When I Awoke, Dear
Cold dawn broke as the piercing rays chased away the last ghosts of November, giving way to the chill of winter. The dew had long since frozen and the ice crystals were working their way into the cracks of the peeling, white paint still clinging to the bland, aging farmhouse. The sound of the tired, brittle lacquer chipping echoed off the sparse, evergreen trees. The frost on the sloping lawn wove across the last of the stubborn grass, becoming a prism for the sunlight crawling up the hill. It refracted a fiery orange hue, giving the illusion that the entire crest was ablaze. When the sun finally peered over the hill, rich rays pierced the day.
At that moment, the large, stately ebony grandfather clock that presided over the exhausted living room struck 7 o’clock. Rich dulcet tones soared gracefully through the crisp air of eerily vacant rooms. The sixth chime was interrupted by the sharp dissonance of porcelain on porcelain, as the weathered homeowner set his coffee cup down on the sink, stained rusty orange by years of hard water, while gazing blearily at the scene out the kitchen window.
His face was wind-worn, long, and as tired as his cloud-grey hazel eyes. Worry had etched deep wrinkles into his forehead, and gravity had partnered with age to pull down his reddened, pudgy cheeks. With a heavy sigh he scratched the bristles on his cleft chin and reached once more for his chipped coffee mug from Go-Mart; though, not even the caffeine in his jet black coffee could keep his eyelids open this morning.
The last proud note of the clock died away, and the noise from the rattling radiator was the only stubborn sound that could keep him clinging to consciousness. He vaguely remembered that today was important. Rubbing his eyes and running his hands through his thinning grey hair, he became aware of the dull headache around his temples. Refilling his mug, he wearily drug himself past the old diner-style aluminum table to the entryway between the kitchen and the hall. Stretching and yawning, he leaned against the doorframe and squinted at the soft light flickering from the living room.
The blinds had been drawn shut and the room was lit by the silent static from the muted television in the far right corner of the room. Its ghostly glare cast dim shadows, and vaguely outlined the occasional piece of furniture. Like an island in the middle of the room lay the large, worn out brown tweed couch. Most of the objects within the house reflected the visage of age in one way or another, but the couch was especially scarred from its uphill battle against time. One of its armrests had cracked open and the stuffing was desperately trying to escape. The other was wounded by several generations of mice. Recently, however, the couch had been transformed into a make-shift bed and was adorned with several ratty, mismatched blankets intertwined around faded yellow sheets with a gaudy mustard floral pattern.
Next to the couch stood a sturdy end table, not at all phased by the circular water-stains that curved into one another on its face. Resting atop the table was a half empty whiskey bottle, partnered with an overflowing ashtray. A half-gone pack of Marlboros was propped up on the empty, crumpled carcasses of two preceding packs. Above the melancholy trio stood a tall floor lamp; its olive green lamp-head, though held high, was vacant and cold while the bulb within lay dormant. Heaped at its feet was an assortment of dirty clothes, messily cast about on the ground surrounding the lamp and end-table. The pile had grown so high it almost successfully hid the wicker basket full of multi-colored yarns, with knitting needles like pointed skyscrapers reaching towards the sky.
As his eyes slowly adjusted he gave another deep yawn, scratching his back. His white Hanes t-shirt tightened around his Santa-like stomach as he stretched. With a hearty yawn it became untucked from his blue jeans, which were themselves cinched with a brown leather belt and completed with a longhorn buckle. Slowly he began to trudge his way into the room. He sat down on the couch and stared at the television. The blurred static seemed to represent his mindset perfectly. Gazing across his messily renovated living quarters, he reached for the whiskey bottle and poured a dash into his coffee, and looked into the face of the venerable clock. It read 7:10, and the man drank his coffee and marveled at how slowly time could trickle by. The rest of his life seemed to have whisked by in brief minutes and seconds. Yet, today time seemed to have come to a screeching halt.
His musings were interrupted by the sound of nails on cold linoleum. Husker, his old arthritic redbone hound, had ambled in from his favorite sleeping nook; the rug in the hallway, directly in front of the master bedroom. Normally at this time of morning the sun would have shone clear out into the hallway in a beam of shimmering dust. Recently however, the door was kept closed and the only light seen just barely escaped from the thin crack under the door.
