"Ruined" by Mary Milstead
Originally published in Southern Hum, Vol. 2, Issue 3, March 2007
The sun was low in the sky, a wedge of orange against the metal shed roof, and I had just set the table for supper. Tonight was beef stroganoff on our white everyday plates. We weren’t expecting anyone to knock on the door and I jumped a little as I was lifting the cover off the butter dish. I looked at John and he looked at me. He shrugged, and went to go answer it. “Come on in,” he said to someone in the living room and I went ahead and carried our plates back into the kitchen. I set them on the counter and covered them with checkered kitchen towels. We would eat later.
The man standing next to John when I walked in there had oily black hair and a painful-looking pimple over his eyebrow. A nice enough smile, big yellowing teeth. I’d never seen him before in my life. He was holding his hat against his chest, and he made a tiny bow in my direction when I walked in the room. I nodded back. John waved him to the brown leather chair and the stranger sat down on the very edge, holding his back straight and still. He set his folder on our coffee table and tucked his briefcase between his feet. He waited for us to sit down too.
“Sir. Ma’am. I know this is a delicate topic, but a lot of my customers feel it’s important to take care of these details themselves. Keep the kids from worrying.” His eyes were yellow green behind his glasses.
He held his hand up and waved toward the mantel, toward the rows of photographs in gold frames.
John nodded. “That’s Elizabeth. And Bobby,” he said. “My two children from my first marriage. Elizabeth is in Abilene now, with her family. Bobby’s still here in Buffalo Gap.”
The salesman smiled at me, sitting next to John on the couch with my hands in my lap. Did he think I was the second wife? The third?
“Do you have any children, ma’am?” he asked.
“Oh, no” John said, “Mae doesn’t have any.”
I nodded. Yes, it was true. I have none.
“Let’s see what you’ve got,” John said. “Mae might be interested in something. Me, I’m all set.”
John leaned back and crossed his hands behind his neck like he was sunbathing.
The salesman asked before I had a chance to.
“All set?” he asked. The skin between his eyes wrinkled like the edge of an unmade bed.
“Yes, I’ve already got a plot at Municipal Cemetery. Next to my first wife.”
My heart about stopped.
For the next twenty minutes, I had to sit there nicely and nod politely at the brochures the man had in his folder, the shiny color photographs of rolling green hills with flat name markers. I smiled and said that I needed to think about it. He told me that if I went ahead and signed up now I’d be eligible for a special deal but I just kept smiling and nodding. Until he finally left.
John showed him to the door and I went into the kitchen where our supper still sat on the counter. It was all cold. I threw the towels in a pile on the floor to be washed and scooped the beef stroganoff into the trash. Ruined.
When you stand up next to someone in front of God and everybody and you promise to love them until death do you part, everyone knows that you don’t really intend to let them go when you die. Maybe the young atheists really mean to say goodbye and turn back into dirt, but most of us believe in something, and we want forever after, not just right now.
Of course it was no secret that John had been married before, that he had done all of this before. He and Helen both grew up in Taylor County, and they married young, like most people did in those days. They were married for more than thirty years and they had two kids and they lived in a house just down the street from here, across the street from the post office. That was their life until Helen had a heart attack. They were much too young for heart attacks, but that’s what happened. She was barely fifty. He met me in Abilene a few years later, and we’d been married now for fifteen years. It’s not thirty years but it’s a long time. When he married me, I thought he meant it, that he was choosing me. I had no idea he was just biding his time and waiting for the end so that he could go back to her.
What did he think? That his Helen was lying up there in heaven, sleeping and dreaming of the day he’d join her? Did he imagine her perfect blue eyes closed, her white hair back to blond, fanned out across a pillow? Perhaps in his idea of heaven, she was just passing time, happily oblivious to everything happening here on earth. They’d just pick up where they left off. But what kind of angel doesn’t look back down to Earth? I assumed she knew all about me and John. But I didn’t know Helen, so maybe she had been looking the other way the whole time, busying herself with her knitting or something. Maybe she would be willing to let this slide, to let me slide, to let the last half of John’s life go by unnoticed.
I stood in our kitchen, rinsing the plates in hot water. A hummingbird buzzed up to the feeder outside and floated in front of it, a weightless blur of flapping wings. It stuck its beak into the sweet red sugar water and took a quick sip.
He came in behind me. I didn’t say anything when the door swung shut, just dunked the plate in soapy water again.
“Helen and I were married for thirty-two years, Mae,” he said.
Helen and I, Helen and I, Helen and I. It fell so easily from his tongue. The hummingbird circled around to the other side. Everything an orange blur.
“It’s what the kids would want, Mae. When Helen died I just took care of everything at once. There was no reason not to. I didn’t want the kids to have to figure it out on their own.”
