Hal was in no mood to do the weekly laundry, dusting, and cleaning that a home requires keeping from looking like a hoarder’s paradise. Hal left the kitchen and walked into his office and sat in what he called his “time out” chair. He sat there when he needed a break. Today, at 1:35 p.m. was that time.
It was precisely three months since Judith died. The chair was positioned so he could gaze at all the pictures he had accumulated over 70 years of a great life. The one picture that brought him to tears was that of his Judy. They were married in Spring Lake, NJ right on the beach on a glorious July afternoon in 1966. Hal was two years out of Princeton and had enlisted in the Marines as an officer to go to Vietnam. He was leaving in September. That meant they had one full month to do what newlyweds do right after being married. No time was wasted.
Judy graduated from Westminster Choir College the same year. Their story of their meeting and falling in love is not unlike a lot of love stories that begin when a young couple meets in college. But Hal was certain that what happened after was not the norm. In the 46 years they were married they moved 10 times due to his service in the Marines. They lived in Japan, Guam, Hawaii, South Carolina, and South Korea. After Hal retired in 1996 they moved back to New Jersey to give their three daughters the stability of having a home and not a moving van.
Hal had seen combat in Vietnam and was away from Judith a great deal in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He knew he put her in a difficult spot and swore he would repay her for raising the girls by herself for so long. She also had to understand and love a man who fought the after-effects of stress related combat after he came home. She got him through it all. When Judith Salvy became Judith Salvy Richards, Hal knew he had found the one prize that eludes most people all of their lives. Hal saved for a beautiful colonial in Hunterdon County with a large yard and space to add on if Judith wanted. He devoted the rest of his life to being the husband she missed during his many overseas deployments. He recalled telling a friend that every time he returned from Vietnam or from any place where he was forced to be away from Judith, he would get a pinch of adolescent anxiety when he arrived home. He fell in love with her all over again.
Hal wiped the tears from his eyes and got up out of his chair. He still was in a tough place. Thirty years in the Marine Corps made a man very routine. He had a purpose and a place to be every day. Not only did he lose his love, he also lost his way.
Hal was taking a nap when he heard the front door open.
“Dad, it’s me Lucy. Where are you?”
Hal’s number two, the middle, spunky daughter had stopped over. All three daughters had both Judith’s and Hal’s traits that combined to form a myriad of striking combinations. Lucy was the outspoken, funny, practical joker daughter. Hal knew she was a little nuts when she married a magician from the East Village in Manhattan. But they were happy as heck. Judith loved her magical son-in law, so if Judith liked him, that was fine for Hal. But Hal always thought Reggie’s hair was too long.
Hal walked down the stairs with a semi smile.
“Hi dad. How are you? You look tired.”
“No you’re not. You are very sad today. I can tell. I felt a need to drive down to see you.”
Lucy could read a book with no words. She saw right through her dad’s expression.
“You miss her real bad don’t you?”
Hal just shook his head and started to tear up. So did Lucy.
“Listen to me dad, I have an idea I have been thinking of. I spoke to Alyssa and Beth and they agree. Princeton is graduating next week. You are going to the graduation. I already researched your alumni group and found where they are. They set up a nice reception at the Nassau Inn. Class of 1966 Welcome Back Party. You are going.”
“Lucy, I don’t know. The traffic, the parking.”
“You are kidding. You are a Marine and you’re whining. Would Judith Richards put up with this? No, she’d kick you.” Lucy began to shake a little and her lower jaw started to quiver as she fought back tears. Her mother was her pal. A strict pal, but one of her biggest fans and supporters. Most of all, when Lucy bucked the normal route of life and gave up college to write, Judith encouraged her and pushed her until one year before Judith died, she was able to read her daughter’s first piece of fiction published in a Boston literary journal. Even the heavy doses of chemo could not stop Judith from reading Lucy’s work to other cancer patients.
Hal pulled Lucy in and gave her a big hug.
“OK, you got it. I’m in.”
Two Weeks Later: Hal lived roughly 30 minutes from downtown Princeton, but he had only visited a handful of times and has never gone to his class reception on graduation day. Time goes by, kids have events, life rolls on, and he just never made it. But here he was on Witherspoon Street fighting traffic and cursing under his breath.
He parked his car and grabbed his duffle bag. The girls booked one night to stay over. Hal was not allergic to a little alcohol and they thought it might do him good to get away from the house. Judith was sick for almost two years. The strain on the family, especially Hal was severe. The girls knew it was time for their dad to laugh, to drink, and to remember mom when she was a gorgeous senior with long, wavy jet black hair and a change the world attitude instead of a stage four cancer patient with three malignant tumors. The healing had to begin for Hal and what better place than where they first met.
