“I just wanted to say, it’s been a real pleasure working with you Ernst.” The man grabbed Ernst’s hand in his and shook vigorously, maintaining eye contact the whole way through. He looked all of his 22 years, poured into and spilling over the bounds of his too tight suit jacket, highlighted with a salmon pocket square. Why the young man had felt the need to dress up in this collection of work colleagues, Ernst had no idea. He had walked over from the factory, wearing the same clothes to this event that he had worn to work, the same clothes he’d worn every day.
Ernst acknowledged the statement with a firm nod, then pulled his hand out of the young buck’s grip. The man smiled cheerfully one final time, and then turned on his heels and bounded off to his next heartfelt statement, leaving Ernst to sit alone in the corner he had designated.
Work at the plant had been meaningful and plentiful when Ernst started, nearly 40 years previously. He had been escaping a life of humdrum routine and cold, or so he thought, when he had emigrated from Sweden in the early 1980s. At least he had achieved his escape from the cold, he thought, as he enjoyed the cool breeze carrying the notes of the beautiful summer night through the window he had opened. If life had been too monotonous, he was prepared to accept his part in that outcome, knowing that he could have pushed himself further had he really wanted to. But he and Ebba had always enjoyed the slower lane, neither interested in the obsessive and demanding corporate world that barked tempestuously at their door; choosing instead the path of least resistance, in order to devote more time to their interests.
Ebba had been consumed with the action of putting things together since Ernst could remember, and they had met as children, so he was a fairly confident authority on the subject of her interests. When she was a child it had been puzzles that had filled her obsession. Then her father, flush with materials from a canceled circuitry project that he had saved from the trash at work, had provided her with the next evolution in her interests: engineering. She built a number of tinkering projects before her parents, realizing her aptitude, enrolled her in the schooling courses that would dictate her future career. She discovered that what Shakuntala Devi had said about mathematics was universally true: “It is only a systematic effort of solving puzzles posed by nature.”
While Ebba was starting at her new school, Ernst was getting settled in himself, having just arrived with his parents the previous week. They had moved to Stockholm from a small locality named Storuman, which effectively made them new fish leaving their miniscule pond for a very, very big lake. Ernst had always been the quietest of children, even in his class of eight, and now finding himself in a major metropolitan city, with all of its accompanying problems, had silenced him.
He hadn’t spoken to either of his parents for two weeks, since they had informed him and his brother of the move, but it wasn’t willful insubordination; instead it was just that when he tried to speak, nothing came. His mother had found him a doctor, and his father had taken him to the earliest appointment the next morning, 6:00am, but the doctor was as confused as they were. Ernst showed no lack of understanding, and his attentiveness and ability to perform actions were in no way affected, instead matching the habits of other children his age. But when he tried to speak, and try he did, only soft rasps came out; the effort of it caused him to pass out into his father’s arms in the doctor’s small patient room.
They had left the appointment no more informed than when they began, and he could see the concern evident on his father’s face, even though Ernst was only a child. But once they had made it about a block from the doctor’s office, as he always did, his father snapped back into his usual, jovial self and lifted Ernst to his shoulders on their way to breakfast. He had ordered everything for the both of them, starting with that first meal and continuing on without fail until Ernst found his voice several months later. He could always count on his father to support him, unfalteringly.
It was decided that since Ernst had not been able to overcome his muteness, he would start his first few months of education at the special needs school. He would be evaluated monthly, and they would make their decision on how he would spend the rest of his school year after the first semester. His father told him, upon dropping him off on his first day of school, to not stress himself and instead just focus on the learning, and like all of his father’s lessons, he took these words to heart. He repeated it in his head, over and again, using the pursuit of education as his motivating mantra.
In his first class, the teacher announced that they would be going down to the shared auditorium for picture day, mixing with the children in the other surrounding schools. Ernst had never enjoyed having his picture taken, but he often found quiet and peaceful solitude amongst crowds, and so he looked forward to the diversion. They had brought all the school kids together into this large space, and lined them up alphabetically by name, regardless of class. That was how he found himself standing in line next to a little girl who looked just as out of sorts as he was.
She had brought a small puzzle toy and was actively engaged in constructing, deconstructing, and then reconstructing it. Ernst wasn’t sure what had motivated him to do so, but he found himself staring at her in fascination as she maneuvered the pieces. After watching her for what seemed like minutes, she noticed the attention and addressed him.
“Do you want to try?” She asked kindly.
He shook his head no, and it was the truth; he had found more joy in watching her perform the action than thinking about doing it himself. But how could he explain that nonverbally? He settled for a gesture that he hoped indicated, no thanks, it’s just fun to watch.
And just like that, she continued; he asked her much later, when they were married, whether she had understood his gesture. She had just looked him in the eyes and smiled, then planted a kiss on his cheek. He never fully understood her secret language, but he knew without a doubt in that moment that she understood his perfectly.
It went on this way for several weeks; he would find her on the shared playground at lunch time, a puzzle or some other project spread out in front of her, and he would silently join her and eat his meal, watching her work. Occasionally she would talk to him, almost always while still staring fixedly at her puzzle, but she never required a response to her speech; instead she would just tell him about what they had learned in class, or what she and her family had done that weekend, the conversation being entirely one-sided. He would pay strict attention in his classes, just so he could be the first to finish the assignment and line up for the playground.
