On this Day
One day--it was a momentous day if truth be told--Arnold took the streetcar home from work, and his life changed in two ways. Earlier, he’d joined the Navy, anxious to go to war for his country, to fight the good fight, despite its being a controversial war at best. Nevertheless, it was his choice--a decision made with much deliberation as was Arnold’s way.
Bigger than the war, though, was the moment when he saw this girl step up from the sidewalk of St. Charles and Jackson, onto that streetcar, the very one he was on. It was like a canon went off—kaboom! His books slid from his hands as he watched her, thinking she was positively radiant, and why oh why had he just decided he had to be on some old ship rather than right next to this girl for the rest of his life? Time slowed. Sensing his scrutiny, she turned her cheek, a peach of a cheek, to dimple sweetly at him.
On any other day, Arnold might have been content to simply sit and watch and dream about her, but this was no ordinary day and he knew it. Straightening his shirt—his favorite blue plaid shirt he was now glad he had worn—he picked up his books off of the floor, one by Twain, the other by Dumas, and made his way over to the girl, not noticing that he’d left his a slim book of poetry under the seat—the moderns, Eliot and cummings, his newest discovery. As he walked down the aisle and stood by her side, Arnold felt bold and sure.
“Hiya, you mind if I sit here?” he asked. And when she smiled at him and scooted over, he was done for. Just done for.
As the tracks clacked beneath them and the warm wind blew in from the window, Arnold wasted no time telling this girl all that he thought, the words pouring out of him like he was a poet. For once in his life.
He told her that he thought she was the prettiest girl he’d every laid eyes on and he was leaving soon and would she come have a soda with him at the Katz and Besthoff--that he didn’t think he could go on if she said no. But she said yes. And when the bell dinged to signal a stop, they stepped off of the streetcar, together.
Over the next few weeks, all by all and deep by deep, Arnold fell in love. He courted this girl, Millie was her name, by offering her gifts of flowers—gerbera daisies and dahlias and asters—and books—delicate volumes of Wordsworth and Keats and Byron—and taking her for walks—Audubon Park and Magazine St. and Jackson Square. He noted and listed each moment in an old leather journal so he would remember it always.
In turn, she showed Arnold her life, walking him around town, her soft arm through his, narrating the moments--here is where I used to play after school, and here is my church where I used to ring the bells, and here is where I found a kitten, and here is where my grandmother is buried. And here and here and here.
Here, she told him balancing carefully on a ramp of broken concrete, her small feet rocking back and forth, here is where I flew! Her arms stretched out and moved up toward the sky. She smiled shyly and said, “Just for a moment though—I thought I was running so fast that I could fly. But then,” and she laughed and pouted prettily, “I fell down and got a black eye.”
After that confession, he felt that he knew her story, everything he needed to know anyway. Kissing her under the streetlight by her house later, he could no longer tell whether life was real or fairytale.
Days extended before him lovingly, and time seemed to ease into long quiet ticks, as Arnold walked with Millie, memorizing each freckle on her face, every smile she sent his way, as well as the buckling sidewalks, gnarled oak trees, and all of the churches and their many floating bells down.
“Wait for me,” he asked.
“Mere months,” he pleaded, when they said their goodbyes at the bus station, he in his uniform, holding a dense duffle bag and looking surprisingly dashing.
“Yes,” she said again, and they held each other for the longest time, so long, in fact, that they looked like a snapshot. A curvy dark-haired girl with green eyes, clinging to a young man in a sailor suit. And you were certain upon watching them that there was no way they would not be together again.
But they were not.
Poor Arnold, an innocent, was harder hit than most by the ravages of war and then, out of nowhere, also hit by the cruelty of love, whose pain is worse than a bullet. While he was away, Millie’s family moved suddenly from New Orleans. They took her far from him, and placed her in the path of another man who was present and persistent and who drew her attention away from her absent beau, just long enough to convince her to marry him. And that’s how stories go sometimes, not as you would imagine or like them to go.
When Arnold received the letter from Millie, which detailed kindly and with regret how she was no longer his, and that she was so very sorry—she’d married another—he turned over in his bunk and wept. Silently, for it would not do for the others to hear him, no, not at all. All he could do was fold and unfold the letter over and again, finally shoving it into the journal he’d kept, the story of Millie, and the silly, now ridiculous, poems he’d written to her. Both journal and paper he stowed in the deep pocket of his duffel. As the days went on, he would compulsively stash pieces of paper or trash or anything at all in that same pocket without even knowing why. He tried, without success, to erase from his memory every moment he’d spent with Millie, for it was too painful to ponder. But from this day on, he felt smaller somehow. Diminished.
Like an ant on a log, he would stand at the bow of the ship and stare out at the endless sea. Men walked by and around him, busy with the business of the day, yet he could only manage what was required and no more, preferring to stand there, at the edge of the ship, as it carried him forward purposefully, where nothing at all awaited.
Finally returning home, he found the city was not the same. It was different and the people were too—buildings had risen like weeds, and small clusters of people had turned into crowds. And those people were not kind to returning soldiers. He could not understand why. Now in this place, he felt as though he were swaying, still on the ship. More than that, life felt hollow—a wasteland—because Millie was no longer in it.
He managed to make a small life for himself, although it was a quiet and lonely one. He bought a house in the Marigny, a skinny slip of a house, which was as purple as Katz and Besthoff itself. Spring, summer, autumn, winter came, yet he hardly noticed the change.
Arnold found work at the library. Loaning books out and getting them back seemed right to him. Patrons going and coming, books leaving and returning. Falling into a routine, safe and the same--stopping for coffee in the morning, then work, a beer afterward, and then home, until more by more, he made it through the days, the weeks, the months and the years. He wore what was easy, a uniform of white shirts and black pants, and kept to himself, finding comfort only in the pages of books. Only, no poetry, neither old nor new, no love stories either, but anything in between. He collected and surrounded himself with books, as if he could hide in other people’s stories.
