“Where you going, old-timer?”
“Home for Christmas.”
“Need a ride?”
“No, thank you, I’ll walk.”
When Richard Arnold left the house at 8 a.m. Friday morning, he wore his good blue polyester sportcoat, a white shirt, tan dress slacks he bought at Sears before he retired, brown socks and black dress shoes he polished to a soft sheen the night before.
The 84-year-old retired supermarket produce manager carried the heavy cardboard suitcase Blanche stored in the attic for the past 40 years, crammed with an unopened pack of generically patterned underwear, four pair of dress socks, four white t-shirts (two crew neck, two V-neck), pajamas and an extra pair of tan dress pants. Richard shoved the baseball he caught at an Oriels game when he was 11 into a corner of the suitcase.
An hour later another car pulled over to the side of the road.
“Need a lift, Pop?”
“No, thank you, I’ll walk.”
Six miles into his pilgrimage Richard used his credit card to check into a Knights Inn. He laughed at a free movie on TV starring silly young people he didn’t recognize and ate one of the bananas he brought with him in a brown paper bag. He said his prayers and fell asleep about 11:30. In the morning he showered, brushed his teeth, dressed, gathered his belongings and checked out. Richard left a dollar on the bureau for the housekeeper.
Four miles later, when it started to rain, he stopped along the road to rest, sitting on a concrete incline beneath the Route 80 overpass. Out of breath from walking, he ate a banana and dozed. When he awoke he walked for another hour before stopping at a Red Roof Inn, handing over his credit card and getting a room with a king-sized bed. Blanche loved king-sized beds. They got them both times they went out of town to his cousin’s funeral and his nephew’s wedding. Richard loved to stretch out on the bed and wiggle his toes, telling Blanche how they were “living the dream” in the splendor of a nice motel room. He meant it, too.
The young Indian clerk behind the desk seemed nice so Richard took a risk and asked for a favor.
“Could you order me a plain pizza and have it delivered to my room?”
Richard Arnold tipped the Dominos driver a dollar and ate the whole pie, washing down the slices with three clear plastic cups of water he drew from the bathroom tap. He fell asleep without putting on his pajamas, turning down the covers or saying his prayers.
In the morning he resumed walking the interstate. When the state trooper stopped, so did Richard.
“Can I see your identification?”
Pulling his Medicare card from the cracked worn wallet Blanche bought him for his birthday about a decade ago his hands shook when he handed the card to the stern trooper.
“Do you live around here?”
“Yes,” said Richard.
“Where are you going?”
“Home for Christmas.”
“You’re not supposed to be walking on the interstate.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“Get off at the next exit.”
Two miles later, Richard saw a glow in the distance. With his eyes not working right even with glasses, he walked toward the lights that reminded him of the stage lights at the local community theater that time he and Blanche tried out for the holiday pageant and both got parts in the caroling scene.
Of course he forgot the words to the chorus.
“Bing Crosby would understand,” Blanche whispered.
A child in the front row started to sing “Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Everybody in the audience laughed. Richard and Blanche and the cast of carolers laughed, too.
Chuckling at the memory, Richard spotted a bright light shining in the distance. Looking at his watch to make sure he wasn’t going to be late, the numbers on the Timex face blurred. Blanche would be disappointed if he were late. Shining golden now, the glare made him squint. He shielded his eyes with his palm. Even when he closed his eyes Richard beheld the approaching light.
Blanche once told him she read in a magazine how you should follow the light in the angels’ eyes because it would lead to heaven. Blanche worried she wasn’t good enough to go to heaven. Taking her hand in the hospital that terrible night, Richard tried not to let on how concerned he was. Blanche was the only angel he had ever known.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” he said.
The stroke that hit Blanche that night sent one of her eyes looking left and one unblinking and looking toward the ceiling. Her left arm kept moving toward him in his chair then back, toward him then back. Blanche didn’t know what hit her. Her husband knew the feeling.
Now Richard thought maybe he should move toward the light. Maybe Blanche would be there waiting. Stepping forward, he froze in mid-step. The National Van Lines moving truck’s horn blast made Richard scream as he felt hot wind rush past his cheeks when the deep blare pierced his ear drums. Gravel kicked up from the roadside, hitting him hard enough in the face for a tiny stone to crack the left lens of his glasses. Dropping his suitcase and bending over, he covered his head with both hands. Then he ran a few steps as best he could, falling over the guard rails, dropping down the bank, rolling, hitting his chin on his knees and breaking a tooth on his upper plate. The trucker kept barreling down the road.
Looking around, Richard realized the light had disappeared. Must have been a mirage, he told himself as he collapsed, buried his head in the crook of his elbow and curled into a fetal position, falling asleep amid cigarette butts and green broken glass. Richard sure missed Blanche. Maybe she’d find him and take him home for dinner.
A honey-baked ham with a brown sugar glaze sounded good. Hot apple pie, too, with raisins.
Like a starry-eyed child, Richard Arnold couldn’t wait for Christmas.