Of Time and Caroline

Of Time And Caroline

The real estate agent greeted Sandy Brady with a flimsy smile at the entrance of the escrow office. She had sold his home, and today was her payday. 

“Good morning,” she said, extending her hand. “I hope you slept well.”

            Sandy took her hand. He was slim, of average height, with a silver mine of hair. Thoughtful brown eyes were framed behind rimless glasses. 

“I’d like you to meet my son,” he said. “He flew in from Seattle yesterday. Barb Evers, David Brady.”

            “Good to meet you,” she said. “Your dad mentioned you several times while we staged his home. I hear you work for Microsoft.”

            David was taller than his father. Narrow cheeks and abandoned hair gave him the appearance of a studious college professor. 

“Yes, our campus is east of Seattle across the lake. I’m a resource programmer. Hard to explain, but it pays well.”

            Another woman approached, high heels clicking on the tiled floor. “Morning, all. I’m Karen.” Her greeting said, hurry up please. 

“The papers are ready in my office. Can I fetch coffee for anyone?”  

            “I think we’re fine,” Sandy said.  

            “I’m good,” David said.

            “Okay then. We need lots of signatures.” 

            Without hesitation, Sandy leaned forward to sign each document. He was not expert in real estate. It was a matter of trust. He assumed these women were as precise in their business as he had been in his.  

            At seventy-six, Sandy presumed he would be dead in six years, a few months beyond his eighty-second birthday. As a retired surgeon, Sandy was quite aware of the average life span for American men. Age is just a number some say. Doctor Brady knew better.

            In the parking lot David said, “Would you like to drive one last time, Dad? I know you’ll miss the Benz.”

            A gentle look of bemusement crossed Sandy’s face. 

“This was your mother’s car,” he said. “I gave it to her for an anniversary present.” 

He smiled, but his eyes revealed a different story. 

“I miss her lots more than I’ll ever miss the car. No, Davie, my driving days are over.” 

            After a quick lunch, David followed his father’s directions and drove straight to the retirement home. 

To Sandy’s eye it had been overbuilt—an elegant southwestern adobe style, but un-necessarily opulent. The entrance doors were castle-like, twin slabs of wood ten feet high covered with sheets of hammered copper. The interior featured soft desert hues and oversized pieces of Native American artwork, with rich carpeting underfoot. The nearby Catalina Mountains loomed through floor to ceiling windows. 

Sandy thought the price extravagant too, but his pension, social security, and investments covered the bases. Besides, he had only six years left. Men of science seldom argue statistics.

            At the entrance counter a young, attractive woman dressed in a burgundy colored skirt and white long-sleeved blouse greeted them. She flashed a shy smile at the two men.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Brady,” she said. “I’ve got everything ready. Here are two sets of keys for your room, a copy of our October menu, and a list of this week’s activities.” 

She paused, uncertain. 

“You don’t need a garage door opener after all?”

            She seemed so young. A nametag blared Lauren in bold letters. The timelessness of childhood still clung to her face, like morning sunlight playing hide and seek in a sloped apple orchard. Honey Crisps for cheeks. No troubles in her eyes. 

            “No,” Sandy said. “I just gave my car to my son. I’m strictly a foot soldier. Up a creek.”

            Lauren, not quite sure how to respond, looked down and shuffled her papers. 

            David said, “You’ll still get around, Dad. You won’t have to walk.”

            Lauren smiled. “We have three nice vans, and every week there are organized excursions,” she said. “Once a month we load up and go out to the casino for the day. It’s much too far to walk in Tucson’s heat.”

            “True,” Sandy said. “I enjoy walking early before the sun goes full force. Not much on gambling though. I don’t like the odds.”

There was a large clock on the wall behind Lauren. Sandy glanced at David. “I suppose you need to get started if you’re going to make Las Vegas before dark. It’s quite a drive.”

            “I’ve plenty of time, Dad. I’d like to see your room before I leave.”

            Lauren gestured with her head. “Two fourteen is right up those stairs around the corner, or just beyond the stairs is the elevator.” 

She paused. “Any questions?”

            “Are we residents assigned seats in the dining room?” Sandy asked. He spoke the word residents as if it soured his tongue. 

            Lauren giggled as she might at her grandfather for teasing about a boyfriend.

