Thursday, January 19, 2012

Death of a Curmudgeon


Bundled into the sheepskin coat that was his only extravagance, Frank left his second floor apartment. The hallway wall sconces, dimmed by at least fifty years of grime, obscured that desolation had overcome what once had been bright and cheery. On the way to the elevator, his labored footsteps accented by the raps of his cane, he passed the two apartments that, until recently, had housed his only friends. Rob had gone on last year. It took Frank several days to track down his family; and he had been shocked to learn that they hadn't known where he was. Rob had spoken of them as though they were in constant contact. Their sorrow at having found him too late still clung to Frank. Closer than his own shadow, it was an unwanted specter that he was unable to shake.

 The year before Rob's death, Manfred's sons and daughters had committed him to an assisted-living facility. The day he was carried away had been rough. Fighting, though strapped down to a gurney, he keened his humiliation, and railed against the indecency with which his family was treating him. Frank and Rob had argued that they could take care of him, but his children were adamant. Having since visited him a few times, Frank had to admit that Manfred was cleaner and healthier. But soft living had clouded his mind. He had forgotten most things that the three of them had been angry about; was no longer able to drum up the righteous indignation that they had nurtured for decades, fed by the discussions at their usual table in the coffee shop. Their unyielding stance had been that people should take care of themselves - and when they couldn't...well, survival of the fittest.

To Frank's intense relieve, the elevator was working again. That it had been broken for the past few days severely violated his routine. His last non-Tuesday coffee shop visit was too long ago to remember. Though still able to manage the single flight of stairs, his balance was precarious.  Climbing them - in either direction - took a long time and much of his energy. This time of year, he needed to conserve that energy for navigating the four icy steps from the apartment house stoop to the sidewalk.

The comparatively warm apartment house interior now behind him, Frank stepped from the vestibule out onto the stoop. Using his cane to shatter the ice as well as help him balance, he descended the four steps, very slowly, holding tight to the rail with his other gloved hand. Though the sidewalk was also iced over, it was relatively safe compared to the steps. Besides, he had only to walk half a block.

Soothed by the promise offered by the steamed coffee shop front window, Frank looked forward to a welcome respite from the cold, blustery late winter morning. Until last spring, his had been afternoon visits. Then the present owners put in that newfangled wireless beacon and it drew patrons by the droves. He had no reason to expect that Thursdays would be any less crowded. At least the coffee was better. Arriving before noon, he eliminated the possibility of having to hoist himself up onto a bar stool. An extremely uncomfortable and unreliable perch, it would surely one day fail him.

After ordering his usual, Frank wove his way among the tall and short tables to his decades old spot in the far corner by the window. As soon as he had removed his outer wear and lowered himself into the comfortable arm chair, Jenny cheerily brought over his coffee and crispy vegetable panini. The shop was far too busy for her to stay for a chat as in past times. Sadly, he watched her rush away, taking his last chance for conversation with her. For the past eight months, he had sat alone, munching his panini, slowly sipping his coffee and reliving afternoons from the thirty-eight years he had spent with Rob and Manfred. It didn't matter what topic they had discussed, the tenor of their conversation had been the same - the world was heading straight to hell.

Soon the coffee shop filled with the new patrons. To Frank's surprise, they were young, and overly fresh looking; far different from the staid, older Tuesday crowd. And there were more of them, all accompanied by various electronic devices. He knew that the smallest ones were phones, but the others - though he knew of tablets, he wasn't sure which of the devices were or weren't. Where the Tuesday crowd was a solitary bunch, this Thursday group talked among themselves, or played companionably with their toys; all part of a vast, connected conspiracy that was outside Frank's ability to fathom. He clung to his table and his thoughts, shielding himself against the unnatural camaraderie they exuded.

Finally having had enough of their gaiety, he pushed himself to his feet and again pulled on his armor against the cold; wondering if he would ever come back - even on Tuesday. As he prepared to push his way out of the corner, the other patrons cleared a path to the door by moving their chairs and feet out of his way. Welcoming faces turned in his direction, smiling as though he was part of their grand game. Taken aback, Frank nodded to those who smiled his way, and was rewarded with larger, happier smiles in return. At the door, he turned and looked back, a little disgruntled to see that they had all returned to their various pursuits. Bleakness settled in again as he stepped out into the cold. He carefully made his way back to the apartment building, memories of the short moments of warmth he had just experienced intruding on his attempts to return to his condemnation of the general state of things.

With the aid of his cane and the still freezing iron rail, Frank pulled himself up the steps to the stoop. Back inside the building, he hastened to his apartment, trying to ignore the gloom with which his surroundings now accosted him. Once he removed and carefully put away his coat, hat, gloves and scarf, he braced himself with his cane and slowly knelt beside the trunk on the closet floor. Cautiously feeling his way among his treasures, he located and pulled out the birthday present he had received four months ago from his daughter and her family. He knew that it was a tablet and that when he touched the brightly colored pictures they showed him other colorful pictures. Too proud to acknowledge ignorance, he had never responded to her offer of teaching him to use it.

Again using his cane, Frank pulled himself to his feet, and made his way stiffly to the desk in the corner by the only window, where he picked up the receiver on the rotary phone and dialed.

"Dad! Is there something wrong?" his daughter asked above the shouts and laughter of his grandchildren.

"No, no...just wondering if you were up for a short visit..."

"Of course! We'll come for you tomorrow."

Five days later, they returned for his treasures.

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