The Woman Who Came for Lunch

Who is she? the old man muttered, peeking through the window.  And why is she making a sandwich in my kitchen?

The old man continued to stare as if he had never seen a person make a sandwich before.  He watched her delicate hands caressing and alternating the provolone, Swiss, salami, turkey, and deli loaf, and tingled at the thought of being one of the slices.  But who is she?

The old man forgot all about the newspaper he had gone to retrieve from behind the hedge.  Shivering, he pulled his bathrobe around him.  It was just not right.  Strange women don’t suddenly appear, at least not in his house.  Maybe he should call the police and ask them if a missing person had been reported.  He felt a headache coming on.  Why do these things always happen to me?

                                                                   ****

The old woman tried to concentrate on her sandwich, but she did not like being stared at.  Who is he?  Maybe he’s the gardener.  But why was he wearing only slippers and a bathrobe?

She picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1.  Please help me.  There’s a man standing outside my window in his bathrobe watching me make a sandwich.  What does he look like?  Well, he looks kind of sad … and hungry, too.  And he’s got really nice gray hair.

Then the old woman gave the dispatcher an address, which was the only one she could remember.  It was the house in Brooklyn where she was born.

****

Now she’s using my phone.  The old man was furious.  Who knows, she’s probably calling some secret lover in Australia or Japan.  He peeked at her again and at the way the late morning sun illuminated the gray speckles in her curly hair.  Yes, she would be just the type to have many secret lovers.  The thought filled him with sadness.  Yet he was also happy for her.  A beautiful woman like that deserves to have many lovers.

Still, this did not change anything.  There was a strange woman in his kitchen and his feet were getting cold.  What should he do?

Maybe he should just go inside and find out.  It was not his first choice.  All his life the old man had tried to avoid direct confrontations.  There was usually a safe way around any problem.  No sense asking for trouble.  Still, it was his house and his food.  There was only one thing to do.

****

The old woman looked out the window but the gardener was gone.  She decided to call him that after remembering who he reminded her of.  It was the handsome, gray-haired gardener who tended the botanical garden that she had visited with her father when she was eight years old.  One day, the gardener tipped his hat and bowed, handing her a gardenia.  It was the most romantic thing she had ever experienced.  Often she would think about him, wishing she could hurry and grow up so she could meet him again.

She sat down at the kitchen table and stared at the sandwich on her plate.  She was not hungry now.  Eating alone was no fun.  Had it always been this way?  It didn’t seem so long ago that … what?  She struggled to regain some clue to her recent past, but it was no use.  Yet she felt there was something or someone important that she should remember.  She hated herself.  What kind of person would forget such a thing?  But why did something she couldn’t remember cause her such pain?

****

The old man decided to walk around the block first before confronting the woman.   There was nothing in the world, he believed, that couldn’t be walked out. He pulled his bathrobe tighter.  Maybe he should have changed first.  But it was a short block and he was already at the corner of Mayflower Street … The old man stopped and gaped at the street sign.  He knew every corner of this neighborhood and there was no Mayflower Street.  How could a new street just appear?

Maybe he had somehow gone past the street where he was supposed to turn.  The old man spun around and retraced his steps.   When in doubt, start from the beginning, he muttered.  But the street he had lived on for thirty-six years was nowhere in sight.  All the houses seemed out of place.  He ran back to the corner to read the sign again – Mayflower and … Hope.  That’s not my street, he thought.  But then, what exactly was it?   He tried every memory trick he could think of.  But the name had vanished.

He wandered up and down one street after another, searching for some clue that might lead him home.  But none of the street names sounded right.  With mounting panic, he swept the landscape for some familiar feature, but the harder he looked the more alien it appeared.  Nothing made any sense.

The old man started to run, anywhere that might take him away from this nightmare.  He was about to give up and ring the nearest doorbell for help when he noticed the house.  He was sure he had seen it before.  Was he was going in circles?  Not a good sign, old boy.  Yet there was something more.  Perhaps it was the way one of its windows was framed by the evergreen hedges.  Or maybe it was the silhouette of a woman eating a sandwich by the window.  He knew that woman, but from where?  He crept in for a closer look.

****

The old woman ate her sandwich in an unwelcome silence.  She strained to hear some comforting sound from the house, something that would tell her things were all right.  But all she could hear was her own nasal breathing.  She put down her teacup and it made an awful crash on its saucer.  It’s all wrong.

