September 25, 2022

First Impressions

by David Macpherson

On a cold November morning, Walter backed the Subaru from his parking spot and hit something hard. He grunted as he got out to inspect the damage. The annoying alarm reminded him he had left his keys in the ignition. He forgot more these days— scenes hidden behind a thick wall he couldn’t punch through. How the hell did that truck get there?

The pharmacy parking lot was empty except for his car and the old truck he’d hit. No one was inside. Shards of red plastic from his taillight lay between the two vehicles. A small Confederate flag decorated the pick-up’s filthy rear window. Multiple dents in the truck’s bumper pointed to a hard life. He couldn’t tell which dent he had caused. Can you tell a fresh dent from an old one, like animal tracks?

The truck looked like his next-door neighbor’s, a West Virginia hillbilly whose lawn was littered with pieces of engines, crude signs and dulled plastic holiday decorations. To Maureen, Walter called his neighbor “Jethro” but his real name was Arthur. But his neighbor’s truck displayed no Confederate flag. This truck wasn’t Arthur’s.

No one around and no reason to leave a note. The truck’s owner would probably be a muscled addict who would claim Walter caused serious damage and scam an insurance company for long overdue truck repairs. He had no pen or paper anyway. He got back into his car and pulled away, breathing a sigh of relief as the traffic light turned green. Best to let Maureen know right away. He rehearsed his story on the five-minute drive home.

She sat in her usual spot on the couch, her face bent in a thick book.

“Some idiot took out my taillight at the pharmacy.” True, up to a point.

“What?” she said. She said ‘what’ so often he imagined a day when her ‘what’ would start every interaction, like ‘hi.’

He stood in front of her. “I said someone ran into me in the parking lot and broke the taillight.”

“You okay?”

“Happened when I was inside. Bastard didn’t leave a note.” Still partially true. It was hard on him to deceive her. If he could choose what he forgot, the short list of lies would go first.

“Walter, that’s the third accident in the past month.”

He hadn’t needed the reminder.

#

A month before, he had met the new doctor, an earnest young man who looked like he was still in high school. He wore a white coat with his name, Todd Harris, MD, monogrammed in red on the front. Dark-framed glasses failed to age his pubescent face. Walter’s old doctor, Doc Swenson, had retired. He had liked him. He didn’t probe into things that weren’t his business—two men communicating efficiently—no wasted time.

His first appointment with the new doctor had lasted an entire hour covering questions he had heard many times before.

“Any diseases run in your family?”

“Some stupidity. A fair amount of ignorance. Waning judgment.”

Maureen shook her head. “Walter. Stop.”

The doctor laughed. “That’s okay. At eighty-eight, he’s entitled to comment. And, are you still driving?”

Walter’s mind raced. He knew this question would come someday but it still surprised him. He was the driver in the house. Maureen stopped years ago. She never had been very good at it. “Yes.”

“Okay. Any recent accidents or times you got lost?”

Two questions with different answers. He thought about the time he got lost in Arkansas in 1953 when they first dated. No reason to prolong this line of questioning. A simple no was better. “No.”

Maureen frowned from behind the doctor’s shoulder.

The doctor made a short speech about planning for the time when Walter wouldn’t be safe driving. It sounded practiced, read aloud, like something the doctor had memorized in medical school. Some numbers about accident rates in older folks. Keeping everyone safe. The doctor could check off a box, maybe charge a little more for the visit. The speech offered no solution.

On the way home, Maureen turned to him as he drove. “Why didn’t you tell him about the accidents?”

“None of his business. Just fender benders anyway.”

“Well, you should have said something.”

“And have him take my license away? Ever think of that?”

“Yes, I have.”

“What would we do then?”

She had looked out her window. “I don’t know.”

