By Russell Richardson
Tom felt true affection for his therapist Walter.
Unlike confused parents, expectant girlfriends, and demanding employers, Walter accepted Tom unconditionally. For years, the silver-haired man had nodded sagely while Tom talked on the office’s leather couch. When Tom’s ramblings developed into a meaningful thought, Walter expressed satisfaction; when the babble went nowhere, the good doctor salvaged fragments to examine. Walter was a master of his profession.
He was unflappable, too. Tom had forgotten to bring payment to his most recent session. Walter responded with customary nonchalance, saying “Next time” in the placid way he would say, “That’s our time,” and “This reminds me of when. . . .”
They never mistook who belonged in which seat at the office.
One afternoon, Tom was waiting for a music store clerk to locate his guitar. A technician had installed a new bridge on the cheap acoustic. The retrieval took forever. Tom has drifted to the rack of Telecasters, Les Pauls, Stratocasters—instruments beyond his price range—when his pocket buzzed. He fretted over the unfamiliar number on the phone’s screen before answering. Facing an anonymous caller was progress. He could discuss that with Walter at their next session.
A fragile female voice said his name.
“Speaking,” replied Tom.
“This is Melanie Treehorn, Walter’s wife—”
Tom’s legs wobbled. Dread welled inside. Heretofore a stranger, Walter’s wife would call for only one conceivable purpose.
“—regret to inform you that Walter has died.”
Thunderstruck, Tom sat upon an amplifier. Gravity tugged the phone at his ear. “What happened?”
She sighed. “Heart attack. Very sudden.”
Touching his face, Tom said, “I’m—I’m so sorry for—” A spate of tears filled his cupped hand.
Across the line, Mrs. Treehorn began crying, too.
Someone coughed. Tom raised his wet eyes. The clerk was hovering at a safe distance, holding the repaired guitar by the headstock.
“I am letting his patients know,” said the trembling voice on the phone. “This must be a shock. If you need to talk to someone, the county has a mental health hotline that can connect you with counseling.”
“Thank you,” said Tom. She offered the hotline number. He declined. No one else could compare to Walter.
Upon arriving home, Tom recalled that he owed money to Walter. The debt upset him. He felt obligated to square up, or his relationship with the therapist would be forever unsettled. He decided he must pay the widow.
At his computer, Tom searched online for Walter Treehorn, pairing the name first with their city and then the county. The returns were murky, as Tom remembered them to be—he had snooped for Walter’s personal details before. This time, however, the wife’s name provided an extra clue. Skimming the results, Tom wove together a street name from one listing, a zipcode from another, and before long, a whole address. He felt like a technology wizard.
Tom wrote a check for “Melanie Treehorn,” found a clean envelope, and stopped. Curiosity filled him with an urge to see Walter’s house. Doing so would help to answer a question that had dogged him for years: Who was Walter? He knew the idea was stalkerish, but Tom wanted to understand better the man who had become, in a therapeutic setting, his surrogate father.
Hence, the next morning, he drove to the address.
Tom sat in his car, parked at the curb outside Walter’s home. It was a two-story, blue Colonial with white window frames, a red door, verdant lawn, and carport. Tom had expected something different. The house was as average as its neighborhood. Nothing about it indicated what kind of extraordinary man lived inside.
Or—had lived inside.
A black letterbox hung near the front door. Tom looked from it to his envelope and drew a calming breath. He regretted having not written a consolation letter to accompany the check. There was no turning back, however. He left the car.
A silver SUV shined on the paved driveway. Tom had seen Walter drive the vehicle around town. Often, he had wondered what it revealed about Walter. SUV drivers tended toward conservatism, but Walter possessed a gentle openness not often associated with a right-leaning profile. Based on facial twitches, Tom had assumed Walter was politically independent. Maybe this was what made him a good therapist—he never alienated his patient with personal disclosures.
Tom minced up a stone path toward the front door—a red door, curiously. He wondered how often Walter had taken these steps while shaking off the day’s clients—maybe Tom specifically. He imagined Walter’s relief upon returning to his abode, anticipating a meal prepared by Melanie. Or did Walter do the cooking? Did their relationship follow traditional gender lines? A person as evolved as Walter must have rebelled against convention.
At the door, Tom debated whether to knock or to leave the envelope in the mailbox. Chickening, he lifted the box’s lid and dropped the parcel in.
The hinge creaked. Tom cursed the noise. As he began to hurry away, the door opened.
Tom turned and was startled. A beauty with gray-streaked hair stood in the doorway. She wore a t-shirt and drawstring pants. Melanie Treehorn in bedclothes—surely an inappropriate sight, thought Tom.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
An ill-timed realization struck Tom: Walter had slept with this woman. He cleared his throat. “I’m Tom Dixon. We spoke yesterday. I was Walter’s patient.”
