By Tim Hayes
The room sat in near complete darkness, except for a bright cone of light directly above the workshop space where Adlai sat, hunched, special magnifier goggles strapped to his head, tiny tools in his hands, making repairs to a miniature rolltop desk the size of a salt shaker.
The tiny piece of furniture actually worked, the wooden slats moving up and down to cover or expose the desktop surface. It represented just one of scores of miniature pieces that Adlai had acquired or built himself over the years – a passion born more than four decades earlier.
His repairs finished, Adlai carefully lifted the little rolltop, carried it across his second-floor apartment, and placed it inside the “office” of one of his display home models, resting on a buffet in his modest dining room.
Ava sat on the other side of his freshman English classroom, stunningly beautiful, with a winning smile. Her questions and comments in class demonstrated an impressive intellect, as well. Adlai came from a small town high school, shy and unsure. College offered a fresh start, a clean break, a way to find and build a new life. But all he could think of was Ava. So he started writing her letters, sitting at the rolltop desk his mother insisted he bring to his dorm room – a piece of home, a thousand miles and a lifetime away.
As he placed the tiny desk in its place, Adlai looked at his collection of miniatures and decided to give them a good dusting and polishing. The hat stand, the love seat, everything could use a little attention. He didn’t mind. It gave him something productive to do. It had been a whole week since he dusted and polished his pint-sized gallery, after all.
After a week of letters, Adlai finally mustered the courage to approach Ava following English class. She acknowledged receiving his letters, but asked that he wait until mid-terms had passed to have a date. He respected that, and looked forward to dinner. They began going out, sporadically at first, but by their junior year were a couple. Adlai had an off-campus apartment by then. He took extra care to help Ava with her coat and hat, hanging them on the hat stand, then joining her on the love seat where, well…
In the miniature dining room, with the two place settings resting in perfect symmetry on the tabletop, Adlai stopped dead in his tracks. He stared at the little room, his breathing shallow, his hands perspiring. This room might look clean and pristine and perfect, he thought to himself, but I know better.
As graduation approached, Adlai prepared to propose. Ava brought such happiness to his life, that he wanted it to be that way forever. He planned the big moment for a Saturday evening. He would prepare her favorite dish, they would enjoy a wonderful meal together, then he would escort her to the love seat and ask for her hand. He had transformed that bare-bones, off-campus kitchen into a culinary symphony fit for a four-star chef, the aromas and steam filling the apartment as seductively as the question he planned to ask later that night.
Still held in a frozen stare, Adlai looked at the tiny little telephone on the tiny little end table. He thought he even heard it ringing, ringing, ringing…
The phone rang as Adlai cooked their dinner. He ran into the next room to pick up the receiver. Ava was on the other end. Seems an old friend – an old boyfriend, actually – had come to visit from her home back in New York. His family owned a large company that collected, shipped, and sold barges full of junk and scrap metal up and down the East River. He would be graduating the same time as Ava, and had a big job lined up with his father. He’d run the company within 10 years. And he wanted her to come home with him. He would give her a happy, loving, comfortable life. And she said yes. She felt terrible about this, Adlai had been so good to her all through college, but she had to think long-term. She said she loved Adlai, and wished him a happy life, and said goodbye, and hung up the phone. That was 46 years ago.
Adlai rousted himself from his temporary stupor. He felt as though he was seeing his collection of miniatures with fresh eyes, for the first time in a long time. Yes, they were lovely. Yes, they were special. Yes, they captured a time and a life that had once been very real and very good.
And yes, they had to go. Now. Today. After nearly a half-century of wasted retrospection, these little pieces of matchstick memories had outlived their usefulness and purpose. It hurt too much to have these little reminders of lost happiness puncturing his heart. If a degree in English, and a career teaching English in middle school, taught him nothing else, it taught Adlai that after you’ve suffered enough, for God’s sake, pick yourself up and get moving again.
He thought about putting the miniatures on e-Bay and making a few bucks, but that didn’t feel right. His birthday was coming up soon, though, so he decided to give himself an early present and just pitch the whole collection right into the dumpster behind his apartment building. The same apartment he’d had since moving off-campus all those years ago.
As he carried the model across the back parking lot on the way to the dumpster, he took one last look. The front door, with its three little diamond-shaped windows facing outward. So lovely…
Nine in the evening. The doorbell rang. Adlai, startled, peered through the peephole to see who would be calling at this late hour. He opened the door and saw a 67-year-old woman, who had married young, taken a lot of abuse from a wealthy alcoholic husband, had two children who both moved far from home, lived very comfortably but very unhappily, got divorced, and who had always regretted the one that got away – the just-scraping-by, middle-school English teacher, standing slack-jawed in the doorway.
Ava. Ava came back. The miniatures disappeared, and Ava arrived. Happy Birthday, Adlai.
Copyright 2016 Timothy P. Hayes