Emily Janson was devastated when she got the call that Jonathan, the man she was to marry in two weeks, was just killed in a motorcycle accident. Holding the phone to her ear, her breath leaving her, she stood still, unable to speak, unable to comprehend the words she heard. The call came from Jonathan’s mother, who had just been called by the police.
“Oh no,” she gasped before the sobs broke loose and tears filled her eyes. Clutching her hair, she could hear his mother crying as she held the phone to her ear, “Oh no, Oh no,” Emily repeated, tears rolling down her cheeks to her lips.
“The police just called,” Jonathan’s mother said through her sobs. “It just happened. They said he was killed instantly.”
“Oh my God, I can’t believe it,” Emily said, her body trembling, her fingers gripping the phone. Where is he?” Emily asked.
“They took him to Memorial Hospital. They saw the tag he’s an organ donor.”
Emily remembered Jonathan signing up as a donor when he got his license and was not surprised when he mentioned that to her. It was just like him to want to donate his organs to someone who needed what he would no longer need. When she hung up, staring at the phone, she collapsed on the kitchen chair, her mouth open, her body numb.
Memories suddenly flashed through her mind like a kaleidoscope, images of their walks, the night he took her virginity in her bed, his sweetness, his gentleness, how he looked in the apron when he cooked her delicious meals, his smile when he brought her flowers from the garden, his eyes when he spoke about his poetry, seeing and feeling his intensity while she watched him drawing in his sketch book or painting on canvases or pieces of wood. She could see how tender he was taking care of his mother after his father died of cancer when he was fourteen driving her to her doctor’s appointments, taking her shopping, making sure she took her medicine. He was the perfect son, the perfect lover and Emily knew she was the luckiest girl alive to have a man like Jonathan love her and want to spend the rest of his life with her and now he was suddenly gone. Dead, how could it be?
Later she found out from witnesses that a truck went through a stop sign and Jonathan crashed into its side and was thrown two hundred feet over the truck, landing on the sidewalk in front of Russell’s Drug Store, ironically where he picked up his mother’s prescriptions.
Emily worked as a waitress at Pete’s Diner and she was suppose to be at work in an hour after she got the call at seven am that morning but knew she couldn’t face the familiar customers she served breakfast and lunch to everyday. Emily took pride in her job as an efficient waitress who knew what most of the customers wanted before they ordered, how she knew their names. She had worked there since graduating high school and now at twenty two, liked how Pete valued her, depended on her to make his customers happy and he knew it was Emily who made his diner successful.
Even with the pain of realizing Jonathan had been killed, she worried about Pete and what he would do if she didn’t come to work, but after she heard his shock, he told her not to worry, he would call Janice, the waitress who came into help with the busy lunch crowd. Emily was relieved and wanted to go over to Jonathan’s house to be with his mother but couldn’t budge from the kitchen table.
The invitations to the wedding had been sent out over a month ago. Everyone knew that Jonathan and Emily were the perfect couple and the thought of their marriage delighted everyone in Tomkinsville, the small Pennsylvania town on the Susquehanna River forty miles from Philadelphia. She knew what a shock it would be when people realized there would be no wedding. Not able to sit any longer, Emily walked around the house, past the couch where she and Jonathan made out, past the old 15 inch television where they watched basketball games and movies, into the dining room glancing at the chair where he sat when he came there for dinner then slowly climbed the stairs to her bedroom, looking at the unmade bed, her jeans on the floor where she threw them the night before when Jonathan and she made mad passionate love and remembered the sound of his motorcycle when he left at one am to go home because he had to get up early for his first class at Montgomery County Community College.
She remembered him telling her how much he loved the art history class he was taking, how he loved painting and was determined to be the best artist he could be. That was how he did everything and it was one of the things she loved most about him--his passion, his energy, how much he loved life and how he loved riding his motorcycle, his pampered motorcycle, how she loved sitting behind him as they drove though the countryside, inevitably ending at their special spot to make love by Grover’s Pond, taking the Indian style blanket from the leather saddlebag, laying it on the soft grass in a clearing, then kissing, touching and thrilling her in ways that made her scream his name and want to give herself completely to him. She thought how magical he was, how open and yet, mysterious, making her know it would take a lifetime of discovery to know the depth of his spirit.
Emily cringed when she saw her wedding dress hanging on her closet door then the picture of Jonathan and her after the prom on her bureau, how stiff he looked in the tuxedo but that smile, that radiant smile made her choke back tears. So many thoughts and feelings swirled through her as she stood in her room not sure what to do, how to tell her parents, how upset the whole town would be as the news spread. How would she hold up at the funeral, how could she survive without the love of her life. The thoughts and feelings were unbearable and she knew there was no way she would ever be the same. She knew he was special and it would take a miracle for her to find another man like him.
