Mr. Lowfield on a High

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A Short Story by Niels C. Quackernaeck

 

MR. LOWFIELD ON A HIGH

 

“Have a nice one, Mr. Lo!”

“Oh, shut up.” What did that slick manager know of nice ones? Had that boy spent thirty-five miserable years in this dump—as Mr. Lowfield had—he would have seen more ones than he could digest. Mr. Lowfield put his arm in the laundry basket and pulled out a Scouting uniform. Pee Boiler, read the name tag. He sighed and shook his head. How can parents name their children— …The humanity … It shouldn’t be allowed. It seemed in this day and age everything was accepted, the more ludicrous the better. Name your daughter Star or Glitter and the world’s at your feet.

Mr. Duke Lowfield wasn’t a nice man. He tried to be; he wished he was—but he wasn’t. If he would have been, he wouldn’t be so darned lonely. He took another deep breath and, dropping his jaw, he let the air flow out again—like an elephant tired of his days. Especially after yesterday—the worst day of his life—he wished every breath to be his last. There had been a time, long ago, when every day wasn’t thrice worse than the one before, and he—though he mumbled a lot—was considered a friendly chap. Back when Ella was there, life was far more bearable.

“Oh, my little rose,” he whispered, gazing right through the cloth in his hands, “was it all just a dream?” She disappeared like the sun behind the clouds. And all the fun disappeared with her. The only one on earth who could bring a smile on his face—gone.

They went to law school together—Ella to please her successful-judge-mother; Duke because he hoped for romance. The silly man he was. Duke wanted to believe they were madly in love, and that a natural force would hold them together—like the strings that keep the moon circling around the earth. He lowered the uniform shirt and rested his hands on the ironing board. Then came the war. That all-destroying force that left none untouched.

While he was fighting guerrillas in Vietnam, she cum lauded at Brackston University. His journey to South East Asia changed his outlook on life, as if he was reborn—an exchanged spirit. And not for the better. Duke was ruined. He slept through one semester at campus, then called it quits. To pay the rent on a small condo, he took the first job he could find—the launderette, which had opened in spring. It didn’t matter how brave he had been in Vietnam; even when they became colleagues in this shitty place, he lacked the courage to tell her of his feelings. Ella worked there for the summer; Duke was trapped for life.

“Thirty-five years … Wasted.” Duke felt like a wet cloth draped on a branch—sick of everything. Only a few more years and he could retire—but to what end? He would still be his own grumpy stumpy self. Nothing was going to change.

***

The day before yesterday he made up his mind. And yesterday, in the early morning, he collected his spirits and traveled to New-freaking-York to find the one who never left his heart. In the bus to the airport his fingers began to sweat, and he could feel his heart beat in places where he was convinced he shouldn’t. He began to have second thoughts. The only lead he had was her name and occupation—and that she worked for one of those big firms on Broadway. She was a state-of-the-art lawyer. While he dealt with uniforms he would never be worthy to wear, she worked on transforming her superiors into lazy super-rich asses. Ashamed of his low standards, he never dared to go after her. But now he was old and gray—seeing his life fade away—it was about time he took a risk.

Duke stumbled out of the bus and looked around once or twice, then headed to the ticket counters in the Departures Hall. The line was long. There were about a hundred times more people than he would have liked. But he practiced his patience. It was only a few minutes added to decades. Duke chose the queue in front of counter 9, because that window showed a dark-haired beauty who didn’t seem particularly unfriendly.

“Where to, mister?” she said, observing him from behind the counter.

“To New York Airport, and I want to be back tonight or early tomorrow, if possible. I need to get my pills at the pharmacy in the morning.”

“Well … Let’s see …” … minutes passed by, and just when Duke’s nerves were running low in leftovers, she said, “wow … you’re in luck mister, there’s a last minute available at Pan Am. Let me get your luggage.”

***

The bus drove from New York Airport, through Brooklyn, over the steel structure of the Williamsburg Bridge. Duke felt like a leprechaun in a forest of oaks as the towers doomed up before him. What am I doing here? He had never impressed anyone in his life, yet everybody looked up to Ella—as if she was New York, and he was nothing more than the launderette in Brackston. Insecurity and second thoughts pounded through his body—the tingling one feels when going against better judgment. What if I can’t find her? He had read about her in the paper a few years ago. If only he could remember what firm she worked for. But he was going to try them all.

What if she’s not available? A letter? Writing had always been a nightmare to Duke—everything he’d ever written came out wrong. His grade for writing class at university didn’t lie. Frowning, he took a stack of papers out of his briefcase and placed it on a rickety little tray table. “There goes nothing.” He clicked his pen on his forehead and began writing.

