Bernie pulled the flap of his collar up around his neck and tucked his chin against the chill that lingered in the gray, late morning air. Where is the sun they promised, he thought. He burrowed his hands deep into the pockets of his threadbare overcoat. But, then, what should one expect of Boston toward the end of March? He shivered in a small gust. But he didn’t get up. No, he thought he’d sit there on the end of the park bench for just a few more minutes.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d ventured farther than the lobby of his five story apartment building. Assisted living, they called one wing. Not his wing, not yet. Bernie wondered what they were assisting, or what they considered living. What he was doing didn’t feel much like that, like living. His days looped interminably in the ever-present blue glow of his TV, punctuated only by his three daily trips downstairs: twice to the dining room for a bland meal, which he took alone; and once each day to his mailbox in the lobby with the misplaced hope for something – a card, maybe, or a letter – from someone, any one.
It had been Emily’s sister Marie who convinced him, shortly after Emily died, that the home he had shared with Emily would be too much for him to manage, or would become so. Besides, wouldn’t it be too hard? Surrounded by so many reminders? It wouldn’t be good for his mental state to be there alone. On campus – that’s what Marie had called it, the campus – he’d have an apartment of his own, could come and go as he pleased, but could take his meals in the dining room if he didn’t feel like cooking. And as he grew older and needed help, well, they could arrange that at the campus too. Bernie had said, weakly, that he was a long way from needing that kind of help, was in very good physical shape, actually. Marie had agreed. But that wasn’t really the point; now was a logical time to make a change and he shouldn’t wait.
Bernie hadn’t looked at Marie as she spoke, but past her. Outside his kitchen door, bleeding hearts were glowing pink and purple in the shade garden he and Emily had built on the small, walled-in plot carved from the alley behind their home. The sparse patch between the house and the alley had grown over with neglect, and Emily had made him clean it up as a project, to get him out of bed and working again. Over time they’d transformed it into a sanctuary, carefully selecting and then cultivating tender flora. Bernie had become fascinated with plant life, its rootedness and how all a plant required seemed to come to it. In the garden he’d begun painting again, capturing in watercolor the tiny flowers – their intricacies, the subtle gradations in their color – that managed to flourish in the shadows. The buds and blossoms gave him hope; his paintings had given Emily joy.
It was late April. The apartment would come available on the fifteenth of May, Marie warned, and after that there would be a long waiting list. It’s the best thing. She had been firm on this. Unwavering. Emily could be unwavering too, but without her sister’s edge. Or perhaps Bernie had forgiven her that, overlooked it for all else she had been for him.
Marie had said he’d be independent. She’d not told him that meant he would be alone.
This morning Bernie had come down early for breakfast, as was his custom on Sundays, to avoid the jabber and clamor that came later when the dining room swelled with families and their attendant noise: children and grandchildren and great grandchildren all squawking for attention, and the swooning and baby talk, and laughter. It all got to his nerves, made him feel at once agitated and empty. At times, in all the rumpus, his chest would tighten and his eyes would well, and he’d feel a flush of longing. But the feeling was quickly lost to a churn of guilt. He and Emily had decided against children, and these fleeting tugs seemed to him small betrayals to their pact.
Early on Sunday mornings there was no jabber and clamor in the dining room. Only the faint clink of flatware and an occasional groan accosted the silence. He found that upsetting too, but what could he do?
This Sunday Bernie found a seat in the corner away from the dining room entrance. He draped his overcoat over the chair – he’d taken to wearing it when he came down, to fend off a draft in the lobby – and unfolded the newspaper he pretended to read while he waited. He tried to be patient as the nurses wheeled in a procession of old timers, snugging them up tight against their tables, then fastening their bibs. Across the room he watched an attendant settle an acquaintance, a guy who’d done tailoring and run the dry cleaner in the old neighborhood, into his seat. Bernie had known the tailor instantly on the first day he’d come to the dining room and, surprising himself, had managed to say hello. But the man hadn’t acknowledged Bernie, giving him only a wan smile and slatey gaze, looking through Bernie as though he were a ghost in a mist. In the tailor Bernie saw a reflection he recognized as his own face, as if staring back at him from outside a subway car window. It made his stomach roil in disgust. He was not like these old timers, wretched and incapable, not yet, and he feared that in their proximity his fate would accelerate, that he could catch decrepitude like a flu.
