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Nutmeg - A short story
I'm in this mode where I want to open up the doors to books and articles I've written in the past, and Hubpages seems as good a place as any. This short story was written several years back, about a little girl and an old man playing soccer...
I hope you enjoy.
“Come on, play with me!”
Maurice scowled with annoyance at the latest interruption. He sucked air into his old frail lungs to stop himself from snarling at the little intruder, stared into the little girl’s playful, mischievous eyes and shook his head.
“I’m too tired.”
“Silly. No you’re not! Come on!” Her wide-eyed expression of exaggerated disbelief informed him she would not accept an easy rejection.
“Not right now. I’m busy.”
Maurice forced his attention back to the newspaper in his lap. His eyes scanned meticulously from word to word, ingesting each, but remembering none. His mind drifted. The frustration made him more determined than ever to continue to concentrate on the words. Just one word. One letter. One swoop of one line.
His paper was crumpled by small hands. Small hands, attached to small arms, attached to the small little girl, the one with the impish, mischievous grin who now smiled blithely up at him. He cleared his throat, rapid-fire exhortations assimilating the sound of a two-stroke engine.
“What?” he asked pointedly.
“Are you ready to play yet?”
Maurice studied her intently as his mind processed her question. “What’s your name?”
“Mom calls me Nutmeg.”
“Nutmeg? What kind of name is that?” he snapped. “Never mind. Forget I asked. Where are your parents?”
She smiled. “Mom knows I’m here.”
“I see,” he responded. He cleared his throat. “Well, Nutmeg, I’m reading.”
The girl shifted her gaze from him to the paper, and then jumped shamelessly onto his lap.
“News,” he growled.
Maurice felt flustered. “This” he said, pointing to the paper. “This is news. I’m trying to read this.”
“Oh,” she responded. “What’s it say?”
“It tells about events happening in our country, like what our President is up to, sports, entertainment, you name it.”
She paused reflectively. “What sports does the President play?”
Maurice glowered and set down the paper. “What did you want to play again?”
“Soccer!” she said as she jumped off his lap.
“But I don’t play soccer.”
“That’s okay, I’ll show you.”
“I can’t move like you.”
“That’s okay. You just have to kick the ball to me.”
“But I’m an old man.”
She smiled. “Not too old to play. Please, please, please!”
Maurice could feel himself giving in. She was grabbing his arm, wrestling him from his comfortable rocking chair. He groaned.
“Oh, all right, if it’ll make you leave me alone.”
“Hooray!” she screamed, pulling him up out of the chair. “I’ll race you!” she continued, completely ignoring his earlier declaration.
As she jumped down the front steps, he stretched his stiff, tired back and grabbed onto the wooden railing that descended the eight steps from his porch to the sidewalk below. With each pained movement, he had to shift all of his weight onto the support, then set one foot tentatively onto the stair before matching it with the other. By the time he reached the sidewalk, he was winded and had to stop for a moment to catch his breath.
He glanced at his neglected front yard. The chrysanthemums and dahlias were dried and brown, a shame after years of meticulous grooming. Though he no longer possessed the stamina to continue with his horticultural talents, he couldn’t bring himself to hire a gardener to keep it looking nice. The camellias and roses were strewn wildly, the latter badly in need of pruning.
The little girl ran ahead of him into the neighborhood park across the street, its expansive lawn looking fertile and inviting. The park was surprisingly devoid of visitors. He watched as she trotted toward the sports field sandwiched between the library and the spiraled old church, its cemetery grounds stretched out behind it.
“Okay,” she said when he finally caught up with her, setting the ball on the ground. “You kick it,” she continued very matter-of-factly, contented she had provided enough instruction for him to begin.
He tried to forget about the achiness of his joints as he stood self-consciously behind the ball and remembered years of playing kickball when he was young. At one time, he had been able to move the ball more than a hundred yards with one kick. That was nearly 80 years ago. Licking his lips, he took in a deep breath, drew back his leg and made contact with the ball. His muscle-jarring kick caused the ball to jump forward a feeble 15 feet, forcing him to balance his body before it toppled over.
