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Funny

Aldous Albitter had spent the last thirty-five years climbing the corporate ladder to the top. Today was the first Monday of his retirement. The first day he hadn’t woken before dawn to take the train into the city, and ravenously poured over ad-specs. He wasn't the type of guy to think about his own death, but if he had to, he would have pictured himself slumped over his drafting desk, dead from a heart attack at ninety-five. Now just shy of sixty-four, he had aged out of the industry and been politely escorted into retirement. He had gone without a whimper, taken the gold watch with a smile, and went home.

He sat on the edge of his bed and watched the sun rise. He’d spent his life with his nose so close to the grindstone he hadn’t made room in his life for anything else. No wife. No kids. No hobbies. No friends to speak of. In the delicate light of the first morning of the rest of his life, he had no idea what to do with himself. He stood with a sigh, went to the window of his fourth story apartment and watched the commuters make their way to work. Cars crowded the streets, foot traffic ebbed and flowed as pedestrians made their way to and from the train. He longed down at them enviously. As the traffic began to thin, Aldous left the window, threw on his overcoat, and left his apartment with no agenda.

He found himself at the cafe a block down from his door. He had seen the coffee shop on the first leg of his commute and had always meant to stop in. He sat at one of the outdoor bistro tables sipping the most delicious espresso he had ever tasted. The bright undertones of citrus danced on his tongue behind rich ribbons of leathered chocolate. His senses seemed to awaken as he breathed deep. His lungs filled with the fresh, sweet air of spring. Lilac and blossom, the petrichor of night watered park lawns, the—not unpleasant—faint odor of exhaust still lingering on the air from the morning dash to the workplace. 

Today seemed brighter than ever before. His eyes were somehow letting in more light. Colors began to stand out. The bright green of the new leaves on the oaks shimmered in the morning breeze. The red and white stripes of a barber pole. The deep but bright green of a neighboring awning. A woman’s blue blazer shone brilliantly under her blonde hair. She marched past him in long-legged, purposeful strides. He smiled as her perfume wafted by and imagined where she might be going. A high-stakes board meeting, where careers were both made and ruined, or maybe she’s off to a photo shoot, the next famous model in the making. 

As he watched her go a man in a black suit passed, his bright red tie a brilliant splash of color against the sharp blacks and stark white of his outfit. Another passed, then another. He relaxed and allowed his awareness to shift its focus from each person to a bigger picture, like when you look at an ant hill and let your vision go slack and, somehow, you can see them all at once, bustling about their lives.

Aldous had heard and could define the word sonder, that feeling that a million lives are being lived all around you, but this morning was the first time he had ever felt it. He had lived his last sixty-four years on autopilot, just like these people were doing now. He drank the rest of his espresso and leaned back in his seat, taking it in. His eyes fell to a small puddle at the base of the railing that enclosed the outdoor dining area. He tilted his head as he watched a small spider struggle to stay afloat on its surface. 

He smiled, bent down, and scooped up a pool of water in his cupped hands, the spider floating in the middle. He carefully raised it to one of the planters lining the railing and slowly let the water drain into it as it took the spider with it. The spider stayed still for a moment, its legs sticking together in the wet. It started twitching, worked its legs free and scuttled to the corner of the planter, hunkering into it. Aldous smiled again and gave it a nod to let it know it was no problem. He pulled two bills from his pocket and placed them under his cup. He gave a wave to the barista through the store front windows. She waved back. He straightened his coat, bolstered by his new awareness, and pleased with his first good deed, and strode onto the sidewalk. As he left the patio a robin alighted on the edge of the planter with a rust-red streak of its belly. It shuffled and danced before snapping its head back and forth and finally turning an eye on the crouching spider. The spider flinched. The robin froze, blinked twice, and in a snap snatched the spider. The spider’s twitching legs poked out on either side of its beak. The bird blinked once more, danced, and flew back into the urban canopy. 

Aldous strutted down the sidewalk, his elbows high, as he turned his attention from one passerby to another. He came to a corner and stopped. With no agenda it was hard to know exactly where he was off to. He gazed east up 32nd street and shook his head. The hill seemed to ascend for blocks into the horizon. He pondered north up Margaret Avenue. His eyes settled on a shrunken old lady, her skinny stocking legs poking out the bottom of a worn black overcoat, lugging an overstuffed cart. She stopped and stood on the corner, peering up at the street signs. He nodded to himself. Now he had a direction.

The light turned green. Aldous stepped back as a taxi honked. It hopped the curb in front of him in a mad rush to beat the light. Aldous gave him a wave, letting the driver know that the near miss wasn’t that big of a problem. He assessed the traffic and crossed, glad for his new awareness. Had he still been navigating on autopilot, that taxi may have just run him down. He hustled across the street, elbows up and greeted the old woman with a wave and a smile. “Hello, Miss. May I help you cross the street?”