To the love of my life …

 

The vehicle brought him close to his destination, just a minute-walk from the tower in which the law firms were collected. He went from office to office. Each time the letter became more creased and wet between his sweaty fingers. On the fifth floor he entered what looked like a cathedral, with in the middle a well-dressed gaffer behind an oaken desk—a professional beard-scratcher who was appointed the responsibility of inspecting the ceiling. Leaning back in his leather chair, he threw a demeaning glance at Mr. Lowfield.

“Hello?” A loud echo followed; he ducked his head. He continued softly, “Does—perhaps—anyone by the name of Ella Winter work here?”

The receptionist grimaced, tapped the desk with his fingers and thought for a while. He pulled up his shoulders and filled his lungs with air.

“I’m afraid I have some bad news,” he said with raised eyebrows, “Dr. Winter passed away about three years ago. You can visit her grave in the State Cemetery if you want.”

Duke looked at him, shoulders low, a lump in his throat, ready to start whimpering.

“I’m sorry,” the man said. 

 

Duke hauled himself over to the cemetery—his eyes moist and a posture like he was carrying a day’s worth of laundry on his shoulders. In the third lane, next to a full-grown poplar in the back of the cemetery, he found what he was looking for. He stood curved, looking down at the grave of his beloved, his hands in his pockets and his forehead showing dozens of tensed wrinkles. He whispered the words on the stone:

 

“Elanor Winter,

Brackston 1933 — New York 2010”

 

He kneeled in front of the grave, his frail kneecaps on the painful gravel, picked the letter out of his pocket, and read the words aloud. Here, alone, he finally declared his love for Ella. When he spoke the final words “I love you,” a sparrow shot out of the poplar onto the gravestone. Before Duke could think anything of it, it spurted away toward heaven.

“Yes,” he said, “gone, just like that …”

He put the letter in an envelope against the tombstone. Duke tasted the salt of his tears in the corners of his mouth, and, with his face buried deep in his big hands, he gave in to sobbing.

***

Between his shaking fists, Duke almost tore Pee Boiler’s shirt in two. A grave expression covered his face. Dutifully, Duke folded the shirt, and grabbed the next one out of the bottomless basket. He sniffed at it. After all these years he knew every fabric softener on the face of the planet, and he was bored with the smell of every single one of them. And this one was even worse; this was Ella’s favorite.

The manager whooshed around on his stupid fork scooter thing, and stopped right next to him. And out of his throat erupted that annoying, arrogant voice again. “You might find it is actually a nice one for you, Mr. Lo,” he said with a banana smile, winking his eye.

Duke gazed sternly ahead. “Mr. Low-FIELD,” he said, “Low-FI— … Oh, the humanity.”

He raised his head again, this time facing the manager, putting his chest forward, “And I decide for myself when I’m having a good one, you hear me?”

He went back to work, shaking his head. But then … A shockwave went through his body when his eyes met his hands. What is this? The shirt he was holding was from a lawyer’s uniform. Where did that come from?

Something was wrong; he felt it ever since he was at the cemetery. He put the uniform down on the table and cracked his brain, heavily frowning, bumping his fist softly on the fabric. Something didn’t add up. But what was it?

He buried his face in the shirt. Numbers, numbers, numbers …

“Duke, stupid,” he shouted, “she wasn’t born in the thirties!”

In his hands—right in front of his face—the nametag on the shirt unfolded. He was shocked to silence when he read the words: 

Sweetest Duke, I love you, too!

He looked up right into sweet green eyes. His beloved stood on the back of the manager’s scooter thing, holding the crumpled and teared letter in her hand. Duke looked at the manager, eyes opened wide. Did you know about this? The manager winked at him. But this time, Duke felt no anger … only amazement.

“I visit my mother twice a week,” Ella said, her beautiful silky timbre caressing Duke’s ears. “Yesterday I found this letter on her grave.” She held it up between her thumb and index finger.

Duke recognized his handwriting. His heart beat in his throat like the bombs of Vietnam, and blood rushed to his cheeks and ears.

“Duke, my love!” Ella jumped off the scooter and into Duke’s embrace, her eyes never leaving his. She hugged him and pressed a soft kiss on his lips.

And for the first time in years, Duke smiled.

 

 

 

 

© 2013, 2016 by Niels C. Quackernaeck.

Author’s note: Elderly people fascinate me. I loved visiting my grandpa and listening to his stories—to hear how he viewed the world. Often I try to imagine what it is like to have a whole life behind me. This resulted in a song called “Before They Disappear” and the short story about Mr. Lowfield, which I wrote as an assignment for Long Ridge Writers Group in the spring of 2013 and reedited in the summer of 2016.

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