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Fiction Friday, November 20th, 2020

Musical Chairs


There was a draft coming from the row of windows that ran across the left side of the room, so Leonard chose to sit as far from them as possible. He had the whole waiting area to himself, so he had his pick of the two dozen-or-so chairs. He opted for one that would let him see the receptionist, in case she ever stopped fiddling with her ridiculous, overpriced gadget of a phone long enough to do some work for a change. He grumbled, running his clammy, shaking hand back across his balding head, and then looked for a magazine to read.


Suddenly, a shadow grew across him as an old man approached, blocking the light of the morning sun. The light bloomed around him in Leonard’s eyes, casting the old man in a silhouette. Leonard watched as the man sat, casually as could be, in the chair right next to his. He smiled, the old man, straightened himself in his seat, and laced his fingers in his lap.


Leonard blinked a few times, looking sideways at the man before casting a glance at the rest of the waiting area. 22 other seats to be had, and this ‘clown’ had to choose the one right next to his? Leonard tossed his hands in the air and slowly stood from his chair, making his way over to the receptionist’s desk. It was a young woman with, hand to God, green hair!


Kids.


“Young lady,” Leonard said, clearing his throat. The receptionist looked up at him and gave him a smile she didn’t mean. It was a practiced tick, meant to placate. Leonard saw right through it. He gave her a fake smile right back.


“How can I help you,” the young woman said. Leonard could tell it was all she could manage to ignore the blips and bleeps her phone was making. Can’t let a second pass without telling your tweeters what you had for breakfast, or whatever they called it. Leonard grumbled.


“Any idea when I’m getting in through that door,” Leonard jabbed his grumpy finger, grumpily, toward the door with the sign that read ‘Examination Rooms.’


“The doctor has a lot of patients but you’re up next, okay sweetie,” the girl asked. No! It most certainly wasn't… who did she think she… sweetie?!


After dealing with his mounting displeasure with ‘greenie-locks’ behind the reception desk, Leonard shook his head and nodded at the same time. What choice did he have. He turned away and heard the click-clack of her fingertips jabbering away on her phone again.


He smirked. Typical.


Kids.


He looked back and saw the old man who sat next to him still in the seat he took, flipping through the same magazine Leonard meant to read, himself. The draft from the row of windows on the opposite wall sent a shiver up Leonard’s throat, but he would rather deal with a chill than return to his original seat, next to… whoever that was.


He paused for a moment before turning toward the chairs by the windows, glancing back at the old man. There was something vaguely familiar about him. He couldn’t place it, and if this weren’t a doctor’s office… a private place for private matters… he might have felt more sociable and bothered to ask who the old man was. Leonard grimaced and swallowed, then went to sit down by the windows.


As he turned his head to look down and to his right at a small end table with a stack of magazines about golfing or some such, he could see motion in his peripheral. The old man stood from his seat and was approaching him again.


‘Don’t you dare,’ Leonard thought.


But he dared, the old man. He dared, and he sat right next to Leonard, again.


“Look, pal,” Leonard said, clearing his throat and swallowing deeply between breaths. “Who do you think you are?”


The old man nodded, smiling a genuine smile, not the fake kind the receptionist gave Leonard earlier, and said, “you know who I am, and I’m here for you.”


“I don’t recognize you,” Leonard said, and he was only being partly honest. There was something about the old man that did strike a memory that lay just beyond his grasp.


The old man nodded, then said with the same kind of sincerity he smiled with, “It’s okay. I understand. But you know me, and I’m here for you.”


Leonard’s face went pale. His eyes lost focus and darted left to right, seeking some truth within himself that he knew, somehow, to be hidden in there somewhere. He knew people, and more than that, he knew how to read people. This man was genuine. His smile counted, and his voice, as strange and off-putting as the words may have been, his voice warmed Leonard enough to chase away the chill from the windows behind them both.


Leonard considered the words more carefully, as unsettling as they were. What did he mean ‘I’m here for you?’ How did he know Leonard had a doctor’s appointment. How would he know how to find him? This was all so damned odd.


“Yeah, well, I don’t remember you, buddy, so go away, will ya?”


The old man shook his head, his smile taking on a bit of inner sadness, as if he was disappointed that Leonard wanted him to shove off. He repeated himself, “It’s okay. I understand, but I’m here for you, and I’m not going anywhere.”


Leonard stood up, a bit too fast, and became lightheaded as he turned to shout at the strange old man. “I don’t care where you go, alright, guy? I’m sitting my duff over at that chair, right over there, and you can have your pick of any seat in the house so long as it ain’t right next to me. Got it, chief? This ain't musical chairs!”


The receptionist looked over crossly at Leonard, who gave her a ‘you want some, too’ look which caused her to return to her instant-grams or whatever such nonsense. Leonard was having none of it, today. He glared back at the old man, who grimly blinked in a familiar way, wearing a lopsided ‘you win’ grin, and nodded.


“I understand. No problem.”


“Good,” Leonard said, triumphant. Still, as he walked away from the old man, sadness tore at him as if he had just done something horribly wrong. He shook his head, the lightheadedness sloughing off of his mind as he did, and sat down half-way across the room, facing the receptionist’s desk head-on. He called out to her, “8:45 appointment my eye.”


