This is my first ever attempt at writing fiction. I wrote it more as a challenge to myself, than for any other reason. Whether or not it is any good, I will leave up to you, the readers of my blog, to decide.
I will post the first part today and the second part tomorrow. Why two parts? I thought you might be more likely to read it, if I did not dump the whole thing on you at one time. Also, if you are bored by the first part, you need not bother with reading the second part.
So, get yourself a fresh cup of coffee and couple biscotti, relax, and peak into a day in the life of “Mr. Hopper.”
A short story by Paul R. Waibel*
Monday began like any other day for Mr. Hopper, except for the brief encounter on his way to the dining hall.
As he walked slowly down the hall, he heard someone say, “Good morning, Mr. Hopper.”
“Mornin,” he replied, instinctively, and continued on his way.
Such casual greetings were not at all unusual. People often greet each other, even if they are total strangers. No one expects an honest answer, much less a conversation, only an acknowledgement.
Perhaps it was only a moment’s curiosity, but Mr. Hopper paused. Steadying himself on his cane, he turned his head to see who it was, but he caught only a glimpse of the gentleman’s back. “No matter,” he thought, “just another unfortunate soul.”
For the past five years Alexis “Alex” Hopper had been a resident of The Pines, a retirement home for those fortunate enough to have more than just Social Security.
The accommodations were not luxurious, but neither were they uncomfortable. A small bedroom, a private bath with shower and tub combination, and a living room made up what he liked to refer to as his apartment. It was located on a long hallway. Along the hallway on either side was a succession of doors, each one opening to a similar arrangement of rooms.
Meals were taken in a dining hall. Most of the tables were round, some able to seat up to six individuals, others only four. Along the outer wall that was mostly glass were a number of small square tables, suitable for one or two guests. There were also some small tables along the inner walls or next to pillars, placed in such a way as to provide a measure of privacy for those who wished to eat alone.
The tables were covered with table cloths–usually white, but occasionally some pastel color such as light blue or green. In the center of each table sat a small vase filled with fresh-cut flowers. Around each table were straight back chairs, upholstered with a fabric that reminded one of a tapestry.
Each morning at breakfast, Mr. Hopper ate alone. He liked to sit at one of the small tables along an inner wall, somewhat isolated from the rest. Everyone seemed to understand.
He was, like so many of the residents of The Pines, an individual of habit. Every morning he ate the same breakfast—two eggs, scrambled well-done; two sausage patties or links, also cooked well-done; a small portion of fried potatoes or grits; two slices of toast with butter and jelly, preferably strawberry or blueberry; and hot coffee–medium roast, breakfast blend, and brewed just a bit strong.
Often, he would add a small bowl of fruit. He did not particularly like fruit in the morning, but Mary always said: “Alex, dear, eat some fruit. It’s good for you.” He would always smile, just as he did now, as if she were sitting across from him.
Breakfast was usually followed by spending the morning hours in his apartment. He was allowed a certain amount of what the staff called “personal things.” Space, after all, was limited.
In addition to the bed, more comfortable than he expected, there were a chest of drawers and a set of bookshelves attached to the wall. Beneath the bookshelves was a small writing desk on which stood a brass lamp. A comfortable recliner that could both rock and swivel completed the inventory of furniture.
On the desk in a simple frame was a photograph of Mary with their son, William, or “Willy,” as he liked to be called. Alex took the photo one summer while they were on vacation in Washington, DC visiting the Marine Corps War Memorial. There, frozen in time, were the brave Marines forever raising the American flag over Iwo Jima. The combined experience of visiting the memorial and walking between the rows upon rows of white crosses in Arlington National Cemetery seemed to have had a powerful effect on young Willy. As they walked back to their car, he announced: “I’m going to be a Marine.”
In a drawer in the dresser, among other mementos of his many years, was a letter from a Marine officer who commanded Willy’s platoon in Vietnam. He used words like “brave,” “honorable,” “proud,” “tough,” and, the highest accolade of respect, the simple words, “a Marine.”
Alex wondered if the officer who wrote the letter actually knew his son. Perhaps he was merely writing a letter that he wrote to the parents of all the young men in his platoon who lost their innocence as well as their lives in the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam. He once overheard a retired Marine officer say that during the Tet Offensive the new recruits were dying so fast he never had a chance to learn their names.
Lunch was different from breakfast. Then, he was accustomed to joining a small group of friends. “Friends, you need friends,” Mary was always telling him. “Without friends, life has no meaning, no purpose.”
