I happened upon the antique brooch in a drawer of the bedside table my ex-wife had used for odds and ends. I hadn’t opened the drawer since she’d left eighteen months before, but I was paying bills one morning and needed a stamp, so rummaged through it looking for one. It held no stamps, but the brooch was nestled into a back corner in a tiny black velvet bag. I uncinched the drawstring and dropped the brooch onto my palm. It was about the size of a walnut, and its shape resembled a kind of expanding flower with a large purple gem I didn’t recognize in its center and other smaller ones sprinkled elsewhere along the face. Its dull metal surface appeared to be silver or something of the sort. I remembered then that she’d told me it had been her grandmother’s: a keepsake passed down to her. I’d never seen her wear it.
I jiggled the brooch in my hand and thought about the night she’d left. I’d come home late from a meeting at the library where I worked and found her sitting in her fleece jacket on the edge of our living room couch with a small suitcase at her feet. She looked at me blankly and said, “This isn’t working.”
I stopped where I was, my stomach dropping. “What are you talking about?”
“We haven’t been happy for a long time.”
I felt my eyebrows knit. I said, “I’m happy.”
“Well, I’m not.”
A chill spread up through me as I said, “Is there someone else?”
“That’s only part of it.” She fixed me with a hard glare. “I admire you. I respect you. But I don’t love you anymore.”
She stood up then, lifted the suitcase, and started towards the door.
“Please,” I said. “Don’t leave.”
I reached for her, but she shrugged under my arm and was gone. I heard her car start at the curb and then disappear down the street. The only sound that remained was the slow tick of the clock on the fireplace mantel.
She wouldn’t answer my calls or texts or emails, so I had to find out from her sister that she’d moved in with a man she taught with at her high school across town. The sister said they’d been involved together for a while; she said she thought I must have known. I told her, no, that I was dumbfounded, blindsided. She said she thought her sister’s discontent had been plain to see. I told her I hadn’t noticed a thing besides the general somberness we seemed to share since our son had died the previous year.
I was served with divorce papers at the library the next week. And a few days later when I got home from work, I found most of my wife’s things gone and a note from her on the bed saying she’d taken everything she needed. It was the last I heard directly from her; any remaining communications until the divorce was finalized were made through our lawyers, and those were minimal because mine said she didn’t want anything from me except her freedom.
The pain I’d felt at first was so deep and abysmal that it seemed impossible. My only relief from it was when I was able to snatch snippets of sleep, but then it overwhelmed me again like a thundering wave upon awakening. After six months, it had dulled slightly, and after a year, I could get through a day without its presence being a constant companion. By the time I found the brooch, her image only invaded my thoughts a half-dozen times during my waking hours, although I still had frequent and unsettling dreams about her.
I replaced the brooch in its bag, closed it back in the drawer, and tried to forget about it. But, I couldn’t entirely. I’d never met my ex-wife’s grandmother, but she’d told me about how special it had been for them to spend time together when she was a girl; she was often brought to tears when she spoke of it. Aside from those memories, I didn’t have a reason to think the brooch had any special value, but it didn’t seem right somehow to have it sitting in the back of a dark drawer I never opened.
So, later that week I brought it to a jewelry store specializing in antiques to have it appraised. I stopped on my way home from work when the shop was about to close. The place was empty except for a short man behind the counter who said he was the owner. I watched him study the brooch behind a magnifying lens on the headband he wore as he turned it in his hand adjusting the headband’s lamp onto it.
“Well,” I said, “is it worth anything?”
He tilted his head and didn’t speak until he’d switched off the lamp, flipped up the lens, and placed the brooch gently on its velvet bag on the counter. He looked at me for a moment, then said, “Yes, it is. Quite a find, in fact. Lovely. Where’d you get it?”
“It was my wife’s…or my ex-wife’s, actually.” I paused. “It’d been her grandmother’s. Kind of a family heirloom, I guess.”
He nodded slowly. “That makes sense. Looks like it’s from shortly after the turn of the last century. The gemstones are purple garnets, rare and expensive. The center stone is at least a carat. Probably a birthstone: January.”
I raised my eyebrows. “So, what’s it worth?”
He frowned. “I’d pay you $4,000 for it right now, but you could probably get much more if you went the auction route.”
I felt myself staring at him, blinking. I said, “I’ll have to give it some thought.”
