An Empty Vase

By David Alan Owens

“Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now.”

                                             Crosby, Stills, and Nash

 

Jenny laid the dishcloth onto the kitchen counter and turned to face Bill. “What? You want to do what?”

“It’s more than an idea. I thought I should run it by you. I wonder if will be able to continue. Health problems are my biggest concern.” He shook his head. “I can’t afford pride at my age.”

“I should say not. You gasp for breath when you walk to the mailbox. Honey, we’re old and should enjoy our time. God knows we could use the money though. How much do you think you’ll be able to bring home?” She ran her fingers through long white hair and leaned into the edge of the counter. The wrinkles on her face fell into a frown.

“I don’t know, but if I don’t try, we’ll never know. A few dollars will help. Let’s settle this. I’ll go tomorrow and see what happens. When I went for a walk yesterday I found the perfect place, and it’s not far from here.” Bill limped away.

Jenny followed him into the front room and found him slumped into the armchair — his favorite seat for thirty years. She eased onto the flowery print sofa, and leaned across the armrest. Her southern drawl floated like a wisp in the quiet room. “Don’t do this to me Bill. We always talk things over.”

He grabbed the television remote, but his hand caught the edge of the small table where an empty crystal vase sat. Years before it held fresh flowers every day. Some came from Jenny’s garden, but sometimes Bill bought them from a florist shop. The vase fell onto its side and rolled around for a moment as if it were about to fall onto the floor. “Oh!” Jenny saved the vase with fragile hands. With great care she set it upright.

Bill clicked the remote.

“Give me that remote. Turn that thing off now!”

He rubbed his thin mustache and pretended to concentrate on the broadcast. He knew she would come around to his point-of-view if he waited.

Despite Jenny’s misgivings, Bill got up the next morning, made a cup of instant coffee, and plopped down in front of the television to watch the news. Jenny moved a bit slower. She fumbled with the waist cord on her frayed pink housecoat when she came from the bathroom.

“Morning,” she yawned.

Bill turned from the news show, “Mornin’ dear. Give me a kiss darling.”

Displeased with his plans, she ignored the request. “Are you still going through with this? I can’t understand why you won’t discuss it.”

“You know when I’ve made up my mind I finish the job. It’s not some hare-brained scheme, but a necessity, and it’s the only option available. We’ve reached a point where our choices are limited.”

Jenny conceded. “Well, go ahead and try. I’ll think about other ideas while you’re out.”

He grinned and set the empty cup on the table. “Don’t worry about me. I will be fine. The doctors did say exercise might help improve my limp, so think about my walk as therapy.”

“Try to be safe.” She kissed him on the lips. “This isn’t the best neighborhood, what with all the gangs and drug users everywhere.”

“They never bother old people. I guess they know we don’t have much.”

She wagged her index finger, pretended to scold him, and laughed. “Try to come home in one piece.”

Bill gathered his bag and a small canvas camp seat leftover from the days when he and his son Michael camped and fished. Those days were gone. Michael died from his wounds in Iraq, and his wife Lisa remarried and moved to Maine. He called over his shoulder from the door, “I may be late coming home tonight dear.” He stopped. “No goodbye kiss?”

Jenny shrugged, but did not answer.

Bill gimped his way across the balcony, and down the stairs into the parking area.

Through a slit in the cheap venetian blinds Jenny watched until he vanished around the corner of the building. A single tear rolled down her face.

The sun sank low and the sky began to gray. From the apartment window on the second floor of the old converted motel, Jenny kept vigil. She worried for Bill’s safety, but worry was not the answer. Years of worry were not the cause of their predicament. Years of worry could not solve their problems. Years of worry brought only more worry. She was tired, but throughout medical and health problems, Jenny stayed strong, and resolved not to let fearful emotions ruin her mood, but after dark the streets changed. Gangs coveted the darkness and slithered onto the street corners to rule their domain. Drug dealers hovered like vultures in dark doorways and in the wet entrances to alleyways.

A sound. A key rattled in the door lock.

With a big grin Bill opened the door. “Twenty-one dollars and thirty-seven cents. Not a bad haul for the day, huh?”

“Don’t you ever come in late again Bill.” She rushed to throw her arms around him. After a long kiss she said, “You frightened me.”

“Wow, Jenny! You’re making me feel like a young man again.” He collapsed into his armchair and exhaled.