The kids weren’t really kids, of course, and they were quite capable of figuring things out. They were grown up and gone and had families of their own. Elizabeth even had grandkids.
“I hadn’t even met you,” he said.
The next day I woke up early and it was so dark in our bedroom I could barely tell my eyes were open. The heavy drapes were closed tight against the window. My stomach ached. We’d never gotten around to eating dinner last night, we just went to bed early. John usually woke before me, but this morning he was still asleep, curled around his pillow on the other side of the bed. I slid my feet into my slippers and went into the kitchen. I poured myself a glass of orange juice and sat in the chair facing the yard. It was beginning to get light.
When I met John, his hair was already white and his skin was already wrinkled. His eyes were a very pale blue, cloudy like a rainstorm in the distance. His hands were dark from all the years of working outside. His granddaughter, Angie, was a student at the dance school where I worked, and one day he came to pick her up. I was sitting at the desk in the front office. I was an old woman already and I had given up on ever finding anyone. I looked up and said thank you and smiled at him the way I smiled at everyone who came in. In and out. Flash. The smiling faces of strangers and almost strangers. He didn’t leave, though. He leaned forward toward me when he said “No. Thank you,” and the light caught in his eyes and I smelled rain and he stood there for just a moment too long. Angie was pulling on his hand and he was standing there like a statue with his head tilted to the side.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” he said. His voice was slow and easy, like butter melting on the stove. “I’m John.”
“Mae,” I said. I held out my trembling hand.
I had waited more than fifty years for him.
The toilet flushed in the other room. I drank the last of my orange juice and stood up and went to the refrigerator.
John liked roast beef on rye, so that’s what I fixed for him. I made turkey for myself. Turkey on wheat with swiss. No tomatoes. Sandwiches might seem like a strange breakfast, but neither one of us likes eggs. By the time he made his way into the living room, his blue robe tied tightly around his waist, the sandwiches had all been made and mine were in a bag.
“Good morning,” he said. He wore long white boxer shorts under a flat blue robe.
“Morning,” I said.
I set my bag on the counter.
“There are sandwiches in the fridge, John. I’m going out for a while.”
He squinted at me, showed me just a tiny sliver of his pale blue eyes beneath those heavy lids. He should make another appointment with the eye doctor and get checked out, but he refused. Said he wasn’t that old, as if only the ancient wore eyeglasses.
“Yes. I have some errands to run. Nothing exciting. I’ll be back before you know it.”
I grabbed my car keys and my purse and left without having to field any follow-up questions.
The Jeffersons, across the street, were out in their yard. I held up my hand and gave them a wave with my car keys as I climbed into the car. Molly was standing over her garden holding a hose and Frank was pushing little Jodi in a swing. They smiled and waved at me. They hadn’t known Helen, either. They just moved to town about ten years ago. A nice young couple. His family was from Sweetwater. They gave me a second wave as I drove past. Everything was quiet in the car with the windows rolled up.
I crossed the railroad tracks and drove down 10. When the fence appeared on the side of the road, I slowed down and turned into the Buffalo Gap Cemetery, through the big wrought-iron gates. The cattle guard buzzed when I drove over it. I went to the back and parked near the chapel and grabbed my bag of sandwiches. I didn’t lock the car, but I put the keys in my pocket.
The ground was hard and dry under my feet and mosquitos buzzed around my ankles. The sun was already high in the sky and it was getting hot. I should have brought something to drink.
I started in the old part of the cemetery, where the headstones were crumbled and worn.
Sowell. Albert Newton. 1854 – 1903. His headstone was tall and leaned to the left. He died before he was fifty.
I made my way into the next row, skipping past the wide double headstones, the large family plots with their tiny retaining walls. The gardeners must hate those.
In the third row, I found Varnadore. Fred. 1896 – 1979. I knew some Varnadores in Abilene. George and Ronald, two brothers who went to my school. This must have been their cousin, or maybe an uncle. The Varnadores were quiet, kind people. I always liked them.
Wright. Marvin J. 1927 – 2002. Halsten. John Thomas. 1935-1995. Graham. Jacob L. 1914-1980.
Then Earl. Floyd. 1900 - 1987. Floyd had Pfc. next to his name. A military man. That was nice. There was a low stone bench near the foot of Floyd’s grave, and a large pecan tree. I sat down in the shade and opened my bag of sandwiches.
This part of the cemetery was quite pleasant. From here I could see the light shining through the stained glass in the chapel. The yellow dove was almost white with the sun right behind it. There was a wide open spot between Floyd Earl and the tiny cement cradle built for little Anna Belle Elliot. 1912. Only one year on her tombstone because that was all she had.
