The Remains of a Song

The lucky ones learn how to give their regrets room to thrive. They keep each one close, like so many fading photos stuck together in a time-worn wallet. You turn an opportunity missed years ago, or a turn not taken, over in your mind often enough and you wear down the grievance so that it becomes just another warmish memory simmering on the back burner. You have turned a regret into a comfort; a familiar thing to keep you company early in the morning.

Gerry’s billfold was full. He never finished school. He never had a dog, and it was too late for that now. He never made it to the country’s legendary northwest, where the ocean is apparently breathtaking in its rage and its expanse. He never took Caroline back home to see the wheatfields that had provided such a grand stage for his childhood. A boy can look up at the sky and be closer to heaven than earth. He can stare into the horizon and drown in that distance, intimidated and excited about what might be out there. The ceaseless hard work on the farm is an anchor to keep you strong and centered.

And he never determined their blood-types so that he might have donated in time. Strange. All those years together and they never established whether they were compatible at the cellular level.

Here in his tiny downtown basement so many miles from home, Gerry could see only what was five feet in front of his eye glasses. At the shoeboxes filled with computer cords that connected only to dead equipment. At the banker boxes stolen from Caroline’s office that were holding scarves and mitts that might keep someone warm, if only he could get around to organizing things. There were two large boxes of VHS tapes, each with its own story sleeping inside the case but with no machine upon which to unspool it.  The birthday parties, baptisms, Christmases and weekend getaways once documented, once alive, were now locked inside the skinny plastic cases forever.

Not cases; coffins.

He forced himself to consider the five large rusting coffee tins on the bottom shelf that were teeming with old batteries that he couldn’t bring himself to throw away. He didn’t trust the manufacturers’ recommended expiry date. How could they possibly know how much life remained in these AA’s and AAA’s and D’s? If only he could take two of them and replace the batteries in the smoke alarm. Gerry looked up at the winking green light above his head. It was weeks past Daylight Savings Time, and they should have been changed by now. But he knew better than to climb the ladder. You can’t risk an accident when you live alone.

He stood on the six foot-square patch of linoleum that was curling at the edges. He had never got around to finishing the whole basement floor but there was no regret there. He liked the rough feel of the concrete floor. Somehow, it connected him to the earth beneath the house. It was cold, and poorly lit, but it had become his favorite part of the house ever since Caroline left without packing her suitcase.

Every night, he came downstairs while dinner was still fresh in his stomach, and he waited. Some nights, he wouldn’t hear it, but he didn’t mind. He preferred standing to sitting. But on others, muffled lyrics issued softly through the wall. He had moved a box of old photo albums away from the shelf so that he could place his ear against the cold, unpainted plaster. He was certain that it was a woman’s voice. Most nights, he could make out the same faint melody, but not the words. If there was a mirror in the basement, he would see himself swaying to the song, his hips wiping the wall like a metronome. There was an echo of familiarity to the song. He chased down the muffled words, trying to place them in his memory.

When a man loses roamin’. Can’t find his line for nothing else.

Gerry wanted to push his ear clear through the plaster. He imagined the words trying to snake their way through the studs of the wall and insulation that was likely beginning to rot through. But the more he pushed against it the more muffled the words became.

Was the song also out there somewhere in the neighborhood? He brought his bike out from the garage the day the roads finally cleared of snow and salt. It was April, and there would likely be no more sudden snowstorms. The dogs were barking, and there were happy wisps of grass pushing through the hard-packed earth.

“Beth is back home, dear,” Jenny, unseen from behind her side of the tall fence, never needed a cue to strike up a conversation.

He was older than her, but she was maternal toward him, nonetheless. “Dear”, “sweetie” and “honey” littered her conversation. But he had grown tired of her kindnesses. She has always been good to him and Caroline, but kindness turned to sympathy upon Caroline’s passing. Casserole dishes appeared at his front door. She started shoveling his walkway, which made no sense because she was much weaker than he was. He didn’t eat the stews and the soups, but he put them carefully in the fridge only to throw them out days later when they were starting to turn. He wanted to be alone with his misery. He didn’t want to fill the emptiness in his gut. Was that too much to ask the world now that it owed him something?

“I’m sorry, Jenny. How is she doing?” he asked.

“Oh. Fine.” ‘Fine’ is a word that often means the opposite, which is how Gerry took it. “Lots of people are divorcing these days.” Jenny laughed nervously. She had started to do that lately. From his side of the fence, he imagined how the worry had found a home in her face. That’s what worry does; it sets up shop in your skin and your bones and lets you know that it isn’t in any hurry to vacate the premises.

Gerry’s tires were soft, but he didn’t want to give Jenny time to get around to asking about him, so he walked his bike out into the laneway and pushed it along his familiar route in the neighborhood. Past the coffee shops filled with the young, bearded hipster men who were struggling to establish some connection to a more authentic past, and the tattooed women who were making their own small attempt at finding beauty and holding onto it. He passed the Portuguese social clubs where the men inside, all his age, kept their culture to themselves. He could smell the fresh breads and sweets from the mafia-run bakeries lining the main street, where they only accepted cash. He listened at every stop, but there was no song in these places; just words and life that he didn’t recognize.

