It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark.
The snow had started off as a light mist, now pummeling the ground in heavy blankets.
My car’s wipers battled with the incoming snow, my heart racing and my hands tightening on the steering wheel. I feared I would lose control of the car and crash into a tree or something, with me stuck upside down in the car until someone discovered my frozen body, my knuckles forever gripped in the ten-and-two position.
My brain registered the figure as I looked down quickly to adjust the heat settings. There was someone walking along the edge of the road, huddled in a thick brown coat and a hat with a pompom on top.
I used to just say hat with a ball, but then Noelle claimed it was called a pompom, so pompom it became.
I slowed down to get a better look, and I felt my pulse quicken when I discovered the figure was an old man. I rolled the window down and he looked over, but kept walking.
“Hey!” I yelled above the wind. “Do you need a ride somewhere?”
I wouldn’t usually offer a ride to a stranger, but this guy was clearly doing more danger to himself right now than he could do to me. He shook his head and continued forward. His nose and cheeks were bright red, his nose was running, and his entire body was shivering. It wouldn’t be right to just leave him here without being a little pushy.
I stopped the car just beside him. “Please! At least come in and warm up for a bit!”
After a moment of hesitation, he got in the passenger side. As he buckled up, I noticed he had been carrying a box with him. He set the box on the floorboard as I began to drive away. We couldn’t stay stopped in the middle of the road; someone would plow right into us.
He held his hands in front of the air vents. I turned the heat up as high as it would go.
“Thank you,” the stranger said. “What’s your name?” His voice came out a bit strangled and shaky from the cold.
“Thank you, Henry.” We sat in silence and I focused on keeping the car moving forward. No matter how long I live here, I will never get used to driving in the snow.
“What’s your name?”
“Why were you walking in the snow, Abe?”
He didn’t get a chance to answer as he started coughing violently, his entire body moving with the force. I saw a gas station just ahead, and sped up the car a bit to get to it. I parked as he pulled his hand away from his mouth, covered in blood and spit. I knew that wasn’t good, but I didn’t say anything, just opened the glovebox and handed him a napkin.
Like all good gas stations, there was a McDonald’s adjoining it. That’s another thing that blows my mind here, that everything stays open when it’s snowing. Where I’m from, there would be a borderline apocalypse at the first sign of an icicle.
I turned to Abe, whose hands were shaking from the cold or the coughs, I couldn’t tell. “I’m going to get us some lunch, if you want to go to the bathroom or something.”
When I came back to the car with the food, Abe looked better. His hands were clean and he had taken off his hat, showing off a head full of gray hair. We ate mostly in silence. I repeated my question once I saw that he had finished his burger and most of his fries. I wanted to make sure he had energy if he started coughing again.
“It wasn’t snowing when I first started walking.” He swirled a fry in ketchup slowly. His eyes looked distant. “I don’t know why I went outside. I was just walking, I guess, but I turned around once it started coming down harder.”
“Oh,” I said, realization hitting me. “I’m sorry, I’ll take you home.” I hadn’t meant to take him farther away from his house.
He held up a hand, stopping me from changing gears. “No, son, please. I do not want to go back there.”
“Okay.” I paused, thinking of his words. “Did you want to go somewhere?”
Abe hesitates, clearly thinking of a place. “No.”
I could tell he was too proud to tell me where he wanted to go, or maybe he just felt like he didn’t know me well enough to ask for a favor. I would take him wherever he needed to go. My life has been a disaster lately and I was in no rush to get back to reality. If doing a good deed for this old man kept me away from thinking about Noelle, or my dumpster fire of a job, or the shitty last few weeks I’ve had, so be it.
“Where were you headed during this storm?” Abe asks.
“Like you said, it wasn’t storming when I started driving. I was going to see my girlfriend, Noelle. I guess my ex-girlfriend now, I don’t know.” I don’t think anyone could easily explain the situation we were in.
As soon as I brought her up, I regretted it. Just thinking of her made me want to break down, but I shoved those feelings aside and brought my head back into the moment.
“What happened between you two?” Abe asked genuinely.
“It’s complicated,” I said, dismissing the question, but Abe didn’t take the hint.
“How old are you, son?”
He sighed. “You’re way too young to be in a situation so complicated that you can’t go check on her during a snowstorm.”
“I have to agree with you there.” We are way too young to be dealing with the shit we’re dealing with, but that doesn’t mean I want to be talking about this.
