by Professor Q
Its story is simple, but the telling of it is not.
|Word Count: 3778
A glass horse sparkles from amongst the dappled brown-green of early spring grass and, seeing it, you reach down to pick it up. It's slick with dew, and you notice that a curious sort of dark mud cakes its back legs. You take the hemline of your jacket and wipe the piece clean, noting the intricacy of the craftsmanship as you do. There are several more figurines like it on a nearby table, and there are at least a dozen such tables on the lawn. "Hey," you call, seeing a man standing just a few feet away, "did you want this at all?"
He turns, pivoting slowly on his right foot, and you notice that his left knee doesn't bend. Under the faded denim of his old Levis, you can't tell if the leg is still flesh, or a prosthetic, but whatever it is, the leg is clearly hampering his progress. It's an ungainly turn, more a series of jerks as he shuffles his stiff appendage along the earth, so it takes a moment before you see his face. It's a bit of a letdown when you do, as if the buildup has been for nothing.
The man is of middling height, slightly overweight, white, and perhaps in the midst of his fifth decade. A bit weather worn, his skin is reminiscent of the sailors you once saw down at the wharf, but judging by the state of the lawn, it seems far more likely that it's from gardening. Salt and pepper hair was once a lustrous brown and thick, but it seems the life has gone out of it recently; it hangs limply over his dark green eyes as if it has given up. He wears a brown sweater vest over a blue button-down along with the jeans, and a pair of beaten up Nikes.
What is most striking is the sense of defeat looming around him, an insidious parasite leeching the fight from his bones. He wears his shoulders slightly hunched and his eyes hooded, and he takes his time before finally opening his thin-lipped mouth to speak. "Whottsat you got there?" His voice is equally disappointing; there's nothing special in the baritone that edges its way into the ranges of tenor, except perhaps for its lifelessness.
"It's a horse figurine. I found it in your grass as I was walking past. Does it go with the rest of this stuff?" You had read in the newspaper that there would be a garage sale at this particular house today, but apparently no one had showed up yet. It is a little early, you suppose, but that meant that you got the best pick of everything, right?
The man nodded slowly. "It goes with the rest of the Swarovski figurines, yes."
"You certainly seem to be getting rid of a lot of stuff." Something about this man makes you want to talk to him, to reach out and bridge with familiarity the gap of strangeness. He seems like he's barely holding it together. One hand is pressed into his chest and another runs along a piece of linen that could be nothing but a tablecloth. He's almost caressing it, truth be told, like it's the one thing keeping him together.
Another nod, this one rather abrupt. "Yeah," he replies, voice one step above a whisper. "It was my wife's stuff. She died."
That kind of news shared with a stranger is the surest way to create awkwardness between them. The only thing to offer is an apology, but the feeling is more an obligation than anything else, a formality between strangers. Empathy, at least, is the expected response, but go one step further into pity and things can end badly. "Oh, I'm sorry man. But why are you getting rid of everything? Shouldn't you want to keep it?"
"I do. But my daughter says I need to get rid of some of it." He turns and hobbles back toward a table that is mostly devoid of anything except a small cooler and a cash box. It is to the cooler than he heads, pulling not one, but two sodas from its frozen depths. Rather than make him cross the lawn again, his gait almost too painful to watch, you head on over and accept the drink. "Mind if I sit a bit? It's not due to start for another half hour, really. You can look o' course."
You smile. "Thanks. I appreciate the soda." Looking around, your eye alights on the horse again. It's really pretty and very well made, and you can't help but think that maybe you should buy it and take it back to your girlfriend. She would like it. "But why would your daughter want you to get rid of all of this? If you don't mind me asking."
He shrugs again, which is clearly his favorite form of nonverbal communication. "Nah. Good to talk to someone besides the lawyers. As for my daughter..." He stops and takes a sip of his soda, closing his eyes as he savors the flavor. "Ah, that's good. 'M not supposed to have these. Bad for my diabetes."
You stare at him for a moment, incredulous. "Then why are you drinking it?"
"Livin' my life," he replies after a moment. "It's what my daughter wants me to do. She says I need to move on. Not that she isn't sad to have lost her mother. I think she's just more sad that I haven't left my house in the year since my wife died." He turns to look at you, eyes powerful for the first time since you met him. "I suppose she's right."
