Matthew's previous fiction has appeared in Mulberry Fork Review, Down in the Dirt Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Sobotka Literary Magazine. A short film he wrote and co-produced, I Would Kill for That, was recently named "short of the week" by The Script Lab. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
We Miss You, George
It was on an average Tuesday that forty-eight-year-old George Penderbrook decided to kill himself. It was as simple a decision for him as realizing he needed milk. Which, looking at the empty shelves of his fridge, he would need, had he not decided to end his life.
The morning of that fateful day there weren’t any notions in his head that it would be the last morning he would experience.
With the flannel of his pajama pants stretching off his gangly legs like thick, dripping honey, George sat at his small, round kitchen table, staring into the bowl of a silver spoon. As his chin contorted inside the reflection, he took inventory of the gray stubble that had begun to corrode his aging face. He sighed, plunged the spoon back into a large yogurt carton—cleansing it of the maturing images—and shoveled another vanilla-flavored mouthful down his throat. His gulp echoed in the solitude of the tidy but vacant one bedroom Astoria apartment he unwillingly called home. Each microwavable dinner, empty white space on the fridge, and fastidiously organized book, antique, and magazine were constant reminders he never married; he never had any kids.
It wasn’t always like this, rattled inside his mind. It was an unfortunate mantra he would tell himself every morning. Memories that reminded him of the elation he once felt made his present circumstance all the more oppressive.
He had been engaged to Mary. They had bought a house together just outside the city. She was putting her interior decorating passions to use making it the prettiest home possible. George held a prominent position at Connor, Christie & Associates as one of their top real estate agents. An improbable level of happiness had graciously ushered itself into his undeserving life.
As quickly as it came, it had all gone away. He tried everything he could to get over the losses; everything except moving on.
A picture of George and Mary rested in a frame, with edges worn by time, acting as the centerpiece of his scuffed kitchen table. Looking at the picture, his eyes dampened with reminiscence. “I’m sorry, Mary,” George mumbled to her still, smiling face. His morning ritual completed, George headed off to work.
“What do you think of those glasses?” a young couple asked George as he rung them up from behind Crate and Barrel’s cashier station.
Confused as to why anyone would want his opinion on such things, he paused briefly and ran a hand through his thinning hair. Looking at the small-stemmed wine glasses in front of him he said, “Um, these? Yes, these are popular. I ring these up all the time”.
The couple sighed with the relief of knowing they made the right decision. “I told you. They’ll be perfect for our housewarming,” the tall male said, smiling under his wire-rim glasses.
His female companion tugged on his sleeves. “Okay, I guess you were right,” she said, an adorable pout followed.
George wrapped the glasses in tissue paper, placed them in a white plastic bag, and handed them to the couple. They reminded him that he would go home alone, to no such promise of love, to no such hopeful thoughts of the future.
Their appreciative, youthful smiles lit up the entire store. Gripping their purchase, they traversed the sliding doors and vanished into the streets of Soho.
Four o’clock finally arrived, and George marched, with stooped shoulders, to the time clock in the break-room, the sole decoration on an otherwise empty slab of cement. He punched in his employee number to clock himself out for the day and waved goodbye to Chuck, the twenty-year-old college student who sat on the leather couch in the break-room during his ten-minute break.
Walking down Broadway, George pulled out his phone and checked his Facebook messages. There, companionless, remained a message he sent Mary last week: Mary… How are you? It’s been awhile, huh? This coming Tuesday, would you want to meet me at Café Reggio, where we had our second date (remember?) to say hi and talk about the old times? I don’t know if you still think about them at all. I do. I’ll be there at eight, either way. I hope to see you. Your “cowboy” from another life, George Penderbrook.
It was the first time in twelve years he’d reached out to her. Examining the message again caused his entire body to get warm with abashment in the chill of the early fall evening.
It wasn’t that he expected her to respond, but he wished she might. He wished there was still an ember of the ardor she used to enjoy. But Mary didn’t respond.
He’d attempted dating again, but the hard times that befell him were not the most alluring particulars to potential suitors. That’s what he told himself, at least. That’s how he talked himself out of situations where the other person was open to him.
He put the phone back into the pocket of his black dress pants and stood still, basking in his rejection. Glancing into the window of an H&M, George noticed the blank white faces of the female mannequins. They stood there without eyes, expressions, or feelings. George envied them; he wanted to escape the burden of feeling.
