• In honor of my entirely made-up Way-Back Wednesday, I thought I’d bring back another something old. With the nostalgia of rereading it, I tried to do my best to edit some rusty parts of it too. Maybe if it gets any positive feedback I’ll revamp some of my other old pieces.
  • Originally, this was titled A Flowered Picture Frame, but I’m not sure I liked the blatancy (I have a taste for being too obscure).

 

– Do your laundry.

I’m not positive what exactly possessed me to go visit him. Hell, I’d never known the guy, and from what I remembered of him, he was probably one of the least likable individuals I’d ever had the misfortune of being related to. Maybe it was the overwhelming feeling of emptiness in the house, what with Marci being out of town visiting her family and her cats having completely disappeared into the backyard after her departure. Or maybe it was the incessant vibrating of my cell phone, reminding me how many voicemails from my mother and girlfriend were being left unanswered.

Topher, I could already hear Marci growling in her ever-condescending voice. I’ll be home tonight, have you done everything on that list I left?

What really set me off, I think, was Bentley. The way his massive, charcoal-black eyes stared up at me plaintively as I poured his morning bowl of kibble, it was almost like he knew. On any normal day, he’d fiendishly hunch over the small pile of puppy pellets and loudly wolf them down as though he hadn’t eaten for weeks. But today he just watched me, silent and expectant, leaving his breakfast as untouched as I had left mine. What, I grumbled, my words sharp and agitated, do you want from me? He whimpered softly, anxiously stepped from paw to paw. After several minutes frozen in stalemate, I frowned at him and stalked angrily off to my bedroom, selecting a collared flannel and a pair of dark jeans from my piles of unwashed clothes.

It was raining when I first stepped out of the house, and I got halfway to my car before I turned around and stomped back up the steps and through the front door. Bentley was there waiting, looking disappointed at my sudden return.

Shove off, Bentley! I snarled, the sound of my own voice cutting its way out my mouth in that weird, unanswered way. I’m just getting a damned raincoat!

I was busy scouring the cluttered cave of my hall closet when a squeaky bark abruptly interrupted my concentration. Leaning back and glaring venomously at the Boston Terrier sitting rigid in the small entryway, it took me a moment to realize he’d squatted beneath a row of hooks; Marci had been hassling me to screw them in beside the front door, but from what I could tell, she’d lost patience with my procrastination and done it herself. Bentley’s silent gaze jumped from me to the hangers positioned above him, and he yipped again.

My black windbreaker hung upon the middle peg.

I forcefully slammed the closet door and snatched up my jacket, grumbling all the way to my modest Volkswagen. As soon as the car thrummed to life, I started up my windshield wipers, and they worked furiously against the precipitation for a whole thirty seconds before the rain suddenly cleared.

When I pulled sharply out from the driveway, I caught Bentley’s minuscule head peeking between the shades of the living room window.

 

– Don’t leave Bentley home alone.

Seeing the “Bright Oaks Cemetery” sign brought a rather impromptu stop to my wandering thoughts, and I spent a long time parked in the near empty lot – with one other stopped car besides my own – simply listening to the droning radio. My fingers wrapped themselves about my car keys in a vice grip, and I mentally fought the urge to drive back home and pretend this day was just like any other. But something else kept me curiously magnetized to the place; I had something to do here, and that was about all I was entirely sure of. As I finally stepped out into the musky, post-storm air, I was struck with the sudden guilt that I hadn’t brought anything for him.

If it wasn’t for the collections of gravestones spread throughout the tall, ancient trees, I wouldn’t have guessed Bright Oaks to be a cemetery; it was far too flowery and covered in green foliage, strangely full of life for a place designated for the dead. The towering, wrought iron gates surrounding the place had been left slightly ajar (as though they had been impatiently awaiting an uncommon guest such as myself) and as I sulked slowly inside, I spotted an elderly man beside and equally elderly pickup truck.

Ahoy there! the wrinkled man rumbled merrily when he finally noticed my cautious, unwilling approach, Come to visit a loved one, or just come to visit? His unnecessary pleasantness guilted me into forcing an awkward smile as I watched him lift cardboard box after cardboard box from the bed of his ’63 Chevy.

Loved one, I found myself spitting out, furrowing my brow at the way the two words tasted in my mouth. (He was more of a disliked-one; really, I’d never known the man enough to associate him with anything close to admiration or fondness). If I had wanted to be honest with the grave keeper, I would’ve told him I hadn’t any idea why I’d wandered here in the first place.

Beautiful, isn’t she? My train of thought vanished suddenly at the warm sound of the old man’s voice, and my eyes refocused on him with a look of undeniable confusion. It then occurred to me, as he gestured with a wide grin to a picture frame in the truck, that he’d assumed I’d been staring at it; a teenage girl, obviously an old photograph of the man’s daughter, was bordered within its worn, maple panels. He was right, I’d give him that; the girl was indeed very pretty, with waves of flaming red hair hiding a pale and freckled face matched by a crooked smile. The glass holding her in place was scratched, hazy, and fingerprinted, making the frame look like an frequented porthole into another time. After another moment of feeling palpably uncomfortable beneath the grave keeper’s inquisitive gaze, I nodded and turned quickly away, deciding I might as well get this all over with.

 

– Water the garden.

February 27th, 1999. The sad numbers were carved beneath my father’s first name, middle initial, and last name I refused to claim. Exactly twenty years ago he had died, drunkenly leapt off a bridge, and only three weeks before my first birthday. He’d gone and fucked it all up, left my mother to sob and scream and convulse each night for ten long years, no matter how much held her, smoothed her hair, or wiped away her tears. I was an inadequate consolation prize, something petty and worthless that simply reminded her of what she used to have.

