Burying Becky Fenn: Part V

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.
Read Part IV here.

Part V

Arthur wasn’t one to profess an extensive knowledge of the church. He limited his annual attendance to the latest and sparsest Christmas Eve service he could find, which had been the original determining factor in congregational membership when he and Becky had moved to town as a pair of fresh-faced newlyweds. Becky had bloomed where she was planted, and within two months she had found a place on the altar guild and in the choir. After a handful of disastrous dinners and awkward events, Becky’s new friends began to take her word on Arthur’s voluntary and satisfactory seclusion. A few of the smarter and more interesting individuals had even managed to befriend him once their children went through his classroom. He was reliably found at the Moose lodge or in the local hardware store. Neither place required more than a polite smile, and no one eyed his chronically dirty fingernails. Becky had understood, and he had understood her, too. She’d appreciated his interests, even if she didn’t share them, with acknowledgment of the effort he put into his work, and she practically worshiped his poorly-paid status as a teacher. In turn, he was happy that she had found a place where she felt fulfilled and useful, and he encouraged her involvement. He had no need of church, but Becky did. That was enough.

All of that left him with little practical knowledge of Bev’s life as a pastor, but the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall, marked in Becky’s textbook cursive, told him it was Palm Sunday, Easter being one week away. If Becky’s participation boom during past Holy Weeks was anything to go on, Bev was surely swamped. During her last several calls, Bev had seemed distracted, but if he steered the slow flow of conversation towards her she quickly diverted it away once more. Dark smudges under her eyes spoke for her, and yet, she had phoned last evening to confirm her regular Sunday visit. The only thing out of place was the request to forgo lunch in exchange for a short trip. Arthur had no idea what that meant, but after almost a month and a half of being restricted to his house and the small loop of a trail through his muddy backyard, he was ready to go anywhere. He had been walking with greater ease thanks to the cane from his workshop, and it had been Bev to suggest stomping through what was becoming a veritable swamp behind his house. The chance to make an escape, no matter how brief, was too good to pass up.

Arthur waited until the passenger door completed its pathetic wail of protest at having been expected to perform the function for which it was designed and closed him into Bev’s clunker of a car. He waited until she settled herself behind the wheel and reversed out of the drive. And he waited until he had identified the general trajectory of the vehicle, eliminating several options for their destination in the process.

“We’re heading west.”

Bev let out a soft mmhmm but deserted any further attempt at communication. He gave her time to collect her thoughts and offer a response, but nothing came. The lines feathering from the corners of her eyes were deeper than he remembered, and the thin set of her lips set her jaw forward in determination.

“Not much on this side of town.”

A slight twist of the neck. Arthur swallowed the pinch of annoyance that nipped at his curiosity. The companionable quiet that usually existed between them was being irritated beyond what he was comfortable with, and not knowing what had Bev so tight-lipped put him on edge. Getting away from the same four walls was enticing; allowing himself to be carted off to points unknown was not something for which he was about to volunteer.

Except, he realized, he already had.

Arthur watched the town amble past and begin to dwindle. As park followed church followed diner, the list of possibilities continued to scratch itself out until only a few residential blocks remained within the town limits. Bev had said a short trip, hadn’t she? They surely weren’t leaving town altogether. Taking another glance at her offered no further evidence of her intentions. Arthur gave himself a mental kick and cleared his throat once more.

“Unless we’re visiting someone, there isn’t much left before leaving town.”

He watched her swallow slowly and chew the inside of her cheek.

“We’re not leaving town,” she started. She seemed prepared to continue but became stuck on the words. A few more moments of silence didn’t prove any more profitable.

“Well, there’s not much town left.” The last of the houses fell away behind them, and Arthur turned back to the dash. “No one lives past that last block. There’s nothing out this way besides the empty furniture warehouse and the grav-”

Arthur’s voice faltered and died in his mouth as Bev slowed and turned the car onto a smoothly paved drive. Only then did she look at him.

“We are visiting someone,” she said gently as they passed the weather-worn metal gate holding the plaque for the Green Valley Cemetery.

As Bev maneuvered them around the curving lanes at a crawl Arthur felt the blood settle in his ears causing everything to sound as if he were underwater. The car stopped without him having been aware of how long or in which direction they had been driving within the cemetery grounds. He finally noticed they were not moving when Bev wrenched his door open. She had done so as quietly as possible, but the resulting moan of metal on metal reached through his swollen hearing to shock his brain out of its numbness.

Once she had helped him out of his seat and made sure he was steady, Bev moved to the trunk and pulled out two camping chairs and a canvas tote that sagged with a heavy weight. A larger, plastic grocery bag followed but didn’t pull on her arm with the same force. Arthur made a move for the heavy bag automatically, but Bev pulled it away and shook her head with a slight smile. Her head titled to the right.

“Over by that tree. Watch yourself. The ground’s a little uneven around the roots.”

He silently thanked Bev for refusing his help when he began to navigate his way through the damp grass. His shoes slid, and his cane sunk into the soft earth. A step ahead of him but not out of reach, Bev squelched softly in her duck boots. Arthur focused on her feet and attempted to place his own where hers had been until she finally came to a halt.

They were just out of the reaches of the tall maple and in a patch of light that warmed the back of Arthur’s neck, reminding him of Becky’s hands years before when she had rubbed the long school days out of his muscles. He lifted his face to the sun and closed his eyes, listening for her voice. He knew she would ask about the progress of a promising student or the complaints of some pesky parent, but all he heard was the whisper of breeze trip through the branches.

“Arthur?”

His eyes adjusted to the light once more and found Bev standing next to him with her arms at her sides. The posture looked forced, and he imagined she was doing her best to avoid pushing him farther with her care than he was willing to go. She held his gaze for a moment before making a small gesture behind him. When he pivoted to look, he saw that she had placed one of the chairs directly behind his legs. He was exhausted already, but if he sat, there would be no pulling himself up again to accomplish what Bev had brought him there to do. Turning again, Arthur attempted to lift his face to hers.

“Where is she?”

Bev bent and hefted the cloth bag once more. Straightening, she raised her other arm in front of them.

“Just beyond the tree.”

She led him to a plot where the ground hadn’t settled completely, the first tufts of grass just reaching into the brown mound that covered Becky. The temporary marker at the top was faded and rather spartan. Arthur felt shame at having forgotten to arrange for a permanent one. He stared at the piece of the world that held his wife and wondered how it could seem so small. His Becky had been the most passionate debater, the fiercest friend, and had possessed the largest heart he had ever known. To have six feet of plain ground contain all that was left of her made his mind burn.

“I have something for you, but it can wait if you’d rather…”

He had forgotten Bev again but was more than happy to pull himself away from the tears that drained down the back of his tongue.

“Now’s fine.”

Bev pulled the tote off her shoulder and set it at the foot of Becky’s grave. She spoke as she reached past the handles into the bag and stood to press the contents into his hands.

“Two things, really, but here’s the first.”

In his arms rested a plain rectangular package of Saltines with an adhesive red bow pressed on the side.

“She gave a box like this to me on my first Sunday here. Said you used to need them too.” Bev glanced guiltily toward the plot. “She also said I shouldn’t ever tell you she said that. Sorry, Becky.”

Arthur felt the sting in his eyes again, but all that came out was a muttered, “Son of a—”

Bev cleared her throat and reached for the bag again as he finished his sentence. When he looked up from the crackers, she held the canvas tote in one hand and a fist full of gravel in the other.

“What the hell is that?”

