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The Melancholy Man

A short story by John Gardiner

He had travelled through life straight and true, and rarely varied from the main path; the one where all good and decent people tread. And he could never remember having the least bit of doubt as to whether he had made the right choice all those many years ago, when he had forsaken the opportunity to pursue his career in the city, and had decided, instead, to work quietly with his father, in the family business, until one day when it would be his. But now, as he looked out through the holly wreath, and into the winter’s scene that unfolded beyond, he felt a type of sadness. And it wasn’t just sadness brought on by the fact this was his last Christmas season on Main Street; it was something that ran deeper than that.

He had poured his life into this little business and into life on this street, but now it was gone, and soon he would be gone. And what did it matter? Or what had it mattered? He was one of the last of the family-owned businesses left on the street, and there would be no others. He hadn’t even been able to find a buyer for his store, so he was just going to close the doors the day before Christmas, and that would be that. He would sell the inventory to an auction house, and the business his father had started all those years ago would start a rather brief, and abrupt, slide into the oblivion of the past, to be remembered only by old men over games of checkers at the seniors’ centre.

He watched the snow wisping, twisting and turning into the alleyway across the street. What did it matter he thought. A way of life, and not just his way of life, was slipping away, and he wondered if people knew, or if people cared, or if maybe he was the only one that even noticed.

He turned away from the window. Two weeks ’til Christmas, he thought. The downtown and my store would have been teeming with shoppers twenty years ago on a Saturday this close to closing.

He walked to the back of the long, narrow, rectangularly-shaped jewellery store, while the faces of a hundred clocks gazed down on him. He was fixing himself a cup of tea, when the little bell over the store’s front door sounded the arrival of someone, possibly a customer.

"Daddy, why don’t you close up and go home?" It was his daughter.

She walked over and gave him a little kiss on the cheek.

"There’s not a soul downtown. You should go home and sit by the fire with mother," she continued.

"It’s Christmas," he responded. "The stores are supposed to be open late. What if somebody came all the way uptown, in this weather, and found I’d closed early? Why, the word would get around and I’d lose business."

He took a sip of the steaming hot tea.

"Daddy, you’re retiring in two weeks. Remember?" She gave his arm a good-natured squeeze. "Now, pour your tea down the sink, and go home and sit by the fire with momma."

"No," he said, "I think I’ll stay ’til closing. It’s only about another half an hour anyway." He paused to take another sip of his tea. "Somebody might come," he said somewhat more quietly.

"You’re just being stubborn," she said, in a way that made her sound a lot like her mother.

He was tempted to tell her so, but instead found himself gazing up the length of the store, and out into the street again.

"Anyway," his daughter said, brushing past him and starting toward the front of the store. "I’ve got to get going. I just had to come up to the drug store to get some cough medicine for the kids. They’ve got the worst cough and cold," she chattered in his direction, as she buttoned the top of her coat, and prepared to brave the blustery evening that lay beyond the confines of the snug, old store.

"I only dropped in because I figured you’d be the only one still open on the street on a night like this, and I thought I might be able to get you to go home to your dear wife a few minutes early," she continued.

"I guess I’m just being stubborn," he said, managing to pull his gaze away from the wintery street outside for long enough to say a goodbye.

He walked to where she was standing by the front door, and gave her a polite little peck on the cheek, and her hand a little squeeze.

"If no one comes in the next few minutes, maybe I’ll close," he said, knowing it could make her feel she had accomplished her mission, even though they both knew she hadn’t.

And, with a blast of cold air from the street beyond, she was gone, and he was left alone with his cooling tea.

But he might as well start to close up, he thought, as he shuffled in a tired kind of way, across the well-worn hardwood floor, toward the back of the store, where business was conducted.

There really wasn’t much closing up to do, because it had been a slow day, and there had been few customers, so there were few sales to total. But he gathered up the few papers, and took the float from the till and walked to the huge, old safe, that had stood, cemented firmly into the middle of the office area, for over seventy years, since the day his father had had it installed.

