“The Love Letter” – Decater Collins

The funeral was a fitting tribute. Everyone did their best to keep their tears to themselves, while sharing more than a few laughs. It didn’t matter that his skin was a different color.

When Stan died, statistically speaking, she had six months to live. That’s what a widow in her age group could expect. The grief counselor told her that women who surpassed the average were more likely to say they had a good reason to keep on living, whether it was an active social network, volunteer involvement, or grandchildren.

In the practical manner in which she approached everything in her life, she decided to make a list of her personal reasons to keep on living. After an hour at her desk, interrupted only by the delivery of two separate casserole dishes at her front door, she had managed only three items:

Bridge, Television, and Spite.

She had to admit it wasn’t much of a list.

Most of the boxes in the attic belonged to Stan or Michael. She was always the one cleaning the corners and weeding out the clutter, trying to maintain some semblance of control over their household rather than allowing it to succumb to the disorder of their lives. She’d throw away old magazines within a couple of months, give away books as soon as they were read, and donate her old clothes that she’d given up saving for a daughter who was never coming.

The boys, as she called them, refused to be parted from their possessions no matter how damaged or tattered they became. The best she could do was force them into boxes. Now here they were, stacks and stacks of detritus that they’d sworn was valuable, either financially or nostalgically. As always, she’d be the one to clean up after them.

She was surprised how unsentimental she found it all. Stan’s old army uniform, which had made him look so distinguished, was horribly old-fashioned now. Michael’s baby clothes and toys called to mind the happiest times, when their lives were still defined by the possibilities, but she didn’t long to go back. That was then. Now all she could think about was how she should have given everything to Good Will years before.

But then she found the letter. Just seeing the envelope was enough to catch at her throat.

They all agreed to celebrate his life rather than mourn his death. He had brought pleasure to millions. He will be remembered by children and adults alike.

Stan’s last words had been, “Forgive me.” She told him it didn’t need forgiveness.

It was the proper response, the soothing response, the human response. Rule of thumb: if someone apologizes to you on their deathbed, you tell them they have nothing to be sorry for.

It was also probably the truth. If anyone should be blamed, it was her.

She tried to forget. At first, she was too busy being grieved for to think about Stan’s confession. But after the ritual period of mourning and condolences ended, she found herself alone. In a previous era, as a widow of means, she would have been coerced to remarry despite being so close to dotage. Perhaps under those circumstances her age would have made her more attractive. In this era, she was destined for anonymity.

There was a place for people of her situation. Not an old folk’s home, though she noticed Michael was already gauging how long before he could safely make the suggestion. No, her place was to be found in network television.

She would often hear talk of demographics, and that her demographic was the one to be avoided. The networks wanted to skew younger, but nothing had really changed. Her shows, like 60 Minutes and Law & Order, were always the highest rated.

He had his whole life in front of him–except the sixty years he’d already lived.

Michael came over once a week for dinner. He’d always apologize for not coming more often and list all the reasons he was so busy. Today, something was different.

He normally prattled on about his practice, about the interesting–in his mind–turn that his latest case had taken. She would listen and nod and watch TV without really paying attention. It reminded her of when he was a child and would demand her attention to show off every stick figure and sand castle.

Tonight he was abnormally quiet. Perhaps it was the silence that allowed her to realize for once she had something she wanted to share.

“Look at this, Michael. This was a letter your father sent me when he was in the war.”

“Why would you show me that, Mom?”

“This letter was the reason I married your father.” Michael didn’t seem to understand its import, to understand how close she had been to calling off the engagement. Michael would never have been born.

“We need to talk about the house.” That was the reason for his silence.

She told Michael that it would kill her to sell the house. She wanted to say that his father had built this house with his bare hands, but that wasn’t true. He hadn’t even designed it. It was the same floor plan as all the other houses in their subdivision. And it wasn’t true she would die if they sold the house. She just wanted to be stubborn. For once in his life, Michael wasn’t going to get his way.

He wasn’t used to being refused by her and he was visibly angry as he left. She felt guilty. She probably should have grown a backbone years ago. He wouldn’t have grown up so self-indulgent.

He lived to make people laugh. Tears were offensive to him; deeply offensive…

She would never be sure if it was a dream or if she really woke up in the middle of the night. To tell the truth, at her age, entire days sometimes had a dream-like quality to them. It probably didn’t matter if the conversation were real or not.