Since she didn’t immediately answer, Arthur examined the rubble and lifted a larger piece from the pile. The conical shape curved up every so slightly to a pointed end, giving the thing a lopsided appearance. It rolled between his fingers until it sat horizontally in his grip. He wasn’t sure if it was his brain or his healing hip that recognized the image first. Holding the fragment in front of his face, he glanced at Bev.

“You didn’t.”

Bev’s cheeks were just a shade more pink than usual, but her chin was leveled at him when she stated simply, “I took the liberty.”

He smoothed his thumb over the tip of the stone beak before returning it to the smaller chunks Bev held. Several other pieces still sported some of their original smooth lines indicating a wing or foot, and Arthur tried to reconstruct what he saw.

“The damn doves.”

When he saw her confirming nod, something tightened in his gut. His chest constricted; his face stretched. Before he could suppress it, an unfamiliar bark escaped from him and traveled loudly across the undisturbed cemetery. His shoulders shook as weeks of tension released themselves through a rattling laugh that continued to rasp past what he would have normally considered decent. It certainly continued past the point where he could easily breathe and well beyond the point of tears. He began to choke and received a few hearty slaps across his back from Bev. When he could draw in air again, he wiped his face enough to see the concern on her features as she kept thumping his lungs into submission.

“O-okay. I’m okay.” A childish grin tugged at his mouth. “But next time, could you drop the rest of the birds first?”

He watched her turn to the arm that reached out behind him and saw the alarm in her eyes when she realized the offending bag of rocks was still hanging from her elbow. The look was so mortified that another fit of laughter bubbled up his spine and out his long nose. The panic let go of Bev’s face until her own lips strained under the effort of keeping a neutral expression, which only made Arthur convulse all the more. She wagged her head at him, and her face struggled before splitting into a smirk of resignation.

“You don’t mind?”

“Only that I couldn’t have done it myself.”

Bev’s relief was visible.

“In that case, you’ll be glad to hear I have the rest of the ugly little beasts lined up in my garage awaiting demolition.”

It took several more minutes before either party could get themselves under control. Only when Arthur felt his head begin to spin and his knees weaken did he give a final sigh and draw a shirt cuff across his upper lip. He figured Bev must have seen the blood leave his face, because she placed a hand on his shoulder and after an assessing look, jogged to fetch the camping chair from its place under the maple. Once Arthur was settled, she retrieved the remaining chair and bag before rejoining him.

Arthur sat quietly until Bev began to uncork a bottle produced from the grocery sack.

“Am I allowed to have alcohol with the meds I’m on?”

She threw a look at him, her eyebrows threatening to leap across and smack him in the face, but she kept her voice innocent as she handed him a small plastic cup filled halfway with red wine.

“Are you telling me you’ve actually been taking your meds?”

He took the cup from her with a muttered, “Fair enough.”

Bev poured a drink for herself and took a sip before adding, “Besides, it’s the leftover communion wine. This stuff isn’t strong enough to make a squirrel tipsy.”

Arthur’s snort was unfortunately timed as he had just brought the cup to his mouth. The resulting spray spotted his trousers and sprinkled the edges of Becky’s grave. Bev simply handed him a paper towel extracted from somewhere about her person and reached for the box of Saltines Arthur had deposited next to his chair. When she offered an open sleeve of crackers to him, he grunted his acceptance. The growing appreciation he felt snagged on his teeth and wouldn’t come out.

“Becky would have liked this,” he finally managed. Beside him, Bev smiled mildly and wordlessly raised her plastic cup in salute to the vivacious woman who lay silently at their feet.

~

Bev wasn’t one to profess an extensive knowledge of woodworking. Her limited experience with power tools started and ended with the leaning bookshelf in her office that was anything but structurally sound. It only remained upright thanks to its location in the corner of the small room, supported by the cement block walls on two sides. Despite the safety hazard she had let the precarious monstrosity remain standing behind her desk, away from where any stray children or elderly congregants might roam. She considered it a reminder of her own limitations and comforted herself regularly that if it fell while she was at work, the only one in danger of being crushed by the rows of New Testament commentaries, Greek lexicons, and countless un-cracked bibles that had been gifted to her over the last two years would be herself.

All of that left her with very little practical knowledge of Arthur’s life as shop teacher and woodworker, but the traces of sawdust in his hairline the day they had visited Becky’s grave had told her he was working again. There was no telling how long he had been at it. Her visits had been fewer and her attention strained. Until she sat next to him for several hours sipping overly sweet wine and munching plain crackers at their funeral do-over she hadn’t been conscious of how much progress he had made in his recovery. They had spent the afternoon trading memories of Arthur’s wife and spreading gravel or crumbs around her makeshift nameplate. He had dozed when his energy waned, and Bev rested beside him watching the wind move the shadows from the tree branches. For the first time in days, she realized, she had sat still.

That had been a week ago. She’d seen Arthur once since then, but the visit had been short. It was now Easter morning, and the last seven days had been full to brim. The council was no closer to resolving their conflicts, and the chairman’s blood pressure had landed him a place on the prayer list, a gesture of concern he resented. To prove that prayers on his behalf were unnecessary, he fully refused to lessen his pestering about the plans to promote the church until she was sure one or both of them would have a heart attack.

She had driven to the church before dawn, having been unable to sleep much of the night anyway. The hours between her arrival and that of the earliest blue-haired members to their customary pews, were spent wandering around blindly, barely aware of her surroundings as she habitually adjusted the arrangements the altar guild had made the day before and re-copied the bulletin inserts that featured only half of the printed announcements.

It was not her finest day as a pastor, and she knew it. She felt disappointed in herself while moving through the service she had spent so much time all week trying to make meaningful. Her exhaustion and frustration kept her so focused on the task at hand that it wasn’t until she was giving the final benediction that she noticed someone sitting alone in the narthex with the rest of the congregation standing between them. Before she could identify the individual, the assembly had said their “amen”s and “thanks-be-to-God”s and had begun to sing the last hymn. Bev turned to the chancel and lowered her head before swiveling back to walk up the aisle. The sitting figure reached for a cane that rested close by and slowly rose.

Arthur Fenn stood at the back of the church in his pleated khakis and plaid button-down looking exceptionally uncomfortable with his surroundings.

Before Bev had made it half way to him, she saw the council chairman make a bee-line from his pew to where Arthur stood like a deer caught in the path of a pickup. She watched the chairman pump Arthur’s hand and heard him loudly express his greeting, the sound carrying over the last verse being sung around her.

“Arthur Fenn, what a pleasure. Don’t often see you here when it’s not Christmas. Would love to ask you a question or two.”

Bev picked up her pace, wondering when the tiny rural church had lengthened its aisle without her noticing. The old, electric organ finished the final chord and paused before starting the postlude. Several heads were craning to find the source of the distraction.

“—trying to make the building more appealing. Grow membership, you know. You’re someone who doesn’t darken a church door if they don’t have to. What do you think will change the minds of folks like you?”

Arthur looked at her hurrying down last few feet between them and back at the chairman, his expression a blank.

“Arthur, I—” Bev was still too far away to make a full intervention, but she practically threw herself at the pair only to have Arthur stop her short. His voice wasn’t loud or forceful, but it carried in the now-silent church.

“Frankly, a fancier door doesn’t mean I’m more likely to darken it.”

Bev watched the color rise in the chairman’s cheeks. Before he could comment, Arthur continued, raising his voice to a level she had never heard from him.

“There’s only one way you’re going to get ‘folks like me’ in here,” his eyes met Bev’s, and she watched him incline his head in her direction. “People like her.”

He looked calmly and squarely at the chairman, forming the complete antithesis of the chairman imploding in front of him. Arthur’s voice remained gruff, but Bev identified the mischievous grin tugging at a corner of his mouth and caught the sparkle in his eye.

