The Best Day
Peter’s bones ground against one another as he sat down for lunch. Today he was having a plain ham sandwich with yellow mustard, just as he did everyday. The sandwich rested on a ceramic plate whose floral pattern had been chipped away due to constant use. A matching teacup, which contained plain black tea, laid adjacent to the plate, along with a glass of milk, and a pillbox. The pillbox was divided into seven sections, one for each day of the week, but the writing had faded years ago. He could still make out the letters, “WE,” in the center of the box, an irony that stung Peter as he sat there alone.
As always, Peter started lunch by taking his pills. With both hands, he popped WE open and allowed the pills to tumble onto the table. He lined the pills up in descending order according to size and counted them. Eleven pills. “When did it become so many?” he wondered as he licked his lips. He stoically swept the four largest pills into his left hand, and washed them down with a shaky sip of milk, and then he repeated the process with the remaining seven pills.
After swallowing his medication, Peter lifted the ham sandwich to his mouth and took a bite, and he became unusually aware that he had been eating the same sandwich for seven years. He peeled the white bread off of the sandwich and examined the little peaks and valleys of mustard that appeared, an entire world. He imagined himself as a tiny frontiersman exploring the strange yellow landscape. Would his feet sink to the ham underneath, or would he be able to climb the mountains of mustard? “Seven years,” Peter thought, “seven years since Sarah died, and I never actually looked at my food.” He returned the cap to his sandwich and finished his meal.
His clock chimed, it was noon. The resonating bells of the clock always marked the passing of time, the sound of travelling from one hour to the next, but today the clock rang a death march. Peter closed his eyes and found himself in Germany, marching towards a broken town.
His unit had just laid siege to a town that had been appropriated by the Nazis. Peter could never remember the battles he waged, it was always the aftermath that crept into his mind. He had just taken part in a continuous barrage of artillery fire that had leveled the town. He saw smoke and rubble, but through this wreckage he could see the church’s bell tower standing strong and proud.
Peter opened his eyes and returned to the kitchen table. He stared at the clock, at a loss for what to do next. This time was a void in Peter’s day, and with nothing to do he usually just waited. For what? He didn’t know. Dinner or a scarce visit from a loved one, perhaps. Years ago, he would spend this time reading beside Sarah, but today he couldn’t be bothered to even open a book.
He looked at his hands. They had succumbed to old age. They were speckled with brown spots, and his sagging skin gave way to prominent blue veins that branched out like an oak tree in the winter.
He placed both palms on the table and stood up. He walked away from the table, neglecting to clear his plate. He passed the refrigerator that was anointed with family photographs, and hobbled through the living room. Countless hours were spent in here, but today he was looking at the room through fresh eyes. He looked at the small piano where Sarah would play music in her youth. They were simple songs, but to Peter it was the most beautiful music in the world. Her hands had grown frail in the twilight years of her life, and eventually the music stopped.
He looked at his chair by the window. From this blue collared throne he would cast his gaze across his city of industry and life, but the industry eventually dried up and the life began to dwindle. He turned to the floral printed couch. He shuffled toward it and touched its soft velvet fabric. He and Sarah had once secretly made love here while their children slept. Peter remembered the feel of his wife’s aging body. He remembered marveling at how much he still wanted her. He remembered staring into her coffee brown eyes as they both reached climax.
He continued his march through the house until he reached his bedroom. He tried to recollect if the green walls represented the original paint choice, or if they had faded through the years. He scanned the room until his gaze rested on the nearest bedside table, Sarah’s bedside table. Upon the table were a bible, a lamp, and Sarah’s watch. This is where the watch had sat since Sarah was taken to the hospital, but today Peter picked it up from its resting place. It was small and silver, and its mechanism had stopped. Something flashed through Peter’s mind, a niggling reminder of a treasure stored away in his closet.
He approached the closet door and opened it. He slid the clothes to the side and bent over to pull the stepladder forward. Three steps, no railing, it may as well be Everest.
Peter placed his hands on either side of the closet doorframe and attempted his first step. His joints let out a symphony of cracks as he raised himself up. His leg was unsteady and Peter knew that it could give out at any moment, but he was determined to push through. Finally, to his surprise, Peter found both of his feet resting on the first step. He looked at the closet shelf, but he couldn’t see his target yet. Peter took another step, and this one seemed easier. His leg still shook and cracked, but his determination had fortified. He could finally see his objective. An old cigar box that he had hidden away many years ago. He reached for the box, and his body began performing in a way it had not in years. His spine straightened and his arm stretched until finally, he had the box in his hands.
A feeling of anticipation overtook Peter. He licked his lips as he descended the ladder, cigar box in hand. If his joints were cracking, he didn’t feel them. He shuffled to his bed and opened the box, and there it was. His German Luger pistol that he had taken home from the war.
Now that he had achieved his goal, Peter wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the gun. He carefully slid the magazine out and checked the chamber to ensure that he hadn’t left the gun loaded. Then he took out a small canvas bag, loosened its drawstring, and tipped it over. Six bullets spilled onto his bed. One by one he slid the rounds into the magazine and promptly shoved the magazine into the butt of the gun. He pulled the joint of the gun back to put a bullet in the chamber. The gun was loaded.
Peter mindlessly walked down the hallway back to the kitchen. He walked past the clock and the dishes that were still sitting on the table. He raised his arm to aim the gun at the refrigerator and pulled the trigger.
