..... Ron was pulling guard duty on the perimeter of a firebase in the A Shau Valley when his doorbell in Detroit rang. As the mountains faded, as the line of suspicious-looking soldiers on the Ho Chi Minh Trail disappeared, he jerked awake. The bell only rang in rare instances because the button was oddly placed, almost invisible in the small alcove where the mail slot sat. The only person who could be leaning on it was his son. But Nat was in Afghanistan, a terrain that would, no doubt, be his dream landscape for the rest of his life. He was not due home for another three or four months. Plus he would’ve texted Ron if his plans changed. A good kid, though at thirty-seven or was it thirty-eight, kid was probably the wrong word. And, of course, his son had a key.
..... Possibly, he’d pointed out its location to his neighbor on hearing his diagnosis a few months back—he was more than half out of his mind that day. Ed Ward was usually outside fooling around with his car or working on his lawn so maybe he told Ed in his panic. Or possibly he’d showed it to his sister-in-law, Deb, on the off-chance she’d need to know. But he doubted it. All the people he’d let in on its secret location were dead or missing: wife, brother, daughter, son.
..... The bell continued its screechy ring. If it began to ring with any frequency, he’d have to change that tone. How did you do that? Not exactly like a ring tone on a cell, was it? Weird that he knew how to perform the 21st century chore but not the 20th.
..... His feet reached out for his slippers as he shouted, “Just a minute.” He had no idea if someone at the door could even hear him. Pressing down hard on the arms of the chair, he hoisted himself up. His knees threatened to buckle, but they manned up just in time. He’d grown skinny quickly. After years of toting around that extra thirty pounds, it fell off in three or four months. He made his way to the door, stopping to rest along the way. It was only twenty feet, for Pete’s sake. The doctor had said a year, possibly eighteen months, but didn’t they always double the time it took for the cancer to kill you? He’d heard that once.
..... Someone had gouged the peephole out—probably him in a drunken rage—so he had to open the door blindly. A tall woman with long gray hair tied up on her head stood there. He peered at her, thinking she looked an awful lot like Sally Pastor, his former mother-in-law. But Sal was probably dead by now. He said her name anyway. “Sally?”
..... The woman laughed sharply, almost a barking noise, and then he knew who it was—his ex-wife, Carmen. “You’ve gotta be kidding,” he said before he could stop himself.
..... “Do I really look like my mother?” she said, stepping inside before he’d even moved out of her way.
..... She was still wearing that same scent—something spicy. He’d thought women gave up perfume long ago. But not Carmen, he guessed, who always was one for candles, flowers, brewing herbal tea. She was the only person he ever heard of who removed perfume samples from magazines at a newsstand and took them home.
..... “Mom’s dead, you know. About six years now.” When he said nothing, she added, “Heart.”
..... “Sorry for your loss,” he said mechanically. He’d always liked Sally—the only gringo in Carmen’s large, gregarious Ecuadorian family. He blamed his poor word choice on shock. Did things like this just happen? Carmen was standing two feet from him like it was nothing unusual. He pulled himself together. “And Hector?”
..... Carmen looked at him quizzically. “Dad died before I left. Remember?”
..... He didn’t remember. Or maybe he did. It must’ve been in the days of wine and doses—when he was lit most of the day.
..... “Car accident,” she said. “Or truck, in his case.” She looked around. “It’s been more than twenty years.”
..... “Deb call you about…things?” he asked. And then he added, voice rising, “She been keeping track of you all this time?” If she had, he’d have to strangle her, knowing as she surely did how hard he’d tried to find his wife.
..... Carmen nodded, and then amended it. “Not all of it. I got in touch with her after five or six years. Thought I should know what was going on. Hear Nat’s in the Middle East”
..... Nat was Ron’s son from his first marriage, a union that lasted a much shorter time than his second. Nat had lived with his mother in Traverse City growing up, visiting Ron and Carmen only occasionally.
.....“He’ll be done his tour soon.”
.....“Right,” she said, looking around. “Well, this place looks like it belongs to an old man, Ron.” She sniffed. “Smells like it too.”
..... “That’s about right,” he said. “I am an old man ‘case you didn’t notice.”
..... The amazing thing—he realized this on some level—was that they were talking to each other like normal people. Despite their history, despite not seeing each other in twenty years, they sounded civil. He didn’t even feel particularly angry about her telling him he smelled. It was exactly what Carmen would say. And she said it easily—without rancor. He felt buoyed somehow.
..... She went into the kitchen, Ron following her at his snail’s pace. He wished he were wearing shoes instead of slippers; the shuffle put him at a disadvantage. Carmen, as if to point out his inadequacy, looked great. She wore rust-colored boots with four-inch heels, her jeans tucked into them, a flowing blouse in a vibrant green, dangling, amber earrings. He wondered if those threads still concealed a perfect body. You could search all day for a single imperfection. He remembered looking at her naked body back then with wonder—causing her to finally say, “Come on, then. Are we going to do it today or not?”
..... God, if only he still could. Could he?
