He was old, now, and his children only visited a few times a year. There was no blame to be placed on the sparsity of the visits. After all, phones and roads go both directions. He couldn’t move as he used to, and his children were grown and busy in the ways adults get busy. He knew because he lived it and turned the page into old age. He liked the quiet countryside. The large green fields and trees. Clean air and less distraction created a better connection to the earth. Or an easier disconnection from bright screens and advertisements screaming for attention. Don’t even mention the salesmen.
If he ever felt the inkling of loneliness, he would walk into the modest library of four large book cases neatly arranged on the north wall opposite a row of windows to the south that let light in but never allowed the sun itself to peek inside. He would pick up a book. Sometimes he would turn to a random page and start reading. Sometimes it would be a random book. Other times he’d peruse the shelves for nearly a half hour before choosing. Today he chose a collection by Philip K. Dick and opened to “Foster, You’re Dead.” He’d read it before as he’d read nearly every book in all four cases. Only a handful remained on the ‘to be read’ list.
When he turned to the second page, the words began to evaporate into memory. He was no longer reading about young Foster desperately trying to get out of class. He was watching his pregnant wife gently running her fingers across the thin sundress covering their nearly ripe firstborn. The little tyke would arrive any day. She laid on the couch opposite him in their small apartment on Grand. He had looked up from the book, the words unrecognizable, and let go of everything but his eyes and the soft smile creating the first of many wrinkles. She was beautiful. She hadn’t noticed him yet, but she would soon, he knew, but he was lost in his own happiness as he watched her, lost in thought, as her fingers smoothed the dress around her large stomach. He wondered what she was thinking just before she looked up and locked eyes. He sat there and smiled until she smiled too, then he returned to his book and returned to old age standing in the library as the clock chimed the noon hour.
He went to the kitchen and scooped some leftover chicken salad onto toasted bread, added a tomato and some lettuce, and grabbed a pale ale from the fridge. He ate out back on the deck and let the sun warm him as he swung back and forth on the porch swing. He took large bites despite having nowhere to go. He’d always eaten quickly. He took the plate inside and grabbed another book and went back to the swing and the beer. The air was mild and the swinging gave his body something to do while his mind went to work.
He’d picked up a Ray Bradbury novel and had already forgotten the name as he disappeared again. This time to an Emergency Room in the city. His wife was back home with all the boys and he was there because his daughter had developed a worrying cough. She sat on his lap as they waited, surrounded other sick children. He placed his heavy winter coat around her like a shield to fend off all other germs. The air was thick and he was certain he would catch something himself, but he was there for his daughter. He could feel her own germs contained inside his coat. She coughed cough into his sweater. He hid his face in their little bubble. He’d rather breathe her air even as she wiped her runny nose onto his sleeve. They waited nearly an hour when they were called. He’d retreated back to the waiting room by then and when he opened his coat, he found her asleep curled up against him. It nearly broke his heart to wake her, but he carried her behind the door to get the news anyway.
The sun came out behind a cloud and the page grew brighter than a December moon. He had stopped swinging. A tear rolled down his face and he felt the water kiss the wind. A chill ran through him despite the sun’s warmth. He closed the book. The Illustrated Man. He went inside and shuffled around meaninglessly before turning on the TV for a while and dozing off to a movie he’d seen a dozen times. It was dark out when he woke so he turned on almost every light in the house and browsed his shelves again. He promised himself a trip to the bookstore yet again. He could spend an entire day looking at all the new and reprinted books. Maybe something would pique his interest. He was thinking just that when he came across a well-worn hardcover devoid of title though his fingers knew it well. He opened it and read a few pages before the words began to fade and move across the page until he was once again watching his wife and kids and grand-kids sitting around the room after Christmas dinner enjoying new toys and conversations and each other. He sat in his chair with a book on his lap and knew, really knew, that this was where he needed to be. Here, where he was still able to be husband and father and grandfather. Where he belonged.
He lingered, and then he turned the page.