A heavy sigh escaped from his mouth as Alfred settled on his left side once again and faced the room. He glanced to his right as he shifted. He blinked, rubbed his forehead, head jerked up and his eyes sprang open. “Did something just brush my back,” his heart and mind raced. He sat up slightly and looked to the opposite side of the bed. He peered through the darkness to the empty pillow and he shook his head. “Oh, Al, you are imagining things,” he whispered and tried to relax. The coolness of the pillow against his face reminded him he was alone. He pulled the sheet to his chin. He eyes closed as he remembered the few days earlier when his beloved Gracie had slipped into her life of unlimited sweets. He could still see their children, Tony, Roger, Pat, Linda, Cindy and Vicky and the feel the sorrow as together they watched Gracie go home. He rolled to his right side. “There it is again,” and he commanded himself to lay still. The pressure between his shoulder blades began to move. Circular motions with a gentleness that reminded him of the many times Gracie’s gently rubbed his back. “Was that a hand,” his mind questioned. “Don’t be ridiculous,” Alfred Kremer silently scolded himself. “You are only wishing it was real.” But the feeling continued until he drifted off to sleep.
He slept fitfully for several hours before the warm rays of the morning sun danced on his face. He rubbed his eyes and scratched the whiskers on his chin. “Did last night really happen or was I dreaming,” as he struggled to look around the bedroom. It looked exactly the same as it had the night before. The double bed was along the north wall, a dresser, mirror, next the closet door and his trousers draped across a chair. “It was a dream,” he muttered, disappointed as reality set in. “I wish it was true,” as he made his way to the kitchen. “It felt so good to have my back rubbed.” A tear slid down his cheek as he recalled the many nights Gracie had helped him relax. Al stepped on the porch and snatched the morning paper. The chair scratched the linoleum floor as he pulled it out and sat next to the kitchen table. The paper rattled as he snapped it open. His eyes scanned the headlines and followed the typed words in the columns. He looked up. “I have no idea what I just read.” His mind wandered, desperate to relive the night and the feeling of having Gracie still with him.
Al tried to stay busy, but the minutes dragged throughout the day.
At last the hands on the clock gave him permission to retreat to the bedroom. Al grunted slightly as he pushed himself up from his favorite chair in the front room. He shuffled sadly through the house to the bedroom. “I hope I can sleep tonight.” He sandwiched himself between the sheets and darkness settled in. A small stream from the street lamp was the sole beam of light. Exhaustion set in and soon he was breathing softly with a steady rhythm.
A horn blare on the busy road beyond the lawn surrounding the house jarred Al out of his sleep. Disgusted, he rolled over and tried to shut out the street noises. He had become accustomed to the continual sound of traffic. “Why did you have to wake me – I was finally asleep,” he grumbled. He wriggled in an effort to find the same position and as he did he glanced to the far corner of the bedroom. A slight movement of white hovered near the angle of the room. Startled, he sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes. “What…” he questioned. “What is that,” his heart thumped as he strained to adjust his eyes to the darkness. Cloud-like wisps of white hovered in the once vacant corner. The figure, about four feet tall, moved silently back and forth in the corner. The thumping in his chest was the only sound. “Are you trying to tell me something,” he said, as the figure gestured to him. Al watched, his eyebrows raised. He could not understand the hand motions and after some time the apparition faded away.
“Was that my Gracie,” he thought as he lay in bed, unable to slow his mind. He counted the ceiling tiles of his bedroom. Outside, the wind gently rocked the tree branches against the siding on the house. The scratching sound diverted Al’s attention. He glanced toward the window, hoping to glimpse the visitor again. He realized he was the sole occupant and lay back with a heavy sigh. He tugged the sheets around his chin. Without a thought his hand slid to the pillow next to him. As his fingers stroked the cool cotton, covering a tear slid down his face and trickled in his ear. “What will I do without you, Gracie?”
