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Mr. Crumbly peered into the mirror and worked at the remaining few white hairs that contrarily stuck up from the otherwise bald head. Even to himself he was a comical looking man with his bulb-like nose and overgrown eyebrows. His somewhat faded blue eyes were edged in pink eyelids that no longer grew long dark eyelashes but now had sparse, short white ones. What once was a strong firm chin now sagged ever so gently and he smiled to himself at his reflection. Because, you see, it didn’t really matter any longer. Those somewhat arrogant days of youth were past. His Alice had always loved him no matter the transformations of age. Now, with Alice gone, it was sometimes a chore to even get up in the morning. Looking in the mirror he reminisced how Alice had told him every morning, “It makes my heart smile to see you every morning because I get to spend another day with you.” For a quick minute, he felt sadness in his spirit, he missed his Alice so much.
No matter, he was approaching eighty-nine and though very lonely since Alice passed, he knew his time alone would be short lived and it was okay. He’d had a very full life. Those were the thoughts he was thinking as he wet his hand and continued working on the stubborn strands of hair.
Mr. Crumbly was a gentle natured man. He had been living alone now for nearly a month yet he still made enough coffee for two each morning and then threw out the remainder of the pot once he had enjoyed a cup. He still turned down both sides of the bed at night and he still whispered goodnight every evening to the empty pillow next to his head. He was a man of habit. He knew that about himself, but at his age it was too tiresome to try and change those things that didn’t matter when he had so many things he had to change that did. And, if truth be told, it made him feel closer to Alice when he continued in such a fashion.
He had just finished tidying up the kitchen after breakfast when he heard a knock on the door. It was Alexis, the five-year-old who lived in the next apartment. Alice had cared for Alexis from the day her mom had first gone back to work after Alexis’ birth until the day she collapsed and never got up again.
“Hi, Alexis, how are you today?”
The little girl smiled, her big blue eyes shining with excitement. Her curly hair, long and wayward hung down her back and around her shoulders making her look somewhat angelic.
“I brought Granny a picture. Will you hang it up for her?” she said holding out a picture of a carefully colored monkey and a man with a big yellow hat.
Mr. Crumbly took the picture and admired it, making on over it the way Alice would have. “I will.” He said. Alexis ran over to the desk drawer and pulled out the tape. “Here,” she said and handed him the tape. Mr. Crumbly measured off two pieces and proudly taped the picture on the refrigerator.
“That’s not where Granny puts it!” said Alexis.
“I know,” said Mr. Crumbly. “But if I put it on the refrigerator I will see it each time I go to cook or clean in here and it will make me ever so happy.”
“No, Granny always put them on this door,” she answered as she walked over to the pantry door and patted it with her small hand. Then turned and with a pouty lip looked up into the eyes of Mr. Crumbly.
Mr. Crumbly looked at the girl with much sadness in his eyes. “I know that,” he said. “But, if you would allow me to put it on the refrigerator just this once. I do miss Granny so. I would rather not put it on the door just now.”
Alexis thought for a moment. She walked over to Mr. Crumbly. She put her little arms around his legs and hugged them. When she’d finished she looked up into his face and said softly, “Yes, it’s okay. I miss her too.” And then she turned and walked towards the door. “I need to go home now, okay?” She said looking for his approval now.
Mr. Crumbly smiled. “Okay,” he said.
And that was the sum of his visit for the day.
The next morning Mr. Crumbly awoke feeling extra energy in his bones. On most occasions, he awoke to a kink in his neck and stiff knees but today he felt somewhat energized. He thought for a moment as to what could have made the difference. Had he taken medicine before bed? He didn’t remember taking any for it usually upset his stomach. It didn’t matter. He stretched and walked to the bathroom, gazed in the mirror, wet down his hair, brushed his teeth and entered the kitchen. He was in the process of putting the coffee on when he noticed something had changed. Alexis’ picture was gone. That was what had changed. Had the little tot come into the apartment without him noticing it? He smiled to himself. She used to do that all the time when Alice was alive and she would always run into the open arms of Alice who would laugh and ask her if her mommy knew she was there. Most often, her mommy was right behind her. Had he not locked the door? That was normally part of his nightly routine but he must have slipped last night. No matter.
