Old Dog, New Tricks
– Fierce Fiction by J.L. Cole –
As soon as Alan Baker walked through the door, he knew he was in trouble. There was a somewhat discreet warning; Bonnie Raitt’s more sorrowful tunes seeping through the speakers and no smell of supper sweetening the air. Then there was the less-than-subtle sign, Nora’s grey suitcase sitting on the landing.
Al stood in the doorway clutching the doorknob, the cool spring air playing pleasantly on his back, a nice contrast to the stifling heat in the house. He had long since relinquished the fight over the thermostat, contenting himself to turn it down at night and keep the living room window cracked just the slightest. He shifted his weight, debating the merits of quietly backing out and postponing whatever lay ahead. He eyed the suitcase again, trying to decide how serious it was. Nora had packed a suitcase four times in their fifty-one years of marriage. She had left only once though, for about an hour before she came back. That was usually how things went. If Al stayed quiet enough during a fight, the storm would eventually pass. She would often turn and stomp away, her little frame vibrating with anger. Then after a few minutes Al would go after her and offer an apology, which she would wave away saying it was her fault, she overreacted, sorry for being so dramatic… and then that would be that.
Still, it was better to get it over with now than later, but what on earth was it? Did he do something wrong? She had seemed distant the last few days; he figured a fight was coming, but not a Bonnie Raitt level, certainly not a no supper one, and definitely not a suitcase worth. What the hell had he done?
“Nora?” He stepped more fully into the house, shut the door and squared his shoulders. “Honey?”
Nora came down the stairs, her hair flowing in soft grey curls around her flushed cheeks.
Al motioned to the suitcase. “What’s this then?”
“I’m going to visit Ellen.”
“You’re going to Montreal? When did you decide this?”
“Shouldn’t we talk about it?”
Al’s eyebrows shot up. “No?”
“You would tell me not to.”
“Why would I tell you not to go to your sister’s?”
“You wouldn’t say, ‘don’t go’. You would say, ‘let’s think about it for a while’. Which just means no.”
“Well, we should think about it before we just go on a trip,” Al reasoned.
“It’s not ‘we’ it’s me. I’m going. You don’t like going.”
“No, but I would go if you wanted me to.”
“I don’t want to go with someone who doesn’t want to go. It will wreck the trip.”
“I’ve come to Ellen’s before. I don’t think I wrecked it then.”
“Yes, but after I get to Ellen’s she and I are going to New York.”
“New York? Why the hell are you doing that? Just the two of you?”
“You can’t do that!”
“Yes, I can.” Nora raised her chin defiantly. “I’m turning seventy-four this year, Al, seventy-four! Things are going to start slowing down a lot faster, and I have things I want to do still.”
“Okay… okay, yes, but you don’t want to do those things with me?”
“I have tried to do things with you for fifty years.”
“True? Yes it is,” Nora said. “I’m tired of waiting for you to decide you’re ready to do things. And I’m even more tired of forcing you. It’s not fun when I know you don’t want to.”
Al stared at her. “So, you’re just going to take off? Leave your boring husband behind?”
“Don’t be like that.”
“How else should I be?”
“Talking to me like I’m a child who hasn’t thought things through.”
“I’m not! But if you just decided today, you can’t have thought it through that much, Nora.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while now.”
“But you never thought we should talk about it?”
“We’re talking now!”
Al sighed, he wasn’t going to get anywhere with her now. She was in her battle stance, hands on her hips and her special pissed off look taking over her features. It used to make him laugh in his younger, naïve days, which never helped. He had never met anyone who could scowl like she did. Her eyes would turn to slits, her brow would come down in a deep furrow causing a wrinkle to appear, and her mouth would become slightly pinched. Then she would just stare, daring him to say something so she could throw it right back at him.
He leaned against the door and waited, letting Nora’s chosen soundtrack fill the silence.
“Are you going to say something?” Nora demanded.
Alright, a battle it will be.
“How are you and Ellen going to manage in New York? Neither of you have ever been. Do you have any idea how big New York is?”
“We will be fine,” Nora said.
“Ellen is too scared to go to the mall by herself. And you get lost coming home from visiting the grandkids. How the hell will you be fine?”
Nora turned on her heel and stalked away. Al kicked off his shoes and followed her to the kitchen. “Nora come on, this is ridiculous.”
“It’s not!” She whirled to face him. “It’s not ridiculous. You may be a stubborn old man who is content doing nothing, but I’m not! I don’t want to have a long list of things I never did when I’m sitting in the nursing home losing my marbles.”
“I do nothing?”
“You’re just content. Never wanting anything, never doing anything new. You might as well roll into a grave slot!”
Al stared at her for a minute, not saying anything. She held his gaze at first, then looked away.
“Well, that would make things easier for you wouldn’t it,” he said quietly.
“When are you leaving?”
“I didn’t mean…”
He put his hand out, stopping her. “I’m going for a walk.”