#

At dusk, the same cold Sunday in November, he and Maureen sat at the worn kitchen table, its pine surface pocked from the trauma of utensils, plates, and pots. They decided which rule they would not follow for the upcoming week. They had started the ritual ten years into their marriage—one rule to violate each week. Now in their sixtieth year together, they had reminisced about the choices they made: pay-no-bills week, no talking week, no kissing week (which they had failed), dinner for breakfast week, try a new church week. Overall, mostly silly stuff, they agreed.

“You’d think we’d have run out of choices by now,” she said.

“Always something left to try.”

The sunset shone through the kitchen window and backlit her long gray hair like a halo in Byzantine art. His images of her at the weekly Sunday dinner meeting cycled with the seasons, the setting sun creeping north each day in the spring, and south in the fall on the West Virginia hills. He’d suggested on their first anniversary that they exchange their usual seats at the kitchen table. She rejected the idea. She was right—they had their places. He still enjoyed the view.

“Pajamas for dinner dress?” he offered.

“We did that nine years ago—remember?”

He remembered other clothing transgressions, mismatched sock week, ties as a belt week, shorts in winter, inside only. But not pajamas for dinner.

“You sure?”

“Yes, but I’ll check the book.”

She had listed each week’s violation in a hard-covered lab book of thin-lined graph paper. Twelve stood on the bookshelf in the kitchen, the years they covered printed neatly on their bindings. He had suggested they change to simple lined paper, but she judged this the thinking of a soft scientist. Over their marriage, they had had many playful arguments over the uncertainties of physics, her field, and economics, his.

He sipped his coffee while she searched the notebooks. It didn’t take long.

“Here it is. 2002. August ninth. Pajamas for dinner. Want to see?”

“I believe you.”

He would check the journal tomorrow, when she took her afternoon nap. He started double-checking her journal entries when they both had reached seventy, now almost twenty years past. So far, she had never been wrong.

He knew she tested him too. She didn’t quiz him, just asked his opinion of something in the newspaper. “What do you think of legalizing pot?” She would look at him patiently, like a high school teacher in a civics class. So far he passed but understood he might not be aware of his first failure. He didn’t know what he would do if she failed first.

“How ‘bout no clothes for dinner?” He had suggested this many times. When they first married, they had done this once by candlelight. Their first and only child was the result.

Her eyes twinkled at his suggestive smile. “No. We’re too ugly now to keep the lights on. Probably break our hips tripping over something. Find us naked on the kitchen floor.”

He knew she wouldn’t go for it, but Walter was proud that he still tried.

“Gravity is universal and eventually unstoppable,” she added.

He wondered if she was signaling the wording for her epitaph.

“How about no driving this week?” she offered. “Never tried that.”

Not a game anymore, he thought. “What if we need something? Or get sick?”

“We’ll figure out something.”

“What?”

“I don’t know. A cab. Or that new German thing. What’s it called?

“Uber. And it’s not German.”

“The word is.”

“Okay, but not the company.”

“Right,” she said.

He had passed another quiz.

He sat in his chair with the flowered upholstery and looked out the window to the shapes of the gray leafless trees, some thin, some fat, like people. In summer, the trees covered their shape with leaves of clothing.

“So?” she said.

“What?”

“No driving this week.”

He didn’t want to think about it. But she was not letting go.

“Okay,” he said. “We’ll give it a try.”

#

On Thursday morning, weak sunshine filtered through high clouds. He sat in his chair and finished a story in the newspaper about the ten most common scams of old people. What idiot would fall for this stuff?

She sat at the breakfast table. “I’m not feeling right,” she said.

“What?”

“Come over here.” She rarely issued orders.

His heart started to pound.

“Something’s wrong. I have a pain in my upper back. Started in the middle of the night.”

Her usual breakfast of toast lay cold on her plate.

“Did you pull something?”

“No, it’s different than that. I feel sick to my stomach too.”

“You want to wait it out?”

“I don’t think so. It’s getting worse. Let’s go to that new doctor’s office.”

“Without an appointment?”

“I don’t want to go to the hospital.”

“Okay, I’ll get the car.”

