The Time We Take
“Those sunglasses aren’t fooling anybody.”
Eleanor pushed the aviators to the bridge of her nose, scowling. “Would you keep it down? I don’t want your nosey neighbors to get too curious.”
“If you’re so concerned about what people think, you should’ve thought of a better disguise. This isn’t a comic book, you know. You can’t just throw on some glasses and expect everyone to believe you’re Clark Kent.”
“Are you comparing me to Superman?”
“Don’t let it go to your head, sis.”
Dale lifted a dented moving box from the rusty bed of his truck. He passed the faded cab where Eleanor was battling with her suitcase. It had popped open somewhere between Pittsburg and Raleigh. She didn’t notice the latches were undone until she lifted the handle. Clothes had tumbled to the seat like a colorful waterfall. She gathered them by the armful.
I hate moving, she thought. I really, really hate it.
After the final box was stacked on the porch, Dale opened the front door of his quaint three-story home. Eleanor wasn’t used to being on such a quiet street. Where were the sirens? The irate cab drivers? The beggars and preachers? In the jaws of suburbia, the subtle hiss of a neighbor’s sprinkler system was the only sound. It made the air feel empty.
“We’re here!” Dale called.
His wife and children rushed to meet them in the foyer. The young boys tackled Eleanor at the knees. As they flopped to the hardwood, their tiny mouths moved in unison. “Hi, Aunt Ellie!”
“Hey, kiddos,” Eleanor greeted them warmly. She peeled the children from her legs and struggled to her feet. Her sister-in-law moved in for a heartfelt embrace. “Hi, Annie. Thank you again for letting me come here. I know you are—”
“You’re family,” Annie stopped her. “I’m thankful you decided to come.”
Dale picked up the first stack of boxes. “Come on, sis. We’ll get you set up.”
A short time later, Dale and Eleanor had moved her belongings into the guest room. It had been a dilapidated attic before the renovation. Eleanor remembered the cracked baseboards and cobwebs from her last visit. Now, it was a bright and spacious living area, one that was not intended for permanent residents. How quickly things can change.
“Do you need any help unpacking?” Dale asked.
“No, that’s okay. You’ve done enough,” she assured him.
He nodded stiffly and began to leave. After taking several steps towards the door, he turned back with urgency. “Have you taken your medication?”
“Yes. When we stopped in Memphis.”
“Good,” he spoke with relief. He paused for a moment, considering his next words carefully. He knew he needed to be gentle. “Ellie, you can’t hide forever. The neighbors will catch on.”
“Tell them I’m here to help with the kids or something. I really don’t care what you say as long as it’s not the truth.”
“You shouldn’t be ashamed. You can’t help that you’re sick.”
Eleanor’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not ashamed. It’s a matter of privacy. If you don’t mind, I’d like to put away my things.”
“Right. If you need anything, give us a holler. I love you, Ellie.”
“I love you too.”
Dale left Eleanor to her boxes and bags. She checked the time on both of her watches, as she wore one on either wrist. Her right wrist held a digital piece, one that was perfect for a brief glance. The other watch was antique. It had belonged to their late father. She had always been drawn to its chunky face and intricate hands. Time heals all wounds, Eleanor told herself.
She was running low on patience.
Over the next few weeks, she tried her best to feel at home in her new life. The guest room was comfortable enough, and the family always included her in meals and events. Yet, she still felt like a tourist in their world. Rather than trying to familiarize herself with her surroundings, she chose to stay locked in her room where she could take refuge in her vinyl records.
Dale felt he had to intervene. After work one evening, he challenged Eleanor to a game of Go Fish. She never backed down from a battle. As he drew a card from the deck, he maintained a casual tone. “Annie says you never leave the house. Maybe you should go out and get some fresh air.”
“You want me to get a job?”
“You know that’s not what I meant. We asked you to come here so you can get better. You’ll never get better if you block yourself off from the world. You need to be in the sun. Go for a walk. Join a bird watching club. Something. Please?”
Grumbling, Eleanor bobbed her head. “Fine. I’ll try.”
“Thank you. I think it’ll do you some good.”