The singsong twang of an unknown musical instrument drew my head away from the small, plain gravestone at my feet. As I casually stole a glance over my shoulder the corners of my mouth turned down in a frown, the grave keeper’s daughter stood only a few feet away with a violin held tightly against her neck.  She cradled the stiff, lifeless thing like a tiny newborn infant, nuzzled her face against its mahogany wood and gently trailed the bow back and forth across its strings. It was gorgeous, really, the way she’d delicately coaxed such a lovely sound from the small, wooden object. I remained silent for a long time; expecting her to eventually notice my presence, I inwardly debated what possible reasons she had to be out here.

What are you doing? I asked her finally. She spun on a heel and curtsied to me, which prompted an arched, skeptical eyebrow to spike high into my forehead.  The dark wood of her violin contrasted wildly with the off-white ivory color of her sundress and she twirled its bow deftly between her fingers as she smirked at me, her silver eyes twinkling.

Everyone enjoys company and a bit of music, don’t they? she’d spoken softly, but her voice rang like an old wind chime. I crossed my arms over my chest and wrinkled my nose at her, snorting at her positively bizarre behavior. I wondered to myself why the grave keeper’s daughter found it necessary to play other people’s dead relatives her violin, and why she didn’t seem the least bit climatically unprepared when the dark clouds above still threatened to spill their contents. Why should being dead make any difference? she trilled again.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond, so instead opted for a change in subject.

Shouldn’t you be helping your father? It was a stupid question; I could tell by the way her thundercloud eyes flashed at me, amused, she obviously thought it was quite ridiculous that I’d mentioned him at all. She didn’t comment any further than allowing her smile to spread wider across her narrow face, and she twirled closer to me with her violin held under her chin again. Her first note was high and strong, and the collection of those following was expertly strung together. They started off quick and choppy, the different notes biting argumentatively at one another, before they gradually blended into a smooth, silky rhythm. The girl bent over my father’s lonely grave as she drew out the song from between the strings, pouring the sound straight from her instrument and into a puddle upon his resting place. She’d gotten close enough to me that the sickly sweet scent of her hair flooded my nose, and as I averted my awkward gaze, my body stiffened and my lower jaw dropped away from the rest of my face.

A band of sunflowers had pushed themselves up from the grass; their bright goldenrod color against the cold gray stone clashed in a way that made my eyelids flicker at the contrast. It was impossible, some sort of trick, and as I turned to interrogate the mysterious girl my mouth was left ajar and noiseless. She was gone.

The sunflowers stretched gleefully up at the early afternoon sky, and they swayed in the nectarous rays of sunshine breaking through the cloud cover. They were just as much alive as I was.

 

– Dust and vacuum the living room.

I stood outside the grave keeper’s tiny shack of a home for quite some time and waited for him to emerge. Eventually, impatience won out and I strode forward to rap a fist against the old door. Dried flakes of paint dropped off when I knocked. I thought I could hear the aged man making sounds from inside – he seemed to have heaved himself up from a chair – and his steady shuffling brought out a creaking from the whiny floorboards.

Your daughter, came my pointed, angry voice as soon as he opened the door, You really need to keep a better eye on her. His face glowed pleasantly at me, despite the fact that his brows had knotted above his eyes.

You must be mistaken, I haven’t a daughter! he said brightly in response, and his ash-gray eyes wrinkled as he smiled up at me. With my mouth very suddenly refusing to operate, I pushed past him and searched the man’s surprisingly organized surroundings, searching for something, anything to prove him wrong. At last, I found the tiny, handcrafted frame.

His daughter was caught there mid-laugh, framed by the light-colored wood, a mustard-yellow bundle of sunflowers gathered up in her arms. My eyes jumped back and forth between the grave keeper and the photograph, and as he made the connection his grin widened noticeably.

Oh, young man, that isn’t my daughter! he assured me with a throaty chuckle as he patted a thick, knobby hand upon his swollen belly. I couldn’t help but notice that when he looked up to face me, the sadness that brimmed in his beady eyes betrayed the continuous smile plastered upon his face.

That’s an old picture of my wife, son. She died twelve years ago.

 

– Call your mom.

As I pulled into the driveway, Bentley was still poised in the window. The two of us sat fixated for a long time, just watching each other through the layers of glass as we’d watched each other earlier that morning. His small head bobbed impatiently against the curtains and his strangely knowing eyes gave me the same uncanny feeling as Bright Oaks.

It struck me that after all of this I should call my mother.

Christopher! I could imagine her answering after the first ring, and she’d pretend to be surprised, as though she hadn’t waiting fervently by the phone for the moment I finally called. Her voice would be forcibly pleasant, as though the past twenty years hadn’t happened and she wasn’t upset by my disinterest for keeping in touch. Honey, are you doing all right? Are you and Marci living together?

I’d grudgingly take the time to assure her I was fine, to tell her about the flat Marci and I had moved into, about the two cats and the backyard and Bentley. I would pause, still haunted by my encounter in the graveyard, and eventually, after a bit of prompting, I would tell her about that too.

Her tinkling laugh would catch me off guard, causing me to frown into the telephone.  And then she would explain – with a faint smile woven into her words – about all the stories I would tell her as a young child of my father; how kind and funny he was, how much fun I had when he came to visit, how much I wanted to be just like him when I grew up.

You loved him so much, my mother would say, with a hint of painful admiration recognizable in her ever-so-pleasant voice. And all this time I thought you’d never even met him.

 

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