Months passed. Emily filled her days with work at Pete’s Diner, spending as much time as possible with Jonathan’s mother, knowing how impossibly difficult it must be to lose her only child and be alone in the world. Being with Jonathan’s mother was a way of being as close to him as she could, but it was painful to see how lost she was, how desolate and noticed she began drinking wine every afternoon, sometimes finishing a bottle before the dinner she made but rarely finished. The house was often dark when Emily arrived and she always opened the curtains to let the sunlight in.
She spent as little time as possible at home and then a month or so after Jonathan’s death, moved into a small apartment over Tony’s Pizza Shop which was two blocks from the diner. She and her mother had never gotten along and her father was passive and distant. Her parents didn’t seem to like each other so being around them was something she avoided. They grieved for her loss of Jonathan and worried about her, but the communication with her parents was superficial at best. She couldn’t confide in her mother because she was so judgmental and already had opinions before Emily finished speaking. She felt her mother never really heard what she was saying so she decided it was best to keep things to herself rather than be lectured to with her mother’s opinions, knowing she would never feel the compassion and acceptance she craved.
It felt right for her to move out and fix up her own place with furniture, dishes and a few appliances from the Good Will. Still grieving her loss of Jonathan, she imagined him with her, seeing him painting the walls, or sketching, but she would shake those painful thoughts away and try to read, or try out new recipes. She did have her favorite photo of him on the table next to her bed and several pictures of them on her refrigerator. It was hard for her to believe he wasn’t in her life. His absence would come to her like a thump in her heart, bringing a burning ache to her throat from holding back the tears that wanted to burst out.
One day, six or so months after Jonathan’s death, an older man walked into the diner. She noticed him lean his bicycle up against the railing on the steps to the entrance. She had never seen him before. He was probably in his late forties or early fifties she thought and always ordered the same thing, black coffee and a slice of apple pie. He always came in at one-thirty, just after the lunch crowd left when the diner was slow. Emily usually worked from eight in the morning until two or two thirty depending how much she needed to do to get ready for the next day. The diner closed at three but served dinner on the weekends. She made sure the sugar packets were on each table, the salt and pepper shakers refilled, ketchup bottles and syrup containers topped off, the knives, forks and spoons wrapped in napkins ready to put on the tables when customers sat down.
After seeing him come in every afternoon, she was curious about the stranger, knowing he wasn’t from their town. He always wore a denim jacket and faded jeans. His long graying hair curled up at the collar, his blue eyes twinkled behind wire rimmed glasses. Sometimes he shaved but most days, she could see the stubble on his cheeks and chin. He sometimes read the newspaper or a book but mostly he wrote in a black covered notebook and she wondered what he was writing about so intently. He always had two or three cups of coffee while he wrote, shoving the empty apple pie plate aside. Emily chuckled when she noticed he wiped the pie crumbs from his mouth with the back of his hand rather than a napkin and remembered Jonathan did that.
He was quiet and somewhat shy, but she asked his name so she could greet him when he came in. She liked how he smiled and looked at her when he ordered his pie and coffee, which he eventually didn’t need to do because Emily just said, “Hi Walter. Let me guess--apple pie and coffee” which made him laugh.
After that she didn’t pay much attention to him as she worked busily to finish her setting up for the next day. He would write in his journal, eat his pie, sip his coffee, occasionally glancing up at Emily and their eyes would meet, smiling then both would go back to what they were doing. The diner was usually empty at that time with an occasional customer coming in to take out coffee, but she was always delighted to see Walter riding his bicycle down the street then come in every afternoon and sit at the counter, always on the same stool, take out his journal to write, thanking Emily for serving him his mug of coffee and the apple pie. She noticed his shy smile as he looked at her then took a sip of the black coffee, opened his journal, picked up the pen and started writing.
Though she wasn’t attracted to him physically, he must have been twenty or so years older than Emily, still there was something about him she liked, something in the way he smiled when she said, “Hi Walter,” the warm twinkle in his eyes, how intensely he wrote, taking sips of coffee, running his hands through his graying long hair, how he looked up at her when she refilled his mug, but there was something in the way he said, “Thank you Emily,” that touched her, made her curious about him but also reluctant to ask him any questions, sensing by his quiet shyness that he would not want to share much about his life.
Still, she wondered what he was writing so intensely about, how he filled pages, rarely looking up, except for his occasional glances at Emily. There was something in the way their eyes met, something strange that she couldn’t articulate but liked. She found herself thinking about Walter when she was walking home or washing dishes in her small apartment and she wondered why she was so fascinated by him.
