Ernie Sherman, an eighty-year-old widower, sat on a bench near the beach in Oceanside, California. The summer sun dispersed the morning mist. He enjoyed watching small fishing boats float over the kelp beds and surfers in wetsuits drift over three-foot swells.

Ernie and his late wife had shared their daily activities and had appreciated each other’s company. They met at the San Diego Symphony Orchestra; she played the piano and he the violin. For five years after her death, he had lived a lonely life. He reflected on how he had tried to create friendships. But people had disappointed him.

He sold his house in Carlsbad, California and cleared $750,000. Now he worried about what to do with his wealth. Rashes broke out on his chest.

“G’day, sir,” a tall woman in a sleeveless, white blouse said. “Can I share your bench?” She pushed back her shoulder-length, blondhair.

“Of course,” Ernie said. “I detect an Australian accent.”

“Right. My name’s Britney. This is my husband, Gabe.” She gestured towards a square-jawed man with blue eyes who sat in an electric wheelchair.

“I’m Ernie.”

“Hi, Ernie,” Gabe said.

“Ernie, would you mind keeping an eye on Gabe’s wheelchair while we go down to the shore?”

Ernie scratched the stubble on his round cheek. “Well… that’s an expensive wheelchair. How do you know you can trust me?”

“I just know,” Britney said.

“We won’t be long, sir,” Gabe said.

“Well, okay.”

“Thank you, sir,” Gabe said.

He took a blanket off his lap, and Ernie stared at Gabe’s legless torso.

Britney knelt for Gabe to hook his arms around her shoulders. She groaned as she stood. Ernie watched Britney carry Gabe along the shoreline and step into the shallow water where children ran from the small waves, screaming in delight.

Twenty minutes later, Britney and Gabe returned.

“I’m zonked,” Britney said. “That was a good workout for me, and Gabe loves being at the beach.”

“Thank you for taking care of my chair, sir.”

“Glad to help.”


Ernie met Britney and Gabe at the same bench two or three times a week for seven weeks. Britney brought Ernie chips, popcorn or a cookie, and he guarded Gabe’s wheelchair. He loved watching Britney carry Gabe to and from the seashore.

Sometimes pelicans plunged into the water to feed. Seagulls flapped close behind, wheeling with eerie cries and snatching food remnants.

Britney invited Ernie to their apartment where she served him tea and apple pie. They talked about their appreciation of the mild Southern California weather, their favorite food and movies. Ernie enjoyed the company of the young, energetic couple.

On a Thursday morning, when they returned to Ernie’s bench from the beach, Britney said, “This beach is a ripper, Ernie. It’s great. Do you live nearby?”

“Yes. I’m staying at the Jacaranda Residence. Would you like to come over for tea on Sunday afternoon and see the place?”

“This weekend we’re meeting with friends,” Gabe said. “But we can come a week from Sunday.”

“I’ll look forward to that.”


Ernie sat in an armchair under the vaulted ceiling in the foyer of the Jacaranda Residence, waiting for Gabe and Britney. Nearby, residents in wheelchairs stared with vacant expressions, saliva dripping off their chins. Residents’ heads slumped to their chests. Stale sweat odors clung to them like shadows.

Ernie wondered about the thoughts of the residents who did not talk. What do they think? Are they able to reason? Thank the Lord, I can make logical judgments. Or can I?

A group of seniors, some in wheelchairs, talked in a small group near the front door as they waited to board a mini-bus.

Ernie saw Britney and Gabe enter the lobby. He sighed with contentment.

“This is a bonza place, Ernie,” she said. “Excellent.”

Gabe stared at the people in wheelchairs wondering if they also felt the frustration of sitting uncomfortably in a wheelchair. Of not being able to do simple things.

Ernie took them to the quiet cafeteria where dust particles danced in beams of sunlight. He ordered coffee, tea and blueberry and banana nut muffins.

“What part of Australia are you from, Britney?”

“I’m a Brisbanite originally. After my father died, I came to the States with my mother. She lives with an old friend in Los Angeles, and I meet with her every couple of months.”

“Ernie,” Gabe said, “My counselor told me it’s helpful for me to talk about how I lost my legs.”

“I’m interested in your story.”

“I was a marine in EOD. That’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal.” Gabe drew in a long breath. “During a deployment in Iraq, I triggered an explosive device. I was blasted high and landed in a crater. My mouth was full of dirt and blood. Buddies raced me to the medics. I’m thankful for the doctors who saved my life.”

Britney squeezed Gabe’s hand. “Keep going, love,” she said.

“In my nightmares, I get blown up over and over. I… I have phantom pains where my legs were. I have panic attacks. In the mornings, I wake up expecting to swing my legs out of bed and feel the floor. Then I remember I don’t have legs, and I get depressed.

“When I met Britney, I loved her accent. I thought she was too beautiful to be in my league. Also, I worried she’d be weirded out by my missing legs. But she’s the best thing that’s happened to me.”

“After dating for seven months,” Britney said, “we got married. We feel good, just being together. Someday, we plan to have children.”

“That’s great,” Ernie said. Gabe may become like a son to me. Britney is a sweetheart. But should they earn their own money? Should I give part of the money now and part later? He rocked, shifting his weight.

“What are you thinking about, Ernie?” Britney asked.

“I was thinking how much I like you both. Will you allow me to do something for you?”

“What’s that?” Gabe asked.      

“I have some extra money. I think you could use the cash.”

Britney clasped her throat as if she had trouble breathing. “’ang on. You may need the cash.”