He turned and slowly went back to the porch, grabbed the shoehorn to help slip his feet in to his runners and stepped out of the house. He paused for a minute trying to decide which direction to go, finally settling on the street leading to downtown and set off.
She didn’t want him gone; he knew that. It was all the damn funerals they had been too lately. It seemed every second weekend there was another one. It’s got her all in a panic, makes her think the world is gonna end tomorrow. She probably wouldn’t go, he decided. She liked to act tough but when it came down to it she had a lot of great ideas but never finished anything she started. It’s the same reason she flitted from job to job and started one hobby with a passion only to let it dwindle out and begin a new one. This idea would fade. He would be damned if he let Ellen and her go off on their own to New York. Common sense and direction were not strong traits of the sisters, and together they seemed to be worse.
Yet, this wasn’t the first time something like this had come up, Nora wanting to do something crazy and complaining about him being boring. In fact, it was just the latest of many over the years. He remembered one specific moment early in their marriage when they had finally got around to booking a babysitter to watch the twins, they must have been in their late twenties by then, they decided to go out to a movie. On the way home they had stopped by the lake to go for a walk, one of their favourite ways to end a date. They walked on the dock in companionable silence; the wood creaking beneath their feet, swaying slightly with the water moving underneath. The sun had just begun to set, casting an orange and pink glow in the sky. The few clouds in the horizon had a purplish hue to them, making the whole thing look like an artist’s masterpiece. It would have been a very nice moment, if not for Nora suggesting they try skinny-dipping. She mentioned it half-jokingly, but with the look in her eye that said she would do it. He said something about ‘never doing that in a million years’ which sparked something in her leading to a hostile argument about ‘being no fun’, ‘why not live on the edge a little’ and so on. He came back with how they have kids and need to be responsible. She said something about how the fun had ended, and how before they had kids they never did anything exciting and well, that was the end of the evening. He hadn’t thought it was a big deal and had shrugged it off, but she had been mad the rest of the night.
Al shoved his hands in his pockets, looking without seeing at the displays in the shop windows. Maybe he wasn’t the most exciting guy around, but he didn’t find a thing wrong with not wanting to get nude in a public place, or not wanting to jet off to New York at a moments notice for that matter.
His stomach rumbled loudly, voicing its annoyance with Nora’s chosen time to start a fight. He patted it in sympathy, thinking he better turn back and see what leftovers were in the fridge when a sign on the window across the street caught his eye. ‘Breakfast Served All Day’. He bit the inside of his cheek, considering, then made his way across the street. He had never been to this café before but had walked by it a few times. Breakfast was his favourite meal and it would be far better than leftovers.
A blast of warm air engulfed him as he entered the cafe, making him shiver as he left the brisk air outside. He hadn’t realized how cold it had gotten with the sun dipping down. The smell of fresh coffee was strong and reassured him he had made a good decision. A cup would definitely be a good idea right about now. It was a small diner, a dozen or so booths which all looked the same. Green cushions matched the green tables. The walls were brown with local art hanging above each table, and a little vase of fake flowers were wedged between the salt and pepper. There seemed to be only one waitress working, a young girl with her dark hair drawn up in a messy bun, dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt with a red apron tied securely around her hips. She came towards him holding a tray balancing three plates full of eggs, bacon and hash browns.
“Hi there!” she said, pausing. “You can sit yourself down anywhere, or are you waiting for someone?” She peered around him to see.
Al felt his face flush, suddenly feeling nervous. “No, no, it’s just me.”
She smiled, a little sympathetically Al thought. “Well pick wherever, I’ll be there in a minute to take your order.”
Al quickly surveyed the room, his eyes latching on to an empty booth in the back corner. He made his way there, trying to ignore the feeling people were watching him. He had never eaten out alone before. He had always thought there were two types of people who would go to a restaurant alone. The first, an extremely confident person who was very secure and didn’t mind a little alone time. The second, a sad and lonely human who couldn’t find anyone willing to go with them. He hoped he came across as the first. Though he supposed there was a third type now, those who were too scared to go home and argue with their wife again.
The waitress came by a few minutes later and handed him a menu. He asked for a cup of coffee (decaf- black) then as she left he flipped it open. His gaze immediately sought the prices before any of the tempting pictures. If Nora was wondering where he was, she would certainly never guess eating out. She often complained about having to beg to go out to eat, and then when he finally consented how he would make her feel guilty for ordering anything other than water. He would respond that it was bloody expensive eating out and it was better for it to be more of a treat than a habit, to which she would respond with an exaggerated eye roll.
“Well, here I am now Nora, pretty spontaneous I would say,” he muttered.
“Sir? Your coffee?”
Al started, then cleared his throat, sure his face was glowing. How long had she been standing there? She smiled kindly at him, probably assuming she was serving some senile old man.
“Are you ready to order?” She reached across the table and filled the waiting mug.
