They both knew exactly when Margaret died: November 8, 2007, 1:46 a.m. Not from the death certificate, but because they were there, in her bedroom, where she’d been drugged into restless sleep by a hospice nurse familiar with the cruelties of non-smoker’s lung cancer. And for all of them, a grisly vigil, with the end itself, an anticlimax. Charles was Margaret’s de-facto spouse, and Shelly, her daughter, a college senior who’d taken incompletes across the board that fall so she could come home.
But somehow, two months had passed, mid-January the calendar told him, and relating to Shelly without Margaret, much less relating to her as an adult, would take more practice. Counting summer school, she’d been away for most of three years.
She’d already been out somewhere today, too, which was true a lot recently, but from the kitchen he heard her coming in through the garage and into the utility room. Soon she was inside with him, crossing the tile floor toward the hall.
"Oh, hi," she said, cheeks flushed a bit from the cold.
"Yeah, hi." He looked up from the newspaper.
"Looks like another slow day around here." She seemed uncertain.
He decided to risk it. "Well, any decision yet? You going back this spring?"
She stopped in mid-stride. "Still making up my mind."
"Starts at end of the month, right?"
Her voice took an edge. "So? They’ll credit my tuition to fall."
"It’s only a question," he said, looking at the paper again.
"You’re not my father either. It’s Mom’s money."
"Wherever your father is now."
"Arizona someplace. But I do have one."
"I mainly want a sense of how things’ll be. I’d miss having you around." Charles picked at the last of his lunch—a late lunch. Past two o’clock and he should be at the office, not still in his robe, unshaven.
"I’m going to my room to work on something," she said.
"OK. But you used to call me Daddy…for a while, anyway."
"When I was like eight years old and you first moved in."
"I actually enjoyed that," he said.
"Why didn’t you and Mom get married then?" She leaned against the counter.
"You know why. We didn’t believe in it, and we’d both already been married."
"Yes, the hippie dream…anarchy, like those Pink Floyd albums you guys played. No organized religion, and no government either."
"A worthy dream," he said. "She was the love of my life."
"You could have gotten married last year, when you knew how sick she was. Or were you scared of the medical bills?"
His eyes flared. "I offered, but she wanted to die according to her principles."
"Like refusing chemo? Like crystals and all the woo-woo herbal stuff? I hated her for that. Month after month, and you never put your foot down."
"We talked about it…a lot. Argued, even. Can’t you accept it was her life and her decision?"
She looked and sounded amazingly like her mother. Slightly waved light-brown hair, thin lips and nose, and a smart color sense in how she dressed. Brains, good grades, and pretty too. Everyone thought so. But always cautious about boyfriends. Nothing to tie her down before she was ready, and by that she meant marriage. Still, this past year, he’d been kind of feeling like her father, and they’d relied on each other for support—quiet phone calls for inquiries or reports when one of them just needed to talk about it; the confidence that somebody could cover if you fell apart; and now, in the daily struggle to keep up the household.
"You did a nice job on the front yard," he said.
"I didn’t think you’d notice, but the neighbors did for sure."
"Thank God they can’t see the back."
"No kidding," she said, heading for the hall. He heard her door close.
Without interest, Charles returned to the paper. This Obama guy was running for President. That would be different, they said. That would be something. But his coffee was cold and there wasn’t much daylight left, so maybe he should check in with his boss. He didn’t have to, though, because officially, he’d transitioned from family leave to bereavement leave. No paychecks, but his return rights were guaranteed till June. That was supposed to be enough. Leaving dirty dishes on the table, he went down the hall to his room. Not the master that Margaret had eventually taken over, but the former spare, where he’d set up for permanent after the oxygen machine and pain pump had arrived.
Fifty-two years old, he thought—young enough to need to start over and too old to imagine how. In jeans and a plaid flannel shirt he let himself out through the utility room into the yard. What a fucking mess it was! So much litter and crap there might as well be no lawn.
Just after New Year’s, a wild storm had blown through. Streets flooded, trees and branches down all over the county, and long power outages even on tidy suburban blocks like theirs. Or like Margaret’s, to put a point on it. She’d owned this place, a California ranch-style, since her marriage ended and her ex had followed his cocaine habit down the road. From what she’d said, the money sending Shelly to school could have gone up the guy’s nose too if Margaret had inherited it before they split.
He took a step forward and almost gave up. Where did you even start? It was gray and overcast and nobody had raked a leaf since Thanksgiving. By some inexorable process, though, he and Shel had gotten through the holidays —Trazedone and Xanax for him, that he was trying to wean off of, Prozac for her, and a rallying of Margaret’s family and his own to get them out of town at key moments. Shel had been good about it too. There were lots of friends she could have hung out with instead.