She began thinking of the gardener again.  And she imagined him sitting across from her at the table.  He was still wearing his khaki uniform, all worn and green-stained, though his hat was on the rack by the door.  She was all grown up now, but he was still the same age as he would always be.  He looked into her eyes and planted a gardenia in her hand.  The old woman lifted it to her nose and closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. All these years, she had wanted to say so much to him, to tell him all her dreams and private thoughts.  But now, she couldn’t think of anything to say.  And when she opened her eyes, the gardener was gone.

****

The old man slipped quietly through the backdoor and into the hallway.  Everything suddenly seemed familiar.   Off the hallway to the right he knew was the kitchen.   Somehow he had found his way home.  He was about to drop to his knees and kiss the floor when he remembered the strange woman in the kitchen.  A bead of sweat trickled down his nose as he began to shake.  Who is she?   Steady, old boy.  He gripped the sides of his father’s old desk and stared into the hallway mirror.

Then he remembered.  It was something he had hidden.  Now which drawer was it?   Quietly, he pulled open one drawer after another.  Each was filled with hundreds of boxes and bottles.  He opened several of the containers, only to find smaller and smaller empty  containers, apparent decoys for whatever treasures lay concealed there.  Where did all these come from?  Could someone else be hiding things here?  None of the containers seemed familiar.  Frustrated, he sat down at the desk.  Where was it?  Instinctively, he felt behind the black plastic trays inside the desk.  Then he found it—a thin cigar box wedged tightly behind the trays.  He opened it and gazed upon the objects of his memories:  a fossil Trilobite, three packages of colored rubber bands, a golf score card, a headless British tin soldier, two cancelled movie tickets, and a ripped out page from a department store catalog.  He held the page reverently.  There she was, still as beautiful as ever.  Modeling a sleek gown, she was all that a teenage boy could wish for in a woman: beautiful, mature and understanding, someone who would not laugh and who would gladly share his life with him forever.  He had been especially taken with the model’s pearl necklace and gray-speckled hair and the way she primly crossed her legs in the ad.   Suddenly he knew who the strange woman in the kitchen was.   He closed the box and placed it back in its hiding place.  Then he headed for the kitchen, but not before plucking one gardenia from the garden.

****

Startled, the strange woman turned around as the old man entered.   When she saw him standing there framed by the kitchen archway, she smiled as she had not smiled in years.  Her gardener was back.  He bowed and handed her the gardenia.  Stroking her pearl necklace, the woman primly crossed her legs and pulled out a chair.

Would you like a sandwich?                                                                                                         © Gene Twaronite 2012                                                                                                                                            Originally published in Avatar Review, Issue 13, 2011

 

The Man Who Stayed Inside: An Urban Fable

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The old man lived all alone in a three-story house in the heart of a bustling city. Each day, he would put on his old gray hat and head outside for a walk. The city was full of good things to see and do. Skyscraper canyons and cobbled streets that time forgot. Little shops filled with trinkets and treasures. Parks with trees, flowers and birds, and of course, the zoo. And best of all, an outdoor cafe where he could sit and watch the cars and people flow by.

But lately every time the old man went outside, something bad would happen to him. One day, he was almost trampled to death by a herd of wild pedestrians on their way to work.

Another time, while walking in the park, he was mugged by a gang of punk squirrels with pink spiked hair, who took all he had—a bag of peanuts and a gold pocket watch.

Then one day, as the old man was sitting outside his favorite cafe, a sharp-dressed cat, wearing dark sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, strolled up and sat right down at his table and then slurped off all the whipped cream from his hot chocolate and, for no reason at all, tweaked him on the nose, which made the old man jump into the street, where he was nearly run over by a runaway shopping cart filled with 47 TV dinners and a sack of potatoes, which knocked his hat straight under a passing garbage truck, where it was made very flat … well, that did it! The old man decided, then and there, he would stay inside for good.

“And why go outside?” he said to himself, “when there’s plenty to do inside? I have a house three stories tall, with stairs that wind up and down and corner nooks where I can poke around. I can sit all day in my soft, comfy chair with all my books, computer, and color TV to look at. And whenever I’m hungry, I can just pick up the phone and have pizza delivered.”

