Joseph W Horton "Barb and Bill"

The Retirement Dinner

I’m surprised by the people who make an impression on me. It seems the oddest people are the ones who affect me most, make me think the most or inspire me to write out my thoughts. I get around quite a bit, though, so I meet a lot of interesting people.

Barb and Bill came in one day looking to get out of their car and into an SUV. “We need more room. I’m tired of getting down… having to lower myself into my car.” said Bill. I told him, “We can do that. Let’s look at this one over here.”

Bill was the head of the couple, the man of the house. He had a worn look, a little rough around the edges, and showing a few scars but seemed to always be on the edge of smiling. Even while negotiating the price of the new SUV, Bill wore a half smile that made me think he had learned it from watching John Wayne or Cary Grant. He spoke methodically, searching for the right word to use for the situation. “If I was willing to pay that much, Joe, I’d buy a … probably a Lincoln.” He spoke of the cancer that had invaded his brain and was making him ill, and how he would “probably die before the warranty runs out.” When he said that, Barb would slap at his shoulder and tell him to stop. “I don’t want to talk about that, Bill. It scares me.”

Barb was the life of the pair. Her voice was high-pitched and a little gravely from age, something like Edith Bunker, though much less annoying and much more endearing. There was no hesitation when she spoke. “I want a red one. I don’t know about engines and all that stuff. I want a red car.” She sat perfectly, legs crossed, sequined hat atop her head, her pale green skirt suit pressed but showing a small stain, and her golden cross dangling around her neck. She seemed to want to ignore the fact that Bill was on the slow downward spiral that cancer patients take. She loved Bill, and didn’t want to be without him.

We worked out the deal and they drove off happy with their new car (an SUV), a red one. Two days later, they were back saying that “the aerial on this car was terrible.” “ My AM stations don’t come in at all. They’re… distorted and… static… I mean.. They’re not clear enough.” Bill said. I told him I would get it looked at, would get one of our top mechanics to look at it.

When I came back from dropping the SUV in service, they were alone in the customer lounge talking. I decided I had a few minutes to sit with them, so I sat near Bill and watched Barb attempt to make two cups of coffee. “Do you want coffee, Joe? I’ll make it for you. Bill likes me to always make the coffee. Do you want some? I’ll make it for you.” she said in a flurry of words. “No. Thank you, though.” I said.

“The doctors tell me I’m going to make it, Joe. They say I’ll… recover, that I’m strong enough to pull through.” he said. He looked at me for what I assume was reassurance. “I don’t know what this dingbat will do when I’m gone, though.” He smiled at her, then me, then the floor. “I’ve lived long enough. I think it’s just my time to go.”

“I doubt that.” I offered, hoping not to sound rehearsed or patronizing. “It’s you ornery guys who live to be 105 years old and aggravate the piss out of the rest of us.” Bill and I laughed. Barb smiled and stared at the creamer making swirls in her coffee.

I remember that moment. It was the last time I saw Bill alive. Barb came down one Saturday to invite me to his funeral. “He fell and whopped his head on one of those stones in the front yard. You know those stones, like flagstones, stepping stones to lead from the driveway up to the house? He banged his head on one of those. I told him last year not to put those things in. They’re really hard. They’re made of concrete, ya know.” she said in another one of her flurries. A tense pause. “I miss him so much, Joe. I… Will you come to his funeral? It’s this Wednesday.”

I missed the funeral. I was told that I found things to do that day so I wouldn’t have to go there and see Bill lying in a casket or Barb weeping over him. Whoever said that was probably right. I felt selfish suddenly, as if I had betrayed Barb, and Bill.

Barb came back to trade in the SUV that she “never liked anyway” and got into a crossover, a small station wagon of a car that was much more to her taste. “This is what I would have gotten before if Bill didn’t always want things his way. I just wanted a red car. He wanted that truck thing. It’s hard to park. It’s big, Joe. And, the AM stations never came in very clear. Bill said they were staticy. Is that even a word? I don’t think it is.”

Last week, while I was doing nothing but making it seem like I was busy, I saw her sitting alone with the entire contents of her purse displayed on the small coffee table in the customer lounge. “They’ll let anyone in here, won’t they?” I asked her jokingly.

“Hi, Joe.” she said with a huge smile. “I’m here getting a tired looked at. They’re going to fix it so I can put the car on the Autotrain for my trip to Pennsylvania. I don’t want to drive that far. My rectum is bleeding from moving a Piano in the living room of my house. No one would help me move it.”

“Why would you do that, Barb? Soaking wet you’re only 100 pounds, what made you think you could move a piano?” I snapped. “And, there’s nothing worth seeing in Pennsylvania. Save your money and stay here in Florida. You can be here in the morning to make me coffee and make my day with that smile.”

“Aww. Bill always told me you’d take care of me if anything happened to him.” That shocked me a bit. That landed on my shoulders like a ton of bricks. I was flattered and mortified at the same time. “He said you were a good guy. He really liked you, Joe.” I suddenly felt even more selfish for missing his funeral.

“You’re leaving the state, though. How am I to take care of you?” I asked her. “When are you leaving?”

“I’m leaving tomorrow. I have to drive to Deltona to get on the train, but I’ll be pulling out about 11am tomorrow.” she replied. “I’m going home to see my grandbabies and my daughter.”

The conversation went on a few minutes more covering everything from her new credit card without Bill’s name on it, to the trip she and Bill took to Los Angeles, and finished with her telling me about Pennsylvania. I noticed her tiny hand was in mine, not remembering when it had happened. I had tried to listen to her, but the images and emotions that were enlivened by her words took front stage.

When the conversation died off sufficiently, I told her I would let her get back to her purse and sorting her affairs. Probably just another one of my excuses to escape the slap of reality, the sting of life. “Have a safe trip, Barb. Tell the little ones I said Hi.”

She gave me a look of disappointment as I walked away, “I don’t know how long I’ll be up there. I’ll see you when I get back.” she said through a pressed, crooked smile.

I walked back to my desk and sat down, wrestled with my cowardice, and decided to sit with her until she had to go. “Barb?” I said, as I walked across the showroom. “Barb? Barb?”

She was gone. She told me what part of Pennsylvania, but I forgot. I guess it doesn’t matter, though, someone up there is hearing a story about Bill and how she loved him, and how he whopped his head on a rock in the front yard, and how he used to want her to always make the coffee.

It’s strange the people who affect us. It’s stranger to know the people we seem to have affected.

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