Uncertainty clouded the woman’s face.
“Don’t worry!” Tom blurted. He raised his palms. “I’m not nuts. Just dropped off a payment that I owed him. It’s in the mailbox. See?”
Melanie nodded hesitantly. No doubt, patients never came to their door. She reached into the box, extracted the envelope, and relaxed. “I see,” she said. “That’s noble . . . but unnecessary.”
Tom shook his head. “I needed the closure.” Just then, the fact that he would never see his beloved therapist again punched Tom in the gut. He scrambled for words. “I’m sorry,” he said, swaying. “Walter was . . . uh . . . you must be devastated.”
The widow smiled wearily. “Sure.”
Urgent, unexpected tears threatened Tom’s eyes. “He helped me a lot . . . for years. There’s a hole in my heart as if my dad died.”
Weeping commenced then. Tom shielded his face with one hand and gestured apologetically with the other. A moment later, pressure on his back surprised him. The widow was hugging him. Tom buried his face against her neck.
She was crying, too, but he sobbed so hard that it verged on hyperventilation. Trying to calm him, Melanie offered water, which Tom refused. Then, somewhat exasperated, she volunteered to show Tom the den.
“The . . . den?” he asked.
Melanie led the stupefied Tom inside and down the hallway of her middle-class home. The main rooms were what he expected: proper furniture, neat bookshelves, few pictures. The dining room had an ornate table and a glittering chandelier. Sunlight radiated through the house.
As Tom’s head swiveled, he asked, “What was Walter like? I mean, as a person?”
Over her shoulder, she said, “As complex as us all. Thoughtful, temperamental.”
“Temperamental?” wondered Tom. On their way down the corridor, the house grew darker and his eyes adjusted. He passed his shadowy reflection in a wall mirror.
“The den doesn’t get much sun,” said Melanie. She opened the last door in the hall and flipped a light switch to illuminate the room. “Here it is—his inner sanctum.”
Tom walked past her, into the messy office. The small room was dominated by a paper-strewn desk, filing cabinets, and bookshelves that bowed beneath their burdens. Blinds obscured a window behind the desk. “This was his office?”
“He called it his den,” she corrected.
“It’s so disorganized,” remarked Tom, still taking everything in. “I mean no disrespect. Was it always this . . . scattered?”
Melanie leaned against the doorframe. “Walter was messy. Could not leave things put away for long, constantly searching for something.”
“Fascinating,” murmured Tom. “That’s not how I knew him.” He stepped toward a corner where a lamp stood beside a battered recliner, over which hung a satin baseball jacket. Tom caught himself. “Forgive my presumptuousness. May I look around?”
“Be my guest. How long were you a patient.”
Tom calculated while he picked up the satin garment with his fingertips. “Seven, eight years.” He cringed at the logo stitched on the jacket’s breast. “Ugh . . . the Mets?”
Melanie whistled rolled her eyes. “Afraid so. As a baseball fan, he was a glutton for punishment.”
It was true. Tom saw a weathered Mets cap perched on a cluttered shelf. “But, the Mets?”
Melanie’s eyes sparkled. “Let me guess: you’re Yankees?”
He nodded, draping the jacket over the recliner. “How strange. I brought up baseball many times. He never said anything.”
“Can you blame a Mets fan for not bragging?” she asked.
Tom rubbed his forehead and turned his attention to the bookshelf at his side.
“What do you do for a living, Tom?”
Distractedly, he said, “Oh, I’m an undiscovered songwriter, moonlighting as a bookkeeper for the city.”
“I’ll bet Walter liked you,” said Melanie, patting his envelope against her leg.
Tom turned to her. “Do you think so? Did he ever mention me?”
“He never discussed his patients. That was a cardinal rule.”
Tom respected his discipline, although it had not extended to Walter’s housekeeping. His haphazard books lacked a guiding principle—not grouped by author or topic. Random Manila folders jutted out intermittently. He noticed, also, an inordinate amount of books about sex. The widow must have detected the way Tom cringed. “Walter studied many interests, some more fervently than others.”
“I see.” On the shelf, he came upon a double picture frame with a middle hinge. The left panel showed Martin Luther King, Jr, the right, Gandhi. Their faces reassured Tom. If Walter had admired these honorable men, then he must have had good characteristics, too. “This is great,” he said, touching their pictures.
Melanie craned to see. “Oh. Take it if you want.”
“Are you sure?” he asked with surprise.
“Yeah, take an item or two.” She waved a hand. “I have no use for this stuff.”
