by Jim Schrempp www.jimschrempp.com
1. Where is he?
The Satsumas were particularly bright orange today. He wondered if the grocer had put oil on some old ones to keep them looking fresh. But they were inside a plastic net bag. He put a group in his basket.
The clerk at the check out line looked over his little pile. Two cans of cream of chicken soup, two cans of chili - no beans, a box of dried chicken noodle soup mix, a box of some cold remedy that you mix with hot water.
And the Satsumas.
The clerk looked at him. He smiled back.
"Someone sick at home?" the clerk asked.
It must have been obvious. "Yes, my girlfriend has been sick for days. She doesn't want to get out of bed."
"That cold medicine will put her to sleep for sure, then you can have the TV to yourself."
He shrugged a small laugh at that. "Ha, right. Paper please." And the clerk bagged his groceries. Thirty two dollars worth and change.
It was a long four blocks back to her house. It was cold and bright. He turned up his collar before leaving the store and crossing the parking lot. She'd never been this sick before. In fact, she never really got colds or the flu. Each year he'd have at least one long bout of a cold. One of those that knocked him out for days and then left him listless for another week. But she didn't catch colds. At least until this year.
It started while he was traveling. It was just a few days back east on business. A short trip. One of the conferences that always called for him to come. It began the first day he was gone. As his plane was climbing to altitude, the germs were multiplying like crazy in her blood.
He always called her at least once on these trips. It wasn't a big deal to him, but she would always worry. Did the plane land OK? Was he able to find a taxi? How was the conference that day? The little minutia of life that meant so much to her. He was comfortable waiting to share these things when he was back home; she wanted to know the score as the days passed. It was her way of keeping close. This time he would surprise her and call her that first night. It was one of those things he did once in a while just to prove to himself that he wasn't in a rut.
She didn't answer her phone that evening. That was unusual. She lived with her cell phone.
He remembered when she got her first cell phone, almost ten years ago. She was always a late adopter of new technologies. Everyone had a cell phone but her. When his cajoling finally worked, she was delighted with it. Every time her annoying cell phone ring would go off, her face would light up like a child's at Christmas. "It's a call for me!" she'd exclaim. She'd pull the phone from her pocket with shaking hands and hold it to her ear as she became lost in the conversation.
She'd talk too loud and he'd have to gently tap her on the shoulder and shush her. Still, the way she got excited when the phone rang would melt his heart.
So why no answer tonight? He left a short message. "Just checking in."
The second night he called, she answered. Her voice uncharacteristically low and husky. She didn't sound right. Her words were distant and her thoughts confused. "Where are you?" she'd asked, "I'm sick."
They talked a little, but he could tell it was a strain on her. He'd only made the call to perk her up and it was clear that she needed to sleep. He let her go and could hear the triple clicking of a phone dropped into its cradle. Wow, he thought, she's really sick.
That had been two weeks ago. He'd been back for days and she was still in bed. This wasn't just a regular cold, this was the full on flu. He helped the days pass by warming up her favorite chicken soup and bringing her hot tea. At night she swilled down Nyquil in an attempt to stop the seizures that come with a painful, racking cough. Sometimes she'd take it during the day and sleep the hours away.
He wanted her to go to the doctor but she wouldn't hear of it. "I'll be fine," she'd whisper to him.
"Hey Mister!" He looked up, startled from his reverie.
Three young boys, maybe 12 years old at the most, stood at the corner ahead of him. One was yelling to him, "Can I have one of your oranges?"
He looked down to see that he was carrying the mesh bag of Satsumas in one hand. He started to correct the boy and then thought the better of it. They weren't threatening, in fact they were shy. But one of them, bolder than the rest, had decided to get an orange.
As he walked towards them he called out, "What would you do with an orange?"
"Eat it," the boy called back. He had a cool, relaxed posture.
He came up beside the lad. The friends had continued to walk ahead, but the boy in the striped shirt and stocking cap fell in along side him.
"Eat it? Hmmm..." he repeated slowly to the boy. "You wouldn't throw it at something?"
"What would you do with the peel?" he asked. They kept walking.
"I'd keep it and take it to my friend's house and throw it away there."
They took a few steps in silence. He didn't like being shaken down, but the boy was earnest and perky. The boy reminded him of himself, so very long ago. He kept plodding along. The boy started to walk off, following the friends.
He came to a decision. "OK," he said.
The boy turned his head. "Really?"