Morning light peaked through the closed brocade drapes and Al rolled slowly to his side. He sighed as he swung his feet out of bed and straightened upright. His legs felt heavy, almost wooden and his arms rubbery as he pulled on the plaid flannel robe. He shuffled to the corner of his room. The emptiness of the corner matched his mood. “Was I dreaming last night? Was that real,” as he made his way to the kitchen.
He grabbed the coffee pot and filled it with cold water. He measured the grounds carefully, replaced the lid and plugged it in. As the smell of the fresh coffee began to fill the air, he walked to the cupboard and reached in for his favorite cup. The routine felt good. He had been making his own coffee each morning for the last five years. He poured the hot, black liquid energy into his cup and sat in his favorite chair at the table. He glanced up and seeing Gracie’s chair empty, buried his face in his hands. Sobs of grief racked his body. He remembered an earlier time when it was the two of them in the kitchen on the farm.
Gracie stood beside his chair as she poured him a cup of coffee. She set a plate of cookies in front of him. “Al, I still tested positive,” Gracie said. She had just returned home after her check up with the doctor following the birth of Cindy. “I will always have to be careful what I eat.”
“I thought that diabetes was only supposed to last during the pregnancy,” he asked her. Gracie smiled as she often did, but her eyes looked sad. “I guess not this go ‘round,” she said softly.
Al shook his head with sadness as he remembered how quickly the illness dictated how Gracie felt each day. Blood tests, insulin shots, forbidden foods became a daily routine in their household. In spite of her illness she still loved to bake. The cookie jar never ran empty while pies and cakes were ready for daily desserts. It was a slow progression gradually overtaking her health. Gracie handled it herself until her kidneys became compromised and she suffered the effects. He shuddered as he recalled the first time he gave her the shot of insulin. “I was so afraid I would hurt her,” he thought as he pictured himself with the syringe and small glass bottle of insulin. He hands shook, but Gracie gentled talked him through it and soothed his raw nerves. When he was finished, Gracie smiled at him with her eyes and her mouth turned up in that smile that he fell in love with years earlier.
Al’s face softened. Still lost in his memories he saw himself as a young man again. His good friend, Marvin Key was sitting in his white Ford convertible. Al could almost feel the warm summer air rushing toward him as they whizzed by the fields of corn. “Let’s go to White’s Cafe before I have to go to work.”
“Sure, I owe you,” Al stated, “Thanks for doing my chores while I was gone. Dad would have never milked my cow twice a day like you did.”
“No problem. Remember when I came to help shell corn for your dad,” Marvin said. “And how he took out his chew, stuck it on the clothesline pole on the way in for lunch, and then, and then,” Marvin laughed, “took it down and put it in his mouth again after lunch,” he could barely finish his sentence.
“Yeah,” Al snickered. “I think he did that just to get your reaction,” as he parked in front of the newspaper office. “We can walk from here.”
The glass door swung in as the pair entered the café. Murmurs from the small clusters of regulars in the green booths along the walls met the two friends. Al spotted an empty spot and led the way. Just before he slid between the cushioned seat and the chrome accented table he noticed the girls in the next booth. He nodded to the pair as he sauntered to their table. “Hi there,” he said. The girls smiled warmly and he continued. “I’m Alfred Kremer this is my friend, Marvin Key. And who might you be?”
“I’m Gracie and this is Bonnie.”
“Mind if we join you,” Al asked.
“Well, sit right down,” Gracie said.
The chime of the mantel clock brought Al back to the kitchen and his loneliness was back immediately.
Al sighed, “Well, sit right down. How many times did I hear that phrase from you, Gracie? You were always so welcoming to everyone,” as he said as he rose from the chair. “I’ll wash you later,” he said to the cup as he set it in the sink. The kitchen door swung shut behind him as he left the room.
Over the next few weeks this became his routine: sleepless nights, endless days, and morning coffee alone. He looked forward to the blackness of the night when he could feel Gracie’s presence beside him. The shadowy white figure continued to appear. The presence always seemed to be trying to tell him something. “Go talk to Carol, call Frances, and get out into the world again.” But Alfred felt paralyzed.