“Hell, she’s already doubled my church attendance for the year.”

Bev nearly bit off her tongue when he subtly winked at her before heading for the door, throwing out his final words as he left.

“See you at lunch, Pastor Wallis. I believe I have one more dish from Mrs. Denham hiding in the freezer.”

Bev was dimly aware of the chairman beginning to sputter, the tittering of the congregation behind her, and the organ attempting, then abandoning the effort to drown them all out. Her blurred vision traveled to where Arthur had sat during the service, making out the tall slats and sloping arms of a finished cherry settee against the plain blocks of the back wall. Bev felt her face crack as she read the small metal plate affixed in the middle of the high curving rail.

IN MEMORY OF REBECCA FENN
AND
IN GRATITUDE FOR PASTOR BEVERLY WALLIS

“Son of a—”

Bev heard the congregation erupt behind her as she finished her sentence.

 

___

In memory of and gratitude for the life of Sandra K Strietelmeier

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Burying Becky Fenn: Part IV

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.

Part IV

It had been a solid three minutes. He knew; he’d counted.

Bev had been overturning every closet and cubby in the house it seemed, and then she had gone silent. For three whole minutes. She wasn’t exactly the most loquacious of people; then again, he reflected, neither was he. After the molten-mac-and-cheese-with-a-side-of-shattered-glass conversation, following the explore-the-secrets-behind-every-closed-door rampage, and upon the culmination of the conspicuous no-sign-of-life silence, Arthur was starting to think he had gone deaf. He had heard the scrape of the old door opening, the minuscule plastic tick of the light switch, and the soft clump of Bev’s boots taking a step onto the garage floor, but after that there was nothing.

He had waited and counted, practically itching with the embarrassment that every passing second seemed to gleefully drape over him like some kind of sadistic tinsel on a particularly pathetic and enervated tree. His left hand was covered in blisters; his side felt equally as burnt where the stitches had pulled while trying to lift the heavy glass pan out of the oven. There would be more bruises and aching muscles in various places, he was sure, after the less than delicate landing he had made on the floor to clean up. And he had snapped at the only person who hadn’t annoyed him since Becky’s death. He had behaved like a sniveling twelve-year-old.

She had mercilessly, albeit honestly, declared just how incapable he was of taking care of himself. Arthur’s stinging pride took some solace in the idea that his response hadn’t been completely unwarranted.

However, curiosity was getting the better of him. He decided that he could make it to the freezer and sneak a quick glance in that direction while only appearing to be searching for an ice pack for his throbbing hand, but upon turning, the trip across the kitchen was forgotten. Bev hadn’t moved and hadn’t spoken. She stood completely still, head turned enough to see her profile was completely void of expression.

There was no telling how long it had been until his screaming hand and aching side pulled his attention away from the completely motionless figure in his garage, Arthur realized. He hadn’t been counting this time around. However long it had been was long enough for his curiosity to turn into awkwardness. Seeing someone else in his workshop made him feel exposed. His woodworking was hardly a secret in the community, having taught a third of the population how to use one power tool or another over a lengthy career, but this was his home, his own private workspace, a room that even Becky had respected as only his and had only visited by invitation. Arthur knew specifically how he should feel. He waited for the anger, for the violation to settle into a sense of betrayal. But none of it came, and he was left without feeling much of anything, confusing him further. Not having a clue how to respond, he turned again, silently walking into the living room and leaving Bev to her own discoveries.

Another five minutes of settling and resettling himself onto the sofa, rearranging the piles of old catalogs on the coffee table, and pretending not to listen for the faintest sound that he was sure to miss coming from the direction of the garage had him wishing he had grabbed that ice pack after all. By the time Bev resurfaced, Arthur guessed that she would be just as frozen. The sloooosh-thwup of the weather strip sealing in the precious little heat his ancient furnace was desperately attempting to pump into the house signaled her return to the kitchen. He focused on each of the noises indicating her progress across the room instead of the pain in his hand. It certainly hadn’t been as nasty as the fall that hand landed him in the hospital, he told himself. This was nothing he couldn’t handle, he was sure. He could just continue to distract himself with whatever it was Bev was doing.

Until she wasn’t doing anything anymore, of course. Arthur looked up and saw Bev standing in front of him holding out two white ovals on one palm and a glass of water in the other. Neither said anything as he gingerly scraped the pills into his own hand then mouth, reached for the water and poured the whole glassful down after the tablets. He sat staring at the cup in his hand while his mind caught up with him. Bev just waited. Well, damn, he had been the idiot who had flown off the handle, might as well be him that ponied up and acted like an adult now. If only he could think of the appropriate thing to say.

“What were those?”

Not what he had been going for. Bev’s eyebrows were in her hairline.

“You’ll just take whatever pills someone hands you without knowing what they are?”

Arthur had never realized before how fascinating the stitching on his trousers was. He cleared his throat but kept his eyes where they were. So much for acting his age. His right shoulder shrugged itself into his ear as if to confirm the sentiment.

“No. Besides, you’re the one giving unidentified drugs to a senior citizen.”

Bev removed the cup from his hands, and he could hear the slight smile in her voice as she returned it to the kitchen.

“You’re the first one to complain.” She reappeared several minutes later carrying a bag of frozen peas, a dish towel over her shoulder.

“I have an ice pack,” he stated unnecessarily.

Bev looked from Arthur down to the offending vegetables and back.

“I’ll buy you another bag.”

“That’s not what I meant.”
She crushed the bag slightly before wrapping it in the towel and handing it to him.

“Humor me.”

Arthur humored her. He hated peas, so that bag must have been ancient anyway. He figured Bev didn’t need that piece of information. He could be mature. Besides the bag fit nicely around his hand without him having to hold on to it.

“The pills were your pain killers.”

She watched him grind his teeth for a few seconds.

“I don’t like taking them.”

“I know you don’t.”

More grinding. More watching.

“They knock me out.”

One day he swore her eyebrows were going to lift themselves right off her face.

“Then I suggest you move your senior-citizen-self into that recliner.”

To hell with maturity.

“I hate peas.”

“You tell those bastards.”

As Bev maneuvered him around the coffee table and into the over-sized chair in the corner of the room Arthur realized that he might not have any molars left by the end of the day. She, however, seemed to be regaining her normal casual pleasantness, which seemed rather irksome under the present circumstances. He found himself further annoyed by the weightless feeling that was already starting to fill the empty space where he was certain his brain had been. One leftover thought still swirled around the drain, so he pushed it out of his mouth as the seat of his pants met cushion.

“Can a minister say ‘bastard?’”

Bev’s voice sounded slightly further away than he had expected when her answer came.

“Can a shop teacher?”

He had a response to that, but he wasn’t sure if he had actually managed to say it. A blanket was around his knees and feet that had somehow been lifted off the floor and his torso reclined without him noticing. The room was getting pleasantly darker, and the shushing sound in his ears was oddly comforting. Arthur started to wonder why he had complained about taking his medicine as he complacently listened to the noises that indicated Bev was putting the kitchen back to rights. All of it muffled upon reaching his brain which seemed to be hovering somewhere about six inches outside of his head. Following along with her movements was tiring. It was much easier to simply close his eyes which seemed to simultaneously kill any final attempt at thought. He might have imagined that she was saying something.

“I used the broom I found in the garage. I hope that was alright.”

The last thing he was aware of was the slight nod his head gave of its own volition before melting into the chair beneath him.

~

It had been a solid three weeks. She knew; she’d counted.