A pair of big limbs from the elm tree buried most of the open area and one from the fruitless mulberry had crushed the iris bed. Those would need the chain saw, which wasn’t for today. Redwood branches of every size, needles still green, layered the soggy leaf-cover, and he pulled down another that hung from the gutter and roof. More of the same were probably up on the shakes. He couldn’t see them right now and didn’t want to know.
Still, Charles had always taken care of the place. Ted, across the street, kidded him on being anti-Mexican, since everybody else had a gardener. The thing was, he didn’t mind mowing and raking, not normally, and if he had to get on the roof, he would. He’d done it before, plenty of times. If you had a desk job, the yard was how to connect with what was real. Houses in this subdivision were close to the street, so driving by it looked like any bedroom community, but the spaces behind were huge. In the way-back, beyond the sprawling pyracantha, was Margaret’s vegetable patch, the tool shed and the weedy spot where Shel and her playmates used to camp in a tent, and where he’d helped her put the dog’s grave her junior year in high school.
OK, he had a plan. Locating his gloves, a rake and a tarp in the shed, he started clearing redwood detritus, all of which could be carried or dragged to a pile along the fence. When he’d finished that, and the outline of the patio was visible, along with a margin around the tangled heap of elm limbs, he raked leaves. They were heavy with moisture and half-decomposed. Each tarp load took forever in the fading light, and he sweat like in a Gatorade commercial, fogging his glasses as the temperature dropped. But he was going to goddamn see the lawn, at least the ring of it he was working on, by the time he quit. And he did, too, all raggedy and yellowed from lack of sun, though he had to power up the floodlights for a second to get a decent look.
"Shel!" he called, when he left the utility room in his stocking feet. "Great progress! How about some Thai food? I’m sick of pizza too. Let’s treat ourselves."
No answer, with the house inside as dark as the yard had been. He walked to the front window. Her car was gone. He was disappointed, but maybe she’d left a note. Dinner could be late as far as he was concerned. He wasn’t hungry and desperately needed a shower, and yeah, to scrape the stubble off his face. They’d eat when she got back. This was what parents with college kids living at home adapted to. He’d been one of those kids.
He switched on the overhead in the hall and entered the kitchen. On the table, in the dimness, was a note, or wait, a sealed envelope showing his name in her loopy, curly, cursive. But the printed letter she’d composed had to have come off her laptop. He carried it into the hall and stood beneath the light, reading.
Charles– I actually have decided about school and about a bunch of things. I know I should tell you in person, but for me, this way is really best. I’ve mainly been waiting to be sure you could handle it, except I’m running out of time.
Just don’t think I’ll change my mind. I’m not going back to Claremont until fall, but I’m moving to Southern California to work down there as soon as I get money from selling this house. In the meantime, I’ll be living with my high school friend Jane. While you’ve slept and moped around since Christmas I moved the stuff I want, and while you were in the yard today I packed the rest of my clothes. You probably don’t remember her last name, but her phone’s unlisted, so it wouldn’t matter.
Please believe I don’t hate you and that I respect what a loyal partner you were to my mom all those years. But you do need to be out before March 1. Don’t worry about finishing the yard or clearing away things unless they’re yours. As soon as I know you’re gone I’ll have a crew spiff up the place so my realtor can take over. The idea is to sell while the market’s good, then invest, since stocks are good too. That way I have money for grad school and a running jump on whatever’s next.
You said you accepted Mom’s decisions on how to live her life and now you need to accept mine. I dread having to evict you, but honestly, I will if you’re still here in March. Mom put my name on the title when I turned eighteen. She must have known she was sick and didn’t want any mess-ups on me getting her property, like it would still be home or something. You have your job, your retirement and your savings, so I know I’m not shoving you into the street. You also have friends and real family to lean on instead of me.
Good luck and thanks for everything. Any other goodbye would be too emotional for me, and maybe for you too. –Shelly
Paragraph by paragraph, so his knees wouldn’t buckle, he slumped against the wall and slowly slid downward to sit, legs splayed. As he reread, his breathing grew steadily shallower. It would be so easy to OD on Xanax and get this over with.
But he didn’t. Just one to help him get a grip, so he could order Thai take-out anyway, and a little later, another to let him sleep, which, sort of, he did. The idea of moving horrified him. He would, he guessed, but only because he had to. He wasn’t going to hunt her down and beg, and he damn sure wasn’t having a face-off with the sheriff. But where the hell would he go?
Winter fog again in the morning, and as early as he could without angering the neighbors he sipped at a coffee refill on the way to the shed for his gloves and the saw. It was cranky about starting in the cold and farted deadly blue smoke when the tenth pull finally got results. Easing back on the choke, he gave it time to warm up, then carried it toward the house.
Knocking side branches off the largest downed limb was the place to start. The saw roared and even kicked a little when he compressed the trigger to set the whirring blade into one of the notches in the bark.