A cold rain beat on the canopy over the grave site. John pulled down the brim of the walking hat she’d gotten him on their ramblings through Ireland. Just before he stepped under the canopy, he glanced up at the sky and recalled when his father had died.
As a child, he’d seen plenty of people die on television, both good and bad, though a lot more bad than good. Whenever a good guy got it, he was never the hero but a bumbling sidekick or innocent bystander, and the hero never failed to get revenge — bullet-riddling or ray-blasting the murderer in the end. No one ever told John that Superman wasn’t flying but bellyflopped on a table, in front of a strong fan, a product of trick photography. And Flash Gordon’s space ship looked real enough as it whizzed past stars. But when John’s dad died his mother sent him to stay with her widow friend, Mrs. Croat, until the funeral and reception were over. John didn’t understand what it all meant, but knew something very bad had happened and readied himself to fight whatever it was. He insisted on wearing his Superman cape and Flash Gordon ray gun under the yellow raincoat his mother made him put on.
In her kitchen, Mrs. Croat served him pie and ice cream.
“Daddy is dead?” he said to her. “What’s that mean?”
“It means you can’t see him again until you go to heaven.”
“How come I can’t?”
“Because God has taken him back from you.”
“Do I got to die to go to heaven?”
“Yes. But you must also be good.”
“I’m gonna see Daddy but I’m not gonna die!”
“You can’t see him, Johnny, until you go to heaven.”
“Where’s heaven at?”
“Way up in the sky.”
“Is that where God’s got his hideout?”
“Well, yes, you could say that. Anyway, you’ll understand when you’re older. Now eat your pie and ice cream. I’ve got some things to do.”
Mrs. Croat went into her living room and turned on the television. She sat in the old rocker before it, took up her knitting, and rocked and mumbled to herself. John watched her from the kitchen as she stared with her gaunt, quivering eyes at a portrait of her deceased chicken farmer husband hanging on the wall above the television.
As the sounds of applause and canned laughter filled the room, John got up from the kitchen table and crept out the backdoor. He wasn’t wearing his coat and the wind-whipped rain stung his face. He ran through the mud to the chicken coop at the back of the yard. Clutching the wire mesh, he climbed up the side of the coop as the chickens squawked and pecked at his fingers. He made it to the roof and stood there, face to the sky, glaring through the driving rain. With his eyes riveted, unblinking, he drew his ray gun, aimed it straight up and yelled, “Take this, you yellow-bellied space rat!”
“Get offa that coop and back in this house!” Mrs. Croat hollered from the door. “You’ll get all wet and catch cold.”
Captured, he went back inside. She made him take off his muddy shoes by the door and told him to wait there until she got a towel and an aspirin. As soon as she left the room he ran from the house.
He ran down the road, barefoot, and cut through back yards and fields, tripping over his Superman cape several times. When he got back to his house he was drenched, cold, tired, and his feet hurt. But nothing would stop him. He crept into the basement and climbed the stairs to the kitchen. Behind the door, he spied on the mob of his gutless relatives in the living room. They were crying, drinking coffee, and eating donuts. He didn’t see his mother. He slipped by, unseen, and tiptoed up the stairs, clutching his ray gun. On the second floor landing he heard a noise behind him. He spun round and raised his gun. It was his mother, her make-up streaked with tears.
“Johnny!” she cried. “I told you to stay with Mrs. Croat ’til I came for you. She called and I’ve been frantic with worry. I have the police out looking for you! Where’s your coat and your shoes? You’re soaking wet! You’ve been a bad boy!”
Ignoring her brainwashing tactics, he stalked past her, toward the attic and the highest window in the house.
“Johnny!” She grabbed his arm. “Where are you going?”
“I’m gonna fly up to heaven.” He wrenched his arm free and pointed his ray gun at her head. “And don’t try to stop me.”
She stared at him and calmed herself. “And just what are you going to do up in heaven?”
“I’m gonna kill God for killing Daddy!”
“Oh my Johnny, don’t say such naughty things,” she sobbed, hugging him to her. “I’m unhappy enough already!”
All that night he stood by his bed in the dark, glaring at the ceiling and blasting his ray gun at God. By morning he was sure he’d killed his archenemy. His surety lasted until the following Sunday, when his mother dragged him off to church.
When Laura learned her illness was fatal she told John she wanted to die at home, in the small farmhouse they rented, and not in the hospital. She also told him to bury her, once he was sure she was cold and stiff, out in the back yard, beside the vegetable garden.
“Don’t worry about a coffin either. I want my bone meal to fertilize the soil and keep away the bugs. They’ve wreaked havoc ever since we’ve lived here. Nothing has worked, but I know I will. I hate those bugs so much they’ll feel it in my bones. That’ll keep them the hell out of there. You’ll be able to eat spinach salads this year, without staring at the holes. And no tombstone, please. Just some simple ground cover, no more than three feet, with a patch of marigolds on top.”
John promised, but he knew he was lying, and that the law would have the last say. She’d die in the hospital, under medical supervision. Her parents would ensure that, along with a proper funeral, which John, on two-hundred a week unemployment, certainly couldn’t afford.