In the time between what Bev amused herself by thinking of, and never mentioned to Arthur, as The Mac Daddy of Disasters and the moment she knew she had to broach the subject of the garage, she had managed to convince him to take it easy. His body had responded to the lull in action. The burn on his left hand had reduced to scaly scar tissue, the stitches had been removed from his side, and he had recovered, if not gracefully, from the drug-induced hangovers following each of her visits. The only remaining physical limitations were his knees and balance.

Bev had seen a beautifully carved cane leaning among the finished projects in Arthur’s workshop; she had to make him understand the practicality of it from here on out. Arthur knew he wasn’t steady on his feet, but practicality wasn’t necessarily winning out at the moment. While the majority of his body had returned to health, his mood had steadily deteriorated just as the weather had begun to pull itself out of winter. Despite the return of the sun and the warming temperatures, Arthur remained cold and distanced. Bev rarely had a visit with him that didn’t include a snippy response to a question she had inevitably been forced to ask more than once, but she was remarkably grateful for the snarky quips as several times he had said nothing at all.

Bev had wondered consistently if she had done or said one thing too far, but since he never openly admitted anything one way or another, she continued to assist him as best she could. Perhaps she was more distracted than she had originally thought. Her visits were definitely less frequent. Arthur was more and more capable of taking care of himself, and she was in the middle of Lent. The mounting troubles within the congregation’s leadership were drawing far more of her attention with every passing Sunday and showed little promise of a resolution before Easter. The council meeting the week before had lasted three hours and left her with a strong desire for an exceedingly stiff drink. Half of the council was pressing for a building renovation “to make the church more exciting to prospective members,” and the second half pressed back, with hands and heads full of bank statements, maxed out budgets, and an over-developed sense of the-way-it’s-always-been. Bev had trouble convincing either camp that neither was allowed to excommunicate the other and that perhaps they could agree for now to replace the smashed window pane in her office. The council didn’t respond to her argument that even in the event of another baseball being hit into it, at the very least she could have the sound of shattering glass to warn her to duck. She had been half-tempted by the size of her migraine following that particular episode to partake of one of Arthur’s pain killers. It would be one less dosage that could be inflicted upon him. But that would have meant explaining to him some of the minutiae that was ruling her life at the moment. The last thing she wanted to do was trivialize his grief with her tales of woe.

Though, when she considered it, other than the understandably lousy aspect of his mood, Arthur didn’t seem to be portraying many classic signs of grief. He was quiet and removed, but Bev assumed he pretty much always had been. He didn’t socialize, but from what Becky had always told her, he had never seemed inclined. He was annoyed and short with her but no enormous outbursts of anger. His health was showing no outward signs of depression or anxiety. His mood continued to stay in the dumps, but it was consistent. The man had lost his only family. If anything, his mood wasn’t bad enough. With the exception of the occasional snap when, Bev admitted, she had been more than a little persistent, Arthur was giving the indication of everything being under strict emotional control. All in all, Bev decided greater understanding would have to wait until she had more data to go on. At least, she considered, she might have the chance to collect a bit by bringing up the cane in his garage. She wasn’t a conversational genius, so she was sure she would end up saying something trying at some point that would give him a perfect opportunity to produce a telling reaction.

The two of them had managed to negotiate the Sunday lunch time routine with more success since the mac and cheese incident, a process that was aided by the depletion of the frozen meals from the do-gooders and mean-wellers. Arthur felt less secure in his abilities to prepare food for two from scratch and, therefore, allowed Bev to assist more freely. She had waited three weeks, and with lunch safely on the table, she steadied herself for the delivery. A sip of water, a fortifying breath, and –

“Well, you’d better get on with it.”

The shock at hearing Arthur speak voluntarily seemed to momentarily take the air out of the room, inconveniently also stealing what had been in her lungs. The delay gave Arthur the opportunity to give her a look that was so similar to Becky’s calculating gaze that Bev began to wonder who had originally learned it from whom. Bev could only stare back.

“You should see your face,” Arthur murmured as he lowered his eyes and shifted in his seat. He cleared his throat and started again, “You’ve had something to say for weeks now. God knows why you’ve been holding it in, but you look about ready to explode.”

Bev had thought out a whole conversation opener, a series of, well, yes, rather leading questions to get him to acknowledge the sense of what she was saying. All of it seemed rather irrelevant now. No, she thought, he’s provided the opening; best dive right in.

“Arthur, I’m worried about you.”

She couldn’t tell if he appeared more exasperated or embarrassed.

“That much has been obvious. I suppose you’re about to be more specific?”

“Well, yes. You’re healing really well, but your knees aren’t what they used to be. I’m worried about you walking.”

“What do you mean?”

This was the sticking point, and without her carefully planned introductory review of his limitations, there wasn’t going to be a gentle way to break it to him.

“There is… equipment that can make your balance less of an issue.”

It was Arthur’s turn to have the wind knocked out of him, it seemed. An ill-disguised look of horror covered his face while the lines of his neck stiffened above the collar of his plaid button-down.

“No.”

“Arthur, just -”

“No!” His palm hammered the place-mat, making the tableware around him jump. The force of it silenced the room. Arthur paused, and when he spoke again he had regained his usual quiet, gravelly tones. “No. Absolutely not.”

Bev was sure she had jumped as high as the forks and spoons. She had expected resistance but not an eruption.

“You said my health was better.”

“I did. It is. But I didn’t -”

“Then, why,” he bit off her words with more force than he had used on the meal in front of him, “do you think it won’t continue to?”

Things were not going as she had hoped, and she grabbed at the chance to turn the conversation around.

“To get better? I think it could! If you take care of yourself now.”

“How is resigning myself to a chair taking care of myself?”

Bev blinked. Something had gotten away from her. “A chair? Wait, what?”

Arthur looked like he was about to strangle her for having to explain what was clearly so simple. The way this was going, Bev was tempted to let him.

“How would it help me get better to have to push myself around all the time? Or worse, be pushed. My legs would just get weaker. How could I still live in my own home? There are stairs everywhere. How -”

“Arthur, just hold on a second,” Bev leaped in. “I wasn’t thinking about a wheelchair at all.”

The entire conversation was seriously challenging Arthur’s narrow range of facial expressions. The blankness he was exhibiting gave the impression that his supply had been maxed out. She waited from him to reanimate, but after several seconds ticked by with no change, she decided to forge on.

“I do think your health can still improve, and I also think you’re right. A wheelchair wouldn’t really help you at all.” She hesitated to see if that had sunk in. His features showed a slight thawing, and his mouth was just slightly open.

“Then, what did -” was all that came out. The color returned to his skin while the hand that still rested on the table began to fidget with the edge of his plate. He didn’t make a move towards the food on it, but Bev hardly blamed him for that. The meatloaf hadn’t been fabulous to begin with, and going cold didn’t improve its appeal. Bev glanced around her for a more inspiring sight. The meal was the only unappealing thing in the entire house. There was nothing fancy about any of it, but it was so beautifully lived-in that the lack of anything expensive or flashy made it incredibly relaxing. Had this place been Bev’s home, she knew she would have gone ballistic at the notion of having to leave it. And had it been a foul-smelling hovel, it still would have remained the home Arthur had shared with Becky.

“Arthur, three weeks ago, when I was looking for a mop to clean the – well, I wandered into the garage.” She noticed that the emptiness had been replaced by a look of confusion in his eyes. Keep going, she told herself.

“There was a cane with your finished projects. I think that if you used it for a while, well, maybe you could have a faster recovery. And a cane would still let you go anywhere,” she reached for his hand and waited until his eyes met hers. “And stay in your home. I would never want to suggest that you leave it.”

