[A Short Story]
By Stacey J. Haseleu
Denise took another sip of wine from the chipped stemware, allowing the full-bodied texture of the cheap Moscato to caress her taste buds before rolling in a swift tide down her throat. Her tired body melted into the creases of the futon. The bars were unforgiving, but then again so was life.
As she closed her eyes she could hear his voice; strong, confident, resilient. “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” And with the remembrance of that phrase he was there; resting next to her on the tiny futon in her one-bedroom apartment. Gazing at her with brooding eyes, he leaned back. A nervous grin crossed his lips.
“You know you shouldn’t be drinking Denise. It’s not going to solve the problem.” She closed her eyes again slowly, intentionally trying to blink him away, but she knew it was no use. He was there now. Just as he had been every night for the past 6 months.
“You have to leave me alone.” She whispered in a raspy but intentional voice.
“You know I can’t do that honey. Not until you understand why I’m here,” his voice was so soft and reassuring. She wanted to wrap his words around her like a blanket. But she knew if she reached out nothing would be there, just a fist of emptiness.
“You remember the time at the lake we almost caught the big one?” He continued, the tempo of his voice more upbeat, “Oh we were so close Denise. I could feel it. Couldn’t you?” His eyes twinkled and his body tensed in anticipation. “If only you had cast your line in the water, you would’ve had ‘em…. I know it,” he said hollowly, disappointment creasing his brow.
Denise’s mind wandered back to that August day on the lake. The sun’s beams peeked through the cracks of the wispy summer clouds and danced off the ripples of the deep, muddled water. It was a muggy day. The air was thick as molasses with musty undertones of autumn leaves and damp soil. The cicadas’ constant buzz mixed with the sound of water lapping up the side of the boat to form the soundtrack for the afternoon.
With her back facing the front of the boat, Denise leaned back and propped her bare feet up on the center wooden seat a few feet in front of her. She pulled her short black hair from her face and secured it into a loose ponytail with a purple hair tie. She took a deep breath of the moist air and raised her chin to the sun as she closed her eyes and let the warm beams tickle her cheeks, forehead, and chin.
For the first time in a long time she was content. Content to waste the day away on a wooden boat that had to be bailed out with a coffee tin every 10 minutes. Content to be drifting into the weed beds of the deep lake. Content to be with Kurt. Content.
“Denise,” a booming voice echoed off the walls of tranquility, “what are you doing? Cast your line out there, this is perfect weather for bitin’ Musky!”
Sitting in the back seat of the wooden boat Kurt spit some chew out into the lake and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. His pale complexion was red from the heat and sun. He continued reeling in his line, the muscles of his forearms tensing and relaxing in a consistent pattern with every spin of the reel. Denise sat, her gaze transfixed on Kurt for a moment before a smile crept over her lips.
“What? And rob you of the chance to catch it yourself?” She half giggled as her gaze moved from his forearms to his broad shoulders, up to his face. His lower lip protruded with a huge hunk of chew, a habit she insisted she would break him of someday. But secretly she loved that he chewed. It was raw. It was real. It was manly. It was how she knew he was truly relaxed.
“You can’t expect to catch anything if you don’t cast your line out,” he mumbled back, knowing full-well Denise had no intention of fishing today. His face was serious yet calm. The creases in his forehead disappeared in the bright August sun. His green eyes, reflecting the deep emerald undertones of the lake, were concentrated on the tip of his rod. Pensively, gingerly, he continued to reel until the buck-tail lore skimmed to the top of the lake and with one graceful lift, was out of the water and swinging next to his rod. As Kurt stood up to cast the line out and begin the reeling process again, Denise noticed an inverted splash in the water out of the corner of her eye.
Her gaze immediately turned to the disturbance. And that’s when she saw it; the biggest Musky she’d seen in the 20 years she and Kurt had been coming to the lake. Its beautiful yellow green scales glistened in the sun as it jumped from the water 15 yards from the boat, and re-entered into the dark abyss without a splash. It was taunting them.
Denise gasped, her mouth dropped open and she immediately turned her attention to Kurt. “Did you see it?! It was right there! Any closer and I could’ve reached my hand out to touch it!” Kurt squealed with delight as he stood, slightly unsteady, and hastily cast his buck tail back into the lake.
“I saw it alright…” Denise replied, unable to hide the smile that curled the ends of her pink lips upward into a huge grin.
“You do remember… dontcha??” Kurt’s voice brought her back to the futon and glass of wine. “I can see it in your eyes, you’re remembering it right now.” There was no sense in denying it. After all, Kurt wasn’t really there. He died over two years ago. It was her mind putting him there, making her remember all the times they spent together over the 35 years they were married. Each and every night he came to her with a new memory, but recently, for the past month or so, he kept repeating this same memory. He wouldn’t leave until she finished remembering. Then he was gone, and all that was left was the vacant, blackness of unoccupied space.
“If only you’d cast your line out there Denise. You could’ve had em… you would’ve had ‘em.” The gentle whisper of Kurt’s final words trailed off. He was gone again and she was alone on the futon, feeling empty. She gulped down the last of the Moscato and shuffled back to the bedroom. Climbing under the covers she turned to face the cold, empty sheets next to her; Kurt’s side of the bed. And then she was asleep.
A week later Denise sat in Dr. Waterstein’s office. His rich, mahogany desk was devoid of clutter. Neatly aligned on the right hand side was a box of tissues, a bronzed picture frame, and an overly loud ticking clock. The ticking echoed in Denise’s ears. Tick… tock… tick…tock. Each tock alternated with the beating of her heart as she sat with her hands crossed on her knee, then uncrossed and flat on her thighs. Finally she placed her fingers flat on the smooth mahogany desk in front of her. Looking down at her hands she could almost see the beautifully long fingers with perfectly manicured nails she had so long ago. Now all she saw was big knuckles, plagued by arthritis. Her nails were brittle and jagged and her skin covered in age spots.
