There was a dead man in the yard this morning. I checked in my wallet for my latest picture of the front yard. I have a collection of yard pictures that goes back for years but I usually carry only one photo at a time. No, he was a new arrival. I called Sheila. Sheila is my ex-wife.
"Hon, I think there is a dead man in the yard."
"How do you know he's dead?" she asked, not "Who is it? Did you kill him?" Nothing like that. Sheila never went for the obvious: Old Pierce Willoughby passed out drunk on the way home from an evening at the Legion hall over on Fairview would have been so usual that she figured I wouldn't have taken the trouble to call her.
"Uh, hold on, will you?" I set the phone down on the hall table and rummaged in a drawer for the mirror I kept there. The mirror had fallen out of Sheila's compact in 1973; it was October and our first anniversary. I had promised to glue it back in place but never got around to it. I went out into the yard and knelt by the dead man. The dead man was of average height, or would have been if he had not been lying down, and dressed in that elegantly understated way favored by bankers and funeral directors. He had closely trimmed gray hair and a military-style moustache, also gray. I held Sheila's pocket mirror under the dead man's nostrils. I had seen Phillip Marlowe do this in a film once, it is a sure test for death. The mirror did not mist over.
I went back to the phone. "Nope, he's dead, alright."
"Did you even give him a poke? No. Honestly, Harry Brackenfern, I am so glad we didn't have any children." I, too, was glad we hadn't had any children. They would have been out of college and established in their own lives by now. They probably wouldn't visit or write.
"Did you even introduce yourself; ask how he came to be lying in the yard? No―you just assumed that he was dead." Sheila has a good head on her shoulders, always gets right to the heart of a problem. We divorced last year after a twenty-seven years' separation. The judge made a joke at our final hearing, Sheila's and mine, finalizing our divorce: "Separated twenty-seven years. You're sure you two want to go through with this?" There had been a ripple of subdued laughter from the others in the court, all awaiting their divorces. Or dispositions on parking fines, parole violation, jailbreak, rape, murder, whatever.
"Go back there and introduce yourself; we teach by modeling."
Sheila meant role-modeling; she teaches kindergarten at the James A. Garfield School. She took a summer workshop on this very subject. I went back to the corpse in the yard.
"How do you do? I'm Harry Brackenfern and this is my house you have died in front of. What is your name?" No answer. I returned to the phone; Sheila had hung up. I would call her back tomorrow.
My ex-wife and I had not spoken face-to-face for over twenty years. I should have missed Sheila, not having her around the house and all, but our daily calls brought me a kind of release, a duty had been satisfied. Sheila must have felt the same way; she always answered. I kept busy with repairs and improvements―the little things which if not done, build up into big problems later on: clearing the eaves, getting the leaves raked and piled, having the garbage securely bagged.
Emma, the kid next door, Old Pierce Willoughby's granddaughter, helped me stuff the body in a hall closet to get it out of the yard; there was always talk among the neighbors to consider. Things like property values and curb appeal.
* * *
"Callous and obdurate," Sheila had said. This was when I proposed to her.
"I'll take obdurate for five points." I thought it was a game we were about to play, like Jeopardy or Hollywood Squares.
"That's from The Mikado. Gilbert and Sullivan, Harry." Sheila had had a thorough grounding in the arts at college. "You are a decent man but I just can't get through to you." She sang: "If you remain callous and obdurate, I shall perish as he did, and you will know why. Though I probably shall not exclaim as I die 'Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow.'"
"It's a song, then."
"It's a song." Sheila was a free spirit; I knew this because she had told me. We were students at the community college and had gone out a few times. When I asked her to marry me I knew she viewed me as an accommodation to security over the arts. I would be dependable and a good provider. "It's a song about a little bird who dies starved for love. Yes, I'll marry you, Harry." At the time she still entertained hopes for a career on the stage; she sang whenever her free spirit moved her. I am not a singer.
Through first years of our uneventful and, I supposed, happy marriage, Sheila kept her Samsonite suitcase packed and at the ready in the front hall closet. "In case. Just in case," she would say. I supposed her to be waiting for a call from some theatrical producer. The suitcase was one of those brown overnighters―I called it brown; Sheila said taupe―its outside printed in a pattern to simulate woven rattan. Saturday mornings, and regular as clockwork, she would carry her suitcase up the stairs to our bedroom and flip it open on the bed to sort, inventory and refold her personal things. She carefully shook out the wrinkles and replaced the week-old lingerie with a freshly laundered set. Things tended to get musty in storage she explained.
One morning the suitcase was gone, just like that. After two years Sheila had moved out. I was happy for her in that she would have clean underwear and a career. Sheila however did not leave town after all; she continued teaching kindergarten at the James A. Garfield School just as before. We stayed close as I called her every day for 27 years. I began taking my yard pictures to show that I was keeping up the property in case she asked.
After Sheila left, Emma, Old Pierce Willoughby's granddaughter, used to help me out around the house: lending a hand with the window boxes and the perennial beds, holding the ladder while I scooped last year's leaves out of the eaves. But as she grew into young womanhood her visits became unpredictable. She was now sixteen and had a boyfriend. I mentioned this to Sheila.
