a short story by Richard Cass
About the Author
Richard Cass has written and published short stories since 1986. He’s won prizes for his short fiction from Redbook and Playboy magazines, as well as from the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference. He was an Individual Artist Fellow for the state of New Hampshire in 1992 and has studied fiction writing with Thomas Williams, Jr. and Ursula LeGuin. He is active in Maine Crime Writers is also a member of the Mystery Writers of America and serves as the Member Outreach representative on the board of MWA—New England.
His story “Comeback” is included in Best Stories of the American West, Volume 1 (Forge Books, 2008).
Most recently, he is the author of three novels as part of his Elder Darrow jazz mystery series: In Solo Time, Solo Act, and Burton’s Solo (Encircle Publications ).
At first, the barium enema cramped up Albert’s gut so that he believed he really would rather die, but he had gotten used to worse feelings than that, and when the nurse tsk’ed and connected a second bag of solution, he pushed his face into the pillow to keep from laughing. Louise had told him plenty of times he was full of crap, and here was her proof.
Later, in the office, Dr. Stoddard rested his thick hand on Albert’s shoulder before he moved around behind the walnut desk. Alert as a bird to weather, Albert detected the trace of sadness in Tom’s manner. It amazed him to think that they had known each other for forty years.
“I’d appreciate it if you called me directly with the results,” Albert said. “This is a rough time for Louise.”
Tom nodded. “The anniversary’s this week. Friday?”
“Six years. I wish I could make it easier on her.”
Every November, on the date they’d lost him, Louise sat bleak as a prairie winter at the kitchen table, staring into the wallpaper as if she could see pictures of Denny’s short life in the space between the poppies. For that one day, she was untouchable, fierce, and lost, and he could not imagine her anguish.
For his own sanity, he’d compressed that time into an image: the uniformed Army sergeant standing on their granite stoop, his black fist raised to knock against the door frame in the gray and yellow morning light. Somehow he had learned to seal off Denny’s loss, to own the grief and keep it fresh without it overwhelming him, and he loved Louise enough to want that for her too.
Tom stood up, and Albert remembered that he must have other patients. They shook hands.
“I have some hope that this will turn out all right, Albert.”
“So do I,” said Albert. The muscles of his gut still ached as he walked out of the office.
He dawdled along Front Street, taking extra pleasure in the high cloudless sky and the dry warmth because the rains should have started already. Not that he minded winter, with front after front crowding in off the Pacific, the heavier meals Louise liked to cook, the stove burning. He loved the smell of wood in all its forms, even ashes, and wondered how much of the hauling and stacking and tending he’d be up to this winter.
Behind Scheffler’s dusty display window shone a brand-new green and yellow John Deere garden tractor. Out here on the coast, it only snowed once or twice a winter, but he could use the scoop to carry firewood up to the house, and in the spring, he’d buy the attachment to rototill Louise’s garden. Bo Scheffler beamed behind the high mahogany counter as Albert wrote out a check for twenty-nine hundred and eighty-five dollars.
The Bronco bucked when his foot slipped off the clutch too soon, and the clumsiness that he wouldn’t have noticed a week ago worried him. To the left, beyond Louise’s pale blue Pinto and the edge of the gravel driveway, the garden was bare except for the wilted tops of parsnips left in the ground to sweeten over winter. Downslope stretched Denny’s woodpile.
The summer that he had enlisted, Denny was wild to go to San Francisco. He had conned his mother into paying him for firewood to finance the trip. They didn’t burn more than a cord a year, but while Albert was away on a business trip, Denny had cut and stacked a wall of wood four feet by four feet nearly a hundred feet long. As a joke, he had even numbered random sticks with the year they might burn. At least seven cords remained, dated up through 1983.
Albert climbed down from the truck and walked up the stone steps, feeling swollen. The kitchen was warm, and he smelled his favorite bean and sausage soup, simmering on the gas range. Louise looked up from the rocking chair, a paperback mystery closed around her finger. She was distant, as if Denny were already uppermost in her thoughts.