One summer day, several months after Walter started coming to the diner, while Emily poured him his second mug of coffee, he looked up at her and out of the blue said, “You seem sad. Even though you always smile, you seem sad.”
Emily was stunned by the statement. They had never conversed, never said anything other than the trivial greetings, but his sudden words surprised her. She just looked at him, trying to swallow her surprise before responding. “What makes you think I’m sad? I’m not sad,” she said.
Walter shrugged his shoulders, looking into Emily’s eyes. “I don’t know why I said that. I just feel your sadness.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Emily answered. “No, I’m fine, really, I’m not sad.”
“Sorry,” Walter said. “I guess I shouldn’t have said that. I mean, we never really speak and I know nothing about you, but when I look at you, I feel your sadness.”
“Are you an empathic person?” Emily asked.
“I don’t know,” Walter answered, chuckling. “I never thought of myself like that but lately, I seem to feel things I’ve never felt before. I can’t explain it.”
Emily nodded, listening to Walter, glancing down at his journal, the pen now lying on the page while they spoke for the first time, surprised that the first thing he would say to her was so intimate.
“Are you sad?” Emily asked, “Maybe it’s your sadness you’re talking about, not mine.” She paused, looking into Walter’s eyes, “Are you sad?” she repeated.
Walter shrugged his shoulders again. “I don’t know. It’s just strange that we’ve never really said much to each other and we’re talking about sadness. That’s kind of weird, don’t you think?”
“Yes, very,” Emily said and sighed deeply. “Well, I better get back to work. Let me know if you want more coffee,” she added then put the coffee pot back on the burner before going back to wrapping the silverware in napkins.
Walter then finished his coffee, closed his notebook and left the five dollar bill on the counter, the amount he left everyday which included Emily’s tip, glanced over at her, and waved goodbye, “See you tomorrow,” he said, smiling, as he opened the door and left.
When the door closed, Emily just looked at Walter walking away, watched him get on his bike, wobble a moment before picking up speed, watched him riding down Main Street, baffled by his question about sadness and now was more curious then ever about him, thinking what a strange encounter they just had, especially after never really speaking to each other before.
The next day when he walked in, Emily greeted him as usual, “Let me guess--apple pie and coffee” and they both laughed. When she served him, he said thank you and Emily decided to say, “So how are you today, Walter?”
“Well, that’s a personal question,” he answered and laughed.
“I didn’t mean anything personal,” Emily responded, smiling. “But after you asking me yesterday if I’m sad, I thought I’d take a chance and pry into your life. You don’t have to tell me how you are if it’s too personal,” she said, teasing him then laughed.
“Well, if you really must know,” Walter said. “I’m fine, really.”
“Cool,” Emily said and laughed again. “I’m glad to hear you’re fine,” she added, enjoying their playful banter and feeling relaxed with him, glad that after months of never really speaking to each other, a barrier had been broken.
Walter took a sip of his coffee, opened his notebook, glanced up at Emily, sighed, “Well, I need to get back to work.”
“Work,” Emily asked. “What are you working on?”
“Poetry,” Walter said.
“Really, are you a poet?” Emily asked. “Sorry, I’m prying.”
“That’s okay. I don’t know if I’m a poet or not but since my operation I’ve been writing poetry and drawing. I was never interested in poetry, in fact hated it in high school and hardly ever read books. So this is new for me.”
“That’s good, that’s cool,” she said, “well, I won’t bother you. Enjoy the pie,” she added and walked away, returning to the ketchup bottles she was refilling, occasionally glancing back at Walter writing intensely, curious about what he is writing, “What a strange man he is,” she thought, her fascination with him growing and she wondered about his operation. “What was that about?” she wondered. He looked so healthy, his twinkly blue eyes, his ruddy complexion, his mostly dark hair turning slightly grey and she remembered the spry way he hopped off his bicycle and entered the diner every day. Though he was an older man, there was something youthful about him that she found appealing.
When she came over to refill his coffee, she glanced down at his writing, “How’s the writing going?” she asked, “Oh, sorry to interrupt you.”
He looked up at her, surprised to hear her words and looked like he had just come out of trance. “Fine, it’s hard but I think its going fine. I never know,” he said, and smiled.
When Walter looked up at her, she thought it seemed he was coming back from someplace faraway and felt a pang, a strange feeling that swelled up in her then left but somehow thrilled her. There was something familiar in the way he spoke, the way their eyes met when he said, “I never know.”
