The Fragrance of Sound by William Cass

1.

Harold met with his mother’s lawyer to review her will and trust on the Thursday morning after she died.  There was nothing noteworthy in either; aside from the nine hundred dollars in her checking account and her old Buick, his mother had few possessions of any value left when she passed away.  The will and trust were in a thin maroon binder that the lawyer closed and pushed across his desk.  Harold took it and stood up.

“There is one other item in there,” the lawyer told him.  “An envelope she asked me to be sure you got.  It’s in the back.”

Harold nodded and left the office.  He waited until he’d returned to his car to take the envelope out of the binder’s back flap.  It was yellowed with age and had his name written on the front in his mother’s familiar scrawl.  He broke the seal and took out a single sheet of paper.  It said: “Your father is a man named Sam Dodd.  I only knew him briefly, and I didn’t tell him I was pregnant.  He lived in Phoenix.”

Harold sucked in a sharp breath and lowered the paper to his lap.  He felt himself blinking rapidly.   A dog barked nearby, and a bus shuddered to a stop across the street.  The date above, the message was over fifty years old when he would have been almost ten, around the age he’d stopped asking his mother about who his father was.


2.

Dawn noticed their next patient that Thursday morning when he first entered the cardiologist’s office.  She was dressed in her nursing scrubs and was using the copy machine behind the receptionist.  He was tall, nice-looking, about her age.  He wore no ring, but like her, there was still a mark on his finger where one had been. 

“I’m Ben Reynolds,” he told the receptionist.  “I have a ten-thirty appointment.”

The receptionist slid a clipboard and a pen through the open window between them.  “Please fill out this questionnaire and give it back to me when you’re done.  It’s for medical history and such.”

“Okay.”  

A siren wound away from the hospital next door.  Ben lifted the clipboard and smiled first at the receptionist, then at Dawn.  She did her best to return the smile, a flush creeping up behind her ears.


3.

When Harold got home, he put the message from his mother in the drawer of his nightstand.  As the years had gone on, he’d thought about his father infrequently.  Harold was an only child; his mother had never married and neither had he.  And now she was gone.  There was no one left in her family, and he had no real friends.  He looked down at his olive-skinned hands.  

His mother had been very pale, so he knew he’d inherited his complexion from his father.  As well his wide forehead and long nose: other distinctive traits his mother lacked.  

Harold whispered, “Sam Dodd.”  The man must have been around his mother’s age, which would put him in his eighties.  If he was still alive at all.  Harold told himself to forget about it.

He’d taken the rest of the day off from his librarian’s job, so he changed into his workout gear, and went for a jog.   He turned up the volume on the music in his earbuds and tried to concentrate on the melodies as he ran, even singing along quietly to the lyrics he recognized, but the message from his mother was never far from his thoughts.


4.

It was a little before ten-thirty when Dawn opened the door to the waiting room and said, “We’re ready for you, Mr. Reynolds.”

“Ben,” he said.  “Please.”

“All right, Ben.”

He followed her down the hall into an exam room.  She had him sit on the edge of the exam table and told him she was going to take his blood pressure.  She’d reviewed his questionnaire before coming to get him.  It indicated that he was an elementary school teacher, divorced, forty-three years old, played pick-up basketball regularly for exercise, didn’t drink to excess or smoke, but had been referred by his primary care physician after reporting that he’d been having occasional chest pains, some light-headedness, and a couple of fainting incidents.

While the blood pressure machine whirred away, she said, “So, you’re a basketball player.”

“Well, I played in college.”  His grin was sheepish.  “Just old-fart ball now.”

“My daughter wants to try out for her high school team,” Dawn said.  “But she’s not very good.  I don’t know anything about the game, and her dad’s not around anymore, so she’s not improving much.”

“I could give her a hand,” Ben said.  “I mean, if you want.  I used to be a junior varsity girls’ coach.”

Dawn gave him a pleased frown.  “You’d do that?”

He shrugged.  “Sure.  When are the tryouts?”

“Couple of weeks.”

“How about Saturday?  Bushnell Park, say around eleven?”

Dawn smiled.  “That’s awfully nice of you.”

The cuff on his arm made its sigh, ending the cycle.  Dawn looked from Ben to its monitor.  His numbers were elevated, both margins. 


5.

After he’d showered, eaten lunch, and tried reading for an hour, Harold finally gave up and opened his laptop.  He Googled “Sam Dodd – Phoenix, Arizona”, then clicked on the first entry listed for a site called whitepages.com.  He found a single Samuel Dodd on it with an address listed in Tempe, but no phone numbers, age, family members, or other contact information available, even when he paid for “premium” access.  He scribbled down the address, sat back in the chair, and folded his arms.  Sprinklers hissed on in a neighbor’s yard.  It was six-hour drive from his house in San Diego to Phoenix.  If he left early on Saturday, he could be there before noon.  

He looked at his reflection in the window next to him and said, “What the hell…what do you have to lose?”


6.

Dawn wasn’t in the exam room when the cardiologist, Dr. Warren, met with Ben.  But she was back at the copy machine when it was finished and Dr. Warren handed her lab orders.  

He said, “I want these faxed over to the hospital right away.  Mr. Reynolds is going to get them done now.”  

As she took the sheets from him, he fixed her with a steady gaze and pursed lips.  He turned and went into his office.  Ben came out of the exam room, buttoning his shirt.  He paused before opening the door to the waiting room, gave her a grin, and said, “So, are we set for Saturday?”

Dawn nodded.  “We’ll be there.  Thanks.”

She watched him leave, the same flush creeping up behind her ears.  She stepped over to the fax machine and glanced at the orders as she fed them into its holder.  When she saw that they asked for blood tests, a chest x-ray, and an echocardiogram, she touched her fingertips to her lips.  The orders disappeared into the fax machine while it made its grating screech.


