by Michael C. Keith
What is the worst of woes that wait an age?
What stamps the wrinkle deeper on the brow?
To view each loved one blotted from life’s page,
And be alone on Earth, as I am now.
–– Lord Byron
Lois Canby was always the life of the party, the focal point of any space she occupied . . . and then she died. It left her grieving husband, Bernie, reevaluating his life. He had depended on his spouse for the social activity the two enjoyed. She had been the one who had planned their outings and arranged get-togethers with friends. It was not something Bernie exceled at. His wife’s gregarious nature had been one of the qualities that had most attracted him when they had first met in business school. He had always been awkward around people, an introvert, and it had been a fortunate act of fate that connected them. As soon as Lois sat at the desk next to him in that macroeconomics course, she was all he could think about. He was totally and irrevocably smitten.
Yet it took Bernie several classes before he had an exchange with Lois, and it was not an auspicious start to their relationship. He had spilled coffee on her as he turned away from the vending machine during a break in their class. Fortunately, the hot liquid had not hit her skin. However, Bernie showed such extreme concern it made Lois chuckle.
“I’m fine. Just a little on my skirt. No big damage, really,” she assured her distraught classmate.
“So you’re not burned? I’m such a klutz,” apologized Bernie. “I’ll pay to have it cleaned. It was completely my fault.”
“It’ll come out in the wash. I’ll shout it out.”
Bernie’s deadpan reaction to her attempt at humor caught Lois off guard.
“You know, the spot remover . . . Shout? Shout it out . . .?“
After a pause, it dawned on Bernie that she was trying to make light of the situation, and he attempted a riposte of his own.
“If that doesn’t work, you can . . . ah, scream at it.”
The lameness of his joke had the same affect on Lois as hers had on him. Bernie immediately realized how dumb his comeback sounded. After another short pause, Lois broke out laughing, and Bernie thought it was in reaction to his pathetic attempt at a rejoinder. When her chuckle turned into a sweet smile, he knew she wasn’t mocking him.
“I’m Lois Miller. What year are you in?”
“Huh?” replied Bernie, lost in her large brown eyes. “Oh, I’m a junior in Accounting.”
“I’m a junior, too . . . in Retailing. I’d like to own my own store someday.”
“Really? That’s . . . uh, ambitious. My goal is to work for a big accounting firm.”
“Well, that’s pretty ambitious, too. So your name is Bernie, right?”
“It is, but how do you know?”
“I heard the professor say your name once. You had the answer to the question nobody else did. I was really impressed.”
“Yeah, I thought you were pretty smart, too.”
Bernie could not keep from blushing, which returned the sweet smile to Lois’s face.
“Guess we better get back to class,” said Bernie, checking his watch.
Two more classes took place before Lois and Bernie spoke again, and it was Lois who initiated the conversation.
“There’s a picnic sponsored by the retailing department this Sunday. Want to go? It’ll be fun.”
“I really don’t know anybody in your major,” demurred Bernie.”
“You know me, and I’ll introduce you to my friends. Come on.”
Bernie was thrilled that Lois had asked him to the event but as usual was uncomfortable with the prospect of a having to function in a social setting. All his life, he had tried to avoid group activities, but his attraction to Lois was stronger than his aversion to dealing with strangers. To his great relief and satisfaction, being with Lois made the experience much more bearable than he could ever have imagined. It was that way for the entire 31 years with her.
* * *
In the weeks following Lois’s funeral, Bernie stuck close to home, only occasionally venturing out to a dinner party held by the friends he had shared with his wife. At these gatherings, he had little to offer. Without his spouse by his side encouraging him to join in the dialog, he remained mostly silent. Gradually, the invitations became fewer and fewer. This did not upset Bernie at first, but as weeks turned into months, he began to feel almost shunned by those with whom he and Lois had spent considerable time.
Before long, he wasn’t hearing from anyone, and a deep loneliness filled his days and nights, especially the latter. Even people in his workplace seemed to ignore him more than usual. The one person he regarded as a true friend, Mel Colby, was on a work project in Germany, so they could only exchange emails. And that did little to mitigate his growing sense of aloneness. He longed for his friend’s return, and counted the days that separated them.
Mel and he had clicked quickly on first meeting, principally because of Mel’s outgoing, if not flamboyant, personality. For reasons Bernie had yet to really fathom, Mel had taken a strong liking to him. He speculated that it might be because he provided Mel with a perfect audience for his steady stream of jokes and comments about their fellow workers and life in general. Bernie also thought it could have to do with the fact that Mel was a bachelor and therefore in need of a steady friend. Whatever it was, Bernie was thrilled to have Mel’s attention. In fact, his fondness for Mel was only rivaled by his profound feelings for Lois, who liked his friend as well.
“He’s really such an interesting person, and so funny. It’s nice that you two get along so well,” Bernie recalled Lois saying, on more than one occasion.
On the Monday Colby was to return to work stateside, Bernie felt better than he had for months. He looked forward to reconnecting with the only male with whom he had ever felt so close a friendship. In fact, his affection for Colby had been greater than that for his own brother, who he had not seen in years because of an old feud over their parents’ will.
As soon as Bernie spotted Colby exiting the elevator, he ran to greet him.
“Hey, Bernie. Good to see you, buddy. You look like you’ve lost a lot of weight.”
“A few pounds. I needed to anyway.”
“Don’t we all. Look, I’ve been wanting to tell you in person how bad I feel about Lois passing on. What a loss. She was a great lady. I’m sure you miss her terribly. I will, too. We all will.”
