Rain pummeled the parking lot outside the Country Waffle House on another gray, cheerless day in Fresno. Marsha sat alone in a booth, watching rivulets trickle down the windowpane. They look like tears, she thought, and she wondered if the sky was sometimes sad and that’s why it rained. This winter had been especially rough, with more rain than California’s Central Valley could handle, but that was life, wasn’t it? Sometimes we got more than we could handle. Sometimes life was nothing but somber skies and constant rain.
She sighed before sipping her coffee—a light-brown color from the half-and-half she’d poured into it. That’s the way Walter liked his, she mused. Always with two of those little half-and-half servings that restaurants provided. For the past three months, grief had settled on her much like the winter clouds had settled on the Central Valley—thick and unrelenting at times, blocking the joy of sunshine and blue sky. Back in January, she hadn’t ventured out of the house except for essentials, had bathed occasionally, had hardly eaten. Her friend, Jillian, stopped by on one of her weekly checks. She bustled into Marsha’s home, dressed in jeans and a wrinkle-free blouse, her graying hair recently coiffed and her makeup ready for a photo shoot.
“Marsha, I know this is hard,” she said as she sat on the sofa next to her friend. “But it’s the beginning of February. You’ve got to get up, move around. Come with me to have some breakfast.”
“I hate cancer,” Marsha said. That seemed to be the most reasonable thing to respond, given her mood, given her unaccustomed solitary life.
Jillian reached out and placed a hand on Marsha’s forearm. She squeezed gently. “I know, honey. We all do. But you can’t sit here alone. At some point, you have to rejoin the human race.”
Marsha looked at her friend. “Why?” Her gaze lingered, fixed and unblinking.
“Because,” Jillian said, “that’s what we do. At some point, we pick up the pieces of our lives and we—” She stopped abruptly, biting her lip.
“Go ahead, say it,” Marsha said. “We move on.”
Jillian removed her hand and lowered her gaze.
“I didn’t wreck a car,” Marsha said. “I didn’t lose my house. Walter wasn’t a thing that I can simply replace.”
“I’m sorry.” Jillian’s words came out soft, tinged with regret. “I know it hasn’t been that long. I didn’t mean you need to start dating. Just that, well, remember you have friends. Maybe you need to make some new friends, too. You need people in your life.” She sighed, then stood and walked over to the array of photos on the mantel. She picked one up. “I remember this,” she said with a chuckle. She angled it so that Marsha could see. “It was your sixtieth birthday. That was a fun party.”
“Yes. Yes it was.” Marsha couldn’t really make out the contents of the photo from where she sat, her long-distance vision not being what it had been thirty years before, but she knew each frame by heart, could picture the memories contained within them.
Memories. A mental collage of the past.
Her mind was like that mantel—full of images, sometimes floating and coming forward, letting her know that the tick, tick, tick of her internal clock was marking time and maybe one day, she wouldn’t have any memories at all. She would become a photo in a frame for someone else to look at. Someone to talk about in the past tense.
Jillian replaced the picture and redirected her attention to Marsha. “Remember how we used to play cards on Wednesdays? Drank wine? Let’s start that club again.”
She smiled, and Marsha read on those garnet-colored lips that Jillian was trying her best to be upbeat, to cajole her out of the spiraled funk she’d been in since early December. She offered a half-smile in return.
Jillian clasped her hands. “Great. I’ll set something up for next week. I’ll see what Liz is up to and maybe Kristine. Okay?” She looked at her watch. “Well, I need to get home and start getting things ready for Paul. He flies in this evening.”
Marsha had known Paul since he was a teenager. He was Jillian’s only child, a thirty-five-year-old who lived in Seattle and worked with high tech. Her husband, Paul Senior, was due to retire soon and their son was headed in on a monthly weekend visit. Marsha had no idea what it was like to have children, to have visits like the one her friend was about to have. She didn’t even have nieces or nephews who might stop by. Her relatives were in Michigan, and she was the only one who had ever moved out of state, heading west with her then new husband.
She rose, her knees creaking slightly. “I’ll see you to the door.”
She accompanied Jillian to the foyer, and they embraced before her friend exited with a little finger wave, saying, “Cards. Next week.”
“Next week,” Marsha responded, and she gently closed the door. She leaned up against it, looked up at the ceiling, and sighed.
* * *
Sitting in the Country Waffle House, Marsha looked around. What was the average age of the clientele? She spied an elderly couple, the man with a walker next to where he sat, his hands shaking as he pierced his pancakes with a fork. They ate in silence, heads lowered as their gazes remained fixed on the food in front of them. Two tables over, a man in a plaid flannel shirt sat hunched. He must’ve been in his late seventies or early eighties, she thought, as she took in his weathered face, folded with the lines of time. His neck hung like an iguana fold, his eyes peering through reading glasses as he examined the menu. Like her, he was alone.