He put the coffee on and went out into the hall to see if the paper had come yet. It had. He picked up the paper, walked back into the kitchen, poured a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table to read. Yes, today was a good day, he thought as he sipped at his coffee and read his paper. The door flew open and Alexis ran in.
“Today is a good day!” she proclaimed and climbed up on his lap.
He smiled, “It is? And why is that?”
“Just because,” she said. She turned around and grabbed hold of both of his big ears. She put her face very close to his and whispered, “It is a good day because I feel happy, that’s why.” She kissed his nose. “Don’t you feel happy, like it’s a good day?”
“I do,” he laughed.
“Hey,” she said as she scooted off his lap and looked at her picture which now hung on the pantry door. “You moved my picture.”
“Very funny, little one,” said Mr. Crumbly. Alexis looked at him quizzically but said nothing in reply.
“You want some toast? Does your mommy know you are here?” he asked as he put a slice of bread in the toaster.
“Yes and yes,” she said with a giggle. “I told her you were lonely and you put my picture on the refrigerator and not on the door where it belongs and she said you should put it where ever you want to put it because Granny would not care.”
Mr. Crumbly looked at the little girl and, with all the love he felt for her, his heart melted. “Do you have school today?” he asked.
“No, that’s because it’s a teacher’s workshop or something,” she answered.
“Would you like to walk to the park with me today then?” he asked. “I could call your mommy and we could come back when it is time for lunch.”
“Yes, yes, call mommy,” Alexis jumped up and down with excitement.
“Done,” said Mr. Crumbly as he buttered her toast and then dialed her mother.
Alexis held Mr. Crumbly’s hand tightly and pushed all the traffic buttons when they would prepare to cross the street. “Now hold my hand tight,” she said. “Granny always held my hand when we crossed the street and I made sure she was safe.”
“Okay,” said Mr. Crumbly and he squeezed her hand gently.
“And always look both ways even if the light does say walk, “said Alexis with authority as she looked both ways and then stepped out into the street.
“Good to know,” said Mr. Crumbly.
“And when we get to the park you can buy me an ice-cream if you want to,“ said Alexis. “Granny always told me I had to eat an ice-cream.”
“Oh, we mustn’t break any of Granny’s rules,” said Mr. Crumbly with a smile.
And so the two walked to the park and Mr. Crumbly watched as Alexis played on the playground equipment and then the two of them sought out the ice-cream man and they each ate an ice-cream before Mr. Crumbly looked at his watch and decided it was time to go home.
As they walked the streets back to the apartment building Alexis chatted on and on and quizzed Mr. Crumbly on topics like looking both ways and how to press the street crossing button and holding her hand so he was safe and Mr. Crumbly decided that he was a much blessed man.
Mr. Crumbly knocked on Alexis’ apartment door and smiled at Silvia, Alexis’ mom, as the door opened. “Thank you for allowing me the pleasure of Alexis this day,” he said as he hugged the little girl and gave her over to her mother.
Silvia smiled and reached up and hugged Mr. Crumbly. “The pleasure was all hers I am certain,” she answered. “Do you need anything? Can I do anything for you?”
“I’m well. Alexis took good care of me.”
Sylvia paused, then added almost apologetically, “If it helps, I think I have found someone to care for Alexis now…you know…on the days I work and she’s off school…”
Mr. Crumbly smiled and turned to leave. “That’s wonderful,” he offered, “But now I must have a bite of lunch and lie down.” He noticed, he didn’t really feel tired at all. He felt joyful and perhaps even exhilarated. What youth does for the soul, he thought to himself as he took out his key and unlocked his apartment door.
