The afternoon slips into memory. Summer fades and the skies turn cold and gray. The breeze that whispered among the cornrows is now an icy wind rustling among dry yellow stalks. The oblong leaves of the maple are stained a rusty red, falling in great heaps to cover the yard and the two empty chairs beside the barn. It rained earlier, clearing the air so that everything appears fresh and new, the colors as crisp and precise as if from a painting. A pickup crests the far hill, barreling along the gravel road past the farm. Stones crackle loudly against the undercarriage.
Don and Dean stand on the porch looking out at the yard and the white gravel driveway, out past the tractor and the rusting green Oldsmobile that hasn’t run in years. The fields are plowed, mostly. The diverging lines of harvest rows run away in the distance. Banks of autumn trees are colored brown and gold. A thick carpet of clouds softens the world above with only glimpses of blue sky. The air smells mineral-cold like snow and holds the gingery bite of burning leaves.
Dean is dressed in his best brown suit, with a borrowed gold tie and a clean white shirt. Black would have been more appropriate, if only he had another suit to wear. His hands are buried deep in his pockets. His shoulders are heavy with the accumulated weight of life’s burden and ultimate sadness. Don is beside him wearing the same black suit he wore when he retired from teaching. The pant’s legs are hemmed a little too short. Don’s white socks can be seen below the neatly pressed cuffs.
Dean is thinking of Mary Lou. He recalls their first meeting at the high school sock hop, their first kiss and how she looked the first time they made love. He remembers the pea-green Buick and the Chuck Berry song that was playing when he asked for her hand in marriage. He remembers the birth of each of their children. His mind is a confusion of thoughts and tattered emotions. They are debris swirling in the storm of his mind, whipped by a single regret; that there wasn’t enough time. Somehow Mary Lou still feels close. Strange that a body can feel so far away, even when making love, but the soul is always close.
“Was a nice ceremony,” says Don, rocking on his heels.
“Yep.” Emotion hangs heavy in Dean’s chest.
“Mary Lou would have loved it.”
“Naw,” Dean frowns, “would have hated folks fussing and weeping over her.”
There is a long silence. The wind rustles through the dry corn. A crow caws from the field. Dean’s voice wavers. “Sure am gonna miss her.”
“In a better place than hangin’ around listening to a couple old coots like us.”
“Guess I‘m just selfish.”
“How’re the kids holding up?”
“Mostly. Grandkids’ll miss her the most. The old gal never missed a birthday. Knew every single one, which is why I never had to.”
“Same way with Joanne,” says Don. The comment unexpectedly enrages Dean. Though he knows what Don means, knows the comment was innocent enough, Dean wants to shout that it isn’t the same, and that he has no idea until his wife is gone too. The feeling scares the hell out of Dean.
“Is that right?” Dean manages.
“Keep us civilized.”
“Sure,” Dean drags himself from the rage. “Sure, or we’d be hairy, unwashed barbarians; fat, smelly and thinkin’ we’re God’s gift.”
The rage leaves him, but in this barren land where grief and guilt are one in the same, it is a simple thing to stumble from one treacherous footfall to another. Dean is suddenly confronted with the endlessly cold abyss of forever. Don watches Dean’s brow collapse. Hopelessness and terror crystallize in Dean’s eyes. Don searches for a way to rescue his friend.
“Paint quite a picture there, Dean.” Don gives Dean’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. Dean looks up and finds strength in caring and familiar eyes.
“Just call every so often to make sure I bathe once in a while.”
“It’s that hairy part that has me spooked,” Don smiles. “But we’ll take it a day at a time.”
Dean nods. “Well, that’s something then.”
“Come by now and again, make sure ya get a good meal or two.”
“Sure could use a bit of breakfast right now,” says Dean. “Ain’t had much to eat since yesterday.”
“Cook ya up a couple of eggs?”
“Strange thing to worry about with all this goin’ on?”
“Believe I could use a bit of breakfast.”
“That’s a trooper.”