He delicately searched out the combination on the safe, and swung the massive door effortlessly open. He placed the till inside, along with the papers, before starting to gather the valuable pieces of jewellery from their display cases in the store, and place them in the safe, as well. It was a nightly ritual he had gone through for virtually a lifetime, but tonight, unlike other nights, even in the recent past, he was vividly aware of the fact the ritual would soon come to an end. He carried out each of the actions involved in closing up the store with a deliberateness, and a special care; placing each item solemnly in its place within the silence and security of the safe.

Finally, everything was in its proper place, and he stood back and swung the giant door slowly shut. He heard it click closed and spun the combination wheel, sealing the safe for the night, and he felt the sense of satisfaction he always did when the day’s business had been concluded.

But, instead of making for the back door of the store, where his coat and boots were located, he headed again for the front of the store. After all, it was still ten minutes until closing. He had only closed the store early once in all these years, and that had been when his daughter had been born, and there was no such occasion on this night.

So, he stood again, just inside the door, watching the swirling snow, and the twinkling of the Christmas lights in the store window across the street. The storefront had been decorated by a local Scout troop, because the store had been empty for the last couple of years, but there had been a feeling among some of the remaining downtown merchants that even the vacant stores must get into the Christmas spirit; that it would somehow help business. So, local Scouts and Guides had decorated the fronts of the emptiness that lay beyond. So, he stared out into the snow and across the street into the festive storefront and the hollow harbinger stared back, and he wondered if the local Scouts would decorate the front of this store, after he had gone, and this business was also just an empty memory.

Finally, there was no avoiding it. The faces of row upon row of jewellery store clocks all told him it was closing time; that it was the end of another business day.

He walked to the rear of the store and fetched his coat and boots, also making sure the back door was secure. Then, he walked again to the front where he got into his winter garb, and made ready to greet the cold, night air.

He took a final look around the store, extinguished the lights, and went through the door and into the street, where he stood on the sidewalk, and let the winter’s wind take his breath away and bite at his face. He pulled the collar of his coat higher up around his face, and snuggled down into the parka.

But it felt great, he thought, and he just stood there and let the wind whip around him, and lick at him, trying to find his most vulnerable places, so it could drive him from the outside, and back into the stuffiness and staleness of the inside. But, tonight, it gave a feeling of aliveness, and the cold biting at his lungs seemed to force him to take grea t gulps of air that seemed to invigorate him.

He stood for a couple of minutes longer, then turned and started out on the four-block walk home, and to the warm fireside. But he had only gone several steps, when he stopped. For some reason, he didn’t feel like going home. Even in the frigidness of the outside, he felt a sense of melancholy over what was coming to be, and he felt he wanted to be only with his thoughts for a while longer, so he turned back the other way, and started to walk along the main street where he had passed through life and become who he was. He should have phoned his wife, but she was far from his thoughts on this particular night.

As he walked past the lonely storefronts, and the empty cavities where there had once been storefronts, it seemed as if the past walked with him. He could almost see Mel’s Grill, and the old Red and White, and the Capitol Theatre, with its lineup of young lovers waiting to see the new Cary Grant film. And he could surely feel each and every one of the imagined sights as he walked. And even the cold of the winter’s night was forgotten, and he found himself alone with his memories, and the warmth of a tear traced its way down his frozen face, and he felt a saltiness on his lips. Old fool, he thought.

He walked the complete length of the street, and started to make his way back up the other side, not feeling the cold until he had reached about the halfway point on his return walk. Then, he paused briefly to try to burrow more deeply into his coat, and he found he was standing outside the Queen’s Hotel. Of course, it wasn’t called the Queen’s anymore, and instead of the Rotary Club meeting here, you were more likely to run into one of those exotic dancers, he thought, ashe stood outside the building, suddenly feeling an urge to go in; and the feeling that maybe he needed a beer, a beverage he consumed about once every six months.

He had only seen a stripper once before in his life, he found himself thinking, and he wondered if the stories he had heard about how rough this place was were true.

The interior of the place was dim and hazy, with smoke wisping and swirling around each of the dull orangey lights. He couldn’t make out much as his eyes took their first turn around the room, but he managed to locate a seat near the far end of the bar, and to partially unfasten his coat and make himself somewhat comfortable.

