James Gyure


James Gyure lives, writes, and makes wine in western Pennsylvania, where he had a long career as a college administrator. His recent work appears in Tahoma Literary Review, Gravel, Hot Metal Bridge, Two Cities Review, Front Porch, and is forthcoming in Greenbriar Review. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is completing a collection of linked short stories and flash fiction.


The Meter Reader

It’s late morning on a day at the very end of December, just a week away from the three-year anniversary of my wife’s death, a day windy and frigid, but brighter than July, the cloudless sky a shade of blue that stings. I’m at the window in my second-floor study, where my class preparations for the upcoming term are going well, and I’m watching a meter reader in a fluorescent orange vest moving from house to house along the street.

There’s more than a foot of snow on the ground, and I’m watching this figure trudge through our wide suburban yards, the sun reflecting off the deep, packed snow with a glare that is nearly blinding. Even though the meter reader is on the opposite side of the street, and still a couple of houses away, I suddenly realize that the figure is female. I’m used to guys stomping around the house. I usually hear them before I see them, talking loudly on cell phones and walkie-talkies, checking the gas meter, smoke-testing sewers, climbing ladders to install cable. She is clearly not one of those guys.

I fall in love with her immediately.

This surprises me. Not that the meter reader is a woman. But the suddenness of my infatuation, the speed with which the femaleness of this random figure in the neighborhood catches and holds my attention. I watch her raising her knees high to slog through the deep snow and drifts. All of the meters are on the sides of the houses, so she can’t just stick to the street or take advantage of my neighbors’ meticulously cleared driveways.

When she’s at the house across the street, I can see Meter Reader in blocky, black, genderless letters on the back of her orange vest. She is almost disguised in clothes for the weather – ski pants, big boots, thermal gloves. But I can see long hair tucked into a woman’s ski cap, and when she turns, her dark sunglasses frame the contours of a feminine face. I can make out her figure even through those heavy clothes. There is something about the way she moves her hips, an athletic woman’s stride, the way she swings her left arm while she holds some kind of instrument in her right hand.

She is moving at a brisk pace, despite the snow, a marked contrast to our mailman, who seems to pause at each address as if deliberating whether or not the house deserves the effort he’d have to make to reach the mailbox. This doesn’t look like exertion for her. It looks more like exercise, or sport, like snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. I’m certain she excels at both.


My wife, Anne, died from cancer. When the severe pain quaked in her abdomen, and she couldn’t eat, and she lost weight, we feared the worst and hoped for the best. She endured the indignity of the tests with a calm resoluteness I found unnerving. When the doctor gave us the diagnosis it was me who cried like an inconsolable teenager. By the time we saw the oncologist, we already knew enough to understand that the prognosis of late stage pancreatic cancer was a death sentence, and again I cried.

Over a year before she died, well before she was diagnosed, Anne revealed to me that she was preparing for the Rapture, and that she was at peace with the idea that it might take place soon, possibly within her lifetime. At the time, her announcement stunned me as much as, months later, the verdict of cancer would crumple my life. Her newfound faith seemed to comfort her as her body broke down, but I sensed a resentment, an anxiety that swelled up beneath the surface. In the end, it confounded me to think that she wasn’t only angry because some appalling disease was ravaging her, but because she could not be among those alive who would be pulled into the heavens (she had no doubts that she would be one of the chosen), unpredictably and cinematically, but conscious of the spectacle all the while.

Most people expect to live a long time, even when they say things like “I’ll never make it,” or “I’ll never see that in my lifetime,” invoking verbal talismans of reverse psychology. And despite whatever habits they cultivate, people like to believe they’ll stay in good health, thinking that they’ll be the lucky ones to dodge the genetic bullet, the unexpected cosmic mishap. Anne used to say that I wasn’t as much afraid of death as I feared the embarrassment of how I might die. The truth is, I was more anxious about the potential cost of Anne and I doddering around with the ailments of advanced age than I was about actually passing away. So when it was she who died, I became stuck in time for a while, like a Vonnegut character, stuck at the moment of her death. I went through the motions of acceptance, receiving the sympathy and casseroles and well-intentioned phone calls with the best version of numbed graciousness I could muster, until most of it stopped, and I set about adjusting to the absence of Anne on my own. In the beginning, I resented the advice about “moving on,” and later I reluctantly sorted through the inevitable offers of brokered dates with lonely widows or somebody’s aunt: a meeting for coffee, an event at the museum, a companion to a summer party. I flinched when colleagues suggested on-line dating sites for mature singles. I couldn’t tell if my feelings of anger and loneliness came from the same source as my missing Anne, but I knew I didn’t want any company in that place. Baffled by the unexpected wash of self-pity, and dizzied by fear, I lost track of my own aging. And then one day, while shaving or brushing my teeth or looking into a mirror while buying khakis, I abruptly woke up to my own reflection, surprised and alarmed at the difference between the image in the mirror and the one in my head.


