By Liz Betz
Just for a split second I can picture my grossly overweight cousin. Perhaps he fell so that he ended like a large sack of potatoes draped over a small tractor moored in green—dead weight.
“What good he was doing is another thing,” Rachel says. “At least he managed to get the lawn mower turned off, before he died.”
I watch my crow Petey take off from the tree outside the window while I thirstily quaff water. There is a stack of wet dishes in the sink. It’s five in the afternoon and these are breakfast dishes, perhaps the only thing Rachel has done today. It feels like I’ve spent a million moments like this, waiting for some reason to endure.
The wife continues, warming up to the story, her eyes glittering, like some drug addict about to score. It’s not good that I make that comparison again. What good was he doing? The man was mowing the lawn; it’s not that hard if you have a riding mower—at least he wasn’t totally a write-off.
I turn. I’m expected to respond now so Rachel knows I’ve heard her. That much I got out of the counseling. She needs to have her words acknowledged.
“Everyone needs to feel useful. Really, Chris hasn’t been well for years.” At this she looks rebuked, as if I mentioned her attitude. I’m not to assume her intent. What does it matter to her about my cousin’s last concerns? Perhaps he enjoyed puttering. He would have lost stamina for social whirling, even if his wife, Heather, is one classy woman, champagne-colored hair, Mona Lisa smile.
I don’t really know much about Chris or Heather, truth told. We meet at the odd reunion or funeral, acknowledge our cousin-ness—both with red hair from our Scottish ancestors—and then not see each other for years. Word filtered through about his poor health, and him only thirty-five.
The wife isn’t finished, her voice like a mosquito’s hum that drones close for the bite.
“I suppose this means you’ll be taking time off for the funeral? Being family and everything.”
If I do? Her tone tells me she is wearing her hurt face, which means she needs my patience and understanding. Outside the window my Petey crow is back; his feathers gleam like black mirrors. His nest is up the tree just outside, reachable with a stepladder and a broom handle. I’m not pointing that out. The wife wants to drive every crow from our acreage.
“Well? Will you be going or not? I’d like to know, Mel.”
“I’m not sure.” Entangled in her turmoil of this day, I know this isn’t just about my attending a funeral. It’s Russian roulette; pick the wrong angle . . . I’m supposed to acknowledge the issues. Fine! I would, but what is the issue?
Yesterday? I worked through lunch and didn’t meet her at the greenhouse. Yes, that’s it. The little emphasis about taking time off tells the tale. That’s just like her—a man dies and she’s totally petty. For a moment, I enjoy my indignation. I’d planned on going, but then she wore those ridiculous shorts that emphasize every roll of fat. I really did have the bills of lading to check. There’s more to Alberta Home and Garden—my new franchise—than selling garden tools.
We don’t attend the funeral. Rachel arranges a card and flowers to be delivered—that is enough, she said. But imagined details of Chris’s death linger. Did Heather hear the mower quit and wonder? Or was Chris a goner for hours before his body was found?
My cousin’s last day is still on my mind, a few days later, as I see the lawn needs mowing. Starting my lawn mower seems fateful. Morbid thoughts circle with me until I tell myself to stop.
I mow past the house and notice the trail of droppings on the siding—evidence of Petey’s nest. Readying the excuse that I’m watering the flowerbeds, I work with the water hose and house mop to scrub away the mess. I refuse to think about my actions. Our counselor and the wife would have a field day analyzing this. Why hide things from Rachel? Why not talk about everyday matters?
There has to be a better way. Then the hose begins to leak, spraying everywhere. I hurry to turn off the tap and look around to see if anybody has noticed my accident. A stupid reaction. We have no neighbors close. But if we did? I imagine a neighbor calling to me over the fence. I’d laugh at my messy appearance and tell him that “The wife hates crows, but I’m fond of them, so I hope she doesn’t notice the nest.” Nothing more than that, no digging into the roots of this behavior. A neighbor wouldn’t think this meant anything.
I change my clothes and return to the lawn mowing. If the wife mentions the extra laundry, I’ll tell her she ruined another hose. I circle the lawn with the idea of a friend and mentor to talk to. He wouldn’t think it unusual that I remember an auction sale where thirty-five lawn mowers are listed. The business closure auction is about fifty miles from my cousin’s home. Less if I take some back roads. A mere “Heidy-ho, that’s interesting” is all I’d get from a neighbor friend.
But I guess it is something that insists I attend. Even I think it a bit too convenient when I encourage the wife to take in a garden tour. She is thrilled by my gesture. I don’t mention location of the auction sale.
“I’m taking the truck camper, staying overnight so that I don’t miss the sale’s early-morning start,” I tell her. “Since you’ll be ‘smelling the roses,’ I might as well go early enough to look things over.” It’s something that she doesn’t start in about us going in two different directions. Instead she offers to pack the camper.