“Somethin’ with a bit of noise. Up for a ride out to the Hog’s Breath?”
“Believe I could use a cup of their coffee.”
“Got a taste for their pork sausage.”
“Got a good one, do they?” asks Don.
“Hear they make it fresh.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s what I hear.”
“Believe you just might be right.”
Autumn gives way to winter. It’s like an ending to some, a transition to others and to some a beginning. It depends on where they’re standing at that moment. The snow comes early, arriving sometime before the dawn. It lays quietly among the plowed fields, a white blanket torn by dark rows. The light is soft, accompanied by a silence broken only by the whisper of fluffy-white snowflakes. Out past the tractor, a quarter mile or so away, a pair of deer move among the fields. Their brown winter coats are full, snow collecting lightly upon their backs and shoulders.
Out on the porch the air is cold. It puts a sting to the cheeks and nose, but Don barely notices. The cold air is cleansing, giving a new perspective to difficult thoughts and concerns, like Dean’s slow and apparent wasting in the months since losing Mary Lou. The cold and quiet bring Don a clarity that he has sorely missed. He wonders where it will end. He recalls how his own father seemed to give up on life after his mother passed. The thought leads him to his own life. From the first day with Joanne the thought was there. Seemed like it would take him away from a love that needed to be loved in the present. In retrospect he is still undecided, and wonders if his father’s fate was inevitable, like a comet plunging to an unavoidable end in the sun. He wonders if there is some pressure that will nudge his own heart from that certain destruction.
The door is open behind him. A soft golden light from the lamp on the bureau falls through the dingy screen door. Coffee is brewing in the kitchen. The warm, bitter fragrance finds him. He feels like he is standing on the divide between two worlds. The scent of the coffee comes with the scent of a house that feels every bit as substantial and familiar as any member of the family. He glances back at Dean who is visiting for the weekend.
Dean looks frail and much older these days, his eyes like long abandoned wells. He is awake, sitting at the edge of the sofa bed with his back to the door. His toes are tucked into a pair of well-worn brown slippers. A black and orange blanket rests upon his shoulders. Don smiles at Dean’s tossled wispy white hair.
Dean is staring blankly at the cold fireplace. His eyes are fixed there, lost in some groggy half-thought. He feels a draft from the open door across his bare ankles and worries about his wife in that cold, cold ground.
“Heatin’ the outside?” he complains, clearing his throat. It takes some effort for Dean to stand. His slippers skid over the wood floor. At the door Dean’s brow furls and he draws the blanket tighter across his shoulders. The screen darkens the world, confirming his mood. Life feels like cold honey, and he is struggling against it.
“If it’d help get us a little closer to spring,” says Don. “Give ya a chill?”
“Not when I remember the long winters working in that stuff.”
Don nods in agreement. “Best argument I heard yet for being retired.”
“Got a whole lot more if you’re interested?”
“Six of one, half dozen of another I figure.” Don takes a deep breath. His brow furls too, though Dean cannot see. Don wonders if Dean feels the change, the distance that is growing between them.
“Ladies auxiliary’s havin’ a breakfast this morning,” says Don. “Figured we’d hit the early Mass and get the first run at that food.”
“Mind?” says Dean. “Just as soon not.”
“Cook ya up something here? Got some good pork sausage?”
Dean watches the deer move off, bringing tears to his eyes. He knows it would good to get back out among the world again, to hear the titter of the ladies of the auxiliary, but happiness is just too painful to endure. It feels like a betrayal of Mary Lou’s memory. Happiness feels like a distraction from the fading memories of her.
“If it’s all the same, I’d just as soon be getting home before the snow gets too bad.”
“Somethin’ for the road? Good breakfast’d fix ya right up?”
Dean thought to answer, something about not being hungry, and that such things didn’t concern him any longer. We wanted to tell Don just to let him be, but it felt too much like asking for sympathy.
“Coffee’d be nice.”
Neither man moves, but remain looking out at the snowy fields. The distance between them is immeasurable.