“Here, let me help you take those shoes off. Your feet must be sore with all the walking.” She knelt and untied his shoes. A few moments later, she pulled them from his feet, and placed them beside his chair.

“Feet aren’t sore, but my right leg hurts. Maybe you can rub some liniment on it later. What’s for supper?”

“Got some bread and peanut butter in the cabinet, but we’re out of groceries. I’ll go to the market tomorrow and buy enough to last a few days. Oh, the electric bill is past due again.” She presented him with a sheet of paper. “Power will be cut off Friday if we’re not paid up, and the reconnection fee will be an additional twenty dollars.”

Bill took the paper, and sighed. “Let’s see how much I can bring home tomorrow. If I can earn as much as I did today, and add that to what’s in the bank, we should be all right. Let’s eat. That cup of coffee I drank this morning didn’t stay with me long, and I’m starved.”

The couple’s current circumstances did not reflect how Bill prepared for their senior years. Once, they owned a home, the bank account held money, and Bill’s retirement fund promised safety, but after a long illnesses and multiple surgeries for both of them, their wealth evaporated. The hospital’s collection agency relentlessly pursued overdue payments.

Through a mouthful of sandwich he said, “If we’re able to pay the electricity on time, we’ll go out and enjoy a proper dinner.”

“How can we afford to eat out?”

“We’ve not been to dinner in months. I’m not talking about anything fancy.”

“If we don’t spend too much.” Jenny agreed. “It’s two weeks until we get our pension checks.”

“We’ll be fine, Jenny. I promise.”

Wednesday came.

“I am going to the food bank with Barbara today.”

“Who”

“You know her. Ms. Jones, Barbara, the lady who stays in room two-fifty asked me if I would go with her. She’s doesn’t want to go alone.”

“Smart ladies. You two mind the surroundings. Avoid Melton Street. It’s really bad down there from what I’ve heard. Joe said two days ago one of the folks on the third floor got robbed over there.”

“I want to take the bus. A few dollars will be enough to help Ms. Jones. She doesn’t get around well. We’ll be safer than if we walked.”

“Good idea, sweetheart,” Bill said. He slurped down the last of his coffee, stood, reached into his pocket, and put a few dollars into Jenny’s hand. “I’m gone. Come give me a kiss.”

A sharp rap on the door interrupted their embrace. Bill opened it, and a large black lady appeared. Her broad smile revealed a gap between her front teeth.

“Hi Jenny, we better start if we want to beat the crowds.”

“Let me grab my jacket. We will treat ourselves today.”

“Really? A treat? Hallelujah! Nobody’s given me a treat in a long time.”

“We’re riding the bus.”

“My poor feet wondered if they could make it all the way to the food bank.”

Jenny glanced at Barbara’s feet and pointed a finger. “They’re smiling already.” Both women laughed.

“It’s gonna be a fine day,” Barbara said.

Bill gathered his camp seat, locked the door, and escorted the women to the bus stop across the street.

On the bus, the women’s conversation turned to how their lives changed.

“My third husband left me for a hooker,” Barbara commented.

“Married three times?”

“Yes, and four boyfriends, too.  When I was a young woman, I stayed busy. Not one of those boys were worth a damn, but I loved the good times.”

“Bill and I married nearly fifty years ago. Our son died in Iraq.”

“My first husband lost his left leg in Viet Nam, came home, and stayed drunk.”

“Where did our lives go Barb?”

“They went where they wanted to go, but havin’ one loving husband is worth more than all of the money in the world — well, almost.” Another grin spread across her face.

“I hope there’s food at the bank,” Jenny said. “We’re down to nothing. Bill went out begging yesterday, but I doubt we will be able to pay the light bill on time.”

“Begging? I should think that handsome gentleman of yours wouldn’t stoop to that.”

“His pride won’t keep him from it. He’s in provider mode.”

Barbara changed the subject. “There’ll be plenty of food. Don’t worry. One of my friends, Sandy, works down there. That asshole in the hotel office loosened up last night and let me use his telephone to call her. She said she’d save some for us both.”

“I am grateful.”

“Lord, honey, I’ve been doing without for so long, I don’t even miss nothing anymore.” She laughed again.

Jenny could not believe the humor in Barbara’s life. Her honey-smooth contralto voice could wipe away all of the sadness in the world. “Please come over tonight and I will find a way to buy a bottle of wine.”