The meter reader continues her route, and I know she is making a loop that will bring her back around to this side of the street and back to my house in fifteen or twenty minutes. I watch her trudge out of sight. If I time it right, I could be at the front door when she passes by. Opening the door to the brittle cold, I would greet her warmly, waving so as not to startle her. She would be apprehensive nonetheless, thinking something’s wrong. She’s not likely to run into many people on these winter rounds. But I would smile broadly and make some friendly gesture with my hands. “Nothing’s wrong,” I would say. “It’s just so cold, I thought you could use some hot coffee or a cup of tea.” Against her better judgment, she would smile, a wide smile with prominent white teeth.


I’m a bewildered widower, falling in love impulsively now, at random, always briefly, and sometimes with much younger women. Not in a creepy, Humbert Humbert kind of way. It’s always love from a safe distance, mooning over actresses or local TV news anchors, or women I encounter only occasionally, like waitresses and dental hygienists. Or supermarket clerks. How many times have I wheeled my half-empty cart around to her register (her name tag says “Kaci”), ignoring shorter lines so that I can discreetly watch her while she rings up the people ahead? I take note that she’s letting her hair grow, and has recently changed it from a dusty blond to a shade of platinum, with some bright green highlights. As she passes groceries over the scanner, I try to read the tattoos on her forearms; she has those tattoos that look like phrases or passages from something, a lyric from some rap anthem, or lines from The Prophet. She wears no wedding band, and I am naively surprised when she says to the woman in front of me, who’s buying some kind of kids’ cereal, “My three-year old loves that!”

As she gets to my yogurt and bananas and the rest of my diminished version of a grocery order, she tells me about her hands always being cold when she works this register near the front doors. She looks at me with friendly brown eyes (I think they have a depth that belies her position behind the register) and smiles. I laugh heartily, as if she’s told a good joke, grateful for the small talk, thankful not to feel invisible. I wonder where she lives, and who is the father of her three-year old. I look at her blue smock with the supermarket’s name stitched in red, and wonder what she looks like when she gets a sitter for Saturday night, and puts on a lot of make-up and a glitzy top, and heads for a bar with some girlfriends. When she says, “Have a good one,” which she says to everybody, I stand there holding my plastic bags, hesitant to leave, wanting to say something witty about how she should try a pair of gloves with the fingertips cut off, like some clerk in a Dickens novel. But she has moved on to the next customer, chatting in the same cheery tone about the price of produce.


I’m certain the meter reader would be young, in her mid twenties. She has her whole life ahead of her. She probably thinks this job will just be for a little while. The utility companies pay good money, and it makes sense. She could be saving as much money as she can, maybe paying off school loans, and helping to support her live-in boyfriend, a loutish guy with a first name like Colton or Mitch or Max, who works sporadically, tending bar at night at a place called the Bridge Street Tavern, and during the day spending hours playing video games like Call of Duty and Assassins’ Creed and betting on fantasy sports while she’s trudging through the snow, reading meters.


I teach only part-time now, an occasional adjunct, laying out the fundamentals of composition to mostly anonymous adults, would-be nurses and accountants looking to change their disappointing lives. But when I taught full time, still capable of holding the attention of a room full of ardent grad students, I couldn’t avoid becoming aware of the personal lives of some of those students, revealed in their earnest comments in class and in their labored essays, or during their visits to my office, where, struggling to appear cool and unaffected, they fiddled with backpacks and looked round-eyed out my window. Those glimpses into their young world, unedited insights as abbreviated and constricted as a glance through the slats of a window blind on an evening walk, were usually enough to invoke a type of melancholy rather than prurience. So much of what they did – the silly risks they took, their intense and short-lived passions, the utter solemnity with which they viewed their problems – seemed to reflect a range of misgivings and inner pain they could shield, but not explain.

So why now, I ask myself, why do I wonder what it would feel like to be close to that pain again, to feel its touch, knowing it might simply crush me?


