Lyle Dunbar woke up, his cheek pressed against the cold floor. He didn’t attempt to move again. Instead, he tried to figure out how long he’d been sleeping. Maybe he’d sleep some more. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do.
He’d been dreaming. Ingrid again. He missed her. She’d probably laugh, seeing him now. She always said he’d be helpless without her. That was before dementia took away her quick wit and left her with vacant eyes. She was probably right. He would have been helpless without her. But when she got ill, he had to learn to care for both of them. Good practice for being a widower.
Lyle was glad he’d listened to her when she wanted to move into town. He loathed leaving their little hobby farm, but there was no way he could have taken care of the farm and Ingrid. They’d only lived in town for a year before she started slipping away. He didn’t feel like moving anywhere now.
Ingrid died last spring. In the summer he had a stroke. He figured that was it, he’d be joining Ingrid soon. But he recovered, mostly. He walked with a limp, and the left side of his face drooped. Talking was laborious but he didn’t have anyone much to talk to anymore.
The phone rang. He counted off the rings. After the fifth ring, the answering machine clicked in. A voice announced to the machine that it was time to have his ducts cleaned. Oh well, Lyle thought, at least they call me.
It had been a while since either Gordon or Alexie had called him. They’d always been closer to Ingrid. Anyway, they were pretty busy with their own lives now. Lyle thought of his five grandchildren, two of them Gordon’s and three Alexie’s, with a shadow of a smile. He almost wished he’d kept the hobby farm. Maybe they’d visit more. Kids love goats and chickens. But they were all so far away now, Gordon on the west coast and Alexie in the States. They don’t even come back for Christmas anymore. They phoned on New Year’s Day, though. So he wasn’t expecting them to call again so soon.
Lyle woke with a start. Dark again now. Clammy wetness where his pants pasted against his crotch. That was when things seemed hopeless. That was when he first cried.
Lyle woke later to bright light pouring through the windows. The sliver of sky he could see was grey, not blue, so Lyle guessed it had finally snowed. The thought of snow made him realize how thirsty he was. How many days can someone go without water? He couldn’t remember. He wasn’t even sure how many days he’d lain here after he fell. His leg throbbed and was obviously broken. A couple of ribs maybe, too. He wasn’t sure about his left arm; it didn’t seem to have any feeling in it. It hurt to move. It hurt to not move.
A noise roused him from a doze. It was still light out. There was the noise again. Scraping. Familiar but he had trouble placing it. Ah! The little fellow from down the street who shovels his driveway. What’s his name. Allen. So it had snowed, he hadn’t dreamt that.
Allen was barely taller than the shovel handle, but he did a pretty good job shovelling. Lyle paid Allen nearly every time he came, but Allen often seemed reluctant to take the money. Probably his parents made him do shovelling for the old man in the neighbourhood. Lyle tried to offer him hot chocolate a few times, but Allen refused to come in the house. He seemed nervous around Lyle. Lyle wondered if it was his laboured speech and slack face. I must seem like a monster to him, Lyle thought. He started to chuckle but quickly stopped when his broken ribs hurt.
He could hear Allen on the porch now, scrape, scrape. When there was a pause between scrapes, Lyle tried to call out. His throat was paper dry and his voice only a raspy whisper. The shovelling continued, then stopped. Allen must be gone now.
So that’s it, Lyle thought. Nobody else would be coming by and nobody besides salespeople would be phoning. Nobody would miss him if he didn’t go out. Nobody needed him, really.
He felt at peace. He wouldn’t be missed, so he just may as well close his eyes and die. Go and tell Ingrid that she was right, he really was helpless without her.
Lyle woke. He wasn’t sure. Was he awake? He thought he’d heard bells. Again, the bells. Then a tinkling crash as a boot came through the window beside the door. More glass tinkling and a glove grasping for the deadbolt. The door swung open, and a police officer stepped over the broken glass. Allen and his parents right behind him. “See, I told you!” shouted Allen. “Garbage day was Tuesday. He never leaves his garbage can at the curb this long!”
Again, he woke. Soft lights, hushed voices. A swish of polyester uniform. “How are you doing?” asked the nurse. He nodded, not feeling able to speak yet. “You’re a lucky man, Mr. Dunbar. You owe that kid a big thanks for alerting his parents when he thought something was wrong.”
A few days later, feeling a bit stronger and taking dozy pleasure of the pillows at his back, he heard the tentative footsteps of a visitor. Lyle opened his eyes and saw Allen standing beside the bed with two steaming take-out cups. “This is for you, Mr Dunbar.” Allen offered Lyle one of the cups. “I knew you liked hot chocolate.”
“Thank you, Allen,” Lyle was working hard to make the words come out right, but his throat was still sore. “I’m grateful for something to drink. For everything.”