“Can I help you?” Adrian Ward says, looking up from his desk.
A young and colorfully dressed girl in a pencil skirt, her vintage glasses holding such a glare that Adrian can’t see her eyes, plops bright pink and green note cards on the desk and takes a deep breath.
“Hi, yes,” she says. “I’m looking for The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton?”
“I don’t know if we have that one,” he says. “What’s its number?”
“ISBN?” The girl’s mouth slants.
Adrian snorts. “No, sweets. DDC?”
She looks at him as if he’s joking. “What is that?”
Adrian laughs. When the girl doesn’t smile in return, he says, “You’re being serious?”
The girl takes her glasses off and rubs her eyes, giving Adrian a slight moment to see her irises. They’re exactly like Angie’s: soft amber that rivals the sweetness of honey. No one has eyes like her, though, not even their daughters. He grips the pen in his hand tighter. She puts her glasses back on and walks away. In her wake, a single note card glides to the floor. Adrian doesn’t even think to stop her to give her the card. He only sees her eyes.
As he gets up he thinks of Angie’s wish to read everything she could. She wouldn’t have read that melancholia book that the yuppie girl was looking for since she was much happier and not looking to learn from sadness and pain. Things happen for a reason, she always said; she always tried to convince Adrian of that. He’s sure she’s still trying somewhere.
Adrian makes his way to the card and picks it up. He sees that it’s the book that woman was looking for, complete with its Dewey Decimal number. He shakes his head, returns to his desk, and picks up his pen once more. Maybe he’ll read it someday.
Adrian finishes another letter to Angie in his faux leather journal. She won’t read it, he knows, but he wants her to understand that he’s okay, that their daughter, the one who still talks to him, is happy with her husband and children. He wants to hide his missing her every moment of every day but the ink on the page tells no lies and he can’t help but write that he misses her anyway. He pulls off his horn-rimmed glasses and massages his wrinkled temples, staring at a blurred version of himself in his dead computer’s screen and realizes he’s finally old enough to say he’s getting old. Silvery sandpaper stubble lines his jawbone while grey hairs peek out of his slightly crooked nose. The bags under his eyes are as heavy as the ones little Abby used to say she could manage from the car to the house. She and her sisters would always fight about helping Adrian with the shopping bags after a trip to the supermarket; now they fight about whose turn it is to make sure he’s still kicking.
Adrian hides his balding head with the bowler hat his father gave him after they saw A Clockwork Orange at the cinema years ago. Before he leaves his desk, he signs the page with the pen Angie gave him: With Love, Addy. He glances at the inscription in the silver metal: “Addy — Don’t write your heart out too much. Love, Angie.” Adrian notes the time and date as a personal postmark. He puts the pen in his pocket and tucks his journal into his tote.
Rain hits the pavement as cars stream down Lexington. High school girls in green plaid skirts run and yell at one another. Adrian suddenly wishes for the silence and solitude of the library. He walks slowly in order not to slip. A group of teenagers rush past him and he stops walking to ensure no one bumps into him. They all stop at the corner to wait to cross the street. Adrian sees one of the tiniest girls kiss one of the taller guys with them. He was nowhere near tall enough to be the starting forward for his high school’s basketball team, but Angie still had to stand on her toes just to give him a peck. Only when he tastes the salt does Adrian realize he’s crying.
When Adrian gets back to his apartment he grabs the small cassette tape from his nightstand and puts it into the answering machine. He presses the rewind button and leans on the table. Books line the floor and records are strewn about. Angie would’ve never allowed him to be this messy. Sundays were always “chore days.” She’d give the girls a list of things they were actually capable of doing without breaking anything or fighting while Adrian would work on finally cleaning up the garage that had never been sifted through. The answering machine clicks and Adrian sits down on his broken sofa.
“Hi, Addy,” Angie’s voice says. “I’m just calling to let you know I’m driving to Abby’s now to watch the boys so she and Pat can enjoy their date night. That reminds me: I have to shoot her a text. Your cheese and crackers are in the fridge…” Adrian continues to listen to Angie’s voicemail as his breath shallows. Once she says that last “I love you,” Adrian rises and repeats the process.
He listens to her a few more times then goes to the kitchen and grabs a beer from the door of his fridge. A harsh aroma hits him and he feels how lukewarm the beer is. He takes a sip and musters his way through it. He’ll have to fix the refrigerator soon.
The phone rings and Adrian throws his empty beer can to the corner and rips the receiver from the cradle. “What?”
“That’s how you say hi to your baby girl?” Abby says. “Bad day at work, Pop?”
Adrian tries to remember the last time he spoke to Abby. “Sorry, Ab,” he says. “You caught me in the middle of a nap—“
“Ah, sorry!” Compound to her sarcasm, she sounds sprightly.
“No problem, kiddo. What can I do for you?” This is rare, a phone call from his daughter, let alone the youngest one.