“Well, I’ll let you get back to your work,” Emily said. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“No problem,” Walter said. “I didn’t mind. I’m kind of glad you’re curious.”
“Oh thank you. I like watching how you concentrate on your writing. It’s interesting. It makes me wonder what you’re writing about.”
“Well, maybe one day you will find out,” he said, taking a sip of his coffee then glancing down at his journal then back at Emily.
“I’d like that,” she answered. “Well, back to the salt shakers,” she said.
“Right,” Walter said. “I need to get back to this poem before I lose where I was.”
Emily turned and walked away while Walter continued writing and Emily continued working at her mindless work but thinking about him, wanting to know more about him, how he suddenly showed up on his bicycle several months ago and started coming in every afternoon at the same time for his apple pie and coffee, how quiet he was until recently when they started having little conversations. She thought how interesting it was that he started writing poetry and drawing after his operation. She remembered his saying it was new, something he had never had an interest in doing before but now he loved it.
The next day, Walter didn’t come in for his coffee and apple pie and Emily kept looking at the door, surprised that she missed him and wondered if something was wrong, maybe her probing bothered him, maybe he decided to leave town. It wasn’t unusual for Emily to be concerned about her customers. After so many years of serving the same people, she knew their stories. Sometimes, she would even sit down with them for a few minutes if she wasn’t busy and they would confide in her. She prided herself in being a good listener, unlike her mother, and was careful not to give advice but to ask questions, helping them express what they were feeling often nodding and they could feel her genuine interest and caring. They always said, “You’re so easy to talk to.”
“I wonder what happened to Walter,” she said, glancing up at the clock, her work almost finished. “Maybe something came up,” she thought and took off her apron, stepped into the kitchen to say goodbye to Pete and Gary, the dishwasher and walked the two blocks to her apartment. Her door was on the side of the Tony’s Pizza shop and the whiff of various odors hit her as she entered, but fortunately, would disappear once in her second floor apartment. She liked that Pete didn’t require a waitress uniform and she could wear jeans or a skirt and in summer, Bermuda shorts. Her feet were usually sore when she got home and the first thing she would do was take off her sneakers, sit on the side of her bed and rub her feet then go barefooted into the tiny kitchen to see if Gabby, her cat had water and food in her bowl. Her friend, Susan’s cat had kittens a few months ago and so needed to find a home and Emma liked the idea of having a kitten to take care of.
Lying down on her bed, she glanced at the photo of Jonathan on her bedside table, thinking about his smile and how much she missed him then picked up the paper back book she had been reading, “Wuthering Heights” for the third time, touching the worn cover, staring at the picture of two lovers, opened the book to where she had an old envelope used as a marker, but when she started to read, her mind drifted and she found herself thinking about Walter, wondering why after months of coming into the diner every afternoon at the same time for the past four months, he didn’t come in and hoped it wasn’t because of her prying or he wasn’t well. She then wondered about the operation he said had changed him. What did he mean? What was he like before the operation? What was his story?
When Walter came in the next day, she was glad to see him, “Hi Walter, let me guess—apple pie and coffee,” she said.
“How did you know,” he responded and laughed.
“Guess I’m psychic,” Emma said. “Missed you yesterday,” she added as she poured his coffee and brought him a slice of pie.
“Yeah, I had to go for a check up into Philadelphia, yesterday. I had to take the bus and didn’t get back until last night,” he said.
“Oh, I wondered,” Emily said, “everything okay.”
“Yep, things look good, they said.” Walter sipped his coffee and opened his notebook, reading over what he had recently written.
“Well, I’ll leave you be,” Emily said and went into the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with a tray filled with white coffee mugs. She glanced over at Walter but didn’t say anything noticing he was looking up at the ceiling, thinking, as if searching for his thoughts, as if the words were coming from someplace else, then started writing, his pen moving quickly across the page and Emily was fascinated by the speed and intensity as if the words were pouring out of him. He stopped for a sip of coffee and had only taken a few bites of his pie but there was something about the intense way he was writing that fascinated her, made her watch him, something that made her want to know what he was writing.
Emily finished stacking the mugs picked up the coffee pot, came over to top off Walter’s coffee, “Read something to me!” she suddenly said, impulsively, surprising herself.
“What!” Walter said, startled out of his trance and looked up at Emily.
“Sorry to interrupt but I want you to read something to me, what were you just writing?”
Stunned by Emily’s question, her sudden demand for him to read something to her surprised him. He stared up at her. “You want me to read something,” he said, baffled, his eyes looking at her then glancing down at what he had been writing.
“Yes, you said you would read something to me some time. I’m so curious about what you’re writing. I know it’s none of my business, so it’s okay if you don’t want to,” she said, feeling awkward.