For a while, the old man was as happy as could be in his safe inside world where nothing bad ever happened. But then one day it seemed that something was missing. “It’s too dark in here,” he said to himself. “I need more sunlight.”

So he called a carpenter to come out and put big picture windows on each side of the house. And that afternoon, as the sunlight streamed into every nook and corner, the old man sat and sunned himself, like a big happy lizard, in his soft comfy chair.

But after a while, it seemed to the old man that something was missing inside again. “There aren’t any trees in here,” said the old man, who missed his walks in the park. “Every home should have a few trees.”

So the old man called the carpenter to come out and put two big skylights in the roof. And while he was at it, he also asked the carpenter to knock out the second and third floors so that sunlight could reach all the way down to the first floor.

Then the old man called the garden shop to deliver two dozen big trees, each exactly three stories high, two dozen big pots, and a ton of potting soil. There was a fig tree, an orange tree, and even a coconut tree, and a giant saguaro cactus for the sunniest part of the house. And that night, as he peeled an orange and sipped some coconut milk from his very own trees, the old man was happy indeed.

But after a while, it seemed to the old man that something was missing inside again. “I miss seeing and hearing animals,” he said. “What this house needs are a few critters and twitters.”

So the old man called the pet shop and asked them to deliver three dozen animals, including a gecko for the ginkgo tree, two finches for the fig tree, three tree frogs for the palm tree, and even a koala for the eucalyptus tree. And of course, a couple of pigeons to roost in the rafters. And that night, the old man fell fast asleep to the sweet sounds of tree frogs trilling and pigeons cooing.

But after a while, it seemed to the old man that something was missing inside again. “The trouble with staying inside all the time,” he said to the nearby gecko on the wall, “is that there’s no weather in here at all. What this place needs is a little wind, rain, and snow to blow sometimes.”

So the old man again called the carpenter to come out and remove the two big skylights in the roof and all the picture windows so that inside rain and snow could now fall, and the wind could rustle through the trees. And that night, he fell fast asleep as a cold north breeze whistled through the rafters and wet snowflakes fell on his nose.

But after a while, it seemed to the old man that something was missing inside again. “I miss the hustle and bustle of the city,” he said as he sat holding an umbrella in his chair. “What this house needs is some traffic inside.”

The old man called city hall to ask if any new streets were planned. The city planner told him, yes, the city was going to build a new small street in the old man’s neighborhood. And much to the city planner’s surprise, the old man told him that they could build it right through the middle of his house.

So the city constructed a brand new street that went straight through a tunnel where the old man’s front door used to be, through the living room and into the kitchen (right over the linoleum) and out through a back door tunnel. And the next morning, the old man sat at his breakfast table and sipped his hot chocolate while watching the traffic whiz by.

But after a while, it seemed to the old man that something was still missing inside again. “But what could it be?” he said, as he scratched the bare spot on his head. “My house has everything that a house in the city should have, and then some.”

Suddenly, the old man knew just what was missing. Except for himself, there were no people inside. And just as a city without people is but an empty space that sprawls, a house without people is but a roof and four walls.

So the old man again called city hall to ask if a sidewalk could be built along the small street that now ran through his house.

The very next day, the city sent out a cement truck to pour a new sidewalk along both sides of the old man’s street. Why, he even got to write his initials into the wet cement, and no one complained a bit. And that night, the old man sat in his soft comfy chair in the living room, and instead of watching color TV, watched a stream of colorful people flow by, each on his or her way to this or that business in the city.

At last the old man was happy, for now he had everything he needed inside. Then one morning, as he sat at the breakfast table sipping his hot chocolate, a sharp-dressed cat, wearing dark sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat, strolled down the sidewalk, through the front door tunnel, and up to the table. The old man jumped from his chair, but this time the cat didn’t try to slurp the old man’s hot chocolate or to tweak his nose. Instead, the cat gave him a brand new hat and held out his paw for a shake.

Then he and the old man walked, hand in paw, straight through the front door tunnel … back inside the city.                                                                                                                                                                 © Gene Twaronite 2012

Originally published in Read (Weekly Reader) 2003 and just one of the 21 wacky stories included in my book Dragon Daily News. Stories of Imagination for Children of All Ages. Available at Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Dragon-Daily-News-Imagination-Children/dp/1481998080