That night he decided to put on his wedding tuxedo before going into the basement. They had argued about renting one versus buying it. Caroline couldn’t see the point of spending all that money on something he would only wear once, but he remembered how he had put his foot down. It was the one wedding detail he felt strongly about. He couldn’t imagine anyone else wearing the suit in which he greeted her at the altar. Still, she was right. He had never worn it since.

He took comfort in how it still fit him although it hung looser in the chest and shoulders. He noticed a faint stain on the lapel. They had served lasagna and chicken at the wedding banquet. Perhaps because of the stain, he didn’t sway to the song when it began, but stood planted.

And dying to hold on to what he please.

Where was the wedding album? How could something so precious just go missing? He rooted through box full of the albums he had inherited from his parents. He knew these pictures by memory. Tractors. Golden stalks reaching high into the sun. A homemade swing. His father always shot them from behind, so there were few faces peering back at him in these pages.

He felt the familiar cloth cover laying at the bottom. He opened the oversize album. It was no longer white but ivory, and a faint musty smell greeted him as he opened the pages to the centerspread photo of their first dance. Caroline was so strong but at the same time, so light in his arms. Even under the harsh fluorescents of the community center she was flawless. And even in those captured first hours of marriage, his hands in hers, it was impossible to see where he ended, and she began. Losing her was an amputation of sorts. He could still feel her at the end of his arms.

One day he saw Beth out back working their tiny garden plot. It was late in the day, and he was already in his tuxedo but the fence between their backyards would keep that a secret. He quietly took a seat on the cushion still damp with early spring.

“Is that you, Mr. Henderson?”

“Nice to see you again.” He could hear her vainly working the spade into the still-stubborn soil.

“And nice to see you getting outside,” she said. He didn’t have the heart to prompt her with questions. Still, he was certain that he recognized that voice.

That night, he went downstairs early. He stared at the wedding picture of Caroline once more. Had the cancer already staked a claim somewhere in her bloodstream, even all those years ago? There was nothing in their years together under this roof that prepared him for life without her. Two people watching TV. Two people preparing dinner. Painting the living room. Making the bed in the morning. Life in stereo. Not mono.

But what was it that he missed most about her? Every time he asked himself this, he couldn’t grasp at an answer. Just the question. And he was tired of asking it.

Gerry put his ear even closer against the wall. He could hear muffled voices from next door. But no song.

He took to standing at the front window, patiently watching for Beth to appear. When she did, he would follow her, being careful to remain unseen but trying to get close enough to listen. All he could hear was the garbage truck cycling through the compactor from half-a-block away. The birds waking up in the hedge across the street. The school kids out for recess. And the flow of water into the storm drains from the last mounds of snow that had been piled up by the plows.

One day he got too close, and she turned back to him. You can read a person’s face in two seconds. One second. He could see that she wanted to be alone, and that she was puzzled by this intrusion. He knew he was being a foolish old man, and that she had errands to run. But she broke the silence, and he welcomed this kindness from the daughter.

“Can I ask you something, Mr. Henderson? Why do you leave the lights on in your house all night long?”

“I don’t know that I do,” he said.

“Oh. Okay.” She wanted to be helpful. “Maybe we sometimes do things we don’t know we’re doing. Or maybe I just got it wrong.”  

]He spent the next days in the basement cleaning out the shelves. Garbage collection was only three days away. He packed up the expired batteries, rolling them in blankets so the garbage collectors wouldn’t be able to identify them. Batteries were considered household hazardous waste and were supposed to be dropped off at recycling centers. But Gerry didn’t care. He did the same with the electronics. And the near-empty paint cans that Caroline had taken such pains to select for their walls. He couldn’t quite bring himself to throwing out the VHS tapes. Not yet. He brought his tuxedo to the dry cleaners, holding it aloft on his bicycle with one hand so that it didn’t touch the dirty pavement.

On garbage day, he waited by the bins. He could hear the garbage truck turning the corner. Beth appeared at the curb with her one, much smaller bin.

He had to ask. “Do you sing sometimes?”

The beautiful, broken young woman laughed quietly.

“I don’t know how to sing. I wish I could. People who can carry a note and kind of stop things with their voice, it’s like a superpower or something. Like they’re transmitting signals from heaven.”

He watched as the men emptied the bins. It brought him relief to know the things lining his basement were set to be destroyed.

That night he put on his crisp, clean tuxedo and went downstairs. We give in to pain and sorrow with so much more enthusiasm that we do joy, or hope. But the song returned to him, clearer than ever, and when it did, his hips began to move, so slowly that he wasn’t even aware of it.

Photo by Evgeniy Alyoshin on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Brian Howlett

Brian Howlett is an emerging writer and has been published in many publications including Exposition Review, Forge, Limestone, Manhattanville Review, Slippery Elm, Tulane Review, and The Write Launch. He was a finalist in the Writer’s Union of Canada Short Prose Competition, the ScreenCraft Cinematic Book Competition, the Malcolm Lowry Literary Novel Competition and the 2022 Santa Fe Literary Awards Competition. He is a judge for the McMaster University’s Humanities 2022 Short Story Competition. He has contributed humor columns to the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. He has a bachelor’s in English from McMaster University.