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Grave Voices

Wendell’s bony shoulders act like a coat hanger.   His pressed shirts are dark, green, and heavy like canvas.  They dangle around his waist.  He wears them year-round, no matter the temperature.  His hands are stained.  It took time, but he gave up trying to wash the dirt off.

The graveyard is small and circular.  The owners are trying to purchase more space for more burials.  There’s not much room for expansion in the city.

Wendell moves slowly.  The flowers are wilted, sagging, and dull.   He knows when they need to be removed. They fit nicely into his wheel barrow.  The voices are always thankful.

Rosemarie Cullen, beloved mother of twin boys, has a high and forced voice.  She mentions to Wendell that when she was alive, she drank hot tea all day.  Even in the summer time, she was still flabbergasted by that.  But, it was true.  She and her husband rented the same place on the beach every year.   As she got older, she needed to let the tea cool.  Sometimes, the same cup would last her until lunch. Wendell, of course, is aware of this.

“My daughter-in-law Bethany brought those to me, she just repainted her kitchen.” Placing the yellow flowers next to some matted dirt, Wendell acknowledges the voice with a nod.  He wipes his hands.  He moves on.

Mr. Battenfeld’s voice is like a slow truck on a gravel driveway.  He tells Wendell about how the love of his life slipped away.  He missed two significant chances to have a real relationship with her, his fault both times. He refers to her as “this person”.  But it was undoubtedly a woman.  She was only modestly attractive, and he was concerned about his friends at the time.  But, as he put it, “that was a family ago.”

“My grandson is going to Harvard, you know.”  The flowers used to be red and stare at the sky, now their heavy heads hang in obedience to the way of things.  All but one.  One of them is still good.   Removing the good flower, Wendell notices two from the Cullen bouquet are also still good.  He dusts them off and sets the three aside.  By the end of his round, Wendell hears many stories and has an eclectic arrangement.

Home is brown and neat.  The vase in the middle of the table contains dead flowers.  Two seats face each other.  Wendell removes the old flowers, wipes the ring from the middle of the glass vase.  Some dirt washes from his hands; stains remain.  The bright colors gather in his vase.  The rest of the room makes the colors noticeable.  Wendell arranges the flowers, prepares  dinner.

Subtle clunks pop from the table as two place settings are laid out. The voices continue.  Mrs. Sullivan is so happy with her violets.  “They know that these are my favorite.  They are all very thoughtful, my kids.”   Mrs. Sullivan prefers to be called that.  Even when her kids got married, their spouses knew to call her Mrs. Sullivan.  When she was alive, she was embarrassed by the fact that she preferred scotch to wine.   She always took the first sip before bringing her husband his glass.  This is why she never wore lipstick at parties.

Mr. Battenfeld chimes in. “I think the crimson is going to beat Yale this year.  Allan plays. It’s his second year, sophomores don’t play much, but, he’s having fun.”

George Halsey speaks up. “ I never really told everyone what I thought of them, or how proud I was. They don’t leave things for me as often as some others, maybe that’s why.”

The voices banter back and forth, and Wendell’s leftover chicken is dry.   The green beans are worse than they were yesterday, some are overdone now, rough and bumpy.

The plates and utensils plink and slide along the bottom of the sink.  The lines in Wendell’s forearms are defined, and flex as he cleans the dishes.  Everything is wiped dry and put away.

Mrs. Cullen speaks to George Halsey, “I wouldn’t feel so bad about that George.  Look at those lovely irises that they left for you. It seems like they do what they can.”

Wendell puts his plates in the cabinet, and wipes the water from the edges of the sink.  The kitchen wall paper is perfectly laid, but outdated.  His chair is hard.   The voices speak to each other about their spouses families, kids, and grandkids.

Ben Westerman makes excuses. He talks about how his kids are very successful and busy, that’s why they don’t bring flowers so often, but these are nice.  The others remind him that he’s proud of them.

The conversation ends, Wendell lays in his bed.  Duct tape contains the springs in his queen-sized mattress.  The sun sets, imitating a closing shade.

In the morning the flowers are sagging.  Only Ben Westerman comments on the weather.   Mrs. Cullen chimes in.  “This is a good tea morning.”

A humid haze hangs over the graveyard.  Wendell’s sleeves maintain a perfect crease.  The grass needs to be cut, and a hole dug.   Wendell wipes the grass from the tractor, and hoses off the shovel after the hole is finished.   There are no new flowers today.

Wendell’s work station is orderly, and clean.  He scans the old obituary sections for Anne McCarthy.  The hole is for her.  She leaves behind a husband and two teenage children. He imagines that in their younger years, she and her husband enjoyed a perfect sunset in Paris, and her voice as soft and gentle.  He considered the stories she might tell.

At home, only the voices of Mr. Battenfeld and Rosemarie Cullen remain. The other flowers are brown, flat, and silent. Battenfeld and Cullen were born around the same time.

“My father didn’t care for Eisenhower,”  Battenfeld said.

“You can’t mention that too loudly now, huh, but a lot of people didn’t,”  she responds.  This conversation remains throughout dinner.  Wendell listens, concerned that the flowers won’t make it through the night.  He changes the water, warm water for the rose.  He adds flower food, and stares at them.

