I’ve written a number of short stories, an art that so many of my most admired writers have perfected, Raymond Carver, John Updike, John Cheever, and William Trevor. I’ve read most of their stories and I wish osmosis was a better teacher. This has been a more difficult challenge than I had imagined, the revision process being a particular struggle. So while I still work on several, it is bringing them to completion that confounds.
There is a thin membrane between memoir and fiction. Some writers literally adopt personal experience, while for others it is more an imagined personal experience – yet inevitably based on the author’s world in some way. The stories I’ve written are more of the latter nature, but getting the story “right” has been a battle. Thus, I chisel away at them occasionally, never seem to be fully satisfied. I’ve said somewhere in this blog that I’d publish them -- when “finished.”
There is one story that is an exception to the above as it is much more memoir, the only story I’ve written in the first person, and in fact it is based on one of my blog entries from a couple of years ago. Once I started to work on it, infusing it with several imagined scenes, cutting out other details, I’ve never gone back to compare the two and I don’t want to. I know it has changed a great deal, although parts are inevitably intact.
I post it on Memorial Day though as the story inexorably leads there at the conclusion. It is about things we take for granted and their disruption, about aging and loss and remembrance. As a short story, I hope tone and feeling transcend literal details. So, I’ll call this story “finished.”
There is a morning routine I developed in retirement. In the past, there were many morning routines: helping my wife get the kids off to school; the monitoring of the morning’s commute; financial news to assimilate and preparing for meetings yet to come. Routines were established of their own accord, some by a matter of necessity, others by the natural progression of men, like me, now retired from the Profession of Routine, some seventy odd years and counting.
One of my remaining routines is during the early mornings. I am summoned by the Florida sun, and get dressed for a brisk walk. After fastening my iPhone to my belt, and donning my Yankees cap, I’m ready to go. Most days I decide en route. Perhaps “the loop” circuit past the new houses or remodels in the neighborhood, guessing real estate values, or a walk near the river, peppered with dog-walkers, joggers and other morning enthusiasts, reviewing the emerging demographic.
Some people will reciprocate my ”Good Morning!” greeting while others pretend not to have heard, averting their eyes. Over the years I have noted a direct correlation between age and “good morning” reciprocity, with younger walkers more likely to just pass by as if I am invisible or, worse, dead. Their loss I imagine. What else can I think in my self-defense?
But on Sunday mornings, my walk is to my local 7-Eleven where they carry the Sunday New York Times. This walk is longer, taking me through our local country club golf course, which always seems alive like the inside of a terrarium. The course had been recently redesigned, with the greens, small lakes, and undulations making it seem ethereal.
I speak as if I am a golfer. I am not but most of my acquaintances are now. This makes friendships somewhat tenuous as when we get together as couples, well, the ladies have much in common, but the men talk golf and exchange golf jokes, some of the same ones they’ve told for years, the manner of the telling trumping repetition.
I once said to them that I played golf while in high school and college – in fact was an ambidextrous golfer as one of my father’s friends gave me some old left-handed woods he no longer needed (and I am left handed) and another of his friends gave me some right handed irons -- and that is how I learned. My friends listened politely, but knowing I no longer play golf their discussion resumed about their day on the course, with the good natured jousting of men who are poor golfers but have this one thing in common besides their age and infirmaries. They have their own routines and those normally do not intersect with mine.
Today while walking through the country club grounds I saw that the often discussed dismantling of the multilevel diving board adjacent to an Olympic size pool had suddenly occurred. It was there last week (and for decades before). Insurance costs forced my municipality to tear down the iconic high diving platform. There is now a space in my memory of where it once stood.
I walked past the golf carts, humming in their electric charging stalls, early morning golfers gathering over coffee, and the water sprinklers timed to come on, one-by-one, the sole task of a less complicated machine. I headed over to Route 1, and then north to the 7-Eleven. The sun was hardly breaking above the palm trees.
A routine like this has trained my eyes, and I tend to notice things out of place. As I cross the parking lot in front of the driving range, an older white Ford Explorer is usually parked there, someone out practicing early. It wasn’t today. I didn’t think much of it, other than maybe the driver has left town for the approaching summer. I had never seen him, only having noticed the car, as if it was simply part of the golfing landscape.
Sitting back with the Sunday New York Times is a routine I developed since college; I couldn’t imagine a Sunday morning without it. And my walk to the 7-Eleven made it seem that the Grey Lady herself waited especially for me. It is not easy to dismiss these thoughts.