“Great kick!” the girl squealed as she sprinted toward it.
Maurice ran his tongue across his chapped lips as he watched the girl enthusiastically return the ball. He smiled in spite of himself. Again, he put forth his most sincere effort to kick the ball after she returned it. After volleying the ball back and forth several more times, his energy was depleted.
“I’m afraid I need to sit.”
“Aww. Are you sure?”
“My old body can’t take this very long, Nutmeg.”
“That’s okay. We can play again later.”
One can only hope, thought Maurice, as he turned and hobbled toward a nearby bench and plopped down.
“Thank you for playing with me,” the girl exclaimed. “I’ve got to go now. See you tomorrow!”
“Okay,” he responded, too tired to put up a fight.
Maurice felt the stiffness in his joints as he stood and limped back toward the front of his house. Not having the strength to drag himself up the stairs, he leaned against his railing and examined his neglected roses. At one time, striking blooms of yellow and red teamed with hybrids of pink and white, framed by lavenders of Angel Face floribundas.
Kneeling in front of the bushes, Maurice drank in the sweet scent of each, mixed with the rich fragrance of the dewy soil. He spotted his weatherworn clippers sticking out of a wooden box tucked under his front stairs and reached for them. Wrapping his gnarled fingers around the handle, he started carefully pruning the thorny bushes to preserve their magnificent progeny and restore visual order to the garden. His mind wandered as he trimmed and he reflected on the sights and scents around him. He couldn’t help wondering what it was that made the soil have a smell. After all, it was just soil. Earth. Baseline for the olfactory world.
He continued artfully pruning the bushes, scrupulously shaping the foliage to his satisfaction. As he glanced down at the petals gathering at his feet, he suddenly felt a sharp stabbing pain.
“Damn it!” he bellowed, as he hastily yanked the thorny limb from the spot where it had grabbed onto his skin.
Steadying himself, he stood and climbed up to his porch, pulled open the screen door, then shuffled over to his chair and sat down. He could feel himself getting drowsy and allowed himself to close his eyes.
Maurice woke to the sound of the morning newspaper hitting the porch. Shivering slightly, he forced himself out of the chair and shuffled into the kitchen to put on some coffee. After grabbing the newspaper, he settled back into the old armchair he’d bought in a garage sale forty years before. Over the years, in an effort to mask the ugliness of the chair and keep the foam from spilling onto the floor, his wife, Vera, had covered it with towels, fastened carefully with safety pins. Each year, as the fastened towels became faded and worn from use, Vera would attach another on top of the previous towel covering. The net effect was a multi-colored terrycloth-and-safety-pin mound of foam and wood upon which he contentedly flopped for twelve to fourteen hours a day.
He drowsily pulled the thin rubber band from the newspaper and let it go with a punctuated smack against his wrist. The inky tang of the presses was still fresh on the crisp newsprint as he laid the front page on the table, pulled out the entertainment section and spread the crossword puzzle across his lap. He heard the coffee pot gurgle, and struggled back to his feet. After pouring a rich warm cup, he had just settled into his chair when he heard the tromping of little feet on his front stairs.
“Not again,” he muttered.
With a resounding bang, the same little girl rapped on the screen door.
“Good morning! I’m back!”
Maurice smiled feebly and rubbed his eyes.
“Can I come in?” she asked, while pulling open the door and letting it slam behind her.
“Be my guest,” Maurice responded sarcastically.
“My Mom said I could come out and play.”
“I wanted to come over here. I knew you’d be here. Were you waiting for me?”
“Well no, I . . .”
“I brought my soccer ball again. I had fun playing yesterday. I was going to bring one of my dolls, but you’re a boy, and I thought you might not want to play with dolls, so I brought my ball. Boys don’t like to play with dolls, do they? That’s okay, ‘cause I have toys boys like to play and toys girls like to play. Want to know which one’s my favorite?”
Maurice cleared his throat. “Which one?”
