It was at the end of his long life that he told me about the locket, two metallic squares, thin as dimes and no larger than a thumb nail, their dull surfaces worn with age and affection. They were joined by a pair of tiny brass hinges, those, too, worn and dull; and the clasp that kept the two halves closed—that had long since disappeared. The locket was such that opposing photographs could be placed inside the squares and, indeed, someone had done that what easily could have been sixty years ago, perhaps longer by the look of them. They would have been faint, at any rate, given their size, but time had taken its toll, as well, and the images now had a ghostlike quality to them, a sort of transparency as if they could travel in and out of the locket, or in and out of life itself, for that matter, with no more effort than a summer breeze rustling through tall grass. Richard didn’t come into possession of the locket until he was 13; he was very certain about that, about the timing of the event, despite the contrariness of his memory in recent months.
Nor did he show it to me right away. And, when he spoke of it, in the beginning at least, it was only in passing, a reference here and there embedded in the larger context of some other tale, and always he would remark, “But let me get to that later, when there is more time,” giving the impression that whatever this was, this trinket, as he described it, carried some weight. It was important to him and had been so for a long while.
In those last weeks, as I think back upon them—and now that I’ve seen the locket—it occurs to me that Richard’s appearance had much the same quality to it as those tiny photographs to which he had devoted so much of his life. There was what would have to be described as a transparency to his flesh, as well, a texture so much given to air that I could imagine it passing through any solid object; and in his quick and lively eyes—their focus steadfastly on something moving about in the distance—there seemed frequently to be very little awareness of his immediate surroundings—very little concern about the direness of his circumstances, I mean to say. After all, he was dying, but these were not the eyes of a man condemned, nor even those of one happily resigned to the frailty of his own flesh. Like the ghostly images in the locket, these were the eyes of a man set suddenly free. There were no longer any boundaries. The horizon, that natural insistence that perception in this particular sector of the universal be shaped as if by the contours of an upturned bowl, ceased to exist. Richard could now see beyond the curve—and something within him seemed not only capable of traveling in that boundless dimension but, as often as not, to have just returned from such a journey.
Richard and I were not life long friends. At least two decades his junior, I didn’t meet him until he was less than a month from his passing, and at that, it was quite by accident. I was in the nursing home one day, there to visit an ailing relative, also approaching the end, and he called out to me as I passed his room. “A game of cribbage,” he said, as much an announcement as a question, and a look of surprise came into his pale eyes when I stopped. It was so easy not to. Most often, the residents, as they were called, would direct such appeals in random fashion at the tails of fleeting memories or perhaps a shadow that had crossed in front of them. With little else to do, these elderly travelers drifted aimlessly across their years, and they frequently called out to passing strangers, mistaking them for once-known family and friends; I reminded one woman of her wayward son, and she reprimanded me severely whenever she saw me. Her determination in this matter left little to be gained in protest, so at length I would simply hang my head and await her predictable forgiveness, signaled by a deep sigh and a curt request that I come “close now and give your poor mother a kiss.” Such a sad day it was when she fell into silence and I was no longer her wayward son. Soon after she stopped eating and, not long after that, the memories extinguished, she died.
Richard’s voice was weak on that first day and he raised an equally weak hand toward a set of shelves across the room where, tucked amidst an unruly thatch of papers and magazines, there was a cribbage board and a very soft, almost velvety deck of cards. They had apparently traveled a long way with him. We played just one game that day. Richard was tired and, though I arranged his cards for him and placed them in his hands, he had difficulty following the progression of points and he dropped as many cards as he managed to hold onto. “Old age is such an embarrassment,” he said as we were finishing. “It never gets any better, and you never get used to it.” Tears labored into his eyes at that moment.
