Make Perfect the Present

J. Michael Neal
© 2019 Melancholy Donkey Press

“Today,” Henry Wingate said to himself as he got out of bed, “is an okay day to die.” It wasn’t a great day, mind you. He’d have preferred one several decades in the future. But it could have been worse. At least he wasn’t going to die until that afternoon, and his last meal wouldn’t be breakfast. He’d never really liked breakfast.

In his bathrobe and slippers, he started a pot of coffee and fetched the newspaper while it brewed. He sat at the kitchen table, rustling the pages open as the coffee aroma began to permeate the room. He always felt a bit ridiculous reading the newspaper. He already knew what he would find within, of course, but if he didn’t actually read it he would have no way of knowing.

When he was a teenager, Henry had made a game of it. He’d take things that he knew were going to happen and try to prevent them. It was a game he’d never won, not even once. It turned out that the universe had ways of making whatever it thought should happen, happen.

In college, he’d taken physics, trying to understand time, and then causality, until the math defeated him, as he’d known it would. Eventually, he’d just accepted that he knew the future without any way to change it. That road led to here, August 17th of his 41st year on this earth, where it came to a dead end. He’d known it since he was twelve.

The coffee maker beeped that it was finished, and he poured the steaming liquid into a mug, inhaling its scent. He sat in the hard wooden chair that his husband had loved because it was antique. His legs fell asleep if he sat in it for more than ten minutes, but he’d never replaced after Patrick died. He couldn’t bear the thought of getting rid of it.

He drank slowly, skipping through the paper halfheartedly. He ended up reading two editorials, a review of a movie he’d never see, and a human interest story about child entrepreneurs, then set it aside. He switched to watching the birds at the feeder. The chickadees having a meal were chased off by a blue jay, whose squawks were clearly audible through the closed window. Henry smiled as the interloper spent fifteen minutes berating any bird that approached. When it flew off, he realized that the half full cup was now cold. He didn’t mind; he’d always liked the idea, and smell, of coffee more than he enjoyed drinking it. He carefully rinsed out the mug, as a courtesy to whoever came to the house next. He let the cool water run over his hands. He realized that everything he did today would be for the last time.

Henry dressed in khaki slacks and a black silk shirt with an embroidered tiger. He stopped to really feel the fabric’s softness before slipping on a pair of loafers. They were so broken in that they were almost imperceptible. Much, he thought, like his life in general.

The grandfather clock in the hall chimed 10am by the time he was ready to go out. Despite it being Thursday, he had no need to go to work. His carefully timed two weeks notice had ended last week. He’d liked his co-workers, in a detached sort of way that never involved getting together away from the office. That described most of his relationships. He often wondered whether knowing all of the ways that they would annoy him in advance prevented him from getting to know them, or if he was a natural introvert. Pat had introduced him to almost everyone he was close to.

He’d always wondered why he’d needed a job. Knowing the future, he ought to have been able to make a fortune in the stock market, or the lottery, or something. It never worked out that way, and he wasn’t sure why. Even when he thought about it, he never went out of his way to make any investments. Among the things the universe didn’t think should happen was Henry Wingate becoming rich. It made him wonder whether he actually made any decisions, or if he just floated down a stream of preset events.

He put on his sunglasses against the bright sunshine and drove to the graveyard where Pat was buried. He knelt in the freshly mowed grass, inhaling its scent. His memories of his lover were as fresh as they’d been when he first formed them, fifteen years before they’d met. Henry was grateful; they had been a gentle, easy way to learn that he was gay.

He lost track of time as he sat. An old woman put fresh flowers on a grave three plots over. Two squirrels chased each other around a tree, and then off behind a crypt. Unseen crickets sang a sonata.

“I wish I’d told you,” he finally said, as a trickle of sweat from the sweltering heat broke his reverie. Except, he still had no idea quite what he should have told Pat. He was too used to having the answers before he’d even asked the question. “I married you because I knew you wouldn’t outlive me,” he said aloud, trying to explain, “and because I knew that I wouldn’t live more than a year and half longer than you. I loved you too much to do that to either of us.”

At last, Henry got to his feet. He determinedly ignored the grass stains on the knees of his trousers. There was time for an errand, and then lunch at his favorite restaurant. At the post office, he deposited five envelopes into the box, letters of goodbye to the small group that would care that he was gone.

He arrived downtown at Isaac’s before the main lunch rush, and secured a table in Stella’s section. Pat had flirted with her for years, to Henry’s amusement. He thumbed through the menu for no real reason.

“Hello, Henry. I don’t usually see you here on a weekday. Taking the day off?”

He smiled at her. “You could say that.”

“What can I get you?”

He closed the menu and handed it to her. “Surprise me,” he lied. “Whatever you want to serve. Don’t worry about the price.”

Stella regarded him for a moment. “You sure?”

“Absolutely. Pretend it’s my last meal.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Okay.”

She brought him a steak, rare, with a baked potato and mushrooms. He didn’t complain about the lack of healthy vegetables.

Henry lingered over the food, enjoying the taste of each bite. He watched all of those who had been seated when he got there depart, replaced by a new set of customers. It was a business crowd, all in a hurry, most on their phones. He tried to guess who was using an expense account. The mayor and half of the city council occupied a table close enough that he could have eavesdropped on municipal planning, but he let the conversation wash over him as an uncomprehended buzz.

When he was done, Stella asked if she should bring the check.

“Not quite yet. I’ve been looking at that bottle of scotch you have displayed over the bar for years, and I think that today is the day to try it.”

“The Macallan 25-year? It’s like $150 for a glass.”

He smiled. “You only live once, and before I die, I’d just like to know if I can taste the difference between the average and the really expensive.”

Stella shrugged. “It’s your money.”

“Just think about the 20% tip,” Henry suggested.

He drank it slowly. By the time he was done, he still wasn’t sure it was that much better, but he was glad he’d tried it.

When Stella brought him the check, Henry handed her three $100 bills, and a sixth envelope.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“I’m saying goodbye.”

“Goodbye? Where are you going?”

“On a journey.”

“When will you be back?”

“Probably never. It’s time to move on. There’s a letter in there that explains more. Don’t open it until tonight. Or tomorrow. I put ones to other friends in the mail last night, but I wanted to give you yours in person.”

Stella leaned over and hugged him. “I’ll miss you.”

“Thank you for the good times.”

As he left the restaurant into the midday rush of downtown, Henry checked the time on his phone. He didn’t need to hurry, so he wandered, looking at some of his favorite buildings. As he did, he chewed over a question that had plagued him ever since he’d become aware of his own foreknowledge. He knew what was going to happen: a delivery truck was going to jump the curb, heading at a little girl. He would jump in and save her and get hit instead. He didn’t know whether he would have been there if he hadn’t known that she would be in danger, but he was glad that he did.

At a quarter to two, he was on the corner where it would happen. He realized he was nervous.

Henry was watching for the truck as it approached, and saw it hop the curb. He saw the child in its path and knew that he had to act. That he would act. And yet, fear froze him for a fraction of a second. Then he launched himself, knocking the girl out of its way. He hoped that she would be okay. An instant before the vehicle hit him, he had two thoughts. The first was that, if he hadn’t hesitated, he’d have been able to get out of the way, too.

The second was that, for the first time in thirty-four years, he had no idea what would happen next.