by: T.E. Cowell
In the wake of an excruciating loss, a dash of empathy provides the inspiration to move on…
After his wife’s unexpected death, Ron found the house he’d spent the last decade-plus living in so unbearable that he put it on the market and moved into his shop. Not wanting to bring anything from the house with him, what with the memories of all the objects there being as sharp as knives, he bought what he’d need to survive at Costco: a mattress that was more like a futon than a mattress, an economy-size fridge, a toaster oven, and a microwave. He crammed his purchases into his Honda Element and drove the dozen blocks back toward the beach. He parked in the alleyway behind his shop to unload his new purchases into the back storage room. He managed to wrestle the futon-mattress up the ladder somehow and into the loft area. He got it between waist-high stacks of boogie boards and soft-top surfboards still in their clear plastic wrapping. There were some little bugs in the loft, Ron noticed, kind of termite-like. He stepped on a few, crushing them. The bugs disgusted him, but he deemed them harmless. They were a minor setback, nothing more. Next he set up the small fridge, toaster oven, and microwave in the shop’s bathroom. Then he drove his car into the tiny space he had for a garage. Home sweet home.
His first night in the shop, as if to add insult to injury, the Italian restaurant next door started playing “It’s Amore.” Ron started to cry. Curled up in the loft, on his new mattress, his body shook. Before his wife’s death, he hadn’t cried in years. But now it seemed like all he did.
In the morning, Ron walked to the nearby mini-mart to see if they had earplugs. They didn’t, but the next closest mini-mart did, a block over.
Ron’s loyal customers, the regulars, all came into the shop to offer their condolences. They were surfers, most of them, in their thirties, forties, and a few in their fifties. A lot of them were married. Some had kids. None of them had been through what Ron was going through. Ron thanked them all for saying their pieces. “Thanks,” he said. “Thanks. Thanks.” Then he bowed his head like a priest. “If there’s anything you need, I’m here for you,” they said. Some of them went in for a hug, thinking a hug was something Ron needed, but most weren’t so bold, and would keep their hands at their sides. A few patted his shoulder. Ron didn’t know how to react to the attention. He tried to smile. He’d nod. “Thanks,” he’d say again. He was afraid he might start crying at any moment, just break down, which he thought would embarrass not just himself but his customers too. He didn’t want that. His customers brought good business. They kept the shop going. Ron was afraid that if he embarrassed them they’d go to another surf shop. This was southern California where surf shops were a dime a dozen. But Ron’s was family-run. It was unique in that sense. A lot of the surf shops didn’t have the cozy feel his did. Except, now that his wife was no more, it wasn’t exactly family-run. Ron’s wife used to work mornings and he’d work afternoons. He didn’t have a family. No kids to speak of. All Ron had was the shop, which he’d inherited from his dad, who’d been something of a real estate mogul back in the day, and who’d died a few years ago from a stroke.
After work Ron walked to the nearest mini-mart to buy food, the one that didn’t have earplugs. He filled his arms with frozen pizzas, frozen burritos, nuts with far too much salt on them, bags of chips, and a six-pack of Negra Modelo. He dumped everything on the counter and watched the fat Asian clerk start scanning away. Ron stood with his hands in his pockets, waiting and watching. He hadn’t eaten like this in years, if ever, and felt something like guilt for getting ready to do so now. What he was buying was nothing like the type of food he’d grown used to eating, the stuff his wife would cook him. Ron could see her face, criticizing him now. Then he felt his throat constrict and he willed the image of her away so that he didn’t end up crying in public.
