by Michael Christani

The juniper grew on a diagonal landward, buffeted since birth by the sea gusts, the salty ocean mists. The willows looked down through their hanging, long branches that would grow so expressive in storms, though now they were calm. All was murmuring, still.

Evan sat on a bench some ways away from the water under the willow. The leaves were yellowish and small. Seagulls occasionally begged from him, but he had nothing, no bread, nothing. They soon left him alone. He lit his pipe and puffed casually. There was no need to rush anymore. It was her tenth anniversary. No need to rush. I’ll grab a beer later on, he thought. Why not?

He pulled out a bag of tobacco from his pocket, re-stuffed the pipe, and puffed on. No need to rush. The clouds over the bay were a soaring bruise-gray, and he hoped it would rain. Yes. A nice drenching rain and a nice cold beer. Maybe a whisky to chase. Yes. He sat smoking on the bench, staring out at the sea.

* * *
The hospital walls were white, the table a cold steel, and he could hear the ventilation system as the doctor was saying:

–Given the size of the mass, I would recommend immediate surgery. However, given your age, I have to say that there is a definite risk involved. If the surgery’s successful, you might have another five years to live. Without it, however, I would honestly give you two months, tops.

Evan thanked him for his candidness and left the hospital. He wandered some time in a daze. Everything seemed sharper to him: his perceptions, his mind. He walked to the package store and bought a pint of whisky. From there he went down the boardwalk. He drank about three gulps out of the bottle in its paper bag, then threw the bottle into the ocean, off the breakwater, and broke into a coughing fit. My word, he thought. I’m gonna die of coughing.

He pulled out his pipe and lit it, smoking by the fishermen. He stayed there a long while, watching the fishermen, the girls walking by, until the sun dipped below the trees. He thought of Rose as the sky turned pink, green, red, before at last he turned and went slowly home in the faultless twilight.

* * *
It definitely looked like rain. He checked his wallet. Twenty-two dollars. Yes, he’d go grab a beer. He rose from the willow bench and, standing up with some difficulty, faced the ocean. The sea breeze felt cool on his old face. He emptied out his pipe and put it in his pocket. In the distance there was some thunder. He smiled, a wrinkly old smile. Yes, that is good, he thought.

The bar was a half mile away or so. He walked so slowly. How and when did I get so old? he mused. The rumbles of thunder broke nearer. He saw a flash of lightning over the water and counted one, two, then came the crackling boom . . .

* * *
When Rose died he was sitting beside her, watching her breath, her chest rising and falling. He was there when her breathing ceased, when the pain went away, and she was at last at peace. He kissed her forehead and left the room to sleep on the couch. He didn’t know what he thought or felt and lay on the couch for a long time. When sleep came at last, an awful dream beset him: he was lying on the grass by his bench being pecked at by seagulls, drawing blood. He swung at them but more and more gathered and then he woke with a shout, feeling all over his body, panting. He wiped the sweat from his forehead, half-expecting to see blood. But soon he came to and forgot the dream. Out of instinct and habit he started to call for his wife and then he realized. That was when the sadness overcame him. After twenty-seven years of marriage . . .

When after ten more years he finally visited the doctor for his pain and was told he had cancer, the antiseptic sterility of the place horrified him, and he made an appointment for a follow-up he never intended to keep.

* * *
The storm was right upon him now, thunder crashes and brilliant lightning strikes and the rain coming down in torrents, soaking him to the bone. Just one beer, he thought, as he pushed his way through the storm. Can’t a man live a little? His tobacco was soaked, everything drenched, and he stopped, panting, under an awning. Just a little ways to go. He again summoned his gusto and made it to a pub he’d never been to. Dripping, he ordered a pint.

–Are you ok? The bartender asked.

–Just a little rain, he said. Never killed nobody.

She gave him his beer and told him he could dry off in the bathroom. He thanked her and asked for a whisky. There was a man at the end of the bar, and two young men throwing darts, and that was it. He used paper towels to get tolerably dry, then went back to the bar. He drank the whisky whole and the beer slowly, enjoying the warmth of the bar. He ordered another and she looked at him with sympathy.

–You sure you’re ok? she asked.

–I’m fine, fine as fine can be, he smiled. She left to pour his whisky and brought it back to him, then started wiping down the bar. This one too he drank quickly. He felt so tired.

–You’re drinking pretty fast there, sir, the bartender commented.

–You’d drink fast too if you had what I have, Evan replied.

–I’ve heard that joke before. She smiled as she walked away.

–Ain’t no joke, ain’t no joke, Evan muttered under his breath. He finished his beer. Ha, he thought. Two months my eye. I could live another hundred years. The whisky always got him cocky.

–How about a pair for the road, he asked her. She sighed and caught his smile, then poured him another whisky and beer. These he drank fairly quickly and left his money on the bar.

–Tell me when it stops raining, will you? he said as he got up. She laughed. The other man at the bar never even looked up.

The whisky and beer gave him a glow, a calmness and a false warmth, and he paid no heed to the still-falling rain. It was colder out and the thunder was in the distance now, but still it rained and he hardly noticed.

–Lord taketh all under wing, he said aloud. Suddenly, it was as if the booze kicked in all at once, and he felt woozy. He tried to get his bearings, but his head was spinning. Reeling, he fell to the ground, hitting the sidewalk. He lay on his back, squinting through the rain, his old wrinkled face, then he closed his eyes. Lord taketh all under His wing, he thought, and smiled, and when they found him his eyes were closed, and his profound stillness was imposing to them, and they were afraid.

Mr. Christani’s biography, in his own words: My name is Michael Christani. I’m a writer from Massachusetts, having attended UMass briefly in my late teens. Though I’ve dabbled all my life, I was really set aflame after reading Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Alexandria Quartet’ several years ago. I’ve been writing seriously for twelve years roughly, mostly poetry, but switching to stories from time to time. I’ve had a poem published in Emerge Literary Journal, and am currently trying my hand at vignettes, which are a fun challenge.