Coffee. Sorry excuse for a beverage, thought Sherman Foster, staring into the empty can. Stuff stank up the house, made his nose itch and his stomach turn.
Resealing the empty container with its plastic lid and shoving it to the back of the counter, Sherman snickered, pleased with himself that he had purposely let the coffee run out. He’d show Horace. Make him real mad, he would. Predictably, Horace would soon yell from his room. “Sherman! Hey, Sherm! Can ya bring me a cup a coffee? My rheumatiz is actin’ up.”
“Heh, heh,” cackled Sherman to himself. “Ain’t no coffee ta-day, Horace ol’ boy. Guess you’ll just have some o’ that caffeine withdrawal, ‘cuz I ain’t goin’ out in this weather. Sure enough, I ain’t gonna walk half a mile to the Seven Ee-leven, just to get you some stinkin’ coffee.”
Sherman shuffled slowly on the yellow linoleum floor that, in its heyday, had been the color of soft, speckled cream. For a man his age, a trip from the fridge to the counter was a major undertaking. An arduous ordeal.
Steam blossomed invitingly from the bowl of oatmeal in his hands, stimulating his saliva glands, tempting his taste buds. But halfway to the table he remembered the honey.
“Damn!” grumbled Sherman to the quiet, friendless kitchen. “Can’t eat no bowl of oatmeal without honey.”
A mouse on the floor might have heard the scritch-scritching of Sherman’s cheap slippers (courtesy The Salvation Army) scuffing the floor as he moved back to the counter where the honey bear bottle colonized with the hen salt shaker and rooster pepper shaker next to the ramshackle gas stove – the same place they’d resided all the years Sherman knew.
Finally, Sherman’s bony bottom made contact with the seat of the tippy chair at the small round table. Hunched over the chipped ceramic bowl, holding the bear upside down over the oatmeal, Sherman waited for the honey to fall. He had no choice but to wait. The arthritis made it near impossible to squeeze even the tiniest bit.
Before the honey came, Sherman sighed. He took a peek behind him, down the hallway. “Damn!” he mumbled. “I got oatmeal and I got honey. Horace may be a pain in my ass, but he ain’t got no coffee.” He shook his head. “Damn, stinkin’ coffee.”
Flipping the bear back upright, he set it onto the table-top with a thump. He looked down the hall, sighed one more time, then rose from the chair slow as a sloth and began the long, laborious ritual of bundling up for a cold, even more laborious walk to the Seven Ee-leven.
“Hey there, Sherm!” Nancy bellowed from behind the counter. She smiled so broadly that her chubby cheeks pushed her eyes nearly half closed.
“Damn, Nanc, you look like a crazy China-woman when you smile like that. Anyone ever tell ya that?”
“Why yes, Sherm,” she laughed. “You, as a matter of fact.”
“Then why you still do it?”
“To give you sumthin’ to complain about.”
She patted her stomach when she talked and didn’t stop smiling. It was Nancy’s way. Evidently, she didn’t care if she looked like a crazy China-woman or not.
“So what can we get ya today, Sherm?”
“Can o’ Folgers,” Sherman answered, shuffling in the same direction as always.
“For Horace?” she asked.
“Who else? I told ya a thousand times, I can’t stand the smell of it, much less the taste. Stuff rots your gut.” He had made a successful trip to the coffee aisle, picked a can off the shelf and returned to Nancy’s register, where he began the slow motion effort of opening his tattered coin purse. “It’ll probably kill him,” said Sherman, counting out quarters, dimes and nickels one at a time, onto the cold counter, “if the laziness don’t first. He should be walkin’ here himself – get up off his feet ever once in a while. He’s just an idiotic old fart. Oughta put him in a home. Let someone else take care of him.”
“You love your brother, Sherman Foster. I know ya do.” Nancy was getting that sad look on her face again that bothered Sherman. Sure enough, he didn’t like the China-woman look, but that sad-as-a-lost-puppy look was even spookier. Someone really should have a talk with that woman.