“What did I do, hit the jackpot?” He nodded toward the pot.
“I thought you could use a treat,” she said. “Your back’s been worrying you.”
He bent and kissed the top of her head, noticing dry gray strands in the black hair. Only when Louise had made the appointment for him did he realize he’d been complaining about the ache in his tailbone for months.
“Tom will call in a day or two,” he said.
The rocker squeaked as she turned back to her book. He poured hot water over a tea bag and carried the mug out onto the cedar deck that ran the width of the house. On the railing, it raised wisps of steam. He’d been standing out here on Sunday morning when he first noticed the turkey, a grayish head bobbing on the curved stalk of neck. When she crossed between the high grass and the black walnut trees on the far side of the creek, he saw her whole, and under the shadow of the red-brown breast, seven or eight chicks hopping.
He hoped to see her today, but she didn’t show before it got dark. Leaning on the railing, though, with the empty mug between his hands, he felt as peaceful as the unforgettable fact of Denny’s death and the possibility of his own illness would allow. Louise opened the back door and spoke through the screen.
The soup tasted better than ever, and Louise hadn’t descended so far into her annual grief that she didn’t smile once or twice. They went to bed, and he fell asleep almost at once.
At four twenty-four by the square green digits on the clock, he woke, the dawn light balled up and frozen in his gut, his head dripping sweat. What had been sustainable yesterday, or at least not impossible, was inconceivable today. Inconceivable that his land would survive, that Louise could have a life, that the world would continue, all without him. Then he slept again. His next awareness was the ache in his spine and the dark-earth smell of coffee. Louise, in a chair by the bed, held out a cup and saucer. She wore town clothes and a hint of lipstick.
“If I pick out a tree, will you help me plant it?”
He forgot his own problems for the moment. Planting a tree was so clearly the right way to remember Denny that he couldn’t imagine why it had taken six years to think of it. He sat up and accepted the coffee.
Early on a Thursday morning, the nursery help had other work than waiting on customers.
“Can I help?” A teenaged girl wearing green rubber boots finally asked them, swinging her braid over her shoulder like a horse’s tail.
Albert shook his head, and they were left to browse. Louise prowled through rows of gangling trees in two-gallon pots, rejecting them all until they turned down the last aisle, where the chain-link fence formed a corner.
“There,” she said.
He followed her pointing finger to a stem with the thickness of a rake handle, rising from its black plastic pot to a foot over his head. Four slender branches, a foot-and-a-half long, with sharp-ended, oval leaves hung from the crown. He knelt and pulled a yellow tag to one side.
“Weeping cherry,” he read, looking up at her.
She was gazing at the tree the way his mother used to regard the minister after an inspiring sermon, as if he’d changed her life. He hadn’t, of course, but the moment of thinking so was worth as much to her as if he had. Albert paid the girl in the green rubber boots, who lifted the tree into the back of the Bronco with an ease that irritated him.
“I bought a new tractor,” he said as they drove out between the twin hedges. “They’ll deliver it tomorrow.”
“Good,” she said. “We can plant it then.”
He was happy to postpone the job. His left thigh quivered every time he depressed the clutch, and his hands were as stiff as cedar shingles. At home, he took his book, the story of John Wesley Powell’s opening of the West, out onto the deck, hoping the sun had enough strength to warm him.
The turkey yelped, nothing like the grumbling cluck with which she’d herded her chicks, and when he looked up, a red fox was galloping across the field after her. Dragging her right wing as if it were broken, she hopped and skimmed toward the creek, barely in front of him.
The chicks scattered in the grass like milkweed spores in a breeze, and once they were hidden, the hen accelerated up into a black walnut tree with a beat of both wings. The fox dug his claws in the dirt over the roots of the tree, as if he knew he’d been fooled but not how.
