On Second Thought…

Fiction
Louis M. Abbey


Photo Credit: Don Shall/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I was savoring my first bite of fresh apple pie when a knock on the front door startled me.

Swallowing quickly, I flipped on the porch light, opened the door and Bill Canfield stood there smiling. He’s six-foot-four with thick brown hair, broad nose, high cheekbones and sad brown eyes. A paunch drapes generously over his belt. He and Louise are my only neighbors for miles along our stretch of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Hi, Bill,” I said. “What’s up? Come in out of the dark. Cup of tea? Piece of pie?” I held the door and he stepped inside.

“Oh, everything’s fine, Larry. I can’t stay long this time, so I’ll take a rain check on the pie. Just wanted to tell you I’ll be away for a few days. My dead brother’s wife’s got a problem with her father’s will—family squabbles, you know. They asked me to help straighten things out.”

“Sounds like a rough situation.”

“Yeah, kinda ridiculous too.” He shook his head slowly. “Here it is 1975, man’s been dead near two years and they still can’t agree on who gets what. Just wanted you to know where I’d be. Louise doesn’t get along with that side of the family so she’s stayin’ here.”

“Well, I’m sorry to say I won’t be around either, Bill. I’m heading out early tomorrow for a month in the Philippines. Hate to leave the same time as you, but… no choice.”

“I understand, Larry. You come and go on short notice. I’ll only be away for a couple of days; Louise can take care of herself. Got her plenty of groceries and there’s a pile of books she’s been dying to get at. She’ll be fine.” He turned and opened the door to the porch.

“OK, Bill. Good luck on your trip and hope you can get things sorted out.”

“Talk to you when you get back, Larry, and I’ll see to your grass.” He chuckled. “Good night.”

I switched off the porch light when Bill reached the dirt road. My piece of pie was waiting patiently on its plate.

*

My work in the Philippines was exhausting. So when I returned, I picked up mail, back issues of the local newspaper, and drove home. Shopping could wait. Pulling into the yard, I noticed my grass was almost knee-high. Bill’s lawn looked mowed but his car was gone.

My fridge was empty except for a can of beer. Unpack in the morning, I thought. Opening a package of cookies, I sat down at the table to scan the local news. The second page shocked me. Louise Canfield had died. I stared at the three-week-old obituary. Tears welled in my eyes. What would I— could I say to Bill?

I had a restless night. In the morning, Bill’s pristine metallic-green Chrysler was in the driveway and he was out raking under the tall pines. His large frame seemed smaller and moved a little slower. I watched through the window for a few minutes, mulling over what to say. Then I stepped outside and walked across the yard between our houses. Bill’s back was turned and he was scratching his rake on a shabby patch of lawn and pine tags.

“Don’t mean to sneak up on you, Bill, but how’s it going?” I said from a few yards away.

“Hi! How’re ya’ doin’, Larry? Welcome back!” His confident tone contrasted with the flustered look on his face.

“I’m fine! Beautiful afternoon. I, ah, read in the paper about Louise. So sorry I was away, Bill. How’re you holding up?”

His eyes filled as we shook hands. “Still pretty rough, I reckon,” he said with a shrug, letting go of his rake. It tilted slowly and thudded to the ground.

“Sure is a beautiful weekend, just the kind of weather for November.” My lighter tone fell flat.

Bill bent over, picked up the rake and leaned on the handle, droop-shouldered, mouth slacked at the corners. “She’s been gone over three weeks now,” he drawled, shaking his head slowly. “Still listen for her to tell me what to do—my scheduler, alarm clock, and director, all gone at once. Life sure is boring without her yellin’ at me. You know, I’ve overslept more lately than in the whole time we were married. That would be thirty-two years this January.”

“Long time…” I nodded.

“Remember I had to go away on that business with my sister-in-law?” Bill asked. “I told Louise I’d only be a couple of days. When I got there the lawyer said it’d take near a week. So I called Louise right away. No answer. Thought she might be outside so I waited and called again, still no answer. I had the car and she’d never leave with anybody else, once I was gone.”

“So I left right then, to hell with the lawyer. Drove all night, straight back; kept stoppin’ and callin’… no answer! Pulled into the yard early in the morning and spotted her first thing, layin’ out there under those trees beside the beach, buzzards circling.” He pointed to a stand of tall pines. “She must have died while I was on the road.”

He wiped his cheek with the back of his hand.

I stared at him—my mouth hanging open. The newspaper hadn’t mentioned that part of the story.

“Right here in my yard—my poor dead wife being picked over by buzzards and I had to come home to find her. I ran at ‘em. Scared ‘em off, but they kept circling. Got a blanket from the car to cover her just so I could go in the house to call somebody. It panicked me. I yelled and screamed at those birds, blubberin’ like a baby. I think about it when I’m alone—where was I when she needed me?”

“I’m sorry, Bill, I didn’t know. Thought she—”

“No, right there. Ain’t nobody around to find her this time of year, just summer places up the road, you know. She prob’ly had some scraps to throw back for the crabs… empty bowl beside her. Buzzards must’ve ate it and were about to start on her. Doctor said it was a massive heart attack.”

I looked away, drew a deep breath and wiped my eyes.

