Sunscreen. Wide-brimmed hat. Beach sandals. Walking sandals. Sneakers. Shorts. Umbrella. No, he was definitely forgetting something. He smacked his head once, hard with the heel of his hand. He got up from the kitchen table where he had a pad of paper and a pen. He was trying to make a packing list for a trip. He wasn’t sure if he was going yet, but he was determined to try.
He had tried before, many times, but had yet to do it. He thought about it a lot when Mom was still here, but after she was gone, he wanted to do it more and more. He was always at home and didn’t even need to go to pharmacy for Mom’s meds anymore. The only time he left the house was once each week to go to the grocery store.
The church across the street was playing its organ music outside, which told Ray that it was six o’clock. The cat came running into the kitchen, meowing, ready for its dinner, like clockwork. He opened a can of cat food and emptied it into the cat’s dish. Then, he went to the freezer, pulled out a TV dinner and heated it up in the microwave. He took out the little collapsible table, unfolded it, placed it in front of the couch and turned on the TV. It was already on channel 6, the evening news station, and the opening credits were rolling. He turned the volume up to drown out the church music and went back to get his dinner. He grabbed a bottle of Budweiser from the mustard-yellow fridge, a fork and knife from the drawer, in silence and carried it all over to the TV table. He ate his dinner while watching the news.
When Mom was still here, they did this every night. Except on the weekends, when they would order Chinese food from the place down the street on Saturdays and Mom would watch Kinsmen Jackpot Bingo, and they would eat the leftovers on Sunday night. For dessert they would each have a slice of McCain’s Deep and Delicious cake, and a tall glass of 2% milk. Ray would always drink one beer, sometimes two on Saturday.
On Sunday mornings, Ray would help Mom get dressed and then wheel her in her old chair across the street to church, no matter what. He would stay and sit with her, even though he found it pretty boring and once he actually fell asleep. He never told her that, though.
Now that she was gone, he tried to keep up the routine. He still ordered Chinese food from the place down the street on Saturdays. He still watched Kinsmen Jackpot even though he didn’t play. He always ate the leftovers on Sunday, even though he was starting to get tired of Chinese food. Sometimes he would watch Saturday Night Live after Bingo and drink a third beer. But he never went to church anymore, even though Pastor John would knock on the door sometimes and ask him to.
Ray told Pastor John that he didn’t need to leave the house on Sundays now, because Mom was gone, so he didn’t need to wheel her across the street. Pastor John said that didn’t make sense, but Ray thought it made perfect sense.
Most days, he went on the computer for a long time after he ate dinner and after the show ended. Sometimes he would stay up very late looking at things online. He learned about all sorts of things on the internet; things he never would have learned about if he didn’t have a computer, he thought one time. The computer was very old and slow, but it still worked. Sometimes it frustrated Ray, and he would slam the keyboard down or throw the mouse across the room—but that only happened sometimes when the internet got very slow and he had to call the cable company.
The computer was what told Ray he should book a trip.
It started when Ray heard something about the Seven Wonders of the World on the news and he didn’t know what they were. So, he looked it up.
First, he read the Wikipedia page about Machu Picchu, and then he looked at the pictures. Then he typed Peruinto Google. He read all sorts of websites about Peru, and other South American countries. It looked so green and different. Even in the summer where Ray lived, it never got that green. Then he looked at flights. He had never been on an airplane before, so he looked at a website that explained how planes work.
The next day, he looked at a website about the vaccines that he would need to get before going to South America. Then he looked at the risks of vaccines. Then he looked at forums about people who had gone there before, and what they recommended doing and bringing. He looked at everything he could think of that he would need to know before going. Today he had looked at what to pack and was trying to make a list.
He finished eating, threw out his dinner tray, and recycled his beer can. Then he folded up the table and put it back beside the couch. He turned off the TV and went over to the computer. He fired it up, waiting for it to get started. He cracked his knuckles and typed in travel agency.
He clicked on the first result, which was a travel agency not too far from his house. The name of it sounded familiar, and he recognized the image on street view. He passed it on the way to the grocery store. He looked for the phone number and decided to call them. He walked over to the old red phone on the wall that had a coiled cord pooled on the floor below it. It rang twice before a female voice answered.
