"On West Chestnut Street"
“Ms. Stern, I’ve told you three times already that I was simply trying to rake some of the leaves off of your lawn. I know it’s not as easy for you to do as it once was.” Pete Matheson, her middle-aged neighbor from three houses down was standing in front of her. She was not happy; she never liked him. He talked too much and didn’t care enough, and he always tried to make what he had to say seem more important than it really was. It was as if what you were about to hear him say was the most important thing you’d hear all day. “I was simply trying to be thoughtful.” She laughed audibly and intentionally. She knew that that was a lie. A damn lie. Pete Matheson from 227 West Chestnut Street had never done a thing to help anyone without first helping himself. His ex-wife and two estranged children could tell you as much. The other neighbors could tell you as much. Everyone in town could tell you as much. Pete Matheson was a scheming delinquent who grew up to become a scheming divorcée. As he stood there, with a comb-over that wasn’t fooling anyone, wearing a tattered, unwashed tartan flannel shirt, he was fumbling around with something small inside his pocket.
Ms. Stern was a widow. Her husband had been taken from her by Alzheimer’s and he did not go peacefully or quickly. Mr. Stern had become bitter, violent, and confusedly angry, which made life difficult for her. Ms. Matheson would often come over and visit the aged Ms. Stern to help care for her ailing husband. But Pete never accompanied her. He was always “far too busy” or “unable to make the time” to help Mr. Stern, and so he never did. But now he had the audacity to come to her with his needs? It sickened her.
He was aware that he was not a man that people liked. When his wife left him a few years prior, he had taken the blame for her unfaithfulness, so that the children might resent him and not their mother, for she had always been the better caretaker, and he knew that their life would be much happier with her. So, he allowed himself to become the object of public scorn, never admitting that it was she who had ruined their marriage. She had been the one to break up their family, and yet, she got to keep hers. It was a cruel world, and arguably the cruelest person in it was Ms. Stern. She had made his life hell. He wanted to tell her everything, but instead, he said nothing and continued to fumble with his words and the wedding band in his pocket.
He was not there to rake her leaves, no. It was indeed an excuse for him to approach her on that morning. He stood sweatily on that ancient porch with this elderly woman, for had come to ask her for a favor. His ex-wife, whom Ms. Stern had cherished, was dead. She had died along with his two estranged children in a random shooting in midtown at midday. He had no one, now. In truth, he never did. She could never be held down by him, and perhaps that’s why she had been seeing other men behind his back. Her beauty and grace reverberated and ricocheted off the walls like the very bullets that ripped her from life and ripped her apart. His only family was now gone, and his children, even to the end, despised him as everyone else did.
No, he had not come to rake her leaves. He had come to ask her to speak at their funeral, but he struggled mightily. As he tried to express his true purpose, the words tremblingly escaped his lips and reached her aging ears. Tears rained down like gunfire; he was broken like glass, yet he would not allow himself to tell the full truth. He loved his ex-wife too much, even though she hadn’t loved him at all.
Shed of his exterior, in front of Ms. Stern now stood a long-broken man who had just now began to collapse in the worst possible place. Yet something miraculous happened: She put her arms around him, forgiving all his sins - including the ones that weren't his to be forgiven - and the two stood in that doorway, timeless and unmoving, holding one another like neither knew the other ever could.