“No assigned seats, Dr. Brady. Sit where you please. There are always plenty of seats.”

            David put a hand on his father’s shoulder. “C’mon, Dad. Let’s check out your room.”

            That evening when Sandy entered the dining room he paused for a moment. Soft music played overhead. Conversations were muted. 

Most of the diners were paired up, but here and there, people sat alone at small tables designed for two—couples—lovers. Each table held a small candle style lamp. It cast an intimate golden glow upon white linen.  

            Sandy approached her from the side, taking her by surprise. 

“Sorry,” he said, “but this seems to be the only seat remaining.” 

A grin betrayed his fib. The sprawling dining room was two thirds full at best. “Mind if I sit down? Or will your husband be along?”

            Caroline glanced up, fork poised in mid-air. Her voice matched years with her face, both still eager for life. Her dark hair, silver flecked, was bunched, displaying a slender neck.   

“He’s in heaven,” she said. “Been there quite awhile. I doubt he’ll mind. Wasn’t the jealous type.” 

            She smiled behind delicately painted lips. Sized him up. 

“Do you bite?”

            “Not yet,” Sandy replied.

            “Sit down then,” she ordered, “before you drop that plate in my lap.”

            He settled in, his surgeon’s hands still steady, unwrapping the utensils without alarming her further. Shyness had always steeped his character, though he did his best to conceal it.

“Did they check your id at the door?” he asked. “I doubt you’re old enough to be in such 

a wild joint.”

She smiled. “I’m in my seventh decade. Will that do?”

            The table’s proportions seemed more appropriate for a husband and wife who had been eating together for many decades; it was a separator by distance, like a deeply carved lake between warring villages. There is little need for conversation after fifty or sixty years of marriage. Stale words already uttered a hundred million times can be spoken with the mouth closed. 

            A college-age waiter appeared, handsome with a wealth of hair. He held out a slender glass of honey-colored liquid.  

“Your chardonnay, sir.”

            “Thank you, young man,” Sandy said. 

He took the wine and placed it on the table beside his plate.  

“Have you been instructed to call all male residents sir?” Sandy asked.

“Yes, sir. We try our best to be polite.” 

“Well,” Sandy said, “I appreciate your prompt delivery, and premium seat selection, but I much prefer you forget the sir and just call me Sandy.”

            “No problem,” the waiter said.

            “And what’s your name?” Sandy asked. “I like to know the names of people who help me.”

            “Chance,” the waiter replied. “Mom said she took a chance on Dad when he asked her to marry him. I guess he was kind of rowdy at the time.”

            He grinned, showing off splendid teeth.  

 “Anything else I can get for you guys?” 

            “Do you have access to a portable lie detector?” Caroline asked. 

She smiled across the expanse toward Sandy. 

“Just kidding. We’re fine.”

            A moment later Sandy leaned toward her, bridging the gap. 

“He thinks you’re pretty.”

            “What makes you say that?” she asked. 

Her eyes, deep blue, widened now with growing interest—burgeoning curiosity—fabulous and rare qualities.

            “It’s a long story, but if you’ve a minute, I’ll explain.” 

He held the wine glass up, tipped it toward her and then took a sip, his eyes level with hers. 

“When my son delivered me here this morning I inquired at the front desk if seats were assigned for meals. ‘No, sir,’ Lauren said. ‘Sit where you please.’ So, just now when I approached the buffet line, Chance asked if I intended to sit alone. I told him, ‘I’d like to sit with the prettiest woman in the place. You pick her out while I fill my plate.’”

            Caroline smiled. Her dress was dark, but the oval neckline allowed a flash of white shoulder. The lamplight captured a glimmer of tiny gold links around her neck. 

“Did he get it right?” she inquired shyly. 

            “Spot on. The kid is a genius. I’ve thought all along he should be a casting agent. Hollywood could use his talent.”

            “All along?” she asked. “How long have you known him?”

            “Close to twenty minutes,” Sandy replied, “but we’re on a first name basis now.”

            She put her fork down carefully astride her plate. 

“Maybe I will need that lie detector after all.” 

Her eyes never left his. She extended her hand across the table. 

“I’m Caroline.” 

They clasped near the equator, her hand soft and delicate in his. For the first time, he noticed the embroidered threads of silver lacing her dark hair.