“Hello, Fancy Flights Travel Agency, Nadine speaking.” Her voice sounded like it was dripping with honey.
“Oh, hello Nadine. My name is Raymond and I’m interested in booking a trip.”
“That’s great, Raymond! I should let you know that we are closing in about ten
minutes, so I might not have time to do the booking for you tonight, sugar.”
“Oh, that’s okay, I just wanted to get a little bit of information first, anyway.”
“I think I can help you with that, Raymond. Do you have somewhere special in mind?”
“And where’s that?”
“Oh, South America is beautiful. What a good choice, Raymond. Which country were you thinking of?”
“I would like to go to Peru. I want to see Machu Picchu. And Brazil, probably. Maybe Argentina. I don’t know for sure yet. But definitely Machu Piccu because it’s one of the Seven Wonders of the World.”
“Oh, well that’s okay, honey, you don’t need to decide right now. Are there any specific questions I can answer for you right now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay, sugar, well you give me a call back tomorrow any time between ten in the morning and seven at night and I’ll help you. Anything you need.”
“Okay. I’ll call you at ten in the morning then.”
“Okay, Raymond. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. You have a nice night.”
She hung up, but Ray held the phone to his ear for a minute longer, listening to the dial tone. He pictured Nadine taking off her headset, placing it on her desk and standing up. He imagined her smoothing out her skirt, picking up her purse, and saying goodbye to the other office workers, and grabbing her jacket on her way out the door.
Of course, he didn’t really know what she looked like, but he imagined her to be small with curled dark hair that hit just above her shoulders, wearing cat-eye glasses. He imagined that she wore red lipstick every day, and the same pearl necklace no matter what outfit she put on.
He felt his face and ears getting warm, and a strange fluttering feeling in his stomach. He made a note on his calendar for the next day to call Nadine at 10 am sharp.
The next morning when Ray woke up, he brushed his teeth and had a shower as usual. He made himself breakfast and turned on the radio in the kitchen to listen to the morning news, like always. He brewed some coffee and ate his breakfast, listening intently. He looked at the clock. 9:15. He glanced at the calendar with the note he made last night, then back at the clock. He cleaned his dishes and fed the cat.
When Mom was here, they would have conversations about what they heard on the morning radio show. They would always find something interesting to talk about, and he always learned something from her. She had a lot of stories from her life before she was sick and stuck in her wheelchair. She sometimes told Ray the same stories over and over, but Ray just listened.
He watched the clock until it finally changed to 10 am. He picked up the phone and hit the redial button. It rang until he heard Nadine’s sweet voice, but as he started to speak, she didn’t stop, and he realized it was the answering machine. He frowned and hung up, waiting. Maybe she hadn’t gotten to her desk yet. He let the clock change one more minute and then dialled again.
“Hello, Fancy Flights Travel Agency, Nadine speaking.”
“Hi, it’s Raymond.”
“Good morning, Raymond! How are you today?”
“Good. I think I’m ready to book my trip.”
“Well that’s great, honey. You decided where you want to go?”
“Okay, where’ll it be, sugar?”
He could hear typing sounds on the other end. He thought about her question. He actually wasn’t really sure yet, but he wanted to keep talking to her and couldn’t think of any other questions to ask her.
“I think Peru. But then maybe somewhere else, too?”
“Okay, well we do really great packages, so maybe you’d be interested in one of those?”
“What kind of packages?”
“Well, you fly to one city, then have bus, train or car rides all around to other places. And you can add excursions, too. And then it’s a discounted price for booking all those things together.”
“That sounds good, maybe I’ll do that.”
“That’s a good choice, Raymond. It really is the best way to see a lot, I think. However, we do have quite a few options and it’s a little difficult to explain them all over the phone. It’s easier if you come in and we discuss it in person.”
“Oh, I have to go there?”
“Yes, we could set up a meeting to plan a package for you.”
“Oh, well I can’t.”
“You can’t what?”
“I can’t go there, because I only go to the store on Monday, and I already did that.”
“Well…can you come next Monday after you go to the store?”
“Well, is there another time that would work?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Oh. Well, okay… is there anything else I can help you with then?” The sweetness in her voice had disappeared, and she just sounded bored. Ray started sweating under his arms.
“I guess not.”
