By Michael Anthony
Reflections can reveal truths or distort reality. For Charlie Hubner, they do both.
This particular day the seventy-eight-year-old wanders Littleton’s Main Street. Like so many small communities across the Midwest, its downtown is more an echo of the past than a present day destination. The pharmacy that had been there for over a century, the hardware store, the garden center, and the bakery are just some of those gone. All replaced by big-box stores out on Highway 49. Townsfolk no longer stroll Littleton’s sidewalks to browse new displays in shop windows. These days those windows are vacant or plastered with faded signs promising low rents that no one wants.
Charlie first roamed Main Street as a boy in search of trading cards of his beloved Detroit Tigers. When he was a teenager it was cigarettes. Soon he was making the loop while holding hands with his high school sweetheart Sally Jean Osterman.
As time passed, he and Sally Jean brought their children along. Roger, the oldest, walking beside them, Doreen in a stroller, and, Julia atop Charlie’s shoulders. Eventually, those three grew and have families of their own. So, Charlie and Sally Jean now make the circuit as a couple again.
Charlie asks Sally Jean if she feels strong enough to go all the way to Elm Street before heading back. Her answer is a silent nod.
“Remember the glider we bought here?” Charlie says as he lingers in front of a shop window. He finds her smile in a reflection.
That glider swing has hung from the covered front porch of the Hubner’s home for as long as anyone can recall. It is where he and Sally Jean had planned their life together. It also provided a place for their children to pretend they were flying across wide skies and sailing through clouds.
On late summer nights that swing offered the seclusion the Hubner teenagers sought when they were learning about dating, kissing, and more. Deep shadows hid roaming hands until Sally Jean would flip the porch light. Not once, not twice, but three times. So much for adolescent exploration.
When the Hubner daughters each married, Littleton’s resident photographer Ernst Gunderson posed them on that glider, making sure their gowns pooled perfectly at their feet. Now only a strong wind coming off the prairie sways the rusted chains that support wood slats long in need of paint. Sally Jean hasn’t been on it for more than four summers. Charlie refuses to sit there without her.
Moving on, Charlie grins when he spots Gloria’s Luncheonette where the Hubners often stopped for coffee and those breakfast sandwiches that draw truckers and farmers alike. He asks if Sally Jean wants one. Another reflection says no. Despite hunger pangs gnawing at Charlie’s stomach, they keep going.
It’s much the same as they reach Elm Street before crossing Main to return on the south side. Just as he did on the first half of the stroll, Charlie pauses before shop fronts asking if Sally Jean would like another Sunday dress or some strawberries from Dreyer’s Market. An ice cream cone at Tasty-Freeze? In every case, Charlie studies her reflection, seeing not his wife of nearly six decades, but the nineteen-year-old he still can’t believe actually agreed to marry him.
Charlie is excited as they approach the Littleton public library nestled beneath the verdant shadows of towering oaks. It’s where he used to borrow that book of Emily Dickinson poetry he’d read to Sally Jean on the glider in the evenings after dinner.
Grasping Sally Jean’s elbow, Charlie starts across Main Street towards Caulfield Avenue, which will take them back to their front porch and that motionless swing. Without explanation Sally Jean veers directly into the path of an oncoming mail truck.
Charlie yells for her to stop. She doesn’t. Panicking, he starts after her, hoping to reach her before that truck does. The blaring horn of a car coming at him from the opposite direction spins Charlie around. A siren wails. In that confused moment, he stands in the middle of the road frozen by fear.
Two arms encircle Charlie and steady him against the buffeting blasts as the mail truck swerves west and that car speeds east. Though unscathed, Charlie struggles to see if Sally Jean has also made it to safety.
“Charlie,” a voice says. “You all right?”
Still concerned about Sally Jean, Charlie nods while scanning the street.
“Come on. Let’s get you to the sidewalk.” Once there, Ted Ryker checks Charlie for injuries. Finding none, he says, “You really should be careful.” Ted lifts a mobile phone to his ear. After ending the call, Ted tells Charlie he’ll wait with him.
Dazed, Charlie asks, “Is Sally Jean all right?”
“She’s safe,” Ted smiles as he eases Charlie onto the bench in front of what used to be the Grand Prairie Savings and Loan. “Let’s wait here.”
Before long, a car skids to a stop at the curb. Ted waves the driver over.
“Dad,” the man shouts. “What were you thinking?”
“Your mother wanted to go for a walk.”
“He’s okay,” Ted tells Charlie’s son Roger.
“Thanks, Ted. I’ll get him home.”
Agitated, Charlie bristles, “What about your mother?”
“She’ll be fine,” Roger says while ushering Charlie to the car. With his father seated and belted, Roger turns to Ted who’s now leaning against his police cruiser. “I don’t know how he got out again. Thank you.”
“Had the same problem with my mom. Ended up putting deadbolts on all the doors.”
The two men say goodbye. Roger then pulls away. Turning to Charlie, Roger says, “Dad, this needs to stop.”
“Your mother just wanted to take a walk. What’s wrong with that?”
Recalling Doc Levenson’s advice about de-escalation techniques to use with dementia patients, Roger switches the car radio to the classical station that soothes Charlie. Then, choosing his words carefully, Roger says, “Nothing’s wrong. But, next time tell me so I can go with you.”
Charlie stares blankly out the car window at a town he once knew and mutters, “Okay.” The rearview mirror reflects an empty back seat as father and son again head home – alone.
About the Author: Michael Anthony is a writer and artist living in New Jersey. He has published fiction, poetry, illustrations, and photographs in literary journals and commercial magazines. Most recently these include Drunk Monkeys, Bodega Magazine, Pigeon Review, The Coil Magazine, Dove Tales, Raw Lit, and On-The-High Literary Journal. His work may be viewed at: MichaelAnthony.MyPortfolio.com