The divorce attorney’s office, a Tudor that sat like a squat fortress on Jamesville’s Sixth Street, shared its block with a florist’s shop, liquor store, and Starbucks. When Ray walked out of the brick bastion, he could smell the nearby coffeehouse’s fresh-roasted beans. It was nearly eleven, and he needed good coffee, not the weak stuff that secretary had brought him. He grunted, thinking the lawyer Ted Finson could afford to offer something decent with what he gleaned from his clients—hell, from Ray, alone. Then he regretted the thought. Ted was just running his business the way that kind of business needed running. Still. His coffee was thinner than tea. The scent of Starbucks tempted Ray. But every morning on his way to work, he stopped at Cups on Fifth. Loyalty compelled him to resist the closer option. Ray was a small business owner, the proprietor and administrator of a nursing home, and he believed that local independent business owners needed to support other local independent business owners. So he pulled out a handkerchief, swabbed his damp forehead, and started walking. He moved slowly to scan the still interior of the florist’s shop, open but empty, not even a salesperson in sight. It could have been an unvisited funeral parlor: death surrounded by many flowers. This bothered Ray. He pitied the owner. If not for the ferocity of his coffee craving, he would have gone in and bought something. The florist shop’s quiet stood in stark contrast to the bustle of the neighboring shops. They were doing great. The day marked the middle of May, but already a thick summer haze gripped the town. Crabapple boughs drooped over his head. The trees had bloomed hard and fast, and most of their pink petals now smeared the sidewalk. His walk was uphill, and the pitch reminded him of a teeter-totter, grounded by a bully of an office. All morning, Ray had been made to sign and sign and sign. So many forms and agreements, all for the sake of letting go of a marriage he’d never intended to lose. He was shiny with perspiration by the time he got to Cups. The awning was faded, and the outside tables, unoccupied. The coffee shop: a languishing lightweight. He knew a faltering business when he saw one. His own was getting feeble. When Ray opened the door, Andy looked up from the newspaper she’d spread across the counter. She wore a puce cardigan over a black poof of a dress, and the fuzzy wooliness of the sweater made Ray feel even hotter. Andy always seemed cold in the way of the too-skinny or too-old. But she was neither: just average, average weight and middle-aged. Her dark hair stood up on one side, more of a bed head than a designed hairdo, he suspected. It gave the impression she’d been walking for a very long time into a fierce wind. With the exception of eyeshadow, which she applied with a heavy hand, she wore no makeup. “You’re late.” She glanced at her phone. “By three hours.” He pulled out the handkerchief, mopped his head, and returned the damp cloth to his pocket. “I took the morning off.” He didn’t say why because he didn’t want to talk about it. He didn’t even want to think about it. She folded the newspaper. “How are the old ladies?” “Plugging along.” He hadn’t lost a nursing home resident in four months, at least not to death. A few had moved in with their families. Ray wouldn’t have considered this a terrible thing if the moves related to filial love and devotion. But lately, they didn’t. They had to do with money. The economy stunk. Folks wanted Grandma living at home because Grandma could help pay the bills. Andy turned to the espresso machine, asking in a cursory way, “The usual?” “Better make it a single.” Regretfully, he added, “Just one sugar.” “A single?” She stopped discarding the used grounds and glared at him over her shoulder. “Well, that’s just great.” “Sorry.” “Why?” Her eyes narrowed to glittering slits in the twin rainbows of eyeshadow. “Someone putting you on a diet?” He shook his head. Kimmy was controlling, but she didn’t care what he looked like. In their five-year relationship, had she ever? Presently, she cared that he finalize his divorce, get the correct brand of Greek yogurt at the grocery store, take care of her oil change, pick up Matt from preschool on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and after lunch, drop Matt off at her mother’s. Today was Friday. His little guy got out at noon. Ray had to hurry. Feeling discombobulated, he stuck his hand in his pocket to grab his cell and check the time, then remembered he’d left the phone on his dresser. Crap. Sighing, he dragged out the handkerchief instead and patted the back of his neck. “It’s my doctor. He says I ought to cut my calorie intake in half.” Half. That was the new rule he lived under: half the food and drinks he loved, half of his business (since last year he’d sold the Martin Home, unable to keep it and the Winthrop Home going when he only had enough residents for one), half custody of his older children, half of their weekends and vacations. And of course half of his assets. Muriel was taking the other half. Which he didn’t begrudge her. She deserved it. “Why?” Andy demanded. “You