Oh, every once and again, he would meet someone, pause, and consider letting them into his world, like the nice woman he worked with—but no. The moment passed and because she seemed sadder and more faded than even he, he decided, no. The thought was frightening to him, to open himself up to someone who might leave again—the risk was too great. Much safer this way. Alone. The neighborhood cats were his friends.
There was the girl at the coffee shop; she reminded him of his Millie with her dark hair and green eyes. Always gentle with him, she treated him like a real person, said, Hello Arnie, how’s your day going, and Is there anything else I can get you and such. She kindly didn’t mention a thing when she saw him slip used sugar packets and old wrappers in his pocket every day after sitting down for longer than he ought, well after his cup had been emptied. Like a squirrel, he had taken to collecting things until little by little and one by one, his house filled with stuff and junk and trash, the walls moving in closer, so that he felt protected.
Thoughts of Millie eventually became vague recollections, and only once a year, on that day, Arnold would retrace his steps, carrying the same two books—the Twain and the Dumas, but no poetry, not anymore—and ride the street car alone, and drink a soda at the Katz and Besthoff, just because it seemed like he should, which made him both happy and sad, riding along with his memories, if only for the day.
The days flew by, and sun, moon, stars, rain, forty years passed and Arnold grew old, an entire life behind him. You would hardly notice this drab thin man, in a yellowing shirt and baggy worn pants, as he took one book after the other and slowly slid them into their proper spots on the shelf. People came and went, both patrons and coworkers, and to Arnold they seemed like flashing scenes on the shore as if he were on a ship sliding by. Only once did he feel a pang of strong emotion, when they made his poor friend retire. She was mad, he could tell, and he tried to convey sympathy as he patted her arm, which was all he could muster.
After all of these years, his life looked the same. More by more, he had worn a path from his home to his work, back and forth, forth and back. The outside of the house had turned from purple to gray, miles and piles of junk covering the front lawn and back, and there were only two sad cats to be found. The inside of his house was all secret stuffed boxes and perilous stacks upon stacks so tightly packed in over time that Arnold now had to squeeze himself through just to get in. He buried himself alive in a way, insulating himself against the cruelty of time and the world.
One hazy morning, he awoke to a formal quiet and to a day that felt as different as a new pair of shoes. Arnold stepped out of his house, onto his porch, and into the street, expecting the solid silence to explode.
Saying his nevers, for today was that day, he walked through the memory again, past the church and the streetlight, the streetcar stop and the park, until balancing on that ramp of concrete as if it were the edge of a cliff, Arnold decided right then and right there that this would be the last time he came on this ridiculous pilgrimage. He looked at the thick, ragged journal, determined to throw it away.
Spindly trees waved at him as he made his way to work, toting his journal and his sadness. When he waited on the top step of the library for someone to unlock the front doors, suddenly and surprisingly, he felt compelled to stand up—driven to move for no reason at all. A cool breeze blew through him as he stood on that spot, and he watched an old woman in a pale blue dress walk up the sidewalk, heading his way, slowly at first and then faster and faster. Small feet in red shoes climbed the steps and she stopped right before him, mere inches away.
Arnold considered that she might be a dream or an angel, for this woman stood so very still, with green eyes not dimmed with age and a smile not diminished by time, and freckles that he knew one by one and each by each. She began speaking, and he knew for once and all that she was real.
In a voice softened by age, she explained that she’d done this and done that, really nothing much at all. I’ve lived away for so long, she said, “Philadelphia, then Boston.” Her eyes shone as she said, “One child, a boy. And a grandson as well.” Then, her head dropped, her voice a whisper, as she told him that her husband had died. She touched Arnold’s arm, held on to it and explained how she’d never stopped thinking of him. The words poured out, and her eyes pleaded with Arnold, as she explained what had happened there, and not here.
The pain blew away like so many leaves in the wind. All that was left was all that he heard, that she’d lived very far away, but had come back, and could he forgive her, and could he come away with her now, she was so afraid he’d say no. But he said yes.
He forgave her for leaving and living, and as a token, handed over the journal, the story of them and then not them. She turned the pages, and tears fell from her eyes as she realized how his life, like an old wheel, had rusted and slowed to a stop. And there they stayed for the longest long time. The world swirled around them, around Arnold and Millie, and tree by leaf and when by now, time finally breathed in and breathed out, as Arnold noted the blue in the sky and the green in the grass, for she was here once again.
So Arnold disappeared one day like others before him, walking away from his job and his life as he knew it. Certain that no one would realize he was gone anyway. Not the cats or the neighbors or even the city itself. After all, it was if he had never been there. On the morning he left, he had one last coffee and waved to the girl like it was any day, only it wasn’t. He threw his trash in the bin, not his pocket and gave the book he was reading to a stranger sitting next to him. Then, he walked with a skip in his step to the streetcar.
There she was waiting, pretty as ever, small valise in one hand, and in the other her hat, standing on the smooth sidewalk of St. Charles and Jackson, ready to get on with their life as he was too. With the ring of a bell, from streetcar to train, from city to state, until far and away, to her world, they traveled and talked and loved one another again. And that’s how some stories end, like you’d never expect, where people do live happily ever after even if no one knows it but them.
By Reine Dugas Bouton
Reine Dugas Bouton lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. She received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of New Orleans and her Ph.D. from the University of Southern Mississippi. Her areas of expertise include Modern American and British literature, travel writing, southern literature, and composition and rhetoric. She has published in Deep South, Big Muddy, and Dead Mule School of Literature. She teaches at Southeastern Louisiana University and is currently working on a novel.