make dinner.