Autumn leaves were falling, the evening blew cold, harbinger of winter's frozen grip. The days grow shorter, sunlight fighting its losing battle for time, trying but never winning to regain the lost glory of July.

Harold, a cup of tea cuddled between two gnarled hands, sipped slowly at the strong brew while leaves fluttered down from the branches over his front walkway. He rocked rhymthically in his chair, the old wood creaking with each backward push.

It saddened him to see the leaves falling in their spiral trajectories for he knew that the death of the green may well be the death of him also. His doctor had names for his illnesses: diabetes, arteriosclerosis, rheumatism, on and on the list continued but he knew the truth of it all, and that was this old body was tired and worn. He was dying by degrees and soon, one of those names would be the official reason, time the real killer.

Sunset cast an amber glow on burnished trees, and Harold thought, "the Golden Years they call this. Why do they call it Golden when I can no longer do things for myself? When the body that let me walk miles in the woods sometimes fails me in my travels from couch to bathroom? Some euphemistic fool made that phrase up, tired of rising in the morning for another boring day on the job. Golden Years. Hah!"

The evening paper arrived with a thunk on his porch and not even a hello from the insolent boy who delivered it. Winnifred Jones, all skin and bones, as he liked to think of her, walked by with her poodle, an animal as wiry and snappy as its owner. "Evening!" she chirped and he nodded his acknowledgement.

It was time to go in and have dinner. And what was it tonight? Beans and wieners? Spaghetti and meatballs? Fish stick and fries? He'd forgotten what his homemaker said she'd brought him today. He didn't know why she brings it every day, meals weren't part of her job, but she did without fail and would warm up a bowl of soup for lunch for she said there was always leftovers from home that more often than not went to waste. What effort was it for her to heat up a pot or two while she cleaned up the kitchen? He didn't think she really needed to do this, but in a way he was grateful, not having to worry about food and its preparation.

His plate was fried chicken, peas and potatoes tonight. A little much for his appetite but certainly tasty, so he turned on the oven to warm.

Evangeline couldn't understand why he didn't invest in a microwave. He could just "nuke" his dinner in two minutes she said, but he didn't have the patience to learn how to use it, nor the time left
to make such an expense.

His doctor told him he should think about making a will, and he replied, alright, I'll will it to the Flat Earth Society. They seem as deserving as any. And his doctor thought he was joking. Truth be told there really was no family, he was always too busy for them, nor friends either, him being a shy and introspective sort. It seemed strange to be thinking about the eventual disposal of all those many things he saved and yearned for years ago. Was this to be his legacy? An assortment of appliances and trinkets? The very thought depressed him.

He ate most of his dinner, scraped and rinsed his plate, leaving it in the sink for Evangeline. The autumn's chill was sinking into his bones; in the morning his hands would nearly be claws and it would take heat and painful moving to unloose his fingers. No matter. He still felt awake and well enough to enjoy his evening beer. His doctor frowned at this; Harold didn't care. He had very few pleasures left. This was one of them.

Tucked warm in bed, the only light coming from a street lamp outside his window casting shadows across the wall. Sleep. That was one of his other pleasures. To sleep, perchance to dream, the silken words of Shakespeare said.

"In my dreams," Harold whispered to the dark, "I am whole and young and the future has no end. Anything is possible. Oh, how I do enjoy dreams. It is in them that I am truly living."

Tonight's dream was not one of river rafting or hiking in the forest, no, tonight he dreamt of Evangeline. A little sprite, all black wavy hair and her thin body, small breasted, just right for a dancer. She was washing dishes, humming as her hands worked in the water, glasses clinking on plates. The sunlight streamed through the window illuminating her curls in splashes of blue and copper. In his dream he was young, mid-thirties like her, and he walked up behind her to give her a soft kiss on the warm crook where her neck meets her shoulders, her hair soft and fragrant as the woman herself. She turned and smiled a beautiful smile, her coal black eyes glinting as though they were sharing some private joke. Evangeline, the embodiment of music, he thought and the dream faded into a dark slumber.