When Anne told me that she believed the End of Days was coming, and that she expected to be part of the Rapture, I started to laugh. I thought she was joking. We had never been a particularly religious couple during our marriage, although she, more than I, went through periods of what I called religious routine and she called rational spirituality, occasionally making an elaborate, if largely symbolic, show of attending a Lutheran church in our neighborhood, visiting on a sketchy basis without ever committing to regular attendance. But by this later time in my life, I was cynical about most religion, and referred to myself as a “lazy agnostic.”

I asked her, “Isn’t that when certain people suddenly disappear, like they’re teleported up to heaven? ‘Beam me up, Lordie.’”

“Do you have any idea how many times that corny joke has been told, in one version or another? It’s stupid. And offensive.”

Anne spoke matter-of-factly, with the resigned curtness of a believer. She had anticipated my reaction, and was not put off by it.

“Really?” I asked. “Have you heard it before?”

“Yes,” she said. “Of course I have.”

“And have you talked to others about the Rapture?”

“Yes,” she said again. “Of course.”

And, indeed, there had been others, with whom to discuss not only jokes, but affirmations, commitments, and predictions. How could I have missed it? Were there signs I overlooked? She had been “going to church” again for some time, but I had assumed it was the same nearby Lutheran church and she never said otherwise. Although I never accompanied her, I never complained about her going. She didn’t ask me to join her, for which I was grateful, and I figured she would eventually grow disenchanted and stop attending, as she had before.

Anne and I talked about many things both deep and simple, but, admittedly, at this point in our lives, we spent the most time on the routine logistics of our days. And although we talked often enough about what we were reading, she never mentioned what must have involved a lot of secret study, contemplation, searching. Wasn’t I paying any attention? She was talking to people about it as well, and not Lutherans, but some evangelical group. Apparently there were meetings, online chat groups, a mentoring minister. Once she had announced her new belief to me, she answered every question I asked. She filled in all the details, about how she scheduled meetings with the groups or the minister while I was teaching, especially during my evening classes. How she made phone calls to people, exchanged emails and text messages, using whatever free time she had to build her conviction.

I felt like a husband scorned. In fact, in those first days I was so unsettled by the news that I would have preferred that it had been another man, a lover with whom she had been secretive, creative, passionate.

“Why didn’t you talk to me about this?” I asked, incredulous, angry. “Why keep it a secret?”

“Because you would have argued with me. You would have discouraged me, ridiculed me.”

“I never would have ridiculed you!”

“You most certainly would have.”

And of course she was right. Even as I denied it, I could hear myself hooting with skepticism as I revealed her anticipation of the Rapture to friends over dinner. I could picture their looks of surprise, their eyebrows arching as they held their forks in mid-air or coughed into their wine glasses, some fussy and scolding, others flashing the kind of concern you reserve for news of someone’s identity theft or a parent’s growing dementia. I would have teased. I would surely have argued. Now, when she accused me, even though I had never said a single word about it, I felt as if I had been caught red-handed.

Anne had already done her research, and so I hurried to do mine. Each in our own way, we had sought to find out as much as we could, like stealth devotees, one to prove, the other to disprove. In the tangle of scripture quotations and exclamation points and dire commentary about pre-Tribulation perspectives and millenialists, I came to understand that, with a tone more composed and less feverish than most of what I was reading, Anne was patiently preparing me, explaining that she would be leaving me, that she would soon be yanked from my life, suddenly, and with little hope of being reunited.


The meter reader will stand in my front hallway, adjusting to the warmth, a sudden contrast to the frigid air outside. Her sunglasses will fog up immediately, and she’ll take them off to reveal striking blue eyes. Her cheeks will be rouged with the chill. She will feel awkward about the snow melting from her boots, her ski pants, dripping onto the rug, making dark spots.

“I’m sorry. I’m getting everything wet,” she will say.

“No, that’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s a hassle. It’s so cold outside.”

“I know. Please. Can I take your jacket? The coffee’s already made. You can have a quick cup.”

She will stand there looking at me, her sunglasses in one hand, the digital device in the other. It looks like one of those hand-held things they use to take inventory in supermarkets and hardware stores. Her teeth will have that whitening-strip brightness that is almost disconcerting. In her boots, she will be taller than me by a couple of inches, and for a brief dizzy moment, I might feel her looking down at me as though she were standing on a stool. I might feel her physical presence as an overwhelming sensation. I will know what she’s thinking: Am I crazy? Shouldn’t I let someone know I’m here? Isn’t this against regulations? I could get fired. I would think much the same thing.