When the bartender, a rather muscular tattooed young lady, came, he ordered a draft beer, which she brought, looking at him in a funny kind of way that sort of asked him what he was doing in a place like this. He offered no explanation, and took a sip of the beer. His eyes had kind of adjusted to the poor lighting of the place, so he looked about to see what he had missed on his way in.

There were few people in the place, a few swaggering young cocks gathered around a pool table drinking beer and bragging, and a couple of fat, out-of-shape older guys, with unshaven faces and hopeless expressions, sitting at the bar. And a table full of younger banker-type guys, who were undoubtedly wasting away an evening drinking beer in the local strip club and feeling thoroughly mischievous knowing their wives would never find out, and who looked as completely out of place in here as he did. And there was a stage, where he guessed the young ladies unclothed, but, at the moment, it was empty, and the room lacked any focus it might have had.

So, he sat quietly, taking the occasional sip of his beer, and wondering if this was a typical Saturday night out. He wondered how this place had managed to survive and remain a part of the downtown, even in its present condition, if this was the type of crowd it attracted on a Saturday night.

The jukebox was playing almost inaudibly in the background, but its unrecognizable tune was suddenly and unceremoniously interrupted, and replaced with some rock music, that was extremely loud, and caused him to grimace, which got a reaction of sorts from the young lady with the tattoo behind the bar, in the form of a somewhat gap-toothed smile, which he acknowledged.

But his attention was drawn to the stage, where a young woman had appeared and was beginning to move to the music. He found himself watching her as she went through her routine, removing the few clothes she had worn when she had climbed the stage. It had been many years since he had seen a lithe young body like her’s nude, and he found her mildly arousing to watch, but he did so nervously, somehow feeling what he was doing was wrong, and somehow knowing that this young woman was someone’s daughter; someone’s hopes and aspirations, gone astray, and ended here in this rundown strip club, disrobing in front of old men and swaggering young cocks.

"Not bad, eh?" said a voice, interrupting his thoughts.

He turned toward the direction of the voice, and found that a man he knew from his dealings on the street had slid onto the bar stool beside him and was coddling a beer and looking toward the stage. The man peddled flowers for a living, and they were probably about the same age, he guessed.

"She’s pretty nice lookin’, eh?" his uninvited guest said, repeating his earlier sentiment.

"She’s very attractive," he answered, feeling very embarrassed, both for the girl and himself.

"I know you," the man suddenly said. "You’re the jeweller."

"Yes," he answered, "and I’ve really got to be going."

"Yea, you don’t belong in here," the man said, somewhat gruffly.

"No," he found himself agreeing; "I don’t think I do belong in here anymore." And he got off the barstool and made his way toward the door, but not before receiving another somewhat gap-toothed smile from the muscular, tattooed bartender, which he acknowledged.

And it was back out into the night, past the lonely storefronts and the empty cavities where there had once been storefronts, while the winter’s storm blustered and blew around him and he burrowed deep into his parka. This time, though, his destination was home, where he was sure his wife would have alerted half the town that he was late getting home from the store.

As he came up the front walk, the snow crunched crisply under his feet, and he continued to try to rid himself of the melancholy he had been feeling because his wife would be able to sense it in him quick as a wit. During the walk home, he decided he’d not tell her about his visit to the hotel, and he had chewed a stick of gum to cover the beer smell. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, he thought.

She came scurrying from the kitchen area, the moment he came through the door.

"What happened to you?" she asked, brushing some snow off the shoulder of his coat.

"I got held up at the store," he lied.

"Grace called, and she said you weren’t busy at all," his wife said, referring to their daughter’s visit to the store. "She said she tried to get you to leave early, but you were being stubborn."

"I had a last minute customer," he said, lying again and removing his coat.

"Well, that’s good," his wife answered. "It’s a good thing you didn’t close then," she added, not questioning his story for a minute; apparently believing there was no need.

He felt a twinge of guilt and wondered why he’d bothered to lie, because he knew that if he’d merely told her where he had been, she would have accepted that without question, as well. It was the type of relationship they had after fifty years of marriage.