You wonder how it is that he's able to share so much with you. It's something that you'll have to wait to find out, if you're able to recognize the information for what it is. For now, however, you continue the conversation, finally introducing yourself. "I'm Alex," you offer by way of reply, unsure of what else to say.
"Frank," he replies, offering his hand, which you take. They are calloused, evidence that he was a man who did hard work. "Good to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too, sir." You take a sip of your coke, eyes once again alighting on the horse. "Excuse me a moment." Standing, you cross the yard once more and cup the horse in your hand before returning to sit down in the chair next to Frank's. "I think I'll take this."
He stares at it and you begin to wonder if he's going to sell it to you, or if he's going to stand up out of his seat and call off the entire yard sale. Then, very softly, as if it's killing him to do so, he nods. "Good choice," he whispers. "It was the first one I got her. My Linda. For our first anniversary."
"How much do you want for it?" You feel almost crass asking the question, but you're still not terribly certain how to react to Frank's periodic revelations. It's damn uncomfortable, really.
"Tell you what, Alex. If you sit here and help me with my yard sale, I'll give it to you. It's a special piece. Do you mind if I want to make sure that the person who takes it is good enough?" He finishes his coke and reaches into the cooler for another one, eying you as if to dare you to say something about his disease.
"'Course," you reply, placing the horse on the table behind you, next to the cash box. It sits there, waiting like a trophy for the end of the contest. Sit there for a few hours talking to a man trying to free himself from the shadows of his past, and get a piece of Swarovski crystal. Seems a good enough trade.
"I met Linda in high school," he begins, and you realize that earning the horse is going to mean listening to him tell its story. Fine. You take another coke from the cooler and sit back. "Freshman year. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, but I suppose you already knew I was going to say something like that. Our love wasn't exactly the stuff of legend, or nothing. We met, I asked her out, she said yes, and we never looked back."
Frank smiles at something playing on the insides of his eyes, his own private movie superimposed on the knickknacks of his personal loss. You sit back and listen, pleased to hear something approximating happiness coming from this man's mouth. Funny, you've just met him and already there is a thread of friendship forming between your soul and his. In the sharing of this story, he is bringing you into the fold of his own history, making you a part of it as it goes.
"I played football, myself. Of course, freshman were always on the junior varsity squad, but I showed every intention of making first string varsity tackle by the next year. Eventually did, too, though I gave it up to start a family with Linda. She was a bit of a nerd, I suppose, but mostly she was friendly with everyone. It turned out OK for me to date her, though, because we were just freshman. Not that I like to think that stupid high schoolers could have kept me from her. But we're plenty dumb at that age, so maybe it would.
"So, like I said, I asked her out and we never looked back. In fact, we had surprisingly few problems given that we got together so young. Most people that young break up pretty quick. Hell, in this day and age, most grown adults can't seem to say 'I do' without deciding it's a bad idea. They say one in two marriages ends in divorce these days. Is that true?"
You nod without saying anything, not wanting to get in the middle of Frank's reverie. Frowning, Frank shakes his head. "That's too bad. Love's a pretty important thing. Without it, sometimes life just don't seem like living." Don't read too much into that statement, fair reader, just sit there and listen to his story. It's a good one. The feel good kind. "I never once thought about leaving Linda. Never in all the years. It was over thirty years together...but that wasn't enough. Even forever couldn't be long enough. You got a woman, Alex?"
"Yeah," you reply. "The horse is for her. It's actually our first anniversary."
Frank grins, obviously delighted, and claps his hands together. "Well now, that's fine. Just fine! What a great little twist in our little horse's story! What's her name?"
"Sophia." Frank nods, grinning, and begins to chuckle. "That's just great, Alex. I must say, I never expected that to happen. I'm pretty sure Linda would have loved something like this. I'll let her know what happened when I talk to her tonight." Again, ignore this comment. He just means when he says his nightly prayers, right?
