Familiarity – Matt Paczkowski

“A small coffee,” Richard Cobb said. He reached into his pocket and fumbled with the cane in his left hand. “With a senior discount, please.”

“Milk and sugar’s in the back,” the barista said, punching in numbers on the register. “You know the drill.”

Richard’s shaky hand struggled to place the change in his pocket. He missed the old days, when a waitress would have the decency to add the milk and sugar herself. None of this barista nonsense.

At the condiment stand, Richard pulled off the cup’s lid and threw it in the trash. Just another step in his routine. This would allow the coffee to cool by the time he returned to Hollow Oaks.

As he tore open a Splenda packet – doctor’s orders – he could feel someone standing behind him, waiting, watching – perhaps impatiently. People were always impatient these days.

“Sorry,” he whispered, fumbling again with his cane. “Just a moment.” He crumbled up the packet and clutched his cane tightly. He imagined the person tapping a foot. With a sudden swiftness, he threw his coffee into the trash along with the crumpled-up Splenda packet.

“Aw, shit,” he muttered, feeling the blood vessels rush to his wrinkled cheeks. He heard a quiet woman’s laughter behind him.

“That’s something I would do,” a feminine voice said.

He turned around, half-embarrassed, half-angered by the figure that had rushed him.

“I’m sorry; let me buy you a-” The older woman stopped speaking and let out a low, near-inaudible gasp. She was around the same age – the golden years, as they say. She had short, blonde hair and a piercing blue stare. Her mouth closed softly before she tilted her head to one side.

“Don’t I-” She lifted a finger to her cheek.

“I know you,” Richard said, rubbing beneath his chin. “I – I know you from…”

“From…” the woman’s speech faltered as she, too, tried to place him.

Neither one spoke for a long moment.

“Excuse me.” A third voice entered the silence, as a young lady in high heels pointed towards the milk. “Can I get in there?”

“So sorry,” Richard said, blinking rapidly. He moved aside, not taking his eyes off of the familiar stranger.

The older woman lifted a finger for a moment, and then put it down, defeated. The lady in the high heels finished adding milk and sugar and left.

“Who are you?” Richard finally asked. “I know you from somewhere.” He shook his head with a sense of uncertainty. “I do know you, don’t I?”

“Yes,” the woman whispered. “Surely. I’m Ruth Morian.” Her voice displayed a sense of confidence, as though she spoke the profound solution to a complex puzzle.

“Ruth. Ruth Morian.” Richard tapped a finger against his cane before chuckling. “No, that didn’t do it.”

They walked towards a table without saying a word. The busy commuters passed by, but Richard and Ruth remained standing, their eyes carefully studying each other, searching for some miniscule detail that would spark the other’s memory.

“Let’s hope you’re better with names,” Richard said. He noticed her look away for a moment, as though ashamed. “I’m Richard Cobb.” He reached out a hand but she didn’t shake it. She stared with a blank expression.

“No. Not until I figure it out,” she said quietly, her mind seemingly preoccupied.

Richard retracted his hand and sat down at the table. “Suit yourself.”

Ruth squinted, her gaze piercing through him. Finally, she sat down, slowly and carefully, as her fingers ran through her short hair.

“Anything?” Richard asked.

She shook her head, defeated. “Nothing.”

“Well, I’ve got to say, it’s the first time this has ever happened. I mean, shit, I forget names all the time, but I usually know who the person is, if that makes sense. I recognize you, but I can’t…” He looked her over another time and noticed the fierce determination in her eyes.

“You feel it, too, don’t you?” Richard asked hesitantly. “That I’ve-”

“-known you-” she answered.

“-known you for-”

“-for years.”

The two stared in silent fascination.

###

“It’s time for your medicine, Mr. Cobb,” one of the nurses said, her voice loud and resonant.

Richard lay in his bed, still thinking of Ruth. He wasn’t thinking of her per se, but of his own life, and where she possibly fit into it.

After swallowing a cup of tiny pills, Richard put his hands behind his head and gazed up at the tiled ceiling, counting the small squares from left to right.

“You have a good night, Mr. Cobb. I’ll see you tomorrow.” The nurse let herself out.

Tomorrow. He heard Ruth’s incandescent voice in his head. Let’s meet again tomorrow, Richard. He pictured her familiar facial features, the ones that twisted and distorted into a lovely question mark.

After a few moments of silence, Richard got out of bed. He was going for a walk, he’d decided. He grabbed his coat and his cane. The cool air would do him good.

His neuropathy often flared up at nights but it didn’t seem to bother him tonight. For the first time in a long while, he felt that there was a purpose – an endgame, if you will. The whole day was like a Hardy Boys novel – the originals, before all those unnecessary revisions – and a solution was waiting in the final chapter.

As Richard walked the brightly illuminated streets, he stopped at a lamp post. He stood there for a long while, staring at his shadow on the pavement. The long, black figure stretched out along Floral Street.

