The most important thing in Arthur Jenkins’ car was the picture of his wife taped to the dashboard. Its edges were rounded, little white capillaries sprouting in the corners. She posed on the hood of 1968 Chevelle, which they bought used in 1973. It was their first major purchase as a couple, followed by a series of homes they promptly outgrew as children and grandchildren took over their lives and living space. The other picture of her, the final picture, he kept in his wallet. But he didn’t look at it often.
The second most important thing in Arthur’s car was his glasses, which he removed while driving but required for reading. He punched the dome light on despite it being full daylight, certain he was parked at the right house but unable to verify because he could not make sense of his own handwriting. He searched the pockets of his jacket, prodded the insulated pizza bag, and returned to his pockets once again. Finally, he scratched a small island of liver-spotted skin on his head and nudged the wire frames with his knuckle.
“Arthur, you fool,” he whispered, then lowered the glasses onto his face.
The address was correct.
It was a quaint, pastel yellow home not too far from his own neighborhood. The Ford Taurus in the driveway was a technological relic, but looked well-maintained, its pixilated paint job appearing almost intentional. There were faded bumper stickers for national parks and the vanity license plate was a riddle Arthur could not make out as he walked up the driveway. Blooming flowers lined the walkway with ceramic gnomes peeking around the petals. There was also a wooden sign that read The Witch is In!, which gave Arthur a chuckle, though he did not understand it.
He rang the doorbell and the house erupted with the sound of screeching birds. The animals were gently admonished as the occupant hummed her way to the door. Arthur passed the bag from one hand to the other, and opened the Velcro to access the pizza within. It was his third week on the job and this was one part he failed to master, the exchange of pizza for money. He was never sure of the proper order, and always certain he flubbed the transaction when it was done. On Arthur’s second day he took the cash from a young man’s hand with his teeth, not knowing how else to receive the money.
The door opened and the scent of jasmine rushed forth. Arthur closed his eyes and fought the urge to sneeze. When he opened his eyes his jaw went slack. An apple-sized knot formed in his stomach. He immediately dismissed her as an apparition, closed his eyes tighter and opened them again. She wore a confused look that mirrored his own.
“Arthur?” she said.
Her hair fell in gentle purple ringlets around her face, which was both achingly familiar and utterly foreign, like returning to a hometown not visited in decades.
“Reesie?” Arthur replied.
It was her honey-brown eyes, now floating in a nest of wrinkles but otherwise untouched by time.
“Arthur, what are you…” she trailed off, smiling and taking in his tan slacks and red and blue polo shirt. At least he hadn’t worn the hat.
Arthur’s cheeks burned.
“It’s uh-, it’s a part-time job. Something to keep me sane. I-I don’t need the money. I have a retirement,” he blurted.
Perhaps it was a trick of the sunlight, but for a moment the decades peeled away and Arthur was left staring at the face of his first crush, a quirky girl who nearly caused a civil war in school for daring to wear pants. An opinion piece in the school newspaper prophesied a series of increasingly outrageous feminine behaviors if the wearing of pants was permitted, almost all of which did come to pass.
He tucked the pizza bag under his arm and simply stared with that teenaged, diffident smile. Reesie wore not pants but a silk kimono with dizzying colors, like the tropical birds in the cages over her shoulder. Dreamcatchers dangled from her earlobes, each a different color.
“Yes, Reesie?” he sighed.
She nodded at the pizza bag, which was vertical and pressed against his body, melted cheese leaking through the seam and pooling onto Arthur’s right orthopedic shoe.
He righted the pizza bag, mozzarella dangling like pearly seaweed.
Smiling again, Arthur said, “Reesie, I haven’t seen you since reunion. Must have been thirty years ago!”
“Has it been that long? I remember your Doris wasn’t too fond of me that night.”
Arthur rubbed the back of his neck, “Never was. Not after she found my old yearbook.”
He avoided her gaze and wondered if his cheeks were as red as they felt.
The flutter in his chest intensified.
“Oh, nothing. Just a little thing I wrote by your picture. I think Doris might have helped it find its way to the trash. Haven’t seen it in years.”
She smiled and squeezed his forearm, “It’s okay, Arthur. How is she, by the way?”
Arthur looked at the oily splatter of cheese on his shoe and sniffed.
“She, uh, she didn’t make it. Cancer, just like her mother. It’s been about six months now. The kids thought I was getting too surly at home by myself. I rather enjoy the job, gets me out of the house and meeting folks.”
She lifted his chin and met his gaze, “Arthur, I am so sorry. Truly I am.”
He nodded and for a few moments they just stood in the doorway, birds cawing and screeching in the background. The memories of their high school days were like a shuffling rolodex in his mind. The vibrant memories, the ones that really stuck, featured the woman now standing two feet in front of him.
“What brought you back, Reesie?”
She inspected her glossy, aquamarine toenails.
“Mom. My sisters and I took turns staying with her. Wasn’t really fair, though, as I never settled down and had a family. So, I moved in. She passed last October. I think about moving, but I might be too old for another adventure.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“This was her house. Those were her birds, too. Awful, noisy things. I know I had a reputation in school as a loony, but I’m not the kind of person who would keep birds,” she said, sniffing in disgust.
Arthur nodded and smiled and thought he could spend the rest of the day in Reesie’s doorway. Then he remembered the picture taped to the dashboard.
“I should…” he said, looking over his shoulder.
“Of course,” Reesie said.
“We should catch up,” he said, his smile hopeful.
“I would love to.”
Arthur pivoted, suddenly hyperaware of his gait, his attire, and anything else she might notice.