The room was so quiet that Bev could hear her pulse banging about in her head. She imagined a million thoughts were racing around in his brain, but she couldn’t identify any of them. After a short eternity, Arthur closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Bev could swear they were shinier than they had been a moment before, but then Arthur pushed himself away from the table and walked into the kitchen. She heard the slow clump of each footstep and felt the small swirl of cooler air reach her a few moments after he opened the garage door. She sat motionless, unsure of her welcome in a private moment. She would let him be, no more interference.

“Bev.”

His call was faint from two rooms away, but it had been enough to get her standing beside him on his workshop floor in five seconds. He was holding the cane she had seen before. Painstakingly carved to resemble the bark that would have covered it, the length of dark wood ended in a similarly formed silver handle that was enclosed in his hand. A green and yellow floral bed sheet was crumpled in the other and trailed on the floor.

In front of them stood an unfinished settee. The tall slats at the back extended from floor to a high rail, curving along the sides to form sloping arm rests ending in plain square posts. The design was so simple, so clean that Bev hardly noticed that the entire piece still required a thorough sanding. Resting on the seat were two large cushions made of a deep rich tapestry and wrapped securely in a heavy plastic. Arthur’s gaze didn’t leave them for a moment.

“Been saving this cherry for ages. I was making it for her. For our next anniversary.” His voice broke, and he swayed slightly. Bev grabbed his elbow and maneuvered him down onto the bench, laying the cushions gently on the row of finished bar stools behind them. Arthur watched her, and when she had sat beside him, he turned to place a careful hand on the cushion nearest him. “Never could surprise her. Becky found out, of course. And then she had to help. Always drove me crazy.”

His fingers traced the pattern in the fabric, lingering on the plain, straight stitching holding the pieces together.

“Did Becky make these?”

Arthur’s chin tightened, his brow wrinkled, and the breath he took rattled. His head lowered over the cane in his lap, and the moisture building in his eyes spilled over.

Bev sat next to him, silent, and watched as Arthur Fenn finally began to mourn.

Continue with Part V.
 

Burying Becky Fenn: Part III

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

Part III

When she arrived at the hospital, Arthur was already hooked up to an IV. She sat with him once the stitches were in his side and watched the first two pints of fluid drip slowly into his system. Hip and ribs were slightly bruised, and the knees were going to take some time to recover. The doctors assured that as long as he was careful he could be almost back to normal in a matter of weeks. Bev wasn’t overly confident in her understanding of Arthur’s personality, but she was fairly certain that taking care of himself was going to sit relatively low on his list of priorities. So she stayed next to his hospital bed, helped him home when he was released, and made the phone call to the funeral director when Arthur had authorized her to proceed with the interment without him.

The freezer had still been stocked with meals from before Becky’s funeral. Bev had made a few calls to the usual suspects to spread the word that Arthur wouldn’t need any more casseroles or breakfast burritos for another week or two and managed to redirect their good intentions to work outside of the house. Those usual suspects had enthusiastically started a rotation of dog walkers only to be redirected again when they realized the Fenns had been pet-less. Fortunately, within forty-eight hours of Arthur’s return home the weather managed to salvage the situation by dumping inch upon inch upon inch of heavy, wet snow on every sidewalk and driveway in the county. Good intentions had a purpose once again; the pavement around Arthur’s house was shoveled every day, need it or not, and his laundry room and kitchen remained free of any benefactors.

Except for Bev. She had been given carte blanche by Arthur since the funeral, and as there was no extended family to help out, she ran with it as far as she thought he could handle. Neither of them were impressive conversationalists, but they managed to communicate enough to avoid catastrophe for the first week. He was well enough, though exceedingly sore, to take care of the most pressing of his needs and to survive alone at night, and she was absent enough with work during the day to prevent crowding him with altruism. He remained quiet, and she remained busy.

It wasn’t until ten days after the funeral that the cracks in the dam started to leak. Having finished the Sunday morning service, Bev had been delayed by a rampaging council chairman with a sexton in hot pursuit. She carefully navigated the latest chapter in the current building maintenance battle ground between the two for forty-five minutes before successfully making her excuses and escape. Arthur didn’t live far from the church; nothing was far from the church in the six-stop-light town, but by the time her rusting car door screeched shut in the pristinely cleared drive next to the Fenn station wagon she was over an hour later than her usual lunch-time visit. If the clock on her dash hadn’t made that clear on the drive over, her stomach would have. The pre-service crackers she still kept stocked in her desk drawer were always enough of a breakfast on a Sunday morning, but as soon as the candles were extinguished and the organist had started the postlude Bev could down an entire pot-roast in twenty minutes given the opportunity. At this point she’d be happy with whatever was left in Arthur’s freezer, no matter how many cans of cream-of-mushroom soup had gone into it.

The trudge up the back porch steps was treacherous with the patchy ice that still clung to the boards, but she managed to snatch the spare key from between the door frame and awning without her feet leaving solid ground. Letting herself in as Arthur had instructed her to do from day one, she was shocked by the smell of baked food wafting toward her from inside. In her two years in town, she had memorized over half of the names and faces of her congregation by the clock-work reliability of their preferred baked side dish. Her church directory resembled a cookbook index more than anything else. If she wasn’t much mistaken, Mrs. Denham had defied orders and dropped off another pan of macaroni and cheese. On the threshold Bev paused to stomp off her boots and took an extra sniff. Mrs. D’s creations were not her favorites thanks to the woman’s complete disdain for oven timers,and the scent she caught warned her that the octogenarian just might have surpassed herself. Burning potato chips were really an unfortunate casserole topping. But with growing desperation rearing its needy head, Bev figured she might be able to force it down anyway.

A faint string of curses rose from over the counter-top. Mrs. Denham had been a heavy smoker for almost half of her life, which Bev tended to think matched her cooking rather too well, but the gravelly voice that reached the back door was issuing forth a more… inventive array of slurs than Bev would have credited to Mrs. D.

“Arthur?”

The cursing immediately stopped. In its place came a fervent scratching.

Craning her head over the bar while keeping her sodden feet firmly on the mudroom linoleum hit Bev with a heavy dose of déjà vu. Before her was a, thankfully, less dramatic version of the same picture she had witnessed on the day of Becky Fenn’s funeral. Arthur was once more on the floor, struggling to get his knees under him, but concrete doves were replaced with blackened food splattered over the floor sprinkled with chunks of Pyrex. Instead of calling for his dead wife from a small pool of his own blood, Arthur’s hands were stuffed with paper towels dripping with cheese; his lips were pressed together into a thin white line, holding back any more colorful language. The first inkling of a laugh in Bev’s throat was squelched when Arthur looked up at her. The look on his face was almost a perfect copy of what it had been ten days before. Physical pain brought a shine to his high forehead, but the brokenness in his eyes was scarier than what could be produced by shattered glass or burnt fingers.

She moved around the counter and into the kitchen but stopped at his raised hand still clutching the greasy towels. His voice cracked when he spoke.

“’S glass everywhere.”

“I’ve still got my boots on.” Without waiting for further permission, Bev stepped over the molten pile of noodles and reached for the paper towels in Arthur’s clenched hands. His grip tightened, and he turned back to the mess in front of him.

“Arthur, let me see your hands.” The bleakness in his face turned to iron.

Watching him sweep ruined food and dish closer to him, she decided that a dehydrated and delirious Arthur had been far easier to manage, not to mention when she had a pack of EMTs to back her up. Any injuries he was hiding didn’t seem life threatening, but she wasn’t above a little manipulation to get him out of a room scattered with gooey shrapnel. It wasn’t exactly the high-road approach, but it would have to do.

“Okay.” She drew out the word as she reached for the phone handset in its cradle on the kitchen wall. “You can wait ‘til the ambulance gets here. I’m flexible.”

