Empty Shoes

Fiction
Bari Lynn Hein


Photo Credit: Trinity Lancaster/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Nathan hated his goddam phone. Not the phone attached to his kitchen wall. That one was fine. You pick it up, you press some numbers, you talk. His “smart” phone, however—the one that served every function except to carry on a conversation—that one frustrated him to no end. His kids had tried to help him out with unhelpful advice like: “Close your apps.” Or: “Open your settings.” Again and again they had demonstrated how to scroll, which was something his arthritic fingers could barely manage. They meant well.

He also loved his phone. Three months ago, quite by accident, he found Joan’s voicemail message on it. Every night since, he had listened to her say: “I’m right here waiting for you, my love.” She’d recorded it while they were Christmas shopping at the mall two years ago—two years to the day, in fact. December sixth. They’d gone off in separate directions so she could buy a six-pack of cinnamon buns and he could stop by the men’s room. They had agreed to meet on a bench outside Cinnabon, where it smelled like Christmas.

December sixth also happened to be St. Nicholas Day, when Joan would fill the kids’ shoes with chocolates. After they grew up and moved out, she filled Nathan’s. Every year, first thing in the morning, without fail. Except today, of course.

He perched on the edge of his bed and typed in his password. Having practiced this for nearly one hundred nights, he went straight to voicemail and, with some difficulty, flicked (his children would call it scrolled) the screen twice until the message from his darling wife showed up. A cloth fiber of some sort sat on the date, a remnant from his pocket. For no reason other than to give this nightly ritual the solemnity it deserved, Nathan swept the speck to the left and then, instinctively, touched the little red rectangle that appeared.

Dear God no.

No no no.

Joan’s message vanished, just like that.

He cried. When he’d calmed down he made his way to the kitchen and called his daughter, who didn’t answer, then his son, who did. At the sound of Ben’s voice, Nathan began to cry again. Between sobs he managed to explain.

His son asked if he’d saved his messages to the cloud.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

“Dad, I’ve told you, you need to save the messages you want to keep.”

If Nathan had known he’d get a goddam lecture, he would not have called.

Just before mounting the stairs, he looked at his empty shoes, as if expecting to find chocolates. Back in his room, he checked his messages again. Joan’s had been erased while others had remained: a reminder from his rheumatologist about an appointment, a request from the local fire department for a donation and a plethora of scams. Now that he knew how to erase them, he did—skipping over the messages from his children and grandchildren—each time tapping the red rectangle with added vigor.

Soon he had accomplished a year’s worth of deletions, then another, then another. His heartbeat quickened when he came across a voicemail message that had been left by Joan on June tenth, three-and-a-half years ago, at two-forty-five in the afternoon.

Nathan stared at his screen, stunned. June tenth. That was the day he’d flown home from an old friend’s funeral and Joan had picked him up from the airport, wearing a bright pink scarf he had never noticed before. The message had been left while he was still in the air and until this moment, he had known nothing of its existence.

He drew in his breath and pressed the little triangle and listened to the voice of his darling wife saying, “I’m here, my love.”

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Bari Lynn Hein’s stories are published or forthcoming in The Saturday Evening Post, CALYX, Mslexia, Jewish Fiction, Vestal Review, Mud Season Review, decomp, Verdad, The Ilanot Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction and elsewhere. Her prose has been awarded finalist placement in many national and international writing competitions, among them The Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest and the OWT Fiction Prize. Her debut novel is on submission. Email: barilynnhein[at]gmail.com