By C.E. Alexander
Florence knew we would marry long before I knew. Until the day came she nodded at my homework, prompted others to laugh when I joked and, in time, touched at my stomach through a shirt. Her fingertips did something to my breath. She always breathed like that and only then did I understand why.
We left Carlsbad. I had learned to fear spiders in that part of California, behind my father’s chalet-styled home. I had learned how he argued by shouting without words, by pounding the walls with what sounded like masonry blocks. I suffered my worst nightmares there and was happy to leave.
In a year she started throwing up and her breasts shifted underneath her blouse. We were married only weeks before William came. Dorothy was born two years later and George, in two years again. William used to chase me across the yard, then chased only his brother and, in time, only friends from school. When I discovered Baby Robert running through ryegrass lawns with William, his father, I wanted to say Cherish these afternoons, son. They are precious and pass far too soon. But that lesson is better-savored if you learn it on your own. My worst argument was with George—then eleven—who kept swimming off during our snorkeling trip to La Jolla. The mask added years to his face and I could only think about our family drifting apart, our adult kids taking lovers and crediting the kelp, its fluid hips.
It was an exceptional life–with moments that caught my breath in my throat–and on a September it happened for the last time. I was alone and ached all over. I expected Florence and Judith any minute and put down to bed, tried to be still. My breath leveled out although the fatigue never did. Florence kicked through the door and shouted at my chest, striking out, doing what she could to wake me while our granddaughter Judith, now twelve, picked at her fingers in the library, the furthest room away.
I listened in while she, William and Dorothy visited my plot: it was smaller than I would have chosen, noisy with whispers, with prone men crying out. By now, January. The trees were black ninetail wounds, scars torn into clouds to be sure that the marks never healed.
Florence pointed to bare earth and told them, “This is my place of rest. I know you are not prepared to talk about it but we are a family. We can live elsewhere but we will rest together, here.” William was looking at so many names, trying to resist one superstition without waking another. The stones said, Arthur, Rest in Peace. Clara, Rest In Peace. Roy, Rest Now in Eternal Peace.
Dorothy nodded, obedient. Florence joined me within the year and we pushed our hands out for each other. Always closer, our fingertips nearly touching. Itching from the roots and minerals and our skin drawing back, but never pulling our hands away.
Dorothy came for birthdays and pallid anniversaries. Her children’s footsteps grew heavy, remote. One year Roselle said, “Goodbye, Grandma,” and walked past the stone angels toward the forest, taking off her shoes once she was clear of the graves. Dorothy said, “Do you remember how George moved to Florida with Helen? She wants to be buried near her parents’ estate. It is warm there and five of them are at rest already.
“But that is years away. We have time, yet. Did I say that Ralph was accepted to Dartmouth?” Roselle called out as if to a friend on a phone call: “He will study marine biology.”
Dorothy said, “He will study marine biology.”
* * *
Our only calendars were the changes in temperature and rain, and we pretended to watch the spheres turn from our backs. When Dorothy came again she sounded fat and sad and alone. “William has taken his family to Italy. He will love it there. I despise Italy.” She apologized again and again, clutching, we imagined, a messy orchid of Kleenex.
A weary voice said, “Talk, damn you.” After a time I recognized my Florence, although with a brittle jaw and dead tongue. All will, no sinews. Today—during the last of Dorothy’s visits—I feel a seismic rearranging nearby, all around. During my warehouse years I would have guessed the men were pulling a crate with a truck, or driving a forklift with its carriage set too low. But the sound is of my widow disinterring herself, now comforting our child overhead. Her voice is calcium and hollowed acoustics.
The women work together, scooping dirt away, moving rocks with vain ligaments. In time they open my coffin lid and I see my first moon in two decades, mistaking it for a third face with pigment for eyes. I am showered in dirt, curses, the stink of automobiles.
We rush from the cemetery, graverobbing ourselves. Arrests for crimes like that must take days to sort out.
Dorothy drives us home; Roselle’s daughter is old enough to fit us with wigs and makeup, although she insists on flower designs, bold colors. We resemble fruit baskets trapped in cobwebs, although I do not say so. Indeed, I speak only a little. Mostly I sit and look on, push to smile back when one of them smiles to me first. I try not to leave white dust on the floor when I move, turn my head.
Florence calls me her little snowstorm. Today we are armed with the secrets of death but the one thing she thinks to mention is the weather.
It is warm, yes, but the cold passes between our ribs and does not trouble us anymore. Our family has a difficult time believing it and promises an even warmer summer: the Caribbean, Central America, perhaps the dunes, where even rock has given way to bone.
C.E. Alexander is the author of Book of Constants, among other short stories. Depending on whom you ask, and when, his debut novel is under one stage of development or another.