“Well, okay. You take care then, Raymond, and call me back if you change your mind.” She hung up.
That was weird, Ray thought. Why did she get mad? That night, Ray dreamt that he and Nadine—the version that he had invented—were hiking Machu Picchu together. She was laughing, and he was, too, but he didn’t know what was funny. In the dream, when they got to the top, she hugged him. He felt the warmth of her body pressed against his as if it were really happening. He felt the hardness of her breasts against his chest. She pulled back and they looked out at Machu Picchu together. Ray put a finger up to his lip. He took his hand away and saw that it was red—was he bleeding? Confused, he looked back at Nadine, and saw her lipstick was smeared and she was blushing.
When he woke up, he decided to call Nadine back again. He waited until 10 o’clock, after he’d finished his breakfast and fed the cat again. He dialled the agency’s number. This time, a man picked up.
“Hi, Fancy Flights, Dylan speaking.”
“Oh, hi. I’m looking for Nadine.”
“She’s not here yet. Can I help you with something?”
“When will she be there?”
“Any minute. Do you have a trip booking with her?”
“Well, I can get it started for you if you’d like.”
“No, that’s okay. I’ll try later.”
Ray waited as long as he could before calling again. The same man answered again.
“Hi, Fancy Flights Travel Agency, Dylan speaking.”
“Is Nadine there yet?”
“No, she hasn’t arrived. She must be running a bit late. If you want, I can get her to call you when she gets here.”
“Okay, thank you.”
“What’s the number?”
Ray gave the man his phone number, repeating it twice just in case. They both hung up, and Ray started pacing. He cleaned the kitchen and grabbed the paper from the front step and sat on the couch. He tried to do the crossword, but he couldn’t focus. All he could think about was Nadine, her sweet voice like molasses. Saying his name, calling him sugar and honey. She was the best. She was the first woman he had talked to since Mom died.
Ray stared at the yellow-grey walls, soured from years of Mom’s cigarette smoke slowly seeping into them, when the phone finally rang. He jumped up, bumping his knee on the table.
“It’s Nadine, from the travel agency. You wanted me to call you back?”
“Yes. I did.”
“Okay. Well, here I am, calling you back.”
Ray could tell she was losing patience with him. He didn’t like the feeling of Nadine slipping away.
“Oh, well. I think I’m ready to book my trip now.”
“Oh, okay, that’s great honey. Did you change your mind about coming down here?”
“Yes. I’ll come there, but first I want to talk about it a little.”
“Is that okay? I just have a few questions.”
“Sure, honey, go ahead. I’ll do what I can to answer your questions.” Her voice had dropped an octave, sending tingles through Ray’s body.
“Okay, well, I’m wondering if you can tell me what I need to pack.”
Silence on both ends.
“Like, what you should pack in your suitcase when you go to South America?”
“Yeah, honey, I’m here. I’m thinking.”
They were both silent for several moments. Ray could feel the sweat starting under his arms again. He thought about his dream where he was kissing Nadine on top of Machu Picchu.
“Well, I guess I’m just wondering what the weather will be like.”
“Well, honey, that depends, when do you want to go?’
Ray looked at the calendar on the yellow wallpaper with the little white and brown flowers next to the fridge.
“I guess in a couple weeks.”
“Okay, well let’s say you’ll leave on March first then?”
“Sure, I could be ready to leave then. I just have to find someone to look after the cat.”
“Okay, well let’s deal with the packing list first.”
Ray sat down at the kitchen table and grabbed his pen.
“Okay, I’m ready. I’ve never been on a trip before, so I don’t know how to pack.”
“That’s okay, Raymond. I’ll help you, okay?”
“Okay…” Nadine sighed quietly, and Ray could hear her fingers tapping away on her keyboard.
“Okay. Well Raymond, March is still the wet season in Peru, but the temperatures will still be high. So, I recommend warm weather clothes and good rain gear to keep you dry. And some sturdy footwear for walking around in the wetness.”
“Okay, and an umbrella?”
“Sure, an umbrella would be good. I would say probably a good hat, too.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea.”
Ray talked to Nadine for a long time until he was satisfied with his packing list. It wasn’t until he hung up and was reviewing it that he realized he didn’t have a lot of the things on his list, and he didn’t think he would be able to get them on Monday when he went to the grocery store.
