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Mister and Misses

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She called him Mister … and he didn’t answer … at least not immediately.

That’s just the way it always was.

Sometimes she called him with a question or observation: “Ready for lunch?” or “We need to go to the store to get a few groceries!” But most times she would call him just to hear his voice and be sure he was still alive. He was way closer to gone, than arriving.  She was too, but he was several years further along than her. Their 65-year marriage had lasted longer than a lot of people had lived. He moved slow … talked slower; and when the weather was decent he would be sitting on the front porch; just sitting there, like he was today.

Maybe he was looking. Maybe he was thinking. Maybe he was looking at something and thinking.

“Mister,” she yelled out. And he didn’t answer … at least not immediately.

“What do you want, misses?” he called back, finally.

“Lunch is about ready,” she said, “might as well come on in so we can eat.”

They had been married long enough that they didn’t use the other’s name.  She might not even remember her own first name. They had gone from “snookums” and “baby doll” to “honey” and “dear” to … well, “mister” and “misses.”

They had shared a bed and food and breath so long that there was no he or she, just we … not even a “me” … not even an “I.” They had been married so long they had one smell – we … old we; it was a mixture of ointments and creams and deodorant and occasional bladder incontinence and clothes stuffed into too small closets with mothballs and shirts and dresses that were frayed. Of course, not nearly as old and threadbare as their owners, but old and worn enough to be called dated by the polite and old fashioned by the just plain rude.

They had shared so many meals that she didn’t know if she was allergic to shrimp or her husband. It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t eat it ... and he wouldn’t either.

They had been married so long they just didn’t have much to talk about and together so long they just didn’t have anyone else to talk to. Most of their friends were already gone … and their friend’s children they didn’t really know; they had outlived their siblings, some nieces and nephews and knew those that survived and their children only casually and from a distance. But they did talk to each other, some.

They talked about their life – the life they wanted and the life they got, and how the life they got wasn’t the life they wanted but it was the life they had and that was all there was to it, so they let it go.

In lean times, they stayed at home and sat on the front porch talking about where, eventually, they would visit and how bad the weather was wherever it was they had wanted to be anyway, so it was a good thing they had stayed home.

They had wanted to see the world, but most of the time vacations were spent visiting with family back home. In the early years, they would travel south to visit first their parents, then their siblings, and then close cousins. As the years passed, their travels south became less about visiting family and more about the occasional relative’s funeral, and they became a rarer and rarer occurrence until there were no more road trip south for a final goodbye.

The trips had faded as gently as mister’s memory of the call of geese flying south for the winter when he was growing up in South Carolina, or as softly as misses memories of the spring rains that would pass through the Piedmont region of Virginia and how she – then just a miss – would sleep on her mother’s lap. One day, they just woke up and realized that they had not traveled south for a couple of years. At first, it struck them as odd and something that would have to be rectified the next year; but the next year came and passed without a road trip, and then another year passed and another and when the realized that three more years had passed and they had not been “home” for nearly 10 years now, they wondered why it had mattered.

They were not sure if the trips ended because there were fewer loved ones to mourn or if it was because there was less mourning of loved ones. At a certain age you realize you’re not mourning their passing but your loss of someone with whom you shared blood and ties and lies and booze and who had stood in the same thin line of history and life as you and now that line is thinner and each loss re-enforces the realization that your passing is more imminent; and so you weep as much as the tears will come; but they don’t come like they used to, because Lord knows you can’t begrudge a hard earned home-going and an end to life’s ills and difficulties; and when you join Mahalia Jackson in singing “I want to see my mother … I'm going home to live with God” they aren’t just the words on paper they were when you were young, but a promise, a contract, and the reason you celebrate your family member, your friend, gone home; and mister could think of that, if he wanted to as he sat on his porch trying to absorb the sun’s warmth and chase off the cold that seemed to always be after his bones and allowed him less and less comfort. He was a little colder today than usual.

There had never been much money. Some folks have careers. Mister and misses had just had jobs, and never great jobs; some would say not even good jobs; but they were good enough for them and the limited education they had. They had been the last of a generation that did not dare think the door of opportunity and the types of good jobs and good pay that went to white folks would ever open to them. They had grown up in the south, attended schools that were segregated, inferior, and heated by a potbelly stove the students would take turns tending to; just looking for a better life, they had migrated north to pursue their dreams – and that was what they stayed. But life had been good enough. At least, mister thought, he did not have to share crop and pull tobacco as his father had done; and at least, misses thought, she did not have to scrub somebody’s floor, wash their clothes and care for their children – all before going home to care for her broken down husband who was a little more broken down each day from the stoop and strain of pulling tobacco -- as her mother had done.