“Ernst my man, any big plans for retirement?” His boss shook his hand vigorously and breathed heavily through his fifth drink. His third wife at his side, her hand cradling the smartphone that seemed more a part of her body than a separate, inorganic device.
“No.” Ernst shook his head.
His boss, never one to recognize an awkward situation, continued on as if he had received an appropriate answer. “Good, good, no need to plan it all out now. We’ll miss you! And hey, if you get a chance, we would love for you to review us on Glassdoor.”
With that, his boss shuffled off, in search of his sixth drink, his accessory wife in tow.
Ernst looked around the room at the collective mass of faces he didn’t really care about. He had worked with some of these people for decades, others mere months, but he knew about as much of their history as they did his. Why now, did he find his memories of the past tugging at his mind’s sleeve? He’d hardly said ten words of non-work speak to anyone in this room, had certainly never engaged them in personal conversation, and wondered why he felt the need to be here. He reasoned it was because it was Ebba’s wish, and although that had been enough for him in the past, he decided he had fulfilled his part and also that it didn’t bind him here for any longer.
The air outside was even cooler than the breeze that had been trying to breathe life into the room through the window he opened. It was Fall, his favorite time of year, and the leaves hung crisp and changed on the branches, timing their eventual departure to coincide with the next soft gust of wind.
He stopped in a small shop and purchased a bottle of Merlot, her favorite. Then he grabbed two Caprese sandwiches from the deli, and finished off the menu with a small chocolate torte from the bakery. His arms full to spilling, he navigated the narrow stairway of their apartment building, fishing his keys out of his jacket pocket in a balancing act of food and drink when he reached their unit. He rested the evening’s take against the still locked door while he navigated the key into the lock. With a successful click, it swung slowly open, its familiar creak announcing his arrival.
“I’m home.” He called out, then set his groceries on the kitchen counter, opening a drawer to grab the bottle opener.
A woman dressed in a flower-print scrubs top entered the kitchen and he nodded at her. She emptied the rest of the groceries onto the counter and threw away the bag in the trash, then drew the string and collected it out of the can.
“I’ll take this out on my way.” She said to him, and he nodded that he had heard.
She grabbed her jacket and purse off of the hooks on the wall, near the door, then grabbed the trash bag. As she opened the door to leave, Ernst grabbed one of the sandwiches off the counter and brought it over to her, pressing it into her hands.
“I know you missed your dinner. Thank you.” He said, as he handed her the sandwich.
She accepted it with a surprised but thankful look on her face. “Thank you Ernst, that’s very kind.” And then after a minute’s pause she continued, “You know, I think I really saw understanding in her eyes tonight.”
He smiled at her, his first of the day, and then nodded kindly.
He closed and locked the door after her, then removed his shoes in favor of his slippers and carried the tray he had prepared with the evening’s meal into the living room.
Ebba sat waiting in her arm chair, staring fixedly at the puzzle spread out on the card table in front of her. He set the tray on the coffee table, and then walked over behind her, to get a better view of her puzzle.
“Lots of progress tonight, eh? It’s really coming along.” He placed his hand gingerly on the side of her head, stroking her hair. She reached up without looking away from her puzzle and grabbed his index finger in her hand, squeezing it three times. She let go and he walked over to the couch and sat, pulling the plate with his half of the sandwich into his lap and grabbing his cup of wine. The radio played soft Doo-wop classics while the window curtains fluttered like lazy sails on a ship, as Ernst enjoyed his sandwich.
She placed a puzzle piece and then stopped, turning her head ever so slightly towards him. He picked up her sandwich and glass of wine off the tray, and set it on a clear spot in front of her. He had already ripped the sandwich up into little, bite-sized pieces, and he borrowed the straw from her water cup and placed it into her wine glass, which he held for her. She took a few sips, and he gently wiped the excess from the corner of her mouth with the back of his hand.
“Numbnuts was in full force tonight. He’d even dragged his trophy all the way from her daily spa treatment, much to her displeasure.” He smiled warmly at the small, almost inaudible laugh she gave.
“And remember the young buck? Well he told me it had been a real pleasure working with me.” They laughed together, each in their own way. “He’ll be fine though”, Ernst reflected, “I’ve already taught him everything he needs to do the job.”
After dinner and cleanup, Ernst carried Ebba in his arms from the living room to the bathroom for her nightly routine and then from the bathroom to the bedroom on the second floor of their unit. His job at the factory had started in the delivery department, and he had made a point to regularly join the daily delivery, long after he left that sector. He considered it his daily exercise, and no one complained at the extra set of hands, particularly not his, as he was still incredibly spry for his age. He set her in front of her vanity mirror, on the velvety little chair that they had purchased on their last trip to Paris, and combed her hair softly they way she liked. He then lay her in bed and tucked her in, and went over to the bookshelf.
“Which one should we read tonight?” He asked, his fingers resting on top of a row of books, but his face craned over his shoulder, looking back to her. He rested his fingers on the top of three books in succession, calling each out for approval. “Comedy. Tragedy. Plant biology.” Plant biology was the winner; she’d always preferred scientific journals to melodramatic tales.
As he read to her about the origins of the tomato, he planned out their next day’s events. They’d go to the botanical gardens if the weather was nice, the art museum if it wasn’t. Then lunch at her favorite bistro and a nice leisurely stroll around the neighborhood. He reflected that life would be changing, as it often had for them, but this change represented more time together, which is the one thing he always wished for more of. Now, in retirement, they would truly get to live.