Ralph took his hat off its peg on the wall. In the living room corner, the pendulum of the Grandfather Clock swayed with each second. He glanced at the clock, put on his hat, and opened the front door. As he stepped outside, the television blared behind him. It was ten minutes to five, his favorite time of day.
“Hi, Ralph,” the clerk said. She waved her right hand as he strode into the drugstore.
“Hello, Shirley,” Ralph said as he tipped his hat.
“Nice day, isn’t it?”
“Not a cloud in the sky.”
“Hi, Ralph,” The other clerk came out from behind the register. “Talking about our beautiful weather again?”
“Hello, Marie.” He tipped his hat to her. “Why wouldn’t I talk about it? It’s a perfect day. By the way, how’s your night school going?”
“Great. I’m taking two classes this semester.”
“Good for you. Did you decide what you want to study yet?”
“Probably something in healthcare.”
“Stick to it.”
Shirley came over with the newspaper. “Here you go.” She handed him the paper.
“Keep the change,” Ralph said as he gave her a five-dollar bill. “Buy a treat for that grandson of yours. Any new pictures?”
“None that you haven’t seen. I will buy him a treat. Thanks.”
“Thank you, girls.” Ralph took the paper and tucked it under his right arm. “See you tomorrow.” He stepped through the open door, turned slightly, and tipped his hat.
Shirley and Marie smiled and waved to Ralph. They stood in the doorway for a few seconds, watching him walk away.
“How long’s he been coming here, Shirley?” Marie asked.
“I’m not sure. I’ve been working here for ten years and he was coming long before that. We used to say you could set your clock by Ralph. Five o’clock, the door opens and there he is.”
“I like him,” Marie said. “The way he tips his hat is sweet.”
Ralph started walking the three blocks back to his house. He greeted anyone he saw with a tip of the hat. A couple nodded their heads to him as they hustled to their car. Others bustled along on the sidewalk. He slowed to a stroll. He looked up and down the sidewalk, not wanting to miss any neighbors.
The quiet streets reminded him how much the neighborhood had changed in forty-six years. Until the last few years, he had known all the neighbors by name. And he had also known the names of their children. I remember the sidewalks being full of children, he thought. His pace slowed even more.
She was in his thoughts now, as she was, always.
It had been eight years since he lost his Ingrid. What he had not been prepared for was how thunderous the silence was.
She was such a beauty, he thought. The first time I saw her I knew she was for me. He remembered how hard it was convincing her father that his only daughter would be taken care of by Ralph Swenson. He smiled.
They had wanted children so badly. The first couple of years Ingrid was disappointed every month. Then, somehow, they just got used to each other.
“Time’s a wastin’, Ralph,” Ingrid would say every morning. They had breakfast together as the sun rose. After eating, they both went to their jobs. Ingrid, a librarian, worked in the school library while Ralph used his hands working as a carpenter.
In the evening, Ingrid cooked dinner while Ralph walked the three blocks to get the newspaper.
“Who’d you see today?” Ingrid would ask.
Ralph told her while they ate. They didn’t hurry. They often sat at the table for an hour or more as Ingrid told funny stories about her day. And it was usually Ingrid who moved them from the dining room to the kitchen. “Let’s clean up so we can read the paper,” she would say.
He dried the dishes while Ingrid washed and talked and laughed.
At times, in the dark warmth of their bed, Ingrid worried about the future. “Who’s going to take care of us when we’re old?” Ingrid would say. She always said this as if it was a statement but he responded as if it was a question. He knew it spoke of her deep fear of being alone.
“I will always take care of you,” Ralph would say. “I promise.”
Ralph was crossing the street when two boys blocked his way.
“Hello,” he said as he started to tip his hat.
“Move out of our way, old man,” one of the boys sneered.
“He said move,” the other boy yelled. “Can’t you hear? MOVE.”
Ralph raised his once powerful right hand. The newspaper fell to the street. He bent down to pick it up when one of the boys kicked it out of the way.
Ralph stood up and made his right hand into a fist.
The two boys laughed.
“Ooh, we’re scared,” the first boy mocked. They both raised their right fists and marched towards Ralph.
Ralph backed up. He turned his head to the side to see behind him. He turned his head back to the front to watch as the two boys advanced. The curb caught his heel and he lurched forward.
The two boys grabbed their stomachs as they guffawed. “Do that again. It was so funny,” the second boy said.
Ralph backed up again. His eyes watched over his shoulder. He stepped over the curb heel first. He took slow backward steps away from the boys.
“Should we follow him?” the first boy asked.
“Nah, we’re already late for the movie. Let’s go.”
Ralph had trouble getting the key into the lock. His seventy-seven-year-old body felt like the soft subsoil that keeps on vibrating after the main punch of an earthquake is through. He turned the key and doorknob with his sleeves. His palms were clammy, cold.
As he opened the heavy oak door, Ralph let out a long exhalation. He couldn’t hear the television through his breathing. He shivered as if he’d caught a chill. He closed the door behind him, and then leaned against it. Blood coursed throughout his body. His right hand reached upward to touch his face. It felt hot against his cold palm. He stayed against the door until the shaking began to subside.
Ralph tried a small number of steps. He took off his hat and put it on its peg.
The pendulum swayed.
Ralph walked on leaden legs through the dining room and into the kitchen. He opened the waiting can of soup and put it into a pan. He turned on the burner. Two pieces of bread went into the toaster.
I was so scared, Ingrid.
He pushed down the lever on the side of the toaster. He had a little coffee from morning in the coffeepot. He turned on the burner to heat it. The bread was now toast. He buttered it. The soup and coffee came to a boil. He turned off the burners. The soup went into a bowl, the coffee into a cup. He put the toast on top of the bowl. With the bowl in one hand and the cup of coffee in the other, he trudged into the dining room.
Ralph sat at the place that was set. He placed his bowl and toast on the plate. He stared out the window for a long time, wondering if the boys knew where he lived.
You used to tell me I wasn’t afraid of anything.
He dipped the spoon in the soup and raised it to his lips. He blew on it, sipped it, and then dipped it again.
He picked up yesterday’s newspaper and began to read.
The next day Ralph sat on the couch in the living room. Only his eyes moved back and forth. He stared at his hat hanging on its peg. He stared at the Grandfather Clock as it pealed five o’clock. He stared out the window again.
“Shirley, look at the time,” Marie said. “It’s 5:30.”
“I wonder where Ralph is.”
“I hope he’s not sick.”
“Or lying somewhere.”
“How can we find out?”
“Where does he live?”
“I don’t know.”
“Does he live alone?”
“I think so. I think his wife died a while ago. I guess I don’t know.”
“Well, I hope he comes tomorrow.”
I was so scared, Ingrid.
The television blared.
The pendulum swayed.