I changed the subject. “Where are you headed to, if not home?”
“I was hoping to go see my daughter, Elizabeth.”
I nodded. “Okay, where does she live?”
“Just outside of Montrose.”
Montrose? From here, that’s a five hour drive, not including the time to drive out of this storm. I got anxious wondering how he was planning on getting there.
He saw my expression and backtracked. “If you would just drop me off at my home, I’ll be on my way there.”
“Please, Abe. Let me take you.” I would feel horrible if I let him go now. There’s no telling what would happen if he were driving during another coughing fit.
He sat back in his seat. “You really don’t have to. I’ll be fine on my own.”
“I want to. It’s the least I can do.”
We finished eating and got on the road. We decided to drive almost the whole way, then find a hotel for the night.
“Does she know you’re coming?” I asked him after we got onto the interstate. Once we crossed over into the next town, the snow had let up and the roads were clear.
He shook his head. “The last time I saw her was at her mother’s funeral, a couple years ago. I blocked out a lot of things when my Lottie passed. I retreated into a depression, and refused to see anyone.” He winces like the memories hurt. “Elizabeth took care of me, brought me dinners and groceries and tried to talk to me through the door and windows. It broke my heart to see her in pain like that, but it was hard to look past my own pain to comfort her.”
He gestured towards the box. “Before I die, I want to spread her ashes with Elizabeth.”
This would be the part where I would say something like don’t say that, you’re not dying, but then I remember the blood on his hands and keep quiet.
He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his pocket. “Do you mind?” I shook my head. He offered me one, too, but I turned it down. He rolled down the window and took a long drag.
After he exhaled, he told me, “I have stage four prostate cancer. It’s been spreading, and eating away at my body.” He took another drag. “They told me it was incurable. That was six months ago. I’ve already lived longer than they first estimated.”
“I’m very sorry,” I murmured.
He scoffed. “Don’t be sorry, son. You didn’t give me the cancer. I just thought you should know.”
We sat in silence after he confessed all that to me. An appropriate response would be to share another story of grief, but I was not at all ready to talk about what happened to Noelle. I knew it was my fault and I hate myself constantly for it.
“What do you do, Henry?”
“I’m a low-level editor for the Denver Post, but I really just want to write. And I don’t want to write articles, I want to write novels.”
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
I paused. “Inspiration, I guess.”
He chuckled. “Inspiration doesn’t show up at your house one day and smack you in the face. You have to go out and find it.”
I contemplated that for a moment. He finished his cigarette and tossed the butt out the window.
“Take it from me, son. Life is much too short to have a job you hate or to not make up with your girl.”
I wish it were just that easy, to make up with Noelle and go on loving her like before.
I drove for four-and-a-half hours, when we both agreed we were too stiff to keep sitting here. We found a hotel for the night and settled into the room.
“What would you like for dinner?” I asked him while browsing DoorDash. “Pizza, burgers, Thai, wings, pasta?”
He grinned at me. “What do you say to a good, old-fashioned boys night?”
“Pizza and beer?”
“Pizza and beer.”
I smiled and placed the order. I don’t know the last time I had a boys night. I drove to the closest grocery store to pick up some beer, and Abe said he was going to shower.
I came back to the hotel just as the delivery driver was pulling up.
We ate quietly while the TV played some dumb game show. When we finished, we grabbed a couple of beers and brought them onto the balcony.
“Why didn’t you tell Elizabeth?”
He pondered the question for a couple minutes. “Elizabeth is too sweet for her own good. She feels so much, and her heart is enormous. She would do anything for anyone.” He takes a long swig of his beer. “She would have convinced me to go through with treatment, and I don’t want that. I don’t want to wither away and have her think of me as a weak old man. I need my daughter to remember me as her big, strong, Daddy.” He covers his mouth with his hand, as if holding back a sob.
I don’t respond, I just clink my glass to his and we both drink. I suppose I can understand his point. Treatment would have worsened his condition quicker.
I changed the subject before he could break down. “So where would you suggest I find inspiration?”
“Well, the most obvious source is love.” He side-eyed me as he said love. “You go find that girl and you fight like hell for her. She deserves to know that you care.”
He’s right, she deserves the world. But I don’t know how to show that to her anymore.
I didn’t like the somber mood the night had taken. Abe deserves to have some fun.
“Have you ever played beer pong?”