..... “This place is a mess, Ronnie. That refrigerator was about finished when we moved in here. I bet it doesn’t keep things cold enough.”
..... She turned around to look at him, stared for a few seconds, and then shut her mouth. First time he’d ever seen her do that, and it was unutterably depressing. What she saw obviously took all the fight out of her. She turned back and began to clean, shaking her head at the smelly sponge, the empty bottle of cleanser.
..... “Got any baking soda?” she asked.
..... “What do you think?” he said, deciding to be feisty. Maybe she’d be too. “Hey, nobody said you had to do this. I’m gonna get someone to come in. Just haven’t gotten around to it.” He slid a chair out from under the table and sat down. “So what are you here for? In Detroit, I mean.” Before he could stop himself, he added, “To gloat?” He didn’t even know what he meant by that.
..... Shaking her head, she looked at her watch. “I only have a few hours. Let’s see if I can get things into shape.”
..... “A few hours until what?”
..... “Before my plane. It’s at eight-thirty.”
..... He looked at the kitchen clock. It was three p.m. “You flew in just to do this? To clean my kitchen.” Flew in from where, he wondered?
..... “It’s just a layover. When Deb told me what was going on, I changed my flight so I could stop over in Detroit. See how things were going here.” The sponge fell completely apart, and in desperation she grabbed a dishtowel. “Might as well make myself useful.”
..... “It’s not as bad as you think,” he said, looking around for an explanation. “Even before I got sick, the place looked pretty much the same. Never was a great housekeeper.” She was throwing half of the food in his fridge away. “Hey, some of that stuff is fine. I’m not a millionaire, you know.”
..... Reaching over, she held a container of something up to his nose, and he blanched. “Where you been all this time?” he asked. Couldn’t help himself.
..... “Lots of places,” she said. “I ran until the money gave out. Then I got a job and settled in. Been out in Oregon for the last ten years.” She set a cup of coffee she’d made for him on the table. “Drink. I still make good coffee.”
..... It wasn’t the cup he usually used, but he picked it up. He wasn’t surprised she’d been in Oregon. She looked like a hippie. Always had. “Did it help? All that running?”
..... “Nope. But somewhere along the way, the anger sort of wore off.”
..... “Smoking weed a lot?” he asked. “That’ll do it.”
..... “Why do you think I picked Oregon? It’s a forgiving part of the country.” She smiled. “But it’s an occasional thing nowadays. Something about gray hair and grass doesn’t mix.”
..... “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “There’s plenty of stoned gray heads hanging ‘round the V.A.”
..... “Still on John R?” She was tensing up, and he regretted bringing it up, reminding her.
..... “Yeah, but they built a new place. Looks like a hotel for toddlers—kind of.” He looked at her for a long minute as she swabbed out the bottom bins. Her arms were still strong—her skin smooth. She wasn’t yet—what—fifty-eight? He was over seventy. Before he could stop himself, it was out of his mouth. “So, along with getting rid of the anger, did you forgive me?”
..... She didn’t say anything for a minute. Then pursing her mouth, she answered, “Think you deserve forgiveness? I’m going upstairs to clean the bathroom. Why don’t you wait here?”
..... Damn, why had he gone and brought it up? But not a day passed that he didn’t go back over the time of his daughter’s death—it was like a litany or like prayers said over a rosary. Surely it was the same for Carmen—not that she shared any of the blame. But they’d just gotten off on the right foot here and he’d gone and messed it up. As her feet climbed the steps, it began to run like a tape in his head.
..... Julia didn’t know any of the other kids yet and they’d talked her into going to a homecoming float party to meet some of her new classmates. She’d been a student at St. John of the Apostles parochial school through eighth grade and was shy and insecure in her new public high school. Eventually she agreed. She grew excited when she learned the freshman float would be based on the movie THE GOONIES, one of her favorites. Carmen dropped her off on her way to the coffee hour for new parents. Ron was scheduled to pick her up at nine-thirty.
..... He’d gone over to the Vet’s Hall around seven like he did most Friday nights, had a beer or two, then lost track of the time amidst the inundation of war stories that were passed around as readily as cigarettes and beer. By the time he arrived at the party, it was after ten-fifteen and the number of kids had thinned out. No one knew where Julia was—or even who she was. He turned out of the driveway and drove about a half mile before he saw the flashing lights, the smashed car, the sobbing driver. Julia had already been loaded into an ambulance and was on the way to the hospital. Carmen had been called at the school and was waiting at St. Joseph’s when he arrived.
..... In a few terse sentences, Carmen told him what happened—information she’d just received from a paramedic and hadn’t yet absorbed. Julia, tired of waiting for Ron, had attempted to walk home down a dark road with no sidewalks, barely even a shoulder, and was hit by a car driven by an elderly woman. It skidded on the wet autumn leaves and hit Julia, a tree, and a mailbox. Julia was probably killed on impact.