He nodded again, put the brooch back in the bag, and handed it to me. “Understandable,” he said. “You know where to find me. Be careful with it.”
He went through a curtain behind him into a back room. I put the brooch in my pocket and left the shop, the bells on the door tinkling behind me.
When I got home, I replaced the bag in its drawer. It had been there safely for the ten years since we’d moved in shortly after our marriage, so it seemed unnecessary at the moment to change that. Outside, it had begun to rain, and except for the patter of it, the bedroom was quiet, darkening in the gloaming. There was just enough light to see the framed photograph of my ex-wife, our son, and me on the bureau; in it, we were standing arm and arm behind his wheelchair and each had a hand on one of his shoulders. His head lolled to the side like always, his tongue dangling, wall-eyed, the gauze under his trach collar askew. I went into our closet where she’d left some clothes hanging on her side. I fingered a silk blouse I’d bought her and said to it, “I don’t owe you anything. Not a thing.” Then I stood with my face among her garments and closed my eyes, inhaling the remnants of her scent.
There were lots of regulars at the city library where I worked, and a number of them were homeless. One who’d begun coming around that same early fall was a tall, stooped old man with rimless glasses. I didn’t know his name, but I’d taken to calling him “Guy” to myself for no particular reason. The first time was on my lunch break one day; I saw him stash the shopping cart that held his sleeping bag and other belongings behind some bushes on the side of the library and whispered to myself, “I hope that’s safe there, Guy.” He spent long hours inside the library reading biographies in one of the easy chairs by the wide windows where the light was good. When the weather allowed, he’d also spend time in the afternoons at one of the tables just outside the entry doors playing chess by himself. I’d seen our head librarian chase him out when he’d tried to do that inside. From my spot at the front counter, I’d watch him take a tattered board out of his satchel, unfold it on the table in front of him, and arrange the plastic pieces on it that he kept in a crinkled paper bag. Then, he’d slowly begin to play against himself, considering for a long time between each move; often, it would take several hours for him to finish a game by tipping over one of the kings. He’d sit afterwards breathing deeply, his hands folded on the tabletop, gazing out across the grass between our building and the street where traffic moved steadily in both directions.
I often took my afternoon break by walking to a food truck on the corner, and if he was out front playing at the time, I’d sometimes bring him back a coffee and a muffin. He’d always look up at me when I did and give me a small smile. His eyes were downturned at the outside edges: kind, sad, gentle. He’d thank me and turn back to his board. From the front counter, I’d watch him afterwards sipping at the coffee and nibbling the muffin as he played. I never encountered him away from the library, so I don’t know where he went otherwise, how he ate or bathed, where he slept, what he did about his medical and other needs. I didn’t know any of that, but I did wonder about it.
When our son died, we’d simply closed the door to his bedroom and left it alone. I hadn’t done anything with it since my wife had moved out either. But, with the gloom of the advancing fall and to distract myself from what to do with the brooch, I made arrangements with a ministry who donated medical equipment to needy families to come on a Saturday morning and take whatever they might find useful from his room. I waited until they arrived to open his door and usher them inside. The room was dusty and dim, and I opened the curtains and window to provide some air and light. The space was exactly as we’d left it that night after he passed away, down to the stuffed elephant that always tipped over on the rocker where we used to snuggle and sing to him when he was small enough to still do that. They took just about everything—his hospital bed, wheelchair, oxygenator, sat monitor, mister, vibrating vest, suction machine, Hoyer lift, sensory toys, medical supplies, the mobile over his bed, sound books, clothes, even the rocker and stuffed elephant.
After they left, I stood in the room and surveyed its emptiness: just the bare shelving unit we’d used for his supplies with a lamp on top that had a music box in its base. I turned the crank on that, listened to the reedy melody that had become so familiar over the years, and thought about bringing him home from the hospital after his birth. We had no idea then about his severe disabilities or medical fragility issues and were filled only with joy and hope and dreams. A shaft of sunlight lit a square on the carpet, and I could hear a few birds tittering outside in the trees. When the music stopped, I shut the window and curtains again, took a last look around the room, and closed the door behind me.
