The Watcher



She noticed his hair first. White, clean, parted and perfectly combed. He seemed to be showing it off to the other men in the room, most of whose hair could be pressed in place with a dampened palm.

His eyes were blue, accentuated by the blue knit shirt carefully tucked in behind a modest brown leather belt holding up crisply pressed khaki slacks. His shoes were out of sight, hidden by the back of her chair where she draped her jacket. But surely, they were the same brown leather as his belt. The rest of him was too well put together for them not to be.

This man spent time in front of a mirror over his bathroom sink and in front of another full length one hung behind his bedroom door. This type of attention to detail had to be checked over – at least twice.

Alice looked away before he glanced up to see her taking him in.

She could sense when someone was about to catch her watching. A good watcher needs to know when to avert her eyes and feign interest in something or someone else. A good watcher mentally records the observations that will later be written down. Not in note form, but complete long thoughts converted to equally long sentences, written on a yellow legal pad, later when there is time to pour it all out.

It is then that Alice will sink into the details of what has caught her eye and begs to be orderly spread across the blue lines of the paper. Her ballpoint pen must feel the soft bed of layers of pages stacked in the pad to better hold her words in the pressed grooves of writing. When the bottom of the page is reached, Alice tears it off and finishes her sentence on the back side, careful to write and circle the number 2 at the top.

Later when she is satisfied with her “story” as it has raced through sheet after sheet, she will turn the stack over and read through them to make adjustments.

But today she is just getting started.

The white-haired, blue-eyed man was not there to make friends or greet old ones. He was there to be noticed. He could only go so long without eyes upon him and every so many minutes would interrupt the meeting to draw attention and apologize for being a bother.

Alice thought about his need to be noticed. Was it all about ego or was it simply loneliness? She thought it was the latter and went from annoyance with his actions to sympathy. The white-haired, blue-eyed man must simply be lonely.

Elderly single men who have either annoyed previous companions or watched them die off are rarely equipped with the ease their wives had for making new friends. Being chatty and showing interest in someone else was what women do. Not men who, once retired, have little to talk about.

This was Alice’s conclusion after years of watching and listening.

Of course, if he was a golfer, he would say something about golf, and get a conversation going. Same if he was a fisherman. Problem was that he would need another golfer or fisherman to have that exchange of words that lead to stories that lead to meeting up later to keep it going. To make a friend.

Here in this small retirement village, there was too much diversity of backgrounds. And too many men with wives who they depended on to listen. Why start over telling your story when you already had someone that was well-equipped to fill in when lapses of memory occurred and when details were needed to make something clearer.

In a way that is kind of what Alice does. She fills in all the gaps between actual observations with her own imagination. It is a way to fill her time. Words on a page are the physical evidence that she cared enough about something she saw or heard. And it held her attention, not only long enough to get it on a page, but also be developed into a narrative. One she could easily title, access, and read aloud to herself again and again to get lost in the telling.

Lost in her stories is the place Alice most likes to be. Anyone she ever observed, no matter how incredibly boring in reality, became a person she could turn into someone she wanted to spend time with. Over time she had made up many companions worth her time and attention. Some days when she needed them most, Alice would pour herself a scotch, raise her glass in a toast to the rustling of pages and to the people in them that kept her company.

Some of the women she knew sought out the company of others by joining organizations, going to meetings, or watching stories on the television. Anything to not feel the “aloneness” their lives could have if they didn’t keep involved in something outside themselves.

Not Alice. She loved her own company. Having to sit quietly through the time it took to appear to others like someone she wasn’t, was more time than Alice had to give. Well, more than she wanted to give, anyway.

So here she is. At her desk, with a paused pen as she considers the white-haired, blue-eyed man.

Surely, he was single. There is no wife who would have said, “Comb your hair before you go out, dear.” No, that detail of every hair in place is self-inflicted and takes time. Too much time for a shared mirror.

So, what does this man do with his days?

Well, once a week he goes to the grocery store and moves slowly down each aisle, sure that at least three women have looked him up and down. And if they haven’t, he will quietly seek advice on the freshness of produce from a nicely dressed lady sorting through the peppers. From her he can take away a kind smile along with whatever she gave him in conversation.