To her mind, The Dick Van Dyke Show was the greatest television show of all time. It wasn’t that she preferred the classics to modern television. There were plenty of new dramas and sitcoms she looked forward to. It was just, once a thing is your favorite for a while, it’s hard for something new to replace it. Not just the show but the idea of liking the show becomes part of your identity.

The fact that her most beloved programs from her childhood were on the late night cable stations brought nightly comfort. She found herself staying up later and later and often fell asleep watching Dick Van Dyke, no matter what Stan would say about it. She especially admired Mary Tyler Moore, who was a real modern woman.

Her favorite episode was the one where Rob is watching a science fiction movie in bed, then it turns into a dream episode.

She woke up to find Stan sitting in the chair. The clock read 3:55.

“I was waiting for you to wake up.”

“I fell asleep watching Dick Van Dyke again.”

“That’s just like you.”

Stan was younger. Not as young as when they first met, but not old, like he was at the end either. He looked happier.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner, when it would have mattered?”

“Would it have mattered?”

That was the question she had been wrestling with ever since he had told her the truth about the letter: Would it have mattered?

It probably would have but she wasn’t going to tell Stan that, even the dream Stan.

“I’m thinking of taking a trip.”

Stan didn’t respond. Instead, her late husband urged her out of bed. He said he wanted to show her something. She was expecting him to comment on the letter, to offer some explanation, some attempt at closure or commiseration, but after dragging her down two flights of stairs, all the way to the basement, he pointed towards the empty space where the National Geographics used to be.

They bickered then, just like they used to. In a way, it was comforting. It felt like slipping on an old pair of shoes, one that was never particularly comfortable, but your feet had calloused over in just the right places to dull the irritation.

The bickering reminded her of a particular quality of both her husband and son. Neither liked to appear uncertain about anything and the more you questioned them about an opinion or a recollection, the more entrenched they became.

This unwarranted conviction of theirs never sat well with her. Yet the older she got, the more she started to realize it wasn’t Stan and Michael who were the aberration. She often fretted over her state of mind, wondering about simple things, like whether the wallpaper in their bedroom really was yellow, or if it was just her imagination. These sorts of doubts were never spoken out loud. She had learned that certainty is one of the currencies of modern society.

Stan continued to prattle on about the state of the basement, listing off all the items of great value that had been discarded. She eventually grew tired of the conversation, real or not, and returned to her bedroom. Another episode of Dick Van Dyke was about to start.

It’s a release. A kind of defense mechanism. It’s like whistling in a graveyard. You try to make light of something because it scares you. We laugh at death because we know death will have the last laugh on us.

Every Tuesday was bridge club. If you missed a Tuesday and Nancy was drafted to replace you, then you would be mercilessly subjugated to the worst form of gossip, the truthful kind.

There’s no center to a bridge club, just like there’s no central point to a diamond. Nevertheless, each woman of the club liked to imagine she was the center, that she was the only one who wasn’t criticized and denigrated and laid bare for all her annoying faults. No one knew these women better than their friends in the bridge club, despite rarely seeing each other outside of their weekly card game. Not even their husbands could better catalog their imperfections.

That’s why she refused to miss Tuesday night. Her road trip could wait for Wednesday.

Tonight she played with her usual partner, Mrs. Burke, a 73-year old divorcee from New York City who had retired to their subdivision more than a decade ago. Mrs. Burke was roundly criticized as the worst of the players, always prone to overbidding and miscounting how many tricks were left. But she liked having the weakest partner. It was extra sweet whenever they managed to win and, more importantly, provided a built-in excuse for the times that they lost.

They lined up against Mrs. Eisenberg and Mrs. Miller, a formidable duo that had been caught engaging in table talk on more than one occasion. Mrs. Eisenberg, twice-widowed, organized the games and treated them as an excuse to socialize and gossip and was not always worried about the cards in her hand. She contrasted nicely with Mrs. Miller, who spent most of the time nagging her husband and found a refuge from her routine in the cards. She treated the games most seriously and had the least to say, either during the rounds or while the deck was being shuffled.

She contemplated sharing her road trip with the club but she divined their responses without having to open herself up to their scrutiny.