The look he gave her made it abundantly clear how low he thought she had just stooped. Bev watched him relinquish the towels and hold his hands out for inspection like a chastised toddler. Only a few slivers of glass sparkled on his palms, and none appeared to have stuck themselves in too deeply. A few swipes with a damp dishcloth were all that was required until she noticed the wince he gave upon making contact with his left hand. He didn’t resist but certainly didn’t assist in turning his arm over. Cheese stuck to the tender skin between thumb and index finger and spread across the back of his hand. Underneath, angry red  and white skin stood out in contrast to the darkened leather of his fingers and wrist.

“Come on. Let’s get you out of this room,” she said, hoping she had succeeded in straining away any trace of emotion in her voice. “I’ll clean this all up in a minute.”

“I’ve got it.”

Bev barely caught herself before rolling her eyes heavenward. Instead she narrowed them and spoke in the tone she had used for years on the most unruly of students, what she considered a perfect combination of logic and snide that usually resulted in an appropriately humbled show-off exhibiting acceptable behavior and a suitable apology.

“Arthur, the room’s covered in glass and cheese. Not a good combination for a man with bruised ribs and a tendency to trip on things.”

The stubborn lines on Arthur’s face deepened as his gaze grew stormy. Bev couldn’t decide if the effect made him look terrifying or comical. Sitting in the middle of his spilled lunch, the impression of a small child was pretty strong, but the set of his shoulders and tension around his eyes were practically murderous. Apparently, she reflected, Arthur was immune to the Teacher Voice; after all, the man probably had one of his own after God only knew how many years in his own classroom. She should have seen that coming.

“Okay, I could have said that better. Seriously, though, just let me help.”

Still not the right thing to say. The image of a boy in the midst of a tantrum promptly vanished when his voice came out slowly in a low growl.

“I’m not an invalid.”

“Not a total invalid, no. But you’re not exactly in peak condition, are you?”

No answer.

“Well, are you?”

They remained crouched in the ruins of Arthur’s kitchen and glared at each other like two cats waiting for the other to blink. Bev was beginning to believe her knees would ever forgive her, but it was Arthur’s eyes that finally broke contact and rested on the blisters already forming on his skin. His fierce posture deflated and his lined face turned pale. The effect aged him twenty years, and her heart wrenched at seeing him so defeated. Silently, he put his uninjured hand on the counter above him and levered himself upwards at a snail’s pace. Bev could hear his joints creak from across the kitchen, but she didn’t dare attempt any further unsolicited assistance. Once completely upright, he turned his back on her without a word and gingerly reached for the tap.

Being the one to bring down this proud tower of a man made a rush of shame close Bev’s throat on any further words. Her mind threw several phrases of apology out for her to try, but what eventually came out in her choked voice was none of them.

“Got a mop?”

Arthur’s silver streaked head lowered infinitesimally, but no other reply was forthcoming. Bev figured that was the best she was going to get from him and unglued her boots from the crusting floor. She’d just have to investigate on her own. Nothing in the laundry room. Or the hall closet. She knew the bathroom had no storage space whatsoever, so she didn’t even bother to look. There was a door on the west wall of the kitchen that appeared to lead to either a pantry or broom closet. That would have to be her last chance before having to ask again. An apology would have to wait until her mounting guilt plateaued long enough to form a coherent one and for the dust around Arthur’s crumbled pride to have settled enough to allow him to listen; both could have a chance while she peeled cheese off the floor. Yes, she decided, she’d try her luck with door number three first.

Her hand found the light switch inside the door off the kitchen. What she had assumed would be a closet opened out into the garage. All of the apologetic thoughts lining up for inspection in her brain came to a halt and smashed into each other behind her eyes. Any connection between brain and tongue was completely severed.

The spotless floor was only blocked from view by several large pieces of aging machinery. Bev recognized a band saw and a drill press, but the rest were foreign to her. Industrial shelves lined two of the walls and held everything from planks showcasing a rainbow of wood grain to jars of nuts, bolts, and dozens of indistinguishable tools. An old farm-style table and chairs sitting in one corner was the only untidy thing in the whole space. It was cluttered with coffee mugs, scraps of wood, and, teetering close to the edge, a sloppy pile of documents barely weighted down with an extremely improbable, over-turned peep-toe sling back shoe, complete with its spiky heel skewering a few smaller sheets of paper. The shared wall between garage and kitchen was partially obscured by the door, and she didn’t notice it until she took a step onto the cold slab floor. A mountain of completed projects were wrapped and stored on shelves or stacked on hanging racks. A few spindle chairs dangled from the exposed roof beams and an army of small carved and polished creatures stood at attention along the upper tiers of a gleaming bookshelf. A dark, rich headboard, a massive cedar chest, various candlesticks, and a few rolling pins were distinguishable amongst the striking cache. Only one item was covered even though larger and aging pieces were gathering dust among the collection. A green and yellow floral bed sheet gave the vague shape of tall backed bench.

Bev had been close enough to Becky Fenn to know the woman hadn’t been a woodworker. Clearly, she had just stumbled into Arthur’s workshop.

Continue with Part IV.

Burying Becky Fenn: Part II

Read Part I here.

Part II

When he arrived at the funeral home, he avoided the body. He couldn’t stand the thought of seeing her in a box. Putting it off, he sat with his eyes on the floor for the whole service, telling himself that he would wait until it was over, until everyone was gone, before looking. It would hold up the meal, but he couldn’t say his final goodbyes in front of others. He was a proud and private man, and theirs had been a private marriage. A private farewell was fitting.

The last hymn was sung, the guests filed out, offering their condolences and hugging Arthur far more than he was comfortable. He didn’t want their hugs; he wanted hers. Through it all he kept his back to the casket, waiting for a quiet moment.

The service had been simple and beautiful. A person or two on the way out had commented to him that they were sorry that Pastor Wallis had let the ceremony get morose and tearful instead of offering a celebration of Becky’s life. Upon hearing this, Arthur had nearly rushed over and hugged Bev himself. His heart was broken. He didn’t want to celebrate anything. Bev had reflected on Becky’s life, the humorous and the tragic alike; she had recognized the room for grief, gratitude for the time given, and the space to say goodbye. The overflowing room had laughed and cried with abandon, and hearing so many people miss his wife, audibly and publicly, had made Arthur sit taller, breathe deeper, and even allow himself a smile or two. He could throw a wake another time, he reflected; Becky had wanted a funeral. Those wanting a celebration could take their party hats elsewhere.

The last guest, thankfully, delivered only a handshake, and Bev told him to take his time. She collected her plain and worn Bible, stuffed a few crumpled tissues into a pocket, and faced the body for a moment before giving Arthur a tight-lipped nod and leaving the room. The doors shut to leave him alone with her for the last time. He gulped in air, the pathway to his lungs was on fire. He looked around the room, wondering what he was supposed to do with all those blasted flowers and who the hell would give concrete angels and babies to a grieving person? They were everywhere. Bev had been tripping over them all morning. Arthur halfheartedly resolved to deposit each tacky statue in the gardens of those who had sent them. He considered for a moment before amending his actions to take place in the middle of the night. The smile that came to his face was small but wouldn’t be contained. Becky would have laughed at his idea. And then she would have driven the getaway car.