In the morning he woke with a twinge in his chest. Not now, he ordered his grumbling heart, I still have things to do. He had decisions to make, a career's worth of junk to dispose of. And the only one worthy was Evangeline. Had he been younger, he'd have made the effort for her, he'd have made her his wife. As fate so determined, this could never be but there was one thing he could do for her and that was to give her the comfort she would have had had she been his wife. The thought of this lightened his mind, this was what had to be, he decided.

While he waited for Evangeline to arrive he thought of ways to broach the subject. She is a proud woman, not one to take such a thing lightly. Then again, what did he have to lose? It was her or Ducks Unlimited. And what would a flock of geese need with a twenty year old toaster? Crumbs?

Evangeline whisked in and began her chores in methodical perfection. He loved watching her work, the sweeping and dusting and wiping as though this barely mobile man could make that much of a mess. Not many people take such care in their work these days, he thought.

The time before lunch and after vacuuming was when she habitually disappeared into the kitchen for a coffee. Today, as she gathered up the vacuum cord, he told her, "Evangeline, come sit with me for your coffee, and have your cigarette too. I'd like to spend some time with you."

She continued wrapping the cord between elbow and fist making a perfect oval. Then she wrapped the remaining cord and plug around the middle, tying it tightly, the whole while acting as though she hadn't heard him. When she was done she turned to him and firmly reminded him that his doctor didn't care for his drinking coffee or being around smoke.

"I know," he replied, "what I can't smell I won't crave. As for the coffee, I'd rather have a beer anyway."

"Mr. McDonald! You shouldn't be drinking alcohol. You know that too." She protested.

He sighed. "Look at me Evangeline. I'm an old man, and not a well man. My days remaining are few. Indulge me this once in the two joys of a taste of beer and a lovely woman to talk to. What harm can it do really? I won't make it a habit, I promise."

She shook her head. "Whatever can I do with you?" And she smiled. "Alright, but only for today, you hear me?"

"Yes ma'am. Go get your coffee. I'll still be here." He chuckled.

She brought his beer and sat down on the easy chair opposite him. He watched her as she had her cigarette, carefully blowing the smoke from the side of her mouth away from him. He made small talk about the weather, asked about her family. Only an old deaf cat, she replied. How could such a pretty girl like her not be married, he inquired and she replied that her husband had been killed in a car accident then changed the subject. Which fate is worse, he wondered, to be the one so cruelly taken from life so young, or the lover who's left behind to ache with the loss forever?

He asked about her cat; his name is Minou, she replied and she told him she was afraid he would have to be put down because he was old and his faculties not good, and with her working it wasn't fair. She told him perhaps he too should have a cat to keep him company, the doctors say pets are good for those who live alone. He said that was probably true. Sometimes you need a reason to get up in the morning, if only to feed a cat.

Then he asked her how she would feel about his leaving it all to her when he died, and the pleasant young woman became the professional again as she said, "No Mr. McDonald, that wouldn't be right. What would people say? I'd lose my job for sure. No, that can't be."

As she picked up the empty glasses she said softly, "Thank you for thinking of me."

Days crept into weeks and their coffee break did become a habit. Both were naturally private people and it felt good to bear their souls a little, if only to one another. Evangeline had spirit, he discovered, loved singing and dancing and swimming in the lake, missed her family but couldn't bring herself to go back to the small Northern Ontario town she'd grown up in; the Conservatives had closed the mine and there were no jobs to be found, she'd only be burden on her family. And so she laboured on here.

One dark November night the wind moaned sadly outside, rattling the windows with its gusts. Harold couldn't sleep. His joints ground painfully with every movement he made as he tried unsuccessfully to find a comfortable sleeping position. Somewhere far away he heard the mournful sound of cat crying. As the hours ticked by it seemed the sound was growing louder. When he couldn't take it anymore, he rose and padded down to the kitchen to see if he could find it.

