• Vedran •
by Jonathan Carroll | Download the story
He’s no filet mignon; he’s not even steak. He’s chuck roast, maybe. London Broil at best.”
This is how it began for Edmonds. It was the first thing he’d heard that morning after he sat down in the blue chair and looking out the window, asked himself what the hell am I doing here? But he knew the answer to that question: it was either get on the bus, or go home and kill himself. The choice was that stark and simple.
The big yellow and white bus sat parked at the curb, motor running, gray exhaust fumes puffing out its pipes. The driver leaned against the side of the bus by the open door, smoking a cigarette and incuriously watching the crowd. A large group of old people stood on the sidewalk nearby waiting to board.
Earlier while walking down the street toward them, Edmonds smiled for the first time that morning when he noticed how dressed up all those oldies were. The women had high frozen hairdos like spun glass that clearly indicated they’d just been to the hairdresser. Most of the men wore brand new shoes with no creases or scuffs on them, dark suits or perfectly pressed sports jackets, and all of them appeared to be wearing neckties despite the fact it was only six o’clock in the morning and their days of going to an office were long past.
Someone from the neighborhood had told Edmonds that once a month a bus parked at this spot, loaded up, and then rumbled off for a day’s outing arranged by the town or a local senior citizen’s club. It took these pensioners to neighboring towns with museums or historical sights worth visiting. Sometimes they motored into the nearby national park, had a hike around, lunch, and then returned to this drop off spot with some sun on their cheeks, tired legs, and the good feeling of knowing that their cameras were full of new pictures and the day had meant something.
Approaching this crowd now, Edmonds was hit by thick waves of warring perfumes. He could imagine every woman there spritzing on her favorite fragrance as she prepared to leave her house earlier this morning. Did the single women put on more perfume, hoping to catch the attention of the available bachelors who would be on the bus? Or was it the married gals who drenched themselves with scents so strong that they almost physically stopped Edmonds when he was ten feet away? Were there many single people in this group? If so, were there more men or women? When you are 65/70/75… are you still looking for a life partner or just a nice companion for the day?
The sight of all those dapper old timers eager to be off on their day’s jaunt, wearing their wide neckties and thick-as-lead perfumes, combined with the thought of actually having a partner on a trip when you were 75 years old almost cut Edmonds in half with grief and longing for his lost beloved wife. The impulse to go home and just do it, end it, was ongoing and very powerful. End this unrelenting suffering and just go to sleep forever. He had a friend who was a cop. This guy said when done correctly, hanging yourself was the best and most painless way to go. After a few too many beers one night, he even demonstrated how to do it; not noticing that William Edmonds was paying very very close attention.
Edmonds would be alone when he was 75, he was certain of it; if he even lived that long. There was the very real chance he would contract some monstrous disease before then that, like his poor wife, would painfully devour him from the insides before killing him.
Passing the door of the bus now, he suddenly veered hard left and climbed on. The driver saw this but said nothing. Why did Edmonds do it? Who knows? Self- preservation, or just why-the-hell not? Maybe a blissful unexpected moment of sudden lunacy? Who knows?
He was the first passenger to enter the vehicle that morning. Walking down the narrow aisle he chose an empty seat, plopped down into it and turned to look out the window. The cold stale air in there smelled of cigarette smoke and some kind of tangy industrial something—cleaner? Or the synthetic cloth on the seats?
People began to appear at the front of the bus. Some of them glanced at him as they passed; others eased themselves slowly and carefully into seats. Many of them softly grunted or puffed while doing it, their hands and arms shaking as they gripped seat backs or armrests, performing the twists and turns that were necessary to make in order to land their stiff bodies in the proper place.
Edmonds too had reached an age where he found it harder to get into and out of chairs, cars, bathtubs, and other places where his body needed to bend at unnatural angles in order to fit. He often groaned unconsciously now when he sat down—either from gratitude or weariness. Vivid signs that he was getting older and the wear and tear of time was beginning to show itself in earnest on his body.
“He’s no filet mignon; he’s not even steak. He’s chuck roast, maybe. London Broil at best.”
A portly woman was walking down the aisle, her man right behind talking loudly to her back. When she reached the two empty seats directly in front of Edmonds she glanced at him, moved sideways into the row and sat down by the window. Her husband followed and took the other seat. You could tell by the fluid way both of them moved that they were very used to this seating arrangement.
“I don’t know why you think so highly of him.”
“Ssh, not so loud. The whole bus can hear you.”
Her husband half- turned, glared at Edmonds as if he were to blame for something, and then turned back. “Okay, all right,” he lowered his voice a tad. “But really, tell me what it is about him that you like so much.”