Bernie watched his old acquaintance fiddle with his napkin and look around the room, lost. Emily would have gotten up and offered him an encouraging greeting, Bernie thought. But, then, the tailor would probably have recognized Emily. Surely they had known each other. And who wouldn’t remember his Emily from those days: raven hair and Carolina-blue eyes, and a pixie figure. And never without a smile. Bernie raised himself out of his chair and started in the direction of the tailor, but at the dining room exit he hesitated. He couldn’t go up to the tailor, he knew. He’d have nothing to say. It had always been Emily who knew what to say. It was more than that, though: Bernie didn’t think he could endure the man’s gaze, the image of his own face it conjured, his future. But he couldn’t sit back down. He felt restless and out of place.
Bernie went out of the dining room and toward the elevator. He’d decided to take breakfast in his apartment. The morning janitor was busy wiping down the dull, metal elevator doors with something that smelled of pine and alcohol. Bernie fidgeted, rocking from one leg to the other; he could not wait. He looked around. Outside, a woman with a large bouquet of balloons struggled to wrestle them through the front doors of his building; a pink one with a long green ribbon had escaped her grasp and drifted upward, twisting in a small zephyr. Bernie started for the stairs, then stopped. He watched over his shoulder as the balloon meandered away, then turned and walked straight across the lobby, past the woman and her bouquet, and followed the balloon out the front doors.
It wasn’t a nice day, though the Weather Channel had hinted at some sun. He watched a lot of the Weather Channel these days. Not so much for the forecast; he had no need to know what the future weather held and could raise the shade of the small window over his kitchen sink if he wanted to see what was falling, rain or leaves or snow, and he already knew the day would be gray. No, he watched for the special programs on disasters. Back-to-back: tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Tsunamis. Dust storms. And not always big disasters. Last week he’d seen an hour-long show on pets stuck in sewers. It gave him a peculiar comfort to see people struggle, to know that he was better off than them. But, then, he felt a kind of envy for the victims too. They had something real to resist, and in resisting they overcame.
No, it wasn’t a nice day. Gray. But manageable. And as long as he was outside he should do something. Bernie wasn’t going back in. Not to those lifeless ashen faces, dull metal doors, and whitewashed walls. Not to the chaos that would soon arise. Not to the blue of his apartment. He decided to take a walk. It had been years since he’d taken a stroll without purpose. When they were young he would walk with Emily on Sundays. He would go to her apartment and wait for her to return from church, then coax her away from her chores. He hadn’t thought of it as idling, then, though it was. But their bodies, present together, flowing through but separate from the din of the city, gave him respite from the myriad small anxieties and faint melancholy he’d always known, and he’d cherished those purposeless afternoons, walking with Emily.
Later, it was Emily who would have to chide him to come out to play.
Bernie buttoned his coat and headed north toward Commonwealth Avenue, then wandered up to the Public Garden, through it, and around the Common for a time. He was alone, save for a handful of cooing, dirty pigeons, an occasional runner, and a few remnant revelers from Saturday night trying to find their way home. He found a bench, an old one with flaking paint and splintered slats, and sat down.
He surveyed the Common and wondered why he’d bothered to come out. Bland. The ground, muck-beige and mottled, was unwilling even to hint at the life hidden beneath it. On the street corners low, gritty piles of old snow stubbornly stood their ground, allied with the gray sky against the spring. All of Boston – his whole world – was stuck in limbo, between seasons with nothing to do but wait. But Bernie didn’t know what he was waiting for. To be rolled to dinner? For the next episode of Weather Disasters? He shifted his weight on the bench.
It was just past noon, and Bernie watched as a trickle of people, all bundled in the raw air, flowed onto the streets, the sidewalks, into the Common. He observed them: college kids from their beds, bleary-eyed, to coffee houses; church-goers, buoyed from worship and communion; tourists onto the streets, eager to explore; mothers pushing strollers, a father with his little boy hoisted on his shoulders. He sensed the hum, could hear the smiles. What fools, Bernie thought, the sun is not coming out today. You cannot coax it.
But that wasn’t true. Emily had been able to coax out the sun. For nearly forty-five years she’d done it for him, brought light to burn off the thick, dark clouds that, alone, he seemed destined to dwell inside of.