“Don’t worry about that either. I got a gentleman friend who comes by sometimes with a bottle of the stuff. I prefer whiskey, so I trade the wine for other things on the street. I got three bottles of it hidden in the cabinet behind the door. I’ll bring the wine and you don’t worry, ok?”

Bill brought home another fifteen dollars and a small bouquet of six roses. Jenny put them into the crystal vase Bill knocked over the day before. An anniversary gift, Jenny prized the vase as much as any possession she ever owned, but its emptiness acted as a magnifying glass to amplify their poverty.

“They are beautiful, Bill, but how can we afford roses?”

“They bring joy to this old room.”

“Barbara said she would bring a bottle of wine tonight. We’ll pretend it’s a party. Come take a peek in the pantry. We’ve got cheese, bread, canned meat, and vegetables.” She grinned with pride at the bounty of food she brought home. “We can hold off on buying groceries and pay the electric bill, I think.”

Bill’s eyes brightened.

“You going out again tomorrow?”

“I may go later in the morning, and I’ll stop to pay the bill before I go down to a new street corner.  A change of locations might be better.”

Jenny heard a knock and opened the door. Barbara danced into the room with her indomitable smile.

“Hi Jenny. Hey, Bill. Guess what I brought? A bottle of Merlot and some fruit.”

“Where did you find the fruit?” Jenny asked.

“A friend of mine swapped these apples and cherries for another bottle of wine, but I got to locate the gentleman who brings the whiskey. My supply is shrinking.”

“We’re grateful for this one Barb.”

“What about you Bill? What did you bring to this party?”

“You don’t see the roses?”

Barbara went over to the table and bent to enjoy the fragrance. “My second husband once brought me roses, but it was just another attempt to sweet talk me into givin’ him more money to gamble with. He was always sweet talkin’ me out of my money. Your roses are beautiful. They remind me of my mother, she always said she wanted flowers while she lived because she couldn’t enjoy them from her coffin. My brothers and sister used to go out into the woods and gather wildflowers for her. They might have been high priced roses for all Momma cared.”

As the women talked, Bill’s thoughts drifted to the time when he provided for all their needs — to his home, and as his thoughts raced with memories, reality raised its ugly head. Comforts vanished along with their bank account. When they filed for bankruptcy they lost their house, and their lives cascaded into a nightmare from which he knew he would not awaken. The money situation plagued every waking thought, no matter how hard he tried to ignore it.

“Bill,” Jenny’s voice shattered his thoughts. “Do you want a glass of this wine?”

“Sure,” he raised his head. “Barbara, please forgive me. I sometimes lose track of what’s happening.”

“I know what you mean. I once stood waitin’ for the bus, but the damned thing stopped, and pulled away before I realized it was my bus. Waited for another half hour for the next one.”

Barbara poured the wine.

Next morning, before Bill went to pay the light bill, and to find a new spot where he could hold up the small cardboard placard he carried, he rested in his chair absorbed in thought.

To Jenny he appeared as if he were a million miles away from the apartment. As a young man his talent for making everything fall into place demonstrated his character. Jenny wanted for nothing in those days.

He left the small apartment, and at the bottom of the steps, he waved to old Narce, the man who cleaned up the debris left by the dealers and addicts. Narce took care to remove stray needles and put any leftover dope paraphernalia into the trash. Sometimes the man swept the parking area with his old worn out broom. Narce moved with a kind of sureness and dedication.

Bill’s found his guilt impossible to contain. Shame dominated his mood. Jenny saw right through the façade, but after fifty years she knew what Bill planned to do before he did.

Late afternoon Jenny ventured to apartment two-fifty, and knocked lightly on the door.

Barbara opened the door. “I knew it was you,” she said. “All the other folks around here bang on the door like they want to knock it down. Come on in Jenny. What brings you here?”

“I got lonely and wanted company. I guessed you might not be busy.”

“Let me check my schedule.” She laughed one of her good time laughs and glanced at her nonexistent wristwatch.

“You don’t own a television!”

“Nope, but I do love radio. I’ve been listenin’ to the radio all of my life. The music has changed. This new stuff is not the same as the old blues and jazz I grew up with down in Louisiana. Sometimes I turn the thing off and read.”

“I read sometimes, when I’m not watching the soaps on television.”

“Ah! Soaps. Those stories where a someone gets brain cancer, and while they’re in the hospital recovering, their husband runs off with the secretary?”

“Yes, the shows do help pass the time, especially when Bill’s not home. He tunes to the news stations.”