“Yes, I’ll have the strawberry pancakes with sausage please.”
She nodded, then took his menu and moved on to offer the next table refills.
He wished he had a newspaper or something so he could look busy. Al wrapped his hand around the warm handle of the mug and brought the coffee to his lips, taking the tiniest sip of the steaming bitter drink and enjoying the taste filling his mouth. He then snuck a look at the tables around him. There was a family sitting near the front with three small children that were yapping like pups, jumping up and down and poking and prodding each other. Their parents looked appropriately exhausted, past the point of trying to tame them and staring blank-eyed at the menus. Directly across from him a young couple sat hunched over the table. Both had one hand resting on their forks and the other tapping madly away on their phones. Of course, people can’t even sit through a meal without being on those things. In fact, looking around, most people had their head bent over their devices instead of looking at the people they were with.
Nora loved her cell phone. She texted more than she called now. He never understood what the big deal was with them and felt irritated whenever he saw her on it. He shook his head, taking another sip. He was starting to feel a little more relaxed as he realized people were too wrapped up in their own worlds to give him a second thought. Sooner than he expected, the waitress came around and set a plate full of gleaming red berries on whipped cream smothered over three generous pancakes. Four sausages clung to the edge of plate, their aroma making his mouth water in anticipation. No way could he finish all this, but it wouldn’t be from lack of trying. He eagerly picked up his fork and for a few moments didn’t think of anything besides the food in front of him. When he was done he sat back, satisfied and in a much better mood.
“How’s it tasting?” The waitress asked, coming up with the pot of coffee in hand.
“It was great, I’m afraid I can’t finish it all.”
“Would you like a box?”
“No, I’m fine thanks. I might take a little more coffee though.”
“Sure.” She tipped more coffee into his mug. “Let me know if you need anything else.”
Al watched her walk away and yawned, checking his watch. He had been gone for almost an hour. He better get back soon or he would miss the window between Nora apologizing and Nora being pissed he wasn’t home yet. He leaned forward to fish his wallet out of his back pocket, thinking hopefully by the time he got home that damn suitcase would be gone and… His thoughts got cut off as his fingers slid into his pocket.
His empty back pocket.
He checked the other side, then his coat pockets, a feeling of panic tightening his chest.
Where was it?
He couldn’t have left without it, could he? He checked under the table and slid his hands in the crack in the booth in desperation. This never happened to him, ever. Now what? He glanced around, briefly making eye contact with the man across from him. Should he ask to borrow some money? No, he couldn’t, he would come across as a forgetful old man who should be in a home or something.
Ask to come back and pay? See if he could borrow someone’s damn phone and call Nora?
“How’s it going, sir? Do you want anything else?” The waitress startled him, making him jerk his cup and splash coffee on the table.
“S-sorry no I… Actually I… I’m just gonna sit for a little if that’s alright.”
“Of course! I’ll meet you at the front when you’re ready to pay.” She wiped the spill up with a napkin, then turned to greet the guests who had just entered.
Al’s heart beat painfully against his ribcage. What on earth was he going to do? There weren’t many good options. He could run, make a break for it. The thought sent a tremor through his body. Adrenaline and pure terror, probably. He had never in his life stolen anything before, or broke any major rules. Nora’s words echoed back to him.
Well, we will see about that. Stuffing his trembling fingers into his front pockets, Al watched the waitress take the newcomer’s orders and disappear to the back.
Now or never.
He got up slowly; moving at what he hoped was a casual pace. He dared a glance around. No one seemed to be watching him, but he felt like a million eyes were searing the back of his skull. One step in front of the other, he tried his best to look like an innocent old man. If he got caught, he would just pretend he thought he paid, or forgot where he was… they would probably buy that. Would they still call the cops?
He made it to the door with no one stopping him, one more quick look around, then he pushed the door open and slipped out. He turned and hurried as fast as his weathered legs would carry him, immediately out of breath but not stopping for a second. He felt both nauseated and triumphant, as well as close to a heart attack. He slowed down, gasping a little, resting his hands on his knees. When he felt less dizzy, he started walking again, taking long strides.
Did he really just do that?
Nora would never believe it. He felt a wild laugh creep up his throat and choked it down. He really was out of control. What on earth had gotten into him?
The wind whistled at his back pushing him towards home. By the time he got to the driveway his pulse was pounding in his head. The car was still there; Nora hadn’t left yet, thank goodness. Maybe it was time to dig out his own suitcase, maybe there was a little more left to him than either of them thought.
About the Author – J.L. Cole
J.L. Cole lives on a ranch in Alberta. She was educated as a print journalist and had her award-winning debut novel, Silver Heights, published August 2020. Old Dog, New Tricks was awarded a spot on the final list of 15 for The Fiddlehead’s 2017-18 Short Fiction contest.
Did you like this story by J.L. Cole? Then you might also like:
Like reading print publications? Consider subscribing to the Dreamers Magazine!