Walker slept the sleep of a teenage boy. Around noon, he awakened and stumbled to the bathroom. There he found a note taped to the mirror: Walker, it said, went with Bryan to the National Honor Society conference. We will be home late. See you, Dad.
Walker returned to his room, opened his closet and pulled out a pack of cigarettes that he kept stuffed in the tip of his right dress shoe. How often did a fifteen-year-old wear wingtips?
In the kitchen, he poured himself a glass of orange juice and then headed to the backyard; he lit a cigarette. Inhaled, exhaled. Life was easy today — no dad, no annoying older brother. He thought a little about what he would do after he graduated from high school. He wasn't really good at anything, and he wasn't really bad at anything. The idea of his own place sounded nice, though. A small apartment with a balcony where he could smoke when he pleased.
The phone rang. Walker continued to smoke, knowing the call wasn't for him. The machine clicked on: "Walker… please tell me you're there. Pick up!" Walker wasn't standing far from the machine, just on the other side of the window, so hearing his name warble through the glass, he gave his cigarette one last pull, tossed it over the fence and shuffled to the phone.
Bryan's "older brother, 4.0, Junior States of America" voice was annoying, so Walker picked up the phone. "Yeah," Walker said.
"Thanks for answering." Bryan sounded relieved. "I need you to do me a favor. I think I was nervous this morning because of all the big colleges and everything, so I forgot to go over to Mrs. Retton's."
"What do you need?"
"What do you have to get back to, Walker?"
"I was relaxing."
"Relaxing! You're always relaxing. Your life is one big Jacuzzi."
"I'm hanging up if you don't get to the point."
"Do you have a pen and paper?" Bryan's voice was sharp, like he'd drunk a bathtub of black coffee.
"Yes," Walker said, but he didn't.
"You know Mrs. Retton?" Bryan asked.
"Yeah, the old lady down the road — the one who looks like she's always sucking on something sour."
"I guess. She's been having tests done at a hospital for the past couple of days; she asked me to get her mail and turn on the heat, so she isn't cold upon her return."
"Upon her return… Who are you?"
Bryan gave Walker some instructions, told him where the key was, and finished with, "And Walker… don't do anything stupid, okay?"
"I'll be sure to piss all over the place."
Walker hung up.
Walker didn't blame Mrs. Retton for asking Bryan to look after her home. He had one of those faces that looked like it belonged atop a Boy Scout's uniform, while Walker had one that seemed to best complement an orange jumpsuit.
She drove a Cadillac. That was the only thing that Walker really knew about her. He always heard the sound of the large engine and noticed the flash of her blinker as she turned up the street. An old burgundy DeVille with shiny wheels, mirror-like chrome and wax-swirled paint. A few times, Walker had waved to her, but she never waved back, never looked right or left, always kept her eyes in front and pulled up her long driveway and into her garage that was located far behind her house. Walker wondered whether it was old age that made people miserable, or if some people were just miserable from the moment of conception.
Walker headed down the road, Mrs. Retton's key in his pocket. He remembered her husband, who was friendlier, always wearing a little tan hat and big dark glasses. He'd died about a year or so ago, around the same time that Walker's mom had passed from cancer. Dad had bought Mrs. Retton some flowers, and Walker thought that Mrs. Retton had given them some flowers too. Walker pictured the house during that time. All those flowers - it looked liked the botanical gardens. What a lousy consoling gift flowers were, Walker thought, an immediate reminder of how quickly something beautiful could fade.
Mrs. Retton's home was L-shaped and one story, as if the architect knew that an old woman would one day live there and didn't want her to have to climb stairs.
Walker wiggled in the key.
The door opened to pink and soft green couches, wooden furniture with golden trim, an old-fashioned wind-up Victorola, and a card table (whose green felt was topped with playing cards set up for a game of Solitaire).
Walker's Nikes seemed out of place on the parquet floor. The furniture looked bored, having no one to support, no one to hold. The Oriental rug on which all of the furnishings rested looked museum-like, still wearing parallel vacuum streaks from the last cleaning. Pendulums swung on a multitude of clocks; Walker wondered why a person who never had to be anywhere needed to be so cognizant of time.
He'd never seen a Victorola before, but he figured it out, and set the needle on the edge of a record marked Strangers in the Night. There were a few scratching and popping sounds at first, but in time, a voice came through. Walker had never heard of Frank Sinatra. Old-person music, he thought.
As Walker explored, he encountered a thick scent of Bengay wherever he went. The smell was sweet, minty and medicinal.