There were good days, too, though, and I began stopping in regularly, generally after lunch, when I would find him alert and happy to have company. He would be sitting up in bed, clean shaven, his tray off to one side, and we would play two or three games of cribbage before he tired or before my own commitments required me to move on. On such days, he would he would salt our game chatter—fifteen-two, fifteen-four, etc.—with lively notations out of his past, a memorable holiday, a proud moment with his children, some small lesson that life had taught him: “Love everything you can,” he told me on one occasion. His voice was very soft, barely above a whisper, and he reached out and lay a hand upon my arm. “Life is so short and, when you think about it, there are so few opportunities.”
I asked him then if he could remember his first love, and he closed his eyes and allowed the tiniest of smiles to spread slowly across his face.
The smile lay there like a small patch of sunshine, and for several moments Richard was silent. Indeed, I thought he had fallen off to sleep, and I was about to leave when, all at once, he took a breath and opened his eyes just wide enough to peer into the deep shadows of his memory.
“Lord,” he said, his voice suddenly hushed. “It was so long ago.” And his smile broadened, as he seemed to find what he was looking for amidst the scattered baggage of his life. He even managed a chuckle, and he brought a hand to his mouth and rested his fingers tentatively on his lips, the way children often do when they are faced with unexpected choices.
“She was seventeen,” he continued after a time, and then he stopped, savoring the emerging memory, nudging it into a sharper focus. “She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, and I fell in love with her instantly and forever—long before I was ever introduced to her, in fact. She had arrived in our lakeside village that summer, a babysitter for the children of a wealthy family that lived across the lake. I saw her the first time from a distance. That was all it took.”
I was sitting in my customary place on the edge of the bed. It was easier to manage our two hands of cribbage from that position and, as Richard seemed again to be drifting into some private space, he reached out and grasped my arm with surprising strength, chuckling yet, catching his breath, as if he were in the middle of telling a joke and beginning to laugh even as he anticipated the punch line. “It was so foolish,” he said through this interference. “She was seventeen and I was”—he paused for a moment, squeezed my arm and winked at me—“I was thirteen, or I should say almost thirteen—and, of course, you remember what it was like to be almost 13: ruler of the world, as it were, never so wise as we were then, and just incredulous, I was, that a seventeen-year-old girl would not find a twelve-year-old boy irresistible.”
“I died regularly that summer; my heart was in so many pieces it felt like a bag full of broken dishes rattling about in my chest, and I could find no position, waking or sleeping, that their sharp edges did not cause me pain. Such was the depth of my love for this girl, this...” He paused just then. A puzzled expression gathered and seemed to cloud his eyes for a moment. “You know,” he said at last, “this memory is as vivid as if it happened yesterday. The picture of her in my mind is sharp and clear: her blue eyes, the nearly blond hair that danced so gayly in the wind whenever she was out on the lake. I took her hand one day, helping her onto the raft in front of the cottage where she took care of the children—we had become friends by then, all the neighborhood kids, and we were over there swimming—and I can still feel her touch and the soft texture of her skin; but suddenly now, oddly, I seem to have forgotten her name, misplaced it, the way you hide something away for safe keeping and then forget where you put it. Can you imagine that? All these years I’ve carried her memory, and the first time I speak of her I can’t remember her name.”
Richard glanced at me quickly then and he turned his head to the wall. “It must be that I’m starting to put things away,” he said, “You know, for the....” His voice trembled, trailed away, and when he spoke again, he was making his way bravely around the contours of a sob. Then he smiled, or rather tried to smile, his pale eyes filling with tears that he struggled to hold back. “Maybe I’ll finish the story tomorrow,” he said. “Leave me to think on it a bit. I think it’s important to remember her name. I hope there’s time.”
I reached out and touched his hand and was surprised at how cool it felt. “Circulation,” he murmured, sensing my reaction. “Like everything else, it starts to lose its fire,” and with that, he closed his eyes.
I was unable to get to the nursing home the next day or even the next day after that, and it occurred to me somewhere during this time how easy it is to be too busy for these people whose lives have effectively come to an end. No one leaves a nursing home under his own power. It’s a waiting game with death and, after visiting for some period of time, one can’t help but become aware of the steady cadence from the residents, a choral refrain had they been players in some sad musical: “Take me home,” they chant in and out of unison. “Please, please, take me home.”
