The hangers were still draped with her dresses, old and new alike.
Pearl earrings, golden necklaces, and amethyst rings lay atop the vanity like sprinkles on a freshly made sundae.
Al, old Al, stood at the door of the bedroom he once shared with Rose. Still wearing a pallbearers uniform, despite being too aged to bear much, he looked around the room in disbelief. She wouldn’t be coming back to put on those earrings, don that dress, and head to dinner.
With a limp that favored his right leg, Al walked the perimeter of the room letting the middle and index fingers of his left hand graze the textured wall paper. It felt woven. In this moment, Al realized he had never touched the wallpaper. Rose picked it out 18 years earlier. It was a deep forest green with peonies of various shades of pink dabbled across them. He thought it too overbearing for a bedroom. And the peonies looked messy.
Facing the open closet, Al’s eyes refill with tears as the aroma of her perfume and her skin still waft freshly from the clothes. He takes two hungry handfuls of clothing, pressing them to his nose and mouth. Even after 62 years of marriage, three children, seven grandchildren, countless threats of divorce, even more evenings of unparallelled passion, he remains desperate for her scent.
It’s gone, though. The pain of this sudden rush of truth hits him in the gut just as it had each morning he wakes up without Rose by his side.
Tearing himself away, Al continues around the room. He catches glimpse of himself in the mirror, finding the reflection older than he remembered. Perhaps when Rose had gone, she had taken with her that youthful piece of his mind that she enraptured decades earlier.
Uneasily sitting down, glimpses are exchanged between man and mirror. Unable to look at himself, each time Al looks away from his reflection the way a stranger does once they are caught staring.
He examines each accessory– every broach, individual earring, gem solitaire. He holds the amethyst solitaire he bought her on her last birthday. It had been three long months since then, but three short months took his love. With swollen, arthritic fingers, he squeezes the stone with all his might. A lone tear presses out through the corner of his eye. He places the necklace with the utmost gentleness.
Finding the lone tear in the reflection, Al diverts his eyes again. Just then, something on the bookshelf jumps out at him. Standing against the back of the shelf, behind all of the other books is a taller, unfamiliar piece of literature.
Again, with the same limp that favored Al’s right leg, he makes his way to the shelf. Absentmindedly, he pulls out the other books, letting them crash to the thickly carpeted floor with soft thuds. Al pulls out the large, hardcover book wrapped in a thick, black, parchment sleeve.
It was unfamiliar. Unknown. In his own bedroom.
The name of the author, however, was familiar: Jason Paddak.
Rose had always been a big fan of the travel author, even dragging Al to his book signings, but never getting anything autographed. Now he remembers that in their three trips to see the author, she watched him speak, then nonchalantly suggested leaving.
He opens the cover. Al’s already heavy heart free falls to a new low as he reads the hand-written note: “My rose without thorns, My One. Always and forever, Jason.”
Al was the stand-in, the second act, a poor-woman’s Jason, a sufficient substitute, the next best thing.
With the fervor, fury, and focus of his formerly 22-year-old self, Al closes the book. He walks through the strewn novels on the floor, all seemingly fictitious words in an all-too-familiar reality. He exits the bedroom, noticing that his limp has vanished as he steps over the threshold.
The carpet in the hallway seems old, worn, dirty. The stairs creaky, dilapidated, falling apart. The home was hardly habitable. With the book firmly gripped in his right hand, held at the level of his temple, Al grabs the brass handle of the front door with his left, and swings it open.
He makes it down the path to the front chain-link fence in seven small strides. His focus is steady on the point in front of him. Thirty-second street is a blur around the green, rectangular garbage can at the side of the street. With age-defying ease, Al removes the white trash bag from the container, holds the bag high, while placing the book at the bottom of the bin with surprising care.
Pausing for a moment to stare at the book at the bottom of the bin, Al pictures his love’s true romance lying there. The sight brings him back to the burial two days prior, where he looked down into the hole placed before him, watching what he once loved slip away into oblivion.
Jason Paddak could now lie in oblivion with his rose without thorns.
Al replaces the trash bag on top of the book and turns to walk back to the house. He stops as he catches a woman out of the corner of his eye. Unable to move homeward, he watches the young, thin girl with wild hair strut toward him. She’s wearing little white sneakers, skinny denim pants rolled to the ankle, and a black leather jacket. Her eyes unknowing of what is going on inside of Al. Her sweet and salty demeanor makes him snarl at her as he thinks: “That’s my Rose. Best of luck to any man who tries to love her.”
He attempts with such urgency to hold on to his newly found anger toward his recently deceased wife. Suddenly, the house seems larger, the bricks darker, the path longer. His limp is back. And there, in the ever dimming light, with 32nd Street and its garbage behind him, Al rests his eyes on the rose bush he had planted solely for her, with his now-weak fingers. The peach color of the solitary rose seemed to glow in the vivid blue of the approaching spring night.
Hanging his head, and resting his heavy hands upon his hips, Al stops shy of his front door. The desperation for her scent has returned.
This story was inspired by an old man who was incredibly passionate
about getting rid of a book on May 7. I watched him as I walked
down 32nd Street in Queens. The little details are completely imagined