A young man was staring at the display case underneath the information desk in the lobby of the student union when Anna Harris marched in, took a seat behind the desk, and said, “You parked in my spot.”
He looked up at her. “Excuse me?”
She nodded toward the window and the parking lot beyond. “You were getting out of your car when I drove up.”
“I’m sorry — I didn’t see a reserved sign.”
“It’s there,” she said. “Director of the Student Union.”
The young man raised an eyebrow. “I’m impressed.”
Looking at him, Anna felt her temper fade. “Well, I’m not really the director. She’s out for the week and told me I could use her parking space. I run the information desk.”
He smiled. “Good to meet you. I’m Gabe Peterson, and I don’t run anything.”
“You’re a student?”
“Day student. Junior year.”
“Me too,” she said.
He seemed to remember something then and pointed to the display case. “Whose bell is that? It’s incredible.”
She bent down and looked in from the back side of the case. She couldn’t help smiling. He was right: It was incredible.
Cowbells were a big thing at this university. According to legend, a cow from a nearby farm had once wandered onto the football field during a home game with an archrival, and after the game was won, the cow became sort of a good-luck charm. Some students even began leading cows to the games. When the symbol eventually changed from a cow to a cowbell, legions of fans began taking the bells to sporting events and — to the extreme irritation of opposing teams — ringing them constantly. The noise could be deafening, and the local students and players loved it.
But most of these cowbells were small and understated. This one wasn’t. It was two feet long and made of solid steel; its handle was a one-inch iron pipe wrapped with maroon tape, and its frame was graced with what looked like a hand-painted school logo.
Anna took it from the case and handed it to Gabe. She liked his reaction: It weighed at least five pounds. “Don’t ring it in here,” she said. “We’d need earplugs.”
Even so, the clapper shifted a bit. A single BONG echoed off the lobby walls.
“The music of angels,” he said.
She laughed. “You like it?”
“I love it.” He looked as if he were holding the Hope Diamond.
“Take it, then.”
He blinked. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope — it’s mine. I found it in the trash bin at my apartment house last month. I put it in the case here, but the director thinks it takes up too much space. You want it, it’s yours.”
“I can’t believe this. How can I repay you?”
She studied his face, feeling mischievous. “That depends. Are you married? Involved? Recently incarcerated?”
“No, no, and no.” Then he paused. “How recently?”
She grinned. “My price is, you can take me to dinner. The Veranda, maybe?”
He smiled too. “That sounds like a bargain,” he said.
It was also the beginning of a yearlong relationship. Gabe Peterson turned out to be everything Anna had ever wanted in a partner, and it seemed to work both ways. By the time Anna changed majors and Gabe graduated, they were spending every spare moment together, had met each other’s parents, and were thinking in terms of a wedding.
And then careers got in the way. After a dozen interview trips, Gabe wound up with an offer for his dream job at a San Francisco engineering firm. At about the same time, Anna decided to enter nursing school in the state capital, and since her mother lived nearby, she didn’t want to move 2,000 miles west. She and Gabe tried the long-range-relationship thing for a while, but it didn’t work. At last they just drifted apart. Neither was the one to actually break it off, and possibly because of that, neither of them tried afterward to retie the ties. Anna later learned from a friend that Gabe had left the West Coast, but heard no more. She never forgot him — how could she? — but as time passed, she no longer knew anything at all about his life or his whereabouts, and even though she often wondered about him, she eventually put him out of her thoughts.
Over the years she acquired a husband, moved out of state with him when her mother died, and moved back again after her husband died. She ended up landing her dream job: a manager at a home-healthcare business near her alma mater, where many years ago she’d met a junior engineering student on the other side of the information desk during her part-time employment at the college.
After all these travels and experiences, Anna was happy now, happy with her work and with her life. She sometimes felt her work was her life, since the early death of her husband. But occasionally she was lonely too, and for some reason, loneliness was on her mind as she drove out one late afternoon to see one of her agency’s patients in a small town 30 miles from her office. Two of the nurses she supervised were off that day, and when the time came to make a regular call on this patient, Anna was eager to do it herself, for a couple of reasons: (1) She enjoyed getting out “into the field” once in a while, and (2) this was her last week at this location. The owner of the agency had opened another office downstate, and Anna would soon be moving there to manage it full-time. She might be 60, but she didn’t feel it, and she hoped she could work another five or ten years before even thinking about retirement.