The bench was cold underneath my skirt and the tree was tall. There was no wife buried next to Floyd, no other family as far as I could tell. Which made the bench a bit of a mystery. Someone must have brought it here so that they could sit with Floyd. He must have been really special, a great man.
There was no wind on the ground, but the high clouds were flying across the sky. A few broken pecan shells lay scattered across the path.
A man born in 1900. In the military. He must have fought in World War I. The Great War. Probably France. He could have had his pick of all the pretty French girls. If he’d met me first, though, perhaps he wouldn’t have bothered with them. He would have smiled calmly and tipped his hat. Gone back to his tent alone, where he’d write me long, lonely letters and beg me to wait for him. He’d sign his name slow and careful, with love.
I pictured Floyd as a rancher’s son. Quietly handsome. Solid and hardworking. The kind of man who stood by his promises, woke up and went to bed at the same time every day. He would work hard and play hard, and I would keep a lovely house.
I felt better after I ate. I crumpled up the bag and stood up. I walked over to Floyd’s tombstone and I set my hand on top of it. It was warm.
I told him I’d be back.
I walked to the car, crunching dirt beneath my feet. The funeral salesman might not be able to sell me just any old plot. He might only be able to sell the ones located in his flat Forever Parks. I’d have to find out. When I turned the key in the ignition, the thick cold air conditioner blew in my face. Sweet relief.
John was sitting on the porch when I pulled back up to the house, and he raised his hand and waved to me as I pulled into the driveway. I got out and walked through the dusty gravel to the back steps and sat down next to him. He didn’t ask me where I’d been, just put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. It was too hot out for the hummingbirds, but he was waiting for me.
We went back inside, where it was cooler, and instead of settling into our chairs, we sat on the couch together. We spent the afternoon watching television and drinking iced tea. The air conditioner worked hard to keep up with the heavy sun outside. John held my hand during the sad parts of Days of Our Lives.
Toward the end of the day, as the sky outside was beginning to turn orange, the phone rang.
John got up and answered it. I could tell by his hello that it was Bobby. He sat in the phone chair and wrapped the cord around his fist. His ear pressed to the phone and he said “Mmm Hmm” a lot. I took another sip of my iced tea.
“Well, do you want me to come check it out?” John said. Bobby lived here in town and had never married. He had a nice converted doublewide on a big lot down the street and we saw him at least every other day.
Oprah was doing a makeover show. Those were my favorite. She was introducing the make-up artist and the hairstylist when John said goodbye and hung up the phone.
“Mae, Bobby needs some help with his car, so I’m going to head over there. We’ll just grab a bite at CJ’s.”
CJ’s is the local barbecue joint, and it’s right around the corner from Bobby’s. Of course, Bobby’s is just right down the street from us, and they could easily come back over here for dinner, or invite me to CJ’s, but I don’t mention it.
“Okay,” I say. “Tell him hello for me.”
Bobby is a nice guy, a good son. He and I have always gotten on well.
I made myself a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner, and I ate it in front of the television. I sat in my chair and imagined Floyd Earl sitting in John’s. He would ask me if I needed ketchup and offer to refill my water glass.
John came home around 8 o’clock, half-circles of grease around his fingernails.
“What a mess, Mae. What a mess. We tore that car apart and couldn’t get it to do a thing. Bobby said he’ll try again in the morning. If he still doesn’t have any luck, we’ll take it to that mechanic in Abilene who fixed my truck.”
There was a black smudge on the side of his face, where he must have wiped his chin.
“Oh, and he said to tell you the pecan pie you sent on Sunday was delicious. Best he’s ever tasted.”
It was the kind of thing John might normally forget to tell me. But that day he remembered.
The next morning I woke up and John wasn’t in bed. He had business in Abilene later that day, but he never left the house without waking me, without telling me goodbye. I stayed in bed for a minute and listened. I thought I heard water splashing in the sink. After John left to go to Abilene, I would go back out to the cemetery. Maybe I’d look around a little more. Maybe sit with Floyd.
I got dressed in the walk-in closet, then pulled my hair back and left the quiet darkness of our bedroom. John was sitting at the kitchen counter in the sun. There was a plate of hot cakes on the counter in front of him and a bottle of Aunt Jemima in his hand.
“Just in time, Mae. I made you breakfast.” He stood up to fix me a plate. I smiled and sat down. It was a treat to be cooked for. The butter and syrup melted in my mouth.
The hummingbirds were back at the window.
“The feeder was empty this morning,” he said, “But I filled it.”
The red plastic feeder spun in the sunlight, the bird in front of it a feather, never occupying the same space for longer than a second. It was blurred and fuzzy at the edges, a whisper. A ghost.