Walter didn’t say anything but looked at her, still surprised at her bluntness but then smiled at her, then chuckled.
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have interrupted you,” she said.
“Thank you for asking,” Walter answered. “Thank you for being interested.”
“I am interested,” she said, surprised by his thanking her. “I’m not usually this rude,” she added. “I thought you would be upset with me.”
“No I’m not upset. I’ve wanted to read something to you for a long time but was afraid to say anything, so I’m glad you asked. Really, so thank you for asking. You made it easier for me, but I must admit you took me by surprise.”
“I was afraid to ask you,” Emily said, awkwardly. “But watching you write so intensely made me so curious. I couldn’t help it.”
Walter smiled again, looking at Emily, their eyes meeting, neither of them speaking, the silence like a deep breath, like the silence between notes of music, a pause without sound that is as much a part of the music as the music. He then took a deep breath and glanced down at his writing. “I started this poem this morning when it was still dark out and I stood at the window looking up at the stars. It was just before dawn. It’s not finished, but I’ll read what I’ve written so far.
“Great. I’m all ears,” Emily said, feeling her fascination for this strange man growing. She watched him looking down at his words, closing his eyes as if gathering up his courage to read to her. She felt his shyness, his gentleness and was still surprised that he thanked her for asking.
“It’s called, “Good Morning Stars,” he said, taking another deep breath.Good morning stars-- again our orbits crossand I see your worldshigh above my life, my eyes touching youmillions of miles awaywhere we meet each dawn, your burning worlds swirling,though some are embers now,burnt out light years ago—a state I cannot knowsince news travels slowly across the universeand yet, your fire in my eyes pulls me towards your glow,and makes mewonder--am I with youhigh above my life?Are you burning in my mind,the universe inside of me, here where I spin through darknessnever certainwhere my existence begins and ends?
When he stopped, his eyes staring down at the page, he took a breath and looked up at Emily. “That’s it so far. It’s not finished.”
At first Emily didn’t say anything, thinking about what she just heard, looking at Walter, noticing the twinkle in his blue eyes behind his wire rimmed glasses. “Wow! That’s amazing,” Emily said, “I can’t believe you wrote that. It’s so cosmic.”
“I can’t believe I wrote it either,” he said. “This is all new to me. I never thought about the stars or the universe or nature and my spirit.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You wouldn’t have liked me if you knew me last year. You would have thought I was worthless scumbag,” he said.
“Really, why, what do you mean?”
He shook his head, looking down and away before turning his eyes back to Emily.
“I was a mess. I drank a lot. Smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, ate the slop at the fast food places, man, I was a regular. I was overweight and I always had a bad heart, ever since I was a kid then in the last few years started having trouble breathing, I was always tired, could hardly get out of bed in the morning. I drank during the day something I shouldn’t have done because I drove a truck. Well, to cut to the chase, I wrecked the truck, got fired, lost my license and there I was out of work then the woman I lived with at the time kicked me out because of the drinking and she wasn’t the first one who kicked me out, then one day, I collapsed right on the street. They took me to the emergency ward and that’s when they told me my heart was shot. They said I wouldn’t make it unless I had a heart transplant.”
“That’s some story,” Emily said.
“Well, I was lucky. I was transferred to the University of Pennsylvania hospital where they have specialists who do transplants and they put me into this computer system that finds organs for people, you know matches them up but they couldn’t find one with my blood type and other stuff that has to be right. I was always under oxygen, I couldn’t keep my eyes open, I was weak, my time was running out and I was sure it was all over for me. Then one day there was this big commotion around me and they rushed me into the operating room telling me they just found a heart that was a good match up. They said I probably would not have made it until the weekend if they hadn’t found a heart. It was flown to the hospital from I don’t know where and that’s the story. They were pretty sure my body wouldn’t reject it. I had to stop smoking and drinking and the strange thing is it was easy. I was in the hospital after the transplant for six weeks and couldn’t get cigarettes or booze but I also didn’t have the craving I used to have, didn’t miss it one bit. Anyway, since the operation I feel like a different person and now I just have to go back every few months for checkups. That’s where I went yesterday. I had to take the bus because I still don’t have a license. Now I just ride my bike places and take long walks. It’s good exercise for me.”
“Wow, you’re lucky,” Emily said.
“I am and I remember after the operation, I’d look out the window and the trees looked so green and the sky looked so blue, the clouds looked so white. Everything was glowing and I felt like I had suddenly been born again, not in the Christian born again way, but like everything was different, like I was seeing it for the first time.”