The woman took her time answering. “I like how dignified he is. I admire the way he hides his pain. It’s very… noble. Many people who lose their partners want you to know how hard it is for them being alone and what they’re going through every day. They want your pity. But not Ken: you know how bad he’s hurting and what a loss it was for him. You can’t be that close to someone all those years and not suffer when they die. But he never shows it; never burdens you with his pain.”
Edmonds frowned. Who were they talking about? It all sounded pretty damned familiar.
The husband started to mumble something but she cut him off with an abrupt, “Ssh—he’s coming. He just got on.”
Edmonds looked up and saw a nondescript old man moving slowly down the aisle towards them. On reaching the couple, he stopped and smiled. “Good morning, you two. Are you ready for a little walking?”
“Good morning, Ken. Yes, we’re ready to go.”
Ken smiled and moved on.
A few minutes later Edmonds turned and looked for the old man. He was sitting alone reading a newspaper on the long bench seat at the very back of the bus. Edmonds stood up, walked to the end of the aisle and sat down next to him.
“Do you mind?”
“Not at all; it’ll be nice to have some company on this ride. I’m Ken Alford.” He extended his right hand.
“William Edmonds.” Both men gave a good strong shake.
“Is it Bill or William?”
“Either-- it doesn’t matter.”
“Okay Bill. Would you like some breakfast?” Out of his coat pockets Ken pulled a cheese Danish wrapped in glistening plastic and a small red and white carton of chocolate milk. Edmonds gestured thanks but no thanks. Ken nodded, opened the milk and took a swig. Carefully capping it again he put it back into his pocket. With his teeth he tore open the plastic around the pastry and took a big bite. You could tell he really liked what he was eating because he kept closing his eyes and making mmh-mmh! sounds deep in his throat.
Edmonds liked that. Ken looked and sounded like one of those people on a TV commercial loving some new breakfast food or chocolate bar that was being promoted.
“This is the first time I’ve seen you on here, Bill.”
“Yes, it’s my first trip.”
“Well, some of them are good and some are stupid, but there’s always a part that’s worth it.”
A few moments later the front door hissed shut and the bus pulled away from the curb.
“I lost my wife last Christmas and that’s when I started going on them. She didn’t like to travel much, not even day trips, so we stayed pretty close to home. Then when she got sick…” Ken’s voice remained steady and unemotional.
In contrast, Edmonds couldn’t talk about his dead wife without tearing up or his voice catching in his throat.
“Are you married, Bill?”
Edmonds looked at his hands. “My wife died too. Recently.”
“Ahh, that’s tough. I’m sorry to hear it.” But Ken didn’t sound sorry at all—if anything he sounded sort of… buoyant. “Hold on—I want to show you something.” Stuffing the rest of the pastry into his mouth, he brushed off his hands and reached into another pocket. This time he brought out a very sleek, quite beautiful folding knife. “Look at this-- It’s my Vedran Corluka.” He held it out for the other man to take, but Edmonds only stared at him.
“Why do you call it that? Vedran Corluka is a professional soccer player.”
Ken nodded and snapped his fingers. “Right! You’re a soccer fan too. Excellent. Yes, he plays for the Croatian national team. But I call it that for a reason. This was the last Christmas present my wife gave me. I like pocketknives; I have a collection. But this one—well, you can see how specially nice it is. Victoria had it custom made for me by a guy in Montana. I liked it a lot when I got it, but only after she died did I really start paying attention to it.”
“Paying attention? What do you mean?”
“I went a little crazy after my wife died, Bill. We were married thirty-seven years and most of them were damned good. Did you have a good marriage?”
“Then you know what I mean. Vedran Corluka was her favorite player. She didn’t know beans about soccer, but she liked his name. She liked to say it. Whenever I was watching a game on TV, she always came in and asked if Vedran Corluka was playing.
“So that’s why I gave this knife his name. It was her last present and he was her favorite player. I always carry it now. When I get really down, I just grip it tight in my pocket and that usually makes me feel a little better. It makes some of the sadness go away.”
“That’s a nice story. Can I see it?” Edmonds took the knife and examined it closely. It really was a beautiful object, but he was distracted because of what Ken was saying now.
“We don’t pay enough attention to things. We know that, but we still don’t do it. Only after something’s over, or someone’s dead, or it’s lost, or it’s too late do we realize we’ve been speed reading life or people and missing the details.
“After my Victoria died, I decided to go over everything I could—the things we owned, the memories I had of her, the memories other people had of her… stuff like that. But this time I gave it every bit of my attention. You know, like re-viewed it 100% like never before. It made such a difference!