But he made no effort to correct himself, instead heading for the couch in the living room.

As usual, on the rare occasions when he was unexpectedly late, she had kept his supper warm; relying on the warmth of an oven and not having made the transition to the new-fangled microwaves which her daughter’s generation used for such tasks.

He appreciated the gesture, and thanked her as was his custom with a polite, little kiss, when she bent over the TV table to deliver the meal. But he only toyed with it, not feeling any real inclination to eat.

"Quite a wintery day outside," she commented, as they both sat watching the TV.

"It’s going to make for a white Christmas," he answered, as he tried to pretend he was making progress with hisdinner.

She tried on a few other occasions to start a conversation, but he was uncommunicative, and felt that he wished only to be left alone with his thoughts, so unsuccessful had been his attempts to shake off the melancholy that had been haunting him since earlier in the store.

"You thinking about retirement?" she finally asked, already knowing the answer.

He paused for a moment before answering, choosing instead to flip through a couple of stations on the TV.

"Yea," he finally said, "I guess maybe I am."

He paused, changing the channel again.

"I went to the hotel for a beer after closing," he said, confessing the earlier lie.

"I smelled it on your breath," she said, also confessing her’s.

"I can’t fool you, even for a minute," he said softly.

"I just can’t figure out why you’d want to," she answered. "I thought we’d learned a long time ago not to keep secrets from each other."

"We did," he said. "I’m sorry."

They sat for a moment in silence, as if reflecting on the brief exchange.

"You didn’t have to retire," she finally said. "You’re your own boss, and nobody forced you to. We talked about it."

"Hey," he answered. "It’s time. I’ve been at it long enough. I want to spend some time with you and my grandkids." He set the TV convertor on the end table.

"Then, what’s bothering you?" she asked, persistently trying to help him with his burden, as she had for so many years, and in so many of his life’s crises.

"Oh," he said. "I’m not sure what it is. It’s kind of stupid, really. It’s kind of like I never thought about what I was doing for all these years, until just the last little while. It’s like all of a sudden I woke up and noticed that everything’s changed; all the people I knew are gone and everything’s different. It’s kind of stupid wondering where all the years went."

He looked over at her, and she offered him a soft, vulnerable smile, that somehow gave him a feeling of assurance.

"It’s not stupid at all," she said. "This is going to be a big change in your life… our lives," she added the last bit, correcting herself. "I’ve had some of the same thoughts, but it’s worse for you. You’ve spent more hours in that store over your life than you have at home. And that’s coming to an end. It’s only natural that you’re going to have some trouble adjusting to that."

"Anyway," he said, "it’s nothing to worry about. I’ll be fine."

"Well, I just want you to know that I’m here for you if you need me," she said, reaching across the couch and putting her hand on his arm.

He looked over at her, and felt some of the electricity he had felt between them across the span of years they had spent together.

"I’m a part of your life that won’t change," she added softly, as if trying to emphasize the feeling.

"I know," he added, leaning over and kissing her with a passion undiminished by the time and the years it had added to their relationship.

He broke off the contact, and moved back to his own end of the couch, where he retrieved the TV convertor, while she rose to clear away his dinner dishes. And so the conversation ended. But the feeling of closeness endured, as it always did.

Soon, the fire was snapping and crackling in the hearth, and they were sitting in their cozy, little living room watching the Saturday night movie.

As he sat, he found that he was more aware than usual of his surroundings; of the house the two of them had built when they were first married. When they had built it, it had been in one of the most fashionable areas of town, but, over the years, many of the professional people in town had moved over into the subdivision behind the hospital, so that that area had become the fashionable one, while their little corner of the community had become rather tired looking, with the big, old, brick houses turned to apartments, and most of the little, frame ones badly in need of a coat of paint. Until tonight, he had not really seen it in those exact terms, but now that he thought about it, he supposed that was what had happened. That he had been left behind in that area of his life, as well.

But as he sat, feeling all snug and secure in their comfortable, little abode, where the troubles of the world, such as they were, had never succeeded in reaching him, he was sure this was where he belonged; in the place where he had loved his new bride, where his daughter had been born, and where he and his wife had watched her grow to maturity, while, at the same time, they had reached across time toward their golden years. A point they had now reached; a time they had come to.

