It was a Wednesday in early September. Predawn, which was his time to be out here and greet the new day. Aaron eased himself down into the waiting chair. Good friend, this chair. What did they call them? They had a proper name. Helena would know. Well, she did know. He couldn’t call it up for the life of him right now. Slanted back, tilted up seat, broad armrests. Made of rather wide boards, closely fitted together. Wooden. Good wood and well made. Very well made. They had a proper name.
Aaron reached up to tug off the hat he wore whenever he was outside in gardening seasons. That was Helena’s training. He’d gone bald on the crown of his head fairly early and he - well, they - spent so much time outside, she always chided him about sunburn in the good months and in late fall and winter about ‘taking a chill’. It was that tosh kids were told when they were young about the body losing heat through the head. That it was how you’d catch cold, they were told. Maybe it was tosh, maybe it was true. He didn’t know. He used the hat to scrub at his pate and slapped it back on.
Wednesday. Today was Wednesday. He only knew it was Wednesday because he had an appointment later on. To have his ears cleaned. He snorted. His ears were big. There’d be a lot to clean. Usually the day of the week didn’t matter. Knowing the particular day. Hadn’t mattered for, oh, the past 7 years. Not since Helena died. Unless there was an appointment. For the car to apass inspection. For his old cadaver to pass inspection. He laughed at the thought that his teeth came out at night, so dentists were a thing of the past, mostly. ‘Course there was that once when he’d dropped his lower plate in the toilet just after he’d pushed the handle to flush. Don’t ask how! So, today he’d get his ears cleaned so he could hear properly, and that’s how he knew it was Wednesday.
He snorted again and took a large gulp of tea. Burned his mouth and shook his hand at the shock. What kind of transmitted reaction was that, he wondered. Burn your mouth and watch your hand flap at the pain. He smiled. Helena would’ve laughed at that. He tried to ease his back a bit by shifting around. Should’ve brought his pillows out with him. But he’d thought the dew would wet the pillows and then it’d be another danged thing he’d have to do, to get them dry again. It hadn’t seemed worth the bother just to make his old bones less querulous for the half hour or so he’d be sitting here.
He lit a cigarette and inhaled, tentatively. They really didn’t taste that good anymore. He tried again and made a face as he blew the smoke out after a shallow inhale. He knew he’d just let it burn down now, while he sat here. He only still did this as one of his ways to hold onto a bit of his life from before. It had to do with the dust-up cigarettes had caused between him and Helena. She didn’t like them. Said she didn’t like him much when he smoked. He shook his head, smiling a ‘Helena’ smile. One of the kind of smiles that held the deepest part of his love for her. And hers for him. She’d lied when she said that. About not liking him. She always liked him. And him, her. Part of what had held them together despite what happened to them. But on this cigarette thing, he’d held out until she’d finally said she’d allow him two a day. This was the morning one. And to quit now? That’d mean letting go of something deep. And he wasn’t about to do that. So he’d light one and take a drag or two and then let it burn out between his fingers. Stub it on the ground when it got way down. Tear the paper off and let the tobacco drift away. Yessir, he’d keep the rituals he could, thanks all the same. Trouble was, with twenty in a pack and only two a day, a pack lasted ten days. By the end, the cigarettes had gotten ratty from being mashed in his shirt pocket and were dry as tinder by the time he lit the last one. And the cost, of course, was outrageous.
He sighed, looked at the ash covering the cigarette’s burning ember and watched the thin wand of smoke rise straight up in the still air. He eased back to gaze at the pewter colored sky. Red in the morning, sailors take warning. Red at night, sailors delight. They’d said it might rain tonight. According to the National Weather Service. Service! Try and get real service these days. Anywhere. Well, as to weather reporting, half right is only half wrong. That was a saying of Mark’s. About weather forecasters. Mark, his younger brother, who’d be up here for a visit pretty soon. He liked to come for a last harvest of the season.
Aaron looked out over his raised vegetable beds. Lots of summer squash. He’d finally managed to drive away the zucchini. After years of Helena’s zucchini bread it was too painful to be growing that stuff now. Lots of lettuce, three kinds, though the Bibb lettuce had about run out. Cabbage. Plenty of runner beans still. Some peas, still. And beets and swiss chard. And those tomatoes! Lord, they were beauties. He and Helena had to get the seeds from a place in South Carolina. They’d driven down. Good road trip. He smiled at the memories. And these were old-fashioned seeds. Old tomato lines. None of those hybrids. The good old stuff, Helena’d say and then punch him in the arm so he’d say, “like us,” and then they’d smooch.