Bringing his hands together he ripped open the mesh bag and extracted a Satsuma. Without breaking stride he tossed it to the boy, who deftly snatched it from the air.
"Thanks Mister!" The boy could hardly believe his gambit had worked.
"No problem," he said, "but don't let me find those peels in the gutter."
"No sir. Thanks again." And the boy was off.
He looked up and found he was standing across from her house. Odd how his feet can bring him here without remembering the trip.
3. Good To Be Home
He went to the door at the back of the house. His key turned easily in the lock and he entered the dark kitchen. The tea kettle was on the stove, where he expected it to be. He turned on the stove burner underneath it.
He set the Satsumas and the grocery bag on the small counter. There was never much counter space in this kitchen and he had to push a pile of stuff out of the way. He was quiet to keep from waking her. He was quiet so that his arrival would surprise her; maybe the surprise would please her in some small way.
He took out the soups, the chili, and the medicine. He hoped that this time she'd take it. He took a Satsuma from the open bag and peeled it. That was always a good thing about Satsumas, they peeled easily. As if the edible part wanted to jump out of its skin to be lost in the world at large.
He was about to put the peels in the garbage bin, but stopped. She was an active recycler. She kept a little ceramic pot to one side of her sink to hold kitchen scraps destined for her compost pile. Normally he would toss the skins in the bin, but she was sick, and in thinking of her he took the top off the pot. Besides, the garbage bin was full almost to overflowing. She'd never been a good housekeeper and the illness had just made things worse. The compost pot needed to be emptied too. He put the top back on the pot and jammed the skins into the garbage anyway.
The tea water was hot and he looked around for a mug. They used to hang so neatly on the wall hooks, now only one clean mug was left. He took that one down and filled it with water and a tea bag. Earl Gray, it was her favorite.
He turned off the stove and walked through to the living room. It too had a musty, slightly acrid smell. It needed a good cleaning. He stepped around the flowers, most drooped and sagged from lack of water, and met the bottom of the stairs.
Now it didn't matter if he was quiet, as soon as he stepped on the stairs she'd know he was home. The creaks and pops of the old place would give him away. He imagined how she'd lie there, hear the noise and know that he was back. She'd wonder what goodies he was bringing her to ease the sickness. She would probably imagine chocolates and sweets. Maybe pastry? Then she'd think that she couldn't really eat those now. She'd know that his practical side would know this too and he'd be bringing her tea, maybe some soup. The Satsuma would be a treat.
"Hi, it's me," he called up the stairs. She wouldn't answer him; she never did.
He was heavy on the treads. He tried not to stomp, but as a big man he could not walk them quietly. He wound his way upstairs.
When his eyes came level with the second floor, he paused. So much dust. The hardwood floor really showed it. We have to get a house cleaner he thought again; how many times had he thought that but done nothing about it? At the top of the stairs he drew in a deep breath and turned left to face her bedroom door.
With a smile on his face he opened the door and walked in. The smell of mildew was strong here too. Her bed was to the left. He turned toward it.
He was shocked to see that the bed was stripped of bedding. The sheets were off and the bare mattress pad was there to be seen. No cases on the pillows.
She must be feeling better! On the mend! It was about time. She must have gotten up and taken the sheets to the laundry. At last! His heart was filled with joy.
He stepped forward into the room and his foot kicked a ceramic mug. It skittered across the floor, spilling cold tea. He blinked and his memory came back. He stood there staring at the bed.
He set the mug of hot tea carefully on the floor next to others. He turned to
sit on the bed. Slowly, he lowered himself to onto the mattress and laid back.
He rolled on one side and brought his knees up to his chest. He cried softly for
awhile, then fell asleep. In his dreams he saw her smile as she talked on her
cell phone and ate an orange. She liked the little ones and was always surprised
when they peeled so easily. He dreamed of going to the store and buying some.
They would make her so very happy.
Copyright (c) 2008, 2009
Jim Schrempp is a sometimes freelance writer (only Vanity Press will publish his work) living in Saratoga, California. His writings have appeared on numerous pages on his own web site. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of anyone else (although Jim wishes more people shared his opinions) You can read more of his writing at www.JimSchrempp.com
Jim Schrempp is a sometimes freelance writer (only Vanity Press will publish his work) living in Saratoga, California. His writings have appeared on numerous pages on his own web site. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of anyone else (although Jim wishes more people shared his opinions)