look fine.” “I appreciate that,” he sighed, swiping his forehead, “but I’ve been having some chest pains.” And he was getting chunky. He didn’t want to say it aloud, hated thinking of himself that way, but it was true. Only his stomach resisted the new rule of half: it was determined to double. “Fine.” She threw up a hand in exasperation. “A single latte.” She whirled back to the machine and, after a moment of slapping open one thing and pounding down another, threw him a tired smile. “Excuse my mood. Tom and I broke up.” “Oh.” Ray felt another wave of heat sweep his forehead. He was never sure how to respond to Andy when she offered personal information, which she did liberally and on a regular basis. He knew about Tom, a nice guy based on what she’d shared in the past, the sort to surprise Andy with concert tickets, a picnic, and prime pot. Ray also knew about Andy’s rash. And her obnoxious sister. And her one piercing that got infected. He cringed, thinking about the piercing. “That’s too bad. I’m really sorry.” He took out his wallet, thinking the sight of it might spur her into ringing up his purchase. She gave a defensive shrug. “It was my fault.” “Well, now,” Ray soothed, holding out a ten in a supplicating way. “It takes two to tango…” “I broke up with him.” She finished preparing Ray’s latte, but then held it close to her chest and glared again, as if daring him to try to take it from her. “I know what you’re thinking. ‘Why would Andy break up with such a nice guy?’ Go ahead. Say it.” His hand flopped the ten up and down a little. He willed her to glance at it. She didn’t. He sighed. “Relationships are complicated. You can’t just pour all the blame on one person.” Though Muriel could. She had every right to. He frowned, still trying to make sense of how his entanglement with Kimmy had started. It almost seemed like an accident. One evening they were lingering after a United Way meeting, discussing the idea of using birthday cake and candles to spice up a fundraiser, and the next thing he knew, she was taking hold of him by his tie. Then patting around for his zipper. His hands sort of landed, gingerly, on her breasts. Her breasts felt like birthday balloons. And his hands were like a stranger’s hands. Andy was discussing his heart. “…so ignore him. Doctors have an agenda, hot on the kickbacks from their precious pharmaceutical companies. You can’t trust quacks anymore, not when they profit from peddling pills. I wouldn’t give a doctor a dime. But my herbalist? She deserves my undying devotion.” She glanced at her phone again. “I’m out of here.” Ray exhaled in relief and handed her his money. “Well, I hope you have a great rest of your—” “You’re coming with me.” “I am?” She nodded, rang him up, and shoved the change at him. “I’ll give you a week’s dose to try them out. My treat. We’ll see if we can’t take care of those chest pains the natural way.” Ray distractedly dropped his change in the tip jar and took a step back, fumbling to hold his latte and stuff his wallet in his back pocket at the same time. “I—I have to pick up my youngest from preschool.” “Alphabet Preschool? Good. I practically live around the corner from Alphabet. It’s, like, a minute away. Bill picked me up this morning, so you can drive us. Where’s your car?” “Across from the post office.” Not his sedan but Dave’s clunker. He’d traded cars with his oldest son for the weekend, so Dave could visit his pal in Fredonia—and so Ray wouldn’t have to worry about the deathtrap breaking down along the way. “Okay. Let’s go.” To the backroom, she hollered, “Get your ass out here, Billy! I’m blowing this joint.” She reached under the counter and withdrew what looked like an army surplus duffel bag, then jerked her chin in the direction of the door. “Hop, hop, Ray. After establishing a spanking pace down Fifth, Andy lectured him on his heart and how he should take care of it. She had a lot to say about garlic and ginger. Ray nodded like he was listening closely and tried to manage quick sips of his drink while keeping up with her. They passed the bicycle shop, Lift-bridge Diner, and Jane’s Antiques. A sluggish wind drew the crabapple blossoms through the air. They were like confetti tossed after a wedding. Some pink petals landed on Andy’s dark hair. She reminded him of a very grim and messy bride. Close to the canal, Phil Garrett, the treasurer for the Community Foundation, got out of his car and checked his phone. When he looked up, he spotted Ray. They exchanged a few words. During the pleasantries, Phil’s eyes slid over Andy. Ray stiffened, keenly discomfited, knowing what Phil was wondering. He should have grown used to the speculations. After the news about Kimmy got out, Ray frequently found himself (he: boring old Ray!) subjected to such scrutiny. He grunted a goodbye. Andy made a face at Phil’s departing back. “Pervert.” She turned to stare at the mauve rust-bucket parked opposite the post office. “That’s yours?” “My son’s. He’s borrowing mine.” “Ah.” Her mouth quirked. “You’re nice.” She led the way across the street, striding so quickly, Ray had to trot to get to the passenger side before her, so he could