Here's a story that was inspired by a dream; I wrote it in a day. May 28, 2011.
The crumbing, moldy grey crosses lined the older part of Pine Grove Cemetary, all manner of what were once ornate tombstones having fallen into light disrepair – the workers would certainly polish a faceplate now and then, but many of the relatives of the graves’ residents were no longer paying, and it was only the interest of keeping a somewhat steady stream of clientele that they would keep the tombs at least presentable. With the exception of a few graves of Freemasons, scattered unevenly and sticking out like sore thumbs, it had once been a uniformly Christian burial ground.
It was quite the controversy when the new graves were lacking those crosses. Some damn Hollywood type had been born here, and so too did he wish to spend eternal rest here. He and his family had died in a plane crash on the way back from a USO in Germany sometime after World War II, and Brad had only been around 4 when it happened. He remembered his father’s disgust at the public funeral and the lack of any symbolism of faith on the graves. “No doubt a pinko,” Bradley’s dad used to say. But Communist or not, the Howsen family had left quite a large donation to Pine Grove in their collective will – a will no doubt written by the overtly patriarchal father of the family – and the money was enough that the old owners even “officially” renamed it Howsen Memorial Gardens, but like a lot of renamings in this old town the folks called it something totally different. They were never much on being “official.”
Brad remembered when Sarah-Ann wanted cremated. “Ludicrous, I reckon” he used to quarrel with her. “If the Lord had wanted you to turn to ashes so quick, he’da done it!” The memory brought a light smile to the bald wrinkles of sagging skin that was Brad’s face. His southern drawl tugged at his throat, years of chainsmoking having left him cancer free but with a light wheeze nonetheless. Those years of public speaking classes and Yankees giving him shit in the Army had left him with a mostly proper dialect, but when he was riled up enough it all fell apart.
He was able to at least convince her that cremation was somehow sacrilegious, but Sarah was a stubborn one, and if she was going to be six feet under, she wanted to be in the same cemetery as her mother. He didn’t want her or even himself buried here; the grave was like a standing reminder of how the town had changed. Going just by the years on the graves, one could see how the makeup had changed, in both the ethnic makeup and the influence of religion. Blacks hadn’t really started being buried here until the ‘70s, and while Brad didn’t have anything against “negroes,” he had grown up with segregation, and it was a natural thing to him. Folks that different were like oil and water, he thought. Most of the churches had peaked in the ‘80s, thanks to the fervor brought by men like Reagan and Buckley, but it soon died down in the ‘90s, and – something Brad had never seen before – churches started closing and being demolished, their lots returning to the natural state they had once been in.
He felt a firm pinch in his chest at this. Not only was Sarah-Ann buried here, but there were no plots in the older part of the cemetery – her death had been so sudden that they hadn’t had time to really plan. The closest person she was buried to was some kid who had drunk himself dead after coming home on leave from the Marines, right after bootcamp in Parris Island. A farcry from being buried next to her mother. Now, like the Freemasons with their gravestones, Sarah’s stood out like a sore thumb. Brad made sure of that. He spent the vast majority of the fund he was saving for them to finally go out on a cruiseliner – something she had begged him for the better part of 40 years to do, but something he wanted to be sure to make overtly extravagant and long – on an enormous tribute to both her and to God, who had blessed them so much.
His liverspotted hands clenched the roses so tightly that their thorns poked out from the plastic, drawing blood. He didn’t pay any notice to the pain – assuming his old nerves could even feel it at this point; his mind was too far gone, hypnotized by the sound of leaves crunching beneath his weary step.
Her funeral had been a quiet one; most of her friends had gone before her, but at least their children had made it. Of course, he could have done without the grandchildren – their fingers moved faster than an old typists on those phones, texting all throughout the procession. He wasn’t even sure if they had looked up even once. Not that they were bad kids, but for all the birthday money they had been given, they showed such a lack of respect. Brad sighed, supposing it was just the generation. At least they had been dressed up formal. He made damn sure junior had the money to buy the best. While Brad had ran the best furniture shop – the only furniture shop – in Pine Grove for the better part of fifty years, junior was going to make “the big bucks.” An intense schooling in politics and religion, he hoped, would make junior a fine politician. Instead, in the middle of his studies at university, he switched to finance, and became an investor.
