I was standing in line at the bakery waiting to purchase recently roasted espresso beans when I recognized him, sort of. With those giant, super blue eyes, I thought, he has to be related to Charles, has to. Maybe he’s his dad. No, this guy isn’t that old, must be his brother. Wonder what he’s doing here in town, now that Charles is . . .
I assumed the woman beside him was his wife. They held their jaws in a similar way, the way folks who’ve been together decades do.
Right then I realized who the young man was hanging back by the door, leaning against the wall, one foot up against it. His hands were jammed deep inside his jean pockets and as he studied the floor, his pale hair feathered in toward his face directing my attention to the almost glowing zit in the cleft of his chin. Hey, that’s Charles’s boy. Why isn’t he up with his aunt and uncle? Teen angst, I decided.
When it was his turn, the not-Charles man stepped up to the counter, deliberated over the biscotti selection, then glanced back to Charles’s son, made a motion like he was lassoing and drawing the boy toward him. The boy refused to be drawn.
Not-Charles cleared his throat and spoke up. “What flavor biscotti do you think your mother’d like?”
The boy shrugged. “No clue.”
Not-Charles stabbed the bakery case. “Two cranberry orange please, seems I remember her being fond of cranberries.”
His voice was similar to Charles’s, but not quite as deep. More than once I’d complimented Charles on the bass rumble of his words.
“You should work in radio,” I told him one day.
“Nah, being Mr. Mom is good.”
I’d turned to face him on the park bench that spring morning, reached up and patted his head.
“Good daddy. Good husband. Sit. Stay.”
His face had gone a little ruddier than usual.
“I’m serious,” I said. “You’re a good man. Shelley’s blessed to have you.”
Not-Charles pointed to the scone selection. “Pick something out," he told his lady friend. "I’m buying.”
As I watched the two of them, I noticed he wasn’t as tall as Charles either. Charles had been six foot two, at least. This guy wasn’t even close and his upper back was rounded, almost dowager-humped.
As he moved toward the cash register, I decided to speak. I wanted him to know what a great guy I thought Charles had been before he got sick, went out west for treatment, then dropped off the town radar.
I pecked the man on the shoulder and he turned toward me, eyebrows raised, face diagonal.
“You must be Charles’s brother. You have the same big blue eyes, plus your voice is similar.”
He squinted at me, seemed to be trying to place my face.
“You’re wrong,” he said.
I sagged. “But—”
“I am Charles.”
My heart skittered in my chest. Mist formed on my palms and under my arms. I wasn’t certain I’d be able to take another breath.
Quick, I thought, act normal, make it seem like you knew all along—that he wasn’t dead.
“You’re Charles?” I said. I stepped forward quickly, desperately really, to embrace him and to buy myself time for the swelling of my eyes to diminish. “It’s been so long! Why, you look great! I thought you— I mean, I heard you moved away, to some state that starts with an ‘I.’”
As he launched into a report about the missing years, I couldn’t help staring at his eyes, tried to remember who told me he’d gone blind. I attempted to focus on his words but all I could think was: I thought you were dead, but you’re not, which is great, but you’re different—shorter, and your eyes are buggy now, and your voice doesn’t vibrate my sternum anymore. What kind of drug does that?
He rested his hand on his companion's shoulder. “This is my sister Jan. We’re here in town visiting my son.”
I extended my hand, managed to smile even though my mind was galloping about all willy-nilly. She’s your sister? What happened to Shelley? Did she leave you? Good golly! Who leaves a man with cancer?”
“It was great seeing you,” he said as they headed for the door. “Tell me your name again? You look familiar but—”
When I told him, his smile increased. “Of course, I remember now. You look different. Your hair’s longer, right? That threw me off. Hey, nice seeing you. Merry Christmas.” Then he, they, were gone.
Outside the bakery I took careful steps to allow my heartbeat and breathing to slow. Inside my car I sat with my hands in my lap. After a minute I flipped the rearview mirror down.
"I just saw a miracle," I told my reflection, "indeed I did— a dead man walking."