“No, the rule’s the rule.”

“But what if this is serious?”

“Let’s try the Uber thing.”

He spent fifteen minutes looking for a number in the phone book. What kind of company has no phone number? He called a cab.

In fifteen minutes, their doorbell rang. A cab driver with a dark complexion stood on Walter’s front porch. “Sorry to disturb, but did you call cab?” His accent seemed Indian. Walter preferred an American driver over this man but it was not the time to be picky.

“Let me get my wife.”

The driver offered an arm to each of them. They walked down the front steps, one on each arm, navigating the broken concrete path to the yellow cab. No one spoke, as if the short walk was a ceremony that required silence. By the time the driver opened the rear door, Maureen gasped for air. As Walter settled beside her in the back seat, he wondered if she would see this house again.

“Is she all right?” the driver asked. His brown eyes were lakes of kindness in the rear view mirror.

“I don’t know. We’re going to the doctor.”

“Which one?”

“Dr. Swenson. No, Harris. In the medical arts building on Jackson.”

“Okay.” The cab pulled from the curb.

Walter glanced at the cabbie’s name posted on front console—Dilip Khatri. What kind of a name is that?

The driver’s eyes were on Maureen again. He pulled over and stopped the cab and popped his head through the plastic separator. “Ma’am, what is wrong?” Before Walter could tell him to just drive, Maureen relayed her symptoms. The driver asked a few questions like a doctor—chest pain, dizziness? “ and ma’am,” he said, “I should take you to the emergency room. This may be something serious.”

“Are you some sort of expert?” Walter said.

Maureen interrupted. “I think he’s right. I feel awful. I think I’m going to be sick.”

The driver pushed a small tan pail through the plastic separator.

Maureen vomited quietly. “I’m so sorry.”

“Ma’am, do not worry about it. I will get you to the hospital.”

 

The cab driver was right—it was serious—a blur of complex conversations about anatomy, surgical risk, and ultimately, futility. A fog of anxiety and dread—a time he always had known must come. Who was ever really ready? Maureen died two days later. He held her hand to his cheek as they removed the life support. He said goodbye but he knew she hadn’t heard. It could not be undone.

He received three copies of the death certificate, each listing the same causes of death, “myocardial infarction as a result of dissecting thoracic aortic aneurysm,” the same words he had overheard the taxi driver relay to the emergency room nurse when they arrived. The nurse had shaken her head as she walked away from the cabbie. “Thanks for your opinion, Doctor. I’ll let the real doctors know.” In all the confusion, Walter had forgotten to pay the cabbie.

#

Six weeks later, the house was empty. His son had left to return to his home in New Jersey. The gifts of food, mostly uneaten and now spoiled, had stopped. A rare sympathy card still arrived from old colleagues who lived overseas. He had not driven since her death; he had no interest in seeing spring emerge in the countryside. And he had a constant fear another accident would imprison him in his home.

He was down to soup now — the freezer empty of the frozen entrées he had learned to hate, the peanut butter gone along with the crackers. He wasn’t much of a cook — Maureen had done that. His son had suggested assisted living. Walter had seen the TV commercials — smiling dentures of geriatric models too young for the old folks home surrounded by doting, unctuous staff. He had visited these prisons. The ads, like all ads, oversold the experience. His friends feigned happiness during the communal meals, their conversations only as deep as the day’s weather, their maladies, or who had died. Walter swore that setting would not be his last.

But, he was hungry. He found a dusty soup can, cream of potato, hiding in the back of the lower pantry shelf. He looked for an expiration date but the label was too dim for him to read. The doorbell rang.

The cabbie stood on his front porch. Walter recognized him right away. He was short and thin but had a round face topped off with thick salt and pepper hair. He carried a canvas grocery bag.

“You’re here for your fare,” Walter said.

The cabbie smiled widely. “No, no. That is fine. I brought you some food.”

Walter glanced at the grocery bag. “I don’t need any food.”