7.

Harold’s eyebrows knit together when he pulled up in Tempe a little after eleven on Saturday in front of the address on the scrap of paper.  He checked the address again to confirm it was correct, then got out of the car at the curb in front of a long, low building.  The sign above its double front doors said: “Pueblo Norte Assisted Senior Living”.  Squat cactus trees were sprinkled among the crushed pink rock between the sidewalk and the building.  A man in a navy-blue uniform leaned against the open side doors of a medical transport van in the turnaround next to the entrance.  The building’s front doors slid open and an orderly pushed an old woman in a wheelchair outside towards the van.  The uniformed man flipped a switch inside it that began lowering a lift to the ground.  Harold walked past them and through the front doors of the building before they’d slid closed again. 

The foyer was faux-elegant: leather couches and chairs, parquet floors, framed prints in mauve and burgundy shades, lots of mahogany wood, a vase of artificial flowers on the front counter.  A woman behind the counter glanced up at him with a small smile as he approached her.  The name tag on her lapel identified her as the assistant director.

“I’m hoping to see Samuel Dodd,” he told her.  “I think he may be a resident here.”

She nodded, turned her head, and pointed.  “That’s Sam right over there.  He’s the one sitting alone at the first table in the community room.”

Harold followed her gaze into a large room filled with a couple dozen round tables, each surrounded by a cluster of chairs.  Only one other table at the back of the room was occupied by several elderly women playing cards.  Harold’s heart and breathing quickened as he walked over to the old man.  Something fell in him when he recognized the same olive-colored skin, the same wide forehead, the same long nose as his own.  The old man sat perfectly still in his chair, a walker beside him.  He was dressed in wrinkled khakis, a gray cardigan sweater, a plaid shirt that had been buttoned askew, and slippers.  He glanced up at Harold with rheumy eyes, his mouth agape.

“Hello, Sam,” Harold said.  “I think I’m your son.”

Sam’s expression didn’t change.  He just stared up at Harold dully.

“Did you understand what I said?  I think I’m your son.  My mother left me a note.  Marge Gibson.  You must have known her in San Diego many years ago.”

Sam’s mouth remained open but had begun making a chewing motion.  He turned his head towards the windows and seemed to be lost, looking at nothing.  A chuckle arose from the card-playing table. 

The assistant director appeared at Harold’s side and whispered, “I’m afraid Sam’s not really with us anymore.  Coherent, I mean.  His dementia is pretty advanced.”

Harold looked from her to the old man who’d begun rubbing his thumbs together in his lap.  A single sound came from him, something between a hum and a moan.

Harold turned back to the assistant director and said, “Does he have any family I could contact?”

She paused, then shook her head slowly.  “No, none.”  She touched Harold’s elbow and said, “I’m sorry.”

Harold watched her make her way back to the front counter and was vaguely aware of someone playing an accordion down the hall.


8.

Dawn sat on a bench at the park while Ben worked with her daughter on the basketball court nearby.  The bench bordered a pond with ducks and was close enough for her to watch the interaction on the court but not be a distraction.  Her daughter stood directly in front of the basket midway between the free throw line and the baseline; she held a ball on the fingertips of her right hand while Ben straightened that elbow and adjusted her other guide hand on the ball.  It was cool for a mid-October morning in Phoenix, and both Ben and her daughter were dressed similarly in high tops, shorts, and loose sweatshirts.  Dawn pulled the white camisole she wore over her flowered dress closer around her.  She’d changed clothes three times before deciding on that outfit, and felt foolish about it, like she did the way she’d fussed over the tiny bit of make-up she’d allowed herself.

Dawn watched her daughter clap with delight after her shot swished through the hoop and smiled as Ben did the same.  His way with her was easy and encouraging, the polar opposite of Dawn’s ex-husband.  She cocked her head watching him, then took her cell phone out of her pocket, called up the medical records system her cardiologist’s office used, and entered her password.  She was pretty sure that the results from the tests Dr. Warren had ordered for Ben would have been available by the evening before.  They were, and she scrolled to the end where Dr. Warren always entered his notes after reviewing them.  They read: “Likely primary tumor.  Call patient first thing Monday and order immediate MRI and cardiac catheterization to confirm and determine if cancerous.”

Dawn’s eyes widened and her hand rose to her chest.  She shook her head, a chill spreading over her, and said, “No.”   She knew how rare heart tumors were, especially primary cancerous ones, and that recovery from them was even rarer.

She looked over at Ben as he gave cheerful instructions to her daughter while she attempted a lay-up and shook her head faster.  “No,” she repeated.  “No, no, no, no.”


9.

Instead of returning to his car after leaving the assisted living facility, Harold walked around the corner to a park.  He moved numbly in a kind of fog.  Except for Ben, Dawn, and her daughter, the park was empty.  Harold settled onto the bench next to Dawn’s.  Like they had when Dawn had first sat down, the ducks swam over hopefully in front of him.  They lingered for a few minutes, then swam away again.  Dawn and Harold stared off blankly at them, both filled with their own thoughts.  A cry of glee came from Dawn’s daughter on the court, and they each turned to watch Ben give her a high-five.

“Look at that,” Harold muttered.

Dawn glanced over at him, saw where he was looking, and said, “Yeah, pretty great.”

Harold nodded and thought about never having the chance to do anything like that with Sam.  Dawn thought about this being the last and only time Ben and her daughter were likely to do anything like it.  They both blew out long breaths.  The bouncing ball echoed in the small park.  Some of the ducks on the pond started quacking.  A plane flew by overhead coming from somewhere and heading someplace else. 


William Cass has had over two hundred short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as STORGY, december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3.  He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, has received three Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.  He lives in San Diego, California.

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