I need help with this. I’m not completely happy with it, but I can’t exactly say why. Maybe I say too much? Need to leave more to the imagination? Or is it all too out of context? Thoughts and criticisms are appreciated, I am not a good fiction writer (yet, anyway).
His feet barely rose from the hard ground.
“Stand tall,” they used to snap. “Don’t shuffle,” they’d say. “Lift your steps high.”
But that was when his hair was dark and thick and waving in the wind, when his back was straight and his eyes bright and his heart full of hope and love and promise for the future.
That was years ago. Decades ago.
The old man shuffled slow, now, puffs of dust rising from under boots worn and cracking and caked with the mud and dust of mile upon weary mile. His back bowed under a faded and patched sack, only half full. Strands of gray, thin hair escaped from his shapeless hat.
Now he came to a crossroads, where the dirt road crossed a paved highway. A truck rattled by, breaking the quiet. The old man paused, looking one way and another. He shielded watery eyes against the glare of the midday sun, to where the highway disappeared in the curve of the horizon.
The road was empty again.
“It’s the same road,” he said softly, looking at the ragged-coated dog at his side. “The same road, but it’s not the same, somehow. It’s all grown up…”
He trailed off. The dog whined. But when he looked back there was nothing there. Just dirt and weeds and sunshine and an abandoned stone house, crumbling back into the earth.
He crossed the road.
She sat motionless in the recliner in the front window, face turned full into the sunlight, hands resting in her lap. A blanket was tucked around her feet.
A clock ticked loudly from the mantel, beside a framed wedding picture of a girl with straight, black hair and a boy with piercing eyes. The picture was old, yellowed even under the glass.
The old woman looked into the sunlight with unseeing eyes, hands folded. She felt the warmth, but long ago she stopped seeing it. But as the world around her grew dim, things far away became clear.
How long had it been since she took up her post in the window, watching and waiting? But she was young then, the boy a child. Always she sat there in the afternoons, watching for him to come home from school, she told him, but everyone knew different. And the years passed and the boy grew into a man and still she watched.
“Either he’s dead or he found himself some far-away woman and isn’t ever coming home,” a young woman told her aunt one summer afternoon when the two passed on the street. “And there she is, still watching. It’s time someone told her the truth.”
But the older woman shook her head.
“He didn’t forget her. Never did a man love a woman the way he did her. Death took him for sure.”
And they did tell her, each in turn, walking gravely up the walk to her front porch. They told her it was their duty, that she was clinging to false hope, that it was time to accept what God had willed.
And she’d listen and nod with gravity and refill their glasses and show them to the door.
And she refused to wear the black of mourning.
But she never told them that at night she looked for him, running over far-away beaches in her mind, searching among the bleached bones half-buried in the sand. She searched through jungle vines, peered into vacant eyes of countless men on crowded city streets. And on some dark nights when her spirit was heavy, she searched lamp-lit homes in case someone had stolen his heart from her, too.
But she never found his bones among the others, and so she clung to hope.
Now she was old, and long ago she stopped speaking of him. But still she watched. Some people wondered if she even knew what she waited for.
She didn’t tell them what she saw, now that she was old.
She couldn’t see the robins scratching at the soft earth after last night’s rainfall. But now she saw him in her mind. And now she watched his slow progress, watched him pause at the crossroads, watched his foot catch on a rut in the old road. And with each step she willed him forward.
And when he turned off dirt road and his boots crunched on gravel, she stood, her feet following paths worn deep into her memory. She stepped out the door, down two steps, along the narrow walk, out onto the road. She stumbled forward, arms outstretched. The sun was hot on her face.
A car swerved around her, someone laid on the horn. And now the world around her was intruding, and she couldn’t see him anymore. She wavered, legs trembling. She couldn’t remember which way to go. She felt the tears come; she was too weak to stop them.
And then she felt his presence, smelled his sweat and heard his footsteps. And the old man’s steps were lighter, when he took her arm in his and turned her back, toward the old house.
“I told you I’d come home again,” he said the words soft.
The son walked quickly through the kitchen, to the front room where she sat day after day.
But her chair was empty and the front door stood open. And on the old porch swing he saw them, the old man’s arms wrapped around her. Both were smiling, and the years had rolled away, and he recognized his own face in the old man’s, and wondered how he missed his mother’s beauty all these years.
“Mother?” he asked, but she did not speak again.
“What did I tell you?” the older aunt asked her niece, now graying herself, at the funeral. “Such a wedding that was, years and years ago. I was just a child but even I could see the way he worshiped her.”
And when the sod laid back over the fresh-dug dirt and the chairs packed away and the flowers moved back to the house where he had played and grown, the son stood alone at their grave, reading words scrawled across pages of old and faded notebook paper, on the back of receipts and envelopes, on drawing paper and blank-paper books with the spines cracking: Words that told of a lifetime of coming home.