“Sounds like my second husband. He enjoyed sports. To tell you the truth, I once loved sports nearly as much as he did. After he left me and took his TV, I went back to the radio.”

“Thank you for yesterday. The cupboard held nothing but peanut butter and a loaf of stale bread.

“You’re welcome Jenny. I enjoyed the day and my feet love you too.”

“I didn’t come to stay long. Bill should be home soon and I must prepare something for him to eat. He goes out all day with nothing but a cup of coffee in his stomach. I told him he might develop ulcers, but he won’t listen.”

Jenny stepped to Barbara’s open window and withdrew with a gasp.

A police squad car stopped in the parking lot. Two officers got out and opened the rear door. Jenny sucked in her breath and moaned when Bill climbed from vehicle. His head wore a bandage. The taller of the two officers helped him climb the stairs.

Jenny rushed from the apartment and Barbara stuck her head around the corner of the open door to get a better view. Jenny held her breath when Bill limped onto the second floor landing.

“Try to stay away from that neighborhood. It’s a bad place,” the policeman said.

Jenny took his arm, and with Barbara trailing along, helped her husband to the apartment.

He sagged into his chair, and for the first time since Michael’s death, tears flooded his eyes. “The police tried to take me to the hospital,” he explained, “but I told them I didn’t have any money. They radioed for a police ambulance. When it came, the medics bandaged me up and suggested I might have a concussion. I guess you should keep an eye on me tonight, darling.”

“You may not believe it,” Barbara said, “but I worked as a nurse a long time ago. Let me see your eyes, Bill.” She bent to spread his eyes open with her thick dark fingers and focused her eyes into each of his. “Nope, probably not a concussion, your eyes are dilating properly. I guess you’re lucky.”

“You call this luck?” He shouted. “They broke my eyeglasses! Now I’m half blind.”

“Bill. Calm down,” Jenny said. “What happened?”

“Got mugged on my way to pay the light bill,” he whined. “Two young men beat me up and took everything. I am surprised they didn’t take my shoes.”

“So you didn’t pay the bills?”

He shook his head. “I had another sixteen dollars or so but those thugs found it hidden in my back pocket. All I come home with today is pain.” He slumped further into his chair and closed his eyes. “My head aches something awful.”

Barbara stepped outside and said, “Jenny, you come knock on my door if he takes a bad turn, understand?”

“Ok. Want something to eat Bill?”

His words came in a flurry. “How will we pay the light bill? What will we do when the power company turns off the electricity?”

“We’ll manage, Bill. Somehow we’ll manage.” Jenny’s voice purred with softness.

One of the youths who assaulted him shattered the camp chair and threw the pieces into the gutter. If he went to beg again, he would be forced to stand on his bad leg. The smothering weight of the day’s events crashed upon him, and he felt like a rickety house in a strong wind. His head fell to one side and he fell asleep.

Jenny did not wake him.

Friday came and the power company turned off the electricity.

The mail brought a letter from some attorney who claimed he filed a lawsuit for non-payment of medical debt.

“How can they sue a family whose combined assets total nothing?” Bill leaned his elbows onto the table and put his hands on the sides of his head — the perfect image of a broken man.

“Enough,” Bill said.

“Enough of what?”

“Everything — hopelessness with no way out.”

“I feel the same way, darling.”

“We sit here in the darkness, practically invisible to each other except for the light that comes through the blinds. The store lights flashing on and off from across the street are driving me crazy. It’s torture with no relief in sight.”

“I know, Bill.”

“We’ve tried, done all the right things, tried to pay our debts — where are we now? We live in a slum and can’t go outside for fear of our safety. Nobody cares. On the news show last night, they said Congress voted itself a raise, and healthcare for life, but they voted down the Social Security cost of living increase. Wouldn’t have been much of anything anyway. Doctors and hospitals charge whatever they wish and if insurance doesn’t pay enough they sue us for the difference. That’s how we got here.”

“We’re with each other despite everything.”

“I love you darling, but we’ve come to a turning point and relief doesn’t exist. Most people might call it hopeless. I don’t care for hopelessness.”

“You did everything you could. I admire you for your strength.”

“Look at me now. What do you see?”

“The man I married.”

Bill’s voice changed. “Tomorrow we’ll take the money we have, and go out for a fine meal.”

“Sounds like old times.”

“Best we can do at this point in our lives. I want a steak.”

“Shrimp sounds wonderful to me.”

