The Best of James Heaton
From The Tree of Life:
Carlos steadies himself against the wall, Virginia rushes to give him water from the canteen. He drinks and she can see his eyes are dilated and she sees the vessels burst in his eyes. She knows that it is the brain tumor, of all times for it to act up, it chose now. He grabs her hand and looks deep into her eyes and begins to speak.
“See the problem is you think you have forever. When you’re a little kid you get sucked into the seasons and that becomes how you measure time. Sure, you stare at your watch sometimes, but actual time is measured in the revolutions of the earth around the sun. Summer is your goal, it’s when you can brave the outdoors and have the longest days of the year to catch lightening bugs. Mom says be home before the streetlights come on and each day you have the grandest adventures in the fields and streams behind the old Philpot house. You ride your bike for miles, and you have to take a shower before bed because you have never sweated so much in your life. Then comes Christmas and the snow, and you wish for summer all night in the cold. Sure, the fireplace is romantic and the bright sweaters your mom buys for you are warm and comfy but you’re dying to be barefooted and running down the beach. Running nowhere, just running.”
“And time flies when you’re a kid, then you get to college and all you want is it all to be over, no more studying past midnight, no more projects to turn in, just the job you’re working toward. But that’s the jumping off point. Because the best days are behind you and when you finally graduate and get that job you always wanted all you can do is live for the weekends. They become your mini summers. Then Christmas break and then the kids and the mortgage. That car you thought would last forever just told you so long and now you’re in debt for a house and a new car. But all you do is get up and go to work five days a week and miss the beautiful warm days of summer. Work, home, sleep, then do it all over again. And then you’re twenty-seven, then you’re thirty-five and before you know it you’re fifty. And you look back over your family and realize that most of the men in your family only made it to eighty, with lots of problems. And that’s just thirty years away. If you were lucky, you met someone that makes that time go a little slower, she makes you smile when you just want to end it all. She makes you laugh when all you want to do is cry. And if you have kids, you live long enough to see yourself all over again making the same damn mistakes.”
“But then you find a little youth in the grandkids. They remind you how good youth was, how it was the best damn thing ever. They make you wish you could do it all over again with all the knowledge you possess. But it doesn’t work that way. Eventually some of the family stops talking to you, and you feel lonely, and you realize that if you’re lucky you have your wife, and she likes you, maybe loves you. That slows time a little. But that second hand doesn’t stop, it keeps going around and around. Seasons come and you start paying more attention because soon they won’t come anymore. Soon they will end up being the season you die and that’s a real fact. Then comes the list, all the things I want to do before I get too old, but the trouble is, you are too old. That list gets stuck on the fridge with a magnet you bought over summer vacation at the little island in Florida where you felt alive.”
“Then you start focusing on that, that feeling of what it felt like to be alive. You dwell on that, you long for it. Then you start wishing for the fountain of youth, and you make another list of all the things that you would have done differently.”
“But it’s that damn watch on your wrist, you watch it as the minutes pass, the hours come and go and the days fly by. A week is a day, and you wonder where the time went. That’s when death gets real. Because you know that in a few years you’ll be lucky if you fall asleep and just don’t wake up. Nobody wants the big C word; nobody wants to go out in wheelchair because your legs gave up before you did. You start thinking you’re lucky you can still carry the trash out without hurting your back and the dishes never seem to wash themselves.”
“All the music you grew up with is now the oldies and you can’t stand the youth of today. The country seems like it’s going to hell, and nothing is good on television. That’s when you enter the time machine, and you listen to all your old favorite songs on repeat, and you watch the same tv show every night because you know how it’s going to end. And those unimportant things you never did as a younger man come back to haunt you. I should have, I wish I had, words you end up saying every day. If you travel you need an extra suitcase for all the damn pills and you want your own pillow and blanket, because they are the only ones that will work. You need comfort as you watch the ceiling for four hours before you can fall asleep for a few hours before it’s time to get up and pee. Then you can never go back to sleep, and you watch the sun come up with a cup of coffee and you tell yourself today is the day I stop being old.”
“But that is what you said the day before and the day before that. You watch the woman you love grow old with you; she stops getting dressed up for no reason other than to feel pretty. She is tired, just like you. A good night on the couch watching that same tv show over and over before walking to the bedroom like a zombie is that last bit of happiness you have of that day.”