They had made enough to eat, keep the lights on, stay warm most of the time in the winter and never be that hot most of the time in the summer; they had been able to buy a new this or replace a broken that, but they weren’t able to do much more.

There had been a child; a son. He was beautiful, and he grew to be tall and strong and smart and funny, and he was going to be – they were both sure – the president of these United States. But he died … in a war … serving his country … a long time ago. That’s when they started dying, not just the seed but the roots – weaker with time … no sapling to stand beside them and in future years protect them from wind and storm, as they had done him when he was young and small.

And they still visit their son’s grave, but not like they used to. When it first happened they visited every week; but as they got older and fewer and fewer people knew her to drive and more and more people were just in too big a rush, they started going every month. But now that they are even older and people are just so mean and impatient they go on holidays – Christmas and Easter and the 4th of July and his birthday; and they always place a little United States flag and some fresh flowers on the gave; and they stay awhile … at least long enough for the tears to get out of their eyes and they can see to drive back; and on the way back there’s nothing to talk about, at least nothing that needs saying.

Maybe if they had had more than one child. Now he, or she, or they, could visit and check on them from time to time. Maybe shovel the walk for free when it snows … run errands for them … take them anywhere they needed to go at night. But that was not to be and, so, could not happen.

They say time eases all pain, but it just can’t ease the loss of your future and all the things you’ll never know and never see and all the things that will never be, but you knew – you knew as sure as there is a God in Heaven -- you would know, and you would see and they would be … the only cure for that is when your time ends …

And now they waited for the end, since they were closer – clearly, obviously – closer to the end than the beginning; and they found peace and comfort in that thought. The aches and pains would be gone and the harshness of a stark, maybe futile life would finally be over; and they found dread in the knowledge because life, even a life not lived as desired or hoped and filled with aching knees and lived with a broken heart, is still life; your life, the only one you will ever have or know; and when one leaves the other will wondered what will become of me? They feared the thought of life without the other. Who would there be to talk to; to ride to the store with … to sit beside in church, to live in the past with? No one wants to be alone … not after so many years of fussing and fighting and snoring and listening to some darn sporting event mister had to have one, even if he was sleep; or enduring some show about some woman mistreated by some man misses had to watch even if she wasn’t paying a lick of attention because she was in another room or had he eyes down and mind on some magazine or book. Why, who would steal the covers when it was cool or throw their part of the blanket on you when it was hot if you were alone?  Who would be in the bathroom whenever you had to go if you were alone? When there is no future, there is nothing but the past and what has been and what has been shared and what will be missed and what was left behind.

Who would talk to you with just a glance or always be with you from the front porch or the couch or in front of the stove if you were alone?  Who would you be if you were alone? How could a half be a whole, and who would want to see something forged into one through time and tears and life now torn as under and broken in half? Wouldn’t that be a terrible sight?

Nawl, best to leave together like you lived together, misses sometimes thought. They never discussed it, but mister thought the same thing.

Could there be a life without that person? Better to stand before God Almighty than face a day alone on this earth. It was hard enough getting up each morning than to have to get up and face … no one; an empty house … a cold bed … facing every fear alone … with no one to be afraid with you or for you. Faith would be the only thing to keep them from leaving together; scared that all those years believing in a God who doesn’t accept killing yourself would turn out to be true ... and then they would be separated forever; so each figured to leave when the time, their time, came; probably … if being alone didn’t get too hard; but it probably wouldn’t, since neither thought they would last that long without the other. They had just been together too long for there to be life any other way.

And since they were so much closer to the end than the beginning it probably wouldn’t be long now, anyway. They both knew it, and feared it; and that fear hung around the house like one of the neighbor’s bad-ass grown children who wouldn’t get a job but just kept sponging off their folks, who didn’t have much to give as it was but had to because it was more than the mooch had, and it just so happened that all their folks had was all the mooch needed.

And she was tired; she was tired of waiting and ready to eat.

“Mister,” she called out. And he didn’t answer …

The End

 

Jamie C. Ruff is a former reporter with the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, native of Greensboro, NC, and author of two e-books, the western “Colby Black: from Slave to Cowboy” and the contemporary tale of camaraderie and personal conflict “Reinventing the Uninvented Me.”Both are available for download at Amazon.com.

 

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