He laughed. “Not since college.”
I went down to the front desk and asked for some cups. The receptionist didn’t ask any questions, just gave me an entire sleeve of small water cups. I snuck over to the game room in the lobby. No one was in there, so I stole a ping pong ball and hurried back to our room.
We filled the cups with water to not waste any of our beer. It took Abe a couple of throws to find a good rhythm. I won the first round, but he kicked my ass in the next. We trash-talked to each other, and I laughed so hard my stomach hurt afterwards. The highlights of his banter included “you wimp,” which I laughed about because I hadn’t heard that word in years, and “what a sissy throw,” which I laughed about because who wouldn’t. Abe got more and more heated as we kept tying the score. At the end of the third round, I sank the ball into his last cup and he shouted “you motherfucker!” which sent me to the floor with laughter.
It was so much fun until he laughed so hard he started coughing. He went to the bathroom before I saw the blood, but I heard him throwing up in there.
When he came out, I gave him a water bottle and made sure he drank at least half of it.
“I think I’m done for the night,” he said, gesturing towards the game. He tried to help me clean up, but I told him to go lie down.
“Henry, are you close with your parents?”
I assumed he wouldn’t like my answer. “Not really. I see them on holidays, and make sure to call them on their birthdays, but they live in North Carolina, by the coast.”
“What brought you out here?”
I finished disposing of the cups and joined him on the opposite bed. “I got a scholarship to UC Denver, and then got the job at the post.”
He nodded, and I couldn’t tell if he was satisfied by my answers. I expected him to then tell me to call my parents and go visit them, but then he asked, “what happened with you and Noelle?”
It stung a little whenever someone else spoke her name. I just shook my head and stayed quiet. I’m not telling this story.
“C’mon, son,” he teased me. “Won’t you tell a dying man?”
I felt my jaw tense up. “Do you think of me as a good person?”
“You won’t anymore if I tell you that story.” I was willing to let him think I was good for the rest of his life.
“Do you think you’re a good person?” He asked me, his voice a little quieter than before.
“No. No, not anymore.” My voice broke. “Do you think you’re a good person?”
“No,” he responded. “Not anymore.”
I pulled into the driveway. 214 North Street. I cut off the engine, my hands still on the wheel, and took a deep breath.
I knocked three times on the front door, bracing myself for what I was about to say. This entire morning had felt like a bad dream, like I was floating through it and not really living it.
A woman answered the door. I knew it was her because she and Abe had the same eyes and smile. “Can I help you?”
I cleared my throat. “Hi. I’m Henry. Elizabeth, right?” She nodded.
“Your, um...your dad sent me. He um--” I exhaled, my eyes welling with tears. “He wanted me to deliver this to you.” I handed her the box with her mom’s urn.
She looked down at the box, confused. “Where is he?”
I let the tears spill over. “He--he had--” I covered my mouth with my hand. “He had cancer. He--” I shook my head, not wanting to believe it. “He passed away last night. I am so sorry.”
She inhaled, almost sounding like a gasp. Her eyes moved rapidly, thinking and processing. She didn’t say anything, but pulled me into a hug. She clung to me and I felt her tears drip onto my shoulder.
Abe passed away in his sleep from cancer. The autopsy revealed that his body was absolutely riddled with it. The coroner said it was a miracle that he lived as long as he did.
Elizabeth had him cremated, and took both Abe’s and Lottie’s ashes to the place they were married. I included all this in the obituary I wrote for this week’s paper.
I stayed at a hotel for a couple days. I knew that if I went back home right now, I would absolutely fall apart. The losses had stacked up lately, and I knew if I let myself feel it, I would not make it out of bed for days.
I need an outlet for this grief, a place to let it all out before it destroys me.
This book is dedicated to the two people who changed my life the most:
Noelle, I hope you’re proud of this. You always said I had a way with words, so here are my words. I love you.
Abe, thank you for inspiring me to get my head out of my ass and just write. Please keep my Noelle safe for me.
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Dear Sway, this was a thought-provoking story with enough details left out to make me want to know more. It's totally in keeping with Henry's character that we don't find out what happened between him and Noelle - but it doesn't stop me wanting to know! I also thought this was a poignant story because of Abe passing away before he got to see his daughter; at the same time, it's inspirational because Henry gets to be with him and Abe doesn't die alone in his home or freeze to death in a blizzard. The ending's sad but probably more true to li...