The receptionist did a great job of ignoring him, that time. She heard him, but she didn’t react except for a slight twitch of her eyebrow. Leonard was observant. He had spent a lifetime building those skills, and as he sat there unable to place a person so obviously familiar with him left Leonard more than a bit stymied. He grumbled, clearing his throat loudly, and reached for a magazine as he noticed that the old man was now seated in a chair directly across from him, his back to the receptionist.


“You’ve already read that one,” the old man said. Leonard tossed the magazine down in frustration, prepared to unleash a tirade of out-of-date profanity if not for the fact there was a lady present. Then, he looked down at the magazine.


He had, in fact, already read it. He couldn’t recall when, but the old man did, and that was very troubling to Leonard.


“H…how did you,” Leonard was about to ask as he looked up from the magazine, then found that the chair was empty once more. The old man was gone.


It was just Leonard, then.


“Miss, did you let someone in ahead of me,” Leonard asked, and the receptionist looked up at him with no further effort being made to disguise her ire.


“I told you, you are next,” she said. Flippant. Churlish.


Kids.


Leonard shook his head, though. He wasn’t accusing her. He was just… confused. He looked around. The old man was gone, but that made him feel almost sad. Worried, even. He was about to ask her where the old man went that was just sitting in front of him, but she stood up from her desk to take a personal phone call, disappearing behind a corner where she wouldn’t have to contend with Leonard for a time.


“Yeah,” he said in a near whisper, looking down into the palms of his hands as they lay crisscrossed on his lap. “I’d want to ignore me, too, I guess.”


He lost track of time, then. His eyes followed the lines and deep creases of his hands, and within, his mind traced a similar path through his memories. He found there hits at who the old man was. He somehow knew him intimately, yet not at all. Leonard closed his eyes, hands clenching into stiff, wobbling fists, trying to think.


Then, the old man said, “You okay?”


Leonard opened his eyes and found that the old man was back in his seat, a tiny cup of fountain water in each hand. He handed one to Leonard, who accepted it gladly and took an eager gulp.


“Easy,” the old man said. “There’s plenty more, no need to huff it down.”


“Where did you go?” Leonard heard in his own voice a sense of relief, but he still couldn’t remember this old man, and he had no idea why it felt so good that he was back, again.


“I’ve always been here,” the old man replied. “You were thirsty, so I got us some water, that’s all.”


“Who are you,” Leonard asked. His voice quivered a bit. He felt so trapped by his own memory. “I want to remember… I’m trying to…”


“It’s okay,” the old man, replied. “I’ll remember for the both of us. Don’t worry.”


“The doctor will see you, now,” the receptionist said as she stood with her foot propping open the door leading to the examination rooms. The old man stood, reached his hand down, and offered Leonard a hand to his feet. He took the old man’s hand and rose to his feet unsteadily. His left knee buckled a bit. A jolt of sciatic pins-and-needles spread up the back of his thigh. The old man steadied him. The old man cared.


Leonard tried, seeing only a silhouette in his memory where a whole, wonderful human being had once been. There was just an afterimage of this old man who stood before him and held him upright.


The receptionist moved toward the two of them, Leonard and the old man, offering to help. The old man shook his head. “It’s okay. I’m here for him.”


“I’m sorry,” Leonard said, tears falling over his weathered, sunbaked cheeks. “I really want to know who you are… will you tell me, please?”


The old man hesitated. “It breaks your heart every time. It’s okay, though. Don’t worry about remembering who I am. I know it’s hard. Just try to remember that you’re not alone. Just try to remember that I’m here for you, okay?”


Leonard blinked, confused, defeated, then nodded. He pretended to understand, but he didn’t. Whoever this old man was, he could tell Leonard’s nod was disingenuous. He could read Leonard the same way Leonard was able to read everyone else.


He accepted help from this stranger, who wasn’t a stranger, and walked toward the receptionist. As they went, Leonard and the old man passed in front of a tall mirror near the coat rack in the corner. He saw the old man, but what shocked him most was the fact that he saw himself. He was far older than he realized he was. Leonard thought the old man was… well… old. But he realized as he stood there, looking at the two of them together in the mirror, he was older by a few decades at least.


He blinked and saw a faint image flash through his mind, pieces of the jigsaw puzzle he had been trying to solve falling into place. Portraits. Pictures. Memories.


Family.


“Son?”


“That’s right,” the not-so-old man replied as the receptionist began looking away, stifling genuine tears of her own, aware that this was a fleeting moment in time and not wanting to intrude upon it.


“God…, Jake,” Leonard heaved a sob, touching his son’s face. “How did I forget you? How could I…”


He was upset, and visibly. He openly wept as his son, his Jake, held him in his arms. Leonard remembered holding Jake, then, when he towered over the boy whose face he had forgotten. Jake held him out at arm’s length after a few moments, smiling through tears of his own.


“It’s okay, dad,” he said as he held his father’s gaze, grateful for a moment of clarity… of salience. “That’s why we’re here, trying to get some help. We’ll figure it out, don’t worry.”


The receptionist stepped aside, her faint smile sincere, and her hair not so bad as Leonard first thought. Her eyes were green, too. Eh, she made it work, he guessed.


As Leonard and Jake moved past the receptionist and down the hall, toward the doctor, toward help, he looked sideways at his son and said, “Jakey, you got so old.”


The old man laughed, “Yeah, you and me both, pop.”


Kids.




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