She attached the term of endearment to his name in high school. It was practically his surname in her presence. It had the same electrifying effect on his limbs then as it had fifty years before.
The name was a slight variation of her given name, Reese.
“The pizza, dear?”
His smile twitched.
“Arthur, you fool,” he whispered.
They exchanged numbers and Arthur scuttled back to the car having been summoned by a sarcastic text message from his seventeen year old boss.
“Don’t you judge me, Doris,” Arthur told the picture taped to the dashboard.
Were her brows furrowed in the picture? Was she upset?
Of course not.
Still, he glanced at the black and white softness of her face as he drove, certain she was evaluating the flush of his cheeks, the sheen of sweat above his eyebrows.
“We’re just friends is all. Not even friends, really. I haven’t spoken to Reesie- I haven’t spoken to Reese in years.”
Had he thought about her?
Sometimes when he saw a purple flower bobbing its flagrant petals amid a sea of yellow flowers he thought of her. When he saw a woman reading a book with a confusing title he thought of her. At night, on his side of the bed, he thought about Doris and how silent the room was without the beeping machines that gave her a few extra years of life. Sometimes those thoughts drifted through their years and decades together, and settled on Reesie and the particular way her ponytail swayed, like a frenzied pendulum. She walked with purpose. Though he forgot much of high school, he still recalled the cadence of her footfalls.
Arthur would smack the side of his head as if he could dislodge the rebellious wandering of his thoughts. He had been happy with Doris, truly, until the end. When Reesie called a little after seven PM he was sitting on Doris’ side of the bed looking at the pillow where she rested her head. Arthur ignored the phone call and hugged the pillow, which still smelled faintly of Doris’ lavender shampoo. She called again the following morning and twice in the afternoon.
Arthur wrote a script and then edited it, using a thesaurus to add syllables to his simple words. But, he did not recite it to Reesie. He did not answer the phone. Instead, he pulled the picture of Doris out of his wallet and felt the weight of her absence as a cold, heavy stone in his chest.
On Monday of the following week Arthur reported for his lunchtime shift and learned he was requested, specifically, for a delivery. Bread sticks and a side salad with a Dr. Pepper thrown in to nudge the order over the $10 minimum for deliveries. He swallowed hard when he saw the address.
Doris eyed him the entire drive back to the quaint house with the peeping lawn gnomes. Arthur avoided speaking to her, opting to hum in an attempt to mask his anxiety. The hum quivered in his throat, never settling on a note.
In high school Reesie’s directness was both alluring and terrifying. Arthur was dazzled by the confidence in her voice, the sprawling nature of her thoughts. Time, it seemed only stiffened her resolve even as it took its toll in other ways.
“You’re avoiding me, Arthur,” she said.
Arthur opened and closed his mouth like a fish that suddenly found itself on land.
“I called. I even sent a text and that was a pain to figure out. Why does it keep putting words in that I didn’t write?”
Arthur shook his head and slowly lifted the breadsticks.
“Oh, I didn’t really want those, Arthur. I wanted to ask why you aren’t answering my calls? Did I do something wrong?”
Arthur met her gaze and held it for a moment.
She nodded, slowly.
“I understand,” she said, then held one finger up.
She disappeared into a cacophony of bird noises. The door swung open again and Reesie held out a book.
“Keep it for a while, Arthur, dear. For old time’s sake.”
She smiled, but there was sadness in her eyes, and she closed the door.
Arthur swirled his scotch as he opened the first page of the yearbook. That was what people did in movies, and so Arthur had always done it. He followed the paths carved by many feet, seldom straying, seldom pausing to look to either side. There were other paths he could have taken, unproven paths with uncertain destinations. Paths that wore pants, for example.
Reesie’s yearbook was filled with the looping script of her female classmates, a half-page from her English teacher, who urged her to continue writing. Arthur found himself in several pictures, typically not in the forefront but off to the side a bit. They were together in one, he and Reesie at a pep rally. Arthur noticed several of the young women in the bleachers were wearing pants. Most students faced the camera, but not Arthur. He was smiling at Reesie’s hand on his knee.
She was such a free spirit, a silver dime in a bagful of pennies. Why had she ever made time for him?
He relived football games and dances, the scotch warm in his belly, likely a result of his expert swirling.
Arthur skimmed over the entries at the back of the book, feeling like a bit of a voyeur. He found his own compact paragraph, grimacing at the use of the words swell gal.
“Arthur, you fool,” he whispered, slurring the words just a bit.
He recognized Reesie’s handwriting on the final page. It filled all of the white space. Arthur sucked in a breath and held it.
Dozens, possibly one hundred times, she had written the name Reese Jenkins. In Arthur’s yearbook, which was not in a landfill but in a box labeled books in the attic, the same name was written under her picture in Arthur’s handwriting.
Arthur placed both pictures of Doris inside of her favorite book, and returned it to the bookshelf. He traced his fingers along the spine, which was rough and broken. She read the book every year during her birthday month. Early in the marriage it annoyed him. He did not understand how she could find enjoyment in the words she knew by heart.
“I enjoy them because I know them by heart,” she said.
Doris was his book. His beginning, middle, and end. It was not perfect, but no book is.
He held the phone in his hands, his fingers hovering over the call button.
On her last day, during her final lucid moment, Doris made Arthur promise many things. He agreed to her demands only half-listening to the words, only wanting her to continue talking.
“Arthur, you have to keep living. You have to,” she said.
He nodded, eyes stinging with tears.
Arthur downed the last of the scotch and said, “Okay, Doris.”
He pressed the button and it connected almost at once, his ear filling with bird noises.
“Hello Arthur, dear.”