The townspeople collectively knew very little about Mr. Ebberhaus. He lived alone in a large house on the corner of Main Street, and though he was friendly enough to his neighbors, no one had ever been invited inside. His age was inexact — estimates ranged from late 40s to early 60s — and no one knew if he was a bachelor or a widower. He was either unemployed or self-employed and simply not in need of work. His spending habits were modest, and it was hard to tell if he was independently wealthy.
Naturally, when Rosie Chapman began visiting not once, but four times a week in the evening, people noticed. Rosie was a single mother of two young, hyperactive twin boys. Her husband, Dave, never returned from Korea. Most people assumed he had died, which was far from the truth. He was alive and well. He fell in love and had a daughter there, but Rosie rarely corrected people who offered their condolences.
No one was sure how their relationship started, whatever it was. Mr. Ebberhaus seemed to benefit from it in some way or another. He became friendlier than usual while running errands around town, chatting with other customers in line at the grocery store about the local happenings and such. He even joined a biweekly book club that exclusively read and discussed romantic novels.
“What exactly is your association with Mr. Ebberhaus?” a woman asked Rosie one day at the park.
Rosie blinked several times in response to the unprompted question. The woman interrogating her was someone she had only somewhat known in passing because she was the mother of her sons’ classmate.
“We’re friends,” she said eventually with a smile.
“Oh,” replied the woman. “Of course.”
The men in town were equally curious about their dynamic, and they were slightly less tactful when asking Mr. Ebberhaus about it.
“So, Rosie Chapman…” a younger man began and then trailed off.
“Yes?” Mr. Ebberhaus asked while examining a watermelon at the farmers’ market.
The man struggled to finish the rest of his sentence and muttered something unintelligible.
“Well, whenever you figure out exactly what it is you want to say to me, I’m sure you’ll let me know,” Mr. Ebberhaus said, patting his melon and walking away.
Rosie was at least 15 years younger than Mr. Ebberhaus, and when they walked down the street together they did seem to be an odd pair. She was half a foot taller than Mr. Ebberhaus, who had a slight hunch due to his moderately curved spine, and they always walked out of sync. Either she would stop abruptly to slow down, or he would awkwardly speed up to match her stride. Regardless of their clearly non-romantic demeanor in public, the townspeople were as creative as they were curious, and the pitter-patter of gossip drummed on around them like rain on a tin roof.
The truth was far less scandalous than whatever the neighbors were implying. The truth was this: Mr. George Ebberhaus could not read. The alphabet was a perpetual jigsaw puzzle he could not solve. Throughout his childhood, he loved stories. His favorite subject was literature, and he constantly led class discussions about whatever text they were assigned.
He found his inability to read frustrating and embarrassing, and he told fewer people as he got older. It became more difficult to find people willing to read to him as he moved away from his parents and classmates who were more than happy to do so. He paid Rosie to read books and the local newspaper to him so he could participate in the book club and stay informed, and the extra money helped Rosie avoid getting a second job. And they never lied when people had asked —they truly were good friends. For a time, their arrangement made Mr. Ebberhaus feel more comfortable in the community, but the speculation about their relationship left him feeling ostracized.
Eventually, Rosie noticed that her boys were invited to birthday parties far less than the previous year.
“I don’t think I can read to you anymore, George.” She told him after finishing “Sense and Sensibility.”
“We can tell people the truth. The truth isn’t as bad as whatever they think is going on between us,” he said glumly. “I just want to tell the book club first.”
Near the end of the next book club meeting, Mr. Ebberhaus stood up and explained why Rosie visited him so often. He assumed most of the other members had heard some variation of a rumor about him.
Herman, a college student who was by far the youngest member of the club, stood up after hearing Mr. Ebberhaus confess his secret.
“I volunteer to stop by once a week to read to you.”
“I will too!” another voice announced.
Soon, everyone in the room was murmuring about their schedules and when they could visit George to read to him. They assured him that he had nothing to be ashamed of, but if he wanted to keep it a secret, it was his right to do so.
“Good lord! The townspeople will think I’m sleeping with all of you!”
Haley Gorda lives in North Brunswick and works at a nonprofit in Princeton. She is a recent college graduate and a writer of short fiction and poetry.