Each night, he sprinkles an array of lanterns across the front yard. Arranges the lawn chairs, so there’s ample distance between each, but so they’re still close enough to create a shapely formation. He sets out little plastic tables in between each.
Then he plops himself into one of the chairs. Watches the light from each lantern flickering, a procession breaking through the shadows, a glowing progression. He waits. Waits for someone to come and join this little nightly party. He’s even posted a welcome notice at the market. Nightly gathering in my backyard. All are welcome. All topics of discussion welcome. Booze offered.
He’s posted this notice at the market for the past five years. Right on the main bulletin board to the left of the door, the board people pass day in, day out. It feels odd to include his name, something he almost never pronounces, except when necessary. She gave it an elegance, a second-rate common thing. She, whose name he cannot pronounce either. A first-rate name with even more elegance and a sorrowful verve.
For those five years, he’s had to listen only to his own voice, something hollowed out, something with a pause in each word. An echo all too clear in the empty walls, where her bookshelves once were. He hears it even in the kitchen cupboard, devoid of those old blue-and-white plates. And it’s especially clear in the living room, where the old Baldwin baby grand once stood, the one so out of tune, but where she used to play their song, “Misty” with fervor, even if it sounded more funereal and not full of wonderment and lushness. He’d always stand behind her, hands over her shoulders and take in the scent of her mint soap and deodorant and the occasional Life Saver.
Of course, no one comes. The nights deepen. A woman in a tank top or a young man in a baseball cap sometimes pause. An elderly woman with a painfully beautiful smile too. Or a middle-aged man wearing the odd fedora. They assess the scene with youthful or aging eyes. Sometimes, they might take a step. And another. And in those moments, he imagines asking them about their lives, asking them for the darkest points, firing questions like a gun too big for his slender hands. What was the greatest rejection? What was the worst thing you did afterwards? And what was the best?
And of course, he’d ask that greatest of questions: Did you ever lose your temper so badly you couldn’t fix things? He would listen to their answers, absorbing each word, storing it in the dells of his consciousness. He wants to hear of the worst losses of tempers. Something worse than drinking and destroying drywall and lobbing accusations of infidelity and being too tight. Something even worse than telling a loved one she was too much of a realist. Worse than screaming you had a fucking right to dream about the great American novel or whatever you wanted.
But he never hears their stories, the stories he imagines of hitting people and destroying things worse than drywall. They always take two or three steps back. Someone might nod once or twice, but usually they continue on. He gets an occasional nod or a greeting, but that’s rare.
Sometimes, he feels a need to lunge, to chase them down, these men and women, these occasional teenagers too. He feels a stirring, an impulse to grab someone by the collar. But he did that once to her, and it frightened him, hands grasping someone, fright and anger all ballooning. She looked at him as if he could kill and he wondered if he would for months to come.
But he still waits in the stillness. He pours himself some Merlot or Riesling, whatever he’s in the mood for. He has one glass, two glasses, three glasses. He even turns on some music, a little Debussy, a little Borodin. And he tries to capture his old voice, the confident baritone, the voice that made her say he could have been an actor. Everybody wants a mellifluous man, she’d said, laughing, that lilting laugh. He’d just quipped that people like a mellifluous professor too and he’d love to be portrayed by Patrick Stewart in the movie of his life.
Each night, he sits in his chair and listens to footsteps on the sidewalk, clickety-clack, click-click, until the footsteps fade and disappear. He sits and waits until the sky’s turned a midnight shade of black and the stars have turned to steel. He doesn’t move an inch until the lights from the houses across the block have all gone off, one by one, and the late-night train has wailed by, carrying God-knows-what this time. Then he extinguishes each lantern, one by one, trying to plan for the next day. He tries to smile through the growing darkness, still tells himself a thousand things. This is a busy season for people. Maybe he needs to post his notices elsewhere in town. Maybe he’s a little too direct.
She did always say that was his worst flaw.
Some nights, he even thinks she would like this version of him, persistent, not sharp as a piece of glass. The version sitting and not pacing or moving with frenetic energy. The old him would have uttered an invective or two at the passing people, the people who don’t stop. Especially if this were five years ago and not now. Cocksucker, selfish motherfucker, so many things would have risen. But he banishes those memories before they can spill out again.
He tells himself the next day will be different, extinguishing another lantern. He will be different. He will smile. And above all, he will be calm. Someone must come. He repeats these things over and over again in the loudest of tones, while his assurances echo and fade and he extinguishes the last lantern.