Mrs. Burke would champion the idea and immediately demand to go along. Never mind that she was barely able to walk to the mailbox since her hip replacement. Mrs. Eisenberg would completely ignore the trip, it being inconceivable that she would ever dare such a journey (knowing she was doubted made her all the more committed). Instead, Mrs. Eisenberg would want to know everything about the letter. She’d demand to read it herself, and would start asking pointed questions about her marriage and whether she had been happy. These were questions she didn’t want to answer. It was bad enough contemplating them.

Mrs. Miller would offer the most welcome advice. “Shut up and get your head in the game.”

Do you remember Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo’s little catchphrase? Remember how, when his archrival Señor Kaboom hit him with a giant cucumber and knocked him down, Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo would always pick himself up, dust himself off, and say, ‘I hurt my foo-foo?’ Life’s a lot like that. From time to time we all fall down and hurt our foo-foos. If only we could deal with it as simply and bravely and honestly as Mr. Fee-Fi-Fo.

As a road trip, it wasn’t very eventful. The Interstate was much like her marriage, extremely repetitive with many of the exit ramps closed for construction. She stopped for lunch at Denny’s and wondered why people spoke so disparagingly of it. Their omelet was just the way she liked it.

A road trip is something you take when your life has become boring. She and Stan drove down Virginia Beach the summer after Michael finished kindergarten. By then, they had been trapped in their routine for years.

When the cast of your favorite sitcom takes a road trip, it’s a sure sign the writers needed a shot in the arm. Ratings have probably dipped or the characters have become stale. Drop the entire cast into a new situation and see what happens. It’s a tradition that began as far back as when Lucy and Ricky drove to California and has remained a part of the television arsenal as recently as Seinfeld.

The trip to Virginia Beach hadn’t been a debacle but it didn’t save the show either. Life in the car turned out to be just as boring for her as life in the home. Michael asked just as many questions, Stan told the same boring stories about work. She wasn’t allowed to do any of the driving, so she was left to flip through magazines bought at the filling stations along the way and to nod appropriately to either one of their demands for attention. What someone needed to do was invent a television that fit inside a car. Maybe they could power it from the engine. The dashboard was certainly big enough for a television.

Imagine if she were the one to come up with the design. How much money could a person make off an idea like that? What would the women in her neighborhood think, the ones in the bridge club? There’s the woman who invented the car television. They’d probably rescind her invitation to play.

Virginia Beach was a long time ago.

Somewhere out there there’s an elephant with your name on it.

She found Paul by asking her neighbor’s daughter to do an Internet search. She didn’t know how to use the Internet herself and Michael’s insistence that she do so had only made her more resistant. Chelsea had found the address for her, as well as a photograph.

The house is huge. He’s rich.

She’s nervous. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”

“I guess it just proves it’s never too late,” encouraged Chelsea.

“I was hoping the same thing.” It was the boldest thing she ever said in her life.

The house is what he calls an estate. “We can take a walk on the estate if you like.” It’s a house out of Dallas or Dynasty and she imagines they come and film television shows here. There are two stone fireplaces.

“How did you make your fortune? Writing love letters?”

He laughs. “I started my own company. We make power strips.”

“Like for plugging in stuff?”

“Pretty boring, huh?”

She suddenly grows self-conscious. Perhaps this is what rich people do, pretend to lead boring lives to keep poor people from being attracted to them. It’s like when Frasier’s dad pretends to be gay to deflect the attentions of an interested suitor. No one could become this rich selling power strips.

Over lemonade, they compare notes about their lives, mainly talking about their children. Paul has three daughters.

“Did you ever wish you had a son?”

“Early on, I thought that it mattered. We talked about trying again for a while, but we already had our hands full. Then we got divorced.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It happens. Now I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t know if I could handle watching a son make the same mistakes I did. Daughters make completely different mistakes. Do you wish you had a daughter?”

“If I share something, do you promise not to think me too awful? Some days I wish I never had any children at all.”

Rather than the condemnation she was expecting, Paul commiserates and pats her on the knee.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself. A lot of people feel that way at one point or another.”

“But not you?”

“Not since they were out of diapers.”

“Do you wonder, now that they are adults, if you’re essential in their lives anymore?”

“Is that something you worry about?”

“If they do need us, it’s because there’s something wrong.”

“We’re family, that’s never going to change.”

“Maybe that’s the problem. Michael doesn’t see me as a person. I’m just a mother to him. On the way here, I was thinking about the time we drove as a family to Virginia Beach. Michael was maybe ten at the time, and he didn’t really have many friends of his own. He was a mama’s boy. There was always a part of me that secretly loved the attention.