“Not exactly the most pious profession,” he remembered thinking, but the pay was good, and Brad knew that junior would at least be able to provide for his family.
He didn’t know provide meant that they would practically be deprived of grandchildren when junior and his Misses packed up and moved; they were lucky to see them once, maybe twice, every three years. Brad just didn’t have the money to close up shop and take the time, especially going that far, and he assumed junior couldn’t either.
Assume – the word stung in his ears. His sergeant used to snarl whenever he heard it, “Don’t make an ‘ASS’ out of ‘U’ and ‘ME!’”
Brad’s watch beeped, breaking the trance like an alarm waking one from sleep. He had forgotten for a moment it had even been sent, forgetting even how to turn it off for a brief moment as he slapped at the buttons with a bleeding hand. Finally managing to do so, he gave a slow glance about himself – no one there to mock him, save for the songbirds. He sighed, dapping at his hand with the sleeve of his opposite arm’s shirt, hoping that the wound would clot. The pills for his heart made his blood run thin, and – “Pills,” he thought. He had to take his pills, but they were back in the car, and he figured he could go an hour or so off schedule.
He tried to make himself go faster, but the bad knees had taken their toll on his stride. Sarah had tried to convince him to go for replacement, but God had given him these knees, and a bad joint was a test of faith that Bradley could handle. The twilight hours were soon reaching noon, and beads of sweat rolled off of Brad’s uneven jawline as his calloused eyes found Sarah’s headstone. It wasn’t that hard; he might not have been able to read the inscription, but he knew this was Sarah’s grave – it dwarfed the others.
Wanting to take a knee, but unable to muster the will to bend, and unsure if he would be able to get back up without some assistance, Brad clumsily dropped the flowers from his shaking hand onto the ground in front of him. Stifling tears at the realization that his best friend was in the ground beneath those flowers, he smacked his old, dry lips in some vain attempt at forcing away the saddened expression that lined his face. He let out a sigh, taking his John Deere hat from atop his head and running a hand over his wet, balding scalp.
Searching for the words to say, he came out empty; he had not spoken a word to her. He thought it a bit silly. She was In heaven, not here, he thought; only her earthly presence lingered here. He tried to convince himself that he was not excusing away the fact that her absence hurt so bad he could not bring himself to truly accept that she would not hear his words, and that he was beginning to forget what her beautiful voice had sounded like.
Calloused blue eyes squinted as the sun burnt through the trees, beams practically blinding Brad. Now he was wishing he had those sunglasses he had seen people his age wear, but he was far too stubborn for them. He thought they looked ridiculous. Starting aloud, “If God had wanted us to—“ he stopped. He realized that Sarah would not chide him with a chuckling “Oh, Bradley!” ever again.
Then he felt his heart ache. For a moment, he was worried he had put the pills off too long – but it was not that kind of heartache. It was the most painful ache of all – the realization that your most treasured bond has been broken, that the person whose life had melded with your own is gone, that a part of you is irrevocably dead. Now the tears came gushing; he had not cried for her yet. He tried, with a plastic smile, to imagine that she was in a better place now, but it was little comfort when he was without her. How much longer would the Lord keep him on this earth? Would he even go to heaven with her? They were old, yes, but Doctor Litsky had told them they both had another ten, maybe twenty years. More than enough time to take her on that cruise – more than enough time to take her to see the world. More than enough time to fulfill all those promises that were now irrevocably broken.
Clenching his teeth, the lost soul turned away, beginning shamed walk back to the truck. He shouldn’t have been allowed to drive, but everyone knew him, and without a car the furniture shop had no Bradley, and no Bradley meant the shop would probably go under. His prices were fair; if not so fair that he was now actually losing money on each sale, but it was his gift to the town. It was his charity.
He opened the door to the Chevy, giving the key to the ignition a strained turn. There was maybe a half a tank left according to the fuel gauge. Sarah would jokingly say how that meant they had ten miles left in this old gas guzzler – the memory bringing a gentle smile to Brad’s tearstained face. He opened the glovebox to search for his pills, but they were not there; he had forgotten yet again, and Sarah was not there to make sure to remind him.