“That is why I fight, that is why I do things I have no business doing. I want to surf that one last big wave and maybe if I’m lucky I will finish my ride and fall in the water and let the next big one takes my soul out to sea where I can be happy. Yep, that’s how I want to go out, pushing it to the damn limit just one last time. Not in a hospital bed that stinks of urine and your back hurts from the mattress. First you grab your life, and you live it, then you grab your death, and you control it because death is the only thing you can ever really control in life. Do it on your own terms, long live rock, and roll.” Delirious and shaking Carlos looks into his wife’s eyes. If there were ever a time to play the hero, it’s now. But Carlos is down for the count, and this might be the last time, and he knows it. His head pulsing and aching and the color he sees is black. He fights it, he fights it with everything he has.
From The Last Winter
The winter chill tore through the house like her ghost seeking my attention. Outside the snow covered the ground, falling softly. Would this storm ever stop? How I longed for the warmth of the sun, how I longed for the first days of spring. I wanted to spend another summer with Rose and her family.
In my chair I sit beside the warm fire that danced like a gypsy on a beach as her family plays the music of their people. There are no violins or cellos to fill my ears with song, the quiet haunts this darkened room. It was the same silence that had filled that cabin years ago. The candles illuminate this old house, walls of stone become the canvas of the light that flickers as it paints my final story. Outside in the icy chill of night, an owl calls out to moon, but there is no answer. Maybe that wolf family was close by.
I sip the last of my tea and look at the pictures of the ghost that haunts me, but that is cruel to say. She loved me, she would never haunt me, only her memory. Those days were shorter, or so it seemed. The nights were but a faded memory, her warm body in our bed. These last years have not been kind to me and yet they have been the longest of my life. I bide the time I have left, alone in this house with only the memories to keep me sane.
I am but an old man clinging to my final days, days that I longed to spend with her. But time is an enemy to the aged and broken. She was the light of my days and the stars of my nights. As the fire dies, I make my way to the bedroom. That empty bed that I lay my head and tired bones upon. It seems too large for my old heart, to vast without her to keep me warm. I could still smell her lotion and her sweet presence. Another night without her, another night of terrible dreams. I would stay awake if only I had the strength but with this grey hair comes the need for slumber.
Over and over in my dreams she fills my mind, her smile, her eyes of green, like emeralds. Her soft skin glows in the sun of summer. But the same thing happens every night, she disappears into the darkness as the light fills my room. I awake alone in this bed we made, in this house we filled with our dreams. I spend my days reading the words of the poets, the words of great minds who knew better than I. Their stories keep me company, the only sounds are their words in my mind. I tried to read all the books that Melissa loved dearly, those stories that were once in her mind are now in mine.
The winter is slowly creeping back to haunt me once more. The cooler nights turn into cold darkness. The winter moon becomes my companion once more. I cant remember a colder winter in years, not since that winter in the cabin.
Again, in my chair, covered with the blanket she wrapped herself in. The fire dances as I read the last page of my most cherished book. I have read it every year since she left, if only to see her inscription on the first page. Words from her heart, telling me that she loved me.
But did I genuinely love her? Did I really love Melissa the way I said so many times? The battle ensues, the doubt fills my mind. If I had genuinely loved her like I claim, I would have given more of myself. I would have filled our days with my words of passion instead of my absence. She deserved more than I gave and for that I can never forgive myself. Regret is a terrible partner to live with. I tell myself that I did my best.
The snow falls outside of the window, drifting down slowly until it reaches its final destination. I close my book and sit it on the table with my empty cup of tea. I watch the fire, lost in its magic. Slowly it dies down with only the embers glowing a brilliant red. But that too dies until there is only the charred remains of the logs. It is my call; it is my time to retire once again to the empty bed that we once shared.
As I lay on the soft mattress, my head comforted again by the pillow, I stared outside through the frozen window. The snow has stopped, and my eyes grow heavy. Once again, I slip into the slumber on a frigid winter night of unforgiving sorrow. But she is waiting for me on a blanket in the side yard by the trees. She has been feeding the birds once more with crumbs of bread. She is playing with Rose, laughing, and hugging her little girl. But I turned away, ashamed that I never gave her what she gave me. Her love was unrelenting and constant, while mine was at my convenience. But tonight, I needed to atone, to make this right. I turned to see her warm smile and her long red hair as it fell below her shoulders.
