Ways Open, Ways Closed

by Julie Eberhart Painter


Melissa backed away from the open wound in the ground, her son’s grave. The hospice nurses hugged her one last time and then left in their vans. “More patients to see,” they said.

The other mourners were only acquaintances who’d go on to their duties while she had the remainder of her life to grieve for her son. There would be no gathering of friends bringing food and comfort in this now strange city shrouded with dirty lamb’s wool clouds. A fog of stillness settled over her. It was as if to speak would evoke an outpouring of unbearable emotion.

A blond man in a tan coat stood nearby. When he turned, she could tell he’d been watching her. He looked vaguely familiar. But she shrugged the feeling off and walked slowly toward her rental car.

The blond man, his coat now slung over his arm, approached.

“Mrs. Hartman?”

“Yes?”

“I... I’m sorry to intrude. It was in the papers, and I had to come.”

“Thank you,” she said, descending the three steps to the parking lot.

“Can you wait?” He hurried up beside her.

“Do I know you?”

“You may not remember me. I’m Tom Waters, from high school?”

She looked him over. “We must have been in different classes.”

“Class of sixty-two. But I remember you. You planned to go to New York and join the Rockettes.”

She laughed. “Life happens. I remember now. Did you become an astronomer?”

“Engineer. Still science.”

“Good for you.” She unlocked her car. “It was nice of you to come. I don’t know many people in Philadelphia anymore.”

He cleared his throat and inclined his head. “I lost my son, too,” he said.

Melissa felt the first sting of tears in days. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“It was long ago, but we never get over losing a child.”

She opened the car door and sat. He pushed her door shut. She inserted the key in the ignition. The window slid down.

Tom put his forearm on the window frame. “How about something to eat, at least tea? Surely you don’t plan to leave tonight?”

“My flight is at seven tomorrow morning.”

“You shouldn’t be alone. You’re probably not hungry, but why not accept a little company from someone who knows what you’re feeling.”

She doubted that anyone knew how she felt, and she didn’t care if she ever ate again, but...

“I suppose we could meet in my hotel lobby in a few minutes. I’m at the airport Hilton.”

“Fine.” He stood away from the car. “I’ll follow you.” He pointed to a green Honda with a huge daisy on the aerial.

She smiled and nodded.

At the hotel restaurant, he took charge, asking for a booth far from the door, and insisting that a pot of tea be brought to the table. Melissa usually drank coffee, but it was so easy to let Tom do everything, plan everything.

He lifted his flared cup and smiled. “Tell me about your son,” he said.

“He was... smart, a photographer just hitting his stride. He could have been...”

Tom’s hand covered hers. “It’s the could-have-beens that get to you.”

She swallowed. “And your son?”

“Andrew died of congestive heart failure at the age of eight.”

“Just a little boy. How awful.”

His face darkened. “These days, he might have been saved. Bad timing.”

“I know about bad timing. John had AIDS for thirty years.” Melissa surprised herself telling him this.

“That’s so sad.”

“He chose to stay here in town when I remarried and moved to Arizona.”

“It’s a different world out west,” he said.

“Very different. I’d forgotten until I stepped off the plane here.”

“The tradition, the established look of it. Don’t you miss it?”

“In some ways...”

The waitress arrived with scones and little sandwiches.

“I find that something sweet helps at a time like this,” Tom said.

She stared at the plate with its pastries on linen doilies.

He looked at her, a question lighting his face. “What stopped you from going to New York? You were such a good dancer in the talent shows.”

Her head came up with a start. “I was never better than third.”

“That’s not how I remember it.”

“You remember it your way; I choose to be realistic.” She paused for moment than took a deep breath. “My husband’s sister, Janet, was the talented dancer in the family.”

“Oh.” He swallowed. “Janet was really good. But she didn’t pursue it?”

“She became an accountant. More profitable.”

Later, Tom walked Melissa to the elevator and down the hall to her room. He opened her door and handed her the plastic keycard, smiling down at her. “Well, this has been a special reunion, albeit a sad one.” He gave her his business card. “Please call me if you need to talk.”

Melissa looked at him. Strange that he’d thought she was Janet, who’d attended her ballet class, not she, Melissa Hartman, who’d married Janet’s brother. She shook her head. Fortunately she and Tom hadn’t embarrassed themselves. He’d needed this tea and sympathy as much as she had.

“You’ve been my knight in shining armor today, Tom.”

“Please call if you’re lonely, or having a bad day.”

“Thank you for being here; it helped.”

“I mean it. Call me.” He pointed to the card still in her hand.

“I just might do that.”


Copyright © 2012 by Julie Eberhart Painter

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