As the two men walked down the corridor, something familiar on Colby’s pinky finger caught Bernie’s eye.
“That looks just like . . .” uttered Bernie, and then he realized it was the ring Lois had given to him on their tenth anniversary.
“Can I see your hand, Mel? Your left hand.”
Bernie grabbed Colby’s hand and inspected the ring.
“That’s my ring. How did you . . .? Why are you wearing it?”
“What do mean?” replied Colby, pulling his hand away and burying it in his pocket.
“Lois gave that to me when we were on vacation in Wyoming twenty years ago. It’s Indian turquoise. I thought I had lost it. Didn’t dare tell Lois I had.”
“Come on, Bernie. There are lots of rings like this one. Why would it be yours?”
“Why don’t you tell me, Mel? Yeah . . . why, indeed, would it be mine?”
“Let’s talk later. We have a lot to catch up on. Beers at Wheeler’s after work, okay? Calm down, too. You’re making something out of nothing, pal . . . really.”
Colby disappeared into his office, leaving Bernie alone to ponder what had just happened. It is my ring. Handmade by a Ute. None like it. One of a kind. What’s he doing with it? Why does he have it on?
Bernie decided to make a quick run home to make absolutely certain the ring was gone. I looked for it everywhere . . . everywhere. I know it’s not there, thought Bernie, climbing into his car.
Hours later he knew he was right. The ring was nowhere to be found. He scanned every inch of his bedroom and home office, but came up empty. Bullshit. The ring is gone, and Colby has it. But how . . .?
Back at the office, Bernie tried to locate Colby, but he was not to be found. Finally the workday ended, and Bernie headed to Wheeler’s Sports Pub to meet up with him. An anxious hour passed, and only then did he spot Colby entering the bar.
“Hey, guy, sorry I’m late. Had an all day meeting with clients at their shop in Natick.”
As Colby took a seat, Bernie noticed he was no longer wearing the ring.
“Why’d you take it off?”
“What?” replied Colby, eyeing Bernie warily.
“The ring you were wearing this morning . . . my ring.”
“Oh, I took it off to wash my hands. Just didn’t put it back on.”
“Let me see it.”
“I left it back in my office.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“Look, you’re getting all upset over nothing. I got that ring through a catalog. You know, the Sundance flier you get in the mail? I liked it and ordered it a couple years ago.”
“I never saw it before.”
“Just started wearing it.”
“Did Lois give it to you?”
Sitting alone in the bar before Colby arrived, the thought had occurred to Bernie that his wife might have given the ring to Colby since he had only worn it in the weeks after she had given it to him. That’s not something she would do . . . is it? Was there something going on? Were they having . . .?
“You were having an affair with Lois, weren’t you?” blurted Bernie, surprised at his own words.
“Whoa, Bernie! What the hell are you saying? Me and Lois? That’s ridiculous. Surely you’re kidding, right?”
Bernie weighed Colby’s reaction and probed his expression. He’s lying. The bastard is lying. How could he do this? My best friend. My only friend . . .
“Okay, look Bernie . . . Lois and I became good friends, and she gave me the ring as a symbolic gesture of our companionship. She said you never wore it, so she wanted me to have it. Said it sealed our friendship. I didn’t wear it in case you noticed it. In fact, I was going to give it back to Lois, but then I went to Germany for six months. Then she died. I put it on in her honor, and then I forgot I was wearing it this morning. Jet lag, you know. Not thinking clearly.”
“So she gave my tenth anniversary gift to you? Well, I think she was more than just a good friend of yours, Mel.”
“You’re a good friend of mine, Bernie. Why would . . .?”
“Exactly, why would you?”
Bernie rose abruptly and left the bar, returning to his empty house. There he paced about, wondering what course of action he should take. First I lose my wife and then I learn this. I’ve lost everything, mused Bernie, opening a metal box and removing a pistol from it. I can’t deal with this. It’s just too much. I have no one anymore. I have to do something.
* * *
Bernie sat in his backyard and watched as the sky turned dark. I can’t let this happen. I won’t, he mumbled. He then got into his car and drove to Colby’s condo. The second time he pressed the bell, Colby opened the door, and Bernie pressed the gun into his side.
“What’s going on, Bernie? Jesus, you’re acting crazy. Is that loaded?”
“Sit down, Mel. I have to ask you something.”
“Please don’t shoot. The thing with Lois just happened. We didn’t mean to get involved. Really, you have to believe me. She loved you, and you were . . . are, my best friend. Don’t do this, Bernie.”
“I have to. Get on your knees, Mel.”
“What? No, no, don’t . . .”
“Get on your knees . . . NOW!”
“Okay . . . okay,” said Colby, whimpering.
“I got to do this, man. It’s the only way.”
“Why?” Why do you have to do this?” asked Colby, beginning to sob.
“Because it’s the only way I can go on. Now, repeat after me . . .”
“PLEASE, no!” pleaded Colby, his arms outstretched toward Bernie.
“Repeat after me, Mel. ‘I will remain Bernie’s friend forever.’”
“Say it! ‘I will remain Bernie’s friend forever.’”
“Okay, yes, ‘I will remain Bernie’s friend forever.’”
“I will remain Bernie’s friend forever.’”
“You mean it?”
“Totally! Absolutely! Friends forever!”
“Okay,” said Bernie, putting the gun down.
Category: Short Story