At the Wild West bed and breakfast Alex arranged flowers on the nightstand. On the Vegas Strip he handed a box of chocolates to his taxi cab driver. An electrician by trade, Alex hadn’t set foot out of Detroit over the years, but now every two weeks he took a vacation, just like he’d promised.
Alex didn’t mind his work. He enjoyed the idea of stringing something nearly alive between walls. He liked sitting in his cold truck drinking early morning coffee out of a Styrofoam cup.
When Sally came down with breast cancer, Alex didn’t even know how to stop working. Later, he stood by her bedside, apologizing. They’d never gotten to travel the world, which had been the plan.
As he kept his stagnant vigil, Sally lost herself right there before his eyes, hollowing out as each day passed, her breathing echoing his regret with each raspy inhale. One day she only rattled quietly, like the fall leaves outside the window. Alex leaned in close to hear Sally. “I want to think about it, after. You out there getting lost. You in new clothes in a rental car.”
Alex knew he didn’t have to. He believed Sally was gone. Gone-gone. So little of her left in the end that she’d disappeared for real. She’d never haunt him. He believed that in his heart. But still, he missed her. So, he made plans, searched the internet, scored deals on hotel rooms, made reservations for planes, trains, cars, and buses. Once he got settled and left his hotel room, he never knew what to do.
San Francisco, for example, the sun’s rays reaching down like fingers to the Golden Gate Bridge. My God Sally, get a load of this, he wanted to say. And so he looked twice. Once like him, once like he thought she would, softer. He cried then, of course.
These days friends and family liked to remind him of how incompetent he was in handling his grief. They were surprised, they said, at how he couldn’t get over Sally. As if mourning itself was a course Alex had signed up for and was now purposely failing to spite them.
He cried. A big burly guy with calluses on his thumbs in stiff new clothes gripping the rail of Golden Gate Bridge.
This day he looked up to see an older women looking him over over her bi-focals. A cashmere sweater and practical walking shoes. Seagulls circled. Alex followed their arc, looked down to the water, and then at the woman.
“No,” Alex said, brushing at his tears like crumbs. “Not me. Nope. Not today, thanks.”
And this tidy woman handed him a crisp twenty-dollar bill, nodded curtly, and strode away. Alex bought a burrito with the money, a book on cars from a used bookstore, and a smashed penny with the bridge itself imprinted on its side.
Later, he ate sushi and rode a cable car. The air itself lit up that city, that’s what he told people later. “I never once considered jumping,” he also said and not one person thought that was funny. Sally would have snorted milk out her nose; she would’ve sent him her sly secret smile that meant only I can love a man like you, only me, no one else ever.
Next, Alex signed up for a kind of Elderhostel thing, qualifying for the group by just a year. The Grand Canyon, he thought. Can’t go wrong there.
The other widowers in the group were both a comfort and a broken record for Alex. Their whining helped him understand how his pining for Sally had the potential to bug the shit out of people. He understood that, finally, at last. Martha talked about poor Richard. And Jenny talked about brave David. Alex himself mentioned Sally once at the beginning, saying she hated organized trips like this.
They arrived at the Grand Canyon, stood on the flat expanse above the big hole zipping up their polar fleece and preparing for their drop into luscious early morning rock beauty. Freezing desert weather, it perked Alex right up. The group could see their breath, as a whole, like a herd of cows Sally would’ve said. She would’ve wandered off to the souvenir shop, refused to member up. So Alex did just that. Gave Jenny and Martha and Rich and Kay in their matching outfits the slip.
In the shop he fingered some key chains; he shook a snowglobe that sent sparkles over the plastic canyon. Sparkles. Nifty, Alex thought, and paid up. He propped the snowglobe on a rock that allowed a good view of the widening expanse. Alex adjusted it a few times to get it right. Then he wandered back to his people. He smiled at his herd, listened with interest to the history that their energetic leader Sammy let on bit by bit.
“This isn’t cheesy at all,” Alex said. Sally would have never bought it though, how it was both fun and educational. They rode mules. They learned about rocks and birds and snakes.
Heading back up, Alex missed having a sweaty hand to hold, missed Sally’s muttered jokes; he tired of traveling in spite of her instead of with her.
Later a thunderstorm rose up over the canyon, clouds forming in a frenetic choreography letting down quick rain in a big spit ball. He wanted lightning as he leaned back to see the show, everyone else scampering to the tour bus for cover. Pow. Like magic it would conduit through his body connecting the not-world of Sally back to him. He held out his wrists, ready. He opened his imagination as far as it would go. Once it hit it would send them both to live in the sparkly snowglobe world that looked out on this real world, glitter everywhere, and everyone would be happy all over again.
Photo by Anthony Quintano