I’d seen the little boy who approached Guy after his school was dismissed across the street almost daily. Like some other students from the school, he did his homework in the children’s section until it was time for him to meet his city bus at the stop out front and head to wherever his home was and whatever was waiting for him there. He was small, waifish, perhaps nine or ten years old, with a tangle of brown curls and a wide-eyed expression that always seemed a little startled. I didn’t think much of it the first time I saw him pause before entering the library to regard Guy hunched over his chess board. But, I watched those pauses lengthen as that week went on until the boy finally went up and stood next to the table where Guy sat. They looked at each other and I saw them exchange a few words. Then the boy nodded, sat down across from Guy, and set his daypack at his feet. I watched Guy give him the same sort of smile he’d turned my way many times when I’d brought him coffee and muffins, then slowly lift pieces one at a time, give some sort of explanation, and demonstrate how they moved across spaces on the board. Guy used the black pieces, and the boy mimicked his movements each time with a corresponding white piece. Afterwards, Guy would either nod or correct him. Once they’d gone through all the pieces, Guy said something to the boy that made him shrug and grin. Then, I watched Guy rearrange both sets of pieces to their starting positions, turn the board so the white ones were in front of the boy, and point to him. The boy stared at Guy for a moment, widened his eyes further, blew out a breath, and moved one of the white pawns two spaces forward.
I watched Guy give his small smile, nod, and move one of his own pawns forward before I left to shelve some new non-fiction books I’d just finished cataloguing. When I returned an hour or so later, they were both gone.
My ex-wife and I used to enjoy cooking dinner together and lingering over a bottle of wine with it when we were first married, but our son’s care needs made that impossible once they became clear, as they did for most of the things we used to share. After she left, I usually made a sandwich or heated a pan of soup for dinner and ate standing with it at the kitchen counter, looking out the window into the backyard. The jungle gym I’d built for our son while she was pregnant stood in one corner of the yard; it had never been touched after his birth. My ex-wife’s garden was in the other: raised beds that I hadn’t tended since she’d left, a few herbs still clinging to survival among the weeds. The thin stakes she’d used for her tomatoes remained, too, as well as the scarecrow she’d fashioned out of Goodwill items that was now worn and bent over at the middle like someone reaching for his toes.
We’d met at a farmer’s market flower stall in the city just after we’d both graduated from separate colleges and had gotten our first jobs. I saw her admiring some bouquets of sweet peas in a bin, and when she stepped away, I acted on a whim by buying one and giving it to her. I was slayed immediately by her eyes when she smiled at me and brought the blooms to her nose. We went for a walk afterwards along the river and were never apart for more than a couple of days afterwards. We were married on the dock of her family’s lake cabin a year later and she became pregnant with our son several months after that. We had many friends who told us we were the closest couple they knew.
After dinner at the kitchen counter, I usually channel surfed in front of the television. I’d been an avid reader before she left, but had a hard time concentrating on any book afterwards. I sat in the same spot where I’d found her waiting with her suitcase that night and pointed the remote at the television screen as it gradually became the only light in the darkening room.
As full fall came on, Guy and the boy played chess together almost every afternoon. He’d have the board set up and ready to go at the same outside table when the dismissal bell rang at the school across the street. The white pieces were always facing the empty bench across from him where the boy would perch, drop his daypack, then grin and open with a movement of one of his pawns. They didn’t speak much as they played, although Guy often nodded slightly with that small smile creasing his lips after one of the boy’s moves. If the boy noticed Guy’s dirty pants and sweatshirt or his mismatched sneakers, he gave no indication of it. I never bothered them with things from the food truck while they played, but I did find excuses to be at the front counter where I could see them. Watching their quiet companionship, I admit, softened something inside of me.
The days grew shorter and the weather colder as fall lengthened. By late October when the boy scampered off the bench to catch his bus, it had become almost too dark to see the pieces on the chessboard, and their breath came in short clouds. I noticed Guy coughing longer and more often, always into the sleeve of his sweatshirt.
While our son was still alive, one care need or another had to be done to, for, or with him every other hour or so by his in-home nurses or one of us, which meant that we couldn’t have many outings with him. One that we allowed ourselves occasionally was walking into town to the movie theater. Although neither of us were big fans of the genre, we tried to choose movies with lots of special effects that we thought might engage him. We’d arrive early so that we could get one of the wheelchair accessible spots in the rear of the theater; I’d sit in the seat beside the space where we’d settle him in his wheelchair, and my wife would sit next to me. That way I could get up during the movie to administer meds through his G-tube, wipe away drool or secretions, start or stop a feed, or deal with a seizure.
