Ralph entered Barnes and Noble coffee shop at exactly 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning. He wore jeans with crisp creases down each leg, a plaid button-down shirt, equally well-pressed, white socks, and white Reebock tennis shoes. His thinning-grey hair was combed to one side. As he approached the café counter, a clerk turned her attention to him and quickly noticed his long-bony fingers and sad brown eyes.
“Hi,” she said. “Would you like the usual?”
He didn’t hear her. “A tall coffee and a blueberry muffin,” he said. That was his usual. His wife, Nina, always ordered a cup of tea with lemon and a strawberry scone.
He leaned against the counter while the girl poured the coffee and plated the muffin. “That’ll be $3.25.”
Ralph took his wallet from his back pocket, pulled out $4.00 and handed it to her. “Keep the change,” he said as he took the tray and sat at a table for 2 in the middle of the room. It was the same table he always chose on other Saturdays with Nina.
He sipped his coffee and nibbled at the scone while looking at the empty chair in front of him. I miss you, baby. Saturdays are the hardest. He rested his forehead in his hands. The house is too big and too quiet. I can’t take it. Everything reminds me of you. He raised his head and looked into the store. He remembered so many other Saturdays when he watched her browse the bookshelves. He loved to look at her from a distance, as if seeing his beautiful woman for the 1st time.
Nina died on a Friday night, 6-weeks before, after a long battle with melanoma. That evening, Ralph came home from the hospice and set a table for 1. The phone rang while a frozen entrée cooked in the microwave. Robin, a nurse from hospice, told Ralph that Nina had taken a turn for the worst. He dropped what he was doing and sped back to her. “I wish I could’ve protected you,” he said aloud while driving. He wondered if he could go on without her.
Ralph parked the car and rushed to the door of the hospice. He entered and could see Nina’s room at the far end of the hall. Her double doors remained open; she lay in a hospital bed alone in the room.
Robin approached Ralph. “I’m so glad you’re back,” she said as she patted him on the shoulder. “She’s refusing water and her breathing is erratic. She’ll be relieved to know you’re here.”
“I haven’t called our daughter, ” Ralph whispered. He dropped his keys.
“It’s OK,” Ralph. “I have her number. I’ll call her now.”
Ralph picked up the keys and walked to Nina’s room. He heard her labored breathing and saw her chest heave up and down under a faded- grey hospital gown. A couple of grey hairs had grown from her chin. An oxygen mask covered her nose and mouth. Her thin arms, covered in purple and blue bruises, lay still against the white sheets. Her eyes remained closed. Her skin looked yellow and pasty.
Ralph took her cold hand into his and kissed it. He leaned over and pressed his cheek against hers. “I love you, Nina,” he whispered. Her eyes opened briefly and they made eye contact. “You are the joy of my life.”
He stroked her silky hair and hummed their favorite song until she became still. Then Ralph gently removed the mask and kissed his wife one last time.