On Tuesdays he goes to the library. Always at 2 in the afternoon. First, he returns the book he took out the week before. Then he will slowly inch his way down the shelves of mysteries, make a selection, and carry the book back to a table in view of the front door. He will read only the first chapter between glances up to see who might be coming in. When he gets to the second chapter he closes the book and goes to the front desk to show his card to the librarian, who calls him by name. He relishes this bit of familiarity as he tucks his mystery under his arm and heads out the door and back home.

On other days of the week, weather permitting, he will take long walks in the park, sit, and feed the birds the crumbs from stale bread he brings along.

Fridays are reserved for lunch out at one of two small restaurants in town. Like the librarian, the waitresses from both places call him by name as they gesture to his usual table. He orders his weekly hamburger with fries and shakes out his newspaper to read while he waits.

Soon he will forget all about himself and how he looks to others as juices drip from his chin to the obituary page.

Here Alice pauses again.

Should the white-haired, blue-eyed man read of a neighbor’s passing? No, she thinks it best to not kill anyone off in her make-believe ramblings. It’s a small enough community as it is and having someone die off will add a sadness to her story that she will have to tell herself about again and again.

The dripping hamburger juices make her smile, and she leaves him alone and pleased with himself that none has dripped onto his shirt.

So what else can this man do with his time that Alice can put on paper?

He won’t have a dog. A dog requires effort and an emotional attachment that Alice is sure the man couldn’t handle. But a cat! A stray that has taken up residence under his back porch. Yes, a cat is good. Especially an old one that maybe, just maybe, the white-haired, blue-eyed man will miss when one day leads to another where it has not come to the door to look pleadingly for a handout.

But until then Alice thinks the man should have one small thing other than himself that he seems concerned about.

By now Alice has gone through most of her imaginings about the white-haired, blue-eyed man. She stops writing and puts her pages in order. And reads.

What she sees in her words is a man she doesn’t much care for. The fact that she didn’t even bother to give him a name is evidence of how little else she would like to know about him. To be fair she reads through her pages one more time and concludes there is simply nothing more to him.

Here on paper is what she saw in a man who caught her eye and briefly her imagination. She had done all she could with what little he inspired. So she folded the sheets, stuffed them into an envelope and wrote #37 in the upper right hand corner. Opened the drawer and placed it behind the others. Maybe later this week she will watch a #38. If not, maybe the week after.

Alice ran her hand over the other envelopes and paused at #17. She lifted it out and laid it on her desk. Then poured herself a scotch and smiled as she carefully pulled out the pages to spend some time with another man.


The end


She stood in a patch of sun, away from the shrubbery and flower beds. Bare feet in the grass, eyes closed, and arms wrapped across her chest.


“Not now.”

Lillian stood here every day that the sun shined, and always around noon. She stood to face the direction of her decreasing shadow and watched it move closer to her feet. Once it slipped under her, she closed her eyes and held herself.

It is a ritual of remembering – by gathering herself into the precious, private place of memory. Once her eyes closed, her mind opened a door to one, and only one, thing that had happened some time before.

It was a test of her recall and concentration abilities. It was a brief and deliberate attempt to stay in touch with the past while being firmly planted in the now.

Her memory for today had been carefully selected while eating breakfast in her room. It was a quick choice using very few words. Nothing more, so as not to spoil the story coming at mid-day.

These encounters with her past gave Lillian a place of belonging in the midst of adjusting to new surroundings.

What do they call these places anyway? Nursing Homes? Care Centers? Assisted Living Facilities? Whatever the name, it was now ‘home’ to Lillian. And it wasn’t so bad. She had a nice room, comfortable bed, recliner with a stack of books nearby, artwork on the walls, a television to remind her of the world beyond these walls and mattered little to Lillian. She kept it turned off and after a while, decided to hang a patchwork quilt over the dark hole it created at the foot of her bed.

Lillian’s clothes, towels and bed linens were changed and laundered weekly. The clothes were brought back to be hung and placed in drawers. She would have liked to iron them. It was the one chore she loved doing but was denied. Handling a hot iron was dangerous, an accident waiting to happen in the hands of the elderly. Still, she missed it.

And often after a staff member hung the clean clothes back on their hangers, smiled politely and left, Lillian would take them off the hangers one by one and lay each in turn on her table to smooth with gentle strokes of her palm before putting them back in the closet.