Leaning back against the street lamp, Richard gazed up at the night sky. There it was – darkness. The paper had mentioned a full moon, but the clouds covered it. Instead, he saw just a thin sliver of the moon illuminating the darkness.

He stood for a long while by the street lamp, breathing softly, glancing down at the pavement of Floral Street. He thought of Brooklyn, of the chalky diamond his friends would draw for their stickball games.

A bird chirped quietly in the distance. Pressing his cane back against the pavement, he continued walking with a greater stride.

When Richard arrived back at his room in Hollow Oaks, he took out a sheet of paper and wrote BROOKLYN, NY: 1930 – 1948 at the top of the page. He spent the next hour carefully constructing a timeline of all the places he’d lived since his birth eighty-two years prior. He was sure some of the years didn’t quite match up, but it was the best he could do.

He folded the note and placed it in his jacket pocket, which hung on the back of the door with a cane. Shaking his head, Richard climbed into bed. He stretched out his legs, feeling both a sense of pain and relief.

Before drifting off to sleep, he thought of the list and how the arthritic bullet points formed a straight line down the page ending abruptly with HOLLOW OAKS, PA: November 17, 2004 – ?

He couldn’t get that question mark out of his head.

###

“Two small coffees,” Richard told the barista, holding up two fingers to cement the statement. She nodded, and Richard turned back to look at Ruth. “I come here often,” he said quietly.

The barista put the coffees down and rang up the order. “Milk and sugar’s in the back,” she said in a familiar tone.

Richard intentionally omitted the standard “senior discount, please,” but the barista added it, regardless. She gave Richard his change and told him to have a nice day.

He carefully carried the coffees over to the table, while resting the cane over his wrist. “Do you want anything in yours?”

“No, thank you,” Ruth replied. “I like it black.”

Richard carried his Splenda packet back. “Doc makes me take it this way. He actually suggests tea, but there’s only so much a man can stand.”

Around their table, early morning commuters hustled by, personalizing their drinks at the condiment stand before moving on.

Ruth looked down at her coffee. “So,” she asked, “did you have any epiphanies last night? Figure out how you know me?”

Richard didn’t respond.

“Yeah, me neither.”

He took the lid off his coffee and set it down on the table. “I can’t for the life of me figure it out. We’re both certain we know each other, but if we recognize one another, it has to be recent, right? Say in the last twenty, twenty-five years? Because, believe me, I didn’t look like this thirty years ago. I lost twenty pounds, four inches, but I made up for it in wrinkles.”

Ruth brushed back her short hair and nodded.

“But here’s what we’re gonna do,” he said, reaching into his jacket pocket and pulling out the list. “I put this together last night. It’s all the places I’ve been since I was born, to the best of my ability.”

He placed the slip of paper down on the table and slid it towards Ruth.

“Look it over, and let’s see where our paths crossed.”

Ruth’s eyes slowly glazed over. “I can’t,” she said, quietly.

Richard tilted his head, confused by the response. “What do you mean, you ca-”

“I can’t, Richard.” She rubbed a hand against her forehead, as though embarrassed. “My memory isn’t…” her voice trailed off.

“Why? Don’t you…” Richard stopped speaking, as he recalled a lesson of retirement: never name the disease.

“I’m sorry,” he said, taking the list back. “I’m sorry. I- I didn’t realize.”

Ruth’s hand moved down to partially cover her mouth. She then took a sip of her coffee and tried to smile, but it quickly faded.

“I didn’t mean to make you feel-” He stopped, shifting his approach. “I feel like a-”

“Don’t worry,” Ruth said. “Even if I can’t remember everything, I remember you, Richard. I really do. Maybe it’s something simple. After eighty years, there’s almost too much to hold on to. People drift in and out of our lives; faces pass us by – hundreds, thousands – like ghosts.”

Richard sipped his coffee. “So you’re saying?”

“That it doesn’t matter. Maybe our paths crossed on a train to Pennsylvania. Maybe we took a class together back in 1952. Or maybe we just saw each other once – just one time – and,” her voice dissipated. “And we never forgot each other.”

Richard looked past Ruth to the window. On the other side, strangers walked by.

“Can I see the list?” Ruth asked.

“What?” Richard replied, his eyes drifting back to Ruth. “Oh, yes. Of course.” He pulled the wrinkled paper back out of his pocket and placed it on the Formica table.

Her hands rubbed against the partially-crumpled list as she carefully smoothed out the wrinkles.

“You grew up in Brooklyn?”

“Yeah,” he replied, his hands unknowingly folding together. “I was thinking about that last night, actually. About how there’s so much light these days.”

“So much light?” she asked.

“So much light. I went for a walk and was thinking back to those days in Brooklyn – tryin’ to see where you fit in – and on my walk, every house was lit up. You could hardly tell it was nighttime. I swear to God, these people attach these spotlights to their homes.” He paused for a moment and shook his head with a grin.

