The cottage stands on a hill above the road, as if on watch for the arrival of Danna and Robert Eberling, in the season of crisp air and falling leaves. Half-naked trees allow a clear view to Rutherford Lake, a manmade body of water, and to the gravel road below. There is a feel of anticipation as if the cottage waits for a fire to burn in its hearth, as if it longs to breathe in its hot, smoky haze, to feel the tingle of human footsteps on its floors, to hear their voices, to consume the language of humanity in its belly, and to feel their passion, to be inhabited, to have a purpose.
A rusted Toyota chugs to a stop at the foot of the weathered wooden stairs that rise to the cottage. Robert steps out of the car. The car door slams, once, and then a second time, but with a hollow sound. Ah, the lake echo, but where is the thump of the second door? And it’s reverberation? Why does only one set of footsteps crunch on the roadway stones, and one pair of shoes grind up the rotting stairway?
Robert scales the stairs with a pumpkin in one arm and a travel bag in the other. The creases on his face are severe, reflecting his somber mood, making him appear aged beyond his years. It’s been a year since he’s been here, Danna and he had missed their usual summertime stint. He’s huffing by the time he reaches the deck. He balances the pumpkin, a large oblong-shaped gourd, on the corner of the railing. Danna had always been the pumpkin bearer, the decorator. “I love the color,” she would say, “It blends with the falling leaves.” She said the same, exact words every year and he said it along with her, in unison, pretending to be annoyed. She would laugh and he’d pick her up and carry her across the threshold as if they were just married, as if they were young.
Today, he lingers alone on the deck and raises his hand to the oval plaque attached to the house, that reads, “Welcome to the Eberling Cottage.” He skims his fingertips over the raised golden letters as if reading Braille, wipes his watery eyes with a thumb and forefinger, and steps inside where he is received by the familiar, musty odor they always notice upon their arrival.
He flings open the windows, the way Danna always did, with flair, and with her hair flowing, and with the wondrous expression you usually see only in children. He’s emulating her style and even feels the wonder, if only for a moment.
He begins the first-day chores of vacuuming and dusting. When he removes the protective plastic from their old, seventies style sofa with an orange floral pattern and arms that spread wide like wings, he finds Danna’s high-collared sweater, a brown, woven pullover. He raises it to his face and breathes in her lingering scent.
The whole cottage is done with retreads that would have been discarded if they hadn’t had the cottage to use as a dumping ground. But Robert likes the relics. The kitchen table, donated by Danna’s mother, reminds him of his and Danna’s dating days when he shared meals over it with Danna and her family. Or the rocking chair which he and Danna had purchased years ago. After Claire, their third child, became too old to rock to sleep they moved it here, to the cottage.
He digs into his record cabinet and finds his father’s old classical record collection, passed down from when he died ten years previous. As a child, he had listened as the music filtered through the closed door of his father’s study, until one Saturday morning his father found him sitting on the floor outside the door, quietly listening. From then on, he was invited into the study where he sat on an easy chair and listened with quiet reverence.
The recordings are in sets of 45 rpm discs in a boxed set. He chooses a Tchaikovsky symphony, the one known as Pathétique. He stacks the discs onto an automatic changer, a flawed system since the music is interrupted by the changing of the discs, a series of clicks followed by the sound of the next disc dropping, taking long seconds before the music starts again. Even at a young age, Robert realized this as an unnatural interruption to the flow of the music. But Robert doesn’t mind. It’s the nostalgia he treasures, and the interruptions are a part of it. He continues his chores, lost in work and musical intrigue.
An hour goes by. It’s three o’clock. The cottage is a friend who asks no questions. Outside, smoke drifts happily from the chimney and the walls expand like a deep breath. A car appears on the road below. It stops, but it’s not Danna. It’s Gunther, a permanent lake resident, from farther up the road. He and his wife have been friends with the Eberlings for years. They’re back, Gunther thinks, having noticed the Toyota. He gets out, notes the smoking chimney, and clambers up the stairs.
There is a hammering on the door. Robert, lying on the old, orange sofa, startles and staggers toward the offending noise. “Yes?” he says through the curtained window.”
“Open the door, you part-timer.” Gunther hears shuffling inside. A sudden shift of wind makes him shiver. He will have to start a fire when he gets home.
The door opens and Robert stands in the doorway. “You look like the walking dead,” Gunther says.
“Sorry, I was sleeping.”
Gunther waits, but Robert says no more. “We missed you this summer. Boating isn’t the same without you guys. Look, it’s turning cold. I’ve got to get back and make a fire for Ruth, but come over this evening. I’ll put out a couple more steaks.”
Robert gazes downward. His eyes are half-moon evasions. “Alright.”
Gunther stares at him. Robert is usually talkative. “You okay?”
Robert lifts his eyes. He stares straight at Gunther. “Sure, go start your fire. I’ll see you at dinner.”
Gunther leaves and Robert stumbles back to the sofa, ashamed that he hasn’t told his friend that Danna died in August. She had a fatal heart attack, dead on arrival at the hospital. He thought he’d told everybody how he found her motionless on the living room floor when he got home. How he hadn’t been there for her, but out, with the guys at a retirement dinner, with people who didn’t mean much to him, while his wife collapsed and died. How he can’t erase from memory, his first thought when he found her lying on the floor before he fully realized what had happened. I can’t be away for a minute.
He’d always kept his regular life and lake life compartmentalized, so he hadn’t thought to inform Gunther and Ruth. They don’t even know she’s dead. He’d have to explain it over dinner and denounce his failure to notify them as him being out of his mind.
He notices silence, goes to the record player and flips the stack of discs. The cabin is warm now, almost hot. He collapses on the sofa, flat as a pancake and rolls up Danna’s sweater for a pillow. The fabric feels soft and familiar against his cheek. Drifting between two worlds, he says goodnight, imagining that he’s lying with Danna. The music stops again. The pause feels eternal. He’s content, his head settling into Danna’s sweater, reminding him of the days when he’d rest his head on her lap, after chopping wood and starting a fire, she with a book in one hand and the other gently stroking his hair. It’s time to join her, he thinks. Still, he doesn’t surrender. There’s a clicking sound as the last disc falls into place. The music starts again.
Russ Lydzinski is a writer of short stories and a former accounting executive living in Olmsted Falls, Ohio. “The Autumn Cottage” is his first published work.