“Good sausage, ya say?” Dean asks finally.
Dean sighs. The cold air is waking him up nicely. He has a thought and can’t help himself. “Mary Lou sure liked pork sausage. Liked a lot of it!”
Don looks and sees a glimmer of the old Dean, the first time since… Don feels lifted.
“Healthy woman she was.”
“Healthy and a half,” says Dean.
“Sure was a good woman though.”
The kitchen is warm. Don is standing by the sink. Dean is sort of slouched at the table, running his fingers along the rim of his coffee cup. They never did make it to church, but did make it to the Hog’s Breath. The snow has stopped, but the clouds remain. Shafts of pale light find channels, falling upon distant farms, like snapshots of things demanding to be remembered, the inconsequential moments that make up a life and of things that will not come again.
To Don these things are an affirmation of the commodity of our lives. To Dean they are a confirmation of a God dispensing great sorrow masked in love and youth and hope. He refuses to be drawn into the vortex of that misery.
“Can’t recall when I had a better breakfast,” Don says.
“Good biscuits and gravy,” says Dean, holding up his cup as Don refills it. Don sees Dean’s eyes darken and knows that he is thinking of her.
“Got some of that pork sausage in there.”
Dean squints as he sips the hot coffee. “Pepper’s the key, though.”
“Did it just right, did they?”
“Believe I’ll have to give that a try.”
The coffee kettle clangs on the stove as Don sets it down. Beside the barn he spots the big orange tomcat. There’s no mistaking that swollen belly, though. Don smiles realizing, after all these years, that the old Tom is really a girl!
“We’re havin’ a roast for supper, creamed carrots and potatoes, the way you like it. Joanne’s gonna make some of her famous buttermilk biscuits.”
“Temptin’,” says Dean, “but I should be gettin’ home. Been a big enough burden on Joanne already.”
“Believe she feels about the same as me,” says Don. “Grandkid’s will be here.”
The idea horrifies Dean. The laughter, the sound of life and love and togetherness will only remind him of all that he has lost. He manages to hold himself together long enough to pack his things and give Joanne the warmest hug he can muster. It takes all the courage he has, a feat that would impress any combat veteran. Out on the road, out of sight, he pulls to a stop and slumps heavily against the steering wheel.
There is another perspective on the world, an idea that the trials and battles of our lives are insignificant against the overwhelming expanse of sky. We are nothing without the light of those who love us. How perfect the world we cannot fathom. The sky turns the seasons like chapters to our lives. And so winter passes and everything seems to turn green in the blink of an eye. Trees fill with new leaves and birds singing, and marigolds erupt with color beside the house.
Don is sitting alone beside the barn. He turns as Dean climbs down the steps. Dean is using a cane now, for just a little extra support. He has a glass of brandy in his free hand. He likes it better than beer these days, says it keeps his blood flowing. Dean has a blush to his cheeks. This is his second glass.
“Sure is a nice day,” says Dean, taking his regular seat.
“Just about perfect.” Seems like forever to Don since he found Dean weeping in his car. It was as if sorrow was a poison that needed to be bled away, and bleed he did. It wasn’t that he had put Mary Lou behind him, but rather that he had come to some conclusion.
“Believe you were right about the biscuits and gravy up at the Hog’s Breath.”
“Didn’t I tell ya?”
“Shame about Morris Drew,” says Don.
“Sure am gonna miss that sausage,” says Dean.
“End of an era.”
“How long you figure we been sittin’ here?”
“A lifetime, I reckon.”
“What precisely did we accomplish?”
“Didn’t know we set out to accomplish anything.”
“No regrets?” Don asked.
“Not a one.”
“How long you figure we’re gonna keep having this conversation?”
“Why, ain’t getting tired are you?”
“I figure we’ll be at it a good while longer.”
Dean smiles and sets the brandy down on the grass. Delicate white blossoms fill the apple tree. Old Dean is content to sit there forever, and thinks that this is about as close to perfect as a body can come in this life.