Lester sat in his green pickup, the front tires sitting a few inches in the grass off the edge of the driveway. He squeezed the keys in his right hand then rolled the fingers of his left along the top of the steering wheel as he looked straight ahead at the two plum trees he and Connie planted six years ago in the backyard. The cool October air, the second Wednesday, felt fresh to Lester, the wind curling the changing seasons as the plum trees’ branches danced naked, bereft of the recently harvested first season of tangy fruit. His memory snaked to the Douglas Nursery, how the owner convinced Connie that plums were worth the risk for the home gardener in Alabama, early flowering almost always wiped clean by freezes in the late winter. The high susceptibility of the Japanese plums to diseases limited their longevity.
“I’m of the minority with these plums, certainly understand people’s avoidance. The percentages don’t work in your favor, but sometimes the really sweet stuff is worth the risk. Same way with women, you know,” the man said with a wink to Connie. “I’d recommend the A.U. Roadside and the Ruby Sweet, you need two varieties for cross pollination. And these two,” the owner, an elderly man with a bushy grey mustache, closed his eyes as he kissed the bunched fingers of his right hand, “are heaven on earth.”
Lester jangled his keys and shook his head.
“Now I’m gonna be honest with you. The trees probably won’t live that long, ten years tops. And you’ll only get a few years of fruit, but those years are really something to behold. A person can buy sturdier varieties that’ll live longer, give you more years of fruit, but you’d be hard pressed to find trees that bear sweeter and juicier plums. Plums you dream about. And that’s a fact.”
Lester looked down at the keys in his hand. A part of him wanted to say, “No mas.” He knew he could still back out, call Jenny Lynn, his supervisor, tell her he was bailing, that he just couldn’t do it, had made a mistake, fallen prey to that American Dream of chasing your dream, of believing you could do anything because you had the faith in your heart of hearts.
What a fool, he thought. A last second exit would cause problems, burdens created by no one but himself, shifts added, schedules twisted inside-out. Maybe all this was just routine in the hospice world. He inhaled a deep breath, wondered if he could actually follow through, make caring for the dying a focus in his life. Talking the talk had been fun, people nodding their approval of this new career choice, admiration glistening in their eyes, his explanations full of passion and confirmation, his enthusiasm seeming genuine. Was all this training worth the effort, the time and money invested? The goal had been achieved, earning R.N. certification at J.F. Drake State Community and Technical College in three years since he had a year’s worth of college credits from taking courses at the University of Alabama in Huntsville for the first two years out of high school, logging in a year’s experience at the Huntsville Hospital I.C.U., shadowing veteran hospice nurses during his training, chewing through the hospice books and pamphlets in order to soak up all those ideas about comforting the dying, and chanting the hospice mantras of autonomy and self-determination. Such perseverance, grinding each step of the way, knowing he was plowing the fields for a future harvest, but now the first official day of solo calls brought doubt.
He fought anxiety all during the night, running through the protocols a few more times, checking off the steps for different situations, rehearsing and planning, hoping the stewing anxiety would generate the needed energy for the day. He rose at 4:12 am, surrendering to his buzzing mind, no longer able to patiently toss and turn. His first solo visit would be with Toots Richards, a fifty-three year old Alabama native Lester visited with supervisor Jenny Lynn a half dozen times. A decades smoker who was dying of lung cancer and living the last days with his daughter Irene, a thirty-four single mom with two children in elementary school.
An hour before dawn, an armful of minutes before his kids began to stir, his thoughts ran to Connie as if he hadn’t told her yet, fearful of owning up to his decision to enter the world of the dying. Lester ached for the comfort he had not felt since Connie breathed her last that Sunday night in June five years ago. Was making such a drastic change okay with her? He wanted her input, her ability to weigh the costs and benefits. Her pragmatism perhaps her greatest strength, that and loving such an anomaly, so relentless in her love for his odd soul, a strange concoction nestled under the umbrella of auticulation. But he never saw her, even during those numbing first weeks after the lymphoma pulled her from this world. No face in the window glass, no revenant standing in the kitchen, no phantom keeping him afloat. Never heard a whisper during these dark hours of the morning. Lester fully accepted Connie vanishing from his life. Yet he stalked in these silent moments, hunting the nodding of her head, the smile, her kindness. He would explain his fear of stepping into the unknown, of risking his family’s financial security, the insecurity truly believing he could help another human being face death head on. He believed she would look in his eyes, listen to the distress-coated words rattling up his throat, smile then explain her views in practical terms. That’s what he missed. That’s what he wanted.