Black and white photos of a young Mr. and Mrs. Retton covered entire walls. Often, old people were described as "used to be pretty" or "you could tell that he or she used to be good-looking," but that wasn't the case with Mr. and Mrs. Retton. They'd both found the same ugliness. Both of them had noses too big for their faces and eyebrows that were too far apart.
The floorboards creaked as Walker continued to snoop, alerting the next patch of parquet that a new person was in the hallway.
In what Walker thought to be Mrs. Retton's room, the carpeting was thick and difficult to walk on, and her bed looked like a relic from the Lincoln administration, stiff with posts rising from all corners.
One of her dresser drawers was open and Walker peeked inside. There was an envelope stuffed with money. Walker peeled off a twenty-dollar bill and shoved it deep in his pocket, avoiding eye contact with a crucifix that hung on the wall; then he slipped out of the bedroom and continued to snoop, but not before removing the needle from the record; the crooner was starting to irritate him.
On the kitchen wall was the thermostat; Walker, remembering that he was supposed to turn on the heat, moved the needle to the right and listened to the furnace bellow.
He opened the refrigerator. The bulb inside flickered and barely lit up the carton of milk and brown-spotted bananas.
On the kitchen counter sat a telephone and an answering machine that flashed "2," and tacked on the wall next to the phone was a calendar from St. Joseph's Church, a Catholic church that wasn't more than a mile away. The top half of each month had a quote from the Bible, and each day on the bottom half had been crossed out with a marker.
Next to the kitchen was the den, and in the den was a wooden bar cart, complete with glasses and little sections in which to put olives, maraschino cherries, and other garnishes. Walker turned each bottle and read the labels: whiskey, vodka, gin, bourbon, vermouth, and rum. In a green Tanqueray bottle, Walker studied his reflection, which was stretched and blurry and made him already look drunk. Walker removed the bottle, lolled on Mrs. Retton's plush daybed and took a few good swigs of the potent, warm liquid. His eyes floated about the room, and eventually settled on a painting above the fireplace in which Mr. and Mrs. Retton were all dressed up, their hands intertwined, their homely features showcased by oil on canvas.
He closed his eyes, continued to drink, and let the sounds of the quiet house find his ears.
"It's nice and warm in here."
Walker's eyelids opened and adjusted to the sun. The stuff in the green bottle was potent, and it took Walker a few seconds to remember where he was and what he was doing. He jumped from the daybed and placed the gin back in its proper spot on the bar cart as Mrs. Retton's footsteps neared.
Since she'd spoken, Walker gathered Mrs. Retton was with someone, but he only heard her steps. The blurry room continued to spin. Not knowing what to do, Walker wiggled under the daybed, encountering dust bunnies the size of real bunnies. Mrs. Retton headed into the kitchen, her keys jingling.
Walker did his best to stay still and soften his exhales. He heard the squeak of Mrs. Retton's permanent marker as she drew X's on the two days she had been away.
Mrs. Retton sorted through the mail while Walker stayed tucked under the daybed and thought of how to escape. There were no doors in the den; he would have to pass the kitchen and there was a good chance that she would see him. What if she screamed and called the police or something?
"Bryan sent me, Mrs. Retton. He forgot that he had to go somewhere, and he wanted you to return to a warm home," Walker rehearsed the words, but too much time had passed.
Just then, Mrs. Retton came into the den; Walker recoiled. She sat down in a recliner across from where Walker was hiding and continued to thumb through the mail. Walker parted the pleat in the daybed's skirt with his fingers. Mrs. Retton was dressed up — old women were always dressed up, he thought — dressed up with no place to go. Her leather shoes reminded Walker of priest shoes - black and non-descript, and through the grayness of her hose, Walker examined her legs — thick, mottled and ashy with old hairs that looked tired of having to grow.
In time, Mrs. Retton lumbered to the kitchen while Walker continued to lie in the dark, in the dust, planning his getaway. He poked his head out through the daybed's drop skirt and scanned the area.
"You have two new messages," the robotic voice from Mrs. Retton's answering machine said, causing Walker to panic and suck his head back under the daybed. The first one played: "Hi, Rose. This is Muriel from prayer group." Walker pushed his head out to get some air. "I wanted to wish you a happy birthday. We're both 78 now. Can you believe it? Don't worry, I won't tell anyone if you won't." The lady giggled. "I hope you make that chocolate cake that you used to eat with your husband on your birthday. It sounded yummy. See you soon." The machine beeped.
The second message began: "Mrs. Retton. This is Dr. Shields from Ridgecrest Memorial Hospital. I'm calling about the results of the tests you underwent this past weekend." There was long pause, and the doctor hesitated to begin the next sentence. "It seems… well, I'd like you to come in to discuss your test results. Thank you." He left his number and told her to call right away. The machine beeped.