The blue pickup truck went at least ten miles per hour under the speed limit on the road back home, much to the chagrin of some white sportscar that swerved left and right behind Bradley in an attempt to see if it was safe to pass in the two-lane, hilly road.
Brad paid the driver no attention – this was not the first time some passerthrough was angry at his driving, it would not be the last. His mind was elsewhere, playing the events of the past week over in his mind. Brad had gone out drinking that night instead of coming straight home from work, and he neglected to call Sarah to let her know. There was a game on, and Brad was curious to see how football would look now that, as the boys at the bar had said, “the NFL was pussified.”
He swallowed hard as he couldn’t blot out the memory – the plastic Jesus bobblehead on his dashboard that had sat there for decades bobbling along. He had thought it sacrilegious at first, but Sarah insisted, and it was a constant reminder of her to him.
Junior had given them both cellphones for Christmas – neither of them could figure them out much, aside from mere dialing and calling, and it was surprisingly convenient. He remembered seeing the commercials for them on television, with their enlarged buttons for older eyes, and simple, humble design. Surprisingly no ring escaped the electric speakers of the phone when he was late home. Unusual, since he was usually in for a light scolding, but he assumed perhaps she had fallen asleep, or the towers were down.
He furrowed his brow. “Sorry, sarge…” he muttered under his breath.
That night he found Sarah in the bathroom floor, collapsed over in her nightgown – his memory was a blur at that point. Everything happened at once in some sort of unnatural haze; the desperate dial to 9/11, the paramedics, the tubes, the doctor consoling him at the ER, the will reading, the insurance agents, barely slowing down when the funeral finally came. Dead of a stroke. Her body was still warm when he fell to the floor to grasp it and try to rouse her in some final bout of his former strength.
There were now two cars behind him, and the white one would every so often honk its horn in some vain attempt at speeding him up like a man prodding a dead cattle.
After the funeral had met with junior in private – his son had thought it necessary. He had never seen the old man with a face that was such a mask – so devoid of emotion, yet so telling at the same time. Bradley Jr’s childhood friend was one of the paramedics that arrived on scene. That same paramedic had accidentally muttered their findings on the phone on his way out of the hospital, failing to realize that Bradley Sr. was right there in the hallway, a catatonic mess.
“Dad,” junior said, “You can’t let this eat you up. You and mom had a great life. Even if you had been there…”
Bradley Sr. blinked at this, “The hell you mean if I had been there, boy?” Junior blinked, not expecting the sudden irritation and anger in his father’s voice. “Look, Mike told me what they found. It’s not your fault you weren’t there. Even if you had been,” he repeated, “…it might not have done any good.”
The old man balled up his fists, walking over to junior – face to face, pointing at him with a crooked index finger and jabbing it into his shoulder. “Listen, when the good Lord decides it’s our time to go, it’s our time. Nothin’ no one no how can do about it. So I reckon that yer damn right I couldn’ta done nothin’. Don’t you try to comfort me, y’hear? I don’t feel no guilt ‘bout it.”
He watched as his son blinked, mouth hanging open like his jaw would hit the floor. “You don’t feel –any- guilt? You don’t feel… any guilt that you didn’t call mom to let her know you’d be late? I bought you that damn cellphone so you two could keep an eye on each other, rather than rely on some kid in a nursing home too.” He paused. The old man’s formerly pale cheeks were growing red with rage.
“Oh,” Bradley junior began anew, a mocking tone to his lecturing voice. “But no, God absolves you of that! You don’t feel any guilt because after all, if mom had stepped into traffic, you could have watched with some stupid shrug of the shoulders. ”
“You best knock it the hell off, son.” His fists were shaking.
“Wee-eee-eelp, “ the younger man began, in an accent and voice that mocked his father. “I done guess it’s in da’ Lord’s hands now!”
The words stung like a glass shard in Brad’s heart. His pale blue eyes went wide at this, staring into his son’s own – like looking back in time at a younger, fiercer him – save for the brown hair that his son inherited from his mother.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” Bradley said. “It was her time… he – he is testing my faith. Now, don’t you worry, I’ll see her again. And so will ya’ll see her and see me should you worship Him, son.”