“I read your wife’s obituary. I am sorry they could not save her. Sometimes her problem can be repaired but usually not. She was accomplished person.”

“Thank you.”

“I thought by now you might enjoy food again. It is Indian food. Do you like Indian food?”

“Indian?” He had been a meat and potatoes man all his life, refusing to venture beyond basic American fare other than Chinese take-out or pizza. Maureen had pointed out that even pizza wasn’t a foreign food. “had it.”

“You are in for treat then.”

Though he sensed no ill intent from this man, he did not want him in his home. He recalled no scam in the newspaper piece that started with an offer of food. But still, an impoverished immigrant cabbie who knew Walter was alone might see an opportunity.

“I don’t eat Indian food but let me get my wallet.”

As he turned toward the living room, the cabbie said, “Please, no.”  When he picked up his wallet from the kitchen drawer, Walter imagined the Indian with a pistol. Was he an idiot to make it this easy? When he returned, the cabbie had left. The grocery bag sat on Walter’s porch.

He could not leave the bag — neighbors would view it as a sign of trouble. As he carried the food to the kitchen, complex new odors added to his hunger. He had imagined only curry from India — this seemed so much more. He pulled six white cartons from the bag, three small plastic containers containing, green, red, and brown sauces along with warm, soft bread wrapped in aluminum foil.

Walter ate as if he had never eaten before. Wild-tasting dishes of lamb, chicken, and eggplant saturated with rich sauces bursting with flavors. His mouth at times on fire, he couldn’t stop another tasting, the rice and soft flatbread not cutting the exquisite pain. His face sweating, he ate until he felt too full, and ate only for flavor. He paused to mop his brow with a paper towel and cleaned his plate of the residual sauces with the bread until no trace remained. When he finished, he sat back uncomfortably full, relishing the fact that he had enough for leftovers for a few days. He heard Maureen complaining from somewhere. “I have to die before you try Indian food?”

#

A month later, he had lost five pounds. He had driven once to the grocery store. He parked in an area with no cars. The walk to the store tired him so much that he had enough strength to buy only yogurt. The rest of his list remained unfulfilled.

A woman he didn’t know from Maureen’s church delivered soup twice but insisted on sitting with him as he ate. She told Bible stories which revealed the path to his redemption. He spent the remainder of the day refuting her positions in his mind. He found it exhausting.

He called the cab company to thank the driver, hoping his thank you message might prompt another delivery of food. He misdialed three times, reaching a hairdresser twice and an insurance agent before he found the right buttons on the phone.

“I’m calling to thank one of your drivers and pay a fare I owe him.”

“Driver’s name?”

Walter had forgotten. “I don’t know his name. He’s an Indian.”

“I got about twenty Indians who drive cabs.” In the background, demanding staccato sounds of radio traffic interrupted them.

“He’s short and has a round face.”

“That narrows it down to about nineteen.”

“Won’t your logs show who went to my address? He’s been here twice.”

“Yeah, that might work but I don’t have time for this. If you really want to know, drive down here and maybe someone can look it up.” The line went silent.

That night, he dreamt Maureen stood by the stove in a sari. She cooked Indian food. When he awoke, he still smelled the aromas.

About noon, the doorbell rang. His mouth watered.

“I brought you more food. I hope you enjoyed last time.”

He couldn’t help but smile at this saint who beamed back at him. “Please, come in.”

Dilip sat in Maureen’s place and served the food from the cartons, announcing each dish’s name and main ingredients. The flavors he had dreamed about returned. When they finished, he insisted Dilip sit as he brought their plates to the sink. He made tea and carried two mugs to the table. “I must ask. How did you know my wife was dying?”

“I was a surgeon in India. I came to America to practice medicine. But no state would grant me a license unless I received American training. My test scores were too low to be accepted into any program. My family stays in India. I cannot afford to bring them here. I can only drive a cab.”

“Why did you bring me food?”