Indeed, our own relative there spent many hours devising elaborate schemes for escape, each one predicated upon some imaginative deception: fabricated errands, surreptitious trips in and out of the home to retrieve clothing and, on more than one occasion, the suggestion that a getaway car might be left at the edge of the parking lot with the motor running. “They would never have to know,” she would confide in a hoarse whisper, as if “they” were some dull-witted group of sentries to be outsmarted, rather than caregivers, many of whom came to love her like family by the end.
Whatever love we carried to the home on our many visits, it was difficult not to carry a certain measure of guilt, as well, for whatever we had to offer, it was not that one thing that they wanted most of all—and which was, in each precious moment, slipping ever faster from their grasp.
When I saw Richard again—three days after our last conversation—there was in his eyes, despite his joy to have some company and a good game of cribbage, a slender look of betrayal, the shy, almost imperceptible wariness of a small child whose promise has been overlooked in the more important rush of grown-up business.
The cribbage board and the cards were folded into the bedcovers beside him. “Expecting company?” I said, smiling and motioning toward the cards with a casual flip of my hand. I was still holding my car keys and they jingled merrily as I spoke.
Richard returned the smile, a little more broadly, it seemed, than he had intended, but it was too late to retract it. “Hoping, I guess, would be more like it,” he said, the tiniest shade of despair creeping into his voice. “At my age there’s really only one expectation—everything else is a hope and a prayer.”
It was a sad prospect, very much the truth for him at that moment, however, and, perhaps, bitterly so, but he smiled through it, one of many routine acts of courage or self-defense—it was hard to distinguish (and probably unnecessary, as well); and, without pause or introduction, he pulled himself up on one elbow and exclaimed, “Delores.”
The strength of his declaration startled me, and he must have seen this, for he added quickly and in succession, “The locket. The first love. Her name was Delores. We called her Lorie.”
With her name now in play, Richard’s eyes seemed to dance with the memory and, when I reached for the cards, he placed his hand over mine, arresting the present moment, as if to say, “It will keep. Travel with me for a time. Let me share this while I still have it in my possession.”
And so he recalled the memory of this girl who had stolen his heart so completely, beginning with the day, which he had mentioned before, that he took her hand and pulled her onto the raft.
“I spent much of that night trying to dream about her,” he said, the quality of his anticipation purging the age-induced gruffness from his voice. For these several moments, he was young again, truly a boy of 12-going-on-13, and it wouldn’t have surprised me a bit had he jumped from the bed and told this story in pantomime.
“As she came out of the water and onto the raft,” he continued, “I wanted her to float into my arms, or, better yet, she could have pulled me back into the water with her—I saw that happen in a movie once; but try as I would—and perhaps you’ve had this experience yourself—the thing that was not meant to be I could not force into the dream. It was beyond the realm of probable experience and, therefore, impossible. Over and over, I tried to imagine it, but the truth was always in the way. She came onto the raft without so much as a thought of how she had gotten there, and she let go of my hand as if it had been a fixture attached to a railing. Then she dove off the other side, disappearing into a group of kids that had already started swimming toward shore.
“Waking or sleeping, I was left standing alone on the raft.”
At intervals in his story, Richard would seem to drift away, as if in this twilight of his life he had at last developed the capacity to manage and direct his dreams, pulling them as if from a catalog and playing them upon some internal screen to which he alone was privy. His eyes would not close during these moments, at least not completely, but they would take on a faraway focus, trancelike in appearance, and he would mumble softly to himself, smiling or frowning, continuing a conversation, I suppose, started somewhere in that 12-going-on-13 summer of so long ago; and when he would shake himself out of it, he would exclaim again, “Delores,” forgetting he had told me that already, or perhaps, as I have done myself on occasion, repeating it to be sure he would not forget.