“But when we got to our cottage, next door there was a family with three girls, all teenagers. Michael fell in love with them, and they fell in love with him. They took him everywhere for that week. Dressed him up in makeup, buried him in sand, took him to the Dairy Queen. He was in heaven.

“Then when it was time to leave, Michael didn’t want to go. We said that we’d all get to be together next summer, but he somehow intuited that he’d never see them again. He started crying, and we had to pull him to the car. He cried the whole way home. Every night for a week, he woke up in the middle of the night crying. He wanted those girls back. His mother just wasn’t going to cut it anymore.”

“Kids grow up.”

“Michael was only ten years old, but I can trace the distance in our relationship to that exact time. It was never the same after that.

“What age in our modern society do our children push us aside? This wouldn’t have happened in monarchies. The children are happy to wait their turn. Look at Prince Charles. And this didn’t happen in oral societies, when people were still smarter than their tools. They needed the wisdom of the older generation. But look at us now. No one needs us anymore.”

Paul takes a sip of his lemonade and listens to her rant.

We take people for granted while they’re with us. Then, when they’re gone, we wish we’d been nicer to them. So we dress in black and cry our eyes out. Why don’t we ever think to do that while they’re still alive?

“So when did you find out about the letter.”

“My husband told me right before he died. Did you ever feel guilty for writing it?”

“Why would I feel guilty?”

“Our relationship was a lie.”

“Why was it a lie?”

“I married him, but they were your words that made me do it. Maybe I was meant to marry you instead.”

Paul smiled and put his lemonade on the glass table. She secretly cringed and forced herself not to ask where he kept the coasters.

“I never thought too much about doing it at the time. The first time, a guy had gotten his glasses busted and couldn’t see too well, so he asked me to write a letter for him. What he had to say was, let’s just say it wasn’t very romantic, so I took a few liberties with it. Word got around and, well, it became a way to make a few bucks on the side.”

“You mean my letter wasn’t the only one you wrote.”

“No. And you aren’t the first woman to come see me either.”

“Oh.” Like a sheepish Mr. Ed after being scolded by Wilbur, she was crestfallen.

“After a while, I started following a formula. I would take a couple of real incidents from the guy and plug them into what I had already written. A lot of the romantic lines I took from this translation of French poetry that I carried with me. I even used them with my girlfriend.”

She wasn’t listening anymore. She was thinking about all the spouses who weren’t meant to be together who ended up marrying because of Paul. How many children were born, modern Annies, orphans of divorce, born to mismatched parents? They were all living ghosts.

“My life is like a sitcom.”

“Excuse me?”

“You know how in a sitcom, it always happens that someone mishears a conversation, or misidentifies someone, and a hilarious misunderstanding occurs. That’s what happened in my life. Except it’s not very funny. Not to me anyway.”

“More lemonade?”

Chuckles liked to make people laugh. And you know what I’d like to think? I’d like to think that somewhere up there tonight, behind those pearly gates, in the Great Beyond, where some day all must go, somewhere up there tonight, in honor of Chuckles, a celestial choir of angels is sitting on whoopee cushions.

In the end she outlived the statistics. Television proved an even more compelling reason to live than marriage and family ever had. She had another decade of life to go. Another decade of bridge night, another decade of 60 Minutes.

She had known in her heart Stan had not written the letter and so she could not in good conscience find fault with him. The fault was as much hers. Their marriage as much her fiction as his. Their love a sham, a wish, an ideal that was always impossible because she did not have enough courage to hold out for the kind of love that letter had described.

But the truth was, it wouldn’t have mattered. People are all imperfect, even soul mates. Television really was the best life had to offer.

And with TiVo, she never had to miss one of her shows ever again.

© 2016 Decater Collins

Decater Orlando Collins is a writer, photographer, and videographer who lives in Portland, Oregon. He began writing when he was 10 years old and hasn’t stopped. He recently finished his first collection of short fiction, entitled They Both Loved Vonnegut. Quitting The Grave, his first full-length novel, was published in 2015. He has previously released Picasso Painted Dinosaurs, a collection of microfiction, and Ahab’s Adventures in Wonderland. Currently, Decater spends most of his time at the beck and call of his beagle. Follow them both on Twitter (@doctorentropy2) and Instagram (@allthebeauty). For more information, visit his homepage.

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