That night when Ray went onto the computer, he looked up some of the things Nadine told him to get and searched for where to go buy them. He didn’t know where any of the stores were that came up and he rubbed his burning eyes hard with the heels of his hands. He groaned and got up from the computer, knocking the chair over. He stomped down the hall, leaving the chair. He paused at the closed door to Mom’s room.
Ray slowly opened the door and the smell of his mother slapped him in the face: dried old flowers, must, and mothballs. Ray walked in and looked around. He hadn’t gone into Mom’s room in a while, and looking around at all her stuff, made him think about one of the last conversations they had.
He’d just tucked her into bed and helped her take her night-time pills. He was about to leave when she stopped him.
“Ray…” she called out.
He stopped and turned.
“Promise me you won’t change the house when I’m gone. Don’t change a single thing.”
“Okay Mom, sure. I won’t.”
“I worked hard on this house when I was young and married and I don’t want anyone to change it.”
“Promise. Promise me, even when I’m dead in the ground, turning to dust, you won’t change a thing. And don’t even think about selling it.”
“I won’t sell it, Mom. I love our house.”
“Me too, Raymond.”
She died just a couple of weeks after that, and Ray kept his promise. He hadn’t changed a thing, including her bedroom, which was filled with boxes lined up against the walls and stacked up to the ceiling. Her bed was still unmade from the morning when Ray found her still body.
He shook her, begging her to wake up, like a child in a movie. He sobbed and wailed when he realized she was dead. After saying his private goodbyes to her lifeless body, and after his eyes had finally dried, he’d called the ambulance.
He shook the memory from his head and quickly left his mother’s room, sealing the flashbacks on the other side of the door.
The next day, after breakfast and after feeding the cat, Ray called Nadine again. This time it went straight to her line, and she picked up after two rings.
“Hi Nadine,” Ray said when she answered.
“Oh, hello again Raymond.”
“You knew it was me?”
“I sure did, honey. What can I do for you today?”
“I was looking online about Peru last night and I saw something.”
“Oh yeah, what was that?”
“Something about insurance—In case something happens to me when I’m out there. Like I fall off a cliff or get hit by a car or something.”
“Oh… well we can certainly get you set up with some travel insurance if you’d like. But you shouldn’t worry too much about that kind of thing, it’s not very likely.”
“Yeah, but Mom always said it’s better to prepare for the worst and then hope for the best.”
“That’s good advice. But the insurance is more likely to cover things like if you get heat stroke or food poisoning and have to go to the hospital.”
“Do you think that will happen to me?”
“No. As long as you’re careful, you should be fine.”
Ray realized he was pacing and stopped, gripping the phone tighter.
“Okay, so Raymond, we covered your packing list, we’ve decided you’re leaving March first, and you’ve opted for the travel insurance. What else do you think I can help you with?”
Ray thought for a moment.
“I don’t know.”
“Okay, well how long do you want to go on your trip for?”
“I guess a couple of weeks.”
“Okay, well I have this all written down in a file for you, Raymond. As soon as you make a payment I can finalize the booking for you, honey.”
Ray was silent.
“Raymond are you still there?” Nadine’s voice sounded just like it did when Ray dreamt about her.
“If you give me a credit card number, I can do the booking over the phone for you.”
“I don’t have a credit card.”
“How were you planning on paying for the trip?”
“Oh, well we don’t see a lot of cheques around here these days, but I don’t see why we couldn’t make that work for you. Let me just ask my boss about it and I’ll let you know, okay, honey?”
“She’s gone for the day, but I can call you back first thing on Monday, okay, Raymond?”
“Okay. I go grocery shopping at eleven in the morning, though.”
“I’ll call you as soon as I get here at ten, how does that sound?”
“Okay, good. Have a nice weekend, Raymond.”
That Sunday, Ray was eating his leftover Chinese food on the couch as usual when there was a knock at the door. There hadn’t been a knock at the front door in a very long time, and Ray was startled. The last time someone knocked on Ray’s door, it was the UPS guy who tried to deliver the neighbours’ package to him by accident.
This time, Ray got up slowly, placing his plate carefully onto the fold-out table. He looked through the peephole to see Pastor John rubbing his hands together for warmth. Confused, Ray opened the door.