Maybe tomorrow if the sun was shining, she would remember the ironing. With all the irons and ironing boards she had used. How she started with the left front sleeve of a shirt to get it flat and move the iron over to the shoulder before flipping the shirt over to repeat on the right side. Oh! And locating the inseams of pants to match up with outer seams and holding them all together to work the iron from ankle to waist. Stop! Mustn’t use tomorrow’s memory up today. Todays has already been chosen.

And it would be spent with the dry red sands of the Australian outback and how it felt drifting through her fingers.

Lillian is there now as she holds herself and remembers. Remembers the bending down to put the vastness of the view out of sight and focus on her dust-covered shoes and what she was standing on. Tufts of dry grass, small stones, an interesting stick… Some of it found its way into her pocket to be carefully drawn in a sketchbook later. After looking around the horizon for the graceful waving of a Eucalyptus tree to photograph, Lillian closed her eyes to the outback, held her arms tight to her sides and breathed it all in, pulling the sounds of birds, rustling leaves and calm deep inside to a hollow kept for the best. Later in her life it would be carefully brought out to think about and smile at before going back down deep, waiting to be needed in the times of longing yet to come.

And today was one of those times. Here in the sun Lillian was smiling as she turned slowly around, opened her arms, and gently released the memory to a shadow beginning its journey away from her.

The end


The Sock Drawer


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.

The end

Loose Threads

On the second Thursday of every month a small group of women come together to visit and work on their hand sewing projects. It began as a social gathering with the stitching giving them something to keep their hands busy while they caught up on one another’s news. Early on these meetings would take place at the community center but now, with only five remaining, it is simpler to take turns going to one another’s houses.

Today is Dora’s turn. All she needed to do was tidy up a bit, get George out of the house before everyone showed up and arrange chairs around the dining room table. Once the others arrived, serve tea or coffee and lay out her platter of homemade scones. Easy enough.

Maybe one of the girls will ask for her recipe. Maybe no one will. If someone did ask then it could mean that the scones were actually good and she’d make them again. George ate anything put in front of him so it was hard for Dora to know one way or another if what she created in the kitchen was worth the effort.

It was easier before George retired. Dora only had to think of making coffee and toast, a quick sandwich for herself, then late in the afternoon cook some chicken or red meat with mashed potatoes and a canned vegetable. Now it seemed all day, every day was spent in the kitchen trying to fill George up. Her only opportunity to try something different, be creative, was when she hosted the sewing group.

One time Dora tried a quiche. She liked the word. It sounded sophisticated. So she looked up a recipe and included some of her own ingredients to the frozen pie crust. It wasn’t as good as she thought it would be. Maybe the half can each of cream corn and green beans were too much to add to the cheese, egg, spinach and ham that the recipe called for. Later in the kitchen scraping the plates, Dora assumed it must have been the green beans clinging to a wet pie crust that was the reason no one asked for her recipe. Maybe today her scones with just a small amount of crushed corn flakes worked in and served with a rosemary flavored honey butter would be a better offering.

All of the women in the sewing group were over sixty-five, some unwilling to share how much over sixty-five but it was easy enough to tell who was the oldest. Margaret.

Stocky and firm-footed in her sensible low-heeled shoes, Margaret commanded attention just entering the room. There was something ex-military looking about her although she never served in the armed forces. She wore dresses, no slacks, and certainly no jeans. Her dress was covered with an apron as though she was going to take over household chores wherever she went. She looked a person in the eye when they were talking so as not to miss anything. Many don’t do that. They will find a spot close to the right or left of the speaker’s face to focus on and wait for a pause so they can reply quickly and move on to wherever it was they were hoping to take the conversation.

Margaret liked being the elder of the group. Others listened to her when she spoke and would often seek out her opinions if not her company. She kept her distance and sent signals that she preferred it that way. Needless chit chat annoyed her and she would have left the group long ago had she not realized that this was her one and only social occasion with any regularity.

The book club was too demanding. Who would want to read a book you knew you wouldn’t like?

She was the only one to ask that question out loud last year and took offence when they suggested reading it might broaden her horizons. Her horizons were just fine where they were, thank you very much! Margaret left her copy of the book in question behind when she suddenly remembered she needed to be somewhere else and left.

