On a cloudy but otherwise temperate Sunday in August, the couple made the two hour drive up the turnpike to their favorite furniture store. Pulling into an empty spot, Jack noticed they had replaced the old sign — a wooden box with the name of the store painted on it in green — with a new, electric model. The new curvy letters spelling out “Dunkin’s Furniture” in neon red offended his eyes in some subconscious way.
Cutting the engine, neither one moved for a while.
“Ready?” Jack finally asked.
“Yeah,” his wife answered.
He got out but when he turned around, she was still sitting in the car, looking at her hands.
“Uh, yeah, yeah I’m coming.”
She slowly got out of the car. They held hands and he whispered into her ear, “If you don’t want to do this. That is to say, if you aren’t ready…” He let the idea stand alone.
“I have to. I…I want to.”
“Okay,” he said, nodding. “Okay,” he said again, this time for himself.
Hand in hand, they walked to the front doors in silence.
“This new sign is obscene,” she said.
Jack started to laugh. It felt tight at first, catching in his throat. But soon it came easily. His laugh was short lived but as they browsed the aisles he found they were enjoying their shopping despite themselves.
Not much of a shopper, Jack let Gwen take the lead.
“Jack, how nice would this end table look next to the living room couch?” She would ask.
“Oh yes, I can see it now,” he would smile back. He was starting to get used to this smiling thing again.
A salesclerk, tall as a basketball player, came over to them in long strides. His skin was dark and his hair hugged his scalp. He had a large smile, the one that only those who have never lost someone close to them can use. One that Jack and Gwen would never have again, Jack thought angrily and then he felt ashamed. He managed to flash what passed for a smile.
“Hi there, welcome to Dunkin’s. Do you need any help finding anything?”
“Nope,” Jack said, hands in pockets, still feeling slightly guilty. “I think we’re just browsing.”
“Okay, that’s great.” He flashed that smile again. “Let me know if I can help.” Another salesclerk called to him and he rushed off towards her with those long legs.
Gwen was finally ready an hour later. They had two carts full of things that Gwen assured Jack would look excellent in their house.
Business was slow (probably the new sign, Jack thought), so the line was short and soon they were face to face with the tall, black man whom they had met earlier.
“Ah, just browsing, were we?” he said, with a laugh.
“One thing leads to another,” Jack said, glancing at Gwen. Gwen just smiled politely.
When he had finished scanning their items, the man — whose name tag informed them was called Bryan — asked for their last name and address for a discount card. Jack told him and he plugged it in.
“Oh, well, it looks like you have a layaway item here. Only one more payment left and it’s yours.”
Jack and Gwen exchanged puzzled looks.
“We didn’t have anything on layaway. Are you sure it’s our account?” He asked.
“Yes, same last name, same address. The first name is Tom?”
At first Jack assumed there had been a terrible earthquake, the lights in his head dimmed and the floor gave out. His stomach, on the way to his throat, told him that he was falling. He wasn’t falling, and the lights were as bright as ever but it took him a long time to realize it. He instinctively looked to Gwen. She was holding on — she was very strong — but the tears were working their way out one drop at a time.
“Oh,” Jack managed to get out. “Oh, that is… that was our son.”
Bryan looked back and forth to each of them, confused. In his mind, he was racing to make the connection that Jack was too weak to come out and say.
Ding! The light bulb went off in a burst of horrible understanding. That smile was not on his face anymore.
“I. Am. So. Sorry,” he said, one word at a time. “I… I,” but he didn’t know what else to say. Finally, “I’ll just refund you the money and get you checked out and — ”
Jack turned around, but to his surprise, Gwen was not crying. She was standing erect and steady.
“No, I think I want to take it. What is it anyway?”
Bryan took a long time to break his eyes away from her to check on the screen. “It’s a chair,” he stumbled, “a wooden chair.”
“And how much?”
Bryan was falling apart. Unraveling at the seams. “Um, it’s, uh, seventy. Seventy dollars,” he whispered. Gwen stepped forward, as Jack stood in silence, and paid Bryan who had begun to shake visibly.
The car, now loaded down with furniture, was emotionally heavy too. They sat — Jack driving, Gwen starring at her hands — for a long time. Occasionally one would cry but only a few tears and then would be silent again. It was Gwen who finally spoke.
“Tom,” her voice shook a little, “had everything he wanted, right?”
“I think so, Gwen.”
“His room had plenty of chairs, lots of seating.”
“Yeah, I never heard him complain.”
Now she had started to cry again, and Jack cried too.
“Why didn’t he just ask for another chair? I would have gotten him one, but he never said anything?”
Jack didn’t answer, couldn’t answer for a long time.
“You were a great parent, Gwen,” he said, looking straight down the road.
After a pause, “So were you,” she said, slipping her fingers into his and holding tight.
The chair bounced around in the trunk, and as night descended, the clouds opened up a sky full of stars.
Jameson Parker attends Penn State University full time and writes stories when he can.