Reception

Joseph Nolan steps past empty cups in the church basement and ignores the looks he also got at the funeral. Ex-colleagues stand with sliced cake in hand, their collective gaze tracking his path. They want him to stop and hear Willa praised, revered. He forces himself not to hurry, stops when he sees the boy who’s watching him. Joseph leans against a doorjamb and rubs his forehead, masking his eyes.

Outside, he retrieves a plastic bag from under a bush near the parking lot, takes out his Nikes and takes off his dress shoes, the old ones with holes. He has to hop on one foot. He’s 80. The sun is blinding him. He puts on sunglasses and moves down the sidewalk, worried his gait is too distinctive. He smirks; a dead giveaway.

Thumb held low, he stands on the highway ramp until a red Toyota pulls over, young people in the front.

“Where to?” smiles the girl in the passenger seat.

“Voyageur Provincial Park.”

She confers with the driver, unlocks the rear door. Joseph has no trouble easing in beside the daypacks. When he taught he weighed 138 pounds and he’s been shrinking ever since.

The car speeds down the ramp and joins traffic. He thinks about Willa’s fingers, how four days ago he woke up beside her and they were dark blue. He didn’t know that could happen. He put all of her fingers in his mouth, stretching his lips until they hurt. The fingers stayed blue but he knew they would.

The driver glances back and Joseph likes his thin beard, high cheekbones.

“Go to Voyageur often?” says the boy.

Joseph lies: “Never.”

The girl cranes her head around. Brown hair and red cheeks, with a plaid scarf chosen to match. Joseph understands: it’s what Willa did.

“You’re going for a walk?” she says.

He leans his head forward.

“Actually, I’m about to take part in an international cross-country ski race. One thousand metres. You have to be between 79 and 89 to qualify. Everyone skies nude and whoever finishes the course gets a medal made of maple fudge. Women are encouraged to enter. During the race, men are forbidden from entering them.”

The girl stares at his face and laughs, her hand grabbing her stomach.

“Tanya,” says the boy, “he’s cracked out.”

The girl touches her hair, grins at Joseph.

“Do you do theatre?”

“Have done.”

“Writer, actor, director?”

“Close. I tore people’s tickets in two. I escorted couples — ”

Couples.

He grips the boy’s shoulder.

“Please pull over.”

Joseph clamps his hands over his ears when the girl starts her soothing sorrys, are-you-okays, their drip of pity like acid sizzling his brain.

Standing by the highway, he watches the car become a speck. Here, not here. Beside him lies a field of snow. In the middle distance, a hump of earth bulges out of whiteness. Inter, disinter. Despite his sunglasses, a million snow crystals sting his eyes, so he looks at the far hills. A grey cloud glowers above them. Joseph blinks.

By Harold Hoefle

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