Anthrocide is the official website for D.L. Hamilton, author of several Christian novels and essays.

The Bench Warmer

There were butterflies in Elmer’s stomach as he sat and watched. And waited. And worried. It had been four days now, and he feared the worst.

He sipped his coffee and looked over at the other to-go cup sitting next to him on the park bench. Two creams, three sugars; just the way Lillian always liked it.

He watched a harried lawyer-type in a pinstripe suit bull his way into Gladwell’s Pharmacy across the street. The guy was so busy on his cell phone he did not even notice that he nearly bowled over a young mom with her little boy as they were exiting the pharmacy. The man’s rudeness irritated Elmer, which was a good thing. It gave him a ten-second respite from worry. But only that, because as he checked his battered Timex he began his worrying anew.

Something’s happened to her; I just know it, he thought. She was fine on Monday but here it is Friday and I’ve heard nothing since. He had called her so much and left so many messages he was embarrassed. He stayed close to his phone, too, only venturing out for their morning meeting time here at the park. If she had called back he almost certainly would not have missed it. For the first time in his life he regretted not having one of those cell phones. But Social Security and his pension did not provide enough for such luxuries. Not to mention that, at his age, he was certain he would not be able to figure out how to use one.

Maybe she somehow realized I was about to finally ask her out to dinner—a formal date—and decided to just end the relationship. But no, he thought, she would never be that way, not Lillian. She had far too much class to just disappear and, besides, if she had wanted to end their relationship she would have said so. She was never one to hesitate speaking her mind.

Hah! Speaking her mind. He smiled thinking about it. Lillian would definitely speak her mind, and anything else she could find to speak. From the moment he met her it was clear that speaking was her specialty. She talked and talked and talked.

It was stereotypical to refer to women as doing a lot of talking, but in Lillian’s case it was absolutely true. But unlike the sexist jokes always made it sound, Elmer loved it. He loved the sound of her voice, her animated mannerisms when she spoke, and was genuinely interested in all she had to say.

He had been so lonely. A year ago at this time there had been George, Walt, and him—three close companions. They met for breakfast every morning, helped serve lunch at the soup kitchen, and played cards in the evening, except when an OSU game was on TV. But then George had the stroke. Walt and Elmer had visited him faithfully in the hospital for weeks even though he was unresponsive. When his kids moved him to the extended care facility, the visits stopped. Neither Elmer nor Walt had a car anymore and there was no other way there. Not that it mattered much. George had passed away within a couple of weeks of being moved.

But there had been a silver lining. Elmer and Walt could go fishing a couple of times a week—something George had never wanted to do. They had developed an enjoyable routine until one evening Walt’s son Gary called to say Walt was in the hospital and offered to take Elmer to see him. Gary said the doctors were not too worried, something about excess fluid. When he got there, Elmer made the standard jokes about Walt doing anything to escape his own cooking. Walt had laughed, but much less heartily than usual. As the visit went from one hour to two, Walt had begun to deteriorate noticeably. Gary’s wife had run to get a nurse. Less than an hour later they were prepping Walt for emergency surgery. When Elmer had said goodbye as they were wheeling Walt away, he had somehow known it would be his final words to his dear friend.

Loneliness characterized the months that followed, the worst part of which was the absence of conversation. Elmer would turn the TV on just for the sound of voices, and talk now and again to Frodo, his cat. But he would go days on end without a single conversation with another person. He looked forward to his trips to the market just so he could exchange pleasantries with the checkers.

Three weeks ago, to the day, he had come to Gladwell’s for a refill. There he and a small but feisty lady of about his age had been told their prescriptions were not ready and they would have to wait an hour. After giving the pharmacist a piece of her mind, the lady, Lillian, had asked Elmer if, on such a pretty morning, they should perhaps wait on the park bench across the street. He agreed and found her to be absolutely delightful. She talked nearly incessantly but yet also asked him questions and gave him a chance to converse as well. It had taken all the nerve he could muster, but before she left that day he had asked her if she would meet him at the bench the next morning, and offered to bring her coffee. And so their daily rendezvous had begun. They talked and laughed and reminisced about their younger days. He had learned quite a lot about her past but surprisingly little about her present. He never got around to asking her things like her current address or whether she had family in town. She did on one occasion point-out a bright yellow Jeep going by and mentioned that it was her 20-year-old granddaughter Tanya. She talked with sadness about Tanya’s wildness and her having “hooked-up” with some guy of very dubious character. But beyond that, and her phone number, Elmer knew next to nothing about Lillian’s current life.

And now he was left wondering what had happened to this lovely lady. And she was indeed lovely. She was petite, but not in the shriveled, hunched-over way of many elderly women. No, she was naturally petite and, despite her years, still pretty—at least Elmer thought so. He remembered their last conversation on Monday. They had been discussing their former occupations: she an insurance underwriter and he a math teacher. They had done a lot of laughing and, as always, they had talked and talked and talked.