I held onto that moment and as she motioned for me to sit beside her, I did not deny her that for which she longed. I should have given her my time; I should have loved her as much as she loved me. But tonight, would be the last page of the book. The last words I would ever whisper, I love you. She pulls me in and in a deep embrace covered in the warmth of the summer sun we drift into the unknown. I no longer deny that which I have always known, that she was my anchor. She is my anchor still and as I cling onto those final memories; I no longer need to remain in this dreadful winter. I let go of the breath that holds me and I give myself completely to her. Together we drift into the warmth of the sun, and I am no more.
They will find me alone in the bed we made, with content that I finally spoke the truest words. That I genuinely loved her.
As I fade into the darkness of eternity I am greeted by a warm light. It is blinding but so warm. My eyes adjust and, in the distance, I can see a silhouette and I hear the roar of the ocean. I travel closer and there in the distance is Melissa, waiting for me. We are on the beach with little Rose playing in the sand.
“Why did you doubt your love for me?” she asked as I took in the smell of the ocean, the salt tickling my nose.
“I wanted to give you more. I should have given you more.” I answer.
“Silly man, you gave all you had. You gave enough, and I love you for that.” She replied.
We walked down that old familiar beach, hand in hand. If this was heaven, I was content to walk for all eternity with the woman I loved. There would be no more winters, only the warmth of the sun and the love we shared.
From Elizabeth Jenkins
Mrs. Elizabeth Jenkins resided on Lincoln Street at the corner of State Street in Savannah, Georgia. There she had a cozy little brick apartment that the tourists found attractive in the summer months with the thick vines and lush foliage that covered the exterior wildly. It was one of many homes that the horse-drawn carriages passed by daily with the camera-toting sightseers.
The red bricks from the civil war and the trees planted in the days of early slavery paled in comparison to the lady that lived in the second apartment on the corner of Lincoln and State. And although the tourists made their rounds daily noticing the historical points of interest the truest treasure was inside the apartment on State Street.
Mrs. Elizabeth Jenkins was eighty-three years old when last I saw her, and she was as beautiful then as she remains in my memory today. I have carried her in my heart from the first day I met her. She was the grandmother I had always hoped for, the cornerstone of my younger days that made me into the man I am right now.
It was during my time in college that I first saw her. She waved me down as I rode my bike from my dorm on Lincoln Street to my first class of the day. I thought at first, she was hurt or maybe needed help getting a cat down from a tree. She just started talking, just started conversing about her day’s activities. I hadn’t the heart to tell her I didn’t know her and that she had mistaken me for someone else. She was clearly convinced that she knew me. And that would be the beginnings of our friendship. It may have been built on a lie, or merely confusion on her part. But my inability to upset this little old lady by explaining that we were not acquainted is the very action that led to our amazing story.
I talked with her almost daily from the fall of 1987 until I graduated. I was habitually late for class from stopping and enjoying my daily fellowship with her. She was continually impressed at the little things in her world. Like the number of cars that passed by her apartment or why the kids today had blue hair and grumpy attitudes. And there was one time that she mentioned how bicycles had changed from when she was a child to now. She seemed to have a fascination with bicycles as I would later find out why.
She would make mention of my bicycle constantly and she talked about her first two-wheeler. Her eyes grew large, and her hands became overly active as if she were touching its frame in front of her. She described it so perfectly, orange with white stripes and a wicker basket on the front. A thick shiny metal frame, both sturdy and heavy. The seat was crafted of Italian leather, and it was large with heavy support springs underneath, and shiny brass rivets around the edge. She recalled thoroughly how she rode with her brother and her sister through the local park on Saturday afternoons. She would stop and smile, her eyes drifting to another place and another time. The wrinkles on her face became dancing lines as she became excited from days gone by. It was obvious that she came from a wealthy family; she was well versed and spoke of experiences that only money would allow her to experience. It wasn’t every teenage girl that had a fancy bicycle to ride jovially through the park in the 1940s, no, she was truly special.