..... The recitation of these few facts was Carmen’s last words to him for days. But she told no one that he’d been late to pick Julia up, allowing everyone to believe that, like some crazy kid, their daughter decided to walk home for no good reason. For a long time, he believed this deception was a good sign—that protecting him had to mean Carmen would eventually forgive him.
..... But it didn’t work out that way. Instead Carmen’s anger increased as the days passed. Her initial instinct to protect him faded, and she came to blame him for not stepping forward and acknowledging his culpability. She waited; he was silent. Would telling everyone that he was responsible for his daughter’s being on that road bring her back? Would they feel any better about it? Would hating him alleviate anyone’s pain? That’s what he told himself in his more self-pitying moments. When he was cold-stone sober, he told himself he was a coward since his silence made Julia look irresponsible. Few accusations were voiced aloud though.
..... He could only think of one accusation now, in fact. She’d turned to him a few days after the funeral and said, “You have taken everything from me.” There was little to say after that—no way to heal such a wound.
..... Six months later, a period of pure misery for both of them, Carmen took off. He shouldn’t have been surprised but somehow he was. If Nat hadn’t moved in with him, he’d probably have drunk himself to death. And then came the months, no years, of looking. In those pre-internet days, looking for someone was not easy. He quit his job at Dodge Assembly, and each job he replaced it with paid less money. Finally, he had to give up.

Carmen was standing in front of him when he woke up.
..... Was it normal to fall asleep at the drop of a hat? He’d have to ask the oncologist he’d been assigned.
.....”Sorry,” he said, starting to rise and then stopping. “Can we talk more before you go?” He looked at his wrist, but he hadn’t worn a watch in months.
..... Nodding, she sat down.
..... “So what have you been doing all this time?”
..... “You mean jobs, hobbies, friends?”
..... “All of it.”
..... “I’ve had a lot of all three over the years. I have a few good friends now in Salem—we take hikes, go to a movie—but no particular man if that’s what you’re wondering. Hobbies—gardening is great in Oregon and I still have my library card. Work—well right now I’m a vet’s assistant. I took a course a few years ago. Pay isn’t great, but I like it. Except for the euthanizing—that’s the tough part of it.”
..... “I didn’t even know you liked animals.”
..... “It was you who didn’t like dogs,” she said with a sigh. “Look, can I make you something to eat?  You’re too thin, Ron.”
..... “Don’t have much appetite.” He hardly wanted to waste these few last minutes on that.
..... She looked at him, head cocked. “Do you want to make love?”
..... “Are you kidding?” He’d forgotten she’d always called it that. Never have sex, go to bed. No four-letter words. It was always “make love.” He was astounded she’d suggested it. Reluctantly, he said, “Doubt I can.”
..... “Well, we can fool around a little. See what happens.” She put a hand on his thigh.
..... “For old time’s sake?” He had trouble remembering the last time. Not just with Carmen but with anyone. Maybe that waitress in the vet bar in Corktown. That would’ve been more than a year ago. Perhaps two. “You’ll be able to count my ribs.”
..... “Oh, I can think of better things to do than count.”
..... She was straining to interest him and he was starting to feel aroused—it might work out after all. It’d probably be the last time—would certainly be their last time. The way things were going, he wouldn’t even make it til Nat came home. Nat had said to let him know when things got bad, but what was the point? He’d lived alone and now he’d die alone. But at least he’d have this. Or maybe he would.
..... In bed, it was almost like old times. He wondered if she’d slipped something into his coffee. Well, that was okay. He didn’t mind having a little help. She took the lead, straddling him in such a way that her weight wasn’t on him—spending a lot of time on touching, kissing, whispering. Had she always been this leisurely? There had  always been Julia in the next room with a shared wall to worry about back then. It inhibited him as much as her. But now, there was no reason not to moan, talk, whatever.
..... When they were done, he tried to talk her into canceling her flight.
..... “I can’t, Ronnie. I have to be on that plane.” She was sitting up now—fooling around in her purse like women always seemed to do. What did they keep in there that called to them so often?
..... He was tired though, very tired. Had never been so tired in his life. “Disappearing again, Carm? Running somewhere new.” He shut his eyes and threw an arm over them to block the light. Tears were welling up. “Maybe east this time. Hear Vermont’s a good place for hippies too.”
..... “How did you guess?”
..... “Leaving me here to die alone, huh? Won’t be more than a couple of months.” He sounded emotional, which he certainly was. He had few ideas on how to keep her here, so he went for the first one that came to mind. The pity pitch.
..... “Not exactly,” she said. “I couldn’t leave you alone with this.”
..... He took his arm from his face and looked at her. “Then what?” As he said it, he felt a prick in his leg and began to raise a hand to swat at it.  
..... “It’s pentobarb, Ronnie,” she whispered. “It’ll just take ten seconds or so.”
..... He was too weak to feel any shock. It seemed inevitable that this had happened—that this was why she came here—not to clean, or to make love, but to be with him at the end. Carmen was his angel of death. It was just. He had taken everything from her.
..... “Because you never forgave me, right.”
..... She slipped the case back in her purse and stroked his brow. “No, because I did.”