“It was awful,” he went on. “Neither of us have family in the area, you know, and she’s an only child. She meant the world to me, Larry. You never realize it ’til they’re gone. Doctor told me she didn’t suffer. I thank the Lord for that, but I never knew how much I’d suffer.”

“You two sure had a good life… a lot to be thankful for.”

He turned his head and stared across the two-mile width of flat, brown, mid-November bay.

“Know what I miss the most?”

“No, but it must be hard thinking back. You’re brave, Bill, don’t think I could do it.”

“Never know ’till it happens to you… can’t never prepare.” His voice trembled. “You know, she used to iron my— my undershorts and handkerchiefs. Now I don’t mean no harm but that’s what I miss… the little things. She took care of me and I wasn’t even here when she needed me most.”

A tear ran down his cheek to his chin. He let go of the rake handle and wiped his face with the back of his hand. The rake balanced then tipped slowly toward the water landing in the grass. He bent over, picked it up and leaned it against a tree.

“I’d worry when she was late coming back from the store, get mad at her. Not that she might get in an accident or something, but ‘cause she wasn’t here to cook my supper. She wasn’t here for me! Now I can get as mad as I want and it don’t do no good. That’s 32 years of thinking of myself!” He spread his arms wide and looked straight at me. “In the end, she checks out on her own, without me.”

“You know, when I went to the war in Korea, I feared I’d get…” He pointed below his belt buckle. “You know, shot off so I couldn’t use it anymore. I’d rather they shot me dead. Never thought about what it’d be like if she passed first. Just assumed I’d go first, like men mostly do. She was always there for me.”

“I wasn’t even here to see her go! Hell, I’d trade… you know what… to have her back for just an hour to say good-bye.”

“I miss our walks. No hand to hold. Not that we walked through the woods holding hands all the time, but now when I reach out, that hand’s not there. Blows me away!”

I nodded.

“You know I like to read the paper in the morning, front to back, ‘fore I ever get going and do anything. We’d sit there and I’d come across lines or stories—read ‘em out loud to her—get her ideas—talk about ‘em. Now I read to the goddamn walls—nobody there. We never had kids—maybe we shoulda.”

“I went fishin’ the other day. Got back to the dock and I let ‘em all go. Poured ’em outta the bucket right back into the water. Couldn’t bear to clean ’em. All I thought of was their relatives, how they’d be missed.” He shook his head. “Think I’ll ever get back to fishin’ again?”

“Louise, she was a real stickler about leaves and pine tags, remember? I’ve raked a couple of times since she died, not for me, but for her. Thought she might feel better, wherever she is. I feel close to her, out here raking her leaves. She’s here with me every day, right here in my heart.” He thumped his chest. “I know she is.” He kicked the dry pine tags. Silence settled with the dust.

“When she finished rakin’, we’d sit down and have a soda, you know, right over there on the lawn chairs,” he pointed. “They say you never know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Well, I’ve got nothing now.”

“You took care of her, Mr. Canfield, and she took care of you. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Watch out for each other… hope and care. Hope and care’s all we can give.” I placed my hand on his shoulder.

He lowered his head, shoved a hand in his pocket. “Yeah, she used to talk about that. Kept this sad-assed lawn clean hopin’ the grass would grow. You know you can’t grow decent grass this close to saltwater. But she hoped and now I reckon I’m continuin’ to hope for her. She’d be proud of the way I keep it all clean. Only one thing, though, when I’m done, there’s nobody waitin’ over there with a cold soda. She’d quit a minute or two before me, go get the sodas—her ginger ale and root beer for me—then we’d drink ‘em together, sittin’ right under that tree in those chairs.” His voice was thick.

All the chairs needed were Louise and Bill sitting in them, seats weighted down perilously close to the ground. She’d have her hands in her lap, ankles crossed in front of her. He’d cross his legs in the manly fashion, ankle atop the opposite knee. Sometimes he’d cock his arm behind his neck like a headrest.

“Keep working on the memories, Mr. Canfield,” I said softly, patting him on the back. “Pretty soon, you’ll be able to take comfort in ‘em. Now, I know you don’t drink, Bill, but there’s a cold beer back in my fridge and two glasses—one for you and one for me. You wait here and I’ll get ‘em.”

“Well, no thanks, Larry. I don’t drink, you know. Louise never approved. But I appreciate you thinking of me that way.” Then he tipped his head back and gazed up at the sky. The tops of the pines swayed in the wind. He drew a deep breath, slowly combing his fingers through his thick hair. Then he turned back to me. “On second thought, Larry, I think I would like one. We can sit in those chairs over there under the tree.“

I smiled, turned, and trotted back to my house.

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Louis Abbey is a retired Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology from VA Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from VCU and has published both poetry and fiction in journals such as Indiana Review, The MacGuffin, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Georgetown Review, among others. He has also been published online in Grey Sparrow, Wild Violet, twice in Toasted Cheese and in Zero-dark-30. One of his poems was anthologized in Blood and Bone, Poems by Physicians, Angela Belli & Jack Coulehan, Eds. U. Iowa Press, 1998. He currently lives and writes in Revere, MA. Email: abbey_louis[at]yahoo.com

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