The clocks ticked, the refrigerator buzzed and the furnace blew. Mrs. Retton shuffled to the den as though the simple task of walking had become too arduous. Her breathing was strong, like she wasn't moving through the floor plan of her house, but climbing a steep hill. She plopped on the recliner; it seemed to exhale with little bits of dust that floated up, illuminated by the sunlight that sliced through the shutters. Walker watched the particles disperse and eventually settle. Mrs. Retton tapped her shoes and held her old face in her old hands that wore rings and veins and spots. Her perfect white curls, her perfect outfit, her perfect home.
Mrs. Retton removed a pendant from her sweater and muttered something. Walker remembered the poster on the wall of his history class, a picture of Martin Luther King with a quote underneath that he'd read many times: "Real character is seen in darkness, not light." Looking at Mrs. Retton, the sun coming through the sun-lighted panes and warming her, he couldn't help but wonder if Mrs. Retton had good character, or if she was just well acquainted with darkness.
She removed a handkerchief from the sleeve of her sweater and dropped it to the carpet. Her hand patted different spots as she tried to rescue it. The hanky was monogrammed in black cursive. Henry Retton, Walker thought it read. Her arthritic digits crept across the carpet in a desperate attempt to come into contact with the fabric. Eventually, she snatched it, removed her glasses, and dabbed her eyes.
The clocks chimed three times. Mrs. Retton sat for a while longer, only getting up to pour herself a drink. Vodka, Walker thought it was. Then she placed the glass back on the bar cart and scuffed down the hall.
Walker lay still until he couldn't hear a sound, then he squeezed out and tried to wake his feet that had gone numb. He moved a bit like Mrs. Retton, sliding and dragging his way to the front door. Walker passed the old pictures, passed a map of the United States with little pins in it, passed the potpourri that no longer smelled, and slipped out the door, locking it behind him.
At home, Walker sat on a bench in his backyard and greedily puffed on a cigarette. With his smoke, he tried to make interesting designs, but everything just ended up looking like thin clouds.
He pictured Mrs. Retton alone in her L-shaped house. He wondered what she was doing and for how long she had crossed out the days of the week. Walker stuffed his lighter and smokes back in his pocket and came into contact with something. He rubbed it to make sure it was there; he didn't want it to be. The twenty-dollar bill. He had stolen things before, but never had he stuck around to see the person, know the person.
Bryan's student-council voice shook his brain. "Don't do anything stupid, okay?" Getting rid of the money would make him feel better, and being hungry, Walker thought about riding to the market to get a sandwich. The authorities actually had a name for spending stolen money, money laundering Walker thought it was called, or maybe he had misunderstood that episode of NYPD Blue.
Walker mounted Bryan's bike (his had a flat tire) and pedaled. The market was only a mile or so from his house, but time on the saddle provided opportunity for reflection. Walker heard the messages in his head. The one from her friend about the cake. And the one from her doctor. Walker saw her hand searching the ground for her husband's handkerchief, veins plump and coming together like tributaries to a stream. He pedaled faster. I took the twenty before I knew her. And I only took twenty. With each crank of the pedals, he distanced himself. The cold air buzzed his ears and tickled his face. He was going to buy a sandwich. He was going to forget about Mrs. Retton.
The automatic doors opened, and he walked inside the market and pulled a ticket at the deli. He waited.
In his pocket, he wrestled with the bill, moving his sweaty fingers over its surface, hearing the soft crinkle and feeling the thickness of the cotton fiber. Today's Mrs. Retton's birthday. She's 78. Walker reminded himself.
The butcher called Walker's number.
"A meatloaf sandwich," Walker said.
"Everything on it?"
Walker watched the butcher slice open a roll. He couldn't wait to pay and get change that was covered with germs — anyone's germs but Mrs. Retton's.
"Here you are, Pal," the butcher said. He called everyone "Pal," even women. Walker pulled out the twenty. "Sorry, Pal. My register's broken. You're gonna have to take it up front."
Walker grabbed his sandwich and headed across the shiny tile, under the florescent lights and by the perfect pyramids of potatoes and avocadoes.
He passed an old lady who weighed some apples on one of those big scales that was seldom used; her eyes were magnified due to her thick glasses, making her look permanently frightened. She reminded Walker of Mrs. Retton — all dressed up, hair just so.
As Walker neared the checkout line, he noticed the bakery — first by smell, then by sight. Inside the bakery's display case were cakes, some tiered, others log-shaped, even a few molded to look like cars and superheroes. Walker stopped and spotted a nice, round, chocolate cake. He pictured Mrs. Retton sharing it with her husband.