The words incensed his son even further. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he snarled – it was the first time he had ever used that word infront of his old man. “Are you that old and pathetic you’re going to repeat that cliché line that every two bit Pastor uses to keep the donations coming> Mom was a great person, and she was attached by the hips to you, and you only drug her down. All her hopes and ambitions lost upon you. She never even made it out of the country. If that was God’s plan for such an amazing woman to live such a fruitless life with a man who wouldn’t even check on her, then worship that? Never.”
Bradley couldn’t muster a response, actually taking a step back from the child who was now taller than him.
“You fucking tool – she’s GONE! No heaven, no hell. Just a waxed up, plastic bag of flesh filled with formaldehyde! the magic in her heart is dead. Wasted on you. You think there’s some magical place you’re going to appear in, where our ghosts will all live happily for eternity, flapping around with wings, fingers playing on strings; young and beautiful again? Where suddenly Spike the dog will be eternally playing fetch and you can make up for all the ills you committed in life? You think she’s going to be smiling down at you from the clouds while you blow the rest of your life in bars waiting for your precious savior to beam you up to heaven?”
He grabbed his father by the shoulders. “Wrong,” he growled, face red with anger. “She’s fucking WORMFOOD!”
Junior’s tirade was interrupted only by the fist of his father finding his lips, old arthritic fingers snapping and cracking as his knuckles split the skin. It wasn’t enough to knock out teeth, but it was more strength that the old man could usually muster. Junior pressed a hand to his lips, feeling the warm crimson seep through. His father looked like a pale demon in the courtyard of the church, his own children and wife staring frightened over at the two quarreling men.
“Piece of shit…” senior wheezed at his son, fists still balled up. “Yer gonna find that yer right ‘bout one thing, boy, and that’s that it’s some ripe BS you’ll be seein’ me or Sarah in the Lord’s court.” He turned his back on his son. “Done gonna break her heart when she never sees you again… what you done’s on the same level as blasphemy, in Jesus’ name I pray.”
Bradley junior spat, wiping furiously at his lips. Another string of vulgarities was on the tip of his tongue, but his own wife grabbed him by the hand and led him and the children back to their sedan.
The memory made Brad senior’s chest hurt again. The boy had stepped out of line, but Sarah would not have so readily judged him. That was God’s duty, not man’s, Brad thought. He bit at his lower lip with the dentures glued to his gums, letting out a forced sigh as his hand reached for the bulky cellphone in the empty passenger seat. He began to dial the number – never having figured out how to save it to the contact list of the phone – his failing eyes straining to find the enlarged keys.
He squinted as he saw two flashing red lights infront of the vehicle distracting him from the phone, slamming on the breaks upon realization that it was a railroad crossing. The cars that tailgated him crashed into his rearend, sending the pickup through the railroad crossing and onto the railroad. His phone flew from his hand and onto the dashboard, knocking Sarah’s plastic Jesus bobblehead from its magnetized position and onto the floor.
Brad could hear his heart beating in his own ears. He was wheezing, short on breath, his pulse racing from a mix of the lack of medication and the sudden wreck. Smoke filled the interior – not from airbags, but from the engine fire that was rapidly increasing. In a panic, the old man leaned over, reaching for the figurine. He dare not take the risk of damage to his wife’s final gift to him.
The cellphone was put into speakerphone mode after being tossed from Bradley’s grip. The ringing ceased as the old man grabbed ahold of the bobbling God, bloodied fingers wrapping about its plastic white robes, staring into the fake blue eyes and absurd grin. It was the last time he would see the face of his Lord. “Plastic,” he thought. And his heart ached.
He heard his son’s voice over the speaker, after a light sigh, barely audible thanks to the volume of the phone – and the car horns honking desperately, and the screaming, and the screeching of the brakes, and a horn that began to grow louder and louder.
His son was met with an ear-shatteringly loud horn of a freight train, the digitized sound crackling from the speaker. His hand helplessly dropped the cordless white phone, and in response a horrible played with the shattering of glass and grinding of metal as its instruments. Then silence – a click – and finally, the lifelessly dull drone of a dial-tone.