“My Rapunzel doll. Know why? ‘Cause she has really long, long hair, like my Mom.”
“Ready to play ball?”
Maurice pursed his lips. “I just sat down to my newspaper and coffee, dear. Why don’t you come back later?”
“When you finish your coffee?”
“I’ll wait right here ‘til you finish your coffee.”
“I like to drink it slow.”
“That’s okay, I’ll wait.”
“It may be awhile.”
“Are you gonna read the paper?”
“What’s in the paper? Is there another story about the President playing sports?”
“I haven’t read it yet.”
“Will you read it to me?”
Maurice took a deep breath, then picked up his coffee cup and brought it slowly to his lips while keeping his eyes on the little girl. As the warm beverage trickled down his throat, he studied her, noticing that her limbs were in perpetual motion, even while standing before him. It appeared as if on an unconscious level she were dancing to an unheard song.
“You have a lot of energy, Nutmeg.”
“Mom says I have jumping beans in my pockets, but I don’t see anything when I look in there.”
“Can you go play in the park for a little while and let me read?”
The little girl jutted out her lower lip. “All alone? Can’t you come with me?”
“Cause you’re a good player. I like playing with you.”
Maurice took another sip of coffee. “If I come and play with you for a little while, will you leave me alone to read?”
“Hooray!” she responded. “I’ll race you to the park!” With a loud clang, she opened and slammed the screen door and bounded down the steps.
“What have I gotten myself into?” Maurice grumbled to himself as he pushed himself up and shuffled out the door.
The crisp redolence of the newly mowed park lawn awakened his senses. He stepped outside and listened intently to the staccato chirping of blue jays above him. The gentle swaying of the leaves was interrupted only by the distant braying of a twin-engine airplane. He became acutely aware of the crispness of the flora beside the stairs, leaves etched with veins of abundant growth over the winter months.
Maurice was surprised at the strength he was able to summon as he kicked the ball and trotted slowly after it. With a burst of speed, the little girl dribbled the ball back toward him, and kicked it through his legs. She ran around him with a shout of glee and scored into an imaginary goalpost.
Maurice chuckled. “That was pretty impressive!”
“That was a nutmeg!”
“A nutmeg. That’s what it’s called when you kick the ball through the other player’s legs.”
“I thought nutmeg was a spice.”
“Silly! I mean in soccer.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“That’s ‘cause I’m the coach.”
Maurice smiled. “I see. Is that where you got your name?”
“Yes,” she answered very matter-of-factly. “Now it’s time for me to go.”
“Okay, Nutmeg,” Maurice responded, shaking his head.
“I’ll see you again tomorrow,” she responded, and ran away into the park.
Maurice turned and trudged back toward his house, surprised at how well he’d been able to play in his condition. Better than the day before and considerably better than he had in years.
Picking up his clippers, he again started pruning the rose bushes as he drank in their fragrance. Again, he became aware of the rich scent from the soil. Years before, while studying horticulture, he’d learned the smell was due to a certain bacteria containing a chemical responsible for the aroma. He admired the tenacity of the scientist responsible for making the discovery, but questioned how any one could be so patient.
With each clip, he attacked the roses with increasing vigor, feeling his strength increasing, his pain lessening. Suddenly, a spiky thorn grabbed tenaciously onto his arm.
“Blast it!” he cried out.
Pulling the branch away, he grabbed his arm, cursing quietly to himself. He was surprised there was no blood at the point of contact. The pain quickly passed, but the rapid passing of adrenaline led him to feel sapped of energy. Again, he made his way up the steps into the house and dropped into his favorite chair. No sooner had he placed the crossword puzzle on his lap, than he dozed off soundly.
“Is it time to play again?”
Maurice rose with a start. “What?”
“Were you sleeping?”
He blinked his eyes rapidly and wiped the spittle from the corners of his mouth. He looked around the room to orient himself, his eyes finally resting on the playful eyes of the little girl, who’d evidently come for another visit.
He glanced at her drowsily. “Are you still here?”