Arthur desperately wanted to share his impish plan with her, and the memory of her laugh, the mischievous glint of her eyes lightened his heart and bolstered his confidence. A sense of calm soothed his emotions long enough to contemplate facing Becky for the last time. He began to turn, but one of the offending statues, a pair of flightless doves, caught on his trouser hem. Already unstable from having eaten no breakfast and bone tired from the endless emptiness that ate at his nerves, Arthur felt his balance tear away and pitch him forward. Knees hit the floor first with a loud pop. The momentum of his pivot threw him sideways, and a blow to the hip was next as he continued his descent right on top of the concrete doves. It felt as if his hip and side would be bruised for years. But worst of all, as he contracted in pain on the floor, his hands couldn’t reach the edge of Becky’s coffin. His eyes hadn’t seen her face for even a moment.

The defeat and loss he felt in his stomach pushed itself up his throat and out of his mouth in a sob. He lifted his arms to his wife, but the distance was too large. His crying grew louder and louder, until the doors of the room cracked open. Bev poked her head in before throwing the door the rest of the way. Calling out for assistance, she ran to Arthur, and a younger man Arthur vaguely noticed hurried in after her. The funeral director was the first to see the blood and instantly pulled a phone from his pocket.

Arthur attempted to pull himself to his knees, just far enough to see his wife, but his legs wouldn’t hold his weight. Before he had fully collapsed again, Bev grabbed at a lap rug that had been hung on an easel towards the outer side of the floral display. She stuffed it under his side, staining the stitched prayer instantly. A soft lump was placed under his head, and as he turned to face Becky, he saw the black of Bev’s jacket out of the corner of his eye crumpled beneath him. He called to his wife, yelled at her, but neither she nor the others in the room seemed to understand that he needed to see her. He continued to shout when the paramedics arrived to lift him on a gurney, when they wheeled him out of the building, and when the ambulance arrived at the hospital.

Continue with Part III.

Burying Becky Fenn: Part I

Part I

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.

Continue with Part II.

Page 88: The Clock and the Clouds

My favorite writing-practice prompt is Page 88. Simply enough, one opens the nearest book to hand to the eighty-eighth page and uses the fifth complete sentence as the first sentence of the new story. One never knows quite what will come out of it.

Book:
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
Author:
Dava Sobel
Page 88, Sentence 5:
If clouds appeared, the clock hid behind them.

THE CLOCK AND THE CLOUDS

If clouds appeared, the clock hid behind them. It was never tested, merely assumed, that without the clock, the clouds would never appear. They seemed to chase each other, and neither could be convinced to slow down to be caught nor speed up to end the game. The clock would never want to be seen, and the clouds, always wanting to be seen, were unable to understand.

Jimmy enjoyed watching each cloud flit in and out of his room, trading places again and again and again. It had been three days since he had first noticed their antics, and since then, he could not stop asking himself why the clock would want to hide its face from such silly things. He tried to ask, to coax it out of hiding. But if the clouds were near, the clock would not budge from the shadows, and if the clouds were gone, it would speak to no one but itself. Jimmy would listen attentively even though he knew he shouldn’t eavesdrop, longing to befriend the timepiece to whom he had never before taken a moment to introduce himself. After years of being the recipient of such behavior from its sole companion, the clock gave no impression that it was interested in pursuing a relationship at present.

So Jimmy asked the clouds instead why they could never leave the clock alone or if they knew why it would not speak to him. But the clouds barely seemed to notice. They continued to laugh and laugh and each new day would come to back to laugh some more.

That was the way it had been for the last three days, in any event, while Jimmy lay in bed, snuggled in his pajamas, under the covers. He had noticed both parties on Monday morning, the insecure clock and the mirthful clouds who never seemed to change their habits. But now, on Thursday, the fourth day, the clock’s strength seemed to match the small gain in his own. Jimmy could finally sit up with his back propped by a pillow, and even while it continued to talk to no one but itself, the clock’s discourse had increased ever so slightly in tenacity. Jimmy gave it a weak grin of encouragement that was neither acknowledged nor repaid. He hoped that perhaps, supported by his own rebound to health and being the recipient of an unfaltering show of tenderness from Jimmy, the clock might one day feel confident enough to show its face to the clouds and drive their laughter away.

For a portion of that, at least, he did not need to wait. The returning clouds that afternoon were not their cheerful selves. They seemed anxious, were not eager to laugh, and would not venture near the clock. The raced into and out of Jimmy’s room without a single giggle, only a stray, quiet, and nervous whimper that seemed to shush itself before the clouds were already half way gone again. The clock’s face was inscrutable, still hidden in the murky corner of the room, and Jimmy wondered if it had noticed the variation in routine. Surely, it must have. It always knew when to hide; it had to have felt the rush of thin air and heard the solitary apprehensive whisper that had made the only sound in the room besides its own incessant monologue. The clock, however, would betray no sign of cognizance of the clouds’ demeanor, causing Jimmy to dismiss the event as part of his own imagination.

The evening dimmed the memory of any such occurrence when he hereafter was capable of leaving his bed. A spell of ten minutes in the ancient rocking chair by his darkening window, sipping a small amount of broth, did not afford him much of a view of the same disquieted skies that had visited earlier in the day. The pane was closed to prevent a draft chilling him unnecessarily, and he found he missed the fresh air that kept him company throughout the long and quiet week. When he felt the clock’s muttering in the corner to be louder and more pronounced than before, he was eager to let it have time to ponder privately the chronic meekness that seemed to nag it so. He eased the window open ever so slightly and let the sound escape to any place other than into his aching head. The peculiar chatter was diminished to an undertone at the same time that a small exhale of the night sky loosed itself into the closed quarters. Jimmy took a fortifying breath along with the dimly dappled room, but there was a persistent and serious timbre to the air as it swirled inside him. The tone induced a feeling of unease in his body and added a touch of discord to his mind.

The soup was more than he could eat, and the time out of bed proved to be exhausting. Jimmy dragged himself away from the window, abandoning the bowl on the window ledge, to settle himself once more in the middle of his bed. The clock resumed its hushed tone, but the clouds still would not laugh. If anything, Jimmy thought, their low voices became more plaintive. It was worrying, but the little exertion after so many days of rest wore on him. Soon, he drifted into a heavy sleep that could not be disturbed by the rising lament pressing against the window glass, inching the leaded frame further open into the room.

~

He woke to sunshine, the orange of his eyelids easing him into consciousness, telling him even before looking about that the clouds were gone. Spirits lifted by their absence and an energy he hadn’t felt in days, Jimmy slid himself out of his blankets and to his feet. The rug beneath felt damp, and the air poured heavily into his lungs. The warm and inviting light nudged his consideration away from such things and toward the aging morning view. The day was almost half gone, indeed, without a cloud in the sky. The window was still ajar, and the recollection of the unnerving sound of the previous evening’s visitors had him reaching to shut the casement. But with the sun’s glow gently warming the room, he could not stand the thought of closing it.

As he let go of the latch, there was a soft and airy tsk-tsk-tsk at his back. Peeking over a shoulder proved himself to be alone, but still the consistent tsk-tsk-tsk brushed against his neck, as regular as a pendulum. Jimmy’s skin prickled and cooled. His hand returned to the latch and fastened the pane tightly into the frame. The temperature of the room began to recover, and the only noise was the gentle ticking of the clock in the corner.

Throughout the day, the room looked as if it were sweating. The rug was, indeed, damp, and he labored to breathe. Precious little amounts of oxygen squeezed through an invisible wet cloth pressed snugly to his nose and mouth. Jimmy longed to open the window again, to allow fresh air to whisk away the heat and humidity. A step in that direction, however, sent another and more insistent tsk past his ear, halting any further motion forward immediately. The window remained locked.