open the door. By the curb, drifts of pink petals had collected like some fantastical precipitation. For the first time that morning, his mood lifted. Maybe he’d take Matt outside to play at lunchtime. Matt would like to run through the air on a day like this when flowers and pollens flew around like snow. He got in and poked the key in the ignition. The car started with a hacking sound. “Which way?” “Down Washington. Take a right onto Euclid.” She threw her duffel into Matt’s booster on the seat behind her, then rolled down her window, leaned back, and closed her eyes. “What really will help you is the turmeric. Don’t get me wrong: ginger and garlic work great. But the key ingredient is the turmeric, and that’s because it’s got curcumin.” She looked at him sternly. “You see, Ray, we’re not looking for a Band-Aid here. We want to build up your system. Make it stronger. (Next block up, turn left on Norway.) That’s where the spice comes in, and not just because of its anti-inflammatory properties. It also prevents cholesterol from oxidizing. It’s the oxidation that damages the blood vessels and fills your arteries with plaque. Don’t worry. We’ll get you all fixed. (Turn here.) Garlic, ginger, and turmeric. How does that sound?” “Like a good Indian meal.” She laughed. The laugh dissolved into a sigh. For a minute, she sat silently, staring straight ahead. Ray was leaning forward over the wheel, frowning at the row of houses. He’d never been down this road. In fact, he didn’t recognize the entire neighborhood. “Do you want to know why I broke up with Tom?” Andy asked suddenly, her voice hollow. No. Please. “You don’t have to tell me…” “I do. I want to tell someone.” He bit back a groan. “Why?” “Because he didn’t get me.” “That’s too bad…” “He was always trying to tickle me in bed.” Ray felt a flush crawl up his neck and grab hold of his ears. Fortunately, he didn’t have to construe an answer because she continued, “First of all, I’m not the ticklish type. (Turn right at the stop sign.) Anyone can see I’m not the ticklish type. You see that, don’t you, Ray?” He nodded. That was obvious. “But the worst part of the tickling business was he treated it as a kind of foreplay, like he seriously thought if he could get me giggling, I might start feeling sexy, I might begin throwing off my clothes, I might—I don’t know—laugh myself into an orgasm.” “Huh.” What could he say? He looked pleadingly at the houses, all two-story and peeling and sporting front porches. His entire head burned. His chest hurt, too. He felt dizzy. Sick. And it was late. He was going to be late picking up Matt. And now he had this foreplay information in addition to the infected piercing to add to his understanding of the barista. What was next? Where the heck did she live? Jeez, were they almost there? “We’re here.” She pointed. “The gray house with the red shutters.” After he stopped by the curb, she retrieved her duffel bag, shouldered open the door, and said without turning, “Be back in a flash.” “That’s okay…” But she was gone. Ray slumped, cast an anxious glance at the time blazing greenly from the ancient dashboard, then gazed around. So this was Andy’s neighborhood. Some of the houses had flower boxes. Across the street, a homeowner had left his kid’s tricycle on the front lawn. Every backyard within sight had a swing set. The place didn’t fit her. He’d always pictured her living in a commune, some strange compound encircled with a brick wall, or an underground bunker. Especially a bunker. One filled with ammunition. She claimed to be peace-loving, but frequently looked fired up and ready for war. A tough nut to crack, Andy. He couldn’t figure her out. Obviously poor Tom couldn’t either. Tickling! Tickling was no way to turn on a woman. Even Ray knew that. He was idly patting the steering wheel when the realization struck him: Tom knew that, too. Of course he did. After Andy kicked open her front door and stomped to the car with a small Ziploc of horse pills in her hand, he took the bag with a thank you, listened to her terse directions, then said abruptly, “Listen, Andy. I don’t think Tom was tickling you to…you know.” He fluttered his hand over the steering wheel. “He was probably just trying to get you to smile.” He nodded sagely. “To make you happy.” Andy didn’t look impressed with his epiphany. “Just because a person laughs when she’s tickled doesn’t make her truly happy.” But when nothing else was working, neither picnics nor pot, and when the person Tom loved was committed, in an almost fanatical fashion, to dissatisfaction, tickling might have been a last recourse. It was worth a try. Ray didn’t say any of this. He just nodded. “Fair enough. Thanks again.” After pulling away from the curb, he turned around and began taking the roads toward town. The issue of happiness burdened his thoughts. He’d failed to make Muriel and Kimmy happy. But at work? The success of his business depended on how well he helped perpetuate people’s contentment: the quality of the meals, the gentleness of his aides, the activity director’s ingenuity, the regular treats—plays, concerts, bridge games, book club meetings. These