            “You can call me, Sandy if you like. My birth certificate says Santiago, but in school my friends renamed me Sandy, and I’ve never escaped it. You know how nicknames are. You get one whether you like it or not.”

            “Of course,” she said.  “I became Cari in school.” 

She paused. “I think I prefer Santiago.”

            “My mother called me that,” he said. “It sounds nice hearing it again.”

A gritty Madrid accent hijacked her lips. 

“Don’t let your dinner get cold, San-ti-ah-go. You’ve hardly taken a bite. Food makes us strong, Señor.” 

            “Caroline, woman of seven decades, you’re much more interesting than this baked potato. I’ve been eating dinner alone on the sofa for fourteen years. Not hungry like I used to be. Couldn’t get enough food when I was growing up.” 

He took a sip of wine, then stabbed a clump of broccoli.

            “You mentioned your son,” she said. ‘Any other children?” 

A slender finger went to her throat, touched her necklace.

            “No, just my boy, Davie. He isn’t married. How about you?”

            “I have a daughter in Phoenix. She’s married with three kids, two still in college. My son lives in Dallas. He’s divorced and living with a sweetheart of a gal who works for Starbucks.

She’s got a thirteen-year-old daughter.” 

Caroline took a sip of water, dabbed at her lips with her napkin. She took a deep breath, hesitated, and then plunged into territory she seldom shared with strangers. 

“My Jim passed away seven years ago. He’d retired a year before, and we had travel plans—Japan, Ireland, London—places we’d read about and seen on TV. But, that was that. It’s no fun traveling alone.” 

She twirled her spoon tip into a tiny mountain of tapioca. Dug a cave. Pondered.

“If you don’t mind my asking, what did you do for a living?”

            “Doctored up in Seattle,” he said pointing the way north with a nod of his head. “I shared a clinic and had hospital privileges. Looked after people who needed a bit of help. Forty-two years worth. Toward the end I didn’t trust myself with a scalpel. They’re very sharp you know. I thought it best to retire before I cut myself.” 

His eyes found hers across the lake. 

“How have you spent your life, Caroline?”

            This time she didn’t hesitate.

“My husband owned a construction company in Scottsdale. When we first got married I taught seventh grade English, but as his business grew he needed my help so I became his office manager. We worked and prospered together. After he died I sold everything and moved down here to Tucson. I needed some space between what once was, what might be, and what is.” 

She sighed and tipped her water glass, but didn’t drink. 

“The years slide by so fast and the rut gets deeper and less interesting each day. How did you end up in Tucson, San-ti-ah-go?”

            His eyes glowed with her pronunciation of his name. 

“Seattle is famous for its rain, but I never owned an umbrella. I always thought the sound of rain striking the rooftop and windows was well worth any discomfort. I just got tired of the gray skies—gloomy days, cold nights. When she got sick, well, you know. It ends everything. All the dreams and promises.” 

He stared out the window at dark, silent shapes—ageless mountains side by side—joined, yet each still separate. There are no divorces or deaths in mountain ranges. 

“I needed some warmth again. Plenty of that here in Tucson.”

            Their waiter reappeared with a pitcher of ice water. Caroline smiled up at him as he topped off her glass. 

“I haven’t noticed you before, Chance,” she said. “Are you new?”

            “No, but usually I only work Sundays. I’m a student at the university.”

            “What are you studying?” Sandy asked.

            “Biology, but I hope to get a job in law enforcement. I want to be a state trooper.”

            “That sounds a bit dangerous,” Caroline said. “Are your parents okay with it?”

            “My mom is totally freaked. She wants me to teach high school biology. Don’t really have a dad. They divorced, like eons ago. He never comes around.”

            Caroline leaned back, sighed. “I can understand your mom’s feelings. But, it’s your life.”

            “That’s what I keep telling her,” he said. The young future officer of the law hesitated, his face coloring. “Are you guys married or anything?”

            “We just met tonight,” Santiago replied. “You caused this collision, officer. Not our fault at all. If you’ll recall you picked her out for me.”

            Caroline giggled. “Some trooper you’ll be. Accusing people of being married when they’ve only known each other a half hour.”

