Souvenirs collected during decades of marriage were washed, dried and shined the morning Baruk stopped working. He admired them as he replaced each one in precise order inside the china closet. "Memories," he whispered, recalling he'd reached age sixty-five, the watermark year when memories soothe the nest one is taught to build for self and family. It was his first day of retirement. Suddenly, after all the financial planning and midnight talks with Behira, his wife of forty years, he had no plans. No one depended on him, no one demanded anything of him and little was expected from him. "Freedom," he joked, "the art of choice."
Behira had left for work early. She was gone by the time her husband awoke. She would retire in six months at age sixty-two, taking a reduction in social security benefits for the privilege of traveling when and wherever the two decided.
Baruk loved his wife. He was proud of her petite presence. She was quiet and took a back seat to his wishes and schemes. He noticed for the first time this year her soft auburn hair was turning gray. Small brown spots appeared, seemingly overnight, on the backs of her delicate hands. Her simple gold wedding band had been wrapped with pink yarn to keep it from accidentally slipping off her finger when she began loosing weight as a result of her new diet.
"I've never been so successful with a diet," Behira stated one morning as she stepped on their bathroom scale announcing she'd lost thirty pounds.
Baruk worried as his wife continued to reduce in size. It was important for her to look nice, to embark on their senior years of non-stop traveling as a youthful, attractive sixty-something. Still, late one afternoon, Baruk embraced his wife and was shocked at how thin she'd become.
Behira explained this week would be difficult. She was finishing her last project before leaving her life as software engineer behind. She'd become short-tempered in recent months. She was not getting enough sleep. Her family noticed she was tired and preoccupied. There was no reason for her to keep working. She could retire the same day as her husband; but everyone understood her need for a long goodbye. Each detail she'd created in her thirty year career would be stored in its proper place before she allowed the door to close behind her.
Baruk wiped his hands on the tea towel—the set the couple purchased in Lithuania the previous fall. He drained water from boiled eggs and chopped them into a tablespoon of mayonnaise creating an egg salad he'd take to Behira for lunch. It would be good to surprise her.
At the office everyone was preoccupied with responsibility. No one paid attention to the tall, elderly gentleman as he stepped off the elevator and headed toward his wife's office. He'd visited his wife's workplace as often as he'd seen a solar eclipse. When he approached her door, he was not alarmed when the name plate advertised someone else.
He approached the secretary's community desk clutching the lunch box containing simple sandwiches, sliced apples and slender wedges of berry pie wrapped tightly in plastic wrap to keep from losing an appetizing shape. "Please, ma'am, can you direct me to Behira Katz's office? I seem to have forgotten where she is?"
The secretary was an attractive woman in her late twenties. "Who are you looking for, sir?"
"I don't know anyone by that name." The secretary spoke quickly, annoyed with anything slightly historical. "I'm new here."
"Behira Katz. K-A-T-Z."
"As far as I know, no Behira Katz has worked here for the past month."
"But that's impossible. She's worked here thirty years. What do you mean she has not worked here for a month?"
"Maybe she quit, Mr. Katz. I can't help you. I don't know where your wife is. There's such a thing as confidentiality and I can't give out information even if I knew where your wife is—which I don't. Please, you need a security badge to be on this floor and I can't give you one. You'll need to leave. I don't want to call security. No one here knows where your wife is."
Baruk had no choice but to descend to the lobby of the giant building. He wanted to escape into the spring air and scream his wife's name into the civilized work world they'd carefully planned to flee. Had she escaped without him? Was she traveling without him? Perhaps she no longer loved him. He walked to a park constructed to make the lunch hour pleasant for downtown employees and sat exhausted on a green enamel-painted bench.
He wondered how he'd approach his wife that afternoon. What would he say to her? Would he be angry, compassionate; was there a secret involved he was not ready to hear? A thin woman with soft gray hair caught Baruk's attention.
"Behira!" He cried. "Behira! What's happening, where have you been? Why aren't you at work?"
The elderly woman glanced toward the advancing stranger. Her surprised facial expression changed in support of the natural kindness of her soul. "Who are you looking for, dear?" She spoke as though apologizing for disappointing someone whose respect she craved.
"Behira! It's me, where have…" Baruk stopped in mid-sentence as he approached his wife's twin. Suddenly, the elderly man felt so weary, no amount of sleep could give him rest. "I-I'm sorry," he confessed. "You look like my wife." The possibility he would melt into ignominious sorrow in a public place, at the feet of a stranger was unimaginable and the old man fought for clarity and control.
"Abba." A familiar voice reached from the noon clouds into the park bringing with it hope and comfort.
"Abba, Abba." The voice kept calling and a young man placed his muscular arm around Baruk's shoulders. "Abba, it's time to go home. You're looking for Ima again." Baruk recognized his son, Ben-Yamin.
"Bennie. Ima quit her job; she's not at work. No one knows where she is. She has not been to work for the entire month. Bennie, we must find her."
"Take it easy, Papa. We found Mama; we know where she is." The couple's only child, was a kind, patient man in his forties. He gently escorted his father from the park, apologizing to the sensitive stranger mistaken for his mother. Father and son approached a small car.
Baruk slipped his stiff body into the passenger seat of the compact car and began sobbing. He turned to his son who had taken the driver's seat. "I made her lunch, her favorite: egg sandwiches, apples and pie."
It's hard for a son to witness his father weeping. It's the time in a son's life—no matter what his age, no matter how many pennies he will save in his lifetime; no matter how deeply he will love or how long he may covet freedom—it is the moment a son believes the secrets that live inside dreams and memory.
"My Abba." Ben-Yamin gently touched his father's shoulder, brushing white hair from the elder's forehead, as though he were the father, the strong parent. He reached into the backseat, retrieving a large book. "Remember these--our pictures?" The son handed his father their recorded past. Baruk opened the album and remembered.
"Behira made us collect these pictures," he sighed.
"Yes, she did. We argued every time she made us pose and talked some fool into snapping the picture." Both men flipped through the black and white photos that abruptly turned into color as the family aged.
Baruk looked at his son; his aging, blue eyes a steely gray that hid secrets the way clouds protect what should be clear and easily realized. "Mama is gone, Bennie, isn't she?"
"Yes. Her funeral was three months ago. But just last week I thought I saw her walking ahead of me, singing some song I barely recall from childhood. I'm lonely for these melodies and that is why I can not say goodbye. Sometimes I believe if I remember every note Ima ever sang, she will be satisfied and disappear beyond an unfamiliar street corner and I will stop searching for her in crowds."
Following a strong silence, Benny turned the ignition key and his father hummed a familiar lullaby Benny recalled from his days as a toddler. Before long, father and son began their journey home and not one instant was lost as they filled the air with the songs of children, the memories of the old and the freedom to travel wherever they wished.