“Pastor John, what are you doing here?”
“Well I just finished my sermon, and I was thinking of you. I was wrapping up, and I looked at the calendar on the wall next to the basement door, and I noticed the date.”
Ray just stared at Pastor John, blinking.
“It’s the fifteenth.”
“Yes, it is. Sunday, February fifteenth.”
“Well… it’s been six months to the day since…” he trailed off. “Since your mother died,” he finally finished after several moments.
“Oh, right. Yes,” Ray said.
“Do you mind if I come in a minute?” Pastor John asked in a tone that implied he wasn’t really asking.
Ray hesitated but moved aside so Pastor John could enter. He wiped his feet on the mat on his way in but didn’t take his shoes off. He looked around, glancing at the large TV and Ray’s half-eaten food on the fold-out table.
“I’m sorry for interrupting your meal, Raymond, I won’t take up too much of your time,” Pastor John said, sitting down in Mom’s spot on the couch.
“Sit, Raymond,” he ordered. Ray obeyed, sitting across from him in the chair the cat always slept on.
“I just wanted to come here to see how you were doing,” Pastor John said, reaching for the remote and turning off the TV.
“I’m good,” Ray said, looking at his feet. He was supposed to do laundry soon and he hoped Pastor John would leave in time.
“That’s good. I know losing your mother has been hard on you, what with you two being so close and all…”
Ray looked at him, silent.
“And I know you stopped coming to church, and I get that. Grief manifests itself in mysterious ways that don’t always make sense. But, I think you should consider coming back. It’s been six months now, and God has waited a long time for you. Don’t you think God has waited long enough?” Pastor John stared at Ray and ran a hand over his thinning, side-swept hair, patting it into place even though not a strand had budged.
“I suppose, but…”
“And don’t you think God can help you heal, Raymond? Don’t you think he wants to help you move on and live your life?”
“I am living my life.”
“Are you?” Pastor John looked around. A thin layer of condensation was beginning to form on his large shiny forehead.
“Yes, I am,” Ray insisted.
“Are you not just existing, Raymond? What kind of life is it, living in this house with the ghost of your mother, leaving only once a week to buy groceries at the same place?”
“How do you know about grocery day?” Ray asked, surprised.
“I can see a lot from across the street, Raymond. I know what your life is like, and that is why I am here, urging you to come back to church. Even just once a week, on Sundays.”
“It was really Mom who went to church. I was just the one who brought her there,” Ray said.
“Yes, but you were still there, learning and absorbing. And God knew you were there. And then you left when God could have helped you the most. You rejected Him, and now it’s time to make it up to Him.”
Ray sat there silently. The cat came bouncing into the room, meowing loudly. She jumped up onto the couch next to Pastor John and he began stroking her.
“Oh, hello little kitty,” he cooed.
Ray watched Pastor John stroke the cat with his bony, dry hands and had an idea.
“I’ll come to church on Sundays if you want,” Ray said.
“It’s not what I want, Ray, it’s what God wants,” Pastor John said, not taking his eyes off the cat.
“Yeah, sure. But I also need help.”
“I’m going on a trip.”
“A trip?” He looked up at Ray now, his hand stopped mid-pet.
“Yeah, I’m going to Peru. But I need help with the cat. Someone has to feed her.”
“Oh, well… I’m sure I could drop in once a day to feed her, if you need.”
“Sure, Raymond. God knows that helping someone out of the goodness of your heart, and for nothing in exchange, is a truly selfless and commendable act,” Pastor John said, standing up from the couch.
“Well, I agree. Thank you, Pastor John.” Ray also stood.
“Of course, Raymond. And I look forward to seeing you at church next Sunday.” “Me too.”
The next day, as Ray was cleaning up the kitchen from his breakfast, the phone rang. His heart leapt. Nadine. He dropped the dishes he was cleaning into the sink and ran over to the phone, suds still on his hands.
“Hello?” he said, out of breath from the excitement.
“Hi honey, it’s Nadine from Fancy Flights,” she said, as if he didn’t know.
“Hi Nadine, it’s Raymond.”
She laughed, “I know, honey.”
Ray felt his face flush hot.