He smiled again and then had to bend over while he had one of his early morning fits of coughing. He dropped the cigarette and snubbed it out, glaring at it as if it were at fault. Damned Connecticut Valley catarrh. Always filling him up so he had to hock and spit. Or did ‘til Helena learned him better. At least to go into the bathroom and close the door while he ‘dealt with it’. Helena’s words again. He remembered the time he’d hocked and spat out the car window. It was when the kids were little and the family was out on a Sunday drive. Only the window hadn’t been open. That’d been a scene! He carefully field-stripped the butt, then brushed his hands of the last of the tobacco shreds. He took off his hat and fanned his head with it, then forgot about it, watching the late flower gardens with the prim spears of purple blue and lavender and white, and the blowzy heads of pink and orange and yellow. All those big faced flowers. What’s their name? His hand went slack and he almost dropped his hat. Caught it and smacked the chair arm with it. Darned thing. Too hot right now, clinging to his bare scalp.
He took up the mug to take another big gulp of tea and found it cooling. Too fast. Blast, he thought, his timing on drinking his tea sucked. And ducked his head automatically, to get away from Helena’s swat for saying ‘suck.’ Timing. Timing is all. Isn’t that what that comic had said? That one that had the - what was it? Seven deadly words? Some number of forbidden words. Swears. Or, that was what they used to call them when he was younger. Probably some other word for them now. There were other words for so many things these days. And mis-uses of old words, good words. Lord, that got his goat. Didn’t people go to school any longer? Good thing Noah Webster was long dead. Didn’t think he’d cotton to today’s language misuses.
Wasn’t - Carlin! That was the fellow’s name! He was the one. And it was him who talked about how we ought to be born in doddering old age and then work our way back through life, having all the fun things to savor towards the end. Sex, and all that wonderful silly flirting. Childhood with its games and endless summer times and snow men. And at the very end, he said, that fella Carlin’d said, we would end in an orgasm! Aaron had to slap his knee with the hat several times, he was guffawing and crowing so hard. And that brought on another fit of coughing that he had trouble stopping. Until at last, finally, he was able to wipe his eyes with the back of his hand and breathe freely. He looked at the hat, still clutched in his other hand, and then sat for a minute, staring blindly ahead, slowly returning to the present.
With equilibrium finally re-established, he scrubbed his head with the canvas hat and then whapped it back on, where it settled easily into the right spot at the right tilt, fitting just over his ears. The ears not as perky as they once had been. They’d begun to remind him of elephant ears. So long and droopy now, what with having been good-sized to begin with. Elephant ears he’d say to his reflection as he shaved every morning. Every morning he went and shaved, even though the night before, before falling asleep, he’d vowed he was going to grow a beard. Now he thought about it though, he remembered reading that elephant ears are paper-thin. Hmmmm, he thought. Helena would’ve loved that. Tell him HIS certainly weren’t paper thin! He pulled at one and instantly heard Helena telling him to stop it, there was no need to do gravity’s work for it!
Helena. It wasn’t so much he missed her anymore. Not in the bone-slicing way he did at first. No, it was more that he sorrowed at her absence. Though in his heart she was always there. And in his head! Tch-tching at his shoes dropped by the bedside. Whoshing at his ashes that dropped wherever he went. Or used to. Just the two cigarettes a day since Helena threatened him. And now he only smoked out of doors. One at the pre-dawn meet and greet the new day, the other out here again at eventide, waiting for a first star to appear. If it was bad weather, he’d bundle up accordingly. If it was rain, he brought out the old black big umbrolly. No, that had been Lucy’s name for it. Told you how old it was. Lucy. Dead at thirteen. Forty-two years ago. Damn. He sighed, shook his head and purposefully went back to thinkng about the umbrella. They'd made things to last in those days. ‘Course it had sun-faded. The edges that showed were badly faded. Open it up now and it looked striped. But it was strong. Big gusts couldn’t blow it away. If he was able to hang onto it, that was! No, in that kind of weather he always stayed in the corner of the ell. Might get some hellacious drips from the eaves if it was pouring, but that was all. No, it was ritual, being out here to open and close each day. Weather didn't matter.