The ancient canine paused in the entryway between the hallway, kitchen, and living room. He lifted his head, sending cascades of loose skin and fur to form mountains at the base of his neck, and looked through his heavily wrinkled brow at his master. They met eyes for a moment, and though the man thought he may have imagined it, the dog shook his head almost disapprovingly and wandered into the kitchen to search his bowl for breakfast.
The man mumbled something under his breath, got up and switched off the television. Gulping down the ground-speckled remains of his coffee he began to search for his work-boots. He found them underneath a dirty flannel shirt from the day before, and began to lace them up. He grabbed one of the fresher flannels off the floor and stood up, supporting his lower back with his left hand. He then shuffled over to the coat rack he’d tolerated all these years and grabbed his heavy wool coat, remembering the look on her face when she’d brought home the awkward contraption, shaped like a duck with a pink bow around its neck. He looked into the gallant face of the clock again as he put on his coat. 7:20. He stood and let the second hand slowly lead his gaze to the small brass label, affixed to the polished wood, which read:
To my dearest daughter and new son, treasure your blessed union and may God grant you many happy years. Love, Dad
Almost instantly his mind inverted, drawing up crystal clear images from thirty-eight years ago. He remembered the feel of youthful soft skin, the glow of giddy smiles, her white satin wedding dress, the music, the people. Everything flew by in a torrent of memory. He remembered the hearty laugh of his father-in-law, his ever-present smile and star-dusted eyes. The words he’d spoken at the reception echoed in his ears.
Shaking his head and blinking a few times, he drew himself back into the present. He checked his shoulder and dusted off the nostalgia along with the dandruff peppering his heather-grey coat. With a deep breath, he took in the scent of morning and headed to the kitchen door. He shielded his eyes as he opened the door, stepping out into the brisk morning with Husker at his heels.
“I know I know… I’m a bit late today and I’m hopin’ Maggie ‘n’ ol’ Bea’ll forgive me, but I’m on my way now and that’s the best I can do,” he explained to the old dog as he walked toward the barn.
He marched solemnly past the field of dead corn stalks and picked up the stainless steel pail just outside the door. He pulled open the large doors with a grunt, letting himself and Husker inside where the two cows were jostling uncomfortably from the pressure in their udders.
“Now don’t you worry, ladies. I’m here and I promise that you’ll be milked right quick and you’ll be feelin’ much better,” he assured them as he stroked Maggie’s soft nose. “I still ain’t much used to this routine, but I’ll try to get better.”
She had always milked the cows. He paused, put the pail in place and looked into Bea’s pleading brown eyes.
“Well, I guess time’s a-wastin’,” he sighed, and sat down to milk when he heard a small whine from behind him. “Oh now, don’t tell me I forgot about you too,” the old man said testily.
Husker only replied with a look of learned patience, and shook his head, causing his long ears to flap. He trotted out the open farm door to preside over the glittering lawn.
“Well, looks like we’re all finished up, girls. You filled the bucket, you should be proud,” he said as got up. He filled their trough, scratched their noses, and picked up the steaming bucket of fresh milk. Several of the farm cats had gathered around, watching with lustful eyes.
“Oh, alright,” he said while straining the milk into a glass bottle, “whatever doesn’t fit you can have. I still got leftovers from yesterday, but you better not waste a drop, clear?”
After pouring the remainder of the milk into a basin for the cats and cleaning up, he headed back toward the kitchen door, spat and whistled for Husker. They entered the kitchen together, and he noticed that the dog bowl and food dish were both bone dry.
“Guess I really don’t have my wits about me today, do I old pal?”
Husker wagged his tail politely before launching himself at his food. The old man stood up and groaned as the knot in his back revisited him.
“I reckon I’m still not used to this milkin’ routine, even after a week,” he said, mostly to himself. Husker looked up at him sympathetically before turning back to take a long draught of water. Smiling, the man leaned down and scratched the old dog’s ears and began contemplating his own breakfast when the clock came back to life. Once again, the chilled rooms were filled with the luxurious chimes of the clock, signaling that 8:00 had come. The fading chimes wrenched a mournful sigh from the old man, his hazel eyes clouded once more, and he began shuffling around the kitchen in a stupor.
