Jack wasn’t the least bit sentimental anymore but he smiled anyway. The years had slowly hardened him but he had to admit, standing there alone with his thoughts, surrounded by pink flowering trees in every imaginable shade, that she sure had a knack for choosing her atmosphere. He hadn’t understood back then, why Annie would drive fifteen miles up the winding back road that ran parallel to the highway, just to go to the library across the street from the park.. when there was a perfectly good library right here in town. He could walk to it from their home and it had recently become a regular part of his routine again. He’d gone there often as a boy. His mother would drop him off in front of the old one-story brick building while she did her grocery shopping for the week. As he grew older he’d trudge up the crumbling concrete steps feigning an attitude, when in reality he loved those quiet hours and his mother knew it. She’d open the car door and shoo him out impatiently, promising to return for him in under an hour. But it was always two, because she understood that lettuce and ground beef and apples, weren’t the only thing that a boy needed in order to grow.
At sixteen, Jack made friends with the librarian who treated him like he was an adult and let him drink coffee and read the newspaper she kept behind the desk. Her name was Marianne and she had a friendly face, punctuated by rosy cheeks and curly silver hair. She wore her eyeglasses on a thin silver chain around her neck and when he’d ask her a question, she’d perch them on the end of her nose and look down at whatever he brought to her attention, glancing sideways at him and telling him how interesting it all was, and actually meaning it. If he had a question about something, she’d stand beside the card catalogue, pulling out the old wooden drawers in each cabinet and patiently showing him how to search for the answers he needed, for himself. He loved the tidy information station where she worked, with the small chalkboard she kept on the counter, the day’s events all listed chronologically according to the times they were offered. When each one was over, she’d erase its line until, at the end of the day, the blackboard was nothing but a white smudge representing the past.
“Ironic… the things we remember”, he thought to himself.
He shifted to the other foot, trying to decide how long he’d allow himself this reverie into his past, wondering whether he could really bring himself to sit down on that bench. He could still hear her laughing…see the way she threw her head back with abandon when she did, feel the sunlight glinting off the water and sparkling in waves over her hair and in her eyes. She was always burning cinnamon in the house and it clung to her, infusing those around her with a feeling of comfort and warmth. But it was cold today and the clouds were shrouding the lake in the same gray mist with which they touched the sky. And Annie was gone.
In his memory she wore a white dress and several thin gold bangles around her wrist, that clinked cheerfully every time she gestured with her hands. He loved how when she’d play the piano, he could always tell if she was wearing them, by the gentle sound of her bracelets against the keys. They reminded him of wind chimes. He counted them one night when he was holding her hand and when he asked why she wore five of them, she said simply, “One for every year that I have loved you.”
Her ghost seemed to beckon to him then and though he never was able to say no to her, he stopped for a moment with both hands on the back of the bench, leaning… steadying himself, before moving in front of it and finally giving in. The wood shifted under his weight, and he put his head in his hands, losing his grip as the memory of her washed over him. Her words came back to him so clearly. She had a tendency to overthink everything and it drove him crazy at times, even as she taught him to look at the world differently than he ever had before.
“Do you have any regrets?” she had asked him quietly. He looked at her for a long time before answering her. “No, Annie… I don’t. Do you?”
She fiddled with her bracelets like she did when she was nervous and I could see she was choosing her words carefully. She didn’t speak for a long time but when she did, she raised her eyes to mine, tears sparkling in her eyelashes; a universe threatening to spill over and drown me in a sea of a thousand stars.
"Yes, Jack, I do."
It was in that moment that I realized I knew her better than anyone else ever had, but that I had only traveled to the closest planet in a swirling galaxy of them. Where she existed then, was far beyond where I had yet ventured, and I feared… far beyond my reach.
The old man watched him quietly from across the street in front of the library. He stood against the bricks to the left of the windows wearing a tattered gray tweed coat and a pair of worn black leather gloves with a hole in one thumb, tapping a gentle rhythm on the ancient ornate box he carried with him everywhere. He knew intimately what each carving meant, and the pad of his thumb followed every line, memorizing anew, their perfect placement. His task was a burden to him…even though his load was light. No one ever guessed at the weight he carried. He looked so dapper and serene standing there, that everyone who passed his way, gave him a smile… one that he returned warmly and with utter sincerity. Most of them had lived their whole lives here without ever locking their doors. They never gave a second thought to who he was or why he was there. Nor did they care. But they would. They surely would. In time, everyone in this sleepy little village would be looking to him for answers he knew they could only find within themselves. And they would be as sorry as he was, that they passed right by him without so much as a backward glance.