“No silly, I went home. I’m back now. Did you have a nice nap?”
He pushed himself into an erect position and reached for his coffee sitting on the table beside him. Bringing the mug to his lips, he tasted it. Cold and bland.
The little girl studied him expectantly.
“I need my rest.”
She frowned, but didn’t press him this time. “I’ll come back later. You sit right there,” she said, as she reached for a blanket and spread it over him tenderly. She tucked it under his chin, pinning his arms underneath, then gave him a peck on the cheek and tiptoed out of the room.
“Bless you,” he whispered softly to himself. Vera used to do the same thing to him when she was alive, such a long time ago.
Nutmeg was a beautiful little girl; her sparkling brown eyes reminded him of someone from long ago. He watched the bobbing of her beautifully luminescent shoulder-length hair as she bounced down the stairs, and then closed his eyes.
His thoughts turned to Vera. He pictured the delicate features of her face: soft brown eyes, petite nose, intricate lips and prominent cheekbones framed by long luxurious hair that descended in flowing waves down her back. Fifty-seven years together and a man begins to forget where he ends and his partner begins. During their marriage, Maurice spent much of his time trying to shoo her away, to find time for himself to be alone with his thoughts. How ironic it was that he couldn’t stop thinking of her now that she was gone.
Their lives had been rich, though he found himself ruminating over regrets. He should have listened to her ramble more. He should have taken her to Hawaii. They’d always talked about it, but never went. He should have given her another child. A familiar ache rose in his gut and he opened his eyes. He glanced around the dimly lit room, darkened by weathered blankets he’d tacked over the windows to help him sleep.
He tucked the blanket snugly under his neck in response to the crisp chill of the morning air. It was a windless day, but the air seemed to penetrate his clothing.
Footsteps on the stairs pulled him from his reverie. A little face peeked in.
“Had enough rest?”
* * *
Several weeks passed, during which late fall turned to early winter. In spite of his early inhospitality, Maurice had begun to grow accustomed to greeting his daily visitor, and secretly lamented the inevitable day when she would decide to no longer come.
On a cool December morning, Maurice rose early, sat peacefully on the front porch before the sun rose and stared out over the park. The stillness of the morning was comforting to him and he felt surprisingly alert and full of vigor.
As he started his second cup of coffee, he watched as Nutmeg approached from across the street. Even from a distance, he could tell her eyes were full of vigor and unbridled expectancy. Without fail, she continued to visit and they had played together every day. Despite his repeated protests, she never stopped coming. After a while, he’d finally realized her imperturbable stubbornness was stronger than his own.
Before she even opened her mouth, Maurice greeted his visitor.
“Ready to play?” he asked.
Though his joints still ached, Maurice forced his aging body to descend the stairs and walk to the empty park lawn. His energetic kick surpassed all the others and he soon found himself feeling a renewed sense of energy as he volleyed the ball.
“Going for the gold!” he called out as he held the ball high over his head. As he looked up, he took note of his bony, wrinkled hands, and became acutely aware of his aged, frail state. At once, he felt weakened and an overwhelming weariness overcame him.
“I’ve got to sit, dear. This is too much for me.”
The little girl ran up to him, stopped and studied him calmly.
“Just let go.”
Maurice frowned. “What?”
“Just let go and come with me,” she responded.
“Come with you where?”
“Where do you live?”
She smiled, and touched him gently on the shoulder. He immediately felt a calming warmth surrounding his body.
He looked up at her. “I need to go lay down.”
She nodded. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Walking back home, he again made a meager attempt to finish pruning the rose bushes and again felt the sharp pain from an errant thorn. He was far too clumsy, he thought, as he hobbled up the rickety stairs and laid down.
He stared at the ceiling above his bed for several minutes before falling asleep, thinking about his day. He’d been playing with the same little girl every day for weeks and realized he’d never asked why she continued coming day after day. He felt lifted by her presence each time she visited. He knew he was feeling stronger every day, yet was mystified as to the reason. As slumber overcame him, he reflected on her words. What did they mean? Just let go of what, the ball? Tomorrow he’d have to ask her.