When Lester heard twelve-year-old Jase singing “Get back, Loretta” on his way to the bathroom he found himself confronting an anxiety attack, a panic hatched from a sudden firm belief that he had made a bad decision, not only for himself, he wasn’t ready to sooth the dying, probably never would be, but for his family too, his kids the top priority, their welfare his main purpose in life. So why did he think selling Rocket City Car Wash, inherited from his daddy, was the right thing to do? The money from Connie’s life insurance had been a blessing for the family, bought at her insistence over his cries of foolish choice for a woman her age, paying off the mortgage, credit card debt, creating financial simplicity to his life. The car wash money he’d put into a low risk portfolio at the behest of a successful financial manager, a childhood friend. The numbers worked, this was a sound plan, but selling the business his father worked, managed, and owned for over 34 years was the decision he never could quite get down, an act that seemed a betrayal. The investments and hospice income would support his family, but he seemed full of doubt just because he was taking a chance on his own, however calculated and reasoned. When he heard Jase flush the toilet he whispered to himself, “What the fuck have I done?”
Jase had walked into his study as a man with a mission. He stopped in front of Lester’s desk.
“Daddy, today is the first day for you to help dying people by yourself.”
“Today is the day, Jase.”
“I was wondering, will you see’em die? I mean, while you’re trying to help them?”
“There’s always the possibility, it’s one of the reasons I’m there. To help people accept their death.”
The boy looked at his father, turned his head at a siren in the distance then back to his father and nodded. “If I was dying I’d want you by my side. I think the people you help will be very lucky.”
“Thanks, Jase. That means a lot to me.”
The boy looked at the desk for a moment in silence. “There’s something else.”
“I’m a little nervous about the game this Saturday. The kids are bigger in this new league.”
“You know all you can do is your best. Take care of your position, what you control.”
“I just don’t want to get slaughtered.”
“I wouldn’t worry about getting slaughtered. Just give your best out there. If you get beat then think about what you can do to improve.”
“Sounds like loser talk.”
“Embrace the challenge, Jase. Embrace the challenge.”
“Like you’re doing today?”
Lester looked at Jason, smiled then pointed at his son with a nod of his head. “You are a wise young man, Jason.”
“Who is gonna get his butt kicked on Saturday,” he said with his head down. He turned and walked back to his bedroom.
Lester squeezed the keys again, stepped out of his truck and walked to the fence surrounding his backyard. Georgia, the family black lab, ran up to where Lester stood from her spot in front of the back door. Her tail wagged a chaotic rhythm, bursts of energy derived from any indication of affection from Lester, a murmur of kindness, a head stroke. Music floated from the house directly behind Lester’s house, the neighbor, Marlin Turnipseed, an old hippie and retired teacher in his mid-sixties. Morning tunes were a tradition in the Turnipseed family, most of the tunes from his youth. Marlin seemed to have a soft spot for Southern rock. “Early morning Skynyrd, one of the best ways to start the day,” Lester whispered Marlin’s mantra to himself then paused to breathe in the neighbor’s wake and bake breakfast.
He lifted his right arm in the air and gave a few fist pumps, opened the gate, patted Georgia on the head as he walked under the canopy of the nearest plum tree. The faint aroma of marijuana creased a slight smile, a surprise since Marlin had explained not long ago that he was switching to edibles, “I like the hard caramels, about 10 mils of THC does me right,” since he had secured a source.
He looked around the parameter of the yard, checking to see if anyone was in eyesight then sat down to, as his father always said, “assume the Lester position.” Georgia stuck her head in his face. “Old gal, Georgia,” Lester said then began aggressively rubbing the dog’s face and neck. Lester gave her a couple of pats on her ribs as he slowly lay back, the back of his head nestling into the grass, which was several inches overdue for a cut. The dog understood the maneuver, rolled on her side with her back along Lester’s side. With his keys still in his right hand, Lester closed his eyes and rubbed Georgia’s shoulder.
The guitar riffs caught his attention, Rossington’s strokes mingled with Van Zant’s brokenhearted wail.
“Oh she’s gone, alright. Fuck, she’s gone,” Lester told Georgia.