The turkey’s calling took a cautionary note when the fox abruptly trotted off into the woods. She paced along the limb, an extra nervous hitch in her neck, but eventually, with the same unthought decision the fox had shown, she dropped to the ground and called in her chicks.
They ran with stiff hectic steps as she bobbed and swiveled her head, trying to see everywhere at once. The two who started in the wrong direction corrected when she yelped again, and when they gathered under her breast, he still couldn’t count how many there were exactly.
“Did she get them all back?” Louise asked behind the screen, but she turned back into the house without waiting for an answer.
White-yellow light in the bedroom woke him. People would talk all winter about three consecutive days of sun in November. His head was hot and airy, as if he were dehydrated, but there was no pain until he remembered this was the anniversary. He sat up against the headboard, his eyes pricked with tiny thorns. For the second day, Louise was out of bed before him.
He got up and slipped on an old wool robe. Louise sat at the small table by the window, leaning on her elbows. The sun outlined her profile and the coffee cup in her hands with a darker light that hinted winter. The table was set with their wedding china, which hadn’t been out of the sideboard in years. He sat down on the other side of her.
The place from which she returned to smile at him was not as deep as where she’d spent the previous anniversaries. He picked up a spoon. The cobalt plates, his mother’s silver and the crystal glasses full of orange juice made the breakfast a ceremony.
“It was time for something else,” she said, pouring coffee. “Eat up. We’ve got a job to do.”
Bo delivered the tractor himself, exuding good cheer and his usual eagerness to please. His smooth skin and round face made him look nineteen instead of thirty. Albert offered to help.
“Part of your purchase price, Albert. Delivery and setup.”
The wire rope took up the weight of the machine as Bo backed it onto the ramps. Albert hoped there wasn’t any setup left to do. Bo was unhandy with tools, with anything that required a sense of how things worked physically. He muttered at the tractor as if it were a balky heifer.
“All right, dear. Nice and easy.”
Even something simple like keeping the tires on the ramps became an adventure as Bo looped the steering wheel back and forth. When the tractor rested in the driveway, Albert breathed again. He signed the receipt in spite of a dent in the cowling. For just now, he couldn’t bear the sight of Bo.
The engine muttered sweetly as Albert drove around to the back of the Bronco. He dropped the tailgate, and he and Louise wrestled the cherry tree off into the bucket. Its long bare trunk angled out like a flagpole. He backed and turned and started downhill, the uneven ground limiting his speed so that Louise could walk ahead of him with the long-handled spade. As they passed the woodpile, the dates, painted in black, reminded him of the hours of Denny’s life he’d spent in pointless work, hours he could never reclaim.
The ground where they’d decided to plant the tree was soft. He cut away a rough circle of turf with the shovel and saved it to patch the spot in front of the house that the neighbor’s collie visited every morning. Even the easy digging tired him, but he kept on, knowing if he stopped, he might not start again. Slipping the plastic pot off, they tipped the tree into the hole. On hands and knees, Louise unknotted and stretched the pot-bound roots. He filled the hole and tamped down the earth with his boots into a slight concavity that would hold the water.
“I’ll get the hose,” she said.
Albert watched her climb the slope, imagining the frailty age would bring her. Planting a tree seemed almost arrogant now, but as he stood beside it, a fierce resistance to leaving the earth rose in him like a river after the rain. It was too soon for Louise to have to mourn him, just when she’d adjusted to losing Denny. He climbed onto the tractor and switched on the engine.
As he started to move, Louise’s voice cut through the noise. He peeked over his shoulder. She was standing on the deck, pointing to the portable phone in her hand.
“Tom Stoddard,” she shouted.
“I’ll talk to him later.”
He extended the tractor bucket as far as it went and bore down on the woodpile. The leading edge plunged into 1983, scrambling it with ’82 and ’81 and ’80. The sticks knocked together with a sound like a child’s blocks toppling. He stopped and closed his eyes.
“Good news,” she called over the growl of the tractor. “He says it’s good news.”
“Losing Denny” Copyright ©2001 by Richard Cass.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.