It was then, in the middle of Soho, surrounded by a cluster of pedestrian traffic, George tucked his chin into the collar of his dress shirt, studied the frayed laces of his shoes, and recognized he was living his final day.
Instantaneously, marvelously, George felt alive for the first time in over a decade. A new spring in his step, he ran back to Crate and Barrel and bought various sets of small-stemmed wine glasses for multiple couples who looked like they were in love, attempting to create a last-minute legacy.
Next on the fatal agenda was a proper meal. Hopping into a cab, he headed to the famed Ruth Christies. George loved steak and ordered a sumptuous rib-eye along with a bottle of the most expensive red wine the restaurant had to accompany it. The waiter nearly fainted from delight when he saw the tip George had left.
It was seven-thirty, a half hour before he could have reunited with Mary if he had had the good fortune of others. To thumb his nose at fate, George skipped down to Greenwich Village and headed to Café Reggio.
Peering in the window of the cafe, he saw couples that may have been on their second date like he once had been. It was a portal, a window into the past; he saw himself sitting at a rustic wooden table, a twenty-nine-year-old filled with optimism, sitting across from the girl of his dreams, asking her what a latte was. Happy to be living in that moment one last time, he smiled.
Returning home, he grabbed the picture that rested on his crumb-filled kitchen table and took it with him to his rented garage space behind the apartment.
Staring at his old Toyota Corolla, he finally knew the purpose of keeping it. A trip or two outside the city was the chief reason for ownership, but those were never taken, until that Tuesday when George finally left the city again.
With the garage door closed, George fatefully sat in the driver’s seat of his running Toyota. He waited for something to happen, anxious and hopeful for the great unknown. “All You Need is Love” played on the radio.
Clutching his photo, George smiled through tears as he helplessly drifted away from a life that plagued him.
Sitting in Café Reggio, Mary regretted being so impulsive. If one of her friends were to describe her, impulsive would only come up as an example of characteristics she did not possess. Sheepishly, she fiddled with her latte. Why did she have to be so cheesy and order a latte? George surely would not remember the drink she got on their second date. Why did she sit at the same table they sat on their second date? Foolish, she felt foolish.
Until two hours before her arrival at the café, she had brushed off his invitation as asinine. Life had become prosperous for her. It had given her what George promised, but stripped her of. Revisiting old wounds would only bring about new ones. It was for these reasons she could not reconcile the fact she stared at the door waiting for her old lover. Or the fact that she felt butterflies in her stomach akin to a first date.
With a careful tug at the hem, she smoothed out her green dress for the fifth time since sitting down. Wading out the seconds that felt like eternities until his arrival, she fidgeted with her gold necklace, slipped her wedding ring into her purse, took a sip of water to cool her drying throat, and crossed and uncrossed her hastily shaved legs.
So many questions traipsed into her mind. Questions she knew she would not have the courage to ask. The one that afflicted her most was: Why did you push me away?
After George lost his job, he became despondent, dark, and could not understand how Mary could still love him. He told her he knew she didn’t love him anymore. He knew she was unhappy with him. He knew he was no longer the man she thought he was. None of these were true. She loved George unconditionally, with prominence or defeat. He berated her with his self-professed inadequacies to the point she felt she was being ungrateful by not acknowledging them.
Leaving became her singular option. And so, she took it.
When anyone asked Mary if she had a one-who-got-away, she would smile fondly, think of George, and say no. He had invaded her thoughts less and less with each subsequent year, but had never disintegrated. She assumed with certainty, until the previous week, that she had forever escaped his mind.
There was a man standing in the street, gazing through the window with a full smile cemented on his familiar face. My God, that’s George, she said to herself, sitting up in preparation for a hopeful reconnection. Her palms started to sweat. She rubbed them back and forth on her dress. After using her cell phone camera to double check that her straight brown hair still fell gracefully over her right shoulder, she looked out the window again only to see the vastness of the West Village. Mary was confused; had he come in? The heels of her shoes created a staccato rhythm as she scurried to the glass door of the Café. Tiny gold bells above the door crashed together as she swung open the thick glass and peered into the street.
That familiar face had disappeared into a Yellow Cab across the street. “George! George! George!” she cried out seemingly to no one. After a moment, she slunk back to her table.
