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The Riddle: A Short Story


The idea for this short story came from the song “The Riddle” by Five For Fighting. I even borrowed my favorite line from that song for this story. I hope you enjoy it.

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The Visit

I hate nursing homes. To my mind, they are where the living go to die. Perhaps not a fair summation, but there you have it. So my mood was sour that day, several weeks ago, when I visited my mother, residing at Peaceful Glade Rest Home, on the downslope after a ten-year battle with Alzheimer’s. Her heart had run out of summers, the end was near, she had no idea who I was, why I was there, or perhaps that I was there at all.

I spent an hour there, as is my norm, a busy man allotting precious time for the woman who had birthed him, raised him as a single parent, sacrificed so much. I told her of my life, the past week, the important matters facing me, the upcoming divorce, all matters flying unhindered in one ear, out the other, no matter at all that I could tell, no hope of being heard, or understood, the magic lost, gone forever, the sparkle of her blue eyes clouded, no seeing.

I told her I loved her, promised to return in a few days, kissed her forehead, began to rise when suddenly she reached out, grabbed my hand with strength I did not know existed, and looked at me. She had not spoken a word in months, but she spoke that day, one sentence.

“I have a riddle for you, Peter my boy.”

That was all. No riddle arrived. Simply a declarative sentence of an impending arrival, a riddle, but the next logical step in the progression did not happen. Her eyes once again clouded, her grip relaxed and then ended altogether, and she returned to her secret place, a place I was not invited to visit.

I waited five minutes, ten, fifteen, in vain, no follow-up, so I rose, kissed her forehead again, and left her room. Paula Lincoln, the floor RN, was coming down the hall, towards me. I stopped her with a smile I did not feel in my depths.

“Has my mother spoken lately?

“Not at all, Mister Sinclair. The nursing staff meets each morning, discusses each of our residents, and no one reported your mother speaking. To my knowledge, she hasn’t spoken a word in months. Why do you ask?”

“No reason. Hope, I guess. Thank you for your time.”

Why hadn’t I told her of my mother’s short speech? I’m still not sure, today, as I retell the story. Perhaps I thought I had imagined it. Perhaps I was simply out of hope.

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The Riddle

I spent three days attempting to hold my life together, a full-time job since the separation, lawyer meetings, condo-hunting, far too many cocktails in lounges meant for the lonely, a patchwork quilt of desperation for a man known by many as a pillar of our society.

The nursing home had not changed by the time I returned. Sadness engulfed it, smothering it, not releasing its grip until the last breath was taken. I nodded to Paula Lincoln as I walked down the hall, and entered my mother’s room suddenly very weary of life.

Another hour spent, another one-way conversation, tears mixed with bravado, the time to leave finally granting me reprieve, when Mom reached out again, looked at me, and again spoke.

“I have a riddle for you, Peter my boy.”

“Yes, Mom. Tell me the riddle.”

Her grip increased in strength.

“The meaning of life is known by a puppy and by a kitten, but not by you. What is the meaning of life that they know and you’ve forgotten?” And then she left me once again, her disease smothering coherence, nobody home at that residence, perhaps never again.

So vibrant at one time, the woman before me now had once been the lifeblood of any social gathering, the focal point, not through any effort on her part but by sheer force of nature, laughing, teasing, playful, energetic, snatch any adjective you want to describe a woman who absolutely loved life, who squeezed every ounce of pleasure she could, joy found in the simplest of things.

A cruel joke by the divine. No other way to describe it. No explanation for it, random bullshit, pick one to thrive, pick one to deteriorate, and Peter, your mom drew the short straw.

A puppy, a kitten, and me.

I drove directly to The Last Call Bar & Grill, a place where everyone knows your name but don’t care enough to say it in conversation, the patrons far-too removed from social standing to even make an effort at niceties.

“Scotch on the rocks, double, Susan,” I told the bartender, twice-divorced, tough as nails, sharp wit, black-dyed hair atop a weary head, thirty pounds over fighting weight, forty looking sixty from sampling far too much of her own product.

“Double the man wants, double the man gets. Tough day, Pete? Why don’t you ask me out for dinner and I’ll make an honest man outta ya?”

“It would take more than a dinner to accomplish that, Susan, but thanks for the offer.”

A puppy, a kitten, and me.

Find the answer

Find the answer

That Damned Riddle

I made it home that night, had a couple more doubles, slipped into oblivion.

The next morning, shaved, cut myself doing so, wolfed down a cup of coffee, stale donut, made it to the office in time to be tossed into a maelstrom of business decisions, all crucial, all demanding instant solutions, jittery from too much coffee, jittery from the booze leeching out of my skin, a constant juggling act of responsibility and the blessed journey down the rabbit hole.

A puppy, a kitten, and me.

The meaning of life? You were born, you worked your ass off, you retired, and you died. The Buddhists understood . . . suffering is inevitable in life . . . nice, succinct, wrap it all up in a nice, neat package, say a few words at the poor bastard’s funeral, and that’s it, no more curtain calls, no last call at the bar, just eternal rest, thank you very much.

A puppy, a kitten, and me!

Final Call

The phone rang at three that afternoon, Delores forwarding it to me, her disapproval of me evident in her tone.

“Your mother on Line Two, Mister Sinclair!”

My mother? Calling me?

“Hello? Mom?”

“I have a riddle for you, Peter my boy. The meaning of life, known by a puppy and a kitten. You’ve forgotten, my darling son, but you knew it once. Can you recall what the meaning of life is?”

“Did I ever know it, Mom? I don’t know what you want me to say.”

There was a pause as she caught her breath.

“You knew it when you played with your friends, went to the park, hit the ball around. You knew it when you rode your bike. You knew it when you would catch lightning bugs in a jar, so proud you were, always ran inside to show me. You knew it when you went to the county fair, ate cotton candy. You knew it when you first kissed little Becky Armstrong, back when you were ten. And when you went fishing down at the creek. Don’t you remember, Peter my boy. Try hard, Peter my boy. Try very hard. It’s so very important, my son. I love you, and I want you to remember.”

And the line disconnected.

I dialed the nursing home number, asked for Paula Lincoln, waited a minute while they tracked her down.

“Paula speaking!”

“Paula, it’s Peter Sinclair. I just received a phone call from my mother. How is it possible that she called and that we had a coherent conversation?”

My question was greeted by thirty seconds of silence.

“Mister Sinclair, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but your mother passed away fifteen minutes ago. I was just getting ready to call you when you called. Mister Sinclair, are you there? Hello?”

2021 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

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