Rudy saw lanterns and canoes in the yards along the river. The river was more ice than water. The Victorian homes were more than homes; like himself, they were eccentric leftovers. What other man just shy of eighty walked at midnight? Everyone said it was dangerous.
With a powder of snow, the branches seemed to have an electric charge. Downstream, trees bent toward the center. In the next year, there would be an unexpected crash on the river and a tree, and soon another would become food & fortress to many creatures.
Ice crystals made him grip the frozen guardrail on the bridge. As the wind turned him toward the past, he imagined his late wife in his Chrysler sixty years ago, and oh how it zoomed on the wide streets. Across the street was a park with an Ice Age boulder where they had a picnic and ran from ants. “What’s time anyway?” he said; “It’s last day of February.”
Rudy looked at the sprinkle of stars and the moon’s complexion. Reflections wiggled on the surface. Leaning over, he saw icicles on the underside of the bridge, their tips a few inches above the ice. He stretched forward but lost his footing – pitching through the air in a crazy instant. He ended up on his back, his lungs sounding like a balloon leak. He had entered the black hole of death.
Rudy tried to speak but uttered pre-language. He regretted the second shot of cognac to keep warm on such a night. What part of him had cracked he did not know. As he tried to stand, he saw a person on a rocking chair in front of a lamp in the tower of the Victorian home. Rudy yelled but the ice mouthed him into silence.
Rudy shuffled to the physical therapy center to work on his feet. It had a green sign and large windows. It was an organization that existed in the minds and muscles of the physical therapists more than in any extravagant space. There were pictures of people in motion and expressions posted, “Let Food Be Your Medicine” and “You Are Not Your MRI.”
He met Cynthia Winkle who helped Rudy recline and stretch. “Let’s play the game of picking up marbles with your toes,” Cynthia said.
“Games are for kids. Okay, I’ll do it.”
“We can learn a lot from that little person,” she said, her blue eyes and pen considering him. “Hey, sir, you can be watching TV at home doing this.”
“Tossed my TV out the window — a false friend. Read a lot. Walk a lot.”
“Where do you walk?”
“Apparently off a bridge onto ice,” he said, pulling his shoulders back.
“Mr. Aspinwall, you’re a medical miracle,” she said; “Gosh, what happened?”
He inhaled deliberately, “Ice Capades. Don’t remember, flipped over the bridge. The body has reserves, wants to go on. Call me Rudy but never rude.”
She waved at someone and pointed at a folder. Another PT carried icepacks and coffee, and someone moaned in pain, “Sir, you’re in quite good shape. But be careful.”
“Mankind is a wanderer. Like a wolf.” He drank the give-away coffee and put it down with a sour smile. He grabbed gummy bears but realized it might liberate his teeth. He admired the green almond of her eyes and workout arms. She held up her finger to get the attention of a guy limping. Rudy wanted to show him calisthenics, but he limped the other way.
Rudy thanked Cynthia and obtained appointments for the following week. He felt shy as the center of attraction, hoping that his white hair covered the cooked lobster of his scalp. Only his wife, many years before, had touched his feet.
Each door in the medical labyrinth spotlighted an organ or illness. He exited the door and spotted a hawk drift across the sun with hieroglyphic surety.
A week later: March 1 was a sudden turn toward spring weather; here and there succulent flowers surprised the soil. With ointment, Rudy felt well enough to circumambulate the nearby lake that, in his grandfather’s era, had been used for ice. It was at the midpoint between the graveyard and playground. “Each generation exiles the last,” he whispered, looking at the small island in the lake.
He looked at the ducks and the bark of a River Birch tree. He liked the idea that trees were migrating, but then he grew fearful that humans had destroyed the planet, that even trees tried to get away. He took breath and noticed a weeping woman. She was dressed in a raincoat and carried a satchel and coffee. “Coffee is big these days,” Rudy said.
“Used to be served in a regular paper cup.”
“Coffee, it fuels the economy,” she said.
“You can say that,” he said, brushing his finger across the rough shave. “You okay? I don’t mean to intrude.”
“Just life, really.” She looked at him vacantly. “I was on my way to my job at the bank.”
Rudy held his gaze. When he looked away, his neck crackled. “You helped me with my savings account. I worked for forty years. Now I’m a mind reader.”
“Barclay Fraser, personal banker, money’s my game. What do you see?”
“Rudy’s my name,” he said; “Maybe pain is a royal road to knowledge. Sit with it.”
“I felt over the edge.” She smiled without emotion, “A therapist, are you?”
“Engineer, I specialized in bridges,” Rudy replied; “But something happened. You have to realize things happen that are negative, unexpected. Expect that people will upset you, that cars will honk.”
“That’s a big coffee of advice.”
“Spill it, Barclay. Simplest explanations are best. A line I stole from my wife who borrowed it from William of Occam.”
She exhaled so that her hair uplifted, “I broke up with my boyfriend.”
Rudy considered the Canada geese circling the lake and coming in for a splash landing.
“Is that good or bad?”
“It was good but feels bad.”
“Please take this book,” Rudy said; “I was on my way to the library to donate some books. Wisdom of the ages to some, blocks of paper to others.”