"Well now, where was I? Oh right. I wasn't from a rich family...no one in this town was back then, though. So when time came to celebrate our first anniversary, I didn't have much in the way of money. I'd saved up as much money as possible from my paper route and from turning in old glass bottles--do they still take money for those?" You shake your head no and he continues. "Oh well. Anyway, I'd saved up at least a hundred dollars, but I didn't know what to get Linda. I did know she loved horses and she's always wanted one, but there was no way I could afford that. But I was in luck. My uncle owned one of those collectible stores and he told me he would cover the rest of the cost for a Swarovski horse."
You look up and see that some of the first customers--besides yourself, of course--have arrived. "Take any offer that's reasonable, Alex. I trust you. It's not about the money. It's about sharing Linda with the world. I don't want it to end up in a junk pile somewhere, is all."
Because no one's ready to buy, you don't bother to stand up and Frank doesn't seem to expect you to. "Just wait for 'em to come to you. Make sure no one takes anything, but don't force them to do anything." He pulls out another coke, stretching the limits of your silence. But as long as he gets his insulin on time, you suppose things will be alright. One day of splurging won't kill him. "Anyway, I got Linda the horse. Almost dropped it on the way to her house, too, I was shaking so hard. But I managed to get it to the door. She cried she loved it so much. Told her that I would replace it with a real horse one day." Frank's voice is thick with emotion now, and you know exactly what he's about to say. "She died of breast cancer before I could do it."
Tears spill down his ruddy cheeks now, which he does his best to hide. "I kept telling her she needed to get checked, that the lump in her breast was something to worry about. But she had so many responsibilities that she felt were more important...and she just waited too long. They did everything they could, but it just wasn't enough. In the end..." he stops now, gulping down a sip of coke along with the emotions threatening to spill over into embarrassing proportions. "In the end, she was attached to a bed, unable to do anything for herself as her body shut down one organ at a time. And I had to watch...I had to watch."
Now he gives in to his emotion, bawling into his arm as potential customers stare first at him, then at you as if wondering what you could do to stop this. Several people put down prospective purchases and run, frightened away from whatever they wanted to buy. Frank senses this and turns, body convulsing with his efforts to calm himself. It is clear that he has just forced himself to relive his worst moment, and equally as clear that you are unable to do anything. You hover, unsure what to do, but just as you decide to go and comfort your new friend, he turns and smiles.
"Apologies, young man. It is...difficult to watch someone you love die. I pray that you never have to do it." Frank's eyes are red, puffy, and still watery, but that is to be expected from someone who's just cried. "I met her just before my fifteenth birthday. I'm forty-six now. So much of my life has been spent with her...I always pictured spending it all the way to the end. We got married right out of high school, you know? Eighteen and married. Our daughter was born two years later. She lives in New York now, working for a law firm. I think she's waiting to get married. You know kids...always trying to do whatever their parents didn't."
You smile. "I know it. My dad wants me to work for his painting company. I want to be a writer."
Frank chuckles. "And you and Sophia...are you close?"
You nod, a warmth spreading through your chest as you think of your girlfriend. She'll be at home soon, just getting off from her shift at the hospital. "Yeah. I was thinking of asking her to marry me. Don't know if it's too soon, though."
He shakes his head. "Never too soon to ask the woman you love to marry you."
"You're probably right," you demur, not quite sure that Frank's not just part of a different world. But then, the thought of losing Sophia leaves you unable to breathe until you thoroughly convince your mind that she's fine, and she'll be waiting at home for her gift.
"It was a good wedding," he says suddenly. "Small, but quaint, with mostly family. A few friends, but no more than thirty folk. Linda looked so beautiful in the dress her mama made her. I have a picture somewhere, I think...but I'm not sure where it is."
You smile. "I believe you. Women always look beautiful at their own wedding. It's something to do with the crazy finally dissipating, or something like that. Sophia's always talking about how much she wants to get married someday. I'm pretty sure she's got the dress picked out and everything."
Frank chuckles. "Sounds like a woman who's dying to be asked. Like I said, it's ever too soon to ask the woman you love to marry you. You never know how long you'll have with her."