Jimmy wilted quickly under the worsening conditions. By that evening, his shirt and pants were soggy and his mind felt swollen inside his pulsating head. The clock’s chattering had never been stronger nor more contented. Every self-satisfied click, every complacent clack sent another throb through his temples and ate at his nerves. They reverberated behind his eyes and echoed in his ears. The sound followed him throughout the room. The more miserable he became, the more cheerful the clock’s voice seemed to be. Food was tasteless. Words swam in his vision when he tried to read. The cloth of any garment scraped his skin until he could only change back into his sodden nightclothes.

The room choked him. The space grew smaller, and the clock continued to clack louder and louder. Jimmy’s mind exploded in desperation, and he flung himself towards the door. But the pain behind his eyes burst with the unrelenting blather of the clock. The floor came up to meet his hands and knees while his stomach raged against itself. Crawling back to his bed was the only option left, and there he lay in a salty puddle listening to the clock merrily and tirelessly tick out the affected beat of his own heart. Soon he could do nothing more than stare at it in the corner and bear with the rapid loss of his senses.

~

Jimmy did not know if it had been minutes or hours since he had clambered roughly into bed. The sun had finished its descent some time ago, and the troubled and drifting sleep that had taken him gave him back to the darkness of his room. His vision would not focus when he lifted his head from the pillow or craned his neck to change the view. All that he could see in the gloom was the clock in the corner, staring down at him. With the whole room blackened, the clock seemed brighter by comparison. For the first time Jimmy could remember, its face wore no shadows.

The ticking rang off the walls. It had grown deeper, more commanding until Jimmy’s blood pulsed in its rhythm and his mind clicked in unison. The health that had been previously gained was depleted, and his body hung as limp as the bedsheets around him. There he stayed for minutes or hours more, the clock an extension of himself, but minutes or hours after that, the roles had been reversed.

The moist air that moved in and out of his chest rose and fell with the tick of the clock.

The hairs on his arms tingled at the tick of the clock.

The flicker of his eyelids, the skin of his exposed throat, the muscles of his legs, all regulated by the tick of the clock.

Jimmy ticked on through the night, unaware of the world around him, only conscious of the clockwork inside. He did not feel the room cool nor did he see the mist rise from every damp surface. On and on and on he ticked, while the air began to swirl and whisper and moan over the floor. It rose to lie on his chest and listened to his life clicking and clacking itself away, second by second. It smoothed his brow and stirred his hair. With a soft sigh, the mist pushed its way past his parted lips and filled his body. Jimmy’s mind was heedful of none of this, but the clockwork inside him felt the fog and gave a shudder. Jimmy spluttered and blinked. He coughed and gagged, the breath escaping him in small white wisps. The vapor left inside him gave an almost imperceptible chuckle. His windpipe still pulsed with the clock as the forming clouds whirled past. The laugh was not Jimmy’s, but he had felt it. More so, he knew the clockwork within him had felt it. It struggled to tick above the laughter, but, even silent, the laughter would not be kept by anything so steady and mechanical. It danced and bounced and leapt through Jimmy’s veins, behind his eyes, and through his skin. As the haze put forth the last of its energy, the clock within him rocked his chest and mind with increasing force.

The room was filled with a murky film; the clouds, having been trapped inside for so long without the wind and sun to sustain them, could form themselves into nothing more. They glazed Jimmy with their weakening merriment, and when Jimmy’s head finally creaked to face the window, the joyful crow they gave couldn’t be heard above the menacing clatter that fought it from the corner of the room.

Human mind clashed with the control of the clock, and Jimmy was still uncertain of where he ended and the machine began. His thoughts were pulled toward the reliable and uniform, but a small flutter of feeling would break ranks and prance over top of the pattern, causing ripples and hums to echo down his spine. With the clock in the corner no longer holding his sight, Jimmy watched the mist throw itself at the sealed inner glass of the window. Again and again it was scattered into a drizzle. Again and again it reformed thinner and more watery than before. The faint din that sang in his ears was pleading. Understanding was long in coming, and when it did settle upon him, the will to act was squashed by the daunting nature of simply removing himself from his position on the bed. The singing faded. When it had disappeared, Jimmy heard another sound, a rushing and crashing from the outer side of the window that reflected and multiplied the sad melody of the fading fog covering his room. Squinting, he strained to lift his head an inch away from the pillow and saw the night air alive, thick with clouds and spattering the casement with its muffled roar. It beckoned, cajoling him away from the ticking of his own brain. It demanded his assistance, called for the trapped mist that was raining onto the opposing glass.

Moving a finger sent a burn up his entire arm. When he twitched his foot to the edge of the mattress, his leg felt numb for a grueling minute. His muscles were on fire as he raised first his head and then his torso. His legs wouldn’t hold his weight, and he slipped to the floor in a heap. The clouds pooled around him, nothing more than small rivers cutting across the expanse of his room. Jimmy dragged himself by his arms alone through one and then another, feeling them soak into his clothes and slow his progress. Minute after minute he pushed and pulled. Minute after minute he lay panting on his stomach with his face pressed into the hard wood beneath him. And minute after minute the clock beat inside him.

By the time his nose had reached the baseboards under the window, the sky was tinged with gray, and he ached from a thousand bruises and stung from a hundred scrapes and splinters. He was sure he had left half of his skin burnt into the rug or scaled onto the boards behind him. The chair beside the window was the nearest thing to aid his climb, but when he yanked himself up to sit it tipped and clattered to lie next to him. Jimmy draped himself over the arm rests and pushed off of the runners, bracing his feet against the wall. Hurling himself up and away from the chair, he slammed into the window and flung a hand at the latch, but the metal was slick with the dew of the dissolved clouds and his weak grip was not enough to release it from the catch. Again he strained to reach it, but the exertion of standing proved too much. He began to slide back towards the floor, making a grab at anything to save himself. His hand landed on the dish of unfinished broth that sat forgotten on the ledge. It tipped over to splatter the contents in his eyes and landed with a crack to his right. His balance followed it, and he caught himself before his head imitated the bowl and split in two. The force of the fall winded him, and he lay there for some time before both breathing and thinking were possible again.

Seeing Jimmy tumble to the floor had made the wild clouds cry out and thrash against the window pane. But it had sent the clock into a whole new register. It drummed through the room, and kicked at Jimmy’s prone form, beating him with its victory as the first streaks of dawn peeked over the trees on the horizon.

Jimmy felt the blows from each senseless word the clock threw at him, and his body tightened in anticipation of defeat. His hand curled to form a fist, but the shattered fragment of bowl nearest him sliced deeply into the fleshy pad of his little finger. The resulting spasm that jumped up through his wrist slapped him with realization. Fingers creeping along the floor found the bigger scrap of china. Rolling his right arm free from where it was crushed under his body would be impossible. The aim would be questionable with his left, but it was the only alternative. Pushing himself up onto the opposing shoulder caused the remnant of the bowl to cut into his palm and pain to sear into the trapped arm below him. He teetered as he leaned fully on his right side and felt himself tip backwards. He pitched the bowl as hard as he could just before his body slammed into the floor again.

The air rushing from his lungs was accompanied by a terrific smash above him. The tinkle of glass was joined with a great rush of wind. The room had gone suddenly opaque, and Jimmy did not dare attempt to move again. He listened to the piercing cackle of the clouds and heard the alarmed scream of metal and wood from somewhere in the overcast distance. There was a shriek and a wail, a clang and an ear-splitting crash, followed by an equally deafening silence; still Jimmy did not shift.

The clouds, so thick they could not be distinguished from each other, enveloped him until Jimmy wondered if he had become one of them. A faint whisper brushed against his ear, almost a kiss.

He knew no more.

The clock lay in pieces in the corner of the room, no longer able to hide, and the clouds disappeared through the shattered window to laugh and dance and play in the wind and sun.