Dale waited a full day after he’d dropped Donna off at the airport before he drove to the hardware store to buy new LED lights for the house. No discussion about the size of the power bill could persuade his wife that she’d enjoy reading just as much with LED lights. He’d heard all of her arguments about the “quality of the light,” and how “regular” light was better. Still, Dale was sure Donna would never notice the change, as long as he swapped out the bulbs when she wasn’t home.
Donna would be in Palm Springs with some of her women friends for four days. His son Jeff was away for the weekend too, off to a novice hockey tournament with the whole family, so there would be nobody around to rat Dale out.
At the hardware store, Dale needed a cart to gather up enough LED bulbs to change out the whole house. When he wheeled the load to the counter, the owner himself, Gene Nelson, rang up his purchase.
Gene looked at him in surprise.
“Ed Hanson! I haven’t seen you in here for a while!”
Dale was taken aback.
“Actually,” he said, “I’m Ed’s son. Dale.”
Gene craned his head forward, squinting as if Dale might be lying.
“Of course you’re Dale! I should’ve known that.” Gene chuckled. “I always figure that since I’m not aging, nobody else is.”
Gene bagged the bulbs, and Dale carried the four bags out to his truck. He looked down at his jacket. It did look a lot like the jacket Ed wore. Then he thought about his thinning hair, and supposed it did look a lot like Ed’s had, not that long ago.
It didn’t help when his friend Brian Miller came up behind him just as he was setting the bags into the back seat.
“Hey Ed!” Brian called.
Dale turned, bewildered, and found Brian laughing, carrying his bag. “Sorry,” he said. “Couldn’t help myself. I was in line behind you and I heard Gene.”
Dale tried to find the funny side as he drove across town to his father’s condo, melted sludge splashing up the side of his truck. “Sure, I wear the same sort of clothes as my dad,” he was muttering. “But jackets like this are practical. And do people think I’m going to start wearing corduroy pants instead of jeans?”
At Ed’s condo, Helen let him in and seated him at the kitchen table, then brought out a plate of warm banana loaf and a pot of coffee. He could hear his father in the bedroom, coughing.
“Is Dad okay?” Dale asked.
“He’s had a cough for a few days,” Helen said. “Hasn’t had the energy to get out to the café for coffee all week.”
“You’re a saint, looking after him like this,” Dale said.
Helen waved him off. “Anyone would.”
“We know he’s not always easy. We’re all glad you’re here,” he said.
Helen turned her head to smile at Ed as he drifted into the kitchen, looking thinner than usual, and very pale. Ed was tucking his shirt into his pants with one hand, smothering coughs with the other.
“Donna’s off in the desert without you?” Ed wheezed out between coughs.
“She sent a couple of pictures this morning. She’s having a good time,” Dale said.
“She always did like to paddle her own canoe.”
“A couple of the women she’s down there with are divorced,” Dale joked. “I hope that’s not catching.”
“Don’t be silly,” Helen said, passing the banana bread to Ed. “There’s nothing wrong with her having a nice time.” Dale knew Helen was right, so he nodded and took another slice, wondering if it would be rude to ask for Helen’s recipe and give it to Donna.
Ed broke out coughing again, and Helen and Dale looked away politely, pretending not to notice. When he could talk again, Ed asked Dale, “What’s this about Jeff traipsing off out of the country?”
Dale grinned. “Connor’s playing hockey in a tournament in Minot. Jeff and Elaine went along to cheer, and little Jenny didn’t want to miss a weekend at a hotel with a pool.”
Ed snorted. “I’d like to know who figures a bunch of seven-year-olds need to go off to another country to play hockey.” His voice was weak. Dale found himself leaning closer to hear. “Those kids can hardly skate all the way down to the end of the rink right here in town.”
It was hard for Dale to argue with that.
“When I was a kid,” Ed croaked, “we were lucky if we had skates to play shinny on the dugout. I was 12 years old before I was taken the 25 miles to Weyburn at all, let alone having the whole family joy-ride off to the next state to watch me play a game.”
Dale knew for a fact that none of this was true, but Ed started coughing again, so he decided to just let the comments go. Besides, this would be Connor’s last tournament of the year.
Dale ate all the banana bread a man could reasonably eat in one morning and still have room for lunch, then checked to see if there was anything he could do for Ed and Helen. They both said no, but Helen followed him to the door and pulled a jar out from under her cardigan where she’d hidden it from Ed. “I’ve been trying to open this jam for two days,” Helen whispered. “My arthritis is flaring up and Ed just doesn’t have the strength. Could you help?”
Dale loosened the lid, then checked to make sure Ed wasn’t looking before he slipped the jar back to Helen.
Driving back across town to the Co-op, Dale was haunted by how his father had looked. Ed had never recovered his strength fully after his stroke, but this was the weakest Dale had seen him looking in a while. His skin was grey. Dale would have to get Donna to come in and take a look, as soon as she came home from California. Should he call his sister to come home from Ottawa? Surely not. There wasn’t any point getting everyone alarmed. Or was there?
At the Co-op, Dale picked up a basket. He chose a litre of milk from the cooler at the back of the store, set it in his basket, and made his way to the produce section for some apples. He was bent over the shelves, trying to decide between Honeycrisp and Pink Lady when he heard a woman behind him calling out, “Ed!”
Dale stood up and turned. It was Ada Stephenson. Much closer to his dad’s age than his own. “Look, I’m Dale,” he said to Ada. “I know I’m getting older, but I’m not quite as old as my dad, yet.”
Ada looked puzzled, and Ed McDonald, a farmer from north of town popped out from the other side of the tomato rack.
“Oh, sorry,” Dale said. And he ambled on toward the checkout, Ada and Ed shaking their heads behind him. He’d call Donna. She’d know what to do.