As promised, Eleanor left the house the following day. She decided to go for a jog around the vast cul-de-sac. Since it was only noon, there weren’t many people outside. She saw an elderly man wearing neon orange hotpants, struggling to start his lawnmower. Further down the sidewalk, there was a pencil-thin woman who was barely keeping pace with her designer dog. Then, there was the yellow house.
Eleanor could hear music coming from the back lot. The bright building was positioned on the corner of two streets, which meant she could peek into the backyard as she jogged by. The song was an old jazz classic, a tune her mother had loved. Eleanor didn’t think anyone else listened to that genre. Not outside of nursing homes, anyway.
When she rounded the corner, she spotted a man working on his impressive garden. His short, gray hair was like a black and white movie, as it flickered whenever the sun hit it just right. He was surprisingly well-dressed for manual labor. He wore a button shirt with a pale pink tie, though he wore shorts and boots from the waist down. His thick gloves wrestled with the knobs on his old stereo.
Eleanor advanced towards the low picket fence, as she had every intention of speaking to the man. She rarely had the opportunity to discuss jazz with anyone close to her age. However, her body froze. He had noticed movement in the corner of his eye. Their gazes locked, and it was too much for Eleanor. She simply wasn’t ready to socialize. Silently, she jogged onward.
The next day, Eleanor considered taking another jog. She had to admit that the sunshine had improved her mood, and she knew she could use the exercise. Thus, she hit the sidewalk and worked up to a steady trot. This time, she didn’t see the elderly man or the woman with the dog. However, she heard jazz music coming from that yellow house. The man was once again tending the garden in his pink tie.
She slowed beside the fence, and he caught her eye. The man waved at her as if they’d known each other for years. She raised her hand and waved in return. Afterwards, Eleanor resumed jogging. She wondered if the man would be outside again tomorrow.
Sure enough, he was.
Eleanor knew the song coming from his stereo like the back of her hand. Her mother played it on repeat when she was small. Now that she was gone, Eleanor played it in her memory. It was a tune she could never walk away from. She finally worked up the nerve to speak to the quirky gardener. “I love this song.”
“You do?” the man replied.
“Yeah. I love The California Ramblers.”
He left his hand shovel behind to join Eleanor by the fence. “I love them too. They’re one of my wife’s favorites. She introduced me to old jazz. You?”
“My mother. It’s all she listened to.”
The man removed his glove and extended his hand. Timidly, she shook it. “I’m Steve.”
“Eleanor. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said, beaming. He glanced at her wrists. “You wear two watches? That’s unique.”
“I noticed that you garden in a tie.”
“Touché. My wife, Charlene, gave me this tie on my birthday. I hate taking it off.”
She smirked at the way Steve lit up when he talked about his wife. “That’s sweet. I like your garden, by the way. It’s gorgeous.”
“Thanks. It’s Charlene’s garden. She started it, but then she went to work in the city. I work from home, so it’s my responsibility now. That’s okay, though. I love it.”
“That’s great,” she answered. An awkward pause followed. “I should probably get back to jogging.”
“Okay. If you jog again tomorrow, feel free to say hello. Not many people do.”
He shook his head. “No. Bye, Eleanor.”
“Bye, Steve,” she returned. Once she had taken a few steps, she paused. She rapidly circled back.
“What?” he asked.
“My friends call me Ellie.”
Steve grinned. “See you around, Ellie.”
Eleanor waved and headed up the road. From that moment on, she dropped by the yellow house for jazz and conversation every day. Steve told her more about his wife, the garden, and his other hobbies. Eleanor liked his enthusiasm and unusual tastes. She couldn’t understand why he didn’t have many friends.
“I can’t say that I know him,” Dale told Eleanor.
She had mentioned Steve at dinner, hoping to get the man’s full story. “Are you sure? You don’t know anything at all?”
“You know how big this neighborhood is, sis. I can’t know everyone. Why don’t you ask him out for lunch? It sounds like he could use some socialization too.”
Her brother had a point. It would be nice to spend time with somebody outside of the family, and she felt chatting across a fence was somewhat impersonal. Still, she was hesitant to ask. She chalked that up to her fear of rejection. It seemed like she was always putting her heart out there only to have it smashed.
