by Thomas Elson
What can loosen a bond of thirty years?
What can strengthen what can no longer be made strong?
David felt as if he were living inside his recurring fear begun decades earlier inside a chanked and abandoned farm building off a path hidden by overhanging branches surrounded by unproductive land more than fifty yards from a gravel county road when he sat on the wooded floor with the tip of a rifle barrel stuffed in his mouth.
Why not just do it? Get rid of the pain? The fear? One pull. One moment. Then it’s over. Why not? No excuse – no options – no hope of rescue – nothing. Just one damn pull, a momentary shock, a fleeting pain, and the back of his head splattered against the shed wall. David died that night before the trigger was pulled - his business unfinished. He stayed that way until he met Nicole.
David and Nicole met in a bleak town in a state known only for wheat, airplanes, and borderline politicians. During one of their evening walks around Ivey Park, he told her they would live in California. “Pretend the pond is the Bay, and the jungle gym over there is the Pyramid.” As she looked at him indulgently, he added, “Over by the swings is Telegraph Hill with Coit Tower. I visited there with my grandad.” Motioned to an imaginary apartment facing the Bay, “And, we will live,” he pointed precisely, “right there.”
“Why there?” She asked humoring him.
“Because once you live there, you’ll be disappointed by heaven.” Once, again, she smiled indulgently.
They never did live there, but for more than thirty years, they did live near Palo Alto. Then, only he lived there.
A few weeks after their thirty-first anniversary, and, continuing for more than three years, David and Nicole listened to the same diagnosis in the same exam room from the same oncologist. Both were cut into, both recovered. However, David’s cancer returned and required two regimens of chemo.
Nicole’s recurrence had not been detected, and her descent from an active grade school teacher into frailty left her speaking in two to three-word bursts, “I’m ready,” pause to catch her breath, “to go.” After sitting for a while, “I’m done.” Then repeating, “I’m ready.”
Nicole wanted relief. Only relief. He agreed that hers was the best path. Whoever audits us at the end will understand. Just give up the damn ghost. It’s not all about balancing debits and credits, is it?
She wanted David to drive her to Half Moon Bay along the Pacific shore - for years their weekend retreat with its mesmerizing waves and unlimited beach. She stood looking west, and, if seeing, not caring. Without a word, she turned to the car, and home forgoing their rituals of cinnamon scones at Moonside Bakery or grilled cheese sandwiches with french fries followed by sharing a massive slice of chocolate cake at Joe’s Restaurant as the ocean fog smoothed its way over what had been their world.
The next morning, his wife’s soft, warm hand caressed David’s face, “I’ve loved you all my life.” He caught her soft, powdery scent, and, through his haze reached for her, wanted to kiss her, but found it difficult to lift his hand. Tried again. He thought his hand was asleep but felt no tingle. Tried once more. It would not budge. His hand lay dead across his forehead. “I’ll just wait here for a moment.” The emptiness in that room lay like a corpse.
David pulled their car into the crowded church parking lot. Windows rolled tight, air conditioner blasting, David’s memory overrun. When he opened the car door, he felt as if he were breathing underwater. Not now. Not now. Just stay in the car with Nicole.
People noticed his car, hurried toward him, and walked with him across the parking lot into the small church that he and Nicole had seen seven years earlier when it looked like an abandoned building. They both loved what the church had become. Its simple grace, the closeness within its walls amidst crucifixes and icons.
The air inside the church was permeated with the smell of incense and cooked food. Had David been listening, he could have heard sniffles, sobs, and the creak of his own body as he attempted to weave through the crush of dark-clothed, drawn-faced people, until, in a burst, they encircled him. First, women with tightly wound hair, caked make-up, unyielding scents of Christmas gift perfume overlaid with garlic, and heavily-accented voices, “I’m so sorry. You two were wonderful together. I can’t imagine how you must feel.”
His first thought, Well, hell, neither can I, but said only, “Thank you. She always spoke very highly of you.” Or, “She admired you so much.”
A man grasped David’s shoulders, “It’ll be hell. Then it’ll be over. It takes years.” His grip tightened, his eyes held a sadness that stunned David. “After that,” the man said looking down at the floor, “you’ll understand. I did.”
A woman approached as if needing to be invited. She stiffened, tilted forward, her right shoulder landed in David’s chest. She reached around him, delivered a quick one-handed hug, muttered sorrow through wet face, and hurried into the kitchen.
David heard the click of canes as men of a certain age wobbled toward him. The man in front clasped David, and said, “It’s tough. I know. You’ll be all right.” Followed by a shoulder tap, fleeting eye contact, and, before executing a hesitant about-face, “Take care.” The other men nodded in unison.
Next came Nicole’s friends who worked with her on annual dinners, bake sales, bishop’s visits, Sunday School, and monthly lunches for the homeless. Each one an expert at condolences for widows. But what to do with a man whose wife died?
David heard the bustle from folks arriving late – families, couples, others alone, some with food – each with their own burdens – he recognized each person. He remembered families that had moved, recognized others who had not been inside the church in years, even those whose caskets he had helped place over their graves.
Men without wives arrived alone, sat isolated during services. Their unpracticed voices weaker and fainter as seasons changed, spines more twisted each year. After services they would sit huddled in the fellowship hall at a table near an unused door while people swept by giving them a wide berth in case one of those old men dropped a cane, spilled coffee or asked a passerby to sit with them.
Candles aflame, incense suffused, the priest in his decorated white and gold chasuble made his entrance into the sanctuary closely followed by an ever-erect acolyte with incense at the ready to ensure steady smoke. Sunlight filtered through stained glass and rested on the candles held by more than fifty people.