The pair went to bed, and slept their first untroubled sleep in months.

The lights from the liquor store across the street flashed and flashed through the cracks in the window blinds.

*

“Rise and shine, Jenny.”

“Of all days, you’d think I might sleep late today.”

“Lot’s to be done today, darling. Sunny skies — bright and beautiful.”

“What about the peaceful beauty of closed eyes, Bill?”

“You slept in. It’s almost nine o’clock. I want to go down to the bank, eat breakfast, and visit the park over by the bay. Let’s go to the spot near the water where we used to go.”

Bill heard her get dressed, and a few minutes later she entered the kitchen.  “I could use a cup of coffee.”

Bill twisted the handle on the tap. “Water’s not very hot.” He spooned the instant coffee powder without measuring, and swirled the teaspoon.

“Fine. No sugar, no cream.”

“We’ll drink a couple of cups of good coffee when we go to breakfast,” Bill said.

“Sure.” She took a sip of the lukewarm bitter coffee, grimaced, and poured the cup into the sink.

“You’re gorgeous, Jenny.”

“My handsome man! Let me write a note to Barbara.” She found an envelope on the bookcase, took a sheet of lined paper from her notebook, and sat at the table to write. A minute later she put the envelope into her purse. “I’m ready if you are.”

Jenny put the envelope into Barbara’s mailbox at the bottom of the stairs.

After breakfast Jenny and Bill strolled along the broad avenues of Bay City and window-shopped. By half past three in the afternoon they both felt the grumble in their stomachs.

“The Blue Scallop Restaurant,” he said. “It’s only a few blocks away. Let’s do an early dinner there.”

The waiter who came to their table noted the specials, but the couple knew what they wanted. Bill ordered a medium rare sirloin and Jenny asked for the shrimp scampi. They ate in silence and savored every bite. Later, Bill asked the waiter for another split of wine.

“Special occasion?”

“Of course,” Jenny said.

In the private moments while the waiter went for the wine, Jenny asked, “Where to next?”

“Oh, let’s walk down to the park. The day is spectacular.”

Jenny smiled. How pleasant. My husband’s returned to me.

Later, the short walk to the park carried them past the docks where dozens of sailboats bobbed with their masts swinging like a field full of upside down pendulums.

“I wonder why I never learned to sail one of those things,” Bill said.

“Because I can’t swim, dear. You’d certainly never leave me ashore while you were off pirating.”

The park bench, with an unobstructed view of the bay, sat away from the other park facilities. Another flotilla of sailboats streamed along the breakwater like porpoises — first over the top of a wave crest, and then into the trough.

Bill put his arm around Jenny, they watched the boats in silence.

“I adore you Jenny.” He put his hand into his back pocket.

She felt his movement and snuggled closer, and closed her eyes. “We’ve shared so much together.”

He kissed her lips, placed the barrel of the small revolver to the back of her head, and pulled the trigger. His body jerked from the loud report of the weapon, and hot blood sprayed his face. Without opening his eyes he put the muzzle to the side of his head and pulled the trigger.

*

The sculptor wiped a spot at the top of his work with a damp rag. “Will there be anything else, Ma’am?”

“No. You’ve created a beautiful piece. Looks just like them, Randy.”

“May I walk you to your car?”

“Thank you Randy, but I’m gonna stay here with my friends for while.”

Barbara took a seat on the bronze park bench beside the two statues and put her arm around the woman’s figure. She spoke in a quiet voice. “That lottery ticket you put into my mailbox, Jenny, won the big prize. I would give all that money away to have you both with me now. I don’t know what brought you to this place, what caused you two to venture away from life. Sadness, I guess, was one reason, loss of faith another. I wept when I learned the news. I couldn’t help it. I saw two sweet people caught in the gap between the world and their lives. No matter how you measure it, it doesn’t seem right. Society has its ills, ain’t no cure for that, but memories.” Her voice faded. “Randy finished his statue of me last week, and when I pass, he’ll put me here – right beside you.

About the Author: 

David Alan Owens is an internationally published writer who prefers to write science fiction and horror, but sometimes a different story asks to be written. His work has appeared in anthologies and periodicals. Alien Dimensions, High Strange Horror, The Tennessee Outdoorsman. His poetry has appeared in Ariel Chart Literary Magazine and other publications. He resides in Murfreesboro Tennessee with his wife, Ann and their Boston Terrier named Mayla.

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