Dilip’s face lit up. “It is a custom in my family to bring food once a month for one year to those who . I am alone in the US—bringing you food reminds me of my home. But more important, I read about you and your wife’s teaching. I wish to learn from you.”

Walter scoffed. “I haven’t taught anyone for fifteen years.”

“Then you are overdue.” Dilip reached out and touched Walter’s hand. “I have a proposition for you. I will be your driver. Your fare will be to teach me something about economics each trip.”

Walter missed thinking about economics and how to package the concepts in new ways to penetrate the skulls of his students. This bright-eyed student enticed him. Plus, he owed him for two meals and one fare. The idea of him teaching for transportation was absurd — bartering, a primitive economic practice. But, he knew no one now who would judge this arrangement. Walter agreed.

 

He delivered the first three lessons off the cuff.. Walter sat in the passenger seat of the cab drawing simple charts and explaining the concept before they set out. Dilip absorbed the ideas rapidly saying only “yes, yes,” and during the trip he posed questions, some of which Walter could answer without a chart, others requiring time parked in front of Walter’s destination for Walter to explain the hidden implications of the curving intersecting lines.

As their exploration deepened, Walter prepared lessons in advance, drawing complex charts that brought back ideas he hadn’t thought of in years.  He felt again the instructor’s satisfaction seeing his student face relax into a smile of understanding.

On a humid day in July, Dilip helped Walter in the grocery store, walking beside him, advising him on new foods to try and questioning economic relationships. They made an odd couple, an old man in an electric grocery cart followed by a short Indian, both men intense in conversation. waited in the checkout line. Ahead of them, a tall bearded man wearing a rebel cap unloaded groceries onto the belt. The man’s wife, a heavyset blonde woman, held a newborn in one arm. In her free hand she held a small calculator. A young boy pulled at her leg. Walter imagined this man might own the truck he had hit.

“Seventy-four fifty,” said the cashier.

The bearded man looked at his wife. “That’s almost ten more than you said.”

She looked at her calculator. “You musta put something in the cart I didn’t see.”

“Shit.” He turned to the cashier. “We’re going to have to pull some stuff back.”

The boy looked at his mother. “Not the Fruit Loops.”

Walter’s eyes met Dilip’s. What economic theory explained this? Walter thrust a twenty-dollar bill toward the cashier and said, “I’ll cover it.” He meant it as charitable but came across as impatient—a one-percenter’s time too valuable, though Walter was far from the one-percent.

The blonde woman’s eyes widened. Her husband stared at Walter and then glanced at Dilip. “We don’t need no fucking charity from you and your swami, old man. Mind your own business.”

Walter returned the bill to his wallet. He could not look Dilip in the eye. As the bearded man walked out of the store, he turned back and glared at Walter. In the cab on the way home, they did not speak until Dilip stopped in front of Walter’s home.

“I’m sorry about that,” Walter said. “He shouldn’t have called you that.”

“I’ve been called worse.”

Walter turned toward Dilip but did not respond.

“Do you know this man?” Dilip said.

“I know his kind.”

 

That afternoon, Walter lay awake on his couch — sleep refused to come. Maureen had once taught him that mathematical theory predicted up to twelve dimensions but humans could appreciate only four. She saw her afterlife as exploring these spaces. He spoke aloud to her and listened for a reply from these other sides of this or another universe. He longed to join her but her voice would not call him to death.

He was drifting off when the doorbell rang. It couldn’t be Dilip. He had no ride scheduled and Dilip would have called ahead. He peered through the small glass window that flanked his front door. A neat looking man in his early 40’s stood on the porch. He wore khaki pants, cordovan loafers and a light blue knit shirt with a small insignia. A leather bag hung from his shoulder. Walter opened the door.

“Good afternoon, Professor. I hope I am not disturbing you.”

It had been years since he had been addressed as “Professor.” He enjoyed hearing the respect again.