In the blackness he saw two green eyes glowing beneath his willow tree. Slowly, carefully he crept up to them, and sure enough, a small black cat was huddled up by the tree trunk, shivering. Gingerly he put a hand out and let it sniff him, then cautiously picked it up and brought it inside to warm up.

He was going to give it away the next day, but Evangeline refused to hear of it. Minou had just died the week before and she couldn't bear the thought of this one possibly being put down. She promised to take the cat to the vet on the way home for its shots and a check up.

The winter inched on and Harold's heath worsened. The cat, whom Evangeline named Blackie, proved to be a good friend. He would sleep with Harold, curled up on his hands to keep them warm. When the pain proved too much and Harold became a grumble of aching anger, the cat would rub its cheek against his, purring him out of his mood.

Harold began to suspect that the cat was Evangeline's surrogate baby, and him, her father for she fussed over them both, taking time to spend with them as a friend, not just a housekeeper.

Then one day Harold felt faint, fell in the kitchen spilling hot tea on his hands and arms. It was Evangeline who found him two hours later, Evangeline who called the ambulance and his doctor and who rode with him to the hospital, who filled out all the forms for him. It was Evangeline who was told he hasn't much time left, he may never leave here at all.

When he awoke she told him the news, asked if there was anything he needed. "Yes," he told her, "there is. First call my lawyer, his card's in my wallet. We have things to discuss. Second, I must ask you to look after the cat and the plants, make sure the place looks lived in. Sure you won't let me leave it to you?" She shook her head. "Then the National Geographic Society it is."

She laughed at that and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Think hard, old man, there must be someone you can think of." She waved to him as she shut the door.

"There is, dear, there is." He said as he caressed the spot where she kissed him.

Harold's last week was spent with his lawyer, his minister and Evangeline. One day she even snuck in the cat and they spent a wonderful afternoon together until the nurse found them.

On an early March day, the promise of spring in the air, Harold rose to brush his teeth before Evangeline came for her visit. Harold never made it to the bathroom. His tired heart just stopped, and he was gone.

The doctor called Evangeline, she called the lawyer and the lawyer called the funeral parlour. Harold asked for something simple, and why not, he hadn't many left to mourn him. After the service the lawyer called Evangeline into his office.

"I suppose you know he left the guardianship of the cat to you," the lawyer said.

"Certainly," she replied.

"Then there's no point explaining the will. I'll just read it. Being of sound mind if not body, I, Harold McDonald bequeath to my cat Blackie all my worldly goods and any survivor's benefits to which he is entitled on the condition that Evangeline Desrosiers be the guardian of Blackie, living in the house and paying all bills for its upkeep and Blackie's and whatever stipend she may deem necessary for her upkeep as guardian."

"Wait a minute!" She exclaimed. "I told him I wouldn't take it."

"He said you might say that," the lawyer replied, "and that's why there's a proviso. It reads: In the event Evangeline refuses to accept guardianship of Blackie and all it entails, my worldly goods shall be donated to the Conservative Party to do with as they wish, and Blackie shall be given to the Humane Society in the hope he shall receive a suitable home."

"He can't do that!" She cried.

"He can and he did. It's legal. There's no family to contest this. So what will it be?"

"The Conservatives! Blackie! That sneaky..."

"Mrs. Desrosiers, there is one more thing he said. Might I read it?" She nodded. "Evangeline, in my life I never took the time to find someone like you. When I did I was too old and sick to do anything about it. Don't save yourself for the day that may come too late. Enjoy life. I loved you and I loved Blackie. You've both earned this. And Evangeline, be happy while it means something. You made my last years the best of my life. Now do that for yourself. Until we meet again, Harold."

Evangeline had no choice but to take the cat and the house and money. She sat still for a few minutes collecting her thoughts then told the lawyer, alright.

She picked up her purse and her coat. As the door closed behind her the lawyer was sure that he heard Evangeline whisper, "Harold, you crafty old goat. I loved you too, mon ami."

-- 30 --