After a few moments he brought his left hand up to his own face and massaged his forehead. Then he massaged his temples. Then his nose. Then his mouth. He finally opened his eyes and looked into the plum tree canopy. This unusual habit, dropping to his rump then reposing at the spur of a moment, dated back to his kindergarten days when his mother would find him all over the house on his back. People thought a child exhibiting such behavior as a cute eccentricity, but many whispered worries to each other at this strange habit as he grew into a young man. The depth of oddness just too different for most to accept, “oddball,” “autistic,” “unstable” repeated in their lack of acceptance. Lester just wanted to slow the world down so he could take a look.
He thought of Connie, again, living without her so strange and empty; and he thought of his mother, now eight years removed from her sudden death in an automobile accident, the woman like most mothers, always in his corner. The two most important women in his life gone, never to return. Those two deaths confronted Lester with his lack of knowledge of understanding death, what it meant, and more importantly, how the living dealt with the loss of loved ones. From that point on he wondered if death was cut and dry, just a fact of life, his mother and wife having decided their work was done here, walking away from the land of the living, leaving Lester and his three children to fend for themselves.
“What makes you think I can do this?” Lester called out, his eyes now following a Cardinal hopping through the branches. “I need you,” he shouted up to the limbs of the Ruby Sweet. He felt Georgia turn and look at him.
“You need who, Lester?”
Lester blinked a few times then turned to his left to see Austen, his neighbor, standing at the gate Lester had entered a few minutes before.
“Austen, what’s going on, man?” Austen, a short stocky man in his seventies who claimed to be Native American, a descendant of the Cherokee tribe and named after the great warrior Cherokee Chief, Austenaco. His everyday clothes consisted of khaki pants, a white t-shirt, and black canvas hi-top Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars. He held a cereal bowl with his right hand, scooped up a spoon of food right into his mouth.
“Welcoming another day on this earth, my friend,” said Austen.
“Having you some sausage and grits?”
Austen made his own venison sausage, buying the deer meat from hunters and creating the sausage himself from an old Cherokee recipe, so he claimed. Lester wasn’t sure of the validity of the recipe, but he knew this detail helped Austen sell his sausage.
“Yes, you know me well, Lester.”
“Austen, you eat venison sausage and grits every morning. It’s part of who you are.”
Austen nodded and scooped up another bite into his mouth. He studied Lester as he chewed and swallowed.
“So who you talking to, Lester?”
“You want to know who I’m talking to?”
“Only if you want to tell me.”
“Why wouldn’t I want to tell you?”
“Many people are afraid of their own thoughts, avoid truth, but not you, Lester. You are one of my people, for you too believe in speaking the truth quietly and listen to others with an open mind.”
“That sounds mighty Cherokeeish.”
“I know how you think I’m faking my heritage,” said Austen then scooped another bite of sausage and grits into his mouth.
“No, you know that’s not true. I’ve never doubted your Cherokee heritage. Just saying you play that card very well.”
Austen looked in the direction of Lynyrd Skynyrd. “I have such admiration for Marlin. He, like the Cherokee, loves life’s journey.”
“Okay, you’re yanking me now.”
“As Miles Davis once said, ‘A man must learn to play many notes,’” said Austen.
“He said that?” asked Lester.
“Maybe, but the point is dead on.”
“Maybe that’s all the journey is, learning to play notes.”
“Lester, I think you are struggling with a few notes. I’ve observed the many days you lie under these trees, collecting your thoughts.”
Lester laughed. “I’m just thinking about making money. Money, money, money, money.”
“Ah, the one true religion in the land of the free,” said Austen.
“Actually, I was calling out to Connie. And I guess my mom, too. I’m just battling some insecurities on the day I begin my hospice career.”
“I go solo today, Austen.”
“Oh, the training is done. Good. I know you are ready.”
“I should be, right?”
“You know you are ready. These people will see the confidence and the comforting in your eyes. They will know, ‘Yes, I am dying, but I am dying with a comforting man by my side.’ You will help them embrace the journey to the other side.”
Lester sat up and smiled at Austen. “Thank you. Those are very kind words.”
“Your actions will comfort many. Such selfless acts create mercy.”
Lester smiled. “Hey, let me ask you something.”
“Are you ready for the other side?” asked Lester.
Austen returned the smile and scooped up another bite of sausage and grits. He scanned the backyard, looked up at the plum trees then looked once again to the music.