“Eh?” She peered up suspiciously through coke-bottle lenses under a worn, gray cloche and clutched her cart tighter. “What’s that, fella?”

He bent slightly and raised his voice. “Can I help you cross the street?”

She relaxed her grip. “Oh. Well,” she considered, “I suppose.”

“Wonderful.” he gestured south, back up the street from where he had come. “Are you headed toward Main?”

“Eh?”

“Main street?” he shouted.

“Oh.” She nodded in understanding. “Yes. That will be fine.”

“May I help with your cart?” He reached a hand toward it.

She pulled it back and sized him up with her wide cloudy eyes. 

Aldous smiled warmly and held his hand out again.

The old woman relaxed and let him take the handle. “That will be fine.”

As they waited for the light to turn they stood side by side on the corner. Aldous tall and thin, slightly stooped to more comfortably hold the handle of the small but heavy cart, the old lady's tiny round figure still hunched, despite the relief of it. Cars zoomed by as pedestrians gathered around them. The light turned and walkers immediately began brushing by. Aldous held a hand out to both invite her to cross and in preparation, should she stumble while negotiating the curb. She maneuvered onto the street in miniature jerking steps. Aldous followed next to her in an off-rhythm staccato gait, attempting to keep pace. They were just over halfway by the time the lights turned yellow. Aldous pulled ahead slightly, encouraging her along. “Almost there,” he yelled.

“Eh?” she barked up at him, stopping in the middle of the street.

As soon as the light turned red, the waiting cars immediately began to honk. Aldous held out a hand of apology to them. He guarded the old woman as the instantly impatient automobilists encroached the lines of the crosswalk with jerking lurches. She hustled along in her crippling pace and eventually mounted the curb on the other side with shaky steps. Aldous gave another thankful wave to the waiting drivers as their tires squealed expletives. 

Aldous guided her away from the curb and stopped just inside the edge of the corner building. “Here you are, miss.” He held the handle of her cart toward her.

She looked at the cart then up at Aldous then back. She took the handle, “Very good.” and peered up at the street signs searching for her bearings.

Aldous leaned down and pointed south, down Margaret Ave. “Main is just two blocks.”

“Eh?”

“Just two blocks,” he shouted, as he leaned deeper and gestured two points toward Main Street.

“Yes. very good.” She clutched her cart and readied herself.

“Have a wonderful day, miss.”

He smiled, still pleased despite his unrequited farewell, and gave the old lady a final glance as he turned and let himself be guided west, appreciating the passersby as he opened himself to the next opportunity. He strolled, wondering about the inner lives of his fellow humans, barely noticing the bike messenger as he zipped past him. The biker negotiated the inside track against the row of held up cars turning right and hopped the curb in an attempt to cut the corner of the sidewalk and beat traffic. The last thing the biker saw before he was knocked unconscious was the wide, coke-bottle-glass magnified eyes of the old lady as he careened into her.

Aldous strutted three blocks down the sunny side of 32nd Street, smiling salutations as he looked for his next victim of kindness, before noticing that someone was running up behind him. He turned, startled at first. As he realized he wasn’t running at him he turned to see what he was rushing toward. A door just a few steps to his left was swinging closed. Aldous put a little hustle into his step and caught it with a lurch. He stepped to the side as he pulled the door open and smiled at the approaching man. He would have never made it, Aldous thought to himself. 

The man was weighed down with two large duffle bags slung over each shoulder. He had a dark wool cap tucked low on his brow. It sure is a little warm for a wool cap this morning. The man gave Aldous a winded word of gratitude and a suspicious glance before taking the door handle from him. 

“Have a great day.” Aldous grinned and gave the man a wave as he turned to go. The man returned a nonplussed grimace of a smile and watched him for a flash before pulling the cap down into a balaclava and pulling the door shut behind him. The man surveyed the bank lobby, reached into one of his duffels and produced a black pistol with a taped-up grip. He pointed it in the air and fired it once into the ceiling. “Everybody freeze.”

That had turned out to be Aldous’ last good deed for the day. He walked another thirty-or-so blocks before stopping in on an Italian restaurant that he had always meant to try for a late lunch. He ate with abandon, resisting the urge to order “one of everything.” It turns out eating three pounds of pasta in the early afternoon, which Aldous had never done before, made a fella sleepy. He walked off the food coma, stopped in for another espresso before heading up to his apartment, and cozied up in his seldom used wingback chair and fell asleep as he lost himself in Ivanhoe and the milieu of the Saxons versus the Normans. 

He woke in the dark, stretched out the kink in his neck and got ready for bed. He stared at himself in the mirror, realizing he had never really looked at himself appraisingly. He felt younger today. More inspired. He spit, rinsed, and smiled back at himself. The rest of his life was ahead of him, and he couldn’t wait to see what tomorrow might bring.

April 15, 2023 00:03

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