He looked back at the clerk, now putting everything into three clear plastic bags. Ron had seen the clerk for years and years, waddling splay-footed like a duck along the sidewalk away from the bus stop toward the mini-mart each morning. Sometimes their eyes would meet through the window of Ron’s shop and they’d wave at each other, but that would be it, nothing more. They’d never exchanged any words before. Ron didn’t even know the guy’s name. Even though the mini-mart was virtually a stone’s throw away from his shop, Ron had never set foot inside the place before because it had always struck him as a bit rundown. There was a nicer place, a full-fledged market closer to the house he’d recently put up for sale that had a stocked deli and a wide assortment of fruit and vegetables. His wife had often called him while he was at work to get him to pick this or that up on his way home, which he had done gladly, knowing that it was going toward a good meal. “Anything else?” Ron heard. The clerk was looking at him now. His voice took Ron by surprise. It was higher-pitched than he’d imagined it’d be, cartoonish even. If Ron were in a better mood he might’ve laughed. His eyes wandered to the assortment of shot-sized plastic liquor bottles on the counter to his right. The little bottles were lined up beside a cheap-looking plastic basket full of fun-sized candy bars. Ron grabbed two little bottles of Jack Daniel’s and placed them on the counter. The clerk picked them up and dropped them in one of the bags without scanning them. Ron grabbed a Reese’s peanut butter cup from the basket and dropped it on the counter. The clerk picked it up and dropped it in the same bag without scanning it. Ron looked at the clerk and the clerk looked back at him. The clerk’s eyes were tiny, but his head was huge. “On me,” he said. His voice was like a voice on helium.
“Thanks,” Ron said.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” the clerk said. Ron nodded.
“Thanks,” he said again, then paid and left the store.
Ron’s sister called the shop one day after business hours and left a message. Ron heard the phone ringing but didn’t think to answer it. It was around dinner time and he had only recently closed up the shop for the day, and he was in the bathroom, waiting for a frozen pizza to finish cooking in the toaster oven. Ron was drinking a beer as he waited. When he heard his sister’s voice, he froze for a second and his breathing changed slightly. He hadn’t heard her voice in over a year since he had refused to speak to her when their dad died and there’d been a dispute over his will. Ron had gotten the shop, sure, but his sister had gotten more. She’d gotten so much money that she didn’t have to work anymore. It was as if she’d won the lottery. She left the city and bought a house outside Santa Barbara with acres of property. The last time Ron had spoken to her he’d said he didn’t have a sister, then hung up. Now, over the message machine, she was saying she was sorry about what had happened. Ron sipped his beer and listened to his sister’s voice. “If there’s anything you need,” she said, “please don’t hesitate to call. I’m here for you, Ron. I always have been.” Then she hung up. The quiet, for a few seconds, seemed unnatural in the shop. His sister’s voice had momentarily transported Ron to another time.
A few days later the real estate lady called. Ron was at work, sitting behind the counter, in between customers. He picked up on the second ring. “Someone wants to look at the house,” he heard. “Okay,” he said. “Good. When?” “This weekend,” he heard. “Sunday. I just wanted to let you know.” “Okay. Thanks.” “You’re welcome.”
There was a bar between his shop and the mini-mart, a kind of hole-in-the-wall. Despite its close proximity, like the mini-mart, Ron had never stepped foot inside the bar before. It sounds cliché to say, but he’d never felt the allure of going to bars before. With his wife, his life had felt full, lacking nothing urgent. But now, at the end of another day, he walked into the bar and took a barstool near the front door. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he smelled the grainy scent of the wood chips scattered about the floor. The music wasn’t as loud or obnoxious as he would’ve guessed it’d be, and the bar was more or less empty. Naively, he’d imagined the place would be lively, even rowdy. It was the kind of dark, musty establishment where he could picture shady dealings regularly transpiring. He noticed only a handful of others sitting down the bar from him, all of them silent and unmoving, all of them older: gray-haired, sagging skin, horrible postures. They all looked to Ron as if they lived there, in the bar. They looked as though they couldn’t move if they tried. They were all hunched forward on their barstools, elbows on the counter, a drink before them. They were like zombies, alive but dead. An hour later Ron felt like one of them. He was numb all over, from head to toe. His head was buoyant, like Styrofoam on water, floating. No thought stayed in his brain for long. Aside from the guilt of knowing that drinking like this killed brain cells, it was wonderful, how he felt at that moment, like everything might be alright after all. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to see Jimmy.