Hal sat at the bar nursing his beer. He observed all the hugs, backslaps between old friends who maybe see each other once a year if that. He put his head down and thought about driving home. He swung around on his stool and just watched everyone smile. He looked to his right and saw a guy and gal with big orange stuffed tigers under each arm. Those were the tigers that were given out at the Harvard game. Just as Hal took a sip a tap was felt on his left shoulder.
Hal turned and saw a heavy set bald man with large black framed glasses staring at him from no more than a foot away.
“Yeah, who the heck are you?”
“I’m Oscar Sanders. You remember me, right; you stole my girl in ’64.” Oscar was not smiling.
Never one to back down from anything, Hal’s spine straightened and a spoonful of adrenaline kicked in.”What did you just say? I stole your girl? Looking at you that would not be hard to do.”
“Ha-Ha. We were at The Pitcher’s Mound, now it’s a mall. I was talking to Judith Salvy. We were talking for about an hour and then you pop in with your lettermen jacket and slick haircut. You remember, you intentionally bumped into her and then it was over for me.”
“You remember that? Well, have you gotten over it yet, there, uh, Oscar?”
“Yeah, but I just wanted you to know she said yes to a date at Conte’s Pizza with me that following Tuesday. But YOU beat me to her. I just wanted to tell you that I didn’t appreciate the way you sidestepped me.”
“Alright Oscar. What do you want an apology? I apologize for being the better guy and you screwing it all up. How’s that Oscar?”
Oscar stood and stared at Hal. A smile and a slight shake of his head proved to lighten the mood. “Did you go out with her Hal?”
Hal was about to speak but could not. His eyes were becoming glassy. He put his beer down and looked away from Oscar. Tears rolled down both cheeks. Hal wiped them away fast.
“I guess you did go out with her.”
“I married her and had 46 unbelievable years with that woman and we raised three of the finest girls in this country. Except for my middle daughter’s husband, an idiot magician, my life with Judy was perfect.” Hal stopped crying and looked at Oscar.
“I’m sorry, Oscar. I lost her three months ago to damn breast cancer. I begged her to get screened more often. She said once a year was enough.”
Oscar put his right hand out. Both men shook hands. Oscar looked to the ground and started to speak.
“I , uh, uh, lost my June two years ago to a heart attack. Hell, I’m the fat one. She was a yoga/workout nut. It ran in her family.”
The two men talked about life, their wives, their children, their careers, baseball, football, and every other topic imaginable. Oscar came to see his grandson graduate from Princeton and was staying at the Nassau Inn. Hours passed and finally both men looked like they needed to leave.
“Hey, Oscar, want to walk to Nassau Hall with me? It’s where I proposed to Judith. She loved Princeton so I thought what better place to ask for her hand.”
“Good move. You political science majors aren’t that dumb.”
“Still playing with your chemistry set Oscar? How many rooms in Claridge Hall did you guys blow up? And those glasses Oscar, did you wear them when you asked June to marry you?”
“Of course. How was I supposed to see?”
“Oscar, let me tell you a secret. With those ugly glasses and you being a chemistry guy, she married you out of pity.”
Both men laughed and laughed and laughed some more.
They arrived at Nassau Hall. Hal was quiet. Oscar saw his new friend swallow and gulp a few times.
“So, Hal, this is where Judith made the worst mistake of her long life.”
The joke was just what Hal needed. The laughter began again. Hal then bent down and picked up a little dirt and kissed it. “I will always love you my dearest. Don’t worry about the girls and don’t worry about me.”
Hal got up, looked at Oscar and asked what Oscar planned to do after the graduation.
“I don’t know, I’m not sure I want to go back and live in Massachusetts.”
“Oscar, I have an idea.”
One Year Later: Hal was the head chef and as always gave orders to Oscar.
“Oscar, we need two dogs, one with mustard, one ketchup, come on you knucklehead, keep up. These kids got to get to class.”
“Shut up Hal, I wasn’t a cook in the Army like you.”
“ARMY, shut your mouth. Marines old man.”
The Princeton students who lined up at Hal & Oscar’s food truck on Nassau Street loved the banter between these two best friends. The orange and black food truck was now a staple in Princeton. Lining up 15-20 deep for well cooked comfort food was great for Princeton , but especially for Hal and Oscar.
Hey, Hal, what’s the special today?”
“Chicken pot pie. It was Judith’s favorite recipe.”
Blum, a resident of central New Jersey for seven years, worked as a Monmouth County Sherriff’s officer. He has been taking writing courses for the past two years, works for the federal government, and writes as frequently as he can.