The concussive blast shook Peter. It seemed as though his entire reality had changed in an instant. His ears rang, his arm shook, and his head was clear. Peter noted that his heartbeat was the progressive lub dub of a young man, and he felt a tingle between his thighs that he thought long dead. The fridge began to bleed white from the bottom of the door and Peter felt the casing gently nudge against his socked foot.
He knew in that instant that this was no ordinary day. Today was going to be the day he reclaimed his life.
Peter put on his shoes and stepped outside with an energy he hadn’t felt in years. He surveyed the neighborhood with newfound clarity and realized that it had aged alongside him. An array of dilapidated houses surrounded him now. Peeling lead paint, rotting wood, and overgrown vines dominated the landscape. He focused on the house across the street where the Franklins used to live. Peter and his family used to spend hours with the Franklins, but now the house was empty, and it appeared as though it would topple over at any moment.
With the gun at his side, Peter strolled down the walkway and turned left. He still wasn’t sure where he was going, but he knew it was important. He turned left again on Union Street and continued his journey.
He examined his surroundings as he walked down the street. People half his age rushed by him, and people a quarter his age were fixated on their devices. A man perched on a doorway asked for money. A well-dressed woman brushed by while having an argument with a phantom. All of these people had one thing in common. None of them noticed the old man with the gun.
Peter continued his stroll down Union Street when the vibrant movement of screens distracted him. He turned to notice an electronics store where they were showing some film that had been made without Peter’s notice. A mechanical man was soaring through the sky until he stopped mid flight, and fired a number of projectiles that destroyed a building. It was odd, Peter thought, that the human race needed to fill its appetite for destruction, even in fanciful fantasies like this one.
His focus shifted to his own reflection in the window. An old man was staring back at him, but Peter could still see traces of his youth. He still had blue eyes and a small scar beneath his lip, but his skull had relinquished its hold on his skin. His once tight jawline had sagged into drooping jowls and his nose had ballooned to a farcical size. His head bobbed below his once proud shoulders and his hair had receded beyond the crown of his head, with the exception of wisps that struck out in random directions.
Peter returned to the German town. His unit was passing through the town square when he became fixated on a something sticking out of some rubble. Peter broke formation and approached the figure, and as he did, it became clear to him that it was a corpse reposed amid the stone and pebbles.
Peter knelt down and looked at the old man’s hands. They were shriveled and blue and Peter became overwhelmed with the sight. This certainly wasn’t the first dead body he had come across, but despite this, he felt an unusual sense of sadness and regret. This man had built a life and family, and for what? To die alone, cowering in a forgotten city? For all of the fighting and living that would come after that moment, Peter could never shake the feeling that he alone was responsible for this man’s untimely demise.
Peter’s mind returned to the present and he locked eyes with his reflection. Was he responsible for his own loneliness? After all of his working and living, his loving and losing, was he alone responsible for his solitary meals? Was he alone responsible for his wife’s departure? Was he the reason he never had anyone to talk to?
Shaking, Peter raised his gun and shot the old man in the reflection. First there was a bang, and then there was the crashing of glass as it rained down from the window frame.
“He has a gun!”
The cry rang out immediately. He turned around and saw a mixture of people fleeing, ducking, and staring at him. Through all of this, Peter let his arm fall to his side while still clutching the gun, and he began to casually walk away.
Everyone was aware of him now. He wasn’t a nameless old man strolling to a meaningless destination. At this moment he was the principle character in their lives. Right now, they were thinking only of him.
For the first time in ages, a smile grew on Peter’s face as he walked down the cleared sidewalk. He managed to walk two blocks, maybe three or four, before a police car pulled up beside him, sirens blaring.
Uniformed officers emerged and used their vehicles as shields, “Drop your weapon and put your hands up!”
“How silly,” Peter thought, “that they should be afraid of an old man like me.”
He slowly raised his hands, still equipped with the gun, and turned towards the policemen. It seemed as though an entire battalion faced him now. He licked his lips.
“Drop you weapon!” he heard again, and only now did Peter realize that he was still smiling. He wondered what would happen next. Should he turn the gun on himself? Should he spin some fable in an attempt to explain his actions? They were on him before he could decide. An officer pried the gun away from his shriveled hands and another forcefully shoved his arms behind his back. The pain was excruciating, but it only added to Peter’s delight.
They shoved Peter into one of the cars and slammed the door. Peter looked out to the street to admire his handiwork. Six police cars, ten bewildered officers, and a mob of frightened onlookers.
He heard the front doors open and two officers entered the car. They talked back and forth for a moment. About what? Peter couldn’t say. The car began to drive, and he found himself wondering what would happen next.
“What the hell were you thinking, old man?” Said the officer in the driver’s seat. To that, Peter had no response.
After a few minutes of silence the other policeman asked, “Do you regret what you did back there?”
Peter looked at the young man in the passenger seat for the first time. He was a handsome man with blue eyes and a chiseled jaw. “Regret it?” Peter rumbled, “it was the best goddamned day of my life.”
The handsome policeman looked at his partner and betrayed a smile before returning his eyes to the road. Peter resumed his own window gazing, watching the crumbling city as it passed by.
Peter suddenly became very tired. He was exhausted, but content – elated by the feeling that he had accomplished more today than he had in the past seven years combined. He leaned his head back on the seat, the buildings becoming more and more of a blur. “This was a great city once,” Peter thought, unsure whether the sentence passed through his lips or not. Peter thought of Sarah as they continued down Union Street, and he felt his face soften as he closed his eyes.