There was a long, still moment on the phone as Sheila considered her answer. "She is a young woman, Harry. She wants to try her wings. And the neighbors―a young girl all the time with a 56-year-old man. How does that look?"
* * *
I was going out for the mail when the dead man spoke his first words, "Christ, it's dark in here." The words were understandably muffled as he was in the front hall closet, the same closet Sheila used to keep her suitcase in when it wasn't Saturday. I had to put my ear up against the door and shout to be heard. Seems his name was Prentiss Oliver and he wanted an ice cream. I told him I didn't have any. "Cholesterol," I yelled. "But then that wouldn't matter to you, being dead and all."
The dead man opened the closet door a crack and peered out at me. "You seem to know a whole lot about me for a total stranger."
"The camera doesn't lie." I pulled out my wallet with its accordion-fold assortment of yard pictures. The latest one, the last one, had a dead man in the foreground. I had taken that picture out-of-doors instead of through the picture window as usual.
"That's me. Lying there."
"Yep. And dead as a planked haddock."
One evening I invited him out of the closet to join me in front of the television. Prentiss Oliver, the dead man, never asked me why I took pictures of my front yard. "Why don't you ever ask?" I asked.
"About the pictures in your wallet?"
"None of my business, is it?" The dead man held me by both shoulders and looked me in the eyes. His eyes were gray, I noticed, like his hair and moustache. "What if I told you that I was a '66 Chevy Impala? How's 'bout them apples, Harry Brackenfern?"
"You are a dead man." Prentiss Oliver was wearing an expensive suit, I noticed.
"Consider also that I might be an allegorical figure set to confound all who come my way. One of those ancient avatars of a lost civilization, the Hittites and Sumerians, f'rinstance: a great, giant horrific challenging bull, full with the blood of kings." At close range his breath smelled of peppermints. "It may not be outside the sphere of reasonable supposition that I have been sent to be a guardian at the gates of..." Here he pulled a scrap of paper from his breast pocket. "28 Samoset Avenue."
"You are a dead man and you were lying in my front yard."
"The front yard of 28 Samoset Avenue. And you don't have any ice cream. You have a telephone. I don't get a telephone?"
"If you thought one was necessary. Who would call you?"
"Sheila, maybe? And you can forget about the ancient allegory thing. OK with you if I hang out a while?"
"Well..." I thought about curb appeal and the neighbors. I didn't think to ask him how he knew my ex-wife's name. Prentiss Oliver chose to interpret my silence as an invitation.
Days grew to be weeks and I got used to having him around. But the dead man cast a pall over our evenings together. These moody sulks of his were aimed at me, I knew. All about me having no ice cream. There was this one time when were watching TV and I had set a bowl of Oreo cookies between us. The dead man hardly touched the Oreos. We sat in silence through Jeopardy and Law and Order. I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke during the Late-Late-Show, Prentiss Oliver was back in the hall closet. And the next morning he was out front again, lying in the yard. I took that day's yard picture, then went to try to cheer him up. He seemed cheerful enough.
"Ahh," said the dead man, thumping the ground at his side. "6000 years and still flat. How's that for substance and dependability?" I guessed he was talking about the Earth.
"The Earth is round," I said.
The dead man raised an eyebrow. "Harry, Harry, Harry. Have you never been canoeing on an upland lake and, stopping to rest your weary arms, laid your head on a thwart to peer along the waterline? Qui bono, op. cit., ipso facto, Harry, QED. Flat as the belly of a virgin hooker, the Earth. Water tells no lies. And I have just now, before your very eyes, demonstrated its flatness by empirical observation." I had never been canoeing. I would have felt foolish in the big orange flotation devices they tie to non-swimmers. I do not swim.
"The 6000 years you will have to take my word for," said the dead man. Here he again thumped my front yard. "The Earth was created October 26, 4004 BC, at 9:00 am. This is an established fact; you Darwinians make of it what you will."
"The Earth is round," I repeated.
"A litany of your 'science.' You are parroting the twaddle they pour into innocent young minds."
"My wife is an elementary teacher," I said.
"Sheila," said Prentiss Oliver. "And the 6000 years is give or take a thousand, you understand. Arithmetic gets slippery when you're dead." He stood and dusted himself off. The dead man raised a conspiratorial eyebrow and spoke in hushed, urgent tones. "For all you know, I might be that '66 Chevy Impala after all. Classic car'd look mighty good parked out front."
"Believe, me, you are a dead man in a Gucci suit. Look at the picture."
He certainly looked dead, he acknowledged. "Sheila. Sheila would have appreciated a Chevy Impala, Harry. But I was so much older than she was. I watched and waited."
"You had a crush on my wife." I was divorced and he was dead. There was no cause to be disagreeable.
"You and Sheila. Ever get naked and throw muffins?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Nothing kinky. You ever just get down and get loose together?"
I told him I was not a spontaneous person.