Staring out the window with astonished eyes, she reached into her purse and slipped her wedding ring back on. Her face still, tears jumped from her eyes, turning themselves into small puddles on the oak-stained wood of the table. If anyone noticed her crying, they made no mention of it.
She had gotten to watch him walk away this time. George was more vindictive than she ever thought. Satisfied with the fact she would still come after all these years, he left, feeling victorious over her. Mary felt her regret for having been so impulsive confirmed.
“How’s Kathy? Usual drama?” Stanley, Mary’s husband, said, greeting her with a kiss when she returned home.
“Usual drama.” A shaky smile followed her words.
“I feel inadequate as a parent. I can’t get Brian to understand division.”
“You’re probably explaining it at a CPA level, which a fourth grader might have trouble grasping.”
Stanley nodded that he was, in fact, guilty of lacking the ability for simplicity.
“He asleep?” she asked.
Stanley nodded again, indicating that he was. Mary saw that a Cabernet was open in the kitchen and went to indulge.
Remorsefully, she filled a wine glass and brought it to her lips. She sat at the white kitchen table Stanley insisted on buying, even though it blended in with the kitchen as if it was a chameleon hiding from a predator. I hate this table so fucking much!, she wanted to scream at Stanley. Instead, she took another lengthy sip, wiped her face with her hands, and crossed her arms.
“You look lovely. I love that dress on you. Go somewhere fancy?” Mary sighed. “Couldn’t get her to stop talking, huh?” Stanley said, leaning on the white counter.
Mary had walked around the West Village, alone, with George’s memory and her youth. Three hours had gone by before she returned to reality. “You know how she gets.”
Stanley acknowledged Kathy’s tendency for chatter with a sip of his wine.
Glancing at her Brooklyn Heights apartment, at her husband’s doting face, and at her life, she abruptly became sad. Did she arrive here because she wanted to or because she was lazy, hurting, and in desperate need of someone to accept her love?
The interior design company she was working toward while living with George was put on hold, with Stanley’s ardent encouragement, as she devoted the hours of her life to their son. She loved Brian more than anything, but didn’t see George’s eyes or his nose in her child like she once hoped she would. It was an abandoned want that unexpectedly leaped back into her thoughts.
As night fell into the early morning hours, Mary lay in bed under a beige comforter, replaying George’s cab’s departure. Stanley’s sleepy arm rose and fell over Mary, cuddling her.
It took a month. A whole month. A calendar page of innocence. Mary learned of what George had done through the glory of social media, which democratized the tragic news of people she once knew.
The tombstone was gray. It read: “George Penderbook 1968-2016. We miss you.” Fall leaves, painted with oranges and reds, danced onto Mary’s black boots. Her hands never left the pockets of her pea coat. They didn’t wipe away any of the tears that slid down her chilled cheeks. Her eyes never moved from his name, eternally carved into the granite.
“George…George. Jesus. I feel so foolish for being here. For talking to you. Well,” she chuckled to herself, “for talking to the air, really. For having any regrets. Why did you have to message me? I was happy. I was.” She licked her chapped lips. “And I was there. At the Café.”
The wind pushed her brown hair against the side of her face.
“So, a latte. It’s a common drink I sometimes order at coffee shops. It’s basically espresso and hot steamed milk,” she told him in as jocular a tone as she could muster.
Mary talked to George, unmoving, until the sun hid from the east, allowing the moonlight to keep her company. After once again beseeching his ghost to answer why he had reached out only to run away, she finally said, “Goodbye, George,” for the last time.
Key in the gold doorknob, she pushed the door of apartment 204 open.
“Mommy!” Brian called out as he launched himself at her, hugging her leg. “What’s six-hundred-and-seventy-two divided by twelve?”
She looked at her son’s beaming face and a perfunctory smile appeared on her lips. “I don’t know, honey, what is it?”
“Fifty-six!” Brian then ran to his room, chanting the number.
Stanley came over, took Mary’s coat, lovingly held her shoulders, and gave her a kiss. “So, how’s Kathy?”
“I did more of the talking this time.”
“I ordered from Dellarocco’s. Hope you’re hungry.”
She played with the red tie Stanley had hanging in front of his white dress shirt. “Yummy.”
Stanley was there, with all his imperfections, but he was there. And all Mary could think as she looked at him scurry around the kitchen as he set the table was, This should make me happy.