He Wrote, Week 7

by Dave Smith

The garden store opened at seven o’clock in the morning. Its large, glass storefront displayed a variety of manual and gas-powered garden tools and overlooked the cemetery across the street. Cassie, a new girl in town, was shivering in the cool air of an early spring morning. She had arrived a few minutes early, hoping to make a good impression on her first day at work. She was waiting outside for Amanda, the store owner, to get there and unlock the door. Her eyes were fixed on something in the distance.

“Hey, Cass, whatcha staring at?” asked Amanda.

Cassie, lost in thought and suddenly jolted back to the present, jumped at the greeting.

“Oh, hey, Amanda. What’s up with that old guy over there?”

“That’s Arnold. He and his wife, Dora, used to own this store.”

“Why’s he in the cemetery this time of morning?”

“He’s done that for years. That’s Dora’s grave. She died on her way here one morning. A dumptruck swerved to miss a kid on a bike, overturned, and crushed her car,” Amanda explained.

“Oh, God, that’s horrible!”

“Yeah, it was. Arnold never came to terms with it. He sold the store and pretty much barricaded himself up in their house. She was his best friend, so he comes back to her grave every day at five in the morning, the time of her death. Rain, snow, ice – doesn’t matter. He always stops, spends a few hours, lays a single lavender rose – her favorite – from their greenhouse on her headstone, then leaves quietly.”

“He ever come in here? Y’know, to chat or see if the business has changed?” asked Cassie.

“No. He’s never been back in. Hardly ever see him in town for anything anyway. Just necessities. He mostly just isolates himself. I think he’s afraid of making other human connections, just in case he loses them too. But what do I know.”

“Such a sad way to live,” concluded Cassie, as she straightened up the window display.

In between customers, Cassie watched Arnold through the window.  She saw him talk to whatever part of his wife might still be there listening. He kissed the headstone, left the rose, then walked to his pickup truck and drove away. Cassie surprised herself when she felt a teardrop, ever so  slowly, creep down her cheek.

Probably just from allergies, she thought.

*****

Arnold pulled off the dusty gravel road and into the driveway of his small two-story farmhouse. He never locked the doors way out there. No one visited him and besides, even at 81, he might not be able to get around so well, but if trouble paid a visit, he was still a damn good shot with his .45. He laid his coat over the back of a wooden chair, emptied a can of beans into a small pot and set it on the stovetop to warm, then went out to the greenhouse to choose a rose for the next day.

Arnold spent his evenings listening to old records and writing in his journal, reminiscing of times with Dora. He often contemplated suicide, but never followed through. He was afraid of dying. What if life was all there was, and dying was just the end? What if nothing followed?

At least alive, he had memories even if he couldn’t have her back.

He’d lost track of how many days he’d been to visit her grave. It had to be many hundreds of times. That year was no different. Spring turned to Summer which turned into Fall, and daily, he made the pre-dawn trek, always with a lavender rose.

But as winter began creeping in, his routine was punctuated by progressively longer periods of cold and tiredness. He kept the cold at bay as best he could, often with a little help from that water of life, whiskey, but the chill still froze his joints stiff and achey and left him exhausted.

“Only a few months of this until the Spring thaw,” he’d tell himself. “You’re not tougher than me, Old Man Winter.”

Nevertheless, he visited Dora every day, leaving a rose each time. Sometimes he’d bring a blanket and nap with her before thawing his old bones with more whiskey and slowly encouraging them to move him toward the truck.

Leap Day fell on a Thursday that year. The putt-putt-putt-putt of his truck echoed in the morning air as he crested the hill and headed down the gentle right-hand curve toward Dora’s grave. It was a much warmer morning that day, though not shirt-sleeve warm. Winter might have broken, he thought. Arnold could feel the change. His joints were more supple and, though he didn’t move with the grace of youth, his stride was more relaxed and comfortable.

Arnold grew accustomed to the naps he’d been taking, and even on the spring-like day, he took a nip of his flask, bundled up in the blanket and went to sleep by Dora’s side.

He awoke to the surprise of his life.

He found himself lying in a field, staring straight up at a beautiful blue sky framed by the tall stalks of field grasses that gently swayed in the breeze. The sun was bright, but below his field of view – he figured it must’ve been hovering somewhere just above his feet – and its pleasant warmth kept him lazily pinned to the ground. His head was swimmy, like he’d blacked out and slept off too much Jameson, or was still halfway in a dream. Something didn’t feel quite right. Where’d the blanket go? Who put him there?

“Oh, no,” he said aloud. “NO! NO! NO!”

Arnold shot up quickly, looking around for Dora’s headstone. He wasn’t in the cemetery and he couldn’t see his truck. Nothing was recognizable. He was standing in a wide meadow, bounded by forest on two sides, stretching to the horizon. It was a peaceful enough place, but panic struck him. He was alarmed and discouraged, babbling to himself and no one in particular.

“Oh, God, no! Where am I? Where’s Dora?” he wondered. “I gotta find my truck. I have to get home before the morning. Did I black out? Am I dreaming? Or am I … am I senile?”

He started walking to the treeline, but stopped in his tracks when he heard a human voice calling his name. He turned every which direction, but couldn’t tell where it was coming from.

“Arnold!”

There it was again. He turned to where he thought it originated.

Nothing.

“Arnold!”

He turned again. Still, nothing.

A substantial weight landed on his back. A person with arms thrown around his neck. He felt the weight through his legs and waited for them to collapse. But they didn’t.

“Who are you?! What do you want with me? I’m just an old man, trying to remember my wife,” Arnold yelled.

The attacker let go and dropped to the ground behind him. He turned to see who had disturbed his peaceful morning with his wife.

Dora stood before him, as beautiful as he remembered her, in her favorite dress, one he’d bought for her in Europe on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Arnold stood motionless, bewildered.

“I’m dreaming,” he told himself, “I must be dreaming.”

Dora chuckled.

“No, silly. It’s really me,” she said.

“What? How?”

“You finally made the trip.”

“What trip?” he asked. He was always annoyed when she was cryptic.

“You know. THE trip.”

“No. Really?” Arnold started to get the idea.

“Yup. I’m so glad you’re here! Feels like I’ve waited forever.”

“Did I do it myself?”

“No. No, you didn’t. They tell me you fell asleep at the cemetery and, well, you passed right there. I don’t get all the details. They told me you had arrived and where to find you,” she said. “See all this?” motioning her hands around them. “This is heaven, valhalla, paradise, the hereafter, the afterlife. Whatever you want to call it. They’re not sticklers about it.”

“No shit?” he said. “Oops. Sorry.”

Dora laughed.

“No shit. That stuff doesn’t matter so much either,” she said, putting him at ease about his choice of language. “C’mon, hon, we’ve got years to catch up on. I’ve set up a picnic for us down by the lake. Let’s go!”

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