When Margaret’s husband passed away she stopped going to church and singing in the choir. What was there to sing about now!

Her neighbors stopped dropping in to see how she was doing.

“How are you, Margaret?”


No need to say more. So she didn’t and the neighbors went back home.

For now it came down to the sewing group being the only place left for Margaret to have a conversation. It was ideal actually. If Margaret did not want to be chatty and answer a question she could pretend she was concentrating on her stitching until one of the others filled the gap. Women are like that, unable to leave much in the way of empty spaces.

When the sewing group had more members, the women all talked at once. Now with only the five of them it was mostly Charlotte filling in the pauses. Margaret found this irritating and tended to tune out the sound of Charlotte’s voice. Why couldn’t that woman simply be quiet for a bit longer and let someone else pick up the slack?

Charlotte was simply too cheerful. She smiled. She laughed. She wore bright colors. And once Charlotte got her needle threaded she jabbed it through patch after patch of hideously bright-colored scraps of cloth until she had enough to cut out one of her doll forms that the following month would be brought in for all but Margaret to appreciate. Charlotte called them her “Happy Dolls”. Of course she did.

Her dolls took a simple form. They were loosely stuffed so that the outstretched arms could be curved around a person’s neck if they wanted or needed to feel an embrace. Margaret could in no way imagine grasping the hands of these garish little creatures and pulling it close enough to have its arms around her neck. To do that her mouth would be against a red-stitched smile with button eyes looking into hers. Ghastly!

Being on guard to not hurt Charlotte’s feelings was challenging but necessary if Margaret wanted to continue coming to the sewing sessions. So when the latest Happy Doll was passed around Margaret gave a quick nod to Charlotte and handed it off for Emily’s appreciation.

Emily brushed the crumbs from her fingers and took the Happy Doll. She loved it! The cheerful pinks and blues all held together with hand stitching. Charlotte had even put a row of small buttons down the front and a bit of lace around the doll’s neck. Emily could hardly wait to feel the arms around her own neck and pulled the doll to her.

The women went silent and watched out of the corner of their eyes as one lone tear rolled down Emily’s cheek. Charlotte was quick to tell her that she should take the doll home. There were more than enough to donate to the Care Center and it would make no difference if this pink and blue one found a different home. Emily smiled back and quickly stuffed the Happy Doll deep inside her tote bag. Picking up a strand of embroidery floss, Emily concentrated on threading her needle and gave herself over to memories of other dolls and small-armed hugs around her neck.

The silence was broken by Vera clattering her way through the back door with her dog in tow. No one minded Vera bringing fat old Suzette along with her. They all felt sorry for the weepy-eyed French poodle with painted nails. Truth be told it is hard to tell who they felt sorrier for, Vera or her dog.

The two of them on their own near the center of town in a large old house with beautiful gardens and a well-kept lawn surrounded by a high iron fence. Vera’s daughter wants her to move into an assisted living complex where they are prepared to care for the impending needs of her mother’s age and diagnosis of declining health. Vera is going nowhere until Suzette passes. Then, and only then, will she think about it. This determination on the mother’s part resulted in more regular visits from the daughter…a solid win for the mother.

Vera pulls out the dog’s pillow and puts it under her chair where Suzette settles into a snoring, wheezing slumber. She considers the scones on the table but pulls out her sewing instead. First she lays out a palette of threads with each color looped through one of the holes circling the edge. Once these are given a quick shake and laid aside she retrieves the cross stitch pattern of a French window and door with cascading blooms that fall from a vine crawling up the wall. Out comes the half-finished cloth stretched in an embroidery hoop. And finally her perfect little needle case and embroidery scissors. These last two items were actually bought in France several years ago when the widowed Vera was emerging from a deep state of grief with the help of a new companion who bought them for her.

Now everyone is here. Polite inquiries have been extended and noted.

Not one of them is thought of as a friend by any of the others. They see each other only in this setting of refreshments, dining rooms, and the sewing that acts as a barrier to their private lives and thoughts. Yet each one of these women cling to the ritual of coming together once a month to share a space where they can be in the company of others who desire the same thing….the sound of women’s voices muffled by cloth to retreat into how things could, and used to be.


The end