Albert didn’t recognize half of the city he grew up in as they passed through it on the train headed north. When their children moved out, he and Karen had moved south, away from the streets flooded with cars and the mile-long grocery store lines. The city was a living organism, continuously changing, always growing. Inhaling the old, exhaling the new. What used to be a small, homely bookstore owned by Mrs. Keplan was now a tall skyscraper. The awfully nice old lady gave Albert his first job, peace be with her soul. The towering building looked like a copy of the one next to it, and the one next to that. As if they came straight off the production line. Yet, some things remained the same. Dellan’s Motors still stood, leaning slightly left in the same place, with the same rusty, out of order gas pumps. It was where he had seen Karen for the first time.
Albert and his high school friends were leaning against a dusty window, smoking, when Karen’s parents pulled their old Toyota into the parking lot. Karen had told them off for smoking near the gas pumps. She had reminded Albert of a magpie, in her black and white dress, shrieking at them. They told her not to worry, because there wasn’t any gas, to which she answered, “I still won’t be surprised if you’ve burnt this place down by the morning.” and left. That was it for Albert, he had loved her ever since.
“Do you know if big Del’s son is still running that place?” he asked her. She sat next to him, knitting a pair of socks for their grandson Alex.
“Sorry, what did you say dear?”
“Dellan’s? Is that boy, what’s his name? Big Del’s son, is he still running it?”
“Oh, I’m not sure. Madison did tell me a few years ago that both her kids were still living here, so he very well might be.” Albert nodded.
He stared out the window as the train sped past rows of houses that all looked the same. Along the tracks, powerlines crowded with birds stretched for miles. He couldn’t see what birds they were, which was a shame. They were all dark in colour and sat close together along the lines. It reminded him of the necklace his wife always wore, with black jewels on a silver chain. He looked over at her. She glowed. Her hair had gone white a long time ago, and her hands were barely anything but bones, yet she knitted on. It had to be the hundredth pair of green socks she had made for 3-year-old Alex, and they looked too small, but Albert didn’t say anything. He just watched. She must have noticed, as she put the knitting down and looked at him.
“Are the kids coming over for Christmas?”
“Yes, all three of them. And the grandkids,” he said.
“No turkey this year though.”
“I know, but we’ll manage,” Albert said.
They were driving past the graveyard. It was so full they had had to make one further out of the city. It was a hassle to get to, that one. Next to the graveyard was the masonry. Albert knew the man who ran the place, he was the first friend Albert made when he joined a birdwatching group a few months ago. Mr. Nelson, a nice man who should have retired years ago, but was too stubborn to do so. Outside, against the side of the building, five gravestones rested. Four carved, one uncarved. Albert thought it was nice how they were stood together. This graveyard was where they buried Karen’s father. The kids were still very young, it must have been 1967? It was the year after they bought their new house, he knew that.
“Come on, Albert, you know this,” he muttered to himself.
“We bought the house in 66. Or was it 68?” He dug through his pockets. Why couldn’t he remember? He couldn’t forget such an important moment in their lives. He pulled out his notebook from the left pocket of his coat. His shaking, weak fingers struggled to turn the pages. Where was it?
1966: Moved into our new house a few minutes from the city. Marion said her first words.
1966. He didn’t remember. He didn’t even remember that it was the same year his daughter spoke her first words.
“You’re afraid that I’ll leave you,” Karen said. It was sudden, a statement rather than a question.
“I am,” he said.
“I know,” but Albert still felt the fear linger inside him.
“Unless you ever want me to,” she said.
Albert looked at his wife. She was beautiful. He saw her at 18-years-old again when they first met in the parking lot of Dellan’s. He saw her at 25, when he asked her to marry him with only a record player in their new apartment, playing The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun. He saw her at 28, giving birth to their first son, Matt. He saw her at 50, as their youngest, Daisy, stepped onto the train as she left for college. Karen wept for an hour in his arms. He saw her at 60, holding dinner parties in their new countryside house, sipping wine with other ladies from the knitting club. It put his mind to rest, at least for now.
“Sir? Excuse me, sir?” A voice next to Albert said.
He looked up. In the corridor, a young man, maybe 20-years-old, wearing a long coat and thin frame glasses looked at him.
“Sir, is this seat free?” The man asked, pointing to the empty seat next to Albert.
“Yes,” he said, “yes, it is.” His fingers tightened their grip, as much as they could, around his notebook. His most prized possession. Albert looked out the window and saw, in the line of black birds, a single magpie.
Passing Through first appeared in Flash Literary Journal: Issue 28, published in 2020. It’s a piece I’m proud of, but I feel like my writing has evolved a great deal since it was written. You can purchase and read the entire issue here for just £1. I highly recommend all the pieces this issue has to offer.
Photo by Jessi Pena on Unsplash