When he awoke, the sky was still a dimly illuminated hue of violet. After swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he shuffled over to the closet and pulled on his robe and slippers, a Christmas present from Vera eleven years before.
His thoughts turned again to her as he pushed open the screen door, roughly scraping against the metal doorjamb as it wailed in complaint. The morning air smelled dank and musty and he pulled his robe tightly around him in response to the crisp chill. Vera and he had shared many Christmases together. He’d managed to grow accustomed to the holidays without her only by not acknowledging them at all.
Their first Christmas had been spent at a church rectory shortly after they’d been introduced by mutual friends only weeks before. Their most memorable had been their first after their marriage, during which she had first told him she was expecting. Their worst was seven years later following the accident that took their daughter from them.
Just let go. Did it mean what he thought it might?
* * *
“Alice? Did he just say Alice?”
Dr. Damien Gilbert patiently looked into the eyes of the young woman and drew in a deep breath. “Mrs. Larsen, he’s delusional. Your uncle is slowly dying.”
She stared into the doctor’s tired eyes. “Alice was the name of his daughter, my cousin. She was killed in a farming accident fifty years ago.” Tears formed in the young woman’s eyes. “She was seven years old.”
The doctor shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
“He and Aunt Vera were devastated, and never had another child.” She turned toward Bobby, her husband, and buried her face in his chest. “I don’t want to let him go.”
Bobby put his arms around his wife and gently comforted her. He exchanged glances with the doctor. “I know, sweetheart.” He touched her hair. “You have to know he’s in a better place.”
Connie Larsen pulled back suddenly and stared into his eyes. “How do you know that?”
Her husband closed his eyes meditatively, and then gazed down at her Uncle Maurice, his countenance peaceful and serene. A smile crossed Bobby’s face.
“He knows, don’t you think?”
Connie let go of her husband and took a step toward her Uncle. His weathered face was gaunt, yet strong. She gently pushed the hair back on his forehead and tenderly cupped his cheek in her hand. She smiled, and then looked up at the doctor.
The doctor nodded sympathetically. All three watched as a small, portly nurse entered the room and nodded politely to the doctor. She set a syringe and a small vial on a bedside table and began to slowly extract the fluid.
“What’s that?” Connie asked.
“Is he in pain?”
“He’s been having spasms, which indicate the presence of significant discomfort.”
“How long has he been on the medication?” Bobby asked.
“Let’s see,” the doctor responded, grabbing the chart. “Over five weeks. He’s had a shot every day.”
The nurse expertly administered the shot and then departed from the room as noiselessly as she arrived.
Connie bit her lip. “There’s nothing more you can do?”
Dr. Gilbert shook his head. “Your uncle is almost ninety years old, Mrs. Larsen. He’s lived a full life. His system just doesn’t want to keep functioning on its own. I wish I could tell you differently.”
Connie reached for her husband and they embraced. Reaching for the frail patient’s hand, she kissed it, and then set it gently back onto the bed.
“Goodbye, Uncle Maurice.”
* * *
Maurice pulled his robe snugly against his torso, and then stood to greet his little visitor as she came running toward him through the park. He embraced her when she arrived, hugging her tightly against his body.
He looked into her dancing eyes. “Alice?”
She beamed back at him. “Of course, silly.”
Small pools of tears formed in the corners of his eyes as he drew her to him. “God honey, I’ve missed you so much!” Maurice felt his heart in his throat as he squeezed her tightly.
He looked down at his colorful garden. The roses were, at last, handsomely groomed. He was proud of his home. He was proud of himself. He was done. It was time to let go.
The little girl wiggled free and held up her familiar soccer ball.
“Ready to play?”
Maurice grinned. “As ever.”
As she sprinted down the stairs, he glanced past her into the park, where he spotted a familiar lone figure smiling back at him, her long flowing hair gently waving in the subtle delta breeze. Vera. His skin tingled as he smiled back at her and ambled down his familiar stairs for the last time.