"Well, I am dead and not expected to be spontaneous. That pretty well leaves the ball in your court, doesn't it, Harry old bean?" The afterlife notwithstanding, Prentiss Oliver got right to the point. He went back into his closet. I went next door to borrow Emma, Old Pierce Willoughby's granddaughter. I asked her to bring along her boom box. After twenty minutes of teen hits at full volume, the dead man came out.
"The ice cream, then we'll talk," said the dead man.
I invited Emma and him to the Polar Treat for soft serve.
"Ambrosial, Best I've ever had," said the corpse. I asked if he had had it before. "No," he replied. "Sorry, but I'm not all that mobile as you can see. I have been dead lately. Before that in one of those retirement villas over on Longacre. Too far from the Polar Treat to make it even in my motorized scooter."
With the company of Emma and the dead man the days filled themselves pleasantly with TV and ice cream. I still called Sheila but now got her answering machine. "Hi, Hon. Harry," I said, feeling foolish―of course it was me. After that first time, I hung up without leaving any message. If she had made that connection with a theatrical impresario, I didn't want her to return from a tour to endless repetitions of me saying hello. Formerly this would have made me apprehensive lest something had happened to her―an automobile crash, the flu, a falling airplane or a church steeple dropped by careless riggers.
"Have you called your ex-wife today?" the dead man asked. It had slipped my mind.
I felt a guilty twinge. "Sheila is a free spirit," I said.
"Call again. If there's no answer better check the obits."
Sure enough, I read about her death in the newspaper. I do not recall, in all my adult life―or my life as a child for that matter―ever shedding a tear. At the news of Sheila's death I wept disconsolately. Emma and the dead man put their arms around me for a group hug and I felt better. The dead man handed me a Kleenex, "Blow." I blew.
I asked Prentiss Oliver if he had had any word from Sheila, her being dead and all, just like him.
After Sheila's death Emma joined us regularly for ice cream at the Polar Treat. She seemed to enjoy Prentiss Oliver's company. "Hiya, Mr. Oliver. Mr. Brackenfern."
"Hiya, Emma," I said.
"Your late ex-wife found you a great disappointment, Harry," said Prentiss Oliver. Emma nodded agreement as she dug into her cone.
* * *
One morning as I was making my poached egg, Prentiss Oliver said, "Elizabeth Taylor." This was after Sheila died and we had stayed up late watching Butterfield 8. "What's your opinion?"
"Opinion. About what?" My own impressions of the great world beyond my yard had been forged by the Late-Late-Shows that came on at two in the morning.
"About what? Passion, Harry, passion." Prentiss Oliver thought Butterfield 8 was a mighty document of Film Noir, and was especially fond of the scene in which Miss Taylor's character drove her Nash Metropolitan over an embankment.
"What is passion, desire? For five points?" I had not seen much in the way of passion. I have always felt my opinions sincerely but had none about Elizabeth Taylor that I could recall.
"You can't show passion," said the dead man, munching on an Oreo. "You feel passion. The people in the movies demonstrate lust. To a point," said the dead man. "Anyone can see that."
"'I'm not like anyone. I'm me.' Elizabeth Taylor said that. In Butterfield 8," I said.
The dead man reached over and broke the yolk of my poached egg. "Engaging and witty, Harry," he said.
"I'll take witty for five points."
"Nonononono. That's only a game you and Sheila used to play. Engaging and witty are places. Places you might hear of but never visit. You never got The Mikado, did you? You are a decent man, but that's not enough. I'll have to be moving along. Sorry, Harry, old bean. Game's over."
"No more soft-serve at the Polar Treat?" I had become used to the dead man's company and was sorry to see him go.
Prentiss Oliver whistled a few bars of a bouncy, happy tune. "Recognize that?" he asked.
"I am not musically inclined," I said.
"On a tree by a river..." He stopped. "Join in, Harry, there's a good fellow. The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan..."
"Oh, yes: Callous and Obdurate. I am familiar with the Mikado," I said. "But not with the music."
The dead man looked as if he expected me to burst into song. I did not. "A little tom-tit sang willow, titwillow, titwillow," he sang.
"One of Sheila's favorites."
"Mine too. I admired Sheila," said the dead man. "From a distance... discretely. Sheila languished; her soul grew smaller and smaller and finally she disappeared. She had settled for a decent man. You whistle?"
"I never had the time to learn an instrument," I said stiffly.
"You never had the time?"
"There were leaves in the gutters. The eaves?"
"You cleaned the eaves while Sheila pined away for love. I wonder how she put up with you, a non-swimmer who wouldn't even try to learn to whistle. You are a lump, Harry Brackenfern. I waited."
"You waited and now it's too late. Sheila is dead."
"Too late for you, Harry. And thanks for all the ice cream." The dead man walked across the yard, whistling a Gilbert and Sullivan tune, the kind Sheila would have liked.
copyright Rob Hunter 2007
Dead Man in the Yard was first published
in Nanobison, Summer 2007, the "Dimensions of Love" issue,
Doug Helbling, editor.