But the diamond Kurt gave her that night they got engaged still sparkled. She ran the index finger of her right hand instinctively across the setting. “Oh how I wish you were here for me now, old man,” Denise thought to herself as she removed her hands from the desk and crossed her arms in front of her.
Over the past 6 months Denise knew something wasn’t right. Sure she was getting up there in age and her 73-year-old body didn’t quite work the same as it did 40 years ago, but it was more than that. It was something deep within her that wasn’t right. It was the reason Kurt had been coming to her, but she didn’t want to face it.
Now today, she sat in Dr. Waterstein’s office alone, awaiting the test results. Her mind was filled with thoughts of Kurt. As empty as she felt after he left her, she still longed to be sitting on the futon with a glass of Moscato letting him guide her thoughts to that same memory; the one where she “could’ve caught the big one.”
Denise took a deep breath as the door opened and Dr. Waterstein walked in. He was a tall, commanding gentleman with salt and pepper hair and forgiving features. Denise had known him since grade school. He was the town’s doctor, been in practice for over 40 years. He smiled gently as he slid into his seat behind the desk, unfolding a chart in front of him.
“Denise, always lovely to see you,” he smiled as his soft blue eyes looked into hers. “You as well, Dr. Waterstein,” she nodded at him, feeling the knot in her stomach tighten with anxiety.
“Please, Denise, we are way past formalities. Call me Charlie.” His smile grew broader and Denise detected a slight blushing in his cheeks. She had always been fond of Charlie, in fact they grew up together and stayed fairly close throughout the years. He’d really been a wonderful friend to her since Kurt’s passing. She looked forward to every morning at the diner when she would arrive and he’d be sitting on one of the stools sipping his black coffee and reading the high society section of the newspaper. It always made her laugh to think how Kurt would tease him so. The two of them couldn’t be more opposite if they tried: Charlie was an educated doctor into reading about the arts and high society, while Kurt was a mechanic always reading the comics first before skimming the sports and pushing the paper across the breakfast table to Denise.
But now was not the time for subtle flirting. Denise just wanted to hear the news; to know what she was up against.
“Is it bad?” Denise could barely get the words out as tears welled up in her eyes. Charlie looked back confused.
“Denise, oh my, what’s wrong? Did you…. You didn’t think that…. Well let me just say all of the tests we ran are negative. You are the healthiest young lady I have the pleasure of treating!” He exclaimed, sensing the panic in her voice.
Denise stared back at him in disbelief as a single tear slid down her cheek. “Are you sure? I… I… I thought for sure something was wrong…..” she stuttered with relief.
“Absolutely positive… all of your blood work is negative, your EKG is normal, your cholesterol is perfect, heck even your blood pressure is ideal. I have some patients 30 years younger than you in worse shape!” He said reassuringly as he reached out to take Denise’s hand.
Denise wiped the tear away from her cheek and exhaled a deep sigh of relief. “Oh Charlie, I’ve just been feeling different for the past couple months. I thought for sure something was wrong, and when you called and said to meet you here in your office, well I…. I was bracing myself for the worst.” Denise squeezed Charlie’s hand, relieved that there was nothing wrong, but bewildered at the same time.
“That’s my fault completely. Denise, I asked you to come to the office today because I wanted to, well I wanted to see you, and to talk to you.” Charlie’s eyes shifted nervously away from Denise’s gaze. “I… well… I have really enjoyed our breakfasts at the diner this past year,” he continued.
Had it really been a year since she started going to the diner for breakfast? After Kurt’s death, her good friend Rose insisted that she get out of the house at least once a day. So, after a little prodding, Denise began having breakfast everyday at the diner. At first she only saw Charlie a couple times a week, but soon, he was sitting there every morning, waiting to greet her.
They would sit on the stools and talk about anything from the weather, to their favorite classic movies, to the “good ol’ days” of family picnics, baseball games in their back yards, and walking to the 5 and 10 for a bottle of Coke. Charlie made Denise feel alive again, made her feel like she didn’t need to dread waking up in the morning without Kurt by her side. She didn’t tell Charlie that Kurt had been coming to her every night recently, but he could tell something was different.
“It just feels like something has changed in the past couple of months Denise,” Charlie explained. “I feel like you’re drifting away, and that scares me. I don’t want to lose you… I…. I think I’m in love with you Denise.” Charlie turned a bright shade of crimson now as he let her hand go, but his eyes met hers and locked in a passionate stare. She couldn’t turn away. Her heart began to race, her stomach fluttered.
“I…. I’ve… I’ve just been thinking about Kurt a lot,” Denise admitted. Charlie’s shoulders visibly slouched. He wheeled his chair back.
“I see,” he said. “Please, just forget what I said. The last thing I want is to lose your friendship,” Charlie’s stare finally broke, and as his eyes fell to the ground he stood up. “It was lovely to see you Denise, you take care,” he tried to sound cheerful as he opened the door to leave.
It was then that Denise looked up. For some reason, a reason she’ll never know, she looked straight at the bronze-framed picture on Charlie’s desk. Smiling back at her was a picture of Charlie. It was recent, within the past 10 years or so. She didn’t recognize him at first. He was wearing a pair of torn Levi’s and a stained sweatshirt; the direct opposite of his normal dress shirt and khakis. But his smile and glimmering eyes were unmistakable. In his hands was the largest musky she’d ever seen.
Denise gasped. “Charlie wait!” she yelled, jumping out of her chair and running after him. “I’m ready to cast out my line!”