Emily could feel the excitement in his voice. She had never seen him so animated. He always seemed so reserved, so shy, so quiet and though she noticed the energetic way he hopped of his bike and the spry way he entered the diner, when he sat down at the counter, he seemed to sink into himself. He would smile at Emily when she said, “Let me guess,” and Emily could see the lively twinkle in his eyes, but then he would get quiet, look away, open his notebook, reading over what was there before picking up his pen and though Emily would say to herself, “What a strange man,” she also felt drawn to him as if he was a mystery she needed to solve.
“So, Walt, how did you end up in Tomkinsville? We’re kind of in the middle of nowhere,” Emily asked.
“Good question,” Walter answered. “I’ve been trying to figure that one out myself.”
“Really, you don’t know why you ended up here,” she asked, holding the coffee pot out to the side, looking into Walter’s eyes, seeing his puzzled expression.
“But here I am,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
“So, tell me, I’m curious, why someone like you would end up in Tomkinsville?” she asked.
“Like me? What do you mean like me?”
“I don’t know. You just show up and start coming everyday for coffee and pie, hardly ever talk to anyone, just you and your bike and you say you write poetry. You’re different, that’s what I mean. I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s almost like you don’t belong here.”
“Really, is that what you think?” Walter said, putting down his pen. He took a sip of his coffee then looked at Emily. “Well, it’s hard to explain, but I’m here because I think I do belong here.”
“That’s weird,” Emily said. “Why? What makes you think you belong here?”
Walter sighed, looking down at his journal then back at Emily, “Well, the day I was released from the hospital, my friend, Al, who, at that time was my only friend, said he wanted to take me for a long drive in the country to get fresh air, see the farms, the cows. He said it would be good for me, told me he liked taking long drives and thought he would treat me to a day in the country. That’s what he said.”
Emily nodded, listening, “So did you like that?” she asked, probing like she always did when people confided in her.
“Yes, I did. We drove from Philly then when we got to the river, went over the bridge then turned on River Road and drove through a lot a little towns--some only two blocks long, some with signs showing how high the river got in the flood of 1955 then we came into Tomkinsville and I saw this diner and the park and the drugstore, Russell’s Drug Store, and the high school and for some reason, I asked Al to stop the car. I said, “Stop. I want to look around this town.”
“So did you?” Emily asked.
Al looked at me like I was crazy. “Why the hell do you want to look around this nothing town?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I just do,” I said. “Come on, just stop for a few minutes,” I insisted. So, he did. He pulled over in front of the hardware store on the next block and I got out and I walked around. I even walked up to this diner and stood outside looking at it and thought about going in like I was drawn to it. “Let’s go in and get a coffee,” I said, but Al said, “let’s get going” and so that was that. We drove up the river then went over the bridge to the other side of the river and drove back to Philly but I remember looking across the river at Tomkinsville, not sure why I was so fascinated by the town.”
“Interesting,” Emily said, nodding, looking at Walter. She returned the coffee pot to the burner then came around and sat on the stool next to Walter. “Then what happened. How come you decided to come and live here?”
“Another good question,” Walter said, turning to face Emily, “I never saw you sit down before.”
“Well, I do from time to time, especially when one of the customers wants to talk. I’m kind of the mother confessor around here,” Emily said, chuckling. “So, tell me, why did you decide to live in Tomkinsville, of all places?”
“Well, when I got back home in Philly, me, with my new heart and wanting to make sure I didn’t get back into my old habits decided I should take off to some place. Start over, do you know what I mean,” Walter asked. “I just knew I needed to make a big change.”
Emily nodded, “And?” she asked, urging Walter to keep talking.
“And I remembered stopping in this town that day and for some reason liking it. I couldn’t drive so I decided to take the bus here with a few things in a backpack, got a room at Miss Henderson’s. Do you know her? She’s got a house on Parker Street?”
“Of course I know her. She was my fifth grade teacher, anyway, I know everybody in this town,” Emily said. “So you just decided to show up and live in this town. That’s so cool.”
“I guess you could say I was drawn here,” Walt said. “I like it around here and take long bike rides and walks. I like exploring,” Walter added. “I have a part-time job gardening for a few people, but recently I’ve been drawing a lot and when I can afford it, I want to start painting. I’ve never painted before, but when I stand over on Walker’s Hill or on that dock where people keep their boats. I want to paint a picture of the river.”
“I think I can find you some paint,” Emily said. “I know where there’s paint that hasn’t been used and I could get it for you.”
“Really, that would be great, but suddenly, I’ve had this urge to paint. I like writing poetry but, I want to see if I can capture the light, the ripples on the river,” Walter said, looking into Emily’s eyes in a way that captivated her.
