Human Interest: All We Got is Time

Fiction by John Ryan

With John’s story, the Coffee Coaster is starting a test feature, in which the literary piece is excerpted from its beginning to a logical breaking point. Then the reader will directed to a Web page in the Scribd social publishing Website where for a small amount (often $1) the reader can purchase the entire story in electronic format. [1]

John’s full story “All We Got is Time” may be obtained at this scribd link.

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Shortly after World War II, Francis O’Leary made the acquaintance of one Emily McKinnon at a ballroom dance thrown in honor of veteran soldiers and WACs.  She was first generation Scottish.  He was first generation Irish.  They were compatible, especially in their desire to pull themselves out of poverty.  They approached love and happiness as if it was a business contract to be perused and amended over a candle-lit negotiating table:  do you want kids?  Yes.  How many?  One less than we can afford.  How about two less than we can afford?  Agreed.  I want money.  I want loads of money.  I mean it, I’ll never be poor again.  I understand, the Depression hit us all.  What about careers?  Both of us should work.  You with a big, stable company?  Me with a rich company.  A car company?  Ford.  Agreed.  Let’s start.

Forty-four years after the wedding, the O’Learys sat side-by-side drinking creamed coffee on the screened-in porch of their four-bedroom suburban home in a very lush section of southern Michigan.  They passively watched the deep black of the canal ripple like an oily brook behind a line of old willows and oaks at the edge of their property.  The breeze stirred hardly at all, yet the willows swayed as if compelled by the crippling weight of their own accumulation of years.  In apparent mimicry of the willows’ scarred limbs, the O’Learys fanned themselves softly with their open hands.  “Gawd!  It’s muggy, Em,” Mr. O’Leary said.  He turned and readjusted himself on the worn cushion of his chair.  The bamboo of the frame popped and creaked as he settled into place.  His hip had bothered him ever since the previous winter when he had fallen from the ladder while putting up Christmas lights.  He sighed.  “It’s never this hot in Florida, Em  We should buy a place on the beach and live there year ‘round.”

“Just as hot there,” Mrs. O’Leary said.  She sipped her coffee, a loud, indelicate noise, because she blew on it as she drank.  “Just not so sultry.”

“Sultry?  Hell.”

Mrs. O’Leary slurped more coffee.  “Have to pick up Mom soon.”

“We need the ocean breeze.  Cools everything down nice.  The taste of salt . . .  I’m telling you, Em.  Touches the lips like a margarita.”

“Haven’t seen her in more than a week,” Mrs. O’Leary said.  “Doesn’t know who I am half the time, but she likes the visiting.  She likes the garden and the walk.”  Mrs. O’Leary lifted her cup and pointed to a humming bird hovering around the porch feeder just a few feet away.  The feeder pitched on its chain and clanked against the side of the screen door as the bird rhythmically dodged the plastic flowers adorning its side.  “Looks like Mr. Bird’s going to knock himself out this morning.”

“It’s the weather that does it, dumbs Michigan birds down to nothing.  They’re rodents with wings, you ask me.”

“I should put some weight on the feeder so it doesn’t swing.”

“You want smart birds?  Look at the seagulls . . . they know what they’re about.”

“They eat garbage.”

“Maybe so, but you can’t fault them for the Florida sand.  Walk the beaches after the gulls come in and they’re as clean as a dinner plate.”

“Not like any plate I ever washed.”

“Walk for miles on that sand without so much as a twinge in the back.  Sand, salt, ocean.  I’m telling you, opens the sinuses up . . . about as good as that chest vapor does anyway.”

A breeze smelling faintly of cherry blossoms and white lilacs blew gently through the porch.  The edge of a towel draped across a vacuum cleaner lifted in a lazy salute to the cooling touch of air.  The breeze swam slowly, moist and warm, along the alleyways formed between the arms, legs, and backs of the furniture cluttered along the outdoor carpet.  A three person couch with a sturdy bamboo frame; two matching chairs with red vinyl pillows; a wooden coffee table stained from years of use; tiny mismatched end-tables of indian wicker; and a kitchen table with four fold-away seats tucked under its glass top were arranged along the porch like a second living room.  When Mrs. O’Leary felt the breeze touch her skin, she eased back into the soft warmth of her chair.  She stretched her tanned legs toward the screen door and pointed her toes.  She rested her cup on her lap, and then turned her head toward Mr. O’Leary.  “You know I’ve been thinking,” she said.