She smiled. “The classics — what we didn’t pay attention to in school.”
On the cover, Socrates was pointing toward the sky. Socrates seemed to say that inspirations anywhere can lead to answers here.
“Wife was a history and religion teacher, a fine one,” Rudy said; “She never showed off or preached, but she said things that astonished others and me.”
“Love is the search for the soul’s counterpart,” Rudy said. She mumbled something, waved at Rudy, and then she was gone, just like that.
Rudy returned home to change his shoes and to visit Katie cat. He set the table for two including the teacups from Florence. His late wife Dolores had picked out the cat from a local shelter and this, as much as his two children living across the country and a bookcase across the bedroom wall, connected him to her. On their last day together, she read him The Little Prince. “The worst thing about passing,” she said, “is you can’t read all your books and you can’t finish what you need to say.” Then she died.
He continued to the bakery which had an enclosed porch with a sign, Chateau Lisbon. The bakery was at a crossroads. Blue was its color, and its success was its multicultural patronage in line for desserts. The older women, who served behind the counter, had old world charm and new world irony.
Rudy ordered coffee and a cider donut. A few men usually met mornings. They were sort of the gang in the center of the action, no matter where they sat. Rudy sat at a nearby table and stared at the donut as he recalled the woman on the bench. He loved the mix of soft and crunchy. He smiled in the private century of old men.
Rudy had the Weekend section of the Wall Street Journal and checked off reviews of books on the Black Plague, Lawrence of Arabia and spies that worked for George Washington. The argument heated up. Rudy sat at the edge of it.
Bill Daily, a tall man with big nostrils and grey hair combed back, said, “That program was educational. Art should be beautiful and make you feel special. The greatest painting in the world is the Mona Lisa. Go to hell. I know beauty.”
“You can’t say any painting is the best in the world. You haven’t seen them all. What are the facts?” said the other man, Tommy. He was round and wore a cap with Navy emblazoned on it. Rudy leaned back in his chair and put his hands on his head.
“Rudy, you are amused. You’re spying on us,” said Bill; “Say something smart.”
“Feel something smart,” Rudy said, scratching his forehead, as if to conjure thoughts; “Leonardo brought everything to perfection. He transcends ordinary life. Leonardo found the soul by following the focal point of your senses.”
“There’s only one Leonardo,” said Tommy, buttering toast.
“I want one of those brainy donuts,” said Bill, leaning forward.
“Bill and Tommy, you rascals,” said Rudy.
A van stopped at the curb and deposited six seniors and the driver. They rushed into the dessert line which was the length of the glass cases filled with breads and crayon-colored pastries. The owner, Celestino Avila, who had been baking since 3:30 AM, his shirt covered with flour, shuffled over to sit with Bill and Tom. He relaxed, seemingly wanting to say something but caught by exhaustion. He had his usual off-menu plate of vegetables, fish and baked potato.
Celestino became animated and lifted his hands from the coffee cup, pointing at the tiles he added, “There’s beauty,” he said; “I saw this show. Leonardo so he brings these cadavers into his room. Dedication.”
“Genius is out there,” said Tommy.
“As long as the corpses don’t talk back,” Bill said, tall in his chair.
Celestino’s wife Maria came over, “Someone should arrest you. For any reason.”
“I’m going to be eighty-two in June,” Tommy said, tapping his knees.
Maria hovered sample desserts in front of their faces, Tommy took a Paster del nata. Rudy put his eyeglasses on top of his head, leaned back and scratched.
“I almost died recently,” Rudy said.
“What?” they all said.
“Fell off a bridge onto ice,” Rudy said; “Doctors did many tests and looked at many things and nothing. I have faith that there’s the second half to the bridge.”
Maria shook her head, “You left the hospital? No Jell-O?”
The others chimed with sympathy to ease the shadow that brushed across the festivity. “Think of all the second chances everyone gets,” Rudy said.
Bill was solemn. Tommy looked up at the ceiling. Maria scratched at the icing on her skirt. “Any chance is good,” Tommy said, raising his shoulders; “It’s all you got, or you’re dead. Listen, I survived the Korean War. Every goddam day we survive these nukes and viruses and car crashes and killer bees.”
They uttered things they had survived: “skin cancer, pneumonia, childbirth, falling down stairs, swallowing a toothpick, oven explosion.” Chirping birds, descending from the corners, pecked at crumbs on the floor, also blurred the human magisterium.
“Okay, Maria Avila, of the musical name,” Rudy requested. With feigned gallantry, he slid a chair toward her; “Now, everyone, do me a favor: close your eyes. Listen. Watch your mind tick. Don’t look away or open your eyes.” After a few minutes, one and then another opened their eyes. No one said anything as Rudy returned with another cider donut.
“If I can survive that bridge,” Rudy said, “I’ll survive this donut.”
Celestino looked up from his plate, then took a huge swallow of coffee. He put the cup down; “Maybe not.”
Richard has had stories, essays and journalism in The Raven’s Perch, DASH, The Ancient World, Parabola Magazine, Minerva Magazine, Coneflower Cafe and more. One of his stories was nominated for a Pushcart in 2021. He and his family won awards at Cranford Film Festival and London Shorts Film Festival.