I upend Marge’s old brown leather purse on the kitchen table as I’ve done hundreds of times for her, as I do every time it gets so heavy that her knee acts up. The clatter of change is almost deafening in the stillness of our townhouse. The honey pine table is as dimpled as an orange from the flotsam and jetsam washing out of her purse over the years. First I separate the things she always needs: the compact with the daisy that Jenny painted in the third grade, the bulging photo-wallet with pictures of the grandkids, receipts for the Christmas presents still hidden under our bed and her volunteer ID from the VA.
“This must be the biggest pile ever,” I say, pushing the pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters — even a handful of dollar coins — into a metal mountain.
Marge just smiles and nods. After sixty years she doesn’t even have to tell me. ‘It’s for that special day.’
Most people try to get rid of their change, but Marge goes out of her way to collect it, sometimes asking for the change from a ten in quarters. I head into the garage to get a jar. The old oak shelf is sagging under the weight, but about thirty years ago I wedged a few two by fours underneath and the shelf could hold an elephant. It needs to. Over a hundred jars hold vigil, waiting for Marge’s special day. The oldest are heavy mason jars covered in dust with yellowing labels touting Richard Hellman’s Blue Ribbon Mayonnaise. I grab the last half-filled jar plus an empty from the end that Marge saved from the recycle bin. These last are the newer, plastic ones with the light mayo Marge switched me to after the bypass.
“You’ve outdone yourself this time,” I say. I’ve filled the rest of the first thirty-two ounce jars and the entire second jar as well. She just nods and smiles. It’s that same smile that greeted me when I met her sixty years ago on a transport out of Seoul. I’d been grousing about the shoulder injury which was sending me home, when I noticed the sheet on her cot was flat where her left shin and foot should have been.
My chest tightens, so I lug the jars back to the garage.
As I reach to put the jars on the shelf she catches my gaze. She looks at our old metallic-blue Cadillac Cimarron. I had to buy it when I saw that it exactly matched her eyes, right down to the tiny golden flecks. Still purrs like a kitten — the caddy, not Marge. Two hundred and sixty thousand miles and still on its first engine, which is a good thing since they stopped making them in the eighties. Or was it the nineties. It’s getting hard to remember some of these things. Marge rolls her eyes.
“What?” I ask.
She looks at the jars and then to the Caddy.
“The jars? Today?”
I know enough not to argue. I’m winded and have to take a break several times before I’ve loaded the trunk. God, what I wouldn’t give to be sixty again. The sun is beating down through the open garage door and I’ve worked up a sweat by the time I’m done.
When I plunk down into the leather seat, I smell Shalimar and she’s right there beside me, where she always is.
She glances west and I hang a left out the driveway. We go that way for a while, me following her nods, until she tries to direct me onto Willow Street. I stiffen.
“We can’t go there. Not there.”
She reaches over. For an instant I can imagine the slightest breath of her hand on mine and I manage to swallow a lump that had formed. I make the turn.
I haven’t been to the veteran’s hospital since that day. How could I?
I park on the street a few spaces from the crosswalk where it happened. If I had come a few minutes earlier, she wouldn’t have needed to cross.
She tosses her head for me to get out, her silky white hair bouncing. I get out and make my way to the bench where she should have been waiting for me. The air is hot, but an ancient elm that somehow avoided the blight provides a cool blanket of shade. As my spine sinks against the bench’s wooden slats I notice the bouquets of flowers at the base of the elm. There must be dozens.
The tap of a cane draws my gaze down the sidewalk, but rather than someone my age, there’s a young woman. She couldn’t be much more than twenty. Her jeans are worn and dirty, her khaki shirt threadbare with an elbow showing. I can see the less faded patches where she removed her insignia. She winces every time she comes down on her left leg. Her gait is unsteady and reminds me of Marge’s when she was just learning…
This time the lump in my throat won’t disappear.
The young woman clutches a bunch of wildflowers in one hand, a few daisies and lilacs. She places them among the others and asks if I mind if she sits. She talks about how much Marge helped her when she just got back from Afghanistan. We talk for an hour and I realize how much has changed and how little has changed since I served. Her stomach rumbles and she looks away, embarrassed, and wipes away a tear.
I pat her arm and tell her not to worry. Marge left something for her in the trunk.
Richard William Bradford lives in Lancaster, Ma. When he isn’t scouring the planet for gadgets and artwork for his steampunk mancave, he’s finalizing work on a set of present-day science fiction novels. Richard is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.