“Thinking about the pier is what I’ve been doing,” said Mr. O’Leary.  “If we lived under that sun, we could walk the beach and visit the pier every day.  Just up and go.”

“I’m not so old, you know,” Mrs. O’Leary said.  “Look at my legs.”

Mr. O’Leary laughed.  “You have the legs, Em.  Always have.”

“There’s still things I could do.”

“Lots of things we can do.  I could fish.  Catch a shark this time.  Maybe a whale.  Wouldn’t it be grand, Em?  A big ole whale off the pier?”

There was a long silence in which Mrs. O’Leary didn’t respond.  Mr. O’Leary eventually looked toward his wife and noticed how bright her eyes were.  He reached across the coffee table between them and touched her hand.  Mrs. O’Leary shook her head and pulled her hand away.  She lifted her coffee cup to her lips and took another sip.

Mr. O’Leary had been retired for seven years, six longer than Mrs. O’Leary.  Every summer of his retirement, he had asked her.  When will you retire?  Soon, she’d respond.  We don’t need the money.  Soon.  Why work when you don’t need the money?  For heaven’s sake, soon.  After years of that, Mr. O’Leary finally gave Mrs. O’Leary an ultimatum:  Join me now or I’m cashing you in for two thirties.  He was being funny, but there was something desperate in his joke.  She taught one last year and then cleaned out her desk.

“I think I want to substitute.”

“Aw, Em! Not again.”

“We got time, Francis.”

“Sure, all the time in the world . . . to fish . . . to walk the beaches. Florida, Em! That should be our job. Imagine it.”

“Or, we could adopt another kid. One of those Chinese baby girls. They throw them into rivers, you know.”

Mr. O’Leary shook his head and closed his eyes. “I love you, Em, but you’re as loony as your Mom. Babies? Another job? Have you looked in the mirror, lately?”

Mrs. O’Leary did not respond. Instead, she thought back to St. Augustine’s Academy where she had taught third grade for thirty years. Retirement had been a foreign concept to her, a dim light at the end of the long tunnel of her life.  She had learned how to work hard as a young girl growing up on welfare in Allen Park.  She grew from child to woman very quickly that way.  From her great-aunt to her mother, right on down to her older sister, she was taught that practical people worked, even if it wasn’t at a paying job. You worked until you were too old to push yourself out of bed in the morning.  At sixty-four years old, Mrs. O’Leary had no trouble pushing herself out of bed.

Mrs. O’Leary had started work at thirteen after she lied to a local dime store owner about her age so she could do weekend shifts.  When she had turned legal at sixteen, she worked two jobs and still managed to graduate high school early.  She took almost eight years to work her way through college, but she had accomplished that while raising her first three children.  Two more came after that.

When Mrs. O’Leary’s retirement did come, she worked until well after the last bell. She could still remember how surprised she was by the wrinkles on her hands as she pulled the faded paper elephants off the wall from above the alphabet banner. It was her thirtieth time taking down the circus elephants. Thirty sets of kids had passed through her class, more or less, successfully. On the last day of every one of those years, she’d end her class by saying:  Remember these elephants, class, because they led you from printing to cursive in one year. It was a big step for such little people.

On her retirement day, she had wondered how many of them remembered the elephants. The classroom was empty, and she had sat for a long time staring at the sloping letters decorating the pile of cutouts covering her desk.  She mouthed the printed names of every student before dropping their elephant into the garbage can.  Over some cutouts, she had said a little more: Sally, it was nice to have met you. Rick, you were a troublemaker, but we made it. Ming Lau, good riddance you little know-it-all. When she read the last paper in the stack, Charlie Banks, a C student who had improved to an A, she let his name slip from her fingers with a gesture that ended by wiping away tears.  Once the crying began, there was no stopping it, especially as she made her final rounds of good-byes. How hard it was to imagine that the other teachers would all return to work the following year without her.

Mrs. O’Leary had left the school at seven o’clock on her final day. She had returned home to lighted candles, soft music, and a champagne dinner.  She had tried not to let her husband hear the bitterness in her voice when she told him about the elephants, but the smudges around her eyes and the catch in her throat had been easy for Francis to read.  He had probably heard every unspoken word.  She remembered him leaning into her. He had squeezed her hand and then said,

It’ll be grand for you and me, Em. We have all the time in the world now.