things mattered, and not just for the sake of luring prospective residents, then keeping them pleasantly occupied; they mattered to him. He felt strongly that a person’s life should end happily, as happily as failing limbs and failing heart and failing sight and failing hearing could allow. That was why he’d been worried last week when the Ziegler family had collected Mrs. Ziegler and her belongings. Hopefully, the daughter would always remember to set up Mrs. Ziegler’s meds and make sure her mother ate enough and got bathed and visited her physician on a regular basis. But would the daughter take Mrs. Ziegler to the hairdresser’s every Wednesday? Would she walk down the sidewalk at the snail’s pace set by her mother, so Mrs. Ziegler could see what was blooming? Mrs. Ziegler loved mysteries. Would the daughter order her large-print books to read? He blew a sigh, turned left at the stop sign, and glanced at the time. Five minutes to noon. A couple more turns would get him to Norway Road. Once he reached Euclid, he’d be a short block from the preschool and just make it. He thought about Matt, probably playing on the jungle gym with the other four-year-olds waiting to get collected. Matt: easily the only family member who didn’t consider Ray a failure. Ray loved the little guy like crazy. And Matt loved him—told him so, showed him so, with kisses and hand tugs and full throttle embraces, an entire orchestration of uncomplicated, generous physicality. How nice that, with this one, at least for now, he didn’t have to wade through layers of conflicting emotions in a single interaction, no disdain in the smile, no guilt-trip in a ready agreement, no ulterior motive in a kind gesture. If Ray tickled Matt, Matt laughed, and the laughter meant precisely what it sounded like: happiness. He turned onto Norway. However, three houses down the block, he realized the road wasn’t Norway but a street called Snodsmith. He instinctively reached for his cell phone before remembering he’d forgotten it. And Dave’s car didn’t have GPS. Cursing, he quickly pulled into a driveway, then tried to retrace his route. But nothing in the area jogged his memory. With a panicked glance, he saw the time, noon on the dot, and leaned over the steering wheel, looked all around, and searched for something familiar. How could he not know this place? He’d lived in this town for years! He turned a corner. Then another. The houses here, all variations on the same brick style, with their carefully mowed lawns and flower borders of drooping peonies and fading irises, shared a strong resemblance. It was like the road had turned into a terrible treadmill and he was passing the same house, over and over again. The neighborhood was alien territory. Hovering behind this disturbing sense of displacement was Ray’s picture of Matt: Matt looking for him. Matt, the last child left beside the swings. Matt’s teacher also peering around, glancing at her watch, utterly perturbed with Ray. Did she have afternoon classes to teach? Another job? She wouldn’t just leave Matt there by himself. She wouldn’t. She couldn’t. Could she? Ray’s heart thudded. Swiping his damp forehead with a sleeve, he suddenly stepped on the gas and drove straight down the road. The street running perpendicular at the end coursed with traffic. It was heavily traveled. Surely, he’d recognize it. And he did. It was Euclid. He shook his head, dazed, slick with sweat, his hands slippery on the wheel. In a minute, he arrived at the preschool. He parked quickly, got out, his heart still thumping, thumping, his misery still fresh. How stupid to forget his phone, to get so distracted, to get lost, to be late—just nine minutes but still—inexcusably late, a disappointment to the teacher and, worse, a disappointment to his youngest child.
There was the teacher, talking to one of the mothers. She merely nodded at Ray and raised a hand, so as to not interrupt her conversation with the parent.
And there was Matt, upside down on the monkey bars, then swinging forward nimbly, then grabbing hold of a bar, then letting his body hang straight down as if to test the strength of his small hands and arms. He dropped to the ground and ran to Ray and threw himself straight at him with every expectation of being caught and held.
Which Ray did. Of course he did. And his misery, if not disappearing, at least slunk away, coiled and quieted. He gripped Matt closely, said gruffly, “Hey, Buddy,” and smiled at the small person. His heart reacted to his own smile. His mind registered what the smile meant. And in that moment’s embrace, Ray was more than content. He was, in fact, stricken with joy.
MELISSA OSTROM is the author of The Beloved Wild (Feiwel & Friends, 2018), a Junior Library Guild book and an Amelia Bloomer Award selection, and Unleaving (Feiwel & Friends, 2019). Her stories have appeared in many journals and been selected for Best Small Fictions 2019, Best Microfiction 2020, Best Small Fictions 2021, Best Microfiction 2021, and Wigleaf Top 50 2022. She lives with her husband, children, and dog Mocha in Holley, New York. Learn more at www.melissaostrom.com or find her on Twitter @melostrom.