“Oh, right,” he said.
“Okay, so Raymond, I talked to my boss and she said we can’t take a cheque. It’s going to have to be a credit card. Unless you come down here, and then we could accept a cheque.
“Oh… that’s too bad,” Ray said, rubbing his forehead, beads of sweat forming.
“What do you want to do, honey?”
“Well, I don’t have a credit card.”
“So, I guess I have to come down there then.”
“Shall I book you an appointment, then?”
“Okay,” he said.
“Okay, how about tomorrow?”
“Okay, what time, Raymond?”
“I can do anytime tomorrow.”
“Okay, maybe after breakfast?”
“What time do you have breakfast, Ray?”
She had never called him Ray before. His heart filled with warmth and his nerves were replaced with excitement.
“At nine. I can come after that.”
“Okay, so how about first thing at ten when I get here?”
“Okay, Raymond. I’ll see you tomorrow. I can’t wait to finally meet you, honey.”
She hung up before Ray could answer.
The next day, after breakfast, Ray looked in his closet for his nicest outfit. He picked out a plaid, button-up shirt with elbow patches and his grey pleated slacks. He found his shiny black shoes hiding in the back of his closet and gave them a quick polish. He went into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. He hated what he saw, but he tried to make himself look presentable. He wetted a small comb and raked it through his thinning blonde hair. He splashed water on his face and cleaned the corners of his eyes where the sleep gathered. He opened the cabinet and pulled out a tiny glass jar of aftershave that had belonged to his father. He dumped some onto his finger and dabbed it onto his neck, even though he didn’t shave.
When he was ready, he grabbed his wallet and keys and turned off all the lights in the house. He wasn’t used to leaving on Tuesdays, so he double checked everything, just in case. He checked that he turned off the oven, all the taps, every light and had closed all the windows. He locked his door on the way out and checked it twice. He walked down the street, past the bank, the grocery store, the church, and the corner store. Then he saw the Fancy Flights sign, and he slowed his pace. He wasn’t ready to get there yet. He counted his steps as he got closer, and when he arrived he stood at the door for a moment before opening it. He took a deep breath. Finally, he entered. There was front desk with a man sitting behind it, looking down at a small hand-held phone.
“Hello, how can I help you, sir?” the young man asked.
“Uh, I have a meeting with Nadine,” Ray said, clearing his throat.
The man didn’t say anything but picked up another phone and said something into it that Ray couldn’t hear.
“You can go that way, her desk is right over there,” the man said, pointing vaguely into the direction of a large room with desks all around.
He walked the way the man pointed when a short, older woman with greying hair in a bob wearing shimmery purple lipstick painted past the lines of her lips.
“Raymond?” The woman said.
Ray instantly recognized her voice, but she looked nothing like he pictured her.
“Yes,” he said.
“Follow me,” she said, leading him to a desk that was cluttered with seemingly useless items.
“It’s nice to meet you, honey. Sit, sit,” she said. She sounded just like the woman on the phone, but she didn’t feel like the same person. The magic that Ray recognized in her voice had disappeared.
She began typing with long, yellowed nails, the clacking against the keys sinister and grating. Ray flinched with each letter.
“So, I have your trip here. I want you to take a look at it and tell me if it looks right, okay?” She turned the computer monitor toward Ray for him to look. She leaned back and waited. Ray looked at the screen, then at her, then back at the screen.
He scanned over the information, but his vision was blurry, and he suddenly felt the urge to leave immediately. He needed to get home, he wasn’t supposed to be there.
“Uh, yeah that looks right,” Ray said, feeling the sweat starting under his arms.
“Okay, so I’ll pull out some forms for you to sign and then I’ll take your cheque, okay?”
When Ray got home, he lay down on the couch and didn’t get up for a very long time. He stared at the ceiling and ignored the cat’s meows for dinner. When the light in the room started slowly disappearing, he got up. He walked over to the calendar and marked down the day he was going to leave on his trip. He walked over to the fridge like a zombie and grabbed a beer. He cracked it open it as he walked back to the couch.
When the first of March finally arrived, Ray woke up and looked at his packed bags in the corner of his bedroom, ready to go with his passport laid nicely on top. He glanced at the clock, and then back at the bags.
And then Raymond went back to sleep.