Perhaps she’ll just decide I’m too old to be threatening, and she’ll take off her cap, letting straight blond hair fall to her shoulders. It is streaked with pink. Why the fondness for these slashes of rainbow hues? She will remove her jacket and pull off her boots. To me, it will be like she is stripping to bare skin. I will bring her hot coffee with hazelnut cream, and as we sip the fragrant coffee, I will talk about my life alone, its achy routines and hollow nights. I will tell her about Anne, about Anne’s death, and her anguish at not being around for the Rapture. She will talk about Colton (or Mitch, or Max), his blond dreadlocks and tattooed body (“Each tattoo has a story”), his drinking, and their fights over money. She will tell me how she worries that her love is mostly a yearning to save him from ruin, but also a craving to roll with him in the raw, stupid appetites of their youth. We will talk until our coffee grows cold.

When our conversation seems to turn a little sad, I will put on music – quiet 80’s pop, Howard Jones, Paul Young, The Human League – and persuade her to dance with me. I will notice the scent of the cold in her hair, and the damp outdoor smell of her clothes. I will murmur something unintelligible, and she will stop dancing and, at arm’s length, stare into my face. I will stare back at those blue eyes, her nose thin and sloping upward at the tip, her lips also thin, pushed a little forward by those prominent white teeth, a small scar on her chin, the result of a teenage skiing accident.

What will be in her look?

I will say to her, “Let’s move someplace that’s near water, where it’s warm all the time. We’ll buy a yellow Mini-Cooper, and scoot around town and out to the beach.”


The faster Anne’s cancer progressed, the less we talked about the End of Days and the Rapture. When surgery was ruled out, her doctors, neither genuinely optimistic nor entirely fatalistic, did what they could to throw dogged medical roadblocks in the path of the train wreck disease, chemotherapy and radiation and ultimately narcotics that left her with tumultuous bowels and a vapid sleepiness. I finally met the minister who had guided her conversion, a tall gray-looking guy with the earnestness of a nerdy teen. He didn’t inspire me, and I didn’t think he offered much comfort to Anne. As soon as the protocol of frosty courtesy permitted, I escorted him away from her.

After Anne made her initial admission to me, I had argued repeatedly with her, as she had predicted I would, but once she was diagnosed, I bit my tongue and let her say what she wished, let her talk as much as she wanted, although her words became fewer rather than more frequent. One night, before she moved to hospice, as she lay in the hospital bed we had set up in the dining room, vanilla candles lit in the dimness (the scent comforted her), Chopin playing very low, she brought up the Book of Thessalonians again, as she had often. “Paul says that the day of the Lord will come as a ‘thief in the night.’”

“So you’ll be stolen away from me. What is it with this constant emphasis on suddenness? This disappearance that has to be unexpected?”

“That is what the Lord desires.”

“And you’re still okay with that?”

She turned to look at me, her eyes tired, disappointed.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and then again, “I’m sorry. I understand.”

She moved her head as if she were trying to shake it. Even that effort was painful for her. No. You don’t understand.

Of course she knew that I didn’t really understand at all. Was it jealousy I felt? I didn’t begrudge that which comforted her in the midst of unspeakable pain. But it tormented me to the point of sleeplessness that what she had embraced so deeply, what she had adopted with an acceptance so powerful it made her willing to be plucked abruptly from our life together, was something I could never want. And I didn’t want her to want it either. I felt the pain of being abandoned, and I understood, with a shuddering sadness and dismay, that my being left behind, unrepentant and doubting, was what she believed had to be. It stung me to know that she was gone before she left.


I am still at my window, watching the young meter reader as she plows through the snow in my front yard. She’s made her loop of the neighborhood, and is back here. She’s already recorded the numbers from the meter on the side of my house, and is moving on. When she passes by, I hurry to the bedroom, where I can watch her at the house next door, tapping numbers into her recording instrument. She pauses and looks upward. Has she seen me at the window? She doesn’t seem to be looking in my direction, but rather toward the icy blue sky and glinting winter sun beyond the angled roofline of my house, as if measuring how much time she has left before a darkening cloud, a sudden snow. Seeing whatever she hopes to see, she turns and moves on, trudging toward the end of the street, toward the end of her day. Someone in a white utility-company cargo van will come to meet her, and transport her away. I watch her until I can no longer see her. I watch her until she is gone.

I am often fascinated by the ‘alternate realities’ we create out of our desires and longing, or as an act of rebellion, or as a way to blunt the pain and rigors of daily life. Whether they are reverie or dream, an impulsive notion, or a years-long obsession, they are uniquely human, and rich with potential stories of love and loss and loneliness.