And then he would continue, although, as the story went on, I sensed that he was talking less and less to me. This was a private memory, after all, a part of his life, his affairs, as they say, and he was putting them in order before the end.
“And then there was that fateful evening,” he said all at once. He spoke so gently and with such apparent reverence, that I could almost feel his tongue caressing each word as rolled it over his lips and into the space between us; and he smiled at me, the rascally smile of a child who’s been into mischief. “That fateful evening,” he said again. “We were swimming, all of us, Delores, too, especially Delores. We used to call her Lorie,” he reminded me, and he paused waiting for me to acknowledge that bit of information. He might have been passing it to me for safe keeping. I nodded and placed a hand on his arm.
“In the moonlight, she was even more beautiful,” he continued. “It bathed her in mystery, gave her a depth that you could only feel with your heart. I was so taken with this sensation, something that I had never felt before, that, literally, I had to hold myself back. I sat down on the edge of the raft, my hands folded like claws as I gripped the wooden planks, and I remained there for much of the night, watching the others swim, wondering that they had not sensed this thing, as well, and then following them to shore when the swim was over. This would have been like any one of a dozen nights that summer, except that on this particular night, Delores lost the locket that had danced playfully on a gold chain around her neck since the day I met her. And, of course, she was heart broken over the loss—there was apparently some sentimental value attached to it, something only a girl would appreciate, I suppose—but there was nothing to be done about it that evening.”
Richard had gathered the bed clothing into his hands as he spoke, curled his fingers into their folds, and he held the sheet and the hospital-thin blanket now, as he must have held the planks of the raft on that long ago summer night. The flesh was pulled tightly across his knuckles. They rose across his hand, white, angular peaks.
“I came back the next morning, early; the sky above the eastern hills was bright, but the sun had not yet risen above the trees, and my old wooden row boat, making its way through the mist, rode across the still water as if it were suspended. The only sound was the occasional rippling of water as I dipped the oars, until, at the other end of the lake a dog barked once, stirring in a dream, I suspected, and then fell back to sleep. Funny how I remember that dog. At the raft, I pulled in the oars, hitched the boat to one of the anchor lines and then settled myself to wait for daylight. As I waited, I tried to imagine Delores’ response when I returned the locket—how grateful she would be, how she would see the love in my eyes and be transformed by it.
“With the first streaks of light starting through the trees, I could make out the bottom of the lake. I was leaning over the side of the boat, my swim mask already fixed to my face, my head just breaking the surface of the water. I rolled slowly, quietly over the side, slipping into the lake the way you might roll over in a soft bed. It seemed very important not to wake anyone. Until I had the locket in hand, which is to say, until I was sure Delores was mine—this was the key, after all, the locket—everything had to be done very quietly. It was important not to be discovered.”
Richard paused again, and long moments passed during which he seemed to be considering the direction of his story. The muscles in his jaw tightened and relaxed, and he pursed his lips the way you do sometimes when you’re trying to make up your mind about something—the way he must have pursed his lips when at last he retrieved the locket and had then to decide what to do with it.
I waited for a time. I watched a tiny smile crawl across his lips.
“And...? I prompted him.
He turned and looked at me just then, his pale eyes blank, as if he hadn’t stopped in the middle of his story, as if he hadn’t been telling a story at all and was puzzled by my inquiry.
“And then...” he repeated, his smile broadening and his eyes taking on a melancholy cast, an awareness that skirted the edges of some great disappointment. “I usually stop the story there,” he said, “on the moment of greatest anticipation, because that’s as good as it ever gets.”
He hesitated a moment and he chuckled aloud as if he were savoring the recalled punch line of a favorite joke.
“It was like trying to construct a dream after that day on the raft. I couldn’t do it. The truth of the matter just wasn’t there. So I kept the locket. I didn’t want to lose her. I didn’t want to lose the possibility.” And he leaned across the bed and rummaged in the drawer of his night table for a moment. Then, on extended fingertips, he displayed the locket that he had retrieved when the world was young and love was still a mystery.