When my wife and I moved to Florida, I had arranged for the Times to be delivered; but service was unreliable. There were issues too with placing temporary holds while on vacation. I remember the feeling of dismay upon discovering several papers, still soggy in their plastic bags, abandoned on my driveway after one such absence. I cancelled delivery that morning. Though one can read the New York Times online, I prefer holding those familiar pages in my hands. So naturally I was relieved to find the most generic convenience store stocked it, in walking distance away, a commonplace 7-Eleven across the golf course.
Upon walking into the store this particular morning, I immediately saw some things askance. Sales bins had replaced the stacks of local and national newspapers. It looked like a yard sale before home owners move on. I recognized the woman behind the counter. She always greeted her regular customers, and we both normally found ourselves in small talk, such as “how are you this beautiful morning?” “Can’t complain, wouldn’t do me any good,” she would laughingly say. Sometimes I would tease her about having bought a quick pick lottery ticket the week before – when the prize was almost a half billion dollars – the level at which I could be induced to spend a couple of bucks on an impossible gamble. “Hey, you promised this was the winning ticket. I didn’t even get a booby prize!” And she’d say, “You didn’t pray enough!”
No such banter this morning. There were two other employees with her, seemingly serious in their efforts of recording outgoing merchandise and taking inventory, clipboards in hand. The newspaper rack – now in the back -- was depleted but thankfully there was one copy of the Sunday Times left.
My 7- Eleven lady behind the counter detected my consternation and said “you got the last newspaper we will ever have delivered here – the store is closing in a couple of days.” I was stunned. “I’ve been coming here for years, every Sunday, are you relocating?” No, but fortunately she was being transferred to another 7-Eleven some ten miles away. “I haven’t lost my job at least” she smiled. I smiled for her.
I wished her the best, knowing I would never see her again. We both lingered there for a moment. I felt my head make an affirmative farewell. Then, I walked out – the ring above the door announcing my departure --- with the copy of the store’s last New York Times under my arm. In all those years I never thought to ask her name.
Crossing the parking lot in front of the golf driving range, I saw that white Explorer just arriving in its familiar parking place. An elderly gent emerged. “Good morning,” I said to the man whose car I had noticed for so many years. He returned the good morning. I said “you’re late today. By the time I see your car, you are already on the driving range.”
“Got a late start today,” he almost whispered.
Up close, he was slightly taller than I, thin, and seemed in fairly good shape, figured him for maybe ten years older. He was opening the SUV’s cargo door for his clubs when he asked “Where are you from originally?” (He sized me up as not being a native Floridian; perhaps the Times under my arm was a clue).
“New York City, you?”
“Yeah, I lived there for several years after WW II.”
He said he was in shipping logistics after serving as an infantryman during the War. He didn’t look old enough to be in WW II, so I asked. “I’m 92,” I was shocked, and he seemed to be used to such surprises. I told him my father was a Signal Corps photographer in Europe during the War and he replied “I was first in the European theater and then shipped to the Pacific.”
“My father was afraid that’d happen to him after Germany surrendered,” I confessed.
He then hesitated and finally said “I’m eligible to be buried in Arlington Cemetery.”
“Such an honor,” I replied “but I think you have many good years before having to think of that. You’re in great shape, still teeing off every Sunday!”
He chuckled. “The real honor is still being here,” waving his arm across the golf course. And, indeed, in that moment, the sun had now fully risen above the palm trees. A warm breeze started to blow across the greenery on which our shadows lay as well.
Not knowing how to exactly reply, I said “Memorial Day is tomorrow and my father will be very much on my mind, but I’d like to say I’m grateful for your service too. Just wanted you to know that.”
“Thanks,” he said, “it’s a sad day for me, remembering those guys, they were good buddies, some who died right next to me, no further away from where you’re standing. Others I simply outlived and everyone in between.”
He was still gathering his clubs from the SUV but stopped and turned to me and said, almost as if he were quoting someone he knew standing nearby “War is not where you die, but where you fight to live.” He paused before suddenly hoisting his bag on his shoulder and said “Anyway, right-o, I’ll see you around another Sunday ---?”
“Bill,” I replied, “name is Bill”.
“John’s mine, pleasure talking with you.” We shook hands. Then he walked towards the driving range. His own routine was about to begin.
No sense calling back to John to tell him this was probably my last Sunday walk through the golf course, “Yes, see you around” I said loudly, almost as if saluting him, as he marched away. I stood there for a moment, watching him go off, and then turned and left for home.
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© Robert Hagelstein