They’d been married only two years when he’d had his first episode. It had started slowly, as vague but persistent expressions of doubt about his talent, that his drawings were insufficient for use as scientific illustrations, and that, despite his being well respected and highly in demand, he could not meet the expectations of his clients. Emily paid little heed to Bernie’s complaints until he began to call her from work, once or twice a day at first, then hourly or more, panicked about a project he could not complete or a commission he knew would not come in; and then later about his ability to support Emily, a family. But commissions came in; his work was praised. He and Emily owned their home.
Still, Bernie withdrew. Always reserved, he became timid, no longer going to the Public Garden to paint as he’d always done, resisting accompanying Emily on her Saturday trips to the market, the dry cleaner, or to a friend’s home, finding excuses to stay in their apartment. He’d retreat to his study to sleep on the day bed, emerging only for meals, the toilet, and, stooped and defeated, for work.
It was a Friday in early June. Bernie had come home early from work on Thursday and gone straight to his study. He’d rebuffed Emily’s plea to let her help, turning his face from hers and raising his hand, at once dismissive and menacing, and then left her in echoing silence.
It was nearly nine the next morning when she’d knocked on the study door.
“Bernie? Are you up?” Her voice was soft and tentative. “You’ll be late for work.”
He lay still, frightened and ashamed. Silent.
“Bernie. You will be late.”
“I’m not going in today.”
“Bernie, you have to.”
“What is it? What’s the matter?”
“What is it? Bern?”
“Nothing. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just can’t do it. I just…” His voice faltered, despair holding his words in his throat.
Emily gently pushed open the door and took a few steps toward where Bernie lay. “What can’t you do? Bernie, what? Look at what is on your wall. Look at those awards. Look what you can do. You are good. You’ll be ok.”
She was kneeling beside him now, and had found his hand beneath the light cotton blanket. “You’ve got to get up now.”
“I don’t! Don’t tell me that. What to do. I know what I am!” He’d not recognized his voice, in that moment, the anger and defiance. He’d not recognized Emily either, had been momentarily alarmed by her pallor, how drawn she looked; he’d never seen her eyes cloud over and go pale. She had not let go of his hand.
“Bernie, what are you afraid of?”
“I… Nothing. I, I don’t know. I just don’t.” He’d turned away from her, away from the sudden realization that of all that he feared, it was life without her he was most afraid of. He’d shivered and tensed against the fear and, unable to hold it inside, begun to sob. Emily had let go of his hand, and without another word, left the study.
It was mid-afternoon before she returned.
“Get up,” she’d said firmly but with patience, “Get out of this room and go work on that mess out back. I’m tired of looking at it.”
She was dressed in her denim overalls and a stained cotton tee-shirt, her hair pulled up and tucked into a ragged kerchief. “I’m tired of the mess,” she’d repeated.
Bernie was sure she had meant she was tired of him. He’d long ago wearied of himself but, bereft of fight and unable to leave himself, had acquiesced, become colorless. Emily could leave. Slowly, he’d raised himself off his day bed and went to change into work clothes. As he passed Emily she held his elbow and whispered to him, “I love you, Bernie. We are an us.”
They went out into the alley that day, and the next, and a day or two each week for rest of the summer. Together, side-by-side, they built a little garden out of a thicket of weeds and refuse, one that grew vibrant even in the mottled, dim light of the alley.
After that Emily vowed to keep Bernie in the light. She’d had to set limits, establish routines. Create a life they felt certain they could manage. But she’d made a game of it too. Each day Emily would rise with the sun and brew strong, black coffee that she would bring to Bernie in a bright yellow mug; then she would go around their bedroom pulling up the shades, one at a time, until whatever light the day had to offer tumbled in, filling the room. It seemed, to Bernie, that there was always sunshine in the morning. Often Emily would chant, in the sing-song voice she reserved just for him, a rhyme as she brought in the day. “Not a day was ever made with a pulled down shade,” or, with her blue eyes dancing and a naughty wink, “Up with the sun and I’ll show you some fun.” Bernie could remember them all, he thought, but could not summon their magic.
That was how he learned she had left him. He awoke one morning, restless, at nine. Emily was beside him in bed and the shades were still drawn.
That was three years ago. Three years since the sun had shone.