“Just giving you the head’s up that I’m walking over from the train now!” she says. “See you in a few!”
The phone clicks dead in his ear and he replaces the receiver. He looks around his apartment trying to discern where he should attempt to clean first but instead just takes the tape out of the old answering machine and puts it back on his nightstand. Angie doesn’t sleep with him anymore he’ll always have her voice by his ear. With another beer in hand, he sits on his couch and waits.
Abby sounded excited on the phone. Adrian’s children are never excited when dealing with him. So much for forgiveness: he hasn’t seen Alyssa, who’s out in Wyoming, for a couple of years, and Anna, a couple blocks south, blatantly avoids him. But his little Abby from Brooklyn makes the trip. Angie was always closest with her anyway. She always told her to look out for her old man.
The buzzing bell brings Adrian back to his messy apartment and he gets up to hold the button. In a few minutes he expects to hear her judgments and snide remarks about his needing to get out there and be active again, all at the ripe age of sixty-eight. Adrian grimaces after taking another slug of the warm, heavy beer. He unlocks the door and relaxes for a few minutes before Abby enters.
She throws the door open with all the passion and spirit of her mother.
“Dad, what the fuck!” she says. “Why haven’t you called me back? And you’re drinking beer? You know you’re not sup—what is that stench?”
Abby looks the most like Angie with thick auburn hair that flows down to just above her breasts. She has Adrian’s sharp nose, but it turns up just enough to keep it from being anywhere near as intrusive as his. Her cheeks are rounded and blushed without the touch of cosmetics. Plenty of men find her attractive and realize that she has curves, but others find her too womanly; in Adrian’s eyes, she is as perfect as her mother and sisters. Today, though, she looks thicker and a bit older. Some grey is starting to make its way into her hair and the laugh lines and crow’s feet are more prominent on her face.
“It was a long day at work,” he says.
“What is that smell?” Abby’s hand covers her mouth, squinting. Adrian knows it’s the fridge but doesn’t mind it. He takes another slug of his beer, and Abby chokes out a cough. She winces and holds her stomach.
“I think I’m actually going to vomit,” she says. “How don’t you smell that?”
“Smell what? The fridge? It hasn’t been working lately. I think I’ll toy with it this weekend.” His apartment is just a place to go when he’s not at work. Things break.
“Why are you even here, Ab?” he says. “Unexpected visits aren’t your forté.”
Abby looks at him as if she were scared but swallows her fear quickly. “I can’t just pop in to see my father?”
“It’s not like you to.”
Abby sighs. “Patrick’s having a ‘guys’ night’ and I—“ Her phone goes off. “Sorry, I have to take this.” She exits to the hallway. Adrian hardly overhears hushed no’s and yes’s. He finally hears her shut the phone hard.
“Sorry,” she says, stroking back her hair. “Patrick wanted to watch the Yankees’ game with the guys tonight. And since the boys are staying over a friend’s house, I thought now’d be a good time to see you.” She looks away.
Abby nods but the hand holding her cell phone is shaking. Adrian’s brow furrows.
“What is that stench?” Her freckled nose is scrunched up.
She makes her way to the refrigerator, holds her breath, and opens the door. She lets out a gagging cough and slams the door shut. With a quick spin on her heel, she turns around and walks out of the apartment again.
“C’mon, Dad,” she says. “We’re going to P.C. Richard’s to get a fridge for you. There’s a new one not too far up Sixth. Let’s go.”
“Ab, I don’t need it. I can fix this one.”
On Sixth Avenue Abby walks ahead of Adrian. She waits at every corner and peeks at her phone before he gets to her. Adrian’s sure she knows that he hates cell phones, so she stuffs it away in her bag before he can say something.
“See, if you didn’t drink beer, maybe you’d be walking with me rather than behind me,” she says with a wink.
He lets out a belch.
Abby rolls her eyes and makes a disgusted face at him. She used to giggle after he burped. She used to love it when he asked her to pull his finger.
“So how’s Patrick?” Adrian says.
Abby doesn’t look at him. Her face is dazed and Adrian can’t even tell if she heard him.
“Good,” she says. “Busy with his clients. You know, the usual.” She coughs and glances at him.
“How’s your website?” he says.
“Great!” she says. “People really seem to be receptive to what I have to say about the publishing industry.”
Adrian knows nothing about publishing except that Angie hated holding and reading mass-market paperbacks and ostentatious hardcovers. Nonetheless he smiles at Abby and rubs her back as they walk. She smiles in return but suddenly turns her head to her bag and snags her phone. She lets out a groan and throws it back inside.
“Who was that?” Adrian puffs.
Abby slows her pace but doesn’t acknowledge his question. She inhales deeply through her nose and exhales slowly through her mouth. Her face is pale and she looks like she’s going to be sick.
“Where is it, Ab? I can only walk for so long.”
“Next corner,” she says, yet again with her mind somewhere else.