Tom looked stricken. “Don’t you want to preserve his office?”
“His den,” she reminded. She remained in the doorway with her arms crossed. “I have no sentimentality about what’s here. We were filing for divorce.”
Tom’s legs buckled, and he swooned. “My God . . . I had no idea.”
“Why would you?”
Tom ran his hand across his face, then through his hair. The notion of Walter experiencing marital trouble staggered him. “But you cried outside,” he said.
She chuckled mirthlessly, a pitying sound. “I can still grieve him even if the marriage had dissolved. We were together for twenty-five years.”
“You met somebody else?” he asked.
Melanie’s eyes narrowed and then resumed their pretty, almond shape. “It’s not your business,” she said, patiently, “but actually, my husband strayed.”
Tom gripped the shelving for support and stared at the carpet. “I’m sorry. I should not have jumped to that conclusion. It’s just . . . disappointing.”
“For you and me both, kid.” She shook her face against swelling emotion. “Sincerely, take whatever. I’ll have an estate sale to empty the room. I’d rather a few things go to someone who will miss him.”
Dazed, Tom moved on from the pictures. His eyes roved over a few books about presidential scandals, written by right-wing pundits and blow-hard personalities. His stomach curdled. “You didn’t have children together?” he asked.
“None. We didn’t want any.”
Now Tom wondered why Walter would not want children. Would they hinder his perverse pursuits? All those sex books and the infidelity loomed in Tom’s mind. He came to the bookshelf’s end and disbelieved what he found in the corner there.
Leaning, half-hidden, in the gap between the bookcase and the wall, was a classic Fender Telecaster.
Tom kneeled before the electric guitar. Years of handling had discolored the maple fretboard, and the sunburst body was chipped and scratched, yet those blemishes only enhanced the instrument’s magnificence. The guitar was among the finest ever built, and—if of the vintage that Tom estimated—the damned thing cost a fortune.
“You like it?” asked Melanie.
“Why the hell is it here?” stammered Tom.
The widow laughed in the doorway. “Didn’t mention that either, huh? Oh, Walter.”
“Not once.” Tom lifted the instrument cautiously. “And I talked about music all the time. Like, at every session.” He held the body level to inspect the action, string height, and metal frets. Tom tested the pick-up toggle and the volume and tone nobs. The specimen was perfect.
“It belonged to his best childhood friend. For years, Walter wanted to learn to play. When his friend died of cancer, he bequeathed that guitar to Walter.”
A cable from the guitar swooped down to a tiny Pignose practice amplifier. Tom gazed from it to Melanie. “Did he learn to play?”
“Eventually. For a long time, you would think cats were dying in here. But with practice, he got pretty good.”
The guitar clung to Tom’s hands. Unable to put it back, he bent and stood multiple times like a misfiring robot.
His awkwardness amused Melanie. “Walter dedicated himself to the instrument, half for personal gratification, half in tribute to his friend.” She jerked her chin at him. “You should take it.”
Tom stared at her, gobsmacked. “It’s too expensive—”
“Do you want it?”
“Of course, but—”
“Don’t be coy. Just go enjoy it.” From a side closet door, she retrieved the guitar’s travel bag and handed it to Tom. “I’d prefer it go to someone who loved Walter than to a stranger.”
Carefully, Tom zipped the instrument into the bag. “Please, let me pay something.”
The widow waved his envelope. “You already have.”
Melanie would not allow further discussion. She led him back to the front lawn. With her hand shielding her brow against the sun’s glare, she said, “I hope this brings the closure you needed.”
Tom cradled the bag in his arms. “I’m speechless.” He thanked her again. They agreed it was nice to meet each other.
Then, she went back into the house, him to his car. Tom laid the guitar bag across the back seat like a bride. He could not wait to play it! On his drive home, however, he fell into a malaise. His mind kept returning to Walter’s books and echoing the words of the widow. Worse, he imagined Walter with his shirt unbuttoned to expose his hairy belly, grunting atop a mistress. Try as he might, Tom could not shake these terrible visions.
At home, Tom left the guitar case on his couch. He resolved to put the beauty through her paces after lunch. But, a sandwich later, he still could not handle the thing. For the time being, he decided to hide the valuable instrument in his closet. In case of burglary.
Tom sat and strummed his old, repaired guitar and grew more miserable. Later, he called around and booked an appointment with a new therapist—a woman this time, which seemed like a positive change. He started to think that Walter would approve, and then remembered.
Russell Richardson has written and published many short stories, illustrated a book of poetry, and created children’s books to benefit kids with cancer. His YA novel, Level Up and Die! was published in April 2021. He lives with his wife and sons in Binghamton, NY, the carousel capital of the world.