Cindy swung open the door of the Middleton 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 opened a half-door in the counter. “Come in so I can give you a big hug. How’ve you been? Do you like your new home?”
“It’s not new any longer,” said Cindy. “I’ve been living in Rockville for three years now. I love it.” She stepped behind the counter. “It seems so long ago when Dad was transferred and we had to move away from Middleton. I thought I’d never be happy again.”
“I remember that. When you came here to say good-bye to me, I never saw a more somber-looking child. By the way, there’s the African violet you gave me that day.”
“You still have it?”
“Of course. After all, you gave it to me so that I wouldn’t forget you.”
“I know, but it was such a puny thing. I’m surprised it lasted this long.”
Mrs. Tyler picked up the plant. “Can you believe all these violets are blooming? Every year it gets bigger and better.”
“Then I guess my leaving was just the thing it needed,” Cindy joked.
“Now, now—you remember how sad we all were to see you go.”
Cindy remembered the good-bye party her parents had had. She’d invited all her school friends and Mrs. Tyler and Mr. Nealy. That reminded her. … “Mrs. Tyler, I went by the train station to see Mr. Nealy, but it was closed.”
“Oh, they changed the hours again. But you wouldn’t have seen Mr. Nealy, anyway. He retired as stationmaster the year after you left. You and he were good friends, weren’t you?”
“I saw him every school day when I was in third grade.”
“Why was that?—I don’t remember.”
“The train station was where the school bus stopped. Mom couldn’t get back from taking care of Grandma until four-thirty, so I spent about an hour waiting at the station until she came. Have you seen him lately?”
“Yes, and you need to know that he’s very sick. He has Alzheimer’s disease. Do you know what that is?”
Cindy nodded slowly. She thought of Mrs. Clark, her friend Linda’s grandmother. Cindy’d seen Mrs. Clark once. She was hunched over in a rocking chair, staring at the wall. She didn’t answer Linda’s questions but just sat there, constantly rubbing the chair arms with her hands. Linda had said that her grandmother seemed happiest when she sat in the rocker. It bothered Cindy; she never visited Mrs. Clark again.
“I’m sure Mrs. Nealy wouldn’t mind your seeing him,” said Mrs. Tyler. “I have their number. You can call from here.”
“That’s OK. I think I shouldn’t bother them.”
“Oh, I see.” Mrs. Tyler busied herself with some packages.
She sees all right, Cindy thought. She sees what a chicken I am. I don’t care—I can’t bear to see Mr. Nealy be like Linda’s grandmother.
As she watched Mrs. Tyler place stamps on the packages, Cindy thought about the first time she saw Mr. Nealy. She’d been too shy to talk to him, and the time had really dragged while she waited for her mother. But after Mr. Nealy made friends with her, that hour flew by. Later she realized that Mr. Nealy enjoyed her company as much as she enjoyed his. Between three and four o’clock was a slow period when there were few travelers. She helped him sweep the floor, wash the windows, check for burned out light bulbs. He talked about trains, and she talked about school.
He was fond of black licorice and often asked her to go to the nearby store and buy him a package of it. She remembered how he always said, “Black licorice, Cindy. Not red. And not the shoestring kind, either.” And he always gave her extra money to buy candy for herself.
As the memories flooded her mind, Cindy saw him standing very tall, with beautiful silver hair and a thick mustache. He was strong, picking up cargo as if the crates were empty. That Christmas she gave him a conch shell that she’d found in Florida while on vacation, and he gave her a pin in the shape of a caboose. She still had the pin.
Thinking of that shell made Cindy smile. Mr. Nealy kept it at his office, where it lay among the forms and tickets and stamps. It looked out of place, but he never moved it, except to put it to his ear sometimes and listen to the sound of 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. Turning now to go, she said, “It was nice seeing you again, Mrs. Tyler.”
“You, too, dear.” Mrs. Tyler gave Cindy a good-bye hug. “Come back to visit.”
As Cindy passed the train station once more, she tried to not think of Mr. Nealy. But the thoughts kept coming.
The store had not changed. Cindy quickly found the black licorice at the candy counter. Maybe he won’t be as sick as Linda’s grandmother, she thought. Maybe he just started getting that way. And I don’t have to stay long. She fumbled with the licorice, trying to make up her mind. Should I go? She saw a pay phone on the wall. Should I call?
Fifteen minutes later she pushed the doorbell of the Nealy house. Patting the package of licorice in her jacket pocket, she felt good about her decision.
“I’m glad to finally meet you, Cindy,” Mrs. Nealy greeted her. “Henry will love seeing you again.”
“I hope I’m not bothering you.”
“Of course not. As I told you when you phoned, we love to have company. Come in.”
Cindy felt a little strange. She’d never pictured Mr. Nealy having a regular house. The station had seemed like his home—he’d cared for it and cleaned it as if he lived there day and night.
“Mr. Nealy doesn’t get many visitors anymore. At first he might look strange to you, but it will pass after a little while. He’s in the living room.”
Cindy followed Mrs. Nealy toward the sound of a TV. She could see the back of Mr. Nealy’s head as they entered the room. He was sitting in a swivel chair in front of the television.
Mrs. Nealy bent over the chair. “Henry, look who’s come to see you. It’s Cindy.”
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 her, 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 said, “Isn’t that nice, Henry?” or “Did you hear that, Henry?”
As she watched the retired stationmaster circle that green chair round and round, Cindy thought that it was hopeless to even pretend that he knew what they were saying. Seeing him was worse than seeing Linda’s grandmother, because Cindy could not forget how he used to be. As she talked to Mrs. Nealy, memories of his deep laughter, his wide smile, his stories and silly jokes swirled within her until she could no longer bear the sight and sound of his chair. “I have to go, Mrs. Nealy. It’s getting late.”
She pulled the licorice from her jacket. “Would you give these to Mr. Nealy. He used to like black licorice.”
“He still does. He’ll be pleased.”
“Mrs. Nealy, he doesn’t even know I’m here.”
“In his way, he knows. Please—you give him the candy.” She got up, and Cindy followed her to the swivel chair. “Henry, Cindy has a present for you.” She stopped the chair.
“Mr. Nealy, these are for you.” Cindy waved the candy in front of him, trying to catch his attention.
When he saw the licorice, he grabbed at it. Close to him now, Cindy saw that he wasn’t so different, after all. He still had the lovely silver hair and 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 me, Cindy.”
He raised a hand, and Cindy stooped to let him touch her face. He smiled, then pointed to a table. Cindy could not understand his words, but she recognized the conch shell.
“You still have this?”
Cindy picked it up and took it to him. But 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 decided that somehow he understood. Then he ripped open the licorice and started his chair whirling again, and she knew that he was back in his own world. She turned to Mrs. Nealy. “It hurts to see him this way—is he in pain?”
“No, Cindy. He isn’t in pain.”
“He isn’t, but we are.” Cindy put the shell to her ear and listened to the sound of the sea. She looked up again at Mrs. Nealy and managed a brave smile. “I’m glad that at least we have some happy memories.”