He trudged through the icy air, his nose buried deep within the collar of his coat. A blast of warmth greeted him when he pulled open the door, bracing himself against an urgent gust of wind, raising his head at the aroma of roast beef and chicken and marinara sauce. Colleen's face widened in a welcoming grin when she spotted him.
"Hey there, Ray! Your usual spot's open. Go ahead--I'll be right there."
He walked carefully down the stretch of damp tile to the end booth closest to the salad bar and slid himself wearily onto the bench. His nose started tingling, blood finally circulating after his freezing walk. Winter was here, all right. The festive lights and wreaths that draped eaves and doors no longer looked out of place. Two weeks until Christmas. Maybe he should put up some lights this weekend. His stomach clenched. The thought of holiday cheer was too much of a stretch. Why should his house reflect something his heart didn't?
Colleen appeared at his side, sliding a steaming mug of coffee in front of him. She plopped down a fistful of cream and cocked a hip, looking at him expectantly.
"The usual?" she asked.
"Sure," he grunted. She smiled again, and he returned the gesture halfheartedly. His face felt stiff, unused, and he hoped she would blame it on the frigid air rather than unfriendliness.
He glanced around the room as he peeled the foil off three creamers and stirred them into his coffee. More smokers than usual tonight; his neighbor across the divider had just lit a cigarette and the smoke curled lazily to the ceiling. The aroma was familiar. Too familiar. Maybe he needed to start sitting somewhere else. It wasn't like he needed to sit in the smoking section any more. That had been Gracie's vice. Only habit dictated his choice these days.
Enough of that. He reached in his coat pocket and pulled out his earbuds, placing them carefully in his half-frozen ears before peering at the screen of the I-pod. At least he could manipulate the damn thing these days. It had taken Michael an hour to walk him through the process, but now he could have his choice of music any time he pleased. The husky tones of Johnny Cash flowed into his ears, and his shoulders gradually released their tension. Shut off the mind. Just listen.
Like a bird on a wireColleen was at his elbow again. Steam rose in fragrant streams from the plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes with gravy, and green beans that she placed in front of him.
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
Like a fish on a hook
Like a knight from an old fashioned book
I have saved all my ribbons with thee
"There you go, honey," she said, pitching her voice to be heard over the music in his head. "You need anything else right now? I'll get some more coffee for you in a minute."
He glanced at his untouched mug. "No hurry," he replied, and ducked his head in a nod of thanks.
The food was good. It wasn't gourmet, but the flavors were strong and solid, and the warmth reached his core. He was soothed by the comforting familiarity, something Gracie had never fully understood. It had been a running joke: she trying something different every time they came, he sticking to meat and potatoes. She had always wanted to try new restaurants, too, but had given away as graciously as her name to his need for routine.
His stomach clenched again. Maybe he should have compromised more. Maybe he should have stretched himself, allowed himself to be pulled along with her on an adventure or two. Maybe then he wouldn't feel so haunted by might-have-beens.
His plate was clean. Somehow he had finished it all, though his mind had stopped registering each forkful. Colleen was there almost immediately, whisking the dish and cutlery away and replacing it with a smaller plate of warm apple pie. She must have sensed his unwillingness to talk tonight; she just smiled swiftly at him and was gone.
He picked at the crust, placed a spoonful of creamy cinnamon-laced apple on his tongue, forced himself to swallow. He barely tasted it. Gracie would have been teasing him right now about how Colleen hadn't even asked if he wanted the pie, because he always had apple pie (warmed, no ice cream) after his meal. She would have been trying one of the holiday specialties instead, would have consulted with Colleen about which one was the best and when they had been prepared.
He released his spoon and stared blankly at the table.
The first time ever I saw your face, I thought the sun rose in your eyes.A movement caught his eye and he glanced up to see a young woman walk by, mahogany hair gleaming in the flourescent lighting. A young boy clutched her hand, half skipping to keep up, glancing around in delight at all the customers. She bent a moment to say something to the boy, and something in the curve of her back, the tilt of her head, the sweep of her hair across her cheek, sparked a mind's-eye glimpse of another woman decades before who had moved like that with a different still-small boy, her own red-brown hair yet unwhitened by age.
And the moon and stars were the gifts you gave,
To the dark and the endless sky, my love.
And the first time ever I kissed your mouth,
I felt the earth move through my hands.
Like the trembling heart of a captive bird
That was there at my command.
His breath caught in his throat. The pain was as sharp as it was those first few weeks. He had sat endlessly in that house that had ceased to be a home when her voice could no longer be heard, when her laughter no longer pealed through the rooms, when her smile no longer lit up each day brighter than any sun. How was he supposed to face each endless day, each aching night, without her presence? How was he supposed to celebrate holidays left empty of meaning without her there to share them?
He sat there, fingers clenched around his mug, for what felt an eternity, struggling to breathe, fighting not to break into a thousand shattered pieces.
Then there she was again, facing him this time, bent a bit as she held the arms of her son, one slim limb in each hand. The boy was laughing, his brown eyes glinting with mischief, dodging this way and that as she kept him from escaping to run riot through the booths. Her face was lit with delight, and as she lifted it to spot her way, her dancing green eyes caught his a moment and her mouth stretched in a wry grin as if to say What can I do? And why would I want to?
Her face was not Gracie's, but her joy in this moment of innocent childhood fun was, and he suddenly could not hold back an answering smile. He looked down at the boy and could see Michael as he had been at that age. He, too, had been full of movement and joy and mischief.
Michael. Tall, strong Michael who had, he suddenly realized, been doing everything he could to fill the gaping void left by Gracie. Michael, who looked so much like a male version of her that he was caught off guard every time they visited. Michael, who had invited him to Red Wings games and Emily's preschool concerts and bought the I-pod so that he could fill the silence with his beloved music. Michael and gentle Allie and their beautiful, boisterous little girl. How long had he shut them out? How long had he forgotten that Gracie had left behind a piece of herself in their son and granddaughter? How long had he ignored the memory of her words?
"You aren't allowed to pretend the world doesn't exist once I'm gone, Ray. I want you to live and love and be part of life. Don't disappear into yourself or I'll have to kick your ass when we see each other again someday. Don't think I won't!"
He straightened in his seat. He owed it to Gracie to follow her wishes. She had filled his life with love and laughter. What kind of husband, lover, best friend would he be if he let her legacy disappear?
He glanced at Colleen. She was standing by the salad bar, staring at him. Her face was creased with worry, deepening the wrinkles around her mouth and eyes. He smiled suddenly and beckoned her over.
"How's your daughter doing?" he asked. Her eyes widened, then she smiled and leaned against the table.
"Oh, honey, let me tell you! She and her husband just did the most crazy thing. I told Tom I just don't know what to think!"
He sighed with contentment and settled in his seat. Gracie would have loved to hear this story. He could almost see her across the table, face full of humor and sympathy.
She would always be with him, but it was time to let others be there too.
We saw houses falling from the sky
Where the mountains lean down to the sand
We saw blackbirds circling 'round an old castle keep
And I stood on the cliff and held your hand
We walked troubled brooding wind swept hills
And we loved and we laughed the pain away
At the end of the journey, when our last song is sung
Will you meet me in Heaven someday?