But, while she sat, apparently engrossed in the movie, he was again feeling the stirrings of melancholy, like the ones he had felt earlier in the day. Even now, as he sat in the snugness and security, he felt quiet despair at whether his journey through life had been what he had wanted it to be. He found himself remembering again, looking back into his past, thinking mostly of the store and that part of what had been.

And even as he settled in for his night’s sleep, knowing that tomorrow was Sunday, and he’d not have to worry about going to work, he found himself thinking that in two short weeks, he would never ever have to worry about going to work again, and he wondered how that would feel.

He felt somewhat better about things in the morning, and during the two weeks that followed, he found he had somewhat mixed feelings about the end of his business dealings. He felt the melancholy from time to time, but he also felt that, somehow, on that night when he had walked in winter’s frigid grip, and had come home late from the store because of his stop in the hotel, he had awakened to the reality of the situation, and something had forced him to become aware that the world had changed, and he had become old during that change, and now it was time for the change to be completed, and for him to be swept aside, just like all the others. He could remember thinking so clearly how he had once thought it would never end; that he would somehow remain in his prime, at the centre of the bustling street, for all time; even while those around him grew old and were swept aside. And now it was his turn, and that was what he had come to grips with that night.

It was a death of sorts, he had found himself thinking. And it was at those times, when such thoughts started to intrude into his day, that he found himself flooding his mind with the many things he could look to and hold out as accomplishments during his life. And it was a type of struggle that raged within him; one side of him seeming to ask whether there had been worth to the time spent here in this little, rectangular jewellery store, while the other side told him, yes, it had been worthwhile, there had been a reason for it.

Two days before the final day, the reporter from the local newspaper came looking for a story. He was a sincere young fellow who’d been with the paper for some years, and they conversed easily for nearly two hours about the jewellery store business and the changes in the downtown over the course of the store’s history. And there was also the chance for the reporter to ask him how he felt about his retirement and whether he’d enjoyed all those years serving the public and working in the downtown. And while he had known the question was coming from the moment the reporter had called, and while he had rehearsed a long, and rather complex, answer, when the actual questioning took place, he found himself somewhat at a loss for words. He mumbled the usual words about spending more time with his family, and, of course, he had enjoyed his years in the business and serving the public. He realized by the time the young man had left, that his story in the local paper would sound just like all the other "retiring from business" stories he had seen in it over the years. But he guessed that was the way it should be.

On the final day, he got out of bed and washed and dressed and had his breakfast exactly the same way he always had. As a matter of fact, he followed pretty well his same old routine throughout the day, except for at lunch, when a few business people from the chamber of commercedropped by with a cake, and there were more pictures by the guy from the paper. His wife was there, and his daughter, along with a couple of old friends from the street, and it was nice, and he appreciated it, but he was glad when his wife, the last of the guests, finally left to do a little shopping before coming back to stay with him, whatever that meant.

It was Christmas Eve day, so there were a few last minute shoppers out looking for bargains. He had insisted on keeping the store well-stocked right to the end, and was glad he had, as he was able to satisfy the needs of several customers over the next couple of hours. His wife came back, but he was busy, so she left, telling him she would pick up a few more things and be back. He told her he would close at four, as had always been the custom on Christmas Eve.

A few more customers came and went and a few more sales were made, and he was glad he’d stayed open after the little celebration.

Finally, though , the end of the day had nearly been reached, and even though his wife had not returned, he decided he could not put off the inevitable, and started to carry out the end-of-the-day ritual with the great safe.

He heard the bell over the front door ring as he went about his chores back in the office and assumed his wife had returned. Shortly, though, he heard someone clear their throat out in the front area of the store.

He went out to see who had come and found a young woman had entered and was standing near the till.

"Can I help you?" he asked, as he walked out into the front of the store.

"I don’t know," answered the young woman.

"Are you looking for something in particular?" he asked.

"A locket," she answered. "But it has to be a certain type of locket." She paused and came toward him, offering him something she held.