Short, hunchbacked, bushy gray mustache, eyes-as-watery-as-an-old-dog’s, Jimmy was staring at him, looking concerned. “I’m sorry about what happened,” Jimmy said, and Ron nodded. Jimmy sat down on the neighboring barstool, put his elbows on the counter, and faced straight ahead, mirroring the others in the bar, the zombies. Ron was mirroring them too now. He felt like he’d made some new friends, without having said a word to them. The bartender came over and Jimmy didn’t even have to order, a drink was placed before him. The bartender glanced at Ron and asked if he wanted another. “Okay,” Ron said. He heard Jimmy say “On me” to the bartender, and Ron slurred, “You don’t have to do that,” and Jimmy said, “No, but I want to.” Ron shrugged. “Thanks,” he said. “You got it, partner,” Jimmy said, like he was a cowboy or something. Ron’s new beer was placed before him. He lifted it and started sipping. Lift, sip––it was so easy. Anyone could do it. He had enough sense to realize he would probably pay for this the next day, but not enough sense to be deterred by this realization. He was having something like a good time. Jimmy looked over at him, and though Ron saw him looking over at him out of the corner of his eye, he continued looking straight ahead, just feeling the numbness, trying to ride it out, to enjoy it as long as possible. “You’re smiling,” Jimmy said. “You’re drunk.” “I know,” Ron said. “Thanks.” “Hey,” Jimmy said. “Look at me for a second.” Ron looked at him. It was like looking at a wreckage of some sort. “Not many people know this,” Jimmy said, “but I lost my wife, too. It was a long time ago now, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. All I mean is, I understand what you’re going through.” Ron continued to look at Jimmy, as if for clues. Jimmy lived in an RV behind the bicycle rental shop next door to Ron’s shop. His history seemed lengthy and convoluted to Ron, like a spider web, like city streets seen from space. He’d always had an intuition that Jimmy had been through some trying times. Jimmy was nice––soft-spoken and polite––though sad-seeming all the time, like his history was a thing he couldn’t shake. Now Ron thought he knew why. “Does it get easier?” he asked. After saying this, he watched Jimmy turn away from him and give his attention back to his drink. He watched Jimmy sip his drink, slowly, deliberately. Then, without looking at Ron, still facing straight ahead, Jimmy said, “You have to be strong. You have to try to be at least. That’s all there is to it. That’s all you can do.”
The house sold a month later. But before the new couple moved in, Ron went over there to clean up. He put everything he could fit into boxes––photos, CDs, her yoga DVDs, books, magazines, clothes. The whole time he couldn’t stop crying. Her smell was still everywhere. In his imagination, her voice echoed down the halls. He put all the boxes in his car, and then he drove to the storage facility in Culver City he’d rented a small unit from. After all the boxes were in, after he’d locked the aluminum gate, he left to return to the beach, his shop. Everything he’d owned with his wife, all the mementos of the years they’d shared, was now in a storage unit, and would probably remain there for years to come, perhaps for the rest of Ron’s life. The thought made Ron feel sick inside. Halfway back to his shop, stopped at a red light, he couldn’t help it––he started to cry some more. It came on suddenly and unexpectedly as it always did, and there was nothing he could do to control it. His whole body shook with the sobs, and his vision blurred, and then he heard someone behind him honking, and he knew the light must’ve gone green. Ron put his flashers on and continued to cry, knowing he was in no condition to drive at the moment. He heard more people honking, and then cars started going around him. The drivers stared at Ron before passing, wondering what the holdup was about. Someone yelled “Move it, asshole!” before gunning it through the intersection. Ron wiped his wet eyes on the neck of his shirt and started taking some deep breaths. The worst of it seemed like it was over. The light went red again, and Ron blinked and further dried his eyes. He felt better now, suddenly, and hit his flashers again, disengaging them. He was okay, he felt. He would get through this, he told himself. He remembered what Jimmy had said about being strong and he knew he would have to be. When the light went green Ron stepped on the gas and started forward and didn’t look back.
Read more from T.E. Cowell here.