Fred was taking it slow this morning. And why not? He had time and lots of it. Minutes go by so slowly and yet months and years disappear rather quickly. Why is that, he wondered. It must be an age thing. He turned eighty-four just last week and had already shoved the occasion into last year’s and the one before that.
Birthdays were a day to eat cake. A good slice of layered chocolate cake from the bakery. Then sit quietly at a table near the window with a cup of hot black coffee to go with it and look out at the people walking by. How many years of birthday cakes had they had, how many were chocolate, and when did they stop having someone bake one especially for them?
One week later he is standing before the bathroom mirror in his shorts and t-shirt. He looks pretty much the same as last week except now there is a stubbly start of a beard. Fred had decided a few days ago that shaving was no longer a necessary.
He used a straight edge razor for years. The kind with a swivel head that followed the contours of his changing jaw line. He liked lathering up with all that white foam that disappeared with each swipe of the blade, taking away those bits of hair that seemed to only grow while he slept. Then someone, likely his daughter, thought he should try an electric razor, the kind that buzzed along on dry sagging skin, lifting and shoving his face in all directions while sucking the hair into some hidden compartment within.
But shaving that way didn’t do a proper job. Not like his straight edge Gillette razor. So he tried going back to the old razor only to find that he was sticking bits of tissue to tiny cuts that bled even though he wiped some spit onto them. Shit! Why bother? And besides, those pesky hairs that grow on the tops and sides, and often inside the nose and ears don’t show so much with a face full of hair. It was a smart decision.
Back in the bedroom, Fred opens his sock drawer and reaches in. When Emma was alive, she sorted his socks not only by pairs but how worn or discolored the socks being sorted looked. Then she’d lay out one flattened sock with the heel off to the right. When she found another that matched it in size and worn-ness she placed it on top, then folded the two in half to be put aside while she did the same to the next sock to come from the pile. Emma showed Fred how to do this for when he might be faced with the laundry when she went off to help their daughter or just to get a bit of traveling in.
Emma liked going places, especially by herself. An old lady alone invites kindness. Doors are opened, smiles are offered, and extra time is given when she’s trying to decide what to order for lunch. And best of all there is no one else’s wishes that need to be considered. She could go to a movie, a museum, look in the shops, whatever she felt like doing Emma could do. And once back home she could tell Fred all about it, stretching her little adventures even further.
Fred tried, maybe once, to match his socks the way he was shown, but found it easier to simply put two together and make a loose overhand knot with the “pair”. He only had to put his hand in the drawer, and without looking, reach around until he had a fistful of softness. But today there were not any balled up, knotted socks in the drawer. This meant only one thing. It was time to do some laundry. And it also meant that he had more t-shirts and shorts than he had pairs of socks. That just did not seem right. Either he or Emma had not been paying attention to the dwindling number of socks.
One last stretch into the back of the drawer and he felt it! The last pair of socks that Emma had carefully matched up. Good. Once out and separated, Fred laughed out loud and sat down on the bed. This pair of socks were the ones Emma had stitched eyes onto, just an inch or so up from the ends. These were the “say what’s on your mind” socks.
Emma came up with the idea. When they were headed toward harsh words of anger, frustration, hurt feelings, whatever, these socks were for her and Fred to put on with the thumb catching into the heel while the fingers stretched out into the toe of the sock. Two haphazardly stitched eyes were meant to glare at each other while statements were made and acknowledged as the puppet socks opened and closed their silly, complaining mouths or were held tight in a sneer or frown while the other sock talked. And as Emma had intended, they would both end up giggling at the absurdity of such arbitrators of disagreement.
Fred smiled to himself and put a sock on each hand.
“Hi Em. I miss you.”
“Same here, Fred.”
It went like that for the next half hour. Fred and Emma talking to each other as he sat there on the bed in his underwear, elbows resting on his knees.
They caught up on all the news. She told him how surprised she was who was up there with her. Some of them both her and Fred were sure were headed for the other place. But here everyone was kind. It was a nice place.
Fred asked what she thought of him growing a beard. She approved; said he’d fit right in when the time came. He told her how their daughter and grandchild were getting along. But she already knew that.
Emma asked how his birthday went. He said same as last year and the one before that, dark chocolate cake at the bakery. Emma laughed and said it was hard to get devil’s food cake up there. Most everyone had developed a taste for angel food. They both laughed at that.
She told him it was a good thing he caught her early because soon she was going off by herself for a few days. Yes, it was a nice place to end up, but if talking eternity, a bit boring at times. And it was so easy to just catch a ride to somewhere else for a day or so. Fred made the unnecessary comment to stay safe.
He told Emma he was going to count his shorts and t-shirts before going to the store to make sure that he bought enough new socks to keep the counts even. And promised to only wear these particular socks today. Tonight, he’d wash them carefully by hand and put them together the way she had showed him before sticking them back in the sock drawer. She smiled in approval. They both did.
They said their goodbyes and kissed each other before Fred took the socks off his hands and put them on his feet. Their eyes looked up at him while he put on his shirt and pants, then disappeared into his shoes.