The next morning, the flowers are brown and bowing. Both dishes slide along the table top, and all remains silent.   Wendell doesn’t eat, and leaves the dead flowers in the vase.  He centers the plate across from him with both hands; no voices come.

Silence, like always, brings the twitch.

His palms press into the table, he knows what’s about to happen and braces himself. The pull in his eye is slight at first.  The kitchen light flickers in only one eye.  Vibration tickles up his arm. The chair slides and bangs as it hits the floor. Wendell is not hurt.  His mouth grunts and froths like he’s lifting something heavy.  His feet are the last to stop twitching.

There’s no way to know how long he’s down this time.   He folds his legs, and stares at the ceiling. A cabinet handle digs into his back, but not the center.  Wendell lingers for a moment, exhales forcefully, puts the dishes away, and irons his clothes.

At the graveyard, the sunlight pokes through the trees like the favorite parts of a song.  Any bouquets today would be new.  He can’t take buds from new arrangements until they are ready to be thrown away.  Today’s plants and arrangements are too small to pick from.  The only live bouquets that can be picked from arrive on top of caskets, the arrangements are big enough, no one notices.

The McCarthy burial is taking place as scheduled.  A pristine, lily-white monster of a box sits atop the hole and waits to be lowered.  A mound of floral perfection rests on it.  Wendell doesn’t feel his feet moving toward the casket to see what exactly makes up the colors.  There’s roses, of course, some gerbera daisies. The colors are dark, heavy, and somber.

Suddenly, the voice next to Wendell is clear, present, and alive.  It’s a harsh whisper with consequence.  “Sir, Sir.”  Wendell feels himself staring.  “I was wondering if I could help you with something.”  The voice addresses him directly.

The man is tanned and wearing an appropriate suit.  Wendell looks at the ground and speaks through a tight jaw. “I umm, I’m sorry, I just didn’t want to speak or move while this thing is happening.”

“Well you’re a little close don’t you think?”

Wendell notices that he is too close to the ceremony.  Half of the people succeed in ignoring the confrontation; the other half fail. The Reverend continues speaking.

“Sorry about that. It’s just that the flowers are nice. I-I think she probably appreciates them.” Wendell’s voice is soft and apologetic, and he looks at the light coming through the trees.  Dust particles are visible.

The man whispers in a scold.  “Look sir, it’s not a thing, just, we’re going to be here a while, okay.   So, please move along and let us be.”

“Yes, I have work to do, anyway.”

“I’m sure you do.”

Wendell moves about, and feels the man’s eyes follow him.  The bushes only look okay to the untrained eye.  Wendell knows they need to be cut.  This job keeps him close to the burial. After that, there were cups, cigarette butts, and wrappers on the ground.   Wendell picked up the cup, and left the others.

Only to make another pass and gather the wrapper, then the butt.   The ceremony will end soon.

The bouquet is fresh and the crowd begins to dissipate.  Another man is accepting hugs from everyone as they leave.  The man who confronted Wendell, holds the other man’s shoulder, points to the flowers.  Wendell sees the man’s mouth move “You should do something with these, y’ know, people might want them. I’ll get the car.”

The other man nods.  The two stand for another moment and look at the ground.  The grip is causing lines on the suit.  They are similar in build only.  Wendell no longer pretends to work, and circles the grave.   The man who confronted him, shoots one final look and leaves.

Soon enough, the quiet man stares at the grave.   The late afternoon creeps over the hills of the cemetery. The speedy crunch and hush of the traffic increases.

Wendell stops moving and stares.  The two are in speaking distance.

The man fights through a bubble in his throat.  “She was my wife, you know.”

“I figured.”  Wendell speaks just loud enough.

“She was young.  I think she was young.  We always feel young don’t we?”  He forces a laugh and wipes his eyes.  “That sounds stupid.”

Wendell steps closer.

The man continues. “It’s stupid, like there’s ever a good time, you know, like there’s an okay time to die.”

They stood in whispering distance.

Wendell’s stained hands hang by his side. “No one usually stays this long.”

“Really?” the man asks.

“They usually go back to a thing or something.”

“She usually planned those things.  She knew when to leave, and when to arrive.  She just knew that stuff.” He sniffs and turns away from the coffin. “I think my brother’s coming back for all of this.”  The road to the grave site is open and blank.

Wendell kneels down next to the coffin and tugs on a bud.   He feels it separate from the rest.  Numerous identical buds remain and the hole is undetectable.  He places the flower gently in his pocket, and his thin shoulders relax.

Anne McCarthy’s voice is soft and gentle.  “The ones you love, and the ones who love you, they all gather here.  This bouquet is exquisite.  Aren’t my children wonderful?  Isn’t my husband wonderful? I don’t have to die alone.  This is most wonderful.  We were going to try and get back to Paris, you know.

But, it was enough. It was all enough.”

Realizing that no one is coming, the man speaks to the highway. “Having to deal without someone, huh? People do it, right?”  He turns back to Wendell, who is staring at the ground and back-pedaling. “People do it?” He asks.

“Oh,” Wendell says.  “There are ways.”

Michael Baird lives in New England with his wife and family. He writes all day, and types when he can.

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