Booth after booth, table after table, seniors sat, sipped coffee, ate, and in some cases, chatted. Few of them smiled, many with faces as expressionless as the Formica tables they sat at, as though over the years emotion had seeped out of them. Human balloons, deflated. Is this where I’m headed? Is this where I’ll be in another ten or fifteen years? At sixty-six, she knew she was on the downside of life’s curve, that all the good years were behind her, and not many years left when she truly considered it. At the card club the week before, the gals had admonished her for such thoughts.
“Really, Marsha, you’re only in your sixties,” Liz had said. “Look at me. I married David right after I turned sixty.”
David was Liz’s second husband. She and number one had divorced when Liz turned fifty. He’d been seeing a thirty-year-old. “Just like in that movie, The First Wives Club,” Liz said when it all came down. But she had her career in real estate, kept going with her chin held high, and one day she met David, who needed an agent to sell his two-story. His wife had died the year prior, and he wanted a more bachelor friendly one-story. Two years later, they married.
“You just never know what’s going to happen,” Liz said, as she tossed a three of spades onto the discard pile.
“That’s true,” Kristine said, as she picked up the card that Liz had chucked and folded it into her hand. Kristine was the youngest of the group at age sixty-two. For three months she’d been dating a man five years her junior. Of course, she looked fabulous for her age thanks to a combination of good genes and her facial regimen of Aveda products. Most people took her for mid- to late-forties.
Marsha didn’t respond. She just looked at the array of cards in her hand, the king and queen sitting side by side, reminding her of what she didn’t have any longer. She and Walter had been married for thirty-eight years. How could she start over now? And why would she want to? Her heart had been buried along with her deceased husband. She was dry on the inside, tears all spent, nothing left. Just sorrow where her heart used to be. She wasn’t like the ladies seated at the card table with her. And she certainly didn’t look like Kristine—probably more like her mother. Her face loudly displayed her age, with pronounced crows’ feet and smile lines, and hair that was more white than gray. At least she’d kept her figure over the years.
Jillian looked at Marsha as she reached for a card. “I’m just glad you’re socializing, even if it’s just cards with the girls. I’ve been so worried about you.” She moved a card around, then placed her entire hand down while she tossed a two of hearts onto the discard pile. “Gin!”
“I hate you,” Liz said. “That’s three in a row.”
Everyone moaned in mock exasperation except Marsha. She put her hand down and then stood. “I’ll get us some snacks.”
She could feel the combined gaze of the three women follow her as she made her way to the kitchen, knew they engaged in silent chatter, leaning toward each other, mouths moving in exaggerated ways as they read each other’s’ lips. Her friends meant well, but she just wasn’t ready for the rest of the world yet. Would she ever be?
* * *
The server swung by with a coffee pot, hand on one hip. “Need a touch up, ma’am?”
Marsha nodded. “Thank you.”
As she poured, the server asked, “You’ve been here twice this week. Becoming one of our regulars?”
Marsha reflected on the elderly clientele that surrounded her. Her gaze settled on Mr. Iguana Neck as he slowly stirred his coffee with a spoon. He smacked his lips several times before raising the cup and sipping. “No.” She smiled slightly, returning her attention to the server. “I mean, I do like this place. You serve a good breakfast.”
“Our customers seem to like it. I’ve been waiting on some of these people for years.” The server eyed Marsha. “You’re always welcome here. Maybe make some friends.” She removed her hand from her hip and lightly patted Marsha on the shoulder before heading off to another table.
Marsha sat there, the rain still streaking down the outside of the window. It was mid-March and another atmospheric river had pushed in from the Pacific to inundate the entire middle part of the state. Sometimes it felt like the heavens were angry with this part of the country—a constant deluge, ark building weather. Her gaze traced a drop as it crawled down the glass in an irregular line, eventually disappearing below the pane’s frame. She imagined it mingling with others, becoming something bigger than itself, gripped by gravity and swept off to gutters and sewers to get recycled. She looked at her coffee and mused about the origin of the water used to brew what was in her cup. Were you rain once? Yes, I could be drinking rain. Or maybe someone else’s tears.
She shook off the thoughts. It was not like her to be so philosophical, so pondering of the interconnectedness of life, the universe. She’d taught second graders before retirement—a population concerned with basic math along with reading and writing about fairy tales and folk stories, and recess, of course. Her decades with Walter had been filled with largely mundane conversations about careers, what to eat for dinner, ideal vacation spots, what relatives to visit during the holidays and who would be upset if they didn’t get a visit. And of course, local and national news. It wasn’t until the last months of his life that their talks drifted to non-worldly things, especially from him.
“Life really is short, isn’t it?” he’d once said from his hospital bed.
“Yes. But we fill it with what we can.” She brushed away a tear.