He’d rallied somehow after Helena died. Her death had been slow, taking two and a half years, the first twelve or so months in hope and the last eighteen in what had been a dead man’s walk. Awful what you’d risk for a bit more life. Especially when what you got was life with no quality. Nausea. Sores in the mouth like you wouldn’t believe. Weight loss. Hair loss. Loss. That was the word all right. Through it all, there was Helena. Hurting. Fighting. Fading. And him. Beside her even when he wasn’t. When he’d had to come home for a shower and shave, a change of clothes, pick up the mail, set the thermostat or the AC or put the windows up or down - or tend to his life, he supposed - still, she was in his head and in his heart. And truth to tell, it hadn’t felt like life. It’d felt like dying. And then she was gone. Except in some odd way, after her death she has come to be with him more and more. Is always there now. Always with him.
So now it was a timeless Time in his life. Days’d come and go, month after month. Months’d come and go, year in and year out. Years - they came and went, too. Seven of them now. Time smeared and slid right by him these days. Unless there was an appointment. Or a visitor. Well, Mark was the only visitor he could expect now. Sidney died last year. His little sister. Just dropped her tea and fell down dead right there in her kitchen. He shook his head, slurped the rest of his cold tea and sat there thinking.
When it had gotten down to just the two of them, him and Helena, they’d begun to reassemble their lives, both separately and together. And they’d worked hard to create a new order in the life they shared. First thing had been the local theatre group. Matt, their son, had wanted to be an actor. Gosh knows if he would’ve made it. But anyway, he and Helena went down to volunteer and for a couple of years there he’d worked on the sets, building them, and Helena’d worked on the costumes. Later they each fell into their own ways of keeping happy and busy. His was his workshop downstairs, where he tinkered at small inventions. Mostly things that worked, but only enough to amuse the two of them. A way to light the fire without having to kneel down or bend or strike a match. A trick. That thing he contrived in a kind of Rube Goldberg way as a means of setting the garden hoses to water first the lawns and then the gardens and then back to the lawns. Gave them good soakings right after the sun rose, before it got above the tree line. The kite flyer he made to amuse the neighbor kids. Little things. Kept his hands and mind busy.
And Helena had put in a lot of volunteer hours, lots and lots of them. At the Concord Public Library, in the children’s section, reading to the little ones. At the dog pound - well, Helena always gave it its proper name - at the Concord Humane Society. She’d spent their last days with dogs to be euthanized, give them a day of treats and petting before they were put down. Let them know we can be humane, Helena always said to folks who thought that was - well, awful. Whether they thought it was awful of Helena to do it or just awful that dogs were put down or what, she just always said that in response. And she spent time every week working with the two autistic kids in the local Head Start program. She was a giver, was Helena. Gosh, he’d loved her. He still did, that was the God’s honest truth.
He struggled to his feet and went back into the house, moving into the living room through the sliding glass doors and later letting the kitchen screen door slap behind him when he came back out that door, a hot mug of tea in hand. He could sit a little longer. Had one of his pillows tucked under his arm, which he dropped down before he kind of fell-sat down on it, sighing as his old legs complained of his need for them to support his weight while he bent his knees. And don’t think the knees didn’t have a word of complaint too!
Successfully settled again, he took a tentative slurp and escaped this time scalding his mouth again. He’d cooled the mug of tea with tap water - something Helena despised. Better than burnt lips, you old fart, he thought, and wished she was there to give him a bump and a kiss. Their children were gone early. Much much too early, both of them. Their bright and shining star, Matt, their son. Years ago now. Killed, at age 19. Died from friendly fire, they’d said. It caused a freak fire, setting ablaze a small arsenal where Matt was on guard duty. Nope. That hadn’t been easy, particularly for Helena. She’d doted on that boy. And hated war. Aaron did too, but he understood that sometimes you had to do it. That hadn’t been one of those times, though. That was what made it hard on both of them. Needless. Useless waste.
He took a deep breath and pressed back against the chair back. His legs have eased up their nattering at him, knees too. Wait’ll they had to haul him out again. Then he’d hear! He looked up to see what he thought he’d felt. No bright shiny sunshine this morning. Maybe later. Might burn off. Right now the clouds were on patrol, low in the sky. It was lightening though, and warm - humid almost - but no trace of sunshine. Sunshine. That had been their nickname for Lucy. Their much too young, fun-loving daughter, Lucy, who died from leukemia when she wasn’t but thirteen. It had been quick. And that was a blessing. But hard. Bad. Yet it hadn’t driven Helena and him apart the way death of a young child from bad sickness or shocking accident did to some people. Mary and Gilbert Bliss, they hadn’t made it when Wendy, their daughter was killed. Her sled went right out into the street from Mayberry Hill and a pickup truck hit her. Not the driver’s fault. He’d been sick right there in the street and couldn’t stop sobbing. They’d taken him to the hospital. And her to the morgue. That had been bad. Before Wendy was killed, kids had always been able to steer their sleds to slew around and stop. Or there’d been high snowbanks they just plowed into, shrieking and laughing. Wendy - nobody knew exactly what happened. There was that low wall edging the hill now.