“Marlin loves to embrace the day with Lynyrd Skynyrd,” said Austen.
“’A Simple Man,’ indeed.”
Austen raised his nose into the air. “And the herb of peace.”
“True that. Marlin is a wake and baker.”
Austen looked back down at Lester. “I know…,” he began with his face turned to his right shoulder then he paused. “I try to enjoy every day, Lester, whatever the day brings. If the journey of my life on earth ends today then yes, I am ready.”
“You amaze me,” said Lester.
Austen grinned again. “I am not an amazing man, Lester.”
“Hell, Austen, everybody’s amazing.”
“Some more than others,” said Austen.
“Ha!” Lester stood up a few feet from Austen. “One thing I always remember about you, Austen, is when Doris died. You didn’t seem to skip a beat, man. You know? You just carried on. Motherfucking stoic. I remember looking at you through my kitchen window in admiration. You’d be out in the yard cutting grass, washing your truck, grilling burgers, like nothing was wrong. You were able to carry on very quickly.”
“But nothing was wrong.”
“Are you kidding me? The woman you had lived with for over 40 years had died. Yet, there you were, waving hello to me as you turned the burgers. I just couldn’t believe your strength. You didn’t feel pain?”
“Of course, I felt the loss. As an old friend told me when his wife died, ‘Music tastes different and food sounds the same.’ Mourning is inescapable. I lived in a haunted house, Lester. Everywhere I turned there were ghosts. Doris’s closet was stuffed full of ghosts. I’d open the door and all her dresses and shoes, all those memories, just washed over me. She wore these shoes to this dinner, that dress to this celebration. I was suffocating.”
“I felt that, too,” said Lester.
“I knew I had to get rid of them, but they seemed to know they had no future, like they were holding their breadth, hoping you couldn’t stomach the inevitable cleansing. They were goners, the gig was up and they knew it. I was about to explode.”
“So how did you do it, man?”
“One night when I couldn’t sleep, the loneliness of those clothes just too much to bear, the pained just howling, I suddenly sat up and had this powerful desire to bag all of Doris’s clothes and drive them to the nearest dumpster. Extract the source. I grabbed a box of garbage bags and walked into the closet, willing myself to move forward. But I did something very strange when I walked in the closet.”
Austen looked into Marlin’s backyard then back at Lester.
“What did you do?” asked Lester.
“I grabbed a dress, one of the ones she wore all the time, a housedress, a dress I’d seen her wear in the kitchen a thousand times. I was just about to rip it to shreds when I suddenly put it on.”
Lester paused, twirled the keys in his hand.
“You put on her dress?”
“We were roughly the same size.”
“Yeah, I get that. You fit into it. But you put on her dress?”
“I just did it. There was no thinking about it. Took off all my clothes then slipped it on. I stood in the closet for a few minutes with my eyes closed. When I finally opened my eyes I felt ravished. I hadn’t eaten in days. I walked into the kitchen, made coffee, eggs, sausage, grits, toast, a big country breakfast. Sat down at the kitchen table and ate every bite.”
“Wearing Doris’s dress.”
“What did that feel like? What went through your head?”
“I don’t remember feeling anything. Maybe it was an attempt to get as close as I could to Doris. I remember I cried. Tears running down my face.”
“What time was it?”
“Middle of the night. I seem to recall looking at the stove clock when I was cooking, that it read exactly 3:00.”
“Did you just go back to bed after eating?”
“No, I sat on the back porch and smoked a cigar.”
“In Doris’s dress.”
The two men looked at each other for a few seconds in silence.
“The kids still wear a few of Connie’s things,” said Lester. “I have a recording of her voice that I still play. I’ve been toying with the idea of getting rid of it. Move on, right? I just can’t make myself.”
“Then don’t,” said Austen. “Everyone’s journey is unique.”
“You are either killing playing an Indian or you’re a damn Indian.”
“I am touched by your flattery.”
“Boom, hitting it every time. So what happened then?”
“When I finished the cigar I walked back in the house to the bedroom, crawled into bed and fell asleep.”
“Still wearing her dress?”
“I don’t know what to say to that,” said Lester.
“Omniscience is not a goal, nor attainable.”
Lester laughed. “This is a master class. Is that the story?”
“Did you do yard work with it on? I don’t remember seeing you grilling with that dress on.”