“A road trip, you need a road trip,” the pixie-like figure told him after several weeks of visitation in the same far corner of his bedroom.
The following morning, Al made plans. “I’m going to travel, take a trip,” he explained to Roger and Tony during a visit.
“Where,” they both asked at the same time.
“I’m not sure. California, maybe, Arizona, I’ll let you know. I just know I need to get away. “I’ll be okay,” he said, noticing the look of concern on his sons’ faces. “I’ll keep in touch, I’ll call, I promise.”
The next day Al tossed his suitcase in the trunk, slammed it shut and slid in behind the wheel. He turned the key and the engine sputtered to life. He backed the car out of the garage, on to Highway 150, and the trip began. He wasn’t sure why or where he was going; he just knew this trip was necessary. The miles on the odometer rolled over as he sped down the highway. At last he turned into a drive, shifted the car into park and turned the key to off. He looked up at the sign on the building. “Monastery, here I come,” he muttered as he retrieved his brown leather bag, walked the cobblestone path and rang the bell.
“It was good you called and made reservations,” the brown-robed friar spoke softly he led Al to his room. As the door closed behind him Al studied the furnishing of the area he would use over the next few weeks. A small metal cot with a thin mattress, a woolen blanket folded neatly at the foot was along the south wall. A square window with a simple curtain looked to the garden. A wooden chair and a tiny table were below. The remaining wall had the hook for his clothes. “It’s a simple room, but I won’t spend much time in here,” he thought to himself. He knew his time would be spent in the quiet chapel with needed prayer and contemplation. He spent several weeks at the monastery. He felt a peace that had been eluding him since Gracie’s death. When his time among the religious brothers ended, Al felt ready to continue his travels. Slowly he made his way back to Independence, Iowa, visiting family in California and Arizona before returning.
He glanced at the highway sign along the road: Amarillo – 15 miles. “I should be able to swing through there with no problem and keep on going. I’m getting anxious to get home.” He glanced to the eastern sky and noticed a dark, ominous cloud forming in the horizon. “I guess I’d better keep an eye on the weather,” he reminded himself. As he entered the city limits of Amarillo, the clouds turned black and angry. Spotting a small motel with a bar and grill attached, Al braked slightly and steered his sedan into the parking lot.
“Do you have a room for tonight,” Al asked the young clerk behind the desk.
“Yes, sir, we have a room with a double bed available. Would you like that one,” the brown haired girl as she tucked a loose strand behind her ear.
“She reminds me of my girls,” Al thought as he signed his name in the registry. He took the key for his room and made his way to the second floor. The suitcase felt heavy and he dropped it as he unlocked the door. He lumbered in, dragging his luggage and collapsed on the floral bedspread. He stared at the ceiling for a moment before his eyelids shut out the bareness of the room.
“Get up,” a voice startled Al. He jerked, sat up and looked around the room. “Get up. What are you doing up here,” the voice came from the far corner of the room. Night had fallen while Al napped and the room was dark. He rubbed his eyes and stared in the direction of the voice. He saw the familiar white, translucent body. “Go downstairs. Get something to eat,” the willowy figure continued to instruct him. He hesitated. “Go on, go down to the bar and order some food. You can’t stay in here all night.”
Al obeyed, but was still bewildered as he entered the room on the lower level. He noticed the bar with a rough wooden bar with several cowboys leaning upon it. The door to the kitchen was just beyond. The smell of beer and fries wafted to Al and his mouth watered. He turned his left wrist over. “No wonder I am feeling hungry. It’s after eight o’clock.” The murmur of conversation from a group seated in a booth in the far corner reached his ears and he glanced in that direction. The smell of sawdust mingled with the earthy smell of horses. Scuffed dark planks created the dance floor just beyond the tables. Several couples swayed to the music drifting from the jukebox, the boots scraped the floor and the blue jeans moved in synchronized movements.