Cindy Hanson opened the door to the Middletown Post Office and went inside. “Hi, Mrs. Tyler. Remember me?” she asked the tall woman standing behind the counter.
“Why of course, Cindy. My, how you’ve grown!”
“No more standing on my toes to buy stamps.”
“No indeed,” Mrs. Tyler agreed as she walked from behind the counter, opened the gate, and gave Cindy a big hug. “How’ve you been? Do you like your new home?”
“It doesn’t seem new any longer,” Cindy replied. “I’ve been living in Rockville for three years now, and I love it. I never thought I would when we moved, though. I thought I’d never be happy again.”
“I remember that,” said Mrs. Tyler. “When you came here to say good-bye to me, you were the saddest-looking child that I’d ever seen. Look, I still have the African violet that you gave me that day.” Mrs. Tyler picked up the plant. “Every year it gets bigger and prettier.”
“Then I guess my leaving was just the thing it needed,” joked Cindy.
Mrs. Tyler smiled. “I remember how sad we all were to see your family go and the good-bye party we had for you and your parents. It was such a happy/sad occasion. All your friends and your parents’ friends were there. Even Mr. Nealy was able to go.”
“Oh! Mrs. Tyler, that reminds me. I went by the train station to see him, but it was closed.”
“The business hours have been changed again, but you wouldn’t have seen him, anyway. He retired as stationmaster about a year after you left. You and he were good friends, weren’t you?”
“Yes. The train station was my school bus stop, and Mr. Nealy was always friendly to me. Have you seen him lately? How is he?”
“He’s very sick, Cindy. He has Alzheimer’s disease. Do you know what that is?”
Cindy nodded slowly, thinking of her friend Linda’s grandmother, who sat hunched over in a rocking chair, staring at the wall, not answering Linda’s questions, and constantly rubbing the chair arms with her hands. She had Alzheimer’s disease too.
“I’m sure that Mrs. Nealy would be happy if you visited him,” said Mrs. Tyler. “I have their telephone number, and you’re welcome to call from here.”
“Thanks, but I don’t want to bother them right now.”
Mrs. Tyler walked back behind the counter and got an address book. “Here’s his telephone number and address,” she said kindly, “if you change your mind.”
As Mrs. Tyler went back to work, Cindy lingered a moment and thought about Mr. Nealy. When she first met him, she had been too shy to talk to him. But Mr. Nealy had asked her about her school day. And soon she was asking him about the trains. He was always eating black licorice, and he was willing to share it.
He’d always stood tall, and he had beautiful silver hair and a thick mustache. He was strong, too, picking up cargo as if the crates were empty. One Christmas he had given her a pin in the shape of a caboose. She still had the pin. She had given him a conch shell that she’d found in Florida while on vacation. He’d kept it at his office, where it had lain among the forms and tickets and stamps. Even though it had looked out of place, Mr. Nealy had never moved it. Sometimes he had put it to his ear and listened to the sea. “That’s where I should be right now,” he’d say, “lying on a beach, loafing my life away.” Then they would laugh. To see him like Linda’s grandmother—Cindy shuddered at the thought.
A customer came into the post office, so Cindy said, “It was nice seeing you again, Mrs. Tyler.”
“You, too, dear. Come back and visit again before you leave.”
“I will. Bye.”
As Cindy passed the train station once more, she tried not to think of Mr. Nealy. But the thoughts persisted.
Cindy pushed the Nealy’s doorbell. She felt the package of licorice in her jacket pocket and hoped that she had made the right decision.
“I’m so glad to finally meet you, Cindy,” Mrs. Nealy greeted her. “Henry will love seeing you. He doesn’t get many visitors anymore. At first he’ll look strange to you, but that will pass in a little while. He’s in the living room.”
As they entered the room, Cindy could see the back of Mr. Nealy’s head. He was sitting in a green chair in front of the TV.
Mrs. Nealy bent over the chair. “Henry, look who’s come to see you. It’s Cindy Hanson.”
Cindy watched the chair swivel toward her. Mr. Nealy was hunched over, his eyes showing no recognition. He pushed the chair around and around, and each time he passed Cindy, his eyes remained blank.
“Sit here, Cindy.” Mrs. Nealy pointed to the sofa. She asked Cindy questions about her new hometown, her school, and her new friends.
After most of Cindy’s answers, Mrs. Nealy would say, “Isn’t that nice, Henry?” or “Did you hear that, Henry?”
Cindy knew that Mrs. Nealy was trying to include her husband. But as she watched him move the green chair around and around, Cindy thought that it was hopeless. It was obvious to her that he was in another world. Seeing him was worse than seeing Linda’s grandmother, because Cindy could not forget how Mr. Nealy used to be.
“I have to go now, Mrs. Nealy,” she said as soon as she thought that it would be polite. She pulled the licorice from her jacket. “Would you give this to Mr. Nealy. He used to like black licorice.”
“And still does. He’ll be pleased.”
“But Mrs. Nealy, he doesn’t even know that I’m here.”
“In his way, he knows. Please, you give him the candy.” Mrs. Nealy got up, and Cindy followed her to the green chair.
“Henry, Cindy has a present for you.” She put her hands on the chair, preventing it from swiveling. Mr. Nealy seemed annoyed and tried to push his wife away.
“It hurts me to see him this way,” Cindy said. “Is he in pain, Mrs. Nealy?”
“No, Cindy. He feels no pain.”
“He doesn’t, but we do,” Cindy said sadly.
She waved the candy in front of him, trying to catch his attention. “Mr. Nealy, this is for you.”
When Mr. Nealy saw the licorice, his eyes widened, and he grabbed the package. Closer to him now, Cindy realized that he still had lovely silver hair and a thick mustache. His eyes were still deep blue, and he still wore his railroad ring.
“Cin, Cin,” he uttered, staring at her.
“Yes, Mr. Nealy! It’s Cindy.”
He raised a hand, and Cindy stooped to let him touch her face. He smiled, pointed to a table, and said something that Cindy didn’t understand. But she did recognize the conch shell!
“You still have it!” Cindy exclaimed, picking up the shell. When she tried to place it in his hands, he pushed the shell back to her.
“Thank you, Mr. Nealy. It will remind me of you.”
He smiled, and Cindy knew that somehow he understood. She smiled back at him.