A few years ago, I thought I would try my hand at writing short stories and submitting them to those little magazines that you see as you stand in line at the checkout counter in grocery stores. They pay pretty good money. This story was written to the specification of 1500 words. I have added in a few more words for this publication. To my knowledge, this story was never published.
The Best of His Life
The Colonel looked up at the steps looming before him. Damn! Why couldn’t she have her office on the first floor? Thirteen steps. He could have taken them three at a time in his younger days, but not now. He had been in great shape then. Lean. Muscular.
Handsome enough to get the prettiest girl in school, too. How he had managed to keep her all these years, he’d never know. She said she didn’t mind those extra pounds, or that he had lost some hair. (She used to tease him that she was so short, she couldn’t see the top of his head anyway!) But she did mind that cough. She called it “rheumy,” and said it sounded serious. Wanted him to go to the doctor. Hell! Doctors were no good. They just wanted to poke around, ask silly, embarrassing questions, and make pronouncements: Stop Smoking! Lose Weight! Slow Down!
To tell the truth, he’d been considering retirement. So much hassle at work nowadays. Young people half his age coming in at twice his salary, telling him what to do. Him, with 25 years experience at this job, not to mention his military experience! How dare they! It was enough to make him quit. If they wanted to call it retirement, so be it. A man shouldn’t work where he’s not respected.
That’s what brought him to this building. It looked like an old house – no, an old home – a lot like the house he grew up in. Two stories, gingerbread trim, lots of character. Not like the houses in the neighborhood he lived in now. Not a lick of personality in any of them. Brick houses with white siding front porches, not wide enough to hang a swing on to sit in at night. Nothing interesting to watch anyway.
All his neighbors were into doing whatever worked up a sweat – running, shooting baskets, soccer moves, in-line skating – and they did all this while pushing baby strollers! Never saw so many babies! Didn’t these people know the planet was overpopulated? He and June had produced two children, and they had produced two children. Theory of sustainability – two, replaced by two, replaced by two, and so on. Two by two. Sounded Biblical…
Biblical. Accountability. End-of-Life. Meet Your Maker. Can’t do a proper job if you’re always thinking about the end of things. Maybe it was time to go. Always said if you can’t produce, get out. But he wasn’t ready to go yet, he realized. There was the sense that something else had to be done. Things at work might be over, but his life wasn’t yet complete. Being forced out by “things” wasn’t fair.
Not fair to June either. She deserved better. How lucky he felt, having her by his side. Not a day went by that he wasn’t reminded in some way of his good fortune.
Fortune. That’s why he was here. June had asked him to talk to her friend Callie. Not his friend. They had never met, but June and Callie were friends from childhood. “Sisters by choice,” June once said.
“Just talk to her about work, and retirement, and the things you are thinking about…” June had said. “This is what she does for a living, listening and advising, using her gifts to help others.”
Oh, yes. There was the matter of her gifts. Callie was a psychic, plain and simple. No matter what other people might call it, she claimed to be able to look into the future and advise you – for a price. He had to admit the price was reasonable. Because of her friendship with June, this was to be a “free consultation.” He wondered: “if you get what you paid for,” what would he have? But then, what did he have to lose?
So here he was, trying to negotiate these blasted stairs without coughing. He must have a touch of asthma. Guess talking to a psychic wouldn’t matter – she wouldn’t be asking all those questions that a doctor would. She should know!
He knocked on the door. It opened easily. “Won’t you come in?” said the pleasant woman who looked up at him.
Not what he expected, not at all what he expected. Must have been thinking of a gypsy-type woman, although he knew June would never be friends with such as that. But he felt at ease with this woman, as if he had known her for years. June had spoken often of her, so he did know about her, yet she seemed familiar beyond that.
Of course! It came to him in a flash. They looked enough alike to be sisters! My God! He had never thought of there being two Junes – yet here she was, same height, same honey-colored hair, same smudgy-blue eyes.
Callie was murmuring something about his having been ‘right on time.’ Of course he was on time! He couldn’t abide tardiness. Show up early, work late. That was the way to succeed! Touching his elbow, she guided him to a large overstuffed chair, and indicated that he was to put his feet up on the ottoman. She sat in a chair nearby and leaned back, fingers of one hand crossed with fingers of the other.
“June tells me you are considering the pros and cons of retirement – ?”
He nodded. Taking in the room, noting how ‘normal’ it all seemed, his gaze came back to Callie.
“I know you are evaluating when you might possibly leave your…position?”
He knew this technique well, making statements that were actually questions, and then pausing so long you had to fill in the silence. Used to make him mad when his boss did it – sounded so damn know-it-all. Never knew how to handle it then. Didn’t know now.
“Have you thought about what you and June might do, where you might go, if you did take retirement now?”
This was a real question. Demanded – deserved – an answer. He looked into her eyes and said “Yes, I have.”
He was not prepared for the effect these three words had on her. Callie recoiled as if she had been slapped! She put one hand up to her face, and held it there, while she righted herself in her chair with the other hand.
Leaning forward, eyes fixed intently on his, she spoke slowly. “What if you walked into your office and told them that you were leaving now because you had more important things to do with your life? What would happen?”
Wonderful scenarios immediately came to him – travel, boats, wind, hot sunshine, sunsets on the water, sunrise on deck, insects humming, birds singing, fragrant flowers, Monet landscapes, sitting with June, talking about their lives together while sipping cool drinks, sending emails to the poor miserable chaps at work who were stuck there at their desks, having to put up with bureaucratic crap, never feeling appreciated, knowing precisely how a thing should be done with no one to listen or care…yes, YES, YES! It felt wonderful just to think about it!
Callie reached out and took his thick hairy hands in hers. (Callie’s hands were so like June’s dainty hands, not painted up claws like those women at the office had.)
“Honor. Obligation. Responsibility.” She allowed these words to sink in. “I know these are very important to you. But I have never had such a strong feeling as I am having at this moment that you would be very smart to quit your job today and get started realizing your dreams! If you do, I see these next six months as being the best of your life!”
Six months later, at the Colonel’s funeral, June held on to Callie’s arm. “I don’t know what you told him that day he came to you, but when he got home he was like a new man! He called the office and told them to pack up his things and mail them to him, and then he put the house up for sale! We found a buyer in two days and bought a small yacht that afternoon. We lived every day of the next six months to the fullest. He was the happiest I have ever seen him! He had quit smoking (“Don’t need ’em!”) and had lost weight. Did you tell him to do that? I know when he got home from your place he said there was no need to see a doctor. Said you told him the best of his life was ahead of him…”
Callie said, “When he opened his mouth to speak, June, the cancer shot out at me like a huge black tongue! It almost knocked me off my chair. I knew he wouldn’t want to die in a hospital bed, lingering for the few months he had left. And so – God help me! – I sent him on a six-month adventure!”