Adrian fingers the pen in his pocket. Its cold chrome covering wakes him up enough to see that there are no P.C. Richard’s stores on the next corner.
“I don’t see any P.C. Richard’s,” he says. “All I see’s that blue place.”
“Dad, you know that’s Best Buy. They also have refrigerators.”
“You said we were goin’ to P.C. Richard’s, though.” A serious coughing fit takes over Adrian for a couple of moments. The two are forced to move toward Best Buy’s entrance to get out of the middle of the sidewalk.
“You all right, Daddy?” Abby asks him. “Let’s get inside, out from the rain.”
She hasn’t called him “Daddy” since Angie died. Adrian takes a deep breath.
“Let’s just get the fridge and get out.”
They’re greeted by a man in khakis whose Afro resembles a mushroom cloud. His dark skin contrasts with his bright blue shirt, which in turn makes his nametag that reads “JIM” stand out.
“How may I help you today, miss?” Jim says with a toothy smile.
Adrian knows Jim’s kind: they often look but hardly ever touch.
“Hey, sweetie, what kinda TV does your husband want again?” Adrian asks.
“Dad, we’re here for your fridge,” she says, then turns to Jim. “Sorry, I guess he’s going senile now, too!”
“Follow me.” Neither Jim’s teeth nor smile are seen now.
They walk down aisles full of DVDs, iPods, laptops, printers, cell phones, and any other electronics one can imagine.
“This is why I didn’t want to come here, Ab. There’s all this shit that’s just waiting to take your money.”
“Looking at electronics won’t hurt you, Dad. Besides, we’re here for a fridge and that’s it. Ignore the rest of it.” She takes her phone out and begins to type furiously. Before Adrian can say anything, it’s back in her bag and she’s on Jim’s heels to the fridges.
“Here are the refrigerators,” Jim says. “Is there anything specific you’re looking for?”
“No, thank you. We’ll handle it from here.” Abby rubs her forearm and cautiously looks at her father.
“Thanks,” says Adrian.
Jim walks away slowly. Abby still sees him standing at a counter in the distance looking directly at her. She looks around for a few minutes until she sees Adrian growing bored and more irritable. Angie would’ve been paying with him by now.
“What kind of—“
“The cheapest one,” he says. She nods and finds one that will fit in his apartment but won’t break his wallet. She points to the fridge Adrian wants and calls to Jim for it.
“I have to make sure we still have this one,” he says. “A lot of college students buy it for their dorms.”
Abby looks at her father who is just waiting, tired and annoyed. She drops her head and walks over to him. He stares straight ahead at nothing while she kisses his cheek.
“Thank you,” she whispers to him with a quick squeeze. “I also think you could use an answering machine.”
“No,” he says.
“It’s an answering machine, Dad.” She goes to check her phone again but stops.
“I’ll get it for you as a present!”
Adrian stares at her. His face turns red and his eyes start to water. He begins to finger the pen in his pocket. He clicks it at a beat consistent to his own heart’s, to the beat of Angie’s when she was pressed against him years ago. His lip quivers. Abby’s head cocks, not in contempt but in curiosity. His face was a rock even at her mother’s wake after the car accident a few years ago. Moments later, Abby’s hand is on her phone again.
“Why is an answering machine making you cry?” she asks him, just a touch too harshly.
“Why are you constantly on that goddamned phone?” Adrian stifles a sob, his face flushes. Sweat seeps from his pores and the temperature of the room drops. Adrian’s hands shake.
“Dad, get it together,” says Abby, looking around.
“You know how she died and you know how I feel about them. The smaller and smarter those things get, the more I know how long it’s been since she’s been here.”
Abby goes to touch his arm but he pulls it away.
“Sorry,” she says. “I’m not as well off as I said.”
“Let’s just pay and leave,” he says.
Adrian leads the way to the register with his credit card in hand. His apartment is no longer just a place to go when he’s not at work. It’s a sanctuary paused in time.
“Credit or cash?” Jim says.
Adrian swipes his card and pulls out Angie’s pen and clicks it, ready to sign the receipt. He’s not old enough to forget they always need signatures for these kinds of purchases.
Jim says, “Please sign here,” and gestures to the credit card reader.
“Where?” Adrian says. “You didn’t give me the receipt.”
Jim sighs, looks at Abby, and rolls his eyes. “Sir, it’s an electronic signature. You sign on the pad, where you swiped your card.”
Adrian just stares at Jim, looking through him as if trying to recognize someone else behind him who’s waving or beckoning to him. He brings the pen to the electronic pad and clicks it again, retracting the tip into its cold shell. With a hanging head Adrian signs the pad. He looks to Abby for something, maybe the reassurance he used to get from Angie, but only sees her, some feet away, on the phone with a tear sliding down her cheek.
Adrian throws the pen away and lets out a guttural yell. It crashes into the windowpane of the door and explodes ink. He can only hear his heartbeat and Abby telling someone on the phone to hold on.