He grabbed the last pan from the cabinet under the stove; all the others were dirty and heaped in a pile near the sink. Dishes seemed to be another growing task he’d never noticed before. She had always taken care of the kitchen affairs.
He made himself four eggs with bacon and set the percolator on the stove. The scent of breakfast turned Husker’s sagging face from his own tasteless breakfast, but his sage temperament and dignity prevented him from begging. While finishing the meal with a cigarette, the man heard the crunching of gravel on the drive. He got up from the table and stood in the kitchen doorway. The reverend from the local church had come to call.
“Mornin’ Don, I just thought I’d come by and see if you would like a ride to the service. ‘N if not, I thought I should come up and give you my condolences anyway.”
“Mornin’ to you too, Reverend. I ‘preciate the gesture, but as it don’t start until 10:30 I think I’m gonna bide my time. I don’t reckon you’d be surprised if I told you I wasn’t in a hurry to get there. I ain’t ready yet anyhow…” he gestured vaguely toward the pile of clothing and the inside of the house, watching the ground and shuffling his feet.
“Well, if you need to you know where to find me. N’ if you can’t, God’ll find you. Don’t be afraid to call on him now, he won’t never leave you in your hour of need.”
“Well I do thank you, Reverend,” he said without looking up, “but I think Husker here is all the help I’ll need. We’re not doin’ too bad, are we boy?” Husker thumped his tail feebly against the cold kitchen floor where he lay.
“Alright then, I guess we’ll be seein’ you at the service then. God bless,” said the reverend and headed back down the drive.
As soon as the old man turned back inside the clock beckoned the half of the hour. Each note sent a chill up his spine. He decided it was time.
Turning almost as slowly as the leaves, he walked stiff legged to the washroom and began to shave and clean himself up. His hands were trembling, and his entire body seemed to be in revolt. The hair on the back of his neck was raised and a ball-hitch knot had welled up in his throat. His breakfast churned inside him, like tumultuous ocean waters during a violent storm, and he didn’t look in the mirror. He wouldn’t look in the mirror for fear of seeing. He didn’t need to see it. He knew what was coming. He dreaded it.
Every nerve was like a live, sparking wire; all senses on red alert. When the lush voice of the clock sounded to signal a quarter to the hour, its calling seized his heart with fear and anxiety. Regaining composure, he finally looked up at himself in the mirror. He locked eyes with his reflection and nodded slowly. He could do this. He would.
His mind charted the path to the bedroom door: calculating the seconds, counting the steps, measuring each angle, anticipating each movement, each breath. He cleared his throat and nodded again, reassuring himself. He would do this. The door was eight feet away, directly behind him. He saw the reflection of its knob in the corner of the mirror.
His heart thumped madly, as though trying to escape or burst. He swallowed hard, hoping the knot in his throat wouldn’t choke him. As he turned, facing the door, he realized that he had severely underestimated the difficulty of his task. Every step, each creak of the hardwood floor shifting under his weight intensified the feeling that he was walking the plank. His arm began to shudder as he moved to grasp the handle of the bedroom door, wincing as though it was burning his hand. He turned the knob, slowly.
A loud scratch in the hall caused him to jerk and reel back, the last of the color flushed from his face. A quick glance revealed that it was only Husker, framed in the light from the kitchen windows. The old hound was watching his master with keen interest.
Shaking off paranoia once again, the old man reached out for the handle as though trying to catch a poisonous snake. Painfully turning the knob, he quickly released the handle after he had completed the rotation, allowing the door to open by itself. Yellow light flooded the hall, spilling out of the doorway. The rays wrapped themselves completely around him, silhouetting him and glistening tiles on the bathroom tiles across the hall.
The light rendered him motionless, stark with fear, barely daring to breathe. His arms felt bound to his sides. Minutes ticked by as he stood paralyzed, searching for something that would release his joints and pull him to sanity.
