Every day started out as February 27th.
Every day he woke alone and cold. To a certain degree, he was used to that. His wife’s feet had always had better circulation than his, even when they were younger, and she was always the first one up. But this was early even by Becky’s standards. Arthur called out for his wife, wondering what could have pulled her out of bed before dawn. Then he remembered. Pneumonia.
Arthur had taken her to the hospital for a hip replacement. Everything had been textbook until an infection set in post-op. Her immune system was fly paper hanging in the middle of a swarm. After almost a week of watching his wife not eating or drinking anything willingly, Arthur had been ordered home to get some rest. Four hours into wrestling uselessly with a pillow, the call came telling him to return immediately. By the time he pulled into the hospital lot, she had been dead for two minutes.
Each day since then had started the same, the only exception being that Arthur was waking earlier and earlier. For all those years, it had been her warmth, her presence that had allowed him any rest at all. No matter what else happened throughout each day, time had rewound for a brief moment before he was fully awake, but it hadn’t quite gone back enough. He could never get far enough back to see Becky still asleep beside him.
A kind of numbness had settled over him. He hadn’t been left alone for five minutes of daylight. Neighbors and friends streamed through their home, only his home now, on an endless current of freezer meals and sympathy cards. Paperwork stacked itself in increasing piles on the dining room table. Apparently, Arthur brooded, dying was a very expensive social event in one’s life.
The minister was a friend of Becky, and although Arthur hadn’t ever gotten to know her beyond brief introductions at the yearly Christmas Eve service he attended, she had called early on and daily to check on him. He had let her leave a message every time. In one of the few solitary moments he stole for himself by sneaking into his bathroom, he found himself wondering about this woman’s job which consisted, at least in part, of regularly watching normal, upstanding people come apart at the seams without falling apart herself. Arthur had flushed the unused toilet, to preserve the ruse with the latest consoler, and went straight to the phone. To the best of his recollection, he had never called a minister. Becky had always done that. Something else that was his now, too.
The phone rang twice before she picked up. Arthur hadn’t realized how long it had been since he had spoken until he heard the wisp and crack of his voice. He tried again.
“Pastor Wallis? Arthur Fenn.”
If she was surprised to hear from him, her next words and tone were no indication. Arthur chalked it up to previous experience dealing with plenty of grief-stricken people she barely knew. Like him.
“It’s Bev, Arthur, and I’m so sorry.”
It had been the least anyone had said to him in the last seventy-two hours. He waited for her to go on, but she didn’t. He felt his eyes burn and had to swallow several times before he could breathe. Arthur had no idea what to say to this woman. There were things to be done, arrangements to be made, but Becky had always handled those sorts of things. Becky was organized. Becky was the church-goer. Becky was the friendly one. She was the only person who didn’t annoy or drain him. All of these people wandering in and out of his kitchen and living room, offering to do laundry or pick up prescriptions and groceries, they were Becky’s friends. This pastor was one of them. She had visited Becky in the hospital a few times, but since then she hadn’t knocked on his door once. And now, she had said all of seven words. He’d counted. Arthur had never felt so relieved.
“They won’t leave.”
“Be right there.” There was one thing Arthur could say for certain; this was definitely the first time in his life that he’d had a preacher hang up on him.
Twenty minutes later, he sat in his empty living room and marveled at the quiet. Pastor Wallis, Bev, had managed to discharge everyone in the vicinity without upsetting any of them. She was just finishing with the last of the stragglers who insisted on taking the trash to the curb before vacating the premises. A car door slammed, and an engine started. For a moment he thought that Bev had left too, but the back door creaked open again to let Bev’s salt-and-peppered head sneak in around it.
“Did I miss anyone?”
Arthur watched her scan the kitchen, check the door to the bathroom, and return her gaze to him. He shook his head in reply. She stepped the rest of the way into the back mudroom, shut out the draft behind her, but didn’t remove her coat or rain boots. Instead, she leaned over to grab her keys from the bar separating the kitchen from the rest of the room. Curiosity nudged him into speaking.
“How did you do that?”
“Pardon?” Her eyebrows were halfway to her hairline, and the eyes behind her frame-less glasses looked confused.
“How did you get rid of them?” He tilted his chin to the door for clarification.
“Oh, that. I asked them to run some errands.” At his perplexed look, she gave a lopsided smile. “Some folks need to be given something to do to show their sympathy.”
He thought about that for a minute, and she let him think.
“What if they don’t take kindly to your suggestion?”
She shrugged. “Better they get mad at me than you. Give me a shout if there’s anything else you need.”
She had her hand on the latch of the screen door before he had processed that.
“There’s one thing.”
She turned back slightly but said nothing. Her eyebrows were up again, giving him permission to continue. He took a moment to himself, slightly startled that she waited. If he hadn’t been sure before, that had settled it. He nodded once in confirmation and met her eyes.
“Will you do Becky’s service?”
He thought he heard a slight sniff and her voice wobble just barely, but he would be the first to admit his hearing wasn’t what it used to be.
“Of course. I’ll call you in the morning.” And she was gone.
Arthur listened to her drive away before leaning his head on the back of the couch. For the first time in three days, he slept for more than twenty minutes straight.
Every day started out as the 8th.
Every day she awoke to the morning of her first Sunday service in her first congregation and found she was more nervous than a cat and sicker than a dog. She had a full fifteen years of classroom experience behind her; she was no fresh faced kid lacking a few knocks here and there. But this was not a bunch of seventh graders grumpy about a test for which they hadn’t bothered to study; this was a group of families and adults that could drive themselves away from the building and take their good will with them for a very long while. She got to the church at a rather ungodly hour, but by that time she had vomited twice, brushed her teeth three times, and had run out of toothpaste.
Despite her early arrival, she was met in the parking lot by a familiar maturing woman with graying hair, a smile big enough to warrant a zip code of its own, and a box of Saltines slapped up the side with a bright red adhesive bow. Bev had almost cried. Rebecca Fenn had been on the call committee and therefore was one of the few people in town whose name she could remember. Bev walked from her faded sedan to the church door where the woman immediately handed her the crackers.
“How did you know I’d be needing these?”
Mrs. Fenn was the friendliest person one could meet, but she was also the most assessing. Bev felt herself get the once over, from her green gills to the tips of her chewed fingernails. Her keys were gently removed from her hand. She watched as the woman turned to unlock the door after pointedly eying the Saltines. Bev followed the silent command, tore open the cardboard, and pulled a sleeve from the box.
“My husband was a teacher too. He needed them before the first day of school. Every year. I thought you had a lot in common when I met you before, but don’t tell him I told you that.”
Bev thought it would be hard to tell Mr. Fenn anything as she hadn’t yet had the pleasure of meeting him. She’d been told that that particular pleasure would have to wait until Christmas Eve unless she ran into him at the local Moose lodge. Bev had figured she’d hold out till December.
“Oh. Well, um… thanks, Mrs. Fenn.”
“It’s Becky.” She held open the door for Bev and gave her a confident grin. “Game time.”
Becky Fenn and her Saltines were the two reasons Bev hadn’t thrown up right there in the chancel that morning, and they were the two reasons that she did throw up two years later when she heard that the genial woman with the box of crackers was dead.