It was during that conversation that he had become aware that Lillian was more than just someone to talk with. He really, really liked her, in a way that he had not felt about a woman in a very long time. It was then he began hatching a plan to invite her to dinner. But to his place? He was only a so-so cook. He would be willing to splurge and take her to a restaurant, but that would require a cab. This was not New York where one could just hail a cab anywhere any time. How would they get home? Better plan this out a little better and ask her tomorrow, he had thought at the time. But when the next day had come, she had not. Nor Wednesday. Nor Thursday.

He reached over and picked up the now-tepid coffee he had brought for her. The butterflies turned to a knot in his stomach as he got up to toss it away just as he had the last three days.

A bright yellow Jeep caught his eye as it pulled into the pharmacy parking lot. His heart raced as, still holding the two coffees, he half-trotted across the street and up to the brown-haired girl climbing out of the Jeep.

“Excuse me,” he said, smiling so as not to alarm her. “Are you Lillian’s granddaughter?”

The young woman had studs piercing one eyebrow, a nostril, several around each ear, and two in the right corner of her lower lip. She looked a bit puzzled.

“Yes.” There was caution in her voice.

Elmer struggled to find a polite way to ask about Lillian. Finally he just held up her cup.

“I have her morning coffee and—”

A light of understanding came into Tanya’s eyes. “Oh. You must be Elmer.”

He nodded.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “We didn’t know how to reach you. Only that Grandma had talked about this really nice man she had met named Elmer and…” Tanya’s eyes reddened as she continued. “Grandma passed away Monday night. She called my dad to say she felt strange. He called 911 and rushed over there but she died on the way to the hospital. Her funeral was yesterday. I’m sorry. If I had known how to contact you…”

Elmer’s lip began to tremble and a large tear ran down his cheek. His eyes darted around as he searched for something to say.

“I guess,” he said haltingly, “I won’t be needing this, then.” He held the cup out toward Tanya. Purely from reflex she took it and shook her head. Then her face puckered and she began to cry. Elmer did as well and gently held her and patted her back as one does an infant while the two of them wept for a long moment.

When their crying subsided she dug into her small purse and pulled out a Kleenex for each of them. She took a drink of the cold coffee through the sippy hole in the lid.

Elmer gestured toward the park bench across the street. “Would you sit with me? Just for a minute?”

Still dabbing her eyes, she nodded and smiled. As they walked to the bench he said, “I think I might have loved her if we’d had more time.”

“I’m sure of it. I know I did.”

As they sat down, Elmer said, “She mentioned you when you drove by in your Jeep one morning when we were sitting here.”

Tanya looked away. “I’m sure she didn’t have much good to say about me. I know I was a real disappointment to her. My dad always said she was the wisest woman he ever knew. Of course, he also says I’m a lot like her and, well, those two things cannot both be true. I mean, she always seemed to do the right thing. No one could say that about me.”

Elmer started to console her but did not get the chance.

Tanya looked him right in the eyes. “But after she died I decided that, in her honor, I was going to turn things around. First I walked out on that worthless boyfriend of mine. Do you know he actually said he was glad she was gone? He didn’t even want me to go to the funeral. Can you imagine? My own grandma? I know they didn’t have much use for each other, but still, to say something like that about her. I guess you know I told him where to get off and how long he could stay there! Now I’ve moved back home and applied for college.”

“Bravo! Tanya that’s wonderful. Your grandmother must be smiling down on you for sure.”

She nodded and laughed lightly and then looked down at the coffee cup in her hands.

“Yeah. Only…”


“Only, I’m afraid I won’t make it in college.”

“What? Oh, nonsense. If you’re anything like your grandmother you’re plenty bright enough to get any degree you want.”

“Maybe, except when it comes to math. I have to pass algebra and I’m horrible at math, just horrible.”

“My dear, this is your lucky day. I taught algebra for over 25 years and never had a single student fail, not one. I would consider it an honor and a privilege to be your personal tutor and I guarantee you a passing grade.”

“Really? You would do that? That’s awesome. How do I get ahold of you?” She pulled a smart phone out of her purse. “You have one of these, don’t you?”

“No, I’m afraid not. Too expensive and much too complicated.”

“Too…? Don’t be silly. Look, let’s go to my house and see about getting you a phone on my dad’s plan. It’s really cheap to add an additional phone, and we could consider it pay for my tutoring. And if you can teach someone as math-phobic as me algebra, I’ll guarantee you I can teach you how to use one of these.”

She scooted closer to him and turned the phone where he could see it. “See, just using it as a phone is really simple, but there’s a whole lot more you can do.”

They talked and talked and talked.

A Short Circuit

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