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Happy Halloween! Have a Short Story!

This one is an oldie-but-a-goodie. Some of you may have read it, but most of you probably have not. Enjoy!

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by Katie Pugh

 

Clifford E. Jones

GREENWICH — Clifford E. Jones, 87, a resident of Datura Road, died Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010, at his home surrounded by family and friends.

 

Clifford was never lonely, despite what was said about him. How could he be, when he shared his house with so many?

In the last two years of life, Clifford could count on a single hand the number of people who had come into his house on Datura Road. His daughter and grandchild first, though he counted them as one, the little girl never leaving her mother’s arms. One white-knuckled being, shaking, screaming, barely coming a foot into the house. In the few precious moments, despite a background of high-pitched hysteria, he had wondered over the girl’s red, curly hair. So like Ruth’s.

He had started tea as her daughter came up the driveway. She left before it had even started to whistle, screaming. Clifford had not realized until after she left that Jean-Pierre had made his way up her ankle. Not able to suppress a smile, he righted his friend and scolded him on his shamelessness with women.

Next, there was the doctor – number two in the short list of visitors – who had come in looking like he was ready to do surgery. It had made Clifford smile, his white cleanliness with pants tucked into his shoes, latex gloves. He had come into the house at Clifford’s daughter’s behest and used words like ‘hoarding’ and ‘obsessive compulsion.’

Clifford shook his head. He had watched the television shows about hoarding, and while he felt a certain empathy to those poor people, their unfortunate upbringings, bad situations, he knew that his situation was not the same. He had been around for much longer than this young doctor, who nearly stepped on Ralph and Alice on his way in, and if a man of his age wanted to keep company in his home, he certainly would, thank you kindly. Ruth never opposed.

Clifford certainly wasn’t a neighborhood recluse, either. Every day he would set his hat on his head, put on a coat if it was cold or pop open an umbrella if it was raining and go for a walk. Most of the time, he would run into his neighbor Jack, who would greet him familiarly and had at this point stopped asking about the mason jar he always carried with him. Ruth used to fill the jars with preserves, candied fruits or pickled watermelon, which had been his favorite. If he breathed it in, he was certain he could still smell the treats lingering in the glass.

He made his way through the quiet, winding sidewalks, always taking his time past the parks. This was his stomping ground, with bushes and plants and plenty of places to find potential houseguests looking for a ride. He would find them, scoop them up in the mason jar and take them home. As he slowly shuffled back, they would discuss a wonderful name that suited his new roommate, and it was like bringing a long-lost part of his life home.

Clifford had been meticulous about keeping house because he had seen so many men his age fall away from it after their wives were no longer around to do it for them. He would set the jar down and make introductions to the other members of the household, and John or Paul or George or Ringo or Aretha or Billy or Diana would make a quick scurry for the closest unoccupied corner. Clifford would then go about the chores.

Now and then, it was harder. It had been an unfortunate part of bringing so many new faces into the home that it was inevitable that they would expire. As he cleaned, he took another jar, filled it with any pieces that he found and placed it in the closet. The closet was offlimits, and though he knew that his friends were curious, he closed the door tight and sealed it with towels to keep them from the unfortunate sights within.

At night, Clifford lay in bed staring at the ceiling usually for several hours before he fell asleep. It was hard sometimes, with the steady scritching and running and beating and squeaking of the housemates. He couldn’t imagine what the silence would be like, though; to know that he was all alone in the big blue house. And sometimes, if they were moving just the right way, it felt like Ruth was still there, moving about and doing things like she always did. They would move like the softest breath from her lips, the brush of her hair, the gentle softness of her nightgown on the hardwood floor.

Suddenly, one day, Clifford didn’t go for a walk. He felt a deep, rotten sickness in his chest, and instead of putting on his hat he just walked outside and got in his car. He had actually let some of his friends use it for a time – just the back seat – and he could see in his review mirror the Twelve Apostles swinging back and forth on invisible threads.

He told the doctor about how he lived, taking vitamins everyday and eating fruits and vegetables and only a little red wine once a week. He told him that Ruth would have been disappointed if she knew he wasn’t taking care of himself, and so he did for her. The doctor didn’t hear him, however, as he ran his hand along his arms where he mused over the tiniest little scratches. Bites. He said something about ‘poison’ and Clifford shook his head and left. He told the Twelve Apostles that he needed to find a new doctor.

For several days, Clifford couldn’t imagine leaving his house. He was certain his time was coming, and he tried to prepare himself for it. Twin tears made clear lines down his wrinkled face and got caught in the stubble, and his friends visited him, coming up over the edge of the blanket and resting comforting hands on his hands, kissing his forehead, pinching him affectionately in an attempt to cheer him.

He thought of those people on the television, the hoarders. It helped so much to know he wasn’t alone.

He woke in a haze of green and yellow. His heart was trying too hard, and each breath tried to keep up. Taking one foot and moving it in front of the other was like running. He set his hat on his head – almost missing – put his coat over his shoulders because it was suddenly very cold and opened up the closet one last time.

Ruth was there, waiting for him, and all his friends from before. Despite her too-stretched skin and the dry look of her eyes, she was lovely. Had been always.  

Grabbing her hand, momentarily seeing how both his and hers were marked similarly with little nicks, scratches, playful nips he was so glad in that moment that he hadn’t abandoned her to loneliness in the ground.

Clifford sagged and dropped in front of her, and in the blurring of his vision he thought maybe her lips turned up just so, smiling as she always had.

His head fell back to the ground, and he could see his many, many friends – legs and fur and so many eyes – coming to him in a flood. True friends, ready to accompany him home.

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