Mr. Applewood’s List

Hillary Elser

When my life ceased to be my life, I moved into a small Cape Cod located on a street full of small Cape Cods. My house’s distinguishing elements were its peeling shutters and uneven front path. The grass was often an inch too high, and the weeds grew healthier than the flowers. The interior of the house was no more appealing than the exterior. After unpacking and settling in I could not get comfortable. My discomfort, however, was not inflicted by the house’s poor state but rather by my own poor state.

I had lost my marriage—before it had a chance to produce a family. I had lost my job—before it had a chance to produce a career. And I had lost my hunger for life—before I had a chance to partake of the main course.

I spent most of my day staring out my dirty front window. I had counted the fingerprints and streaks of dirt numerous times but had never bothered to wipe them away. I paged through the Help Wanted ads but my hefty alimony check made finding a job optional, and I didn’t care to do options anymore. If there was more than one choice I ignored the situation. The alimony was decided upon by my ex-husband, as if keeping my agony and his betrayal of me quiet had a price tag. But assaulting his life publicly was a choice, so I didn’t bother. Being so numbed by my life’s inadequacies I failed to notice that not acting was a choice in itself.

Every morning at eight sharp a tall, elderly woman exited the house across the street. She always wore a hat, even on warm days. She took exactly three minutes to unlock her car, fasten her seat belt, start her engine and back down the cracked driveway.

Between eight-thirty and nine every morning a young, plump woman with an overhang of fat swelling above the top of her pants arrived at the same house. Her time frame for pulling her car into the cracked driveway and making it to the door ranged from two minutes to twelve minutes. These women made me wonder enough to be concerned on the day that the first one left and the second one never arrived.

For the first time in months I had the drive to do something other than avoid choices. The house across the street was in better shape than my own, but I had no idea how that was so, because I never saw anyone keeping up its maintenance.

My two short knocks were met by a rhythmic knocking on the other side of the door. When the latch was released I saw immediately what had caused the internal sound. A blind man with a cane stood just inside the door sniffing the air with a loud wheeze.

“Ashley, is that you? You’re late and also your agency called and said you’d quit. I got scared. I thought I was going to be alone all day until Mary returned.” His voice was gravelly as if he didn’t speak often. I found it difficult to not clear my own throat before answering.

“I’m not Ashley, sir. I live across the street. I noticed your… help didn’t show up this morning and I wanted to check on you” I held my breath, expecting ranting and maybe even the throwing of an item or two. I had heard talk from other neighbors that he was grumpy and mean and stubborn and reclusive. Looking at him, he just seemed lonely. Still, I braced for an attack.

“I’m glad you did, because I don’t like being alone, and I don’t think I can get through a day without being read to. Ashley’s main job was to read to me.” He batted the air in search of my hand. I let him find me and then I let him lead me into his dark house.

“I’ll read to you—”

“Mr. Applewood,” he said, smiling in the direction of my voice.

“—Mr. Applewood,” I said, and I did just that. Every day for seven months I read. When I saw his nurse Mary depart, I made my way across the street to read. I would brew two cups of coffee—we both preferred just one cup a day—and then I would convey all sorts of stories to my new lifeline—to my only lifeline. Soon, though, not only Mr. Applewood was saving me, so were the books.

He had a list of books that he kept on his kitchen counter. Anytime he remembered or learned of a new story he would have me or Mary jot it down. That piece of paper was his most priceless possession, and I envied him that he was optimistic enough to believe he had the years left to finish the list. Even when he discovered that he was sick, that his eyes were not his only failing organ, he continued to add to the list. It was then that I realized hope was not exclusive; anyone could join the club.

As Christmas neared I decided to buy him the only thing I knew he wanted—books. I copied down three titles I was familiar with, and selfishly also wanted to read, and I wrote down one I didn’t recognize—The Hemlock Society.

I was anxious to get home and start shopping, but as I left he grabbed for my face and rested his hand on my cheek. “You’ve been a good friend my Sweetheart,” he said. Were his eyes still alive enough that he had caught me snooping for gift ideas?

That evening I sat in front of my computer searching out the book titles, eager to find copies. When I gasped at the chance of acquiring an original print of one of the books I was startled by the sound. The noise conveyed happiness. Maybe the main course of my life had not yet been served; maybe I still had time.

After placing orders for the first three books, I clicked to my home page and searched for The Hemlock Society. When my search was complete, I read the description. Words swam before my moist eyes: providing information about options, dignified death, legalized aid in dying. It was then that I ran. I jumped over the uneven stones of my front path and the crack in his driveway. I slipped running up his front steps and fell into his door.

“He’s already gone,” Mary sobbed as I kneeled down in front of his old, sagging chair. She was right. He was already gone. Unsure of my footing, I leaned against the wall as I made my way to the kitchen. The list was gone too. I never did find it.

I still spend a good amount of time staring out my window, but I have cleaned the marks away. Every day I wonder about Mr. Applewood’s list; every day I cry—but each day I cut myself off from sobbing and wondering one minute earlier than the day before. The rest of the time I work—at the job I finally found—and then I read. I now have my own list.

Hillary Elser is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom who received a degree in psychology and elementary education from Moravian College. She has seen her work published in Skyline Magazine, The Rose & Thorn, Long Story Short and Foliate Oak. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two young sons. E-mail: hillaryelser[at]

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