It had been over a year—a long year. Karl still missed Charlie. (Charlotte to the rest of the world, Charlie to him.) He’d been smitten the evening she winged a cherry pie at him. No shaving cream stunts for Charlie. Watch out when she got angry. A bona fide bakery pie. Thwack! Squish! Filling plopped onto his shoe, gunking up the laces. And cherry pie filling stained, did she know? Forget the shirt. Forget how much it cost and that was only the second time he’d worn it. When Charlie smacked him with a pie, that was when he knew she was the real thing. He sent her roses, waited a few days, and called her. Insisted she allow him to apologize. Promised he wouldn’t have a pie behind his back. She laughed.
They’d had good years together, him and Charlie. Comfortable, companionable years that made him understand why people got married and stayed married (which he hadn’t understood before). He shaved off his moustache as she requested. She decided on a single name for her dog as he requested. Wyatt never became his best friend, but what did Karl expect? Before he’d come along, no other man had challenged Wyatt’s doggie conviction that he rode shotgun in Charlie’s life. Even once Wyatt grew so old he was deaf to every other sound in the house, he still managed to struggle upright and bark whenever Karl came home. Intruder! Intruder! Intruder! Intruder!
Karl still mourned Charlie’s passing. He mourned remembering her. He mourned his solitude now. It was no joke being the one left behind. He went to bed alone. He woke up alone. Friends invited him over for summer barbecues where widows, who’d also been invited, gazed at him from lawn chairs with their jaws set to look defiant. Or desperate. Neither attracted him.
For a long time Karl kept shaving his upper lip. When he finally decided to let his moustache grow again, he was surprised it was grey. Well, of course, it was grey. Every other hair on his body was grey. Still. A surprise. He’d thought the moustache might resurrect his youth—help him catch a new Charlie.
Charlie had subscribed to a couple’s membership at the local gym and spa. She’d mostly taken advantage of the spa option. He used the weight room and the bikes, though never regularly enough to make a difference to his silhouette. He’d kept up the membership out of nostalgia. That fall he’d started going again because having a place to go gave a semblance of shape to his otherwise formless days. After his workout he often stopped in the juice bar for a cappuccino. He deliberately ignored the new trendy names for coffee—what in heck was a flat white?—and if the day ever came when he had to explain to one of the kids behind the counter what a cappuccino was, that would be reason enough to roll over in the morning, stay in bed forever, call it quits.
A month ago he noticed a woman with a perky haircut, probably his age, in the juice bar drinking a smoothie. The ends of her hair were wet. She winked at him over her straw. He blushed but nodded back. She opened a hand at the empty seat across from her.
Her name was Jeannette. She came to Aquafit classes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. “Three days a week is fun. Five days would feel like work. I’m retired. These are my golden years, right?” She wore no wedding ring. He told her he was retired too. He didn’t say these were his golden years because he felt Charlie might have taken them with her.
Yet he began to look forward to Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He imagined that if some essence of Charlie still existed in the universe, she would be pleased to know their life together had converted him to the ideal of coupledom. He would have liked to meet someone. Reclaim the happiness he’d had with her.
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday Karl always had a witty bon mot or a story to tell Jeannette. Her laugh was melodious. He liked to hear it. She was a good times gal. A bit on the hefty side. Not like Charlie. But truth be told, Charlie had been neurotic about her weight.
Jeannette mentioned that she loved to cook. Karl said he hadn’t had a home-cooked meal since who knew when. He stroked his moustache and tried to look hopeful. He said food was one of the great pleasures of life. He said he wished… He let the sentence trail off.
Two days later, on his way into the weight room, he stopped to look through the glass down onto the swimming pool and picked Jeannette’s turquoise bathing cap out of the dozen women bobbing in the water, wheeling their arms. After his workout and shower, he squirted himself with cologne.
“Hiya!” he greeted Jeannette.
She made dimples at him. Seventy-year-old dimples, but dimples nonetheless. Today she was sipping a thick green smoothie that made him think of pureed frog. “This is delish! Get yourself a straw, have a sip.”
He declined the offer of a sip but pulled out a chair. He was thinking of a roast beef and mashed potatoes meal with candles on the table. A good bottle of Merlot. Charlie used to do a sirloin tip to perfection.
“I’m glad I saw you today,” Jeannette said warmly.
This was it. It had to be. She was going to invite him over for a meal.
She dug her arm into the enormous woven bag slung on the back of her chair and pulled out a white 8 ½ x 11 envelope.
He was puzzled but took his cue from her wink. Whatever this was, it was good. Maybe, for her, a first invite to her house was a formal occasion. (He blinked at the sudden memory of candles melted to stubs and a flying cherry pie.) Maybe a woman who carried a purse the size of a briefcase gave out invitations the size of posters. He could feel several pages’ thickness inside the envelope, turned it over and saw how she’d written Dinner Ideas across the front. He still didn’t understand. Dinner, yeah, that was the right track, but what was this?
“These are really simple recipes. Spaghetti sauce, chicken strips, a couple of casseroles. You chop a few things, put them all in one pot, let it cook. Voilà! Once you’ve made them, let me know and I’ll give you some more.”
Was she joking? He peeked into the envelope. Even at that acute angle he could recognize the look of a recipe.
“Thanks,” his mouth said. Grimaced stiffly.
She seemed to think he was smiling because she smiled back. “No problem, my pleasure!”
He nodded, wondering how to cover his retreat, then knew it didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to sit with Jeannette while she drank pureed frog ever again. He stood with the envelope still in hand and stalked out of the juice bar.
At the first row of disposal bins he upended the envelope. Not into the paper bin. Into the unredeemable, unreclaimable, unrecyclable, garbage, crap, toxic substance, waste bin.
He left the building, strode to the parking lot. He wasn’t aware he still clenched the envelope in his fist until he tried to shove his hand in his pocket for his car keys. He mashed the envelope into a tight ball he dropped on the asphalt. Hoped he drove over it as he backed away.
Alice Zorn’s book of short fiction, Ruins & Relics, was a finalist for the 2009 Quebec Writers’ Federation First Book Prize. She has twice placed first in the Prairie Fire Fiction Contest, as well as won the 2013 Manitoba Magazine Fiction Award. Her first novel, Arrhythmia, was published in 2013. She has a new novel, Five Roses, forthcoming in 2016. Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, she now lives in Montreal
She can be found at www.alicezorn.blogspot.ca