During his daze, Husker had walked up beside him. Gently, the old redbone raised his tired face and nudged the man’s hand with his cold, wet nose, snapping him back to reality. Looking down at his loyal friend, the old man swallowed hard and gathered all his remaining resolve.
He forced his rusted joints to carry him into the room. He kept his eyes fixed on his goal and did not look at the dresser with the perfume atomizer and pearls. He did not see the end table covered with hair rollers, pictures, and pins. He turned his off his peripheral vision, wrapping it instead around his course and seeing only a gold-lit tunnel to the closet. Stepping in time with his pulse, his feet fell side by side as he reached his destination. He let habit open the sliding doors of the closet as he closed his eyes.
After taking a deep breath he opened his eyes and waited for them to focus. His gaze fell first at the bottom of the closet, where old tattered boots and scuffed dress shoes were intermingled with assorted women’s dress shoes, sandals, and random garments that had fallen from their hangers.
Looking, as was his custom, to the far corner of the closet he saw the object he had come for; his best suit, pressed only two weeks ago by the woman he’d be seeing for the last time today. It would be a feat to fight his way through all of her possessions; her dresses, her scent, her hats on the top shelf, and her shoes intermingled with his at his feet. She filled this room, and so he carefully clung to the inside of the closet, pushing himself against the wall, scraping his shoulders, keeping as far away from her things as possible. He extended his arm as far as it would reach, straining the tendons and joints, until he grabbed the hanger and hastily pulled his suit toward him. Clutching it near his chest, he turned away from the closet in slow motion, staring at the suit he clutched, white-knuckled, in his trembling hands. He left the closet doors wide open behind him, and allowed himself to exhale.
Looking up, eyes plotting a path to the door, his gaze was intercepted by the corner of their queen-sized bed, made to perfection every day by the same loving hands. Against his will, he felt his mind drift over the rose-patterned comforter which he knew lay over the sunshine yellow blanket and atop the pastel green blanket, which were both tucked in by the baby pink sheets. She always had an eye for soft, airy colors. They matched her laugh.
Movement shook him from his reverie and reflex pulled his vision automatically to his wife’s side of the bed. There he saw Husker laying his wrinkled head and drooping ears on the bed. At the sound of a soft whimper, time froze. The man didn’t even feel the suit dropping from his hands. He fell by the side of his aged friend and threw his arms around his tired shoulders. Large, warm droplets rolled down his cheeks and formed healthy streams in his wrinkles. Grief possessed his voice, melted the ball in his throat and struck the chords of release, allowing him to finally lose himself in the freedom of acceptance, grief, and memory.
Color crept back into his face and he looked through watery eyes to see Husker, dolefully licking the tears from his cheeks. For a long while they sat with one another, heads hung, comprehending the inevitable task at hand. The clock brought the hour, and the pair looked up. The man pulled himself up, wiping his chin as he stood. He retrieved his suit and dressed with Husker waiting patiently by the bed.
Standing tall, he wiped away the last straggling tears, and inspected himself in the mirror next to the door; trying to preen himself the way she would have.
“How do I look?” he asked.
Husker cocked his head to the side, considered for a moment, and nuzzled his master’s hand affectionately. The old man smiled and knelt down next to his companion, scratching his ears and rubbing the folds of his neck. Together they stood and walked into the hall, to the coat rack, through the kitchen, out the door, and to the white dented ‘64 Ford pickup truck.
The old man opened the passenger door while Husker climbed into the truck. He then strolled over to the driver’s side, opened the door and climbed in. He started the car the car and placed his hand on the metal shifting gear which had been worn to a shine by years of oil and friction.
Through the dusty windshield he could see water droplets forming on tall tree branches. The retreating frost was shining like diamonds. The sun’s rays warmed the man’s pale skin, and he felt the pull of a genuine smile. Husker gave his master an affectionate kiss on the neck and laughing, the man put his arm around the dog’s bony shoulders.
They drove off toward the funeral. The truck kicked up a faint cloud of white dust as it crunched gravel on its way to the church. The sun caught the specks as they danced. Back in the house, the door to the bedroom was left wide open, allowing the sun to set the air alight.