After a generous hug and a big kiss on each other's cheeks and a long look into each other's eyes I stood up. I sluffed around there in front of Aunt Clara in her wheelchair. I was a little embarrassed and at a loss for words. Embarrassed, I suppose, because only an hour before, I had felt afraid. Afraid that I was teetering on the outer fringes of sanity. Afraid of Aunt Clara. I was at a loss for words, but she was not. She touched my arm and said, "Would you mind bringing me another drink of water, Davey, please?" I looked at her and instinctively reached up and touched my mustache and beard. The goatee she had said she liked. I felt fear once again. This time I was afraid to look away from her. Afraid to turn and walk to the water cooler at the other end of the room. I was afraid if I looked away she would not be there when I turned back to her. "Don't worry," she said, "We've still got some time left tonight."
"Tonight?" I asked, "What about...?" Aunt Clara touched my arm again and tapped her finger gently there and said,
"Davey, swallow your fear and go and get your old Aunt Clara a drink of that delicious, cold water. Then we'll talk a bit more before we say good night. Okay? Get yourself a cup, too. I know you're thirsty, aren't you Davey?"
I still couldn't bring myself to look away, much less turn away, so I began slowly walking backwards, still looking at her. "Davey," she said, "Don't be a Doubting Thomas. And don't fall while you're walking backwards!" Feeling a little foolish I stopped and closed my eyes. I waited only seconds before opening them and smiling because Aunt Clara was still there, only a few feet away, gently shaking her head as if to say "silly boy". I looked at the floor and turned gradually, and continued walking towards the water cooler. After going only about ten feet I just couldn't stand it and had to look back. I slowed my pace, turned my head, and looked over my shoulder. Aunt Clara was still there, only now she was waving at me with just her fingers, as if she were waving at a small child. "Be careful, Davey," she said, just as I bumped smack dab into the large rack which holds dozens of cans of shoe polish. The cans clattered to the floor, making a terrible racket. "Now you've got a mess to clean up, Davey. I told you to be careful and now look what you've done! Will I ever get that drink of water, Davey?" I took a long, drawn-out deep breath letting it out in a sigh, closing my eyes simultaneously. I opened them, not looking in Aunt Clara's direction. I turned and continued my walk to the water cooler. I was thinking to myself- "If she's there, she's there. If she's not....what? Then what? What if she's not there?" It took everything I had to keep from turning around, but I didn't. I think I picked up my step a little as I walked the last ten feet. I filled one cup and sat it on top of the cooler. Then, slowing my actions to show myself, and her, that I trusted her. She would still be there. I'm sure...I'm sure...almost. I filled the second cup, picked up the other one, and carefully turned toward the other end of the big room. Even in the darkness, I could see. I could see...she wasn't there. My heart sank. My mood darkened, like the room itself. Then, in a flash, I thought of something that made me smile. I smiled because not only was Aunt Clara not there, but neither was her wheelchair! I gazed towards the ceiling and there she was, Aunt Clara and her beautiful wheelchair, spinning in...I would call it...a bubble. A bubble of light.
"Fooled you, didn't I, Davey? But you caught on quick." I nodded my head yes and raised a cup in her direction. "Mmm, be there in a second," she said. I walked to the bench and sat down, taking a sip of water and noticing, for the first time really, how good it did taste. She was right. It was delicious and I consciously tasted it as I watched Aunt Clara in her wheelchair float, not unlike a leaf in the breeze, gently to the floor. I started to stand up, but she said, "No, Davey, keep your seat." She wheeled across the room to where I sat. "Oh, thank you, Davey," she exclaimed as she reached out with one hand to take the cup of cool, ever-so-delicious spring water. She raised it to her lips, closed her eyes, and drank.
Lowering the cup, Aunt Clara raised an eyebrow and asked, "Any questions, Davey?"
"Well, I've got one," I answered timidly, "Uncle Don seemed to hang up on me too quick. When I told him I wasn't dead, he sounded to be in a real hurry to get off the line. Why?"
Aunt Clara shifted in the wheelchair and said, after taking another sip of water, "Because he knows he's not supposed to speak with...anyone who's...well, on the other side. Your side. The so-called 'living' side."
"What about you?" I asked, "You're not talking to me on the phone, you're actually talking to me right here in the shoe shop, face to face."
Aunt Clara brightened and said, "Oh, I know. And talking in person with you is a double no-no, but I don't care. You know, Davey, I've always been fond of breaking the rules. I wasn't supposed to work and make money and be a vital part of society either, but I did all those things. I was supposed to depend on others, not be depended upon, but I was, and I liked it that way. So now, here I go again. Old Clara Pearl, breaking the rules. Talking to the living. Talking to you, Davey."
"Yes," I replied, "You are." We both smiled and touched our plastic cups together.
"Here's to us," she said, "And them."
A thought occured to me then and I asked the question, "Aunt Clara?"
"Yes?" She answered,
"What about...during the day? When Yvonne and I are here in the shop? Customers coming in and going out all day long? Where are you then?"
"Believe it or not, I've asked myself that question from time to time. Sometimes, I think I'm really...nowhere. Or maybe, everywhere?" Then, she continued, "All I really know is I'm here right now, I'm here, alive, with you."
"Yes," I said, "You are."
Aunt Clara yawned a short little yawn and said, "Oh, Davey, I'm getting sleepy." I shuffled my feet and drank the rest of my water. She finished hers and handed me the empty cup. "Good night Davey," she said, "Don't forget to lock the back door. C'mon, give us a hug." I stood, then leaned over and hugged her neck.
"Good night," I replied,
"Don't worry," she said, "I'll clean up your mess."
"No," I said, "That's okay, I'll clean it up."
"Too late," she said, grinning. I turned and looked and saw that every can and jar of polish was back in its place on the rack. I shook my head, laughed a little, and turned back to Aunt Clara. She was gone. Or, at least, I didn't see her there. The wheelchair was there, but not her.
"Oh my Gosh," I said out loud. "I'll be damned," I thought. I reached out and touched one of the cranks on the wheelchair. I touched a photograph on the wall. I took several deep breaths. I looked to the other end of the room, to the water cooler. I began walking towards it, turning only once to look back. I got a cup of water, that delicious spring water, drank it in a few gulps, looked towards the wheelchair--empty, and went out the back door, making doubly sure to lock it behind me.