“You likely don’t remember me but I took your microeconomics class many years ago. My name is Jack Anderson.”

He didn’t remember this student but he had taught thousands. “No, I don’t recall you.”

“Certainly understandable. I saw in the paper your wife died a few months back. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.”

“Not to reinforce a stereotype, but the wife usually is the cook so I assume your food opportunities may be limited.” The young man looked directly into his eyes. Clean cut. Well-raised. “My company arranges food services for those who find it difficult to venture out and I would like to discuss this with you. May I come in?”

Walter’s next-door neighbor, Arthur, walked from between the two houses. “That your car in the alley, Walter?”

The salesman spoke before Walter could answer. “No, I’m sorry. That’s mine. I parked it there so it wouldn’t get hit out front.”

“Old Walter’s more likely to hit you in back.”

Walter didn’t want some damn hillbilly judging his driving. He yelled at Arthur. “Is this man’s car in your way?”

“No. Just thought it was strange. I’ll leave you be. You be careful now.”

Walter turned to the salesman. “Sorry about that. Please come in.” He led the salesman to the living room.

“Mind if I lock your front door? Never can be too safe,” the man said.

“Sure, go ahead.”

The salesman locked the dead bolt. “You own a gun?”

“What?”

“Just another safety question. You know, in case some Mexican decides to rob you.”

Walter stopped and turned back. He watched the man’s eyes appraise his possessions, the kindness on his face gone.

Walter lied. “Sure, I keep it handy.” As he said it, he could think of no next steps to safety.

The man reached his bag. “So do I.” He pulled out a small handgun and a roll of gray duct tape.

 

Walter sat taped to Maureen’s kitchen chair. When he tried to move, the thin skin on his arms tore from the tape. Blood trickled down his right arm. If he survived this, he foresaw linear scars — tattoos of stupidity — on his upper arms and cheeks.

Over the late afternoon, Walter watched the bastard compile the home’s valuables near the back door:  his mother’s sterling silver, Maureen’s jewelry box, two bottles of pain killers Walter had never finished after his knee surgery, his Nikon DSL camera, a handwritten list of passwords and bank account numbers he posted in his office, the laptop his son had given him last Christmas. The intruder worked patiently through Walter and Maureen’s life’s belongings.

At twilight, almost dark, a face popped up his kitchen window for a brief second. He wished the face was Maureen’s but the hair was too short. It disappeared so quickly he was unsure he had seen it at all. Pre-mortal hallucinations, he concluded.

After the sun had set, the thief loaded his car. It took five trips. During the final trip, Walter’s cell phone rang for the second time with Dilip’s ringtone. The burglar turned off Walter’s phone and shoved it in his front pants pocket. His load secure, the man explored Walter’s refrigerator, deciding on reheating the chicken tikka masala in the microwave. Walter sat in his own urine and watched him eat off a piece of china Maureen had brought back from Italy. he finished the meal, the man drank a glass of water, and then turned out all the lights. He closed the back door as he left saying nothing to Walter.

Walter was alone, hating the quiet as much as he hated the thief. A minute later, he needed to urinate again. He heard a key in his front lock. Arthur walked into his kitchen carrying some sort of auto part. He motioned with his fingers to Walter to be silent. Dilip followed wielding a tire iron.

Dilip bolted the lock on the kitchen door and crouched down next to Walter and whispered.  “You didn’t answer my calls so I came. Your neighbor had a key to your front door—Maureen had given it to him. Clever man—he disabled the thief’s vehicle. I called the police.”

Dilip and Arthur rested a hand on each of Walter’s shoulders. Behind the house, a car refused to start. The sounds of distant sirens grew louder.

 

David Macpherson’s short stories have appeared in Front Porch Review, Rind Literary Magazine, Ocotillo Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine and Everyday Fiction. He was a finalist in recent Driftwood Press and Midwest Review writing contests. His short story, “Dirtball,” published in Ocotillo Review, was nominated for a Pushcart prize in 2021.