“Thanks,” I said.
I handed him a napkin and he wiped the syrup from his lips.
I stood on the porch and and waved as he got in his car and drove away. I waved until he was down the block and out of sight. I went back inside and grabbed my purse. He’d be gone all morning, at least. He was going to the bank, to visit his old friend Frank Waldwood, and then he’d swing by to see the mechanic and ask about Bobby’s car.
I drove back to the cemetery, passing no one on the way. It wasn’t until after I buzzed across the cattle guard and came up the hill that I saw that I wasn’t alone. There was a wide black hearse and a small group of cars in the far west corner, next to the chapel. Someone was going back into the ground. The black backs of strangers were huddled around the open grave and a green tent made shade. I couldn’t hear what the preacher was saying, but the low drone of his voice floated over to me on the wind. I didn’t recognize anyone from here and anyway I would have heard if someone local had passed, so it must be a family that had moved away long ago, just come back for the family plot.
I didn’t want to attract too much attention, so I just walked straight to the bench by Floyd's grave and sat down like I belonged there.
There was a low rumble in the sky and the wind was picking up. I didn’t bring anything to eat this time, so I didn’t have anything to do with my hands. I just sat and looked at his headstone, at the hard ground around him. If we’d known each other in life, everything might have been different. I would have made a great military wife. I would have kept the house running and answered every letter. When the war was over and he finally came home I would have stood out on the airfield with a smart suit on, smiling. We’d race to meet each other on the tarmac, and we’d kiss, and then we’d drive home together and spend the rest of time talking and making plans. We’d make promises to each other, ones that we could keep.
He died on September 25, 1987. It was probably nice out, like today. I wouldn’t have wanted to be there when it actually happened, when he passed over. What I imagined instead was coming home and finding him at the house, maybe sitting quietly in his chair with a book on his lap. Or maybe waking up to find him quietly departed in the bed beside me, not yet cold. Yes, I hoped he died peacefully in his sleep, something we can all dream of.
Helen’s heart gave out while she was gardening. John found her at the edge of their flower garden, fallen among the zinnias with an empty water can in her hand. He’d spent the afternoon running errands and visiting friends. He expected to come home to dinner, but instead he found her lying in the hot sun with her mouth open. Long gone. He sold the house where they had lived for thirty years and he walked the long way to the post office now. We had a new garden at this house, but no flowers. It made him nervous for me to be out there, which I could understand, so I barely planted anything, just a few vegetables and herbs.
The funeral seemed to be nearing the end. People were hugging and moving toward their cars. I didn’t want to get stuck behind the procession, so I gathered myself and said goodbye to Floyd and got back in my car. I drove away and pulled out onto 10 without checking for traffic.
When I reached our house a few minutes later, there was a quiet white police car blocking the drive. I stopped next to the gate and jumped out without shutting my door. My feet slipped in the gravel and hot cakes rose in my throat. John had gone to town, and I had to gone to sit with Floyd out at the cemetery. He must have come back early. Maybe Bobby came over and found him. No one would have known where to find me.
I pulled open the front door and burst inside.
John was sitting on the couch with his hat in his lap. He looked up when I walked in and he smiled, slow and sad.
“Mae,” Sheriff Thornton said.
“It’s Bobby,” John said.
The Sheriff was looking at his hands.
“They found him in his garage this morning. He must have gone out there last night to work more on his car and collapsed. Lela Jenkins went over there to ask for help with her lawn mower and she found him.”
“I stopped by on my way into town,” John said.
They hadn’t said the word, so I didn’t know. I looked at the Sheriff.
“He’s dead, Mae,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
I sat down next to John and picked up his hand. I squeezed it. His skin was rough but warm. John had lost too many people he loved already, and Bobby was too young to die. He was even younger than Helen had been.
“Elizabeth is on her way,” he said. “Angie, too.”
“Good,” I said. I motioned for Sheriff Thornton to have a seat in the brown leather chair and I offered him something to drink.
Sheriff Thornton stayed with us and had a glass of iced tea while we waited for Elizabeth and Angie.
When they got there, he gave them his condolences and left to go check in with the coroner.
I was standing in the kitchen rinsing glasses and making Elizabeth a cup of tea when John came in and put his hands on my hips and leaned his chin on my shoulder and looked out the window with me.
“We’ll bury him next to Helen,” he said. “It just makes sense.”
His voice was small and he squeezed my shoulders.
I turned to him. I put my wet hands on either side of his face and leaned in close. Did he know what he was saying? Did he mean it?
“He doesn’t have any other family,” he said. “I do.”
I kissed him and then pushed him back toward the living room. The hummingbird flew away as I turned to take the whistling tea kettle from the stove.