Bewildering Stories

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The Man Who Had No Friends

by Franklin Hyde Brown

Dawn was but a promise to the night sky when Raymond Jennings rose from his bed. The timepiece sat silent and virginal on his nightstand next to the orange bottle and olive lamp; in all the years he had owned an alarm clock he had yet to set the contraption. His body swore off sleep at 5 AM without fail, a cycle that surely went back to his Army days. The early reveille never bothered him, for he enjoyed watching the world wake up.

After donning his slippers and robe, Raymond trudged down the stairs, through the foyer, and onto the porch to retrieve the early edition. At various times in his life there had been a dog to greet and feed and scratch, but Rusty died a few years back and he couldn't bear the thought of burying another companion. Unless of course he bought the farm first, which would leave the poor animal homeless and hungry. At this stage of the game he figured it was better to go it alone.

Paper in hand, he crossed the kitchen floor to start the coffee pot. Two cups of the hard stuff, no less and no more, were what started his engine. He glanced at the front page, read the headline about a suspicious fire that had killed five people overnight, and decided the news could wait. It looked like it might be an ordinary day after all.

Raymond settled into the warm embrace of his recliner as the television came to life. Breakfast had been a disaster. He'd undercooked the eggs and burned the bacon, leaving an acrid stench in his house and a bitter taste in his mouth. Meal preparation was not his forte, never had been, hence the stack of Hungryman dinners in his freezer. Between those, the neighborhood diner, and the occasional edible accident in his kitchen, he managed to survive.

Sipping his hot tea, he careened through the channels at breakneck speed. Any reasonable roommate would have reprimanded him for his recklessness with the remote, which was why Raymond rejoiced in his decision to live alone every single day. Who needs small talk and shared responsibilities anyhow? Sharing the good means sharing the bad, and he had plenty each of his own, thank you very much

The channel display blinked once more and stopped at 73. Raymond didn't worship the God of Cable TV the way many of his fellow retirees did; there were only so many talk shows and court cases and sitcom reruns the mind could ingest before surrendering its integrity. On the other hand, he felt that the Game Show Channel was one of the great inventions of the last 30 years. Back to back episodes of "What's My Line," "The Gong Show," and "Let's Make a Deal"? Nirvana, thy name is Monty Hall.

The grandfather clock sounded a solitary chime as Raymond stepped out of the shower. He'd fallen asleep in his chair during a commercial break and awoken with a ravenous need in his belly. As he toweled himself off he debated the need for a shave, then declined. Admiring his droopy physique in the mirror, he began swinging his arms in vigorous circles, then bent forward and stretched his fingers toward his toes. Nearly fit as a fiddle, he thought to himself. Nothing to worry about here.

He entered the diner and was immediately assaulted by a familiar combination of smells - coffee pots bubbling and brewing and occasionally burning, onions and french fries sizzling in hot oil, stale cigarette smoke clinging to everything it touched. Raymond ate here at least once a day, had a preferred booth, and knew the menu by heart. He took off his hat as his waitress scuttled into the kitchen to make some hot tea.

It was chicken and dumplings day, which meant a bowl of Navy bean soup to start and a piece of peach pie for dessert. As he stirred his tea and avoided eye contact with everyone, he wondered what it would be like to meet a son or daughter in a place like this for a friendly meal. He'd never wanted children nor never really missed having any, a choice he'd made many moons ago. Recently, though, this self-imposed solitude had begun to haunt him at odd moments, taunting him with tales of what he had missed. No birthday parties, graduation ceremonies, or backyard ball games then; no phone calls or holiday visits or grandchildren now. It was almost tragic when you thought about it, so he put it out of his mind as Leslie set a steaming bowl of soup in front of him. It was already too late for some things.

The afternoon came and went in the usual fashion. He walked the long way home from the diner, inspecting the neighborhood Christmas decorations and tree trimmings. He couldn't remember the last time he had wrapped a gift or hung a stocking in celebration - Christmas for one didn't make much sense to him. For a brief moment he considered driving to the local lot and picking out an evergreen, but the inspiration departed as soon as it came. You can't go home again, and trying only fortifies the sorrow. He settled instead for another cup of tea, the familiar comfort of his chair, and a leather-bound version of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment he'd owned for thirty years and opened exactly twice. He once heard someone say that you should only read things that make you look smart, just in case you die in the middle of reading them. Normally he considered these words of wisdom absurd, but decided that he didn't want to take any chances. Not today, at least. The story held his attention for three and a half sentences before he dozed off.

Dinner was typically uneventful - a palatable two course meal fresh from the microwave and a dose of the evening news. He was wiping his mouth and reaching for the remote when one of those sappy family Christmas greeting card ads came on. The young mother on he screen bore a striking resemblance to Melena, the woman he'd loved and lost so many years ago. On countless occasions he'd picked up the telephone, intending to call, or put pen to paper to answer her latest letter, but he never did. Foolish pride and blatant stupidity outvoted his heart every time, and he remained silent. She communicated faithfully, perhaps out of pity, perhaps out of shame, and though he still clung to the hope it was out of love, he never had the guts to ask. In truth it could be nothing but love, for pity and shame run their course and fade away, leaving nothing. Rodney couldn't make himself see that through the fear and the sadness, though. He changed the channel and closed his eyes until the image faded away.

Again the grandfather clock woke him, and he ambled up the stairs to his room without even extinguishing the lights. They would still be there in the morning, waiting for him. At the top of the stairs he smiled triumphantly - the silly witch had been wrong. It was 11:30 and he was still alive. Felt better than ever. Ok, maybe that was a stretch since his stomach was churning and he was a little lightheaded. He still felt pretty damn fine, all things considered, and he didn't have to feel guilty for sleeping another day away, neglecting the few things he loved and the last dreams he guarded. Tomorrow would indeed be another day, perhaps the day he would take that trip or make that phone call. Perhaps.

The clock said 11:42 by the time he completed his nightly rituals and crawled into bed. He felt foolish for even considering the merit of anything that had crossed the old Gypsy's tongue, yet giddy that she had indeed been wrong. Maybe this was the wakeup call he needed to begin living whatever life he had left, rather than settling for his comfortable and empty existence.

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden tightening of his jaw, followed by a searing pain shooting down his left arm. He drew a sharp and heavy breath while agony exploded in constricting bands across his chest. His abdominal muscles clenched violently and he broke out in a cold sweat.

She'd been right after all. He was meant to die today.

Bile rose in his throat as he reached for the bottle on his nightstand; the nitroglycerin pills were his sole salvation now. The muscles in his back refused to respond, making it impossible for him to roll over, and his depth perception had been compromised. He knocked the tablets to the floor.

Another torrential wave of pain crashed upon his chest, and his eyelids fluttered before slamming shut. He saw the Gypsy woman's face in his mind, scarred and wrinkled, and smelled her tainted breath as she muttered, "Live, live, three weeks to live." He thought of Melena and how she might enjoy receiving a Christmas card from him this year.

Before regret could set in, he was dead.

Copyright © 2002 by Franklin Hyde Brown