“I can’t be with my wife any longer because she’s gone. But I can know her better than before-- when she was alive. Whenever I pay really close attention to the details, then I learn more about her all the time. I discover things I never knew or even thought about. It puts the woman in a whole new light—like in a way I’m just meeting her for the first time.
“Sure it’s a substitute for the real thing but it’s all I’ve got left of her, Bill. It’s the best I can do.” Ken took the knife out of Edmonds’ hands and said, “A couple of months ago I wrote to the knife maker and asked if he had kept my wife’s letter ordering this. He returned it to me and I have it framed above my desk at home.
“See how beautifully the blade is carved? It’s got perfect balance too. That kind of work has to be done by hand. All the best things in life are handmade, Bill: Knife blades, bread, clothes, loving someone…”
When Edmonds got home that afternoon he sat down on the couch in the living room while still in his coat and looked around at the place. Where was his Vedran? What could he carry in his pocket and always feel his wife’s presence through it?
What was the last present she had given him before she died? And what was the last one he had given her? Ashamed, he could not remember either gift. But was that really important? If you live together with someone for six thousand days so much is shared—does it matter if you can’t remember every little thing?
With this in mind, Edmonds walked around their apartment. When he saw something unfamiliar—a book, a porcelain figure, a knickknack-- he picked it up and tried not put it down again until he could recall where the object came from, who had bought or given it, the circumstances, and why it came to become part of their lives.
There were many things—the wooden nutcracker from the New York flea market, the ball made of hematite her sister had given them, and the elephant carved out of amber that he’d brought his wife from Poland. Had she liked it? Distraught, he couldn’t remember. It was kind of a kitschy thing but nice too. He stared at the small tawny animal while trying to remember the details, any details about the day he had given it to her or what she’d said about it. But he could not remember even one thing and it was mortifying.
There were so many blanks; his memory of their life together was full of black holes. He reviled himself for having forgotten so much about his wife and their time together. How could that be? How could he have been so careless? How could he have let so many evocative particulars slip through the cracks? Memories of a good life shared were the only real treasure time permitted you to keep.
And what a personal insult to her! He lived in an apartment furnished with belongings that had decorated and enhanced their days. But now he couldn’t remember where too many of them came from or why they were even there.
Humbled and appalled, Edmonds moved around his home the next days like a tourist visiting a famous museum for the first time, only his guidebook was his flawed memories. Whenever he drew a blank looking at something, he studied the various objects until either their significance emerged, or he realized his recollection of them was dead forever. He moved those ‘dead’ items to one corner of the living room and tried to avoid looking at them because every time he did, he despaired. He planned to move them all into a closet and not think about them until he had sorted through what he did know.
When a week had passed, a whole week, he called Ken Alford and asked one question. The two men had had a nice day on the bus hanging around together and talking about their lives. At the end of it they had exchanged telephone numbers. Now after Alford answered the phone, Edmonds identified himself and got right to the point. “Ken, what if I can’t find my Vedran? What if there’s not one single thing I can hold onto and feel better because I know she’s in it?”
“Oh it’s there, Bill. Somewhere in your apartment, or your life, or your head, it’s there. You just haven’t found it yet.” The old man’s voice sounded amused and confident.
Edmonds lowered his head to his chest and pressed the receiver tightly to his ear. “But just the opposite’s been happening, Ken: the more I look for it, the more I discover that I don’t remember. I don’t remember so much… It’s terrible. It feels like whole chunks of my brain have been cut out. In my own home, things I neither recognize nor remember surround me. But they were all part of our life together!” Edmonds heard his voice at the end of the sentence and it sounded scared. He was scared.
Alford was silent a while but finally said, “Maybe the first half of life is meant for living, and the second half is for remembering-- or trying to. When you consider it that way, both of us were wrong to waste time missing our wives after they died. Because mourning does no good: it only makes you feel helpless and lost.
“What we should do instead is try to remember and then savor whatever details we’re able to dredge up from our past. That’s possible and each time you do it, you feel good because it brings something more of them back to you; like you’re rebuilding them from scratch.” Ken suddenly laughed. “It’s a little bit like you’re making your own Frankenstein version of your wife out of what you remember about her.” He chuckled again and then went on. “I’m being facetious but you know what I mean. It’s one of the reasons why I always keep the knife in my pocket— touching it reminds me to stop regretting and keep trying to remember.”
While listening to the other man speak, Edmonds held the amber elephant and turned it over and over in his hand. He wanted it to speak to him too. He wanted it to recount exactly what happened the day he gave it to his wife. What had she said? What was she was wearing? As Ken Alford talked, Edmonds closed his fingers around the elephant and silently mouthed the words “Tell me.”