Jack Colby leaned back in his battered recliner and closed his eyes. How long had it been since he’d slept in his own bed? He’d gotten used to the recliner at Amelia’s bedside in the Hospice Unit at the Memorial, and found he liked it. Truth was, he dreaded going back to the bed they’d shared at home for forty-one years. He couldn’t imagine a night without her gentle breathing and comfortable curves next to him, always warming to his kisses.
All through the funeral and for weeks after, he hadn’t shed a tear. Friends were amazed, but he had felt too numb for grief. Besides, real men didn’t cry. Even now, he didn’t sigh over their wedding pictures, and he’d had no trouble donating her clothes to Goodwill. When Peggy asked for Amelia’s wedding ring, he’d handed it over without protest. “She promised it to me, Dad.” That sounded like his wife. If she had an apple pie, she’d cut it into sixteen pieces to make as many people happy as possible.
Every day, he ate what was in front of him, and went for a walk in the woods where they always used to wander. He’d gone fishing with Elmer and even caught a couple of trout, but threw them right back, even though they were legal size. Amelia could pan fry them like no one else, but he was lousy at it.
The grandfather clock in the corner wheezed and groaned as it prepared to strike six o’clock. When was that damned concert? He put on his glasses and reached for the brochure Peggy had stuck in his face. Seven. Plenty of time to down some of her casserole.
“You need nourishment, Dad. You can’t live on cornflakes and donuts.”
“Why the hell not?”
She insisted that he keep up his routine, including going to these Saturday night concerts at the United Church, five blocks away. They had all kinds of acts – a bluegrass band one week, a Spanish guitar player the next. Tonight was some classical thing. He hoped it wouldn’t be Wagner. Anything but that guy.
Jack struggled out of the creaky chair and stood up, stretching. Mister Bean meowed and rubbed against his legs. At least someone around here had an appetite. He went to the kitchen and filled the cat’s dish with some sort of chicken mix.
“Here you go, mister.”
The cat glared at him as if to say, “Not this again.”
“Sorry, Bean. The chef’s got the night off.”
Resigned, the cat tucked in and was soon crunching away vigorously. He was a regular eating machine.
Jack heated up the casserole. Strange things, these microwaves. He remembered when the word “radiation” had meant something much more sinister. When he was stationed in Japan, he’d seen what the wrong kind of radiation could do to people.
The phone rang as he was eating his custard. “Dad, are you ready?”
“Peg o’ my heart, it’s not even six-thirty.”
“Well, make sure you’re ready by quarter of. We want to get good seats.” She always said that. Half the time, they got there before the ticket booth was even open. Peggy liked one particular spot – second row center. Close but not too close. If someone else got there first, she was known to throw a fit.
Jack rinsed off his dishes and hauled himself upstairs, wincing as his knee protested. He brushed his teeth and combed his thinning hair, experimenting with a combover. Oh hell, it looked like a guinea pig sitting on his head. Back to the side part, then. Amelia always said he looked like Cary Grant, but she was kind to everyone.
The doorbell rang as he was buttoning up his favorite shirt, a faded blue guayabara Amelia had bought it for him in Puerto Rico. They’d strolled through San Juan and visited the house of Pablo Casals, gazing at his cello and the photos of the famous cellist playing for the Kennedys at the White House. That was a time of hopes and dreams like no other. Couldn’t say the same for the clowns in charge these days.
The doorbell shrilled again. “I’m coming, I’m coming!” He hobbled down the stairs to open the door before Peggy could break it down.
She frowned. “Dad, haven’t you got anything newer?”
“I like this one. It doesn’t pinch my neck.”
“Oh all right. Hurry now, we’re late.”
Like a child, he followed his daughter to the idling Lexus in front. Time was, he and Amelia would have walked to those concerts. Then she’d started having excruciating back pain. There was an inoperable tumor wedged in her spine, and it had spread with alarming speed. That last year had been a living hell for all of them.
Now, Peggy jumped into the car and raced to the church like an ambulance answering a call. She parked near the door and stood jangling her keys as Jack climbed out.
“I just know someone’s gotten our seats.” They went inside and Peggy paid for their tickets, over Jack’s protests. He didn’t like being treated like a doddering pensioner, and he knew she wasn’t being generous. She liked being in control.