“With my retirement income, I can afford to stay at this home. I don’t have a family to support. My wife died five years ago from lung cancer. And we lost our only child when he was fourteen, to sudden cardiac arrest while he was playing soccer during the State Championships.”

“Oh, my God,” Britney said, covering her mouth with her hand. “I’m so sorry, Ernie.” She handed him a tissue.

He wiped his eyes and blew his nose. Lines of sadness deepened in his face. “Anyway, I don’t have much longer to live.”

“Sounds like you’re feeling blue,” Britney said. “I hope you won’t consider ending your life.”

“No, I won’t.”

“What are your thoughts about Ernie’s kind offer, Britney?” Gabe asked. He bit a fingernail.

Gabe and Britney stared at each other.

“Gabe, you know we have serious expenses.” She thought about the medical bills, the rent, and how she skimped on food.

“Before I give you this money,” Ernie said, “you must agree to one condition.”

“What’s that?” Britney asked, knitting her eyebrows.

“Don’t tell anyone who gave you this gift. Otherwise, people will be pestering me.”

“Too right,” she said, in a soft tone. “We agree.”

With a shaking hand, Ernie wrote a check.

Britney stared at the document with narrowed eyes. “Seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars,” she whispered. “Stone the crows. This is a whopper.” She showed the check to Gabe. “I’m tingling, from my toes to the top of my head. I can’t keep still. No, I can’t. I don’t know…”

Gabe shook Ernie’s hand. “We appreciate it, sir. How can we ever thank you?”

“No need. I’m happy to help a lovely couple. My blessings to you both.”

Britney kissed Ernie’s wrinkled forehead. “You’re so thoughtful and generous. I’ll cook dinner for you. What’s your favorite dish?”

“Shepherd’s Pie.”

“Sorry, we must leave to meet friends,” she said. “Fetch you at seven tomorrow evening, You’re great, Ernie. Ta-ta.”

In the parking lot, Gabe said, “This can’t be true. We’ll go to the bank early in the morning.”

“I think we’ll be flush tomorrow. And lots of people will be jealous.”

Britney deposited Ernie’s check when the bank opened the next day. That evening, Ernie ate dinner at their apartment and enjoyed the Shepherd’s Pie.


The following Saturday night, Britney and Gabe sat inside a French restaurant in San Diego.

“Britney, can you eat all five courses you ordered?”

“Just watch me.” She raised her glass of 1990 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon. “Cheers. Now that we’re cashed up, our family relatives expect us to kick in.”

“And I’m more popular with my veteran friends.”

“Let’s get cracking and veg out in Vegas.”


For six months, Ernie did not see or hear from Britney and Gabe. He missed the young couple. The shadow of anxiety about their wellbeing grew.

The cool breath of winter arrived, and Ernie spent more time in his residence.

After his usual breakfast of oatmeal and tea, the receptionist said to Ernie, “The Executive Director would like to see you.”

Ernie knocked on the open door of the office.

“Come in, Mr. Sherman. Please sit down.” She waited for Ernie to sit in an armchair. “We’ve maintained the same rent for you during the last five years, but…”

“What?” Ernie paled.

“Our expenses have gone up since then. Unfortunately, we’ll be increasing your fee by fifteen percent, starting a month from tomorrow.”

Ernie moaned. “But I… I can’t afford to pay more.”

“Perhaps someone could help.”

“I hate to ask people for money. And I don’t want to move to a dump.”

“I understand. I’m really sorry. Let me know your decision next week.”


At mid-morning, Ernie trudged a quarter mile to Gabe and Britney’s apartment.

Gabe opened the door. “Hi, Ernie. How you doin’? Come in.” Gabe wheeled himself into the kitchen ahead of Ernie.

“This is a surprise, Ernie.”

“I need to ask you and Britney something. Is she here?”

“Britney’s at the Food Bank.”

“The Food Bank? Why?”

“Well, it’s a long story. We… we messed up.”

“You mean…”

Gabe put his hand to his brow. Puffy, darkened bags lay under his eyes. “I’m sorry to say…”

“All the money is gone?” Ernie asked, his cheeks burning. “Damn. You’re both deadbeats.” Ernie sat with a glassy stare. “I’m dizzy. Can I have some water?”

“Sure.” Gabe gave Ernie a tall glass of water. “Should I call nine-one-one?”

“No. Don’t do that. Just give me a few minutes.” His agitation showed in red blotches on his face and neck.

“Take your time.” Gabe placed two fingers on Ernie’s wrist. “Your pulse is fast.”

Ernie drank the water. “What happened, Gabe?”

“We spent most of the last six months in Vegas. We did okay in the beginning.”  He tapped his fingers on the armrest of the wheelchair. “The casinos’ Rewards Programs gave us money for airfare, free concert tickets and credit at the gift stores. But our luck ran out. Loans we made will never be paid back. Now we’re trying to reduce our debts.”

“I can’t believe this.” Ernie groaned. “I’m going back to my room.”

Ernie left Gabe and wandered in the wrong direction, away from the Jacaranda Residence. I’m an old sucker, giving those kids so much money. Half an hour later, he backtracked until he reached familiar streets. He sat on a bench to rest and watched California ground squirrels scamper between bamboo plants. A large squirrel squeaked as if upset, then dashed into a hole. That squirrel seems to be disturbed, like me.

A wind rose and leaves fell from the trees.

Ernie zipped up his windbreaker and walked, preoccupied, to the crossing near his home. He stepped into the street, not seeing the red “Don’t Walk” sign.

The driver of an eighteen-wheeler braked hard, and the tires screeched.