Laura had never worried about money, let alone death. When they’d met, backpacking solo twenty miles south of Mount Rainier, they’d quickly come to enjoy a togetherness and a shared solitude that would last them over the next ten years. It had been a good life, with each of them taking jobs whenever the coffee can was low on cash, growing their own vegetables and travelling whenever they could save enough money for air fare. A happy life couldn’t be denied by the dollar.
He learned a lot from her. How to let go. How to accept. How to laugh off what would have tortured some fretful soul to the point of suicide. She never got tired of cracking jokes, especially when he worried over where their next meal would come from. She relieved his guilt about money.
“The way I figure it,” she once said, “I’ve already earned my living. So have you. And so has everyone else who’s alive. We all earned our livings before we were born. Or else we wouldn’t be here. Think about it!”
When she got sick and kept getting worse, he went out and spent what little cash they had on vitamins, herbs, natural cures. But she kept losing weight and strength, until she went into the hospital. Her parents were sure she’d contracted a parasite tramping through some jungle in Peru. But the doctors said it was Hodgkin’s disease. In any case it was fatal.
In the hospital she started joking about life and death. “I’ve forgotten which is which,” she told her father. “Please remind me, to help keep them straight. I don’t want to die without being sure I’m dead!” He didn’t find this the least bit funny and reprimanded her for her levity. She scared him, her mother, relatives and friends who came with their flowers and get-well-soon cards.
But to John she remained beautiful, connected and totally herself, until the end, when her jaundiced eyes no longer registered his face but swung and jittered as if to escape her shrunken flesh. He remained calm through the first day of her delirium, but on the morning of the second he reached out and held her head and sputtered, “Laura! Laura, look at me!” In his hands her head felt like a gourd. He begged for her to come back to him. He needed to tell her how much she meant to him. He needed to get serious and cut through her joking and tell her. But what he said was, “One more for the road,” crying out to the spinning eyes. “One more for the road!” Another espresso in Milan before setting foot in the Alps. A last glass of wine in Andorra before hitchhiking to Madrid. One more look at Stonehenge in the foggy dusk. He felt a hand on his shoulder and he blinked and refocused on her face. Tears ran down her withered cheeks but those eyes were dry and rolling mechanically. He turned and stared at her father and something deep and rocklike broke inside him. “It doesn’t hurt her,” he babbled. “A bath. See, I’m giving her a bath!” He swung round and leaned close, breaking the old man’s grip, and slathered her face with his tears. The hand clutched his shoulder again, digging in. “Let her be. You’re making a fool of yourself.”
At home that night he cried once more. But when he felt he was crying more for himself than for her he stopped.
After that he sat silently by her bed, staring at the tube-ducted flesh and observing the etiquette of sanitized death. Her family talked in low tones in the distance. Nurses and the occasional doctor came and went less frequently. They took blood pressure readings and kept feeding her intravenously, maintaining their routinized concern, trapping her life inside that body as long as possible.
Her mother had removed the get-well-soon cards but the flowers kept pouring in, until the place resembled a greenhouse.
On the third day, Laura started babbling. She wasn’t discreet about it but sang out a steady chorus of gibberish to the ceiling, taking only two or three breathers throughout the day. Her mother and aunt tried to calm her down. Her father tried to make sense out of what she was saying. But John listened to her song until he could no longer stand it. He joined in the refrain, first in a low voice, then louder, embarrassing everyone there. Her father told him to shut up. The nurses said please be quiet or you’ll have to leave. He left, singing down the hall, out onto the street and all the way home in his truck. She’d taught him a new language, a new music, and he was grateful. He stood by the untilled garden patch and sang out across the hills, to the huge spring sunset. He sang until he was hoarse and his throat was raw. And he felt better.
She hung on for another week but he didn’t go back to the hospital. He tilled the garden and planted snow peas, onions, and spinach. He cleaned the house and baked bread. He walked through the woods and stood naked in the warm April rain, keeping his clothes dry in the hole of an oak tree where squirrels sometimes nested.
He never saw her again. Not even at the funeral, since it was a closed viewing. To everyone’s surprise he sat in the back of the church, oblivious to the organ, hymns, prayers, and minister’s solemn sacraments. He sat motionless and listened to the rain hitting the stained-glass windows. The weather had turned cold.
By the grave he stood and watched them lower the casket with its shiny handles and hinges. The mourners hedged round the wounded earth, crying and dropping bouquets. As the gravedigger raised his first shovelful John took off his hat and tossed it into the hole.
On the way home he stopped at a country store for hunters. A big red-lettered sign outside said GUNS & AMMO. He bought a handgun, a .38 snub-nosed automatic and a box of bullets. He had the salesclerk show him how to load it, since he’d never touched a real gun.
It was raining harder by the time he got home. He went in the house, got a shovel, and went back out to the vegetable garden. Next to it he dug a hole three feet deep and six feet long. When he finished he was drenched in sweat and rain and the gray day had turned black. He set down the shovel and stood in the middle of the hole. He removed the gun from his trench coat and loaded it with one bullet. He cocked the hammer and raised the gun and aimed and squeezed the trigger. A blast of fire cut straight up, into the sky. He dropped the gun by his feet and got the shovel and started filling up the hole.
In the morning he planted marigolds.