“I thought of those days in Brooklyn, when all the kids would get together by the old street lamp on 79th Street and play stickball after dark. I thought how at first, we couldn’t see a damn thing,” Richard’s hands pressed tighter together. “We’d be throwing the ball, swinging blindly, but by the end of the first inning, when our eyes had adjusted, we’d see that there was nothing in the night that wasn’t there in the day. It was the same, but different, just requiring adjustment. Beautiful.”

Ruth leaned closer as Richard let out a breath. “There’s too much light these days,” he said in a near whisper. “We’re afraid of the darkness.”

She nodded, while the two sat in quiet contemplation. After a few moments, Ruth spoke. “If you don’t mind my asking, how did you end up in Hollow Oaks?” She glanced down at the list.

“After my Julia passed away, I went back to live with Sophie , my daughter, in Kecksburg.” He pointed to the second-to-last bullet point, labeled 2003-2004. “I didn’t stay very long. I got up to use the bathroom one night and heard Sophie crying at the kitchen table. Her husband, Tom, was asking how long I needed to stay. He didn’t want me there, you see. I heard her crying, and I-”

Richard bit down on his nail: a habit from his youth that popped up every now and then. “I found Hollow Oaks on my own. It’s a nice place, peaceful, calm. They check up on you but allow you the freedom to live your own life, to go on walks, to get coffee.” He lifted his cup.

“Except for Mr. Death, that miserable, old, son-of-a-bitch, visiting weekly, I’d say it’s lovely. You should come visit.”

“Oh, you’re terrible,” Ruth said. “But, yes, I’d like very much to visit.”

They agreed to meet the following afternoon. As he got up to leave, Richard’s coffee cup left a sticky ring on the table. Ruth took a napkin and carefully wiped it away.

###

That night, Richard lay in bed, nervous. He thought of Ruth, afraid he’d just led her on. If she had Alzheimer’s or dementia, he could have worsened her condition by encouraging her to remember something that never existed.

What if he was comparing her to an actress or somebody altogether different, and Ruth had simply agreed with his false sentiments? But no, this was more than a mere instance of resemblance or familiarity. This was something else.

Richard slept, clutching his bullet points, running through his entire life, year by year, wondering desperately where Ruth fit in. He would remember. He would remember for her.

###

“You know,” Richard said, sitting at the coffee table, leaning in, “I had wonderful dreams last night. I thought of all these memories I’d somehow forgotten over the years. A person walks a lot of roads and sees a lot of things in eighty-two years.”

Ruth nodded. It was almost 11am, and the café was nearly empty. The commuting rush had left.

“There are so many memories, infinite memories, in fact, that I can bring up now, and they’re all special and unique in their own ways. Even the bad ones. I still didn’t find out where you fit in Ruth,” He paused and sipped his coffee. “But I’ve realized that I’ve lived a full life. That list I wrote out, the people, the dates, the places,I don’t quite have a Rosebud that gives my life its meaning. No, not one defining moment. I have a million of ‘em. Those stickball games in ‘41, meeting Julia at the masquerade in ‘49, taking Sophie to church on Saturday nights in the ‘60s, passing her off to Tom in ’77, seeing my granddaughter, Emma in the ‘80s and ‘90s, checking into Hollow Oaks in ‘04. They’re distinct and important. All of ‘em.

“Maybe that’s why we’re here, Ruth. To remind each other that it doesn’t matter where we met; it’s just another memory in the scheme of things. I have lived a really good life, Ruth. A damn good one, I might say.” He tapped a finger against the table and chuckled. “It’s strange. You come along, a stranger, by all accounts, and I somehow remember so much.”

Ruth stood up. She held a hand over her mouth and didn’t speak for a long while. Richard looked up at her, confused.

“You’re going to be happy,” she finally said, speaking through her hand.

Richard was taken aback by her behavior and wondered if the others in the café were watching. “What?” he asked.

Ruth leaned down and took his hand. The warmth surprised him. He’d imagined a cold grip due to poor circulation, but certainly not this. She held his hand in hers for another moment.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m going away now, Richard. I won’t see you anymore.” Her grip softened. “You’re going to be so happy,” she repeated. She left the coffee shop and became another nameless figure in the street.

That night, as Richard lay in bed, he felt a cold release as his life slipped away, and his vision clouded with memories of the past. The good, the bad, the indifferent. He whispered, “Ruth, you lovely, old son-of-a-bitch,” and walked quietly into the night.

______________________________________________________________________________

Matt Paczkowski is from Long Island, currently pursuing his MFA in fiction writing at Hofstra University. He loves to read, write, and critique all forms of storytelling. Matt writes articles for his website, Review Hub Central, and he is currently working on a novel. “Familiarity” is his first published piece.

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