“How long did he lay there before they found him?”
Wynn surveyed the shelves on aisle three and listened to the excited chatter at the front of the store. He found the potted meat and scooped three cans into his basket.
“About a week,” one of them said.
“Guess it was the smell that gave him away?”
“I imagine so. That poor man started wasting away three years ago, though. Don’t have to be dead to decompose.”
Wynn opened the cooler and pulled out three frozen pizzas and a bag of chicken fingers. He liked shopping here. Nothing ever changed. All the signs were antique, but not by design. They’d just never been replaced. He walked to the front and sat his basket on the counter.
“Morning, Mr. Bishop,” said the younger of the two men, each with freckles and curly red hair.
Wynn nodded. “Tommy.”
“You hear about Mr. Cobb?”
“Only just now,” Wynn said. “Who was supposed to be looking after him?”
“Nobody,” the elder Tom added. He was stocking the cigarette bin above the counter. “Rafe Cobb was the loneliest man I ever knew. Least since Myra passed.”
“Seems like he was here every time I came by,” Wynn recalled.
“That’s right,” said Tom Jr. He punched a few keys, causing the cash register to ding. “Sat right out there on that bench, whittling. Didn’t he, Daddy?”
Tom Sr. stopped to think. “I noticed he hadn’t been around in a couple of weeks. I took him some groceries on Tuesday, I believe.” He resumed stocking. “He was still living then. That is, if you call ‘living’ sitting in a recliner, drinking cheap beer, and watching ‘Family Feud.’”
Wynn payed and picked up his bag. If he didn’t start eating better, he’d go the way of Rafe Cobb soon enough. “Steve Harvey?”
“No,” said Tom. “Worse. Richard Dawson. Nothing but reruns.”
Wynn grimaced. What a horrible death.
“Oh, Mr. Bishop. Thanks again for helping me with that mower. She’s still running like a champ.”
“Glad to do it, Tommy.”
“What are you working on these days, Wynn?” asked Tom Sr. “Any big projects?”
“Oh, I’m up to my eyeballs in projects,” said Wynn. “Just one thing after another.” It was easier to lie.
“Well, ‘hey’ to Annie for us.”
Wynn walked out the door to no place in particular. Before he left, he turned to look at the empty bench in front of the store.
That night, Wynn met his old friend Sam at their usual haunt. The music was a little loud, but at least no one threw peanuts on the floor anymore. That used to drive Wynn crazy.
“You’ve gained weight,” Sam said by way of greeting.
“Yep. More back there for you to kiss,” Wynn replied. At their age, this passed for male bonding. “You still farting around down at the VA?”
“Three days every week,” Sam said. “I help the geriatric codgers find the right hallway. Man, that place could use a coat of paint.”
“Why don’t you do it?” Wynn asked.
“Nah. I can’t even hold a brush anymore without taking four Tylenol. Still, I hate to see it. There’s life left in that old building. Just needs a little help. You know?”
“Hey, how’s Annie?”
Wynn took a sip of his diet soda and stifled a belch. “She’s good.”
Sam always drank water, which he ignored for the time being. “She still in Bristol?”
“Yeah. Wants me to come join her.”
“So, go. I know you’re not staying here for me. That‘s way too depressing.” Sam motioned for the waitress.
“Nah. She’s got her job. It keeps her real busy. And she’s met this guy.”
“Oh.” Sam nodded in understanding.
A waitress arrived to take their order. When she left, Wynn leaned in closer.
“Sam, can I ask you something?”
Sam held up his hands. “It’s not a toupee. My whole family has naturally thick hair. And heart disease. It’s a trade-off.”
“I’m serious.” Wynn looked around, as if anyone could hear his words over whatever was blaring through the speakers. “Do you still miss them? Your family, I mean?”
Sam leaned back in his booth and looked at Wynn. “Let’s say that big blue genie from the Disney movie popped out of that salt shaker right there. And let’s suppose he says, ‘Hey, pal. You got three wishes. What’ll it be?’ I’d use the first to ask for my family back. Then I’d tell that fella exactly where he could shove those other two wishes. Thirty years making up for mistakes, and that’s the one thing I never could get back. What’s this about?”
The waitress arrived with their order. On a television behind Sam played a rerun of Family Feud.
“Rafe Cobb died.”
“I heard.” Sam dipped a fry into his ranch sauce. He chewed in silence for a minute. “How long has it been? Since Bev.”
“That’s a long time, Wynn.”
“Four months. Three days.”
“Listen.” Sam swallowed. “Every night I go to bed and wish I had a drink. Sometimes I lay there two, maybe three hours. I stare at the ceiling and worry it will never end. Then, it does. The sun comes up, and I know I made it another day. I’m alone, but I’m alive.”
Wynn finished the last of his Diet Coke.
“Go to Bristol, Wynn. There’s too much life left in you to go peeling away at the edges.”
The little blue light was blinking when Wynn got home. Annie had called it a speaker when she gave it to him last Christmas. It was great, she had promised. All he had to do was say it’s name and, like magic, it would tell him the time or even the weather, as if he didn’t own a watch or a window. He could play whatever music he wanted. And, best of all, she could leave him messages on it, like an answering machine.
He tried to remember what to say.
“Alice, play messages.” Nothing.
“Andrea, play messages.” Nothing.
He checked his watch. Too late to call. His daughter would already be in bed, and he didn’t want to risk hearing anyone else’s voice on the other end. He would call her tomorrow while she was at work, on an actual telephone. Thankfully, he still owned one of those too.
He grabbed a beer from the fridge and walked to the barn. After turning on the light, he climbed the ladder to the loft. The swing hung in front of the loft opening, a gift he’d installed one Mother’s Day long ago. With the loft doors open, he and Bev had sat together from their perch and watched the stars.
“They look so close together,” she had said on that cool spring night. “But they’re all so far away from each other. Millions of miles away.”
“That sounds lonely,” he said and wrapped his arm around her.
“Wynn, look!” she shouted. A white line streaked across the sky. “A falling star. Quick, make a wish.”
“I don’t need to. I already have everything I want in the world.”
She scooted closer to him and laid her head on his shoulder. “Well, then. Better put it in your pocket.” They both laughed, remembering the old song they danced to as teenagers.
“Wynn,” she had said. “Do you think that’s why they fall? Because they’re lonely?”
Now, sitting by himself on the swing, Wynn knew she was right.
Eventually, he climbed back down to reality and prepared to face the long night ahead. As he walked back into the house, he noticed the sign on the bookshelf, the one Annie made.
“Remember to say, ‘Alexa.’”
Wynn smiled and had an idea. “Alexa, play Perry Como.”
Just like magic, the old song from his memory filled the room. He laid down on his side of the bed. He stared at the ceiling, the same ceiling he’d stared at for over fifty years. On it played the scenes of his life. It was a good life, a past life.
With tears rolling down the sides of his face, he touched his shirt pocket, the one over his heart.
“Alexa, give me my family back.”
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