“And you have filled mine marvelously.” He smiled. “I wonder how big the universe really is. Think about it. All those stars. Those galaxies. How far does it really reach? Do you think we ever find out?”
“I don’t know. We’re part of the universe now, aren’t we?” She reached for his hand and encircled hers around it. It was smaller than she’d remembered, a reminder of the weight he’d lost, how his body was surrendering.
He nodded. “It’s too bad we can’t come back and tell our loved ones what we learn after we’re gone.” He paused. “Maybe we communicate through someone else. Maybe I’ll reach out to you through another person. Maybe I can reconnect somehow.”
“Well, maybe you will,” she said. She leaned in and kissed him.
Her thoughts were interrupted when a male voice called to her.
“Ma’am. Are you okay?”
She looked up. A man about her age stood by her table, his brow slightly furrowed, his bluish gray eyes studying her. She offered a befuddled look in response, blinking several times and shaking her head. “Sorry. I was daydreaming.”
“Are you sure?”
She took a moment to review his expression. How is it that some people radiate kindness with their faces? she thought. They don’t say anything or do anything. You can just see it. You want to trust them, talk to them. And his eyes. His eyes reminded her of Walter’s. Then she remembered where she was—an eatery that catered to the elderly, the forgotten, the lonely.
“I’m fine, really,” she finally said.
He tilted his head slightly. “Okay. By the way, my name is Harold. But people call me Harry.” He extended his hand. She grasped it gently.
“It’s nice to meet you, Marsha.”
He released her hand. “Well, I should let you be. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“Oh, that’s okay. I appreciate your concern.”
He smiled. “Have a great rest of the day.” He turned and headed off to a booth where a male friend waited for him. He settled in, offered her a slight nod, and then directed his attention to his companion.
The server breezed by with coffee pot in hand. “Another warmup?”
Marsha covered the cup with her hand. “Oh, no. Thank you. I’ve had too much caffeine already. Just the check when you get a chance.”
“I see you met Harry.” The server pulled one side of her lip up into a sly smile.
Marsha blushed. “I did. He seems nice.”
“Comes in once a week, always the same time. Lost his wife about a year ago. Cancer, I think.” She pulled Marsha’s check out of her pocket and placed it on the table, and then bustled off after offering a “thank you for coming in.”
Marsha reflected on how many people must have watched their spouses wither away, how many had endured the pain along with them, suffered from being at their side during the final breath. All these people shared something horrible, most not knowing each other, trudging down a lonely path. Of course, there were support groups. She’d never joined one, retreating instead to her house, her memories, her past. The framed photos on her mantel.
She cast a quick glance at Harry, who was engaged in an animated conversation with his friend. She shook her head, rose, and then made her way to the cashier, passing Harry’s booth on the way. On an impulse, she stopped.
“It really was nice to meet you,” she said.
“The pleasure was all mine.” He grinned. “Oh, by the way. This is my friend, Carlos.”
“Nice to meet you,” she said.
Carlos nodded in return. “And it’s nice to meet you.”
She cleared her throat, said one last goodbye, and left the two men. After paying, she headed out the door, not realizing the rain had stopped. She looked up at the grim sky, the clouds low and thick. Just a bit to the west, there was a small break in the cover, and rays of sunshine poured down in that one spot. She studied the scene, reminded of religious paintings depicting heaven shining down. It occurred to her how far away the sun was and how just at that moment the clouds had parted and let a bit of warmth and happiness through. Then she wondered just how big the universe really was and marveled at the fact that she stood in this one place, at this one time, a tiny dot on a lonely planet, part of that expansive universe, that Walter had been here and had left, and maybe he had discovered just how big it all was. Yet, she should focus on the here and now—and it occurred to her that, in this life, connection with others was the engine of humanity.
She turned to glance at the restaurant she’d just exited, thought about Harry once more. Jillian had been right. She needed friends, old and new. It was a good thing she was venturing out now, even if to the Country Waffle House. Just then, her phone chirped. She reached into her purse. The caller ID displayed Jillian’s name.
“Where ya at, girl?” her friend asked.
“Leaving the Waffle House.”
“Up for some shopping this afternoon?”
She looked over at the beams of sunlight streaming down. “Sure. When?”
“Sounds good.” She paused. “I made a new friend today.”
“Yep. I’ll tell you all about it later.”
She clicked off, smiled, then hurried to her car, sidestepping a puddle that she imagined would be a cup of coffee someday.
Bill VanPatten is an award-winning author of four novels and three collections of short stories. As an #ownvoices writer, gay and Latino characters tend to populate his stories. He left a successful career in academia to return to his native California and write full time. On occasion, he still performs standup comedy. He is currently working on his fifth novel as well as additional short stories. You can find out more at www.billvanpatten.net.