            Chance’s face flamed crimson. “Sorry. You look so nice together. Anyway, I’d better get back to my station. Can I get you anything else?” he asked, before fleeing to safer ground.   

            Sandy slid his plate forward. Leaned toward her. Made a proposal. 

“Do you own a car, Caroline?” 

            “I do. Why?”

            “I gave mine away this morning, and I might need a ride sometime. I’ve been a reader all my life and I like to visit the library.”

            A long dormant ember, lodged firmly in Caroline’s heart, flared. Heat came unbidden to her cheeks. 

“I read a fair amount too,” she said, “and the library is nearby. I’ll buy the gas. You treat for lunch. Fair enough?”

            Sandy slept well. He’d opened his eyes to the morning light, not an alarm clock. The rooms were small, but carefully designed, making clever use of the available space.  He shaved and showered, adjusting to the new bathroom. He fixed toast and drank a cup of coffee. The morning paper had been delivered just outside his door. He’d opened the sports news when his cell rang. He expected his son, reporting safe arrival. He smiled when he recognized Caroline’s captivating voice. 

            “Good morning, San-ti-ah-go,” she said, relishing each syllable. “Care for a walk? Then we can check out the library if you’d like.”

            “I’d like that ever so much, Caroline,” he replied. “I’ll be down in a jiffy.”

            “Do hurry,” she said. “We’ve no time to spare.”

            The next few weeks were a blur of growing friendship. They ate their meals together. She called and inquired of leg bones for her crossword puzzle. They walked and shared of their lives.  

Heads on opposite ends of her big sofa, they sprawled out side by side. She read of romance, he of murder. He never called her Cari, and she called him only Santiago.

            One night he fell asleep on her sofa while reading, and rather than wake him she covered him with a blanket. She took her lips to his forehead, and tiptoed into bed. A month had gone by.

In the morning she made French toast while he fixed coffee. They were comfortable navigating side by side in the tiny kitchen—graceful watercraft in calm waters. He made no mention of his sleepover. It was as unnecessary as it had been in surgery when, eyes focused on the incision, his extended rubber gloved hand had received the clamp from the scrub nurse without words ever being spoken.

They sat across from each other on padded stools at the kitchen counter. She watched him tinker with his plate, arranging it just so. 

She waited until he was settled, then asked him a simple enough question. “What do you think of love?”

He looked up while pouring syrup.

“I think without it our world would be a mess. Why?”

“I was just wondering how it might apply to us.”

He put his fork down, and extended his hand toward hers.

“I’ve not much time, Caroline,” he said.

“You are a doctor,” she said. “If we were to add our remaining lifespans together would our time left be adequate for love?”

“Only God keeps the calendar of eternity,” he said. “Doctors might buy a moment of time, but that is the best we can do. Though I suspect it is stout, I’ve not yet listened to your heart.”

“Your presence in my life makes it beat faster, Santiago.”

A wellspring came to her eyes and she recited a sonnet’s fragment from distant memory:

 Love’s not Time’s fool though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s come;        

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

 But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

            He also knew the words by heart and completed Shakespeare’s couplet for her.

                        If this be error and upon me proved,

                        I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

            His mind traveled backward in time, something men and women cannot do. While his wife’s life had ebbed away he had kept company beside her hospice bed for three days. With his chair pulled close, he’d held her motionless hand under the covers and read the sonnets to her time and again as the morphine drip kept thirst and hunger at bay even as the relentless pneumonia stole her life away. Family and friends slipped in and out offering comforting prayers and condolences. Late in the afternoon of that final day as the sun slid out to sea, he had fallen asleep, the slender book in his lap. A nurse gently shook his shoulder.

            He looked up.

            “She’s gone, Dr. Brady. Just a moment ago. I’ll leave you alone now.”

            He had crawled up on the bed beside his love and hugged her tight once more. He put his lips to hers once more. He felt her dwindling warmth and whispered his everlasting love for her once more. 

            Fourteen years had gone by and he’d not kissed another.

            He stood now, his breakfast forgotten and growing cold. He took Caroline in his arms and felt her uncertain tremble. He kissed her then, good and proper, and she, with stored memories of her own, eagerly kissed him back. A long moment later he stepped back, held her at arm’s length.            

“We’ve time enough for love, Caroline.” 

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