The Loneliness of Goodbye
Daylight was seeping round the edge of the curtains that Ellie had made so many years ago. Charlie groaned and turned on his side. He didn’t want to get up, but his back was hurting, and he could hear Lynn moving around. So, he got out of bed and peeked around the bedroom door. Sure enough, Lynn was in the bathroom, taking a shower by the sound of it.
“Dammit,” he said as he backed towards the bed and put on his pants and yesterday’s shirt. He went quietly down the stairs to use the other bathroom. About halfway down he wondered why he was treading softly because Lynn was awake. When he’d finished at the toilet, he was about to flush it when he remembered Lynn was in the shower. “Dammit,” he said. He would have to wait until she had finished. And that could take forever, he thought.
Charlie went to start the coffee but caught himself just in time before he ran the water to fill the coffee maker. He then decided to go back upstairs but about a third of the way up he heard the rattle of old pipes which signaled the shower being turned off.
Another, “Dammit,” came out as he went back down the stairs, flushed the toilet and then went into the kitchen to finish making the coffee. Charlie was quite exhausted by all this early morning activity, so he sat down at the kitchen table until he heard Lynn walk across from the bathroom to her bedroom. He had his foot on the first step of the stairs when he heard her go back to the bathroom. This happened two more times before Charlie could safely go back upstairs.
When he came back downstairs again thirty minutes later in his Sunday church clothes, freshly shaved and his hair slicked back, Lynn said, “You didn’t have to dress up for me.” She was trying to be light-hearted, but Charlie just grunted as he walked past her and got himself some coffee.
“Oh, please don’t be grumpy, Charlie,” pleaded Lynn.” I don’t think I could handle too much sadness. I want this to be a happy goodbye. Like an, I’ll-see-you-again-soon, goodbye.”
Charlie was quiet for a while then started with, “If I …” then he lost his train of thought and smiled as best he could. They both sat down at the kitchen table, and Lynn asked if Charlie had an email address and was surprised when he said he did. They swapped addresses, she got Charlie’s land-line number and gave him her address plus various phone numbers which she had thoughtfully written out for him.
“Promise me you’ll call,” entreated Lynn.
Charlie nodded, “Yes.”
Lynn then reached under the table and brought up the old photograph album saying, “I’ve taken a picture of my grandmother, one where I think she looks like my mother, but will you keep this for me, please?” And she pushed the album over to Charlie. “That way I’ll know it will be safe and I can come and look at it any time I want to. We can share it.”
Charlie nodded and put his hands on top of the old album. Lynn reached across the table and took hold of one of his hands. “I didn’t know what I was looking for when I came here but I know I’m leaving with far more than I came with. You were right, Uncle Charlie, there was a reason.” She squeezed his hand and said, “I can’t tell you how much this has meant to me.” And the tears began to flow.
Charlie tried to swallow the lump in his throat and said, “Me too, me too,” as he took off his glasses to wipe his eyes.
They both stood up and Lynn threw her arms around Charlie who screwed his eyes shut to stop from crying so he could whisper in her ear, “Thank you, Lynn. You’re always welcome here. Be careful and drive safe.”
Lynn pulled away, looked him in the eyes for a moment or two and said, “I love you Uncle Charlie,” then abruptly turned and walked out the door. She stopped for a moment at the foot of the steps to admire their handiwork, then looked up at Charlie and said, “Dammit Charlie, you’d better get these boards painted soon.”
After making a big fuss over Wilbur who knew something was going on and was moping about, Lynn got in her car and drove away.
Wilbur and Charlie watched the car disappear down the road. There was a silence in the air, Charlie could almost feel the weight of it, even the birds had stopped singing as if a storm were about to break. As he watched the dust settle back down on the rough dirt road, Charlie felt an ache grow in his chest as the cold, empty loneliness of goodbye seeped into his bones. He shivered as a chill ran down his spine then abruptly set about feeding Wilbur who had been neglected because of all the last-minute farewells, then he got his truck keys and drove off for church.
Wilbur was waiting patiently in his usual spot when Charlie pulled onto the dirt road, returning after church. It made him smile but when he pulled up to the house, the yard seemed empty, there was a big hole where Lynn’s car had been. He sat staring at the empty space while his truck sputtered and shook as the engine took its own sweet time to shut down. It’s funny, he thought, how things can change, almost in an instant. One minute it’s crowded. The next minute it’s deserted. He shook his head to wipe away the dreary thoughts, got out of the truck and gave Wilbur his customary greeting.
Charlie went in and changed out of his church clothes and grabbing a couple of treats for Wilbur from the kitchen, he came back outside to sit on the steps, rubbing his friend behind the ears. “Here we are again, boy, just the two of us.” He went back inside but the house felt empty, as if someone had unexpectedly removed a large piece of furniture. Charlie felt unsettled, like he couldn’t quite get his bearings as he stood vacantly staring into the fridge wondering what to have for dinner. Shutting the fridge door, he decided he wasn’t hungry, went outside, and calling for Wilbur, set out to walk down to the river.
As if to spite Charlie’s gloomy mood, the weather was as close to perfect as it could get. The air was crisp and fresh, the sun was shining with a few puffy white clouds floating in the sky. The birds were merrily chattering, calling to each other as they swooped between the trees. He thought of Ellie and how much she had enjoyed watching the birds fly back and forth from the feeders she had hung around the house. He felt a moment’s remorse for not continuing to feed them after Ellie had gone but the birds had seemed to manage without them just as he had without her. Besides, birds were really not his thing.
By the time he and Wilbur got to the river, Charlie’s mood was lifting as he watched Wilbur forage in the bushes and wade in the water. His thoughts slowly fell away, like leaves off a tree, as he stood still and became one with the gentle rippling of the river. Wilbur’s bark, as he spotted and chased a rabbit that had carelessly wandered too close, broke the spell and Charlie looked around him.
“We need to put a bench here, or something for me to sit on,” he said to Wilbur who’d given up the chase to sit beside Charlie, panting, with his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth.
Charlie’s spirits lifted as they walked back to the house. With the idea of the bench tumbling around in his mind, he had found another purpose. He searched in the barn for any scrap materials he could use to build the bench. Then he spotted the saw that Lynn had bought him, still sitting unopened in its box and he felt a rush of warmth rush over his body. He took the saw out, checked the weight and balance in his hands, found a piece of scrap wood and tried it out. With its brand-new blade, it easily sliced through the old board.
“Humph,” said Charlie, impressed. He couldn’t wait to use it and began thinking of possible projects as he carefully put the saw away. His mind was working again, and he had found more projects to keep him busy. Looking up into the rafters of the barn he said, “Thank you Lynn, there is a reason.” Then, having fed Wilbur he fixed some leftovers for himself for supper.
After supper he went out on the porch, tapped the rocking chair to make it rock and with a grateful sigh, Charlie sank into the couch, lit his daily cigarette and sipped his shot of bourbon. With the chair gently rocking, Charlie could imagine Lynn sitting next to him, smoking, in the close, comfortable silence of companionship and shared pleasures. When Charlie had finished his cigarette Wilbur, who didn’t like the smoke, curled up on the couch next to him and with Charlie’s hand resting on his best friend’s head, they both fell asleep gently snoring as, in the distance, the tree frogs began their nightly noise.
© John Longbottom 2021