Featured Story

An October gift

This story fist appeared in 2016.

It had been a few years since I’d seen Simon. When we worked it out and discovered it was almost a decade, we both laughed.

Could it have been that long? He was one of those people you meet after a long separation and re-establish your old affection in a moment.

Simon and I were reporters at a newspaper on Long Island for five years and became friends in a hurry. He left to edit a community weekly in a small upstate town, and shortly after that I left. We stayed in touch with emails and the occasional phone call. When he called to say he was in the city at a conference with an afternoon and night free and would like to see the Island, I told him Mary was visiting relatives in New Hampshire so he would have to settle for just me.

“Then the hell with it,” Simon deadpanned. “If she’s not there, what’s the point?”

He had been widowed early and never remarried. Childless, he was a strong, independent man, who always seemed perfectly at peace with himself, some of the many qualities that made him a good friend.

I bought his favorite bourbon and red wine, and late in the afternoon drove to the ferry to pick him up. At home I held up the bottle of Jim Beam and a glass to Simon, but he said no. He was on the wagon, but not to let that stop me. Again we laughed when I told him I was using the same transportation.

I threw some dinner together, set the table and lit candles, remembering the advice that if you’re cooking for an occasion and the food is next to inedible, turn down the lights and let candlelight lend ceremony to the meal.

After I cleared the table and spooned ice cream into bowls for us, Simon said, breaking the mood of happy reminiscing, “This is a rough time for me — late October.”

He said two years ago, near the end of the month, his mother had died. The grief in his face and his empty eyes said everything, I thought. But when he told me a story about the aftermath of his mother’s death and meeting a woman named Lucia, I learned it wasn’t grief alone that had him staring into the candlelight as if he was searching for answers within the flame.

“My mother asked for me, before she passed away, but I didn’t go,” he said, finally turning his eyes to mine.

Faith — his mother’s name — was the most remarkable person he’d ever known. A single mother, she raised Simon and his sister, Virginia, who is a year older, in St. Louis, working as a bookkeeper for a travel agency during the day and three nights a week waiting tables. Simon and Virginia both went to college and were launched on careers soon after graduation.

“She did everything for us,” he said, “and made our home happy in the bargain. She was so” — his voice caught — “proud of me. Of us.”

Over the years he never missed a week in the spring with his mother who was living with Virginia and her family back in St. Louis, and spent every Christmas there. A week didn’t go by when he wasn’t in touch with her.

When Virginia called to tell him that Faith — who had been bedridden — had taken a turn for the worse and had asked for him, Simon said he would organize flights and be there later in the day.

“But I didn’t,” he said. He started drinking, didn’t answer texts or phone calls, and arrived two days later in St. Louis after receiving a final text from Virginia that said only: “She’s gone.”

The expression of rebuke on his sister’s face when he arrived at her house turned Simon mute. There were no words to explain.

All he could do was weep. When she embraced him, it was worse.

He went home immediately after the funeral and stopped drinking. The small town was just starting to become aware of Halloween, and so was he, seeing a plywood ghoul haunting a lawn and farther on, a white-sheet ghost hanging from a tree branch. It had finally turned colder, with falling leaves scurrying ahead of the wind. For a few days, a pale half moon appeared over the town every afternoon, glowing brighter as the days darkened.

Insomnia became a mocking enemy. During those October nights, he would get up and try to read, but eventually found himself in the pre-dawn hours at the office, a three-story house just off Main Street. Alone, he’d work, writing and editing stories, putting the paper together for the coming week. Every other morning or so, near dawn, Officer John Caldon of the police department would poke his head in to say hello. Other than that, Simon was alone, and back home by early afternoon, dreading the night to come.


He tormented himself: Why didn’t he come when Faith called him? Was getting hammered an excuse not to go? Why had he denied his mother’s final request?

Simon was brought out of his wee hours solitude one morning by a knock on the front door of the old house. A young woman with a backpack, holding a cardboard cup of coffee, made a quick apology as Simon ushered her in. She was slight, about 30, with a serious but bright and warm expression.

New to town, Lucia had been told the paper kept bound copies going back decades. She was researching a series of families from the area — she had learned she had relatives in the town — and wondered if she could look through some old issues. She wasn’t the first person to come by to rummage through the recorded past; the “ancestry” craze was bringing many people to the paper’s archives.

“I asked her where she got coffee at this hour,” Simon told me, “and she said the truck stop out on the interstate. ‘If I’m back tomorrow I’ll bring you a cup,’ she said with this killer smile.”

He showed her the room at the back of the house where the bound copies were kept. An hour later she emerged and sat across from his desk. “Success?” he asked.

She was getting there, she said, and then asked why he was working at such an ungodly hour. He mentioned his insomnia. “And you, Lucia?” Simon asked. She wanted to get her research done before work, she answered. When he asked where, she pointed at the coffee cup.

“I don’t know who came up with the idea of eating where truckers go for the best food,” she said with that smile, and asked if it was all right to stop by the next morning. She’d bring him coffee and some doughnuts, which was the only thing the truck stop did halfway decently. Simon thanked her, but said no.

“I’ll bring them,” Lucia said. “You’ll want one after you see me chowing down.”

She was right. The next morning the doughnuts and coffee — just milk, no sugar, the way he liked it — were delicious. Out of her backpack she took a small pumpkin and placed it on his desk. “Got to brighten this place up,” she said over her shoulder as she went to the archive room.

It was amazing, he thought, how healing can begin with the simplest acts.

They spoke later in the small office as the wind found several new entries into the old house. He asked about her research. She was close to finding what she was looking for, with one name leading to another, one person to another.

“What are you looking for, Simon?” Lucy asked, offering half of the last doughnut.

He was surprised at not being startled by the question. She was an open, straight-ahead person of good manners, and he knew if he ducked the question she wouldn’t pursue it.

But he told her how he couldn’t answer the question that robbed him of sleep and peace — why he had not come when his mother had called. “I’m afraid,” he said, not caring that he was opening up to a stranger. Somehow he knew she had provided a way of opening up to himself. “Afraid I’ll never get over this.”

“Sure you will,” Lucy said. “Did you ever think you didn’t go was because you knew if you went she would die, and by staying home you thought she wouldn’t? Some say you don’t bury your mother in the earth, but in your heart. Would your mother want you to beat yourself up like this?”

He quickly changed the subject, saying that, yes, he’d split that last doughnut with her. It wasn’t that she had crossed a line of intimacy — it was that Simon was speechless before the wisdom she had presented.

The window next to his desk began to turn from black to gray. The morning was taking the night by surprise.

Lucia looked at her phone and said, lightly touching his hand, “Got to go. No rest for the wicked.”

A few moments after she left, he heard voices on the porch outside. He was still half stunned at what she had said, and took his time getting to the door. There was Officer John.

“Hey, Simon,” John said, framed by the velvety pre-dawn light growing on the street behind him. “Thought I’d drop by to keep you company for a minute. But I see you had that covered.”

“Do you know her, John?”

“The old lady? Never had the privilege. Relative of yours?”

“She was with someone?”

No, the cop told him. There had been only one person going down the steps, a smiling, elderly woman. No one else.

“I went inside,” my friend told me from across the table. “I don’t know how long I held that little pumpkin in my hands. It was the most real thing I’ve ever touched.”

One candle had burned out with a thin thread of smoke.

“What do you make of that?” Simon asked me.

I shook my head, looking for an answer.

“A simple thing,” he said. “A gift.”