He clinked a final coin onto the counter. “That enough, Nanc?”
She counted out the coins which totaled a dollar fifty-three. The coffee cost three dollars and ninety-nine cents, not including tax.
“That’s enough Sherm,” she said tenderly. “You be good now. See ya tomorrow?”
“Not if I can help it! This oughta last him least a week for cryin’ out loud,” moaned Sherman, making his tortoise-like way to the door.
“Right. Well, say ‘Hey’ to Paula when you see her,” said Nancy who then turned her attention to another customer.
Sherman shook his head and wondered to himself. Paula? Who’s Paula?
Snowflakes had started to fall – monstrously luscious snowflakes, floating to the ground like the feathers of angels wings. Once outside, Sherman stopped and looked to the sky. “Snow. Who’s gonna shovel this crap? Sure ain’t gonna be that lazy bum, Horace.”
A young girl stood next to him looking skyward, eye shining. “I love the snow,” she whispered.
Grumbling and pointing his head to the sidewalk he began the long shuffle back to the house where he and his brother had spent years growing from boys to men, so long, long ago.
He passed the big field where they played cops and robbers, and where in winter, they would sail like the wind down the heaven-kissing hill on toboggans. That was when snow was a dream, not a nightmare.
He passed the cemetery where they buried Mother, and then Father, who just didn’t want to live without her no more.
He passed Pearl O’Leary’s house – the woman who broke his heart. Of course, Pearl didn’t live there no more, but her grand-daughter did, and every once in a while, when she visited the girl, she would stop in and say “Hey!” to Sherman and Horace. She always complimented Sherman on how kind he was to take care of Horace the way he did, bein’ like a nurse and all. “You’re a good man, Sherman,” she’d say.
“Ach – he’s a bum. Oughta put him in a home.”
“You ain’t foolin’ me,” she’d answer, “You love your brother, Sherman. I know it.”
Back in his house, which wasn’t much warmer than the air outside, Sherman shook off the snow, hung his ratty coat on its hook, laid his hat and gloves carefully on the radiator nearby, then made his arthritic way to the coffee pot on the stove.
“Hey, Horace!” Sherman shouted down the hall. “You’ll have your stinkin’ coffee soon! Don’t go yellin’ fer, it ‘cuz I don’t wanna hear yer caterwallin’.”
Dog-tired from his grueling walk, Sherman decided to have a sit on the sofa in the living room. Take some weight off his feet for just a few minutes – just while the coffee perked up. As happened on most days, he laid his head down and drifted off.
When Paula came at her usual time, she found a familiar scene – open can of coffee on the counter, a pot percolating furiously over the flame of the single functioning burner left on the stove, and Uncle Sherman, asleep on the living room couch.
She took the red can, opened the small door of the pantry, and placed it next to the others that filled the four lined shelves. She counted them. Twenty-one. Twenty-one cans of Folgers. She threw away the empty can, but knew that miraculously, she would find it on the counter when she returned the next day.
After cleaning up she covered Uncle Sherman with the quilt and waited. When he woke up, she would sit and tell him again. Tell him that Uncle Horace had passed peacefully in his sleep nearly a month ago now. She would ask Uncle Sherman, didn’t he remember? Didn’t he remember finding Horace in bed that morning, and the lovely funeral when they buried him next to Uncle Fred and Aunt Mimi? Didn’t he remember?
Finally, Sherman would shake his head and say that he did. He did remember. He would sit weeping on the couch, his crippled hands cupping his shaking head.
“Why?” he would ask. “Now what’m I gonna do?”
Then he’d curl up in a ball, and sleep again.
Paula would come back. She would come back every day and clean that ancient and tarnished coffee pot. After all, it was his purpose. Making coffee for the brother he loved.
Everyone who knew Sherman knew the truth. That those two were more than brothers -- they were best friends. And they knew that despite his cranky grumbling, Sherman Foster really loved Horace all the years that he had lived.
Loved him more than a child loves the sight of new falling snow.