"Hey," the baker said. "I've been calling you."
"Sorry," Walker said, "in my own world."
"Know what you mean. I've spent most of my life there." The baker smoothed out his mustache. "What can I get you?"
"How much is that cake?"
"Seventeen. And if you want something written on it, it's a couple bucks more."
Walker thought the cake would cheer Mrs. Retton up; add something light to her serious and solitary life. She might find it strange that Walker knew her birthday, but he would lie. That was something he was good at. In fact, Walker would just tell her that it was Bryan's idea, that he'd purchased it yesterday and had forgotten to bring it over. The credit wasn't the prize, assuaging his guilt was.
"Do you want it?" the baker asked.
"You want something on it?"
"Seventeen bucks, right?"
"Yeah," the baker rolled up his sleeves. He had a tattoo of a whisk on his right forearm. "And a couple bucks more for a message."
Walker did the math. "Could you write Happy Birthday?"
The baker scratched his mutton chops. Walker thought it was strange that someone with so much hair was allowed to work around food for a living.
While the baker worked his piping bag, Walker — no longer having enough money to purchase his sandwich — strolled through a deserted aisle and stashed his hoagie behind some paper towels.
The baker curled the y on Birthday as Walker approached. Walker slid the twenty across the counter. The baker held up the cake, wanting some acknowledgment for his artistic prowess.
"Very nice," Walker said.
"I even drew a happy face; put a little too much icing in the bag."
The baker boxed the cake and rang Walker up.
The money was gone. Walker's guilt evaporated. I spent it all on her. I ran her an errand. In a way, I did her a favor, Walker told himself.
"Keep the change," Walker said to the baker as he turned. He didn't want the souvenir.
"Oh, I forgot to give you a balloon."
"You get a free balloon with any purchase of a birthday cake. All I got are pink ones, though."
Walker returned to his bike, tied the balloon to his wrist, and set the cake in the bike's basket. He'd always made fun of Bryan's bike because of the wire basket, but today it made sense. As he pedaled home, some teenagers drove past him and honked. He had it coming. A girly bike and pink balloon wasn't the best way to make friends.
He pedaled faster and harder and thought about Mrs. Retton. She'd be surprised. Since she was lonely, she might even ask him to join her. He pictured the two of them, sitting in the kitchen, talking, eating the evidence.
There was a slight downhill and Walker savored it, resting his legs, listening to the humming sound the tires made on the concrete. The chain on the bike bounced a little as he went over a speed bump and the balloon unraveled from his wrist. He slammed the pedal back and the bike stopped; he swiped, even grazed the string, but the helium was too strong, and the pink ball escaped, rocking back and forth as it floated up into the late-afternoon sky. Walker tracked the balloon for as long as he could.
Walker returned home, a little sweaty, put Bryan's bike away and changed his shirt. He opened the box and inspected the cake. A Mohawk of icing had formed in the center from the rough ride. Walker brought it to the kitchen and smoothed out the surface with a couple of knives. The Birth part of Birthday had been pushed together, so the cake now pretty much read Happy Day. Still applicable, Walker thought.
The smell of sugar rose to his nose as Walker made his way to Mrs. Retton's home. The scent was an impetus for nostalgia, bringing Walker to a time when his mother was alive. He heard her sweet Happy Birthday voice in his head, and remembered how she loved trick candles and allowed both Bryan and him to play hooky if their birthdays happened to fall on a school day. She wasn't around anymore, but their time together had been perfect until she got sick; Walker no longer felt sad about her death, knowing he'd rather have good memories than a shitty reality.
Careful not to trip or fall, Walker placed his feet soundly on Mrs. Retton's brick walkway. When he arrived at her welcome mat, he collected himself and brought his finger to the buzzer. He waited and watched bugs fly around her outdoor lights. He rang the buzzer again. "Mrs. Retton," he said. "Mrs. Retton, are you there? It's me, Walker — Bryan's brother."
Where could she be? He stepped off the front stoop and peered in one of the lighted windows, even tapped on it. "Mrs. Retton," he said, but the wind snatched his words.
He couldn't imagine she'd ignore a visitor, so Walker gathered something was wrong. Too much time with her mind, Walker guessed. He knew how dangerous the swirling of thoughts could be, how they moved quickly from storm to tornado.
Her extra house key was still in Walker's pocket; he removed it and slid it into the lock. When she saw him, she would be scared, but Walker didn't care. He had to know if she was all right. Walker hoped he would find her sleeping, trying to wash away the day's news with a good dream, a dream in which she and Mr. Retton relived a moment from one of the photos.