The hall was half-empty, and nobody was in “their” seats. Thank God. Jack settled in and pretended to fall asleep.
Right on cue, she barked, “No napping!” That girl had been born without a funny bone in her body.
By seven-fifteen, the hall was half-full, so they started the program. A tall blond man dressed in an elegant black suit strode in, carrying a cello. The audience applauded before he’d even played a note. That seemed odd, like payment in advance. Jack’s hands stayed in his lap. Peggy glared at him, but kept her counsel. You had to pick your battles, after all.
The cellist bowed and sat down. They waited in silence while he put down some gadget on the floor to hold his instrument in place. Just then, two latecomers sat down right in front of Jack and Peggy.
She hissed “No!” and Jack cringed. Would she throw a fit? The music started and she sat back in her seat, to Jack’s huge relief.
The cellist bent over his instrument, fingers flying. How could a person’s fingers move that fast? The music sounded familiar. Thanks to his wife and daughter, Jack wasn’t a total nincompoop about composers and such. He glanced around. Everyone seemed enchanted. They sat like statues, as if breathing would burst the fragile beauty of the moment.
Then a movement caught Jack’s eye. The woman in front of him began to bob her head in time to the music. He heard a tapping that must be her foot. As the music rose in excitement, she did too, jiggling up and down in her seat like a kid on a Ferris wheel.
Peggy immediately leaned forwards. “Could you please be quiet?” she hissed in a stage whisper that reached everyone around them. Heads turned.
“Oh, sorry.” The woman smiled at Jack and settled right down. Peggy sat back, muttering, “Hmph!” as if she’d been cheated of a fight.
The music ended. Jack started to clap, but Peggy grabbed his arm. “Not yet!” God, he was getting tired of her fussing. She had always been a bossy little thing, ordering her little brother around like a queen. “Connor, get me another soda.” “Connor, put away the ball, it’s time to eat.” Amelia had merely chuckled and called her “Mommy junior.”
The cellist began to play a slow soft melody, leaning over his instrument and making it sing so sweetly that Jack’s throat tightened unexpectedly. He wasn’t usually moved that much by cellos. They were just the oom-pahs that held down the rhythms of a symphony, along with those giant basses. Not singing solos that made your heart squeeze and sigh with melting sadness.
Who else could play like this? Pablo Casals. Jacqueline Dupre, the young lady they used to call the “English rose,” who’d died tragically young. And that young fellow Yo-Yo Ma, who never stopped smiling as he played.
Now the cellist closed his eyes as he played on. Jack was thunderstruck. The simple gesture suggested an emotion so deep it had to be hidden, too delicate to be seen. Under the bright lights, this young man was pouring his heart out to them, yet shielding himself from their response.
Without realizing it, Jack had closed his eyes too. The music wound itself around his heart like a silk ribbon, and he could hardly breathe. He saw Amelia’s face – not the pain-wracked mask of three months ago, but the round smiling face he used to see as they sat on their back porch on a quiet Sunday morning. She would do embroidery and help him with crossword puzzles. The aroma of her cinnamon rolls wafted from the kitchen as Bach played on the radio.
That was it. This was a Bach cello suite. Which one, he couldn’t tell, but it sang to him as clearly as Amelia’s lullabies to their restless daughter. Jack’s eyes stung and prickled. Damn onions. He shouldn’t have sliced them up to go with supper. He blinked, but the wetness wouldn’t go away.
A crash of applause shattered his dream like glass. He jerked forward in his seat, heart pounding.
“Dad, wake up! It’s over.” Peggy’s scolding was nearly drowned out by the applause. How could thirty people sound like a thousand?
The cellist stood up, smiling, and bowed deeply. As he straightened up, his eyes met Jack’s.
I know you weren’t sleeping. You were sharing the dream. He nodded to Jack, then walked offstage with his cello. The applause followed him, and he returned quite quickly to take another bow. Peggy clapped wildly, but Jack sat motionless, riveted to his seat. He had a collection of Bach recordings in a box at home. Amelia had given him one every year on their anniversary. He knew exactly where to find them.
He had found her too. She would never leave him now.