If I were to mention these oversights and arrangements to my imaginary neighbor, he’d understand that I’m not looking to get into bed with Heather. Well, no more than any man would.
Though I can hardly explain it to myself, I need to see where Chris spent his last moments. Besides, Heather may not even be home and I would have to detour to get there.
I almost miss the turn, but I see my cousin’s mailbox. A groomed driveway is soon visible, and someone is circling the green expanse with a lawn mower. He waves as I park by the house and get out of my truck. Heather’s voice reaches me.
“I see you found the place.” She returns to the deck where she sits into a lounge chair, picks up her beer.
“Have one?” She nods at the cooler.
“Cheers,” I say, then regret the salutation, but Heather smiles small.
“Yes, cheers it is.” She takes a swallow. “That’s my neighbor doing the lawn. I can’t do it.”
I remember how I felt on my own lawn mower. “I know what you mean.”
“It’s so stupid, how Chris died. Of all the things. He fantasized about a flawless lawn. I used to ask why it mattered, but it did. Right to the end.” A catch in her voice.
“He didn’t die because he was mowing the lawn.”
“No, but he died doing it.”
“That’s just the circumstances, nothing more.” I know the weak reasoning I’m offering her.
Heather wipes quickly at her eyes, a compact and tidy gesture.
“Only a very few have the luxury of dying in their sleep.” Lest these general condolences take over, I reach across to put my hand over hers. Just then she lifts her hand upward to brush her hair out of her eyes.
“Are you going to be okay? You know that beer isn’t the answer.”
“I know. It’s just hot.”
I nod. We listen to the mower as it buzzes close and draws away. A fly comes into the bug zapper and the crackle spits a wake-up call. Heather takes a deep breath.
“No one can talk to a widow,” she says. “People ask how I’m holding up, at the same time they put me aside. They say they want to know, but when I tell them, they pay no attention. Ask for advice but get clichés, whether they make sense or not. It’s tiring, just so tiring,” she concludes.
I struggle. For me to say “I know what you mean” would be another cliché.
“Sounds like you could use a heidy-ho neighbor,” I suggest.
“Someone easy. A sounding board. Someone interested in your well-being.”
“Chris was easy. I never had to guard my words with him. I could be a bitch but he’d still be easy.”
“I can’t even tell my wife to leave a goddamn crow’s nest alone, without it being an issue.” I stop. Where the hell did that come from? Jesus, Heather isn’t here to comfort me. “Sorry, I’m out of line.”
She takes a sip of her beer. “No. You need to talk. I can listen.”
I doubt if anyone has come to her with a problem recently, and she’s encouraging me to talk. So I do. I open up. I tell her about Petey and the counseling and the wife’s so-called depression.
“You know,” I say, “if she could accept the reality.. . . .”
“You can’t make someone happy,” Heather said, and our eyes meet briefly. She’s right. We may have gone further but the neighbor comes to tell us he is finished for the day and sure, he’ll have a beer. Then the afternoon is gone, and it seems right that we both leave. No point in Heather offering us supper. No point in having her neighbor wonder if I stayed overnight. I hug Heather, mumbling, “If there is ever anything I can do,” and while I expect no request, she surprises me.
“Phone me, heidy-ho. You are Chris’s family. Please.” Words that encircle me. Words that repeat during the auction sale and my drive home the following evening. Words like a cold beer on a hot spring afternoon, like a neighbor with his gentle conscience beside me. “Phone me, heidy-ho.” And then, “Please.”
I find that Rachel looks rested and happy, a red flush on her cheeks. She seems determinedly pleasant. She probably wants something. Eventually she shares her notes and a map of our yard newly landscaped under my nose. Work and money to spend before this is done; I’ve pitched enough of these renovations to gag. An involuntary shudder passes, and I know my reply sounds weary.
“What about just leaving the yard as it is and putting the money toward some patio furniture? We could sit outside and just relax, maybe have a beer and talk.” Like I did at Heather’s, I almost add.
She stops. Then with great effort, through beginning tears, she blurts out, “You never listen to my ideas, do you? It’s always about you.”
“Come on. Wouldn’t that be nice? To have some time together that is easy?”
“There is nothing easy about living with you.” She backhands this over her shoulder as she leaves the room. I want to shout, I’m the reasonable one! But my reasonableness is a source of issues, but if I don’t want to battle through every irritation, then why should I? Shouldn’t my self-control be applauded?
Now I really, really want to tell her about my detour to Heather’s. Punish her with the details. But to say anything is ill-advised. What would I tell her? Time with Heather is the opposite of being with her. All hell would break lose. Nothing sounds convincing. I ran into my cousin’s wife by coincidence? I didn’t. We just talked. No. We connected; my words were unguarded, messy. Intimate. Rachel has herself to blame; she drove me to it. But my hands were on the steering wheel the entire trip.