Something in her gut told her to give it a try. They had known each other for a few weeks, and Steve was an approachable sort. He’d surely be polite even if he turned her down. On her jog, she swung by his place to find him planting a new tree. It was no more than a foot tall, but it already had character.
“Nice tree,” she said.
He looked at his handiwork with pride. “Not bad, right? It’ll be nice to have some shade back here someday.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. She twiddled her thumbs anxiously. This was it. This was the moment. She cleared the jitters from her throat. “I was wondering if you had time for lunch some day this week. Lunch with me.”
“I’m a married man, Ellie.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I meant as friends. I don’t have any other friends here, and I like your company.”
He cracked a smile. “I’m a friend?”
“Well, I’d like you to be. Charlene wouldn’t mind us being pals, would she?”
“Of course not. I’m free tomorrow afternoon around one o’clock. The café down the road has delicious club sandwiches.”
“Okay. Club sandwiches. Great. I’ll be there.”
“All right. Sounds good. You better not be late. With two watches, you can’t possibly lose track of time.”
They shared a tiny laugh before Eleanor returned to her jog. She was looking very forward to meeting Steve for lunch. Since she didn’t have a vehicle of her own, Annie was kind enough to lend Eleanor her car. There was only one café in town, which made it extremely easy to find. Eleanor arrived precisely at one o’clock. Steve arrived a minute later.
“Steve,” an older waitress greeted them at the door. Her plastic nametag read: Gertrude. There was a look of shock on her worn features. Eleanor wasn’t sure why Gertrude was so stricken by Steve’s presence, but she certainly was. Gertrude didn’t speak as she led them to their table.
A different server took their table from there. Eleanor and Steve ordered their drinks and club sandwiches. Once that was done, Steve folded his hands neatly in front of him, smirking. “I’ve told you about my life, but you’ve barely said a word about yours. Tell me. I want to know you.”
“There’s not much to tell. I moved in with my little brother about two months ago. He’s not so little anymore. He’ll be thirty-four this year. It’s hard to believe. I remember how miserable I was when I found out I’d be a big sister. And then I met him. So tiny and pudgy. I loved him instantly. He’s been my guardian angel. I don’t know where I’d be if he didn’t ask me to come here.”
“Why did he?”
“He could tell that I was getting lost in the big city.”
“Suburbia must be quite a change of pace.”
“Oh yeah. I’m getting used to it. I’m still not used to the silence.”
Steve’s eyes drifted to the tabletop. “I’m not one for silence either.”
When their food arrived, the mood shifted. They talked about music and films. Later, they shared silly stories and bad jokes. The entire experience was therapeutic for Eleanor. She hadn’t felt so normal in months. It gave her hope that maybe, just maybe, life didn’t have to be as lonely as she thought.
“I better be on my way. Charlene is supposed to be home early,” Steve said.
Eleanor checked her watches. They had been at lunch for several hours, though it felt like minutes. “Wow, it’s late. I need to get my sister-in-law’s car back to her.”
“It’s been great. Really great. We should do it again someday,” Steve suggested.
“I’d like that,” Eleanor agreed. Steve reached for the check, but she snatched it from the table first. “I asked you, so this is my treat.”
He paused. “Are you sure? It wouldn’t be chivalrous of me to stick you with the bill.”
“I’ve got it. Maybe you can pay next time.”
“It’s a deal. I’ll see you, Ellie.”
Steve was about to leave when Eleanor got the idea. “Hey, Steve. Maybe we could meet for dinner instead of lunch. Charlene could join us.”
“I’ll ask her,” he nodded.
Oddly, Steve scurried through the door as if a fire had been lit. Eleanor shrugged, figuring he must be excited about seeing his wife. She headed to the register with their tab. Gertrude came over to ring up the ticket. She had a toothy grin and a suggestive twinkle in her aging eyes.
“It’s wonderful,” she said.
Eleanor raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“To see that Steve is dating again. I didn’t think he’d ever get back on the horse.”
“What are you talking about? He’s married.”