“Friends?” Yes, he agreed with her that everyone needed acquaintances, perhaps, but friends? It seemed to him that there was a difference between a friend and an acquaintance.
A friend was someone close, someone with whom you could be open and transparent. That is what Mary had been–a friend, the only friend he ever had.
An acquaintance was different. An acquaintance was one with whom you chatted over a cup of coffee. You might discuss the weather, sports, politics, or even conspire to solve the world’s problems. You might exchange jokes or stories of past experiences. But you would not, could not, share personal thoughts and emotions with mere acquaintances. They must always be kept at a safe distance. There was a part of oneself, he insisted, that could only be shared with a friend. For him only one person could ever fit that description. That was Mary.
Among the residents were certain individuals who were, as he would say, “interesting.” He liked to have lunch with them. They met regularly at the same table. If one was late arriving or failed to show up, the immediate conversation was centered on the question “why?”
“Is he ill?”
“Has anyone seen her this morning?”
“Do you suppose something is wrong?”
Edna Taylor was a very proper person. She reminded him of Maggie Smith or, more accurately, “Elsa,” the character played by Maggie Smith in the movie “Tea with Mussolini.” She always sat with her back very straight, her napkin neatly placed on her lap. Her manners were impeccable. She always used the “right” piece of silverware in the “right” manner, and occasionally paused to touch her napkin to the corners of her mouth.
“Lady Taylor,” as Alex liked to think of her, often reminisced nostalgically about the many years she spent married to Henry Taylor. She prefaced her comments with, “I remember when Henry and I . . .” or “Henry would always say . . .” or “My late husband . . .” or sometimes simply “Mr. Taylor . . . .”
Alex remembered one incident when Edna was recalling a particular New Year’s celebration. It was the first New Year after the end of the war. She and her husband were living abroad in Paris. She described the evening as if it were recent, perhaps this past New Year’s Eve. When she finished, she was silent, her eyes watering, staring into space, as if back in another time and place.
No one spoke. They all understood.
Sandra Fleming was something of a mystery. She spent much of her life on the stage. She told tales of an exciting, fast-paced life among theatrical people. Unlike Lady Taylor, Ms. Fleming never spoke of her husband, if she ever had one. Instead, she recalled numerous romantic encounters with a host of men from San Francisco to New York to London.
Alex was not certain that everything Ms. Fleming recalled did, in fact, happen. One could never be sure if she was giving a performance or really recalling what must have been an exciting life. It didn’t really matter, he thought; she made her companions laugh, and that was always welcome.
Colonel Wilfred Cooper completed the foursome. The others always addressed him as “Colonel Cooper,” or simply “Colonel,” an honor he seemed to appreciate, even relished.
Colonel Cooper was not really a commissioned officer, although he was a veteran of the second Great War. The title “Colonel” before his name was purely honorary, one of those honorary commissions in the state militia handed out by Southern governors. As with Ms. Fleming, the Colonel was a storyteller. And, as with Ms. Fleming, one could not be sure that every incident he recalled necessarily happened as described. But, once again, the truth wasn’t as important as the story.
The Colonel spiced up his tales with a colorful vocabulary. He might, for example, refer to a character in one of his narratives as a “bloody fool,” or in the passion of the moment forget where he was and use the descriptive, “a bloody bastard.” When he did so, he added an apology for the benefit of the two ladies.
If the four companions were in a particularly festive mood, Colonel Cooper would relate one of supposedly many colorful encounters with a lovely young lady. When doing so, he was apt to dwell upon the physical qualities of the young lady.
Lady Taylor would feign righteous shock: “Really, Colonel!”
Ms. Fleming would laugh, and then looking directly at the Colonel across the table from her, she would say, “If only we had met, when we were both much younger.”
Colonel Cooper would straighten up in his chair, his chest expanded with pride: “It would have been my pleasure, Ms. Fleming,” he might say, the smile on his face enhanced by a wink in Ms Fleming’s direction.
With lunch over, the foursome departed to their regular afternoon routines.
After returning to his rooms for a brief rest, Alex normally spent the afternoon in the park that bordered The Pines, although it was not part of the property. It was a public park, very neat and proper, much like an English butler.
* * *
(Copyright 2011 by Paul R. Waibel)
Stay tuned tomorrow for the second and last installment. What will Mr. Hopper discover in the park?