On the porch now, gazing at the canal, Mrs. O’Leary rested her hands in her lap. They were even more wrinkled than they had been then holding the elephants. She looked through the screen to the chocolate colored canal and heard her husband say,  “Did you hear me, Em? A whale, a big old Buluga. You can clean it with that good knife I bought you. Gut it good and clean. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?”

Mrs. O’Leary’s face tighten as if she was about to say something sharp.  Instead, she responded with a sigh, “Then buy me some new flip-flops, Dear. The others broke last year. And you’ll have to catch a whale that’s not quite so endangered.”

Mr. O’Leary laughed and drew back in his bamboo chair.  He watched a strong gust move through the trees lining the canal.  Some green willow switches tumbled airily from the heights and skipped across the rippled water like boats sailing fast for shore.  He lifted the cup to his mouth and drank the last of his coffee.  “Look at a big clean ocean instead of a dirty canal.  And when you get hungry, just go across the street to the Halifax and buy some fish.  Fresh out the water and wiggling wet.”

“I love fish and chips,” Mrs. O’Leary said.  “Vinegar soaked.”

“I’m starved for grouper.  Maybe some fresh clams.”

“We have to pick up Mom before the kids get here.”

“Maybe some swordfish and jumbo shrimp.”

“Patrick can’t leave work until five.”

“Lobster and crab would hit the spot.”

“We’ll have to eat late tonight so Patrick can get his steak.”

“Late?  Hell.  Steak’s as good as fish, I suppose.  Wonder if that new butcher shop on Woodward’s opened yet.”

“He works so hard.  Even on Saturdays.”

Mr. O’Leary nodded his head like a proud horse.  “That’s my boy.”

“Says he might get promoted this month.”

“Don’t know who owns the rest of the bunch.  In my wallet every chance they get like six foot blood suckers.  I’m telling you, Em.  No kids.  The sun.  That salt air.  Gawd almighty!”

Mrs. O’Leary stared out through the silver mesh of the screen to the dark water of the canal.  She traced a spider web of wrinkles around her knees with her index finger.  “Used to be so pretty,” she said, quietly.  “A Florida kind of pretty. The sky’s lower there, you know.”

“Things change,” Mr. O’Leary said.  “We loved that dirty brown canal once. Clouds might be bigger down South, but sky’s the same everywhere.”

The O’Leary’s set their cups down on the coffee table between the two chairs. They stood and then headed towards the doorwall inside. It was time for showers and some day clothes.  Mr. O’Leary looked at his plain silver watch.  “It’s almost nine, Em.  Where has the day gone?”

“Just don’t know,” she said.  “Just don’t know where the time goes. Nine, you say?”

He grimaced as he opened the sliding glass door of the porch.  “Good for nothing back,” he said. He stepped  inside the air conditioned house.  “Gawd, Em!  It’s cold in here.”

Mrs. O’Leary used both hands to slide the glass door shut after following Francis through the door.  She padded barefoot across the soft plush of the living room carpet into the hallway.  She turned off the air conditioning with a flick of her thumb and then walked upstairs behind her husband. She noticed how he limped and held his back with every step.

“Happy birthday, old woman,” he said, not looking back.  “You’re still just as pretty.  Hell, prettier than you were as a girl.”

“I’m the same weight as the day we met.”

“One-eighteen,” Mr. O’Leary said, with a laugh.  “November, nineteen-fifty-two.”

“At the ball,” Mrs. O’Leary whispered, “Dancing all night with so much yet to do.”

“Still got lots to do, Em.”

“I know,” she said. “Better get a move on.”

“Moving as fast as I can, lady. Just don’t got your legs”

She smiled despite herself.

###

At two o’clock Mr. O’Leary drove into the driveway of St. Mary’s nursing home and parked his white Lincoln in the first row adjacent to the handicap signs…

(The full story may be obtained for $1 at this scribd link.)


[1] If you have a fictional piece and you would like to post on the Coffee Coaster, please send via email to Brian Wright. Mainly, I’m looking for short stories 1000-4000 words—with authenticity and feeling, humor, about them… and, if political, at least an implied peace-and-liberty edge. If your piece is posted, I will contact you for approval first; at this stage in the CC world, there is no remuneration but your work will receive a full professional copyedit.

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