Instantly, Gertrude’s face fell. “So, he’s still saying that he’s with Charlene.”
“You’re telling me he isn’t?”
“Charlene died two years ago in a horrible car accident. Steve shut down after that. The rumor is that he tried to hang himself. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do know that he went away for a few months. When he got back, he started pretending that Charlene was alive. Everyone backed off after that. Most locals think he’s crazy. Poor man.”
Eleanor paid Gertrude, whispering. “Thank you for telling me.”
“Of course. I’m glad you managed to get him out of the house. We hardly ever see him in town.”
In a daze, Eleanor returned home. Did Steve genuinely believe Charlene was alive, or was he purposely lying? Either way, Eleanor’s heart broke for him. She could understand him better than she had originally thought. Perhaps that was why they got along so well. Shattered souls always seemed to find each other.
As usual, Eleanor jogged to the yellow house. Steve tended the roses while the wind ruffled his pink tie. He hummed with Louis Armstrong as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Then, Eleanor came into view. When he saw the expression on her face, he shut off the stereo. He slowly walked to his fence.
“Gertrude told you,” he began with a huff. “I should’ve known she’d say something. How much did she tell you?”
“So…you know Charlene is…”
“Of course I know. Did she tell you how?”
“A car accident.”
“Yeah. It happened on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. We were having a romantic dinner at home, but we forgot to pick up the champagne. She insisted that she should be the one to get it. I sat in our living room, wearing this tie, waiting. Waiting. And waiting. The police came to my door instead of her. Some drunk ran a red light. They walked away without a scratch. She died on impact.”
Eleanor lowered her voice in a gentle murmur. “I’m so sorry, Steve.”
“Did Gertrude tell you I tried to hang myself too?”
“She said it was a rumor.”
“I found an old rope in the garage and went for it. The damn thing snapped. I fell and hit my head on the floor. My boss knew I hadn’t called into work, so he asked the police to do a wellness check. They sent me to a hospital. When I came back home, I didn’t know how to live here without her. So, I decided I wouldn’t. I know people say I’ve lost touch with reality, but that’s not true. I’ve just gotten really good at living a lie.”
He glanced with vulnerability in his eyes. “Most people call me Crazy Steve like I can’t hear them. I’ve started staying away from town because of it. If I make you uncomfortable now, I understand.”
“No, you don’t make me feel that way at all. I understand you better than you know.”
Eleanor unbuckled the plastic band of her digital watch, and then she slid free of her antique piece. Steve saw the thick scars along her wrists. Just as quickly as she exposed them, she covered the marks with her watches. If she saw them for long, too many memories burbled to the surface.
“You too, huh?” Steve asked softly.
“I was diagnosed with a mental disorder about ten years ago. It was under control at first, but in the last year or two it’s gotten worse. I started feeling trapped in my life. There’s so much pain. So many horrors. Voices that don’t stop. I started to think the only way to end the misery was to stop existing. My roommate found me before it was too late.”
“I’m glad she did.”
“I’m glad your rope broke.”
Steve felt a somber smile tug at his lips. “Thanks.”
“Yeah,” she returned. “I wanted to tell you that I understand what it’s like to live a life where there’s no way to escape your demons. If saying that she’s alive is the only thing that brings you peace, then do it. That doesn’t make you crazy. It makes you human.”
“What do you do to find peace?”
“Lately, I visit a friend of mine. He’s into jazz.”
“He’s lucky to have a friend like you,” he told her earnestly. He went to the gate and opened the latch. “Would you like to visit my garden? I haven’t shown it to anybody since Charlene left. I like to think she’d be proud of my progress. She was the one with the green thumb. I admired her so much.”
Eleanor accepted his invitation. He walked her through the various plants and flowers thriving in his backyard. Once the tour was over, they went into his house for a glass of lemonade. He showed her pictures of Charlene and talked about his wife in past tense. As painful as it was, he knew he was speaking to someone who understood how hard it was to heal.
For the first time in her life, Eleanor felt her wounds closing. She had always believed that time alone could heal her, but now she knew that wasn’t the case. It was also about whom she spent that time with.