What We're Here For: A Fictional Interpretation of a Song by The Afters

Monday, June 02, 2014

What We’re Here For: A Fictional Interpretation of a Song by The Afters

In Honor of Music Monday

Traffic is always the worst on Friday evenings. It seems like the entire city conspires to clog up the streets, and make me late for my dinner date. Again. Sometimes, after a good day at work, this isn’t so bad. I take the time to listen to the music blasting from my stereo, or ponder ideas about how to spend my weekend. Today, however, was not a good day at work. I was late to the hour-long, completely pointless meeting that kicked off the slowest morning in office-work history. But, since I was late, my boss gave me a hard time for being unproductive, even if it wasn’t my fault there was nothing left for me to work on. And now even the traffic was slowing me down.

I was eager to get home.

By the time I pulled into my driveway, the sun was already setting. I was beyond late for dinner, but I knew my wife would understand. I was late nearly every Friday, after all. 

Right as I put my car in park, though, I noticed my neighbor, a quiet old man who typically kept to himself, standing in the middle of his lawn just staring at his front door. It looked like he had been on his way to the door when something made him freeze in place. I wondered how long he had been standing there like that, and why. I could tell something was wrong, and felt compelled to ask him, but then I thought, why should I care? 

Surely, if something is really wrong, he can call for help. Surely, he doesn’t need a nosy neighbor interrupting his train of thought.

But what if he does?

I sighed as I got out of the car to greet him. I was already going to be late to dinner. At the very least, perhaps I could make my neighbor’s day a little bit better.

“Mr. Reed?” I asked.

Mr. Reed jumped, startled, and turned to look at me.

“Hello, Mr. Thompson, is it?” He said.

“Yes, sir, but I prefer Sam.”

“Well, then, how are you today, Sam? Good day, yes?”

“I was just about to ask you the same question.”

“Yes, well, good day.”

He seemed shifty and uncertain. Like he was waiting for me to go away. I got the sense he didn’t want to go into his house. But why? What was wrong?

“Mr. Reed, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but is something the matter?”

He looked at me. I noticed he had blue eyes, the kind that are so light they almost look scary. His skin was sagging a little on his face, and he had dark halos that looked like bruises from his brow bone to the top of his cheeks.

I watched his expression change from uncertain, to shocked, to sad. And then he burst into tears, falling to his knees on his lawn and burying his face in his wrinkled hands.

I hopped the short fence that separated us in a nanosecond, and ran to his side.

“Mr. Reed, would you like some help inside?”


Minutes later, I was sitting on his living room couch. There were pictures of his wife everywhere I looked. She had passed away a few years ago. I remember my wife had baked him a plate of brownies with a sticky note that said “chocolate mends the heart.” We never received a thank you.

And now, I was sitting in his living room while he boiled a pot of tea in the kitchen. Making sure the man who never said thank you- or anything really- was taken care of.

“I don’t normally make tea. That was Lisa’s specialty. She loved her tea.” He said as he placed a mug of tea in front of me.

He waved his hand at me, dismissing my thanks. Great. I thought. Not only does he refuse to say it, he also refuses to acknowledge it.

“Cancer.” He said, suddenly.


“She died of cancer. That’s why she always drank the tea. She thought it would help, but the cancer got her anyway.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what? Did you give her cancer?”

“That’s just what people say.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t need your pity.”

I took a sip of the tea. It was still too hot to drink, and it burned my mouth, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I only knew that I couldn’t leave. For some reason, I felt I needed to stay. Perhaps in time the right words would come to me.

“Do you miss her? Your wife, I mean?” I asked.

“What kind of question is that? Of course I miss her. She’s my wife!”

Wrong words.

“I’m sorry I asked. I guess I just don’t really understand what’s bothering you.”

“Eating me, actually. It’s eating me.”

“What is?”

“The cancer.” He said. “I just found out I have it now too.”


An hour later, it was time for me to leave. I had left my phone in the car, and I didn’t even want to think about the amount of worried messages my wife had left me. She’d understand once I explained my extreme lateness.

Mr. Reed was given three months to live.

It started with a bowl of oatmeal. He had one every morning. The fiber helped with digestion. Except when it didn’t.

Colon cancer. Treatable when it isn’t ignored. But Mr. Reed had ignored it, and now it had spread too far to ignore. 

There was still a chance he could beat it with the right treatment, but the chance was so small and the treatment so expensive that he didn’t think it would be worth it.

“What are you planning to do?” I asked him.

“For three months?” He said. “Well, I suppose I plan to live, but who knows what that means? I thought that’s what I’ve been doing, but now I don’t think I’ve been doing it right. Being with Lisa was the closest to living I felt, but when she left…”

He walked me to the door, and put his hand on my shoulder.

“I hope you’re living a life you’re proud of.” He said.

I smiled. It wasn’t a thank you, but it was close enough.


Next door, my wife was pacing, but she stopped as soon as I walked through the door.

“Where have you been?” She asked. “Why haven’t you been answering my calls? I’ve been worried sick!”

“I’m sorry, hon. I was with Roger…Mr. Reed. From next door?”

“Oh? I didn’t realize you were on a first name basis with him now?”

“I wasn’t. Until today.” She crossed her arms over her chest, waiting for me to continue. “He’s dying, Lanie. Cancer.”

Her entire expression and posture softened and she immediately wrapped herself into my arms.

“Oh God.” She said. “Does he need anything?”

“I think he just needed someone to talk to.”

“I’ll make him another plate of brownies.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think we should just let him live.”

“Are you sure?”

“That’s what he said he wanted.”

“Okay.” She said. “Dinner’s cold, but I can reheat it for you.”

“Sounds good.”


Later that night, I thought about what Mr. Reed had said about life. About how we may feel like we’re living, but maybe we’re not. Maybe life isn’t about working from nine to five at a job we hate. Maybe life isn’t about working at all. Maybe life is about the little things that matter the most: spending time with the one you love, learning something new, and doing whatever makes you feel most alive.

On Monday, I quit my job. Lanie and I had always wanted to travel, but I could never manage to ask my boss for the time off. We had enough money saved up to last us a year or two, and we decided it was time to start living. 

The day before our plane left for Europe, I went to see Mr. Reed.

“Thank you.” I said.

“For what?”

“Teaching me how to live.” I said. “I quit my job so my wife and I can travel. We always wanted to, but we didn’t think that would make a responsible life.”

“The only thing you’re responsible for in life is living.”

“Exactly.” I smiled. “Thank you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Have fun. Send me a postcard.”

“I will. And if you’re still here when we get back…”

“Don’t count on it.”

I chuckled.

“I guess we’ll just have to see.” I said.

“Your wife is waiting for you. You don’t want to miss the plane.”

“Alright, I get the hint. I just wanted to say thank you. I wouldn’t be living if it weren’t for you.”

“Maybe. But you’d still be breathing.” He said. “Now stop wasting your breath talking about it, and start your living already.”

“I wish you the best Mr. Reed.”

“Call me, Roger.” He said, waving his hand dismissively. I turned to leave. “And Sam?”

I turned around to look at him again.

“Yes, Roger?”

“Thank you.”

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