The Common bustled. Across the sidewalk, from up the hill, Bernie could hear little shrieks of laughter, shards of bicker and banter, shouts of light-hearted scolds. Families, buoyant on the possibility of spring. Bernie watched as children pitched balls, chased squirrels, ran in circles around the big, old oak at the top. Where is their sense, Bernie thought, it’s too cold outside for children. On the far end of the bench a young couple settled down, huddled close beneath a green, woolen blanket.
Emily had liked to sit down here. He had too. It was best in late May, when spring was full and flirting with summer, and the air smelled fresh and hopeful. They liked to watch the people, the families, gather and disperse, and gather again. It is where they came to talk. Bernie looked over at the young couple. They were hovering over something steaming, and its pungency stung his nose, made his mouth water. My space! Bernie felt a glower creep over his face, pinching it. My goddam space. A girl peered up from under the blanket. She looked at Bernie, eyes wide, with a smile. He resisted smiling back. He felt a small hollow of hunger. He wanted a taste of what they had.
A beach ball rolled off the hill onto the sidewalk, coming to rest at Bernie’s feet. As if attached to it, a little two-legged thing – he couldn’t tell, bundled as it was, if it was human, a girl or boy, or a gremlin – wobbled down behind the ball and, teetering, stopped and hugged the ball, trying to wrap its stubby little arms around the ball’s girth. It smiled at Bernie with big, gapped, unspoiled teeth and bright red, chapped lips, then tried to set the ball in Bernie’s lap. He shifted on the bench. The child looked at him, startled. Bernie looked back at its face – it was a little girl, he determined – unblemished, flushed, warmer than the pale, indoor faces of the people he witnessed every day, warmer than his. He looked at her eyes: clear, morning-blue eyes, dancing on her dimples, shimmering, asking: please?
Where are her parents? Bernie looked toward the hill, up it, for relief. He thought of Emily.
It had been near their anniversary, their fifth. On a bench like this one. They’d been sitting for a long while in silence, Emily seeming far off, when he’d floated an idea they’d not spoken of since the first year of their marriage.
“Emily. What about a family?”
She’d looked at him blank and a little stern at first, then softened. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.” She took his hand in hers.
“Em. Why? I thought. We’d planned.”
“I don’t want to get into this now, ok? It’s a nice day.”
He’d looked at her pleadingly, not wanting to plead, but needing to hear that she knew he was ok, had confidence in him, that there would be more days like this, bright and not gray. That their future could still be what they’d imagined. “Things are good now. I am good. Em?”
“Sweetheart. Right now, yes. You are good. We are. But a child. That changes everything.”
“But, Em, we talked about it.”
“No, Bernie. It’s not the time. We have each other.” She’d squeezed his hand, and he’d felt, in that moment, the fullness of her love. And also the firmness of her resolve. It had not come up again, the idea of a child, and over time it seemed unfathomable, unnatural to have even considered it. If they even really had.
The little girl pushed the ball gently, but insistently, at Bernie, giggling, leaning in. Bernie resisted at first, thought about pushing her away. He looked toward the end of the bench; the couple was gone. The little girl leaned in again, finally rolling the ball onto his lap. Bernie took the ball in his arms. It was firm and full, and its red, blue, and yellow stripes seemed, to Bernie, too bold for the day. Up the hill a kite, vivid in purple and black against a patchy sky, unfurled. A brown squirrel, tail high, bounded across the sidewalk and scurried beneath the bench. Bernie felt the corners of his mouth rise, no longer able to resist a smile. The little girl giggled again and clapped her mittened hands.
Bernie felt a hint of warmth rising on the back of his neck. He turned down the flap of his collar, lifted his chin. He took a deep breath; the winter air, sun-warmed, had softened and seemed to overflow his lungs, filling his limbs. His toes tingled. He tossed the ball into the air.
The little girl clapped again and let out a small, delighted shriek. From the corner of his eye, Bernie could see a woman striding toward the bench, her steps quick but not urgent. He tossed the ball once more, caught it, then set it at the little girl’s feet. In front of him, against the lightening gray of the sidewalk, two shadows began to take shape and stretch, awakening in the nascent sun.
Brian lives in north-central Massachusetts where, when not biking or walking its country roads and woodland trails, he consults with young entrepreneurs and writes fiction and poetry. He is currently at work, with his nephew, on a middle-grade novel.
© 2019, Brian Schulz