Ronald grunted, then changed the channel. Here, he found a re-run of the same college basketball game he'd watched last night. It hadn't been interesting then, and Ronald had no intention of watching the blow-out again.
He changed the channel, and this time saw an advertisement for a sex hotline. He watched as a pretty teenaged blonde with a sultry voice advised him to call the number for a good time. Then, the commercial ended to be replaced with some midde-of-the-afternoon talk show where two women yelled at one another because they'd both slept with someone else's husband.
Ronald changed the channel again. He flipped past a brainless action movie, three other Who's-the-Daddy-style talk-shows, Oprah, a handful of soap operas, cartoons, twenty-year-old game shows, and finally shut the television off and rose from his chair in search of something else to do.
In the next room, his phone and answering machine waited. Ronald would almost certainly have heard it ring if it had, but he supposed he could have missed it if he'd been in the bathroom, or while he'd dozed off a few hours before.
When he reached the answering machine, Ronald saw that he had no new messages. It was a shame, but he supposed he couldn't have expected anything else. His daughter Dana had called the day before to let him know that her son, Caleb, had gotten the lead in the fifth-grade play. Dana probably wouldn't call again for another month or so, and since his other daughter Pam had accepted that position in Japan, she hardly ever called; international calls were too expensive.
With no one to talk to and nothing to watch on TV, Ronald was at a loss for what to do with himself. He'd been retired just over a week, and he already wished he was back at work again, pushing his cart down the hallways and delivering paperwork to all the businessmen. While he'd been employed, Ronald had complained that the work was mind-numbingly boring, but now that he didn't even have that job, he knew the true meaning of mind-numbing.
Ronald lifted the receiver and dialed his wife's number. She should be just about finished with her last class of the day, and able to chat with him on the phone for a while. The phone rang once, twice, and three times before the secretary answered. "Hello, Westchester Community Schools," she chirped. "This is Caitlin speaking."
"Caitlin, this is Ronald," he grunted, aware that they lived in a small enough town that he needed identify himself no further for her to know who he was. "Can I talk to Gretchen?"
"Sure, Ron," Caitlin replied in her infuriating habit of shortening his name to just one syllable. "It'll be just a second."
He waited for what felt like hours but was probably only a few minutes until his wife picked up. "Hello?" she asked in that uncertain way that betrayed the fact that Caitlin hadn't told her who was on the other line.
"Gretchen, it's me," Ronald blurted.
"Oh, hi sweetie," his wife replied, her voice softening. A moment later, however, her tone changed as she asked, "Is everything OK?"
"Everything's fine, dear," Ronald assured her, pleased to have evoked such a loving response. Basking in her attention, even if it was only offered over the phone, he continued, "I'm just calling to say I love you."
"I love you, too," his wife responded, but she now sounded distracted. "Listen, honey," she continued, "I still have class. I ought to be home in another hour or so, and I'll see you then, all right?"
For a moment, Ronald felt angry at Gretchen for casting him aside so easily. Then, reminding himself that she took her job seriously and wasn't used to middle-of-the-day phone calls from him, he responded, "Fine. I'll see you tonight, honey."
"Great," Gretchen sighed, but she hardly even sounded like she was listening any more. "Love you."
"I love you, too," Ronald replied, clutching the phone like it was his last connection to her. "See you tonight."
"Uh-huh," Gretchen said. "Bye."
"I love you," Ronald blurted a final time as he heard the click from the other end that signified that the conversation was over.
"Honey, eat your vegetables," Gretchen warned.
The scolding reminded Ronald of when he'd been a little boy. He pushed a few mushy peas around with his spoon and eyed the final slice of rump roast that lay on the serving platter. Following his gaze, Gretchen growled, "Not until you ate your vegetables."
Casting a silly grin her way, Ronald took three theatrical bites of peas and fit all his remaining carrots onto one final forkful. While he still chewed, Ronald helped himself to the pot roast, and Gretchen sighed loudly.
"So, I've been thinking," Ronald announced after downing his glass of milk. "Tickets down South are usually pretty cheap this time of year. Maybe we should take a vacation down to Florida for a week or two."
"That should be fun," Gretchen agreed, and for the first time that day, she sounded charmed by something he'd said. "I'll have some vacation saved up next month, and maybe I could take some time off right around spring break. . ."
"No," Ronald interrupted. "No, not in April. Everyone travels then, it'll be too expensive. We need to go now, within the next few weeks."
"Ronald, that's ridiculous," Gretchen complained. "The cost of buying plane tickets this last minute will make it just as expensive as anything else. Besides, it's the start of a new semester, I can't take off work without any warning."
"Take a couple of sick days," Ronald interrupted.
Gretchen answered his suggestion with a laugh, as if he'd said something ridiculous, then rose from her seat to carry her plate to the sink. "Ronald, don't be silly," she suggested.
Slumping in his seat, Ronald grumbled, "I wasn't kidding," into his meal before taking another bite.
When Gretchen removed her clothes to slip on her flannel nightgown, she suggested, "Maybe you're lonely."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Ronald retorted. He tied his robe closed and sauntered to the bathroom scale. There, he held his breath as numbers spun under his feet; he knew the action wouldn't change his weight, but he liked to imagine it gave him luck.
"I think you're lonely," Gretchen repeated. "I think you don't have anything to do all day long but sit around and feel sorry for yourself, so that's what you do all day."
"You're a confused old woman," Ronald responded in annoyance. "I'm not lonely. I just need something to do with myself all day. I'm sick of watching television all day, and I don't have anyone to talk to while you're at work." The final statement carried annoyance as he turned an accusatory stare toward her.
"I'm at work because someone needs to pay the bills," Gretchen responded, barely nibbling at the bait.
"Well, that's why they give you retirement severance," Ronald reminded her, even though he already knew Gretchen's response.
Predictably, she complained, "I don't qualify for retirement for three more years. If you're really that bored, though, why don't you go back to work part-time?"
"Absolutely not," Ronald announced, tossing a pillow in Gretchen's direction in annoyance. "I've worked my whole life in order to be able to retire; I'm not going to throw that away after a week."
"Well, then maybe you could pick up a new hobby," Gretchen suggested. "Start building something or write a book or something." She curled up in bed beside him and flipped off a light before adding, "When my dad retired, he'd walk five miles a day. He said the exercise made him feel younger."
Ronald responded with a noise that was somewhere between a grunt and a snort. When Gretchen rolled over so she could face out, Ronald could tell from her stiff movements that she was annoyed with him.