The yard sale is wrapping up now, and the majority of Frank's stuff is gone, taken off into the world and a second life. Very little would end up in the junk yard now, you see, and smile. Scanning his yard for a moment, you turn and see him holding the Swarovski horse. "I miss her. She was my life, and now I have so little of her left. My daughter wants me to move on, but I'm not sure that I can. My only solace is knowing that at least this little horse will have its place in the heart of another. Love well, Alex. You expect forever, but sometimes you don't even get a lifetime."
He hands you the horse and you pocket it, smiling awkwardly at the man who's taught you a lesson. Not knowing what else to do, you wave and head off, looking back only once to see Frank standing forlornly amongst the remnants of his wife's life, caressing the tablecloth that hadn't been bought. Promising to stop by the next day, you hurry home to see Sophia and give her the horse.
Frank had said there weren't rich people in town back when he grew up, but Sophia's family had only moved there twenty years before, so they didn't fit in with that description. The apartment that you share with her is more of a townhouse, with four bedrooms, a basement, and a jacuzzi on the patio deck. As you slip in the front door about half an hour after leaving Frank, you realize that she isn't yet at home, so you place the horse on the table and plop down on the couch to watch some television.
You see Frank's house and it is swarming with cops. An ambulance is just taking off, lights flashing, but the siren is off. You've dated a nurse long enough to know what that means. Someone is dead. You turn up the sound to listen to the news update.
"Frank Donaldson, aged forty-six, was found dead in his home after calling in his own 911 alert. He was DOA and local authorities are calling it a suicide. Mr. Donaldson recently lost his wife, Linda, to breast cancer..." You shut the sound and then the television off, struck dumb. But you had just seen him half an hour ago! How could this have happened?
You stare at the horse in silence until, a few minutes later, the door opens and Sophia walks through.
"Hey babe," you call, still in shock. How could Frank be dead? You'd been planning on visiting him tomorrow to help him pack up the rest of his wife's stuff. You thought the local shelter could use the clothing and miscellaneous accoutrement that had been left over. But he was dead. It should, perhaps, be surprising that a man you just met should have such an affect on you, but perhaps it isn't such a strange thing, after all. There had been a connection between yourself and Frank, a symptom of kindred spirits in a big world. And, just hours after meeting this man with whom you'd bonded your soul, he was gone forever from this world. Could you have saved him? Were there signs that you had missed?
"Hey honey!" She is beautiful, stunning even. And you love her. Frank's words come back to you. She can see you standing in the living room, staring at the empty television screen, eyes blank and yet swirling Charybdis-like with unfathomable emotion. "What's wrong?" Her voice is silken, a balm for your reeling soul. "Honey, has something happened?" The depths of her eyes swim with anxiety, and it is all for you, eyebrows furrowed with confusion as she searches for whatever malady is ailing you.
You stand, suddenly overjoyed just to see this woman standing, whole and alive, right in front of your eyes. Right there for the taking, if you just reach out and take her into your arms. You do so, feeling her warmth, the supple curve of her body pressing just perfectly into the angles of yours. She fits there, as if she has been molded, and you suddenly realize, in the wake of a stranger's passing, that you never want to be parted from her again. You pull back and stare into her dark eyes, tears threatening to spill over and down the gentle hills of your cheeks.
"Sophia, hun...I know this is a little bit sudden and...I know I don't have a ring yet, but I just met a guy...and he gave me a horse..." You ramble, feelings spilling forth in a torrent of babbling words that nothing but your own heart would understand, unless it was her own.
Sophia raises an eyebrow, a smile playing about her beautiful lips even as her eyes remain brimming with concern. "What's going on, honey? Are you asking me to marry you?"
After a moment, seeing Frank's face in front of your eyes, you nod. "I got you a Swarovski horse. I know it's not a ring, but...I know you like horses..."
Sophia laughs, tearing up, and then she is kissing your face, your lips, your hands. "Yes!" she breathes. "Oh, Alex, yes!"
You smile, staring at the horse. It sparkles among the browns and tans of the coffee room table, and some of the grass from Frank's lawn is still stuck to it. Remembering the man, you look up at the ceiling and mouth 'thank you' to the heavens. It has taken a man who lost it all and a glass horse he got for the woman he loved to show to you that love is the most precious thing in the world. And you bring your lips to Sophia's, determined to love her for as many years as time allows.
And the Swarovski horse sparkles.