The patient’s home was a big white house on the edge of town. In the last rays of the sun, Anna parked beside an old blue SUV and was greeted at the door by a lady about her own age. “I’m Florence, Miss Lillian’s caregiver,” the woman said. “She’s expecting you.”
Florence led Anna to a dark bedroom. Eighty-five-year-old Lillian Parsons sat there in a rocker, her back to the door. On the left side of the chair was an unlit floor lamp; on the shadowy carpet to the right was a stack of magazines and what looked like one of those old toilet-brush racks with a large base and narrow top. A TV on the far side of the room was playing a Hallmark movie. “Miss Lillian?” Florence called. “The nurse is here.” Then, to Anna: “I’ll be in the kitchen, ma’am.”
When Florence left, Anna walked around the lamp side of the chair, smiled at the woman, and introduced herself. Yes, she was new, Anna explained, but just filling in — the regular nurse would be coming back next week. As Lillian calmly watched the TV over Anna’s shoulder, Anna switched on the lamp, took the elderly lady’s blood pressure and temperature, listened to her heart and lungs, and pronounced her healthy. A commercial break finally allowed Anna to get her full attention, and for a while the two of them sat and chatted. Lillian Parsons had lived here all her life, she told Anna; she had only one relative, who drove 60 miles to visit her twice a week; and she was fortunate to have an angel like Florence Lawson staying with her full-time. Florence had her own room and spent most days at the kitchen table at the other end of the house, reading or watching TV or working crossword puzzles. “I just ring her when I need her for something,” Lillian said.
They talked for another 10 minutes and then said their goodbyes. The old woman went back to her movie, and Anna left. She made her way through the house and found Florence preparing supper — the kitchen was indeed a long way from Lillian’s bedroom — and had her sign the paperwork for the home healthcare visit.
Anna was out of town and 20 miles north when she was struck with a thought. Frowning, she pulled her car to the side of the road and stopped. She took out her iPad, checked her agency’s records for Lillian Parsons, and sat there for several minutes, thinking hard. Then she turned the car around and headed back.
Florence met her at the door. They’d finished supper, Florence said; Miss Lillian had returned to her room. Once again Anna found herself standing in the bedroom doorway, and she could tell from the old lady’s posture that she was sound asleep in her chair. Anna stood there a long moment, adrift in her thoughts. Behind her, somewhere in the house, she heard a door open and close again. With silent steps she approached Lillian’s chair. This time, though, Anna went to the right, stepped over the magazine stack, and bent to look at what she had come to see: the tall, wide-based object she’d glimpsed earlier in the shadows on the floor beside the chair. She picked it up carefully, holding her breath, and was examining it when she heard a deep voice from the bedroom doorway, behind her.
“Don’t ring it in here,” the voice said. “We’d need earplugs.”
Anna turned and looked into the smiling face of Gabe Peterson.
“I’d know you anywhere, Anna Harris. Even from the back, and after 40 years.”
Quietly, Anna replaced the giant cowbell on the floor and glanced through the window at the now dark driveway. Sure enough, another car was there, parked right behind hers. Her heart was thudding in her chest.
“What’s your connection,” she asked, “to this sweet lady?”
“My mother’s sister. Mom and Pop passed years ago. Aunt Lillian’s all I have left.” Gabe looked at the sleeping woman, then said, “Florence told me you came and left and then came back again. Why?”
“Because something occurred to me after I left.” Anna looked down at the bell. “Miss Lillian’s voice wouldn’t be strong enough to call to her caregiver, as far away as she usually is. She told me she rings her instead. But I didn’t see a telephone here in the bedroom, and my agency has no record of her having a cellphone. How could she ring Florence for help? And then I remembered seeing this, in the dark by the chair. It didn’t register at the time — I thought it was something else — but the more I thought about it …”
“So you came back.”
She nodded. “I just had a feeling.”
“It’s perfect for Aunt Lil,” he said. “She doesn’t even have to pick it up — she just tips it forward or backward an inch or two and anyone in the house can hear it.”
“Clear as a bell,” she said, smiling.
Gabe tilted his head, studied her face. “I’ve missed you.”
She stepped toward him. “Is that all you have to say?”
“Just one other thing.” As he took her hands in his, Gabe looked past her and through the window and grinned like the boy she’d known and loved so many years ago.
“What?” she said.
“You parked in my spot.”
John Floyd wrote “Business Class” for the November/December 2015 issue and is the author of six books, most recently Fifty Mysteries (2014) and Dreamland (2016). For more, visit johnmfloyd.com.