Hunger growled in him, clamoring for attention. The old man went into the kitchen and opened the cupboard. There was one can of soup. Chicken noodle. A bowl and a spoon sat in the old man’s dish drain next to a small pot, the perfect size for heating soup. Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the leaves of a shady elm tree and filled the kitchen with dappled light.
His wife and mother waited patiently in small, neat piles next to his writing notebook on the table in the living room. Three men in army uniform kept watch from the edge of the table, next to yellowed newspaper announcements and faded photographs. The murmuring of the old man’s father and his war buddies filled the empty living room while he opened a new package of soda crackers in the kitchen.
The old man was organizing the pieces of his life into story. His was not unlike that of others, but it was his, and he wanted to sort it out before he died. His story accounted for the passage of time, for his bent back, white hair, and tremulous voice.
His looping cursive roamed through the pages of his notebook. Words flowed easily, like his days, one into the next. Each sentence welcomed another. Mornings and afternoons drifted into evening and back into morning. He’d make cereal and coffee, go for a short walk, then sit at his table and write in his notebook. He’d nap, heat a can of soup for dinner, and write some more.
He sat back down at his writing table. His wedding photo looked back at him. It whispered to the old man. When I first saw her. She wore green. She sang to me. This was the story he wanted his daughter to read, the story of her mother. Or maybe it was his mother who wore green? No. It was his wife. He wrote about her sudden illness.
It tired him, so he went into his bedroom to sleep, bringing his wife with him.
His daughter called the next day. “Are you eating, Poppa?”
Was he? He could not remember.
“Yes, dear,” he said. Her name for a moment hovered just out of reach. He’d woken in the morning, reaching for something that remained vague and unsettled. His wife had disappeared in the night, taking with her whole paragraphs of explanation.
He looked in his cupboard and saw there was no more soup. “I’ll go to the store today for more food.”
“Your cane, Poppa, don’t forget.”
He went back to his notebook. It began with a chill. The words jumped out of his pen and skittered around the paper. She sang in the trenches. That was not what he meant.
He collected his words and tried again. Mother slept in a chill. The trenches sang green. The words did not behave. They hid from the old man, jumping out from his notebook and ducking into corners. Some words—war, wife—paraded in front of him and seemed to demand a story that he could not conjure.
He must be hungry. Cream of Mushroom would be good.
He went into the bedroom to find shoes for the walk to the grocery store. A sentence followed him and slid down the walls. It was a sentence about love, or maybe it was a sentence about illness. It was probably a sentence about his wife.
He planned to return to writing, after the grocery store, after eating.
The old man worked his feet into his shoes and put on his coat. He took a twenty-dollar bill from an envelope in his dresser and put it in his pocket.
He remembered his cane.
He went slowly down the stairs. Words from his notebook came with him, tucked into his pocket with his twenty-dollar bill. As he walked to the grocery story, the words leaked out onto the sidewalk. Some of them fell into the gutter and down into the drain, heading into a river that rolled to the ocean. I asked her to marry me. She burned with fever. Gone. Whole sentences disappeared this way.
Some of his words— father, brother—landed in the cracks and crevasses of the sidewalk. People walking on the sidewalk did not know they were stepping on ghosts.
The grocery store had many aisles. The old man put his cane into a shopping cart and started down an aisle. He held on to the cart, the handle like an old friend.
“Soup.” He said the word out loud.
The shopping cart knew the way and took him to the soup aisle. He remembered there was a kind he wanted. The name danced away from him, so he took soup from the shelf that was easiest to reach. He took three cans with pictures on the labels. Orange and green vegetables, curly yellow noodles, little lumpy brown beans.
He traveled the aisles of the grocery store, pushing the shopping cart that held his soup and his cane. He pushed his cart past bread, cereal, and coffee, past celery and potatoes. The apples, green and red, threatened to tumble from precarious piles. The old man did not take an apple but reached instead for a small yellow orb that reminded him of the sun. The world shrank to the dimensions of a shopping cart that held three cans of soup, a cane, and a lemon.
His writing table waited for him at home. His notebook, next to the neat stacks of photos and papers, loosened its words, shuffling them into new stories that his daughter would, someday, be unable to decipher.
Image – Google images