“No, the dress was not worn outside.”
“Did you bathe in it?”
“Actually, I had this dream.”
“Yes. I dreamed I was in bed. I guess it was a dream. Some might say Doris decided to visit me. I remember waking up and seeing Doris sitting on the side of the bed. She was smiling. I told her I missed her so much. That I wanted to talk to her so bad. She kept smiling, nodded her head then said ‘Austen, I’m right here. You can always talk to me.’ I told her I was wearing her dress. She said, ‘I know.’ ‘I hope that doesn’t make you mad,’ I said. She said, ‘No, not at all, Austen. I admire your love. You should wear my dress as much as you want.’”
Lester rubbed Georgia’s ears. “What did you say then?”
“Nothing. She walked out of the bedroom, and after a moment I eased out of bed and followed her, but when I walked into the den and kitchen she was gone. I wore her dress all that day and all that next night, never leaving the house. I fell asleep deep into the next night, hoping that she’d come back. But she didn’t.”
Lester squatted down and began messaging Georgia’s neck with both hands. “So you only dreamed about her or saw her that one time?”
“Just that one time.”
“What about the dress?”
“I gave away all her clothes. Lots of shoes, dresses, coats, sweaters, but I kept that dress. I give it a glance almost every time I walk in the closet. Sometimes I take it off the rack , give it a hard look then place it on the bed, pretend she’s in the room with me, standing there and looking at the dress with me. I tell her I love her and I miss her. Then I pick up the dress, walk back in the closet and put it back on the rack.”
Lester walked up to Austen. “Letting go. A struggle when you’re dying and a struggle when you’re left behind.”
“You can never let go of the ones you love, Lester. It’s just not possible. Whether they’re alive or dead has nothing to do with it. They’re always in your heart.”
“Yes, I know what you mean,” Lester said as he walked through the fence, closed the gate behind him then turned and faced Austen. “I always feel I should let Connie go. Carry on without her and all that. But I can’t do it. Just can’t do it.” He shook his head.
“This is not an affliction, my friend. Holding loved ones in your heart should be encouraged and embraced,” said Austen. “You should never let go of that recording of Connie.”
“Do you really think you saw Doris that night?”
“You are asking an irrelevant question.”
Lester smiled. “This was a bountiful year for my Ruby Sweets,” he said as he pointed to the plum tree.
“Yes, the ones you gave me were sweet indeed.”
“They say the Ruby Sweet doesn’t live long. A few more years at most for that one.”
Austen nodded. “I’ve not had sweeter.”
“You’re a good neighbor, Austen. I hate to say it, but I’ve got to get to my first call. You take care of yourself.” He patted Austen on the shoulder and began walking to his truck. Lester turned to give a quick glance at Austen’s house, not really looking at anything. That’s when he saw the body. It looked to be a man in jeans and white sneakers lying face down between cedar bushes at the back corner of the house. Lester stopped in his tracks in order to give the body a closer inspection. The body, a man Lester was sure, seemed to be wearing a dark blue sweatshirt. There was no movement. Then from the depths of his memory, Lester knew. He turned to Austen who was looking him dead in the eye.
“Jamee,” Austen stated.
Jamee was Austen’s son, a construction worker who also built custom wooden canoes. Jamee’s only child, Carson, a fifteen-year-old, had been killed last year in a boating accident on Lake Guntersville, the biggest lake in Alabama. Always a big drinker, Jamee chose to numb his pain with alcohol. His wife had finally cut him loose, he no longer made much money, the workmanship required for building the canoes in tatters from the alcohol. Days of sobriety were few and far between since the accident. The drinking fueling rages of pain. Many nights of drinking ended at his daddy’s house. Most times Jamee would make it inside where Austen gathered him up and poured him into the spare bedroom, but there were times Jamee would pass out in his car at a bar, in his father’s driveway or somewhere in the landscape. A few times Lester had helped Austen carry Jamee into the house.
“Do you need help?”
Austen looked over at Jamee then back at Lester without saying a word.
“Let’s get him inside,” Lester said.
Austen nodded then the two men walked over to Jamee and began the task of pulling him to his feet.
James Ladd Thomas has published over a dozen short stories in various literary magazines. Most of his fiction is set in Alabama where he was born and earned an M.A. in English from Auburn University. For a better understanding of the work of James Ladd Thomas, please visit his website, jamesladdthomas.com.