"My husband got his for me last year," she said. "My little girl fell in love with it and he promised he’d get her one just like it this year."

"And he forgot all about it," he offered, seeming to sense she was having difficulty explaining the situation.

"He died," she said quietly, her eyes shifting nervously away.

"I’m sorry," he managed. "That’s tough."

"Anyway, " the woman continued, "I thought my daughter had forgotten all about the locket, until we were at a Christmas party today, and she asked the Santa Claus there not to forget to bring her a locket just like her Mommy’s, like her Daddy had promised. If she doesn’t get one, she’ll be heartbroken, and she’s had enough heartbreak for one lifetime already this year."

The woman paused briefly, before continuing. "I’ve looked in a couple of jewellery stores in the mall, but they didn’t have anything even close. They said this was an older design, and I thought of you."

"Here, let me have a look at that," he said, taking the locket from the woman.

He looked at it, and walked over to the display case where his own supply of lockets were kept. He was almost certain he had one similar.

"I guess it pays to be behind in the designer jewellery business," he said, as he held out the two lockets for her to examine.

"You’re a miracle worker," the woman said. "They’re almost identical. She won’t even notice the difference."

He took the locket back from the woman and searched out its box, before walking back to the till to ring in another sale, and the thought suddenly came to mind that it was probably his last.

"Would you like it gift wrapped?" he asked, as was his usual habit at this time of year.

"No, that’ll be fine. Just like it is," the woman said. "I’m just so grateful to get it. I just can’t tell you how happy that little girl’s going to be tomorrow morning,"she beamed.

Just as he was about to ring in the sale, the bell over the door rang, and his wife came in. He looked up into the face of the young woman who had come in search of the locket, and she smiled a wide smile back at him.

"Ma’am," he said, putting the locket into a bag with the name of the store on the side. "I want you to take this as my Christmas present to you and your daughter. No charge."

The woman looked up from her purse with surprise.

"You can’t mean that," she said.

"Just being able to satisfy you and to see how happy I’ve made you is payment enough for this locket," he said. "I’m honoured to have been able to help you."

She took the locket from him, and thanked him several times more, before turning to leave the store. Just before she left, she turned back toward him.

"You know, I thought people who worked in stores these days were all the same," she said. "They’re always trying to get you to buy something you don’t really want or need. Or they treat you like you’re some kind of inconvenience. You’re different. And that’s nice. Thank-you again."

And she was gone into the night.

His wife was looking at him and smiling.

"What’s wrong?" he asked.

"Nothing," she answered. "Are you almost ready?"

"Yea, I guess. I just had one more sale to make," he said. "But I guess I’m ready to go now."

He went to the rear of the store to collect his coat and boots. He took one more look around the office area, before turning out the light. Then, he walked to the front of the store, where his wife was waiting. He opened the front door for her, then followed her out onto the sidewalk. He took one more look around the store, before turning out the light, closing and locking the door, and putting his keys in his pocket.

His wife was still looking at him with a warm, little smile, that spoke of an affection for someone special.

"That’s what it was all about," he said, as he took her arm, "wasn’t it?"

"You’re what it was all about," she answered.

And this time, it was he who smiled.

That night, as he sat on his end of the couch in his cozy, little living room, in his cozy, little house, in a slightly run-down, but once fashionable, area of town, with his wife, who was seemingly engrossed in the movie of the week, he couldn’t help but think that he felt a lot better. Somehow, that brief exchange with a young woman trying to do something very special for her daughter had made it clearer to him who he was and why he had bothered. And it had convinced him that maybe it did matter, after all.

His wife slid down the couch to be closer to him and put her arm through his. It all felt so very comfortable.

"I love you," he said to his wife.

"Nice to have you home," she whispered quietly into his ear.

"It’s nice to be home," he answered.

And it was.

Copyright © John Gardiner 1997

This article may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of The Melancholy Man is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.

John Gardiner is a 44-year-old former community newspaper editor from Wallaceburg, Ontario, Canada. He can be emailed at <[email protected]> His stories Froglegs and Other Peculiar Things, and The Minister’s Son are also published in The Richmond Review.


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