"Mrs. Retton," Walker said; his thin voice drifted through her home. "Mrs. Retton." The floors moaned. Walker crept into the kitchen and placed the cake in her refrigerator. "Mrs. Retton…"
On the kitchen counter was a bottle of vodka and a little glass that encased a single ice cube that was mostly melted. Next to the glass was a note atop a multitude of envelopes. Walker picked up the note and read the shaky blue cursive.
The envelopes underneath this note contain my final wishes. Walker read the front of the envelopes: Will and Testament, St. Joseph's, Funeral Arrangements. Walker continued to read. After Henry died, I tried to sleep in the middle of the bed. I can't. I've tried and I don't want to any longer. This is the ending I want, Rose.
Walker's fingers began to tremble and his breath sped up. He plucked the phone from the receiver and dialed, but he felt that time was being wasted. What if she's still alive? he thought. Maybe I can save her. He slammed the phone down and sprinted through the house, calling her name, popping his head in every room, wondering how she would have done it, how she was going to do it, and if he had done the right thing by leaving the phone to look for her.
Scared of what he would find behind each door, he braced himself for impact. But he found the rooms still and clean. "Mrs. Retton!"
Sweat sprouted from his pores and he could hear his heartbeat in his ears. "Mrs. Retton!" He approached her bedroom, and resisted for a second or two before pushing her door open. The light was off, and Walker strained to see any shape or form through the blackness, anything that would prepare him for the horror. His finger touched the switch on the wall and he flipped it. But the room was as he had found it earlier: bedspread crisp and tucked, pillows propped and perky.
Walker wiped his brow and thought about returning to the phone; he'd checked everywhere in the house, there was nothing else to be done. But there, through the back door, was the garage, the one place he hadn't looked. Maybe she had taken her car somewhere. He threw open the door and darted to the garage; leaves crunched and twigs snapped under his feet. A cool breeze blew over his face and dried new beads of perspiration. "Mrs. Retton!"
As he approached the garage, he heard the grumble of her idling Cadillac, even the sound of music.
He opened the door and was met with a thick cloud of black fumes. Out of breath, Walker accidentally inhaled a good amount and began to cough and gag. He brought his sweater up to cover his mouth. "Mrs. Retton," he tried to scream.
Walker located the green button on the wall and pushed it. The garage door climbed, dusk entered, exhaust dispersed. "Mrs. Retton!" Walker's eyes stung and he rubbed them.
He pulled open the car door, and the cabin light came on, the bulb's glow soft and weak. The song that Walker had played on the Victorola earlier quavered from the car's speakers.
Walker's throat burned and his lungs hurt. "Mrs. Retton! Please!" He reached over to shut off the engine and came into contact with her limp hand that was plopped over the gear shift. Her knobby fingers were cold and soft; Walker grabbed her hand and tried to find her pulse the way he'd learned in science class. He found her heartbeat was soft, infrequent and exhausted.
Fresh air had now taken over the garage, and Mrs. Retton's chest began to tremble with each breath. Walker got in close to lift her, and as he did, her eyelids fluttered, her lips seemed to take shape, and her thumb began to make small circles on Walker's hand. "Henry," she said. "Henry."
Walker inspected her under the feeble shine of the cabin light, and noticed that pieces of soot had worked themselves into the deep wrinkles of her face. She wasn't wearing her glasses, and her short eyelashes had gathered black dust. Mrs. Retton wore diamond earrings and a gold necklace with one pearl that dangled perfectly in the hollow of her neck. "Henry," she mouthed.
Music filled the air. Ever since that night, we've been together… Lovers at first sight, in love forever…
Walker tried to lift her, but couldn't. He recognized the deep desire for relief, remembering his mother's final days — tubes in her mouth, needles lodged in her arms, complexion as white as her gown. With care, Walker undid his hand from Mrs. Retton's, walked over to the garage-door button and studied its green glow before giving it a push.
Slowly — slat by slat — the door came down and snuffed out the day. Walker turned and closed the door behind him, hearing the muffled rumble of the engine. He stood outside and drew a deep breath.
Mathieu Cailler is an award-winning author, whose poetry and prose have been widely featured in numerous national and international publications, including the Los Angeles Times and The Saturday Evening Post. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he is the winner of a Short Story America Prize and a Shakespeare Award. He is the author of the short-story collection, Loss Angeles (Short Story America Press), which has been honored by the Hollywood, New York, London, Paris, Best Book, and International Book Awards; the poetry collection, May I Have This Dance? (About Editions), winner of the 2017 New England Book Festival Poetry Prize; and the children’s book, The (Underappreciated) Life of Humphrey Hawley (About Editions), which has been nominated for the Caldecott Medal and the Newbery Award, among other notable prizes.