He removed his shoes, an exercise he had learned some fifty years ago when he and Alice had first married, and padded over to the refrigerator. Not really hungry but yet very high in spirit, he remembered an old casserole Alice had put in the freezer. He had been saving it because it was the last sample of her cooking he had left. Today seemed like a grand day to honor her memory so he peered into the freezer and pulled out the casserole. Laying it on the counter he read in Alice’s handwriting, “Huntington Chicken, 350 degrees for one hour,” it read. He turned on the oven to the appropriate setting and thought he might want to defrost it a bit, so he placed the casserole in the microwave at fifty percent power for ten minutes. That should give the oven time to preheat, he thought and it would also give him ten minutes to relax in his recliner.
Mr. Crumbly awoke to the sound of the microwave beeping. He climbed out of his chair and removed the casserole and placed it in the oven. He set the timer for 45 minutes and thought to himself that he would check it then and see if it needed to be cooked for another fifteen minutes. He opened a can of green beans and poured them into a small pan on the stove. He cut up an onion and then remembered a small left-over piece of bacon in the refrigerator so he tossed that into the pan with the green beans and onions. The smells blended together and the aroma was overwhelmingly familiar. Yes, it was as if Alice were here. It was very consoling.
Later, as Mr. Crumbly sat at the kitchen bar eating the chicken casserole, green beans and sipping a glass of wine, he smiled to himself. Yes, he thought, this was definitely Alice’s cooking, it was amazingly delicious. He heard a knock at the door, it was soft and down low. He knew it was Alexis. He padded over to the door and opened it. “Yes,” he said as he looked down at the girl.
“I forgot to tell you thank you for the ice cream, “ she whispered timidly.
Mr. Crumbly squatted down to her eye level. “And I forgot to tell you thank you for a wonderful trip to the park,” he whispered back.
“I miss Granny,” she whispered.
“Me too,” he said understandingly.
“Now I’m gonna miss you too since I can’t stay here anymore.”
“And I will miss you little doll,” he reached over and hugged her and as he did he saw her mommy standing out in the hallway. “Wait a minute,” he said. He stood up and walked into his bedroom. He looked at the collections of stuffed lambs ex bited in the window seat. He had given Alice a different lamb every year at Easter for many years. He grabbed the most resent lamb and took it to Alexis.
“Here you are,” he said. “When you get to missing Granny or me you can hug this little lamb okay? Do you remember the story Granny always told you about the most special lamb?”
Alexis looked up at Mr. Crumbly with those striking blue eyes. Her eyes sparkled with love, compassion and sadness all at once. Too much for a small girl of five; a tear spilled and etched her sweet little cheek. “Yes,” she said. “And Mr. Crumbly, I wanted to tell you I love you very much.”
“I love you more,” he quoted Granny and smiled. He bent back down and hugged the girl again as her mom touched her shoulder and the two of them headed back to their apartment.
Mr. Crumbly put the remaining casserole in the refrigerator and washed the green bean pan and the small amount of dishes he had used. He put the cork back on the wine bottle and placed it in the cabinet. He walked to the front door of the apartment and picked up his shoes and placed them under his dresser.
Things were so different without Alice. The energy of the day had eluded him and he now felt very tired. One thing about retirement and being single again was that you could go to bed even in the middle of the day.
Mr. Crumbly undressed, put on his pajamas, brushed his teeth and pulled down the covers on both sides of the bed. “Goodnight Alice,” he said. “I love you and I miss you very much. Thank you for the casserole, it was delicious.”
Was it his imagination or had he actually heard her answer. It must have been the lovely day and the joy of eating Alice’s cooking one last time.
Mr. Crumbly lay back on his pillow and gently whispered his prayers. He had never had a problem sleeping; now was no different. As he lay there his dream seemed so real. Alice had come to visit. No… he had gone to visit Alice. No matter, what a wonderful vision of loveliness she was in this place he recognized as home.