After the movie, we always stayed put in our seats until the theater had emptied to go through the gyrations of maneuvering his wheelchair out the exit. One time while we were waiting for that to happen, a little girl about kindergarten age passed us with her mother. The mother went on, but the girl stopped by our son’s wheelchair and stared at him. We were used to that, so did nothing until the girl looked at me and said, “He has a hole in his throat.”
I nodded. “It’s to help him breathe.”
“Does it hurt?”
“No,” my wife said. It came out harsh. “It does not.”
I heard her own breath quicken as the girl’s mother came back to us. The girl looked up at her mother and said, “That hole in his throat helps him breathe.”
Her mother gave us a sheepish glance. Quietly, she said, “I’m so sorry.”
“No need,” I told her.
She took her daughter’s hand and said, “Come on.”
I watched them leave. When I turned back to my wife, she was staring straight ahead shaking her head very slowly back and forth, her jaw clenched tight.
I thought about that incident walking home from the movie theater alone one evening that fall. When I got inside to my bedroom, I took out the brooch, tilted the shade on the bedside lamp to direct the light onto it and turned it in my hand. I couldn’t be sure, but there seemed to be faint scratches on the back that looked like words of some kind. I wondered what they said. Perhaps they were simply the name of the brooch’s maker, but they also might have been an inscription. I wondered why the jeweler hadn’t mentioned them. I wondered what, if anything, they’d meant to my ex-wife.
A period of cold rains began in early November, but the eaves on the library were wide enough to protect the table where Guy and the boy played chess. They continued playing through the first snowfall of the season a couple of weeks later. The boy began wearing a heavier coat, and I noticed the mark darkening on the sweatshirt where Guy coughed into it.
A snowy afternoon arrived just before Thanksgiving when Guy wasn’t waiting at the outside table for the boy. I hadn’t seen him in the library at all that day. After school, I watched the boy walk up to the empty table, frown, gaze around, then sit down in his regular spot with his daypack against the bench. He put his elbows on top of the table and set his chin in the cupped palms of his hands. After a while, his right foot, which barely reached the pavement, began to tap. The falling snow thickened as the afternoon wore on, but the boy remained where he was until he had to scamper to his bus stop. When the bus doors opened, I watched him climb aboard into the lit interior, choose a seat next to a window on the library’s side, and stare out towards the empty table until the bus crawled away from the curb. I stood looking after it, realizing for the first time that the boy was about the same age as our son would have been. Also, near the age my ex-wife had been when her grandmother passed away.
The following afternoon was exactly the same, as were the next several after that. I didn’t know where Guy had gone. I told myself that his absence didn’t necessarily mean that anything bad had happened to him. Perhaps, he’d simply moved on to a shelter somewhere or a warmer locale. I did check the obituaries in the newspaper but didn’t see mention of anyone that fit his description, although it seemed unlikely that one would be written about someone of Guy’s circumstances. So, I just hoped for the best, as I watched the boy wait at the table each afternoon until his bus approached and he went to meet it.
I waited eight days while the weather worsened before going outside to him. When I did, he looked up at me with those wide eyes. I’d brought a couple of books I’d found on the shelves with me, which I set down on the table in front of him.
“Those are about chess,” I said. “You can use your library card to check them out. Come on inside, and I’ll help you do that.”
He didn’t nod, and his worried expression didn’t change, but he stood up, lifted his daypack and the books, and followed me inside where the warmth folded over us like an embrace.
I took my lunch break earlier than normal the next day and drove across town. I picked a time when I knew my ex-wife would be teaching. I found her car in the staff parking lot and left mine idling behind it. No one else was around. I’d brought my key to her car and opened the front door, then set the sealed envelope that held the brooch on her driver’s seat with the key next to it. I’d written only her name on the outside, and there was no note inside. I re-locked her door from the inside and closed it, got back in my own car, and drove away.
The snow had stopped, but a grey canopy still hung low in the sky, blanketing it. The winter had only just begun. It would be months before the first crocuses would emerge, followed by tiny buds on a few trees, and then daffodils in beds where they’d been planted. My ex-wife had always planted some in her garden, but I couldn’t remember if any had come up the prior spring. I’d been in a different state of mind then and wasn’t noticing much outside of my own misery at the time. I’d be watching more closely during that next spring. Even though it was still months away, it would come eventually, like every spring before and after it.
by William Cass
William Cass has had over a hundred short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, The Boiler, and J Journal. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.