“My boyfriend used to paint,” Emily said.
“Used to paint,” Walter asked, “so your boyfriend doesn’t paint anymore.”
Thinking about Jonathan’s paints and Walter wanting to paint brought a rush of feeling over Emily, she felt her heart beating, remembering how much Jonathan loved painting, how he wanted to be the best artist possible.
“How come he doesn’t paint anymore?” Walter asked.
“He was killed about eight months ago in a motorcycle accident,” Emily said.
“Horrible,” Walter responded. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“How could you? You just came into this town a little while ago. You couldn’t have known Jonathan.”
“That’s true. In fact I know nothing about you either,” Walter said, pausing, looking into Emily’s eyes, “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but I think you’re beautiful.”
Emily blushed, “Oh, you do, well, thank you,” Emily said, feeling her cheeks reddening, stunned by the way he just blurted out those words.
“I can’t believe I’m sitting here talking to you,” he said. “I’ve been coming here since the day I arrived wishing I could get up the nerve to talk to you. I started coming here everyday when I knew you wouldn’t be busy. I didn’t just come in for the pie and coffee, I came to see you.”
“Really,” Emily said, “I had no idea.”
“How could you?” Walter said, chuckling, “Until the other day we hadn’t said more than two words to each other. All you would say is ‘let me guess…apple pie and coffee and that was it.”
Emily took a deep breath looking at Walter. “Yeah, well, I guess we broke the ice opening up like that. You know my story and I know yours.”
“I’m sorry about Jonathan,” Walter said.
“Thanks,” Emily said. “Well, if I can find Jonathan’s paints I will bring them in tomorrow. You can have them.”
“Is that hard for you just giving me his paints?” Walter asked.
“No, not at all, if you knew Jonathan you would understand. He was very generous. He’d give a stranger the shirt off his back, that’s how he was. He was a very special person and really talented. He also wrote poetry and loved to paint. You would have liked him.”
“Well thanks,” Walter said, finishing his coffee, closing his notebook. “I’m keeping you from working and I better get going. I want to go for a bike ride before it gets too late.”
Okay,” Emily said, hopping off of the stool. “I’ll bring the paint in tomorrow, also brushes. See you,” she said, going in back of the counter.
And that’s what Emily did. The next day when Walter came in, she gave him the grey plastic box with Jonathan’s tubes of oil paint and a paper bag filled with brushes. “You’ll have to make your own palette. I couldn’t find his and you can get things to paint on at Ace’s Hardware store, that’s where Jonathan got stuff. He liked painting on pieces of wood. Sometimes he made canvasses.”
So, Walter started painting. He wrote in the morning. A few mornings he went to his gardening job, but every day he came in for apple pie and coffee after having lunch in his room at Miss Henderson’s, usually canned soup he heated up on the hot plate. He’d write in his journal while Emily prepared everything for the next day but they always ended up having conversations, often having deep discussions about life, or Walter telling her he was painting the sheep in the pasture on Kinghill Farm, or the big old Chestnut tree at the rear of the park.
One day, he told Emily about this beautiful, magical spot he found and goes to every day. It’s about a ten minute bike ride out of town and he loves painting there, but there was something else that surprised her. He started calling her “Em instead of Emily. He’d say, “Em, you should have seen the fish jumping in the pond and the now there’s a couple of swans that live there.”
No one ever called her “Em” except Jonathan and it surprised her at how natural it felt. She liked the way he said it and she’d feel a warm ripple go through her that reminded her of how she felt when Jonathan called her “Em.” Walter’s voice resonated in her with a strange vibration that felt comforting but also puzzling. She found herself staring at Walter, trying to understand what it was about him that was captivating her, how eager she was to see him come into the diner and tell her what he was painting and when he said “Em,” she felt a chill, goose bumps on her arm and more and more she felt drawn to this older man with graying hair, the spry way he came into the diner, how rather than being shy with her, he was now exuberant, delighted to tell her what he was painting, occasionally reading her a new poem, both of them sharing more of themselves in the empty diner while Emily filled the salt and pepper shakers or stopped to have a cup of coffee with him.
Something came over Emily, one afternoon when Walter said, “Well it’s been ten months since my operation and there’s no sign my heart is being rejected. I have to go for a check up next week and if everything is okay, I don’t have to go back for a year.”
“That’s good,” Emily said then suddenly remembered it’s been ten months since Jonathan was killed. “Jonathan was killed ten months ago,” she said.