The choir, dominant with contraltos, baritones, and bass, chanted over the din of activity from the kitchen, “May her memory be eternal,” again and again as if repetition could make it true. Then more incense as Kleenex boxes were passed around, candles extinguished, chants muted.
The cemetery offered no comforting breeze, but a hiss that rolled the sky and collapsed on David. Barely unable to stand, he braced himself, listened, slipped back as if today were yesterday, and saw his wife. Don’t go alone. David shuddered as Nicole was lowered, saw himself walk by both their graves, shake his own hand and say, “I’m sorry.”
Before the priest turned toward the casket, he said, “May her soul, and the souls of all the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”
David forced himself back to the car surrounded by the mourners, paused, reached inside for a single red rose, “I’ll be right back.”
He approached the gravesite, caught the eye of the man scooping dirt into his wife’s grave. “Wait just a second,” he said. “Please, just a second.” He almost bowed. “I’m her husband.” Without a word the man released his shovel and walked toward an oak tree.
At the edge of his wife’s grave David knelt, leaned forward. Do not look down. The sides of the grave smelled of seeping moisture. Roots spiraled from the sides. His eyes followed their lines, then moved closer. Smiled weakly, leaned in. It’s consecrated ground, why not just join her?
He released the rose, watched it fall, then closed his eyes. Two feet, three feet, David floated until he touched the ridge of Nicole’s casket, saw her smile, reached for her hand. David, go back. A gust of wind curled, dipped, swirled, circled again and braided him up and onto the grass. Then nothing.
“I’m ready,” he said to Nicole, but felt a hand on his shoulder and did not know how or when he returned to the car.
“Are you alright?”
“I guess. Okay. Thanks.” Closed his eyes while the driver made the ritual cemetery exit.
He knew the next part by heart. By now Nicole would be basking in her celestial reward, so the next phase of the tradition was for everyone else. Back at the church dining tables strained, plates heaped like small hills. People clustered, their faces taut, spoke softly, grew quieter when David came near. Nodded and responded with more condolences, double handshakes, averted eyes, and, as if imitating the person before, stuttered, ”If- If you need anything.” Then that look, the silence, the averted eyes - as if he were an unwanted wisdom tooth or an inflamed appendix. Better for him not to linger growing unsteady on canes with thicker and thicker circumferences, or hobbling on the inevitable walker, and then slumping in a wheel chair.
After the priest finished eating, he stood holding a piece of paper with the words David had written. “Nicole was a grade school teacher. The kind of teacher boys fell in love with, and girls excelled for. When they would see her, twenty, even thirty years later, they’d jump as if third graders, then run toward her while their own children stood baffled with their mouths agape.”
The priest smoothed into an Irish toast David delivered to Nicole each year on their anniversary, “Without you, heaven would be too dull to bear, and hell would not be hell if you were there,” then looked toward the congregation, saw tears, turned and felt his own wet face.
It’s time. The voice may well have come from inside the wall for all David knew. Do not go alone. He knew it was time to leave. He wanted to stay, maybe needed to stay, but could see no option. He had rehearsed his exit. Better just to do it by himself. Better to go while he could still walk away.
Three days after Nicole’s funeral, all the papers were signed – only his and a couple of witnesses’ signatures required. His trunk was loaded with only the essentials - no books or iPad. They’d be of no use to him. His car was serviced, tires perfect - he wanted no delays or diversions. Just drive due east for five days, turn north, and get it done.
East on I-80, he blew past states he had only flown over - Nevada, Utah, Colorado. Three hundred miles a day, eat at a chain restaurant, check into a motel, dash off the next morning. Near Denver, he turned south to catch I-70. Fifty miles later, at a filling station, an attendant asked, “Where ya headed?”
David was mute unable to mold an answer. He wanted to say, I don’t know. Just drivin’ around. You know my wife died. Instead, he stood mute, paid, then a forced, “Thanks.” Nothing else came out.
Back on the highway, wind-assisted rain spread across the windshield. An eighteen-wheeler passed, swerved abruptly, and David shot to the right, then corrected himself with the motion of someone practiced at Interstate driving. Should’a taken advantage of that.
The next day he raced past the town of their courtship and into the Flint Hills. He skirted the Tall Grass Prairie Parkway - the pre-Columbian grassland never cut, never trimmed, never pastured. A mirror image of the people. Nothing had changed. Not the roads. Not the land. Not a damn thing. A few miles past Topeka he turned north.
His mind clouded. His thoughts overrun. His neck hurt. He knew it all by heart. Had replayed it a million times – revisited so often that yesterday merged with today.
He turned due north on the state highway. Almost ninety minutes later, I’ll keep driving north. Just check it out. A quick look. Consecrated ground be damned. He timed his arrival for just after dusk.
At another filling station and the same ritual as decades earlier – pump in three gallons of gas. That’s enough to get there. Smiled at the attendant, said thank you. Asked a question - just to hear another human voice - then stand close to a family looking into the cooler, and, for a moment, pretend to belong.
Back on the road, windows down. Dusk came sooner than he remembered. The wind curled inside the car, then dipped and swirled.
“I’m ready,” he said, and he turned off the State Road onto a gravel road for eight miles then the farm road with overhanging branches, abandoned shed, and his unfinished business.
About the author
Thomas Elson’s short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in numerous venues such as Calliope, Pinyon, MUSED-BellaOnline, New Reader, The New Ulster, The Lampeter, Blood & Bourbon, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. He divides his time between Northern California and Kansas.