No, the Blisses hadn’t made it, had divorced a year later. But for Helena and him? Maybe it had been losing Matt earlier that made Lucy’s death just seem to pull them closer together, both in sorrow and in loving friendship. They’d already learned that they grieved very differently. She went silent while he talked to anyone who stood still long enough for him to get started. Then, over the next few months, it’d changed. She was the one talking while he had been done with it. But they stayed close. Literally. She’d stood by him while he’d talked. And then it got to be his turn to be her silent partner, and stand with her while she poured it all out. Anger and hurt and sadness. She had been beautiful, Lucy. It was like all the lights in the world had gone out at her funeral. Too little to go in the ground, Helena’d said. But still, her gravesite became a sacred place for them to visit. Hers and Matt’s. The military had sent back Matt’s ashes and so they were buried along side Lucy. Helena there now, too. Where he’d be sometime - probably soon. Hopefully soon. Before his body fell apart, anyway. He went back, briefly, to wondering what he’d wondered for years now. Had they truly been Matt’s ashes? Well, they’d said that they were. He'd burned to death, they’d said. He shook his head hard enough to hurt a bit. Pah! Didn’t bear thinking about. He’d go visit them all in February. And next March or April he’d start going regular to put first pussy willows and then forsythia and then every month whatever was most beautiful that bloomed wild. Right down to the last of the bittersweet, bright against winter snows.
Aaron sighed deep. Didn’t do. Didn’t do to dwell on loses, he knew. He leaned forward and got hauled back as if someone had ahold of him. Startled, he slapped behind him and felt one of his braces - suspenders, all right, Helena. Suspenders! One of the silly things - they sagged, a lot these days, but they were Helena’s favorite piece of his clothing - and one of the silly straps had caught on the chair arm. Hauled him right back into the chair. All right, he thought, all right, all right. I’ll sit here another minute or so. Not much more, though. He was hungry. He pulled at the suspender strap. Bright red. He had flowered ones and different solid colored ones. Even a set of leather braided ones. Leather so soft and supple. Now that had been HIS favorite. Didn’t fit any longer. Too long now. Stretched out of shape. Him or the suspenders, he heard Helena ask, and he laughed out loud in response.
Aaron smacked at a fly and sipped the last of the tea, putting the mug down carefully on the ground next to him, first making sure a suspender strap didn’t catch him again. It really was about time to get back in the house. He was more than a bit peckish. Some hot food would be good. The old house behind him was waiting. He could feel it. His long time friend. It had been a big part of how he and Helena had managed. After Lucy it was hard, maybe the hardest. But gradually the house had regained its sense of warmth and comfort to them. Took time. But, what didn’t? They’d gone on to build a good life for the rest of their years together.
Cooking, that became his forté. Boy, wouldn’t his mother’s eyes have popped at that! He chuckled. Yep. My meatloaf could’ve won a James Beard award, you bet. Not like yours, Ma, all due respect. Yours was dry. Mine was - luscious, Helena called it, and she wasn’t a meatloaf kind of woman. Baking was her thing. Helena’s. Oh, you know they were big hits at the community gatherings. The small Unitarian Church they attended had a summer festival time, an autumn hotchpotch and a winter carnival and they cooked and baked up a storm for each of them. Springtimes, though, they were too busy with the gardens. There too, their talents fell equal but different. Flowers were Helena’s green thumb arena. And lovely her flower gardens were. The front of the house regal and showy, but modest, while the back of the house was a glorious blaze of color and mix of tender and dark greens. And such perfumery. His green thumb was with the raised beds of vegetables, and they ate well all year round, thanks to his gardens. Inside, the old house looked wonderful too, from early spring to late fall, with bouquets Helena picked and arranged and set here and there.
No, he was doing well. He was. He’d learned the value of keeping busy in order to feel happy. Have a passion and pursue it, that was Jake, Helena’s father’s golden rule. A good one. It’d stood him, Aaron, in good stead. And keep to the rituals that remembered the good things. He was doing that. Keeping busy and feeling contented. At peace. Perhaps never more contented and at peace than at this time of day. Pre-dawn. This was when, in the gradual lightening of the skies, with the shift in the breezes that came up from the river bank, cooling everything with a sudden chill, this was when, dressed and with his cup of tea, sitting outside, watching the skies, in silence, he felt whole.
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