“Ten months, wow,” Walter said then laughed. “”If you could have seen me ten months ago, you wouldn’t recognize me. I mean, I still can feel what a jerk I was and I feel guilty how I treated people, especially women. I can’t believe that was me and now I feel so different.”
“You’re lucky to be alive. You’re lucky they found the right heart for you when they did or you wouldn’t be here.”
“Yeah, that was a close all,” Walter said, closing his eyes, as if remembering how on the edge he was, how somehow he was plucked from the hands of death and given a kick in the ass. “Now I feel blessed.”
Listening to Walter, looking at his eyes as he spoke, she wondered what was so fascinating about him, realizing she now was feeling things about him she never thought she would feel about a man. One day she asked, “This spot you go to, this special place you go to every day to paint, would you take me there?”
“Of course,” Walter said. “If you really want to see it, I’ll take you there. You’re going to love it. I know you will.”
“Cool, can we go today. I have a bike at my place. I hardly ride it anymore but I feel like going there with you, how about it,” Emily asked, suddenly excited about being with Walter in some place other than Pete’s Diner.
“I was going there anyway, so yes, finish up here and we’ll take off. We can go get your bike,” Walter said, taking a sip of coffee and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, again reminding her of Jonathan.
Emily went into the kitchen and waved goodbye to Pete and Gary, “I’m out of here. See you guys tomorrow,” she said, picking up her big yellow canvas bag with a variety of things she took with her, including her thermos of water.
When she got her bicycle from the basement of Tony’s Pizza, she said, “Wait here, Walt, I’ll be right back” and she ran up the stairs, picked up the blanket she wanted and stuffed it in her canvas bag, fed her cat Gabby, petting her. She was wearing jeans and put on a sweat shirt over her t-shirt in case it got chilly then dashed down the steps, “Let’s go. I’m psyched to see this spot of yours,” she said.
Her bike riding was a little wobbly at first but then she quickly got in to a groove and followed Walter out of town, up the steep hill which took some effort but then they could coast down the other side, her long dark hair blowing in back of her as they now rode their bikes side by side. She remembered the many times she rode on the back of Jonathan’s motorcycle. Walter looked at her and smiled. “Almost there,” he shouted.
When they turned off the road and pedaled the narrow path through the woods, Emily somehow was not surprised to find where they were going and when they came to the clearing and she saw Grover’s Pond, she was now surer than ever that what she was beginning to suspect was becoming clearer.
“This is it,” Walter said. “I come here everyday.”
Emily looked out at the water, looked around her at the familiar trees, the old willow tree, the two gnarled apple trees, the ducks on the water, the sound of frogs croaking. It all came back to her. She closed her eyes, breathing in the smell of the grass where she had stood so many times with Jonathan.
She lifted the yellow canvas bag from the handlebars of her bicycle, took out the Indian blanket, unfolded it and flapped it out over the grass.
“What a beautiful blanket,” Walter said, looking at it, watching Emily kneel down smoothing it out. She then sat down on the blanket, looking at the water then up at Walter. “Sit with me,” she said.
When he sat down, she turned to him, “I’ve been here before,” she said.
“I know,” Walter responded.
“You remember this blanket, don’t you,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “I remember this blanket.
Emily looked at him, nodding, smiling. “Make love to me like you used to” she said.
And they did, lying on the blanket, kissing gently at first then with growing intensity, Emily rolling on top straddling and riding him, looking deeply into his eyes, lifting herself then coming down on his bulging hardness faster and faster, leaning forward, their kissing growing more intense, their tongues swirling, their heat rising, her deep need to know again what she hadn’t known since Jonathan died, her sliding off of him onto her back, squirming out of her jeans while Walter took off his then suddenly embracing Emily, holding her in his arms as if clutching his life, kissing her madly then lifting her shirt, kissing her breasts, licking and sucking her nipples, his hands touching her in the magical way she remembered, filling her with the desire to open and give herself to him, her strong legs pulling him into her, filling her, the sensation of his strong thrusts getting faster and harder, their breathing growing ragged, their moaning sounds so familiar getting louder, bringing both of them closer and closer to exploding, the force of his strong thrusts getting faster and harder, her lifting herself to receive and devour what he was giving her, their bodies tensing, trembling then writhing in overwhelming convulsions and ecstatic screams that shattered the quiet air, rising like a crescendo through the trees before Walter collapsed on Emily’s satisfied body, panting, unable to budge then rolling onto his back pulling Emily on top of him, where she lay breathing heavily, her head on his chest, hearing the wonderful thumping of the heart she remembered and happy for the miracle that brought Jonathan back to her.
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<a href="http://www.lushstories.com/stories/love-stories/the-heart.aspx">The Heart</a>