I know I should be working harder at my marriage. If I put a fraction of the effort to be with the wife that I did to visit Heather . . . but that’s the thing. It wasn’t any effort at all to visit Heather, and it’s damn hard work to do the right thing, to say the right words, and to bring easy with me every single day. Couldn’t a real marriage be like a friendship, where you could relax?
The wife has gotten ready for bed when she reappears. She takes my hand.
“I’m sorry about earlier. Patio furniture is a nice idea. And really there’s just one flowerbed that I’d like to renovate. We do need to relax more, talk more too.”
Like that’s going to happen. Her sweetness and reasonableness are just another pose. I turn from her to fix myself a drink. I throw on a light jacket, and I grab my flashlight. She looks puzzled.
“I’m going for a walk.”
I don’t go far, just around the corner where she can’t see me. I look at the night sky as I gulp the rum.
“I’m lonely,” I say into the darkness. “All I have here is Petey the crow.” And this compels me to check the nest. First there is a mess of twigs on the ground and then I look up. Sometime in the last few days, Rachel destroyed the nest.
I want to slash something. Or start the tractor and drag the cultivator through every flower bed, over every shrub possible. Remembering my blood pressure, I struggle to calm down. I make a deal with myself. If the wife comes clean about destroying Petey’s nest, tonight, right as soon as I walk into the bedroom, then I’ll tell her about my detour. And she’ll either have to take it or she can screw it. But I know she’s not going to come clean. I already know she doesn’t have what it takes. She’s poked her last broomstick at anything I care about.
The ex-wife, I think. I pause. Haven’t I come to this point before? What makes this time different? I make a list. It’s the crow’s nest. Plus the counseling and every other word being twisted into something difficult. It’s the snarl that is our life together. The ex-wife. I try the phrase out again. And I won’t have to say a thing about my visit with Heather. I bring yesterday back to mind—the padded chair, the buzz of the lawn mower lazily circling on the green, the heidy-ho connection—and it helps me relax. But not as much as I hoped.
Rachel takes one look at my face when I come into the bedroom and she knows I know. She turns away. Petey’s nest will not be mentioned. I’m not to press her if she doesn’t want to talk about something. I’m not to start any conversation while I’m in a temper. I get ready for bed and turn out the light. For a while I lie there and imagine her heart giving out, while I hesitate phoning 911. Long enough for it to be too late while I hold the shame at bay.
I’m surprised to hear her speak. “You know what?” I interrupt. “This weekend when you weren’t around, I was the most relaxed that I’ve been for a very, very long time.”
At that I turn over to sleep, and while I hear her muffled crying, I am able to drift off easily. The next morning is filled with silences broken only by wary information.
“I’m phoning the Jobs for Students office and getting someone to dig up the flower bed.”
“I’m going to eat supper in town and finish displaying the lawn mowers after hours.”
That day I sold four lawn mowers. It’s often a husband and wife event to buy one, funnily enough. Test drives, comparing features, the whole works; a little window in someone else’s marriage, easy to tell if there is a meaningful relationship or not. How they view guarantees can say volumes. But I always say there are no guarantees in life like there are in retail. Then it’s almost closing time, when a couple comes in with mirrors they bought three years ago. They want to return them.
“They’ve lost their finish. Do you see how dark they are?”
I want to ask, “Do you see how unreasonable you are?” but offer them a store credit for half of the purchase price. They leave somewhat appeased, so I tell my staff good night and lock up.
I don’t go home. I don’t want to go home. Then my phone rings, and I answer before I realize that it will be Rachel.
“Did Chris’s wife Heather phone you yet? She called here about you selling her lawn mower.” Rachel speaks in her best “I’m ready to make up” voice. “And to thank us for the flowers.” I wait for Rachel to add, “The personal touch from the gracious widow.” She doesn’t.
“Is that all?” I ask, my tone icy, but a flush spreads, heating my neck and face. What else did Heather reveal?
“That’s it. Just give Heather a call back.” We both breathe into our respective phones until I hear Rachel ask me to come home as soon as I can.
I end the call as I stand in the middle of the store, gazing at the merchandise. The whole store to supply the pursuit of a flawless fantasy. Home and garden beautiful. But the reality is a returned pair of dark mirrors. Me. Rachel. The shafts of evening sun reach in and bounce off shiny surfaces until everything becomes an abstract of dazzle and dim.
Liz Betz is enjoying her retirement pastime of writing short fiction, which has been published in a variety of markets. She writes from rural Alberta. Follow her writing blog http://lizbetz.blogspot.ca for news of her publications. Or http://sixtyplusbylizbetz.blogspot.ca to read musings of the moment.