On This Day ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Traffic was light. Billie Rose Flint arrived at the cemetery at five minutes after three on a bright October afternoon. She knew the cemetery well and parked the car in the same familiar spot, underneath an old oak tree that at the moment was so suffused with sunstruck color that it was as pretty as any picture in a magazine. She breathed deeply of the pleasant leafy smell and, not even bothering to lock the car, walked up the hill that she knew so well, past the gravestones whose names she knew by heart.
By the time she came to her son’s grave, she was winded and her legs ached; she was, after all, getting old. She spread the blanket on the ground, kicked off her shoes and sat down facing the gravestone. It was a simple red-granite affair, not as showy as some of the others, with the name, Randall Wallace Flint, the date of his birth and the date of his death.
As always when she was in the cemetery and there was no one else around, she began to feel sleepy. She reclined on her back and looked up into the trees. The breeze on her face was fragrant and cooling. A little hump in the ground pressed comfortably into the small of her back as if it had been placed there especially for that purpose.
She dozed and in a moment she was aware of someone standing beside her. She opened her eyes and looked up into his face but the sun kept her from seeing him. He smiled and sat down beside her on the edge of the old quilt.
“How have you been keeping yourself?” he asked.
“Just peachy keen,” she said.
“I had a feeling you’d be here today.”
“It’s a special anniversary,” she said.
“Anniversary of what? You can say it.”
She looked at him and saw he was trying to keep from laughing, as if it was all a joke to him.
“Thirty years ago today,” she said, “you hanged yourself from a rafter in the garage after school.”
“Go on,” he said.
“I found you when I opened the door to pull the car in. You were just hanging there. There was a tipped-over chair. I knew right away it was too late.”
“And then what did you do?”
“I screamed. The woman who lived next door, Doris Ellsworth, was in her backyard and heard me. She came running to see what was wrong. When she saw what had happened, she closed the garage door and took me into the house and called an ambulance.”
“And then what?”
“They came and cut you down. By then, all the neighbors had gathered around to watch. The paramedics carried you out on a stretcher and put you into the back of the ambulance. They were moving very slowly because they knew there was nothing to be done.”
“What did you do then?”
“I drank a glass of scotch and called your father and told him he needed to come home.”
“And did he?”
“He was there in a few minutes. At first he didn’t believe you were really dead. He wanted to see to make sure for himself. They let him see you, with all those people watching, and then he turned to the ambulance driver and very calmly told him to take you to the funeral home. Then he made me get into the car with him and we drove there behind the ambulance and bought you a casket. Your father wrote a check to pay for it.”
“It was some funeral, though, wasn’t it?” he said.
“Yes, it was a big funeral.”
“Everybody from school was there. Standing-room only. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Suddenly everybody likes you when you’re dead.”
“They liked you before you were dead but you didn’t see it.”
“I was going through an adolescent phase. I thought I couldn’t go on.”
“If only there had been some way to help you before it was too late.”
“It doesn’t do any good to think that way. What’s done is done.”
“Was your life really so unbearable?”
“I was a misfit. I was failing algebra. I had acne. I couldn’t take being chosen last for basketball any more. Do you know how much I despise basketball to this day?”
“Those things would have passed. If you had only talked to me about what was bothering you, I could have helped.”
“Maybe not,” he said. “Who knows?”
“Insanity has always run in my family,” she said.
He laughed. “Do you think that’s what was wrong with me?”
“Who can say?”
“If that helps you to understand what I did,” he said, “I guess it’s as logical an explanation as any.”
“Do you think about all the things you missed?”
“Not much,” he said. “ I think more about the things I avoided. Like having to get a job, paying taxes and having a bad marriage.”
“What makes you think you would have had a bad marriage?”
“I don’t know. Aren’t all marriages bad in one way or another?”
“It depends on who you talk to, I guess.”
“You and father had a terrible marriage.”
“I wouldn’t say it was terrible.”
“You fought all the time.”
“Did we? I don’t remember.”
“I call that ‘convenient forgetting’,” he said.
“Anyway, it’s all in the past now and no longer matters.”
“Yes, all in the past.”
“I’m just glad you’re not in torment for what you did,” she said.
“No, not in torment. Not in heaven, either.”
“I won’t ask you what it’s like where you are because I don’t want to know. All I want to know is that you’re not being made to suffer for what you did.”
“Of course I’m not. There isn’t any such thing as hell.”
“Now you’re forty-five,” she said. “Or you would be if you had lived. When I look at you, I see a forty-five-year-old man. You look a little like your father but more like my side of the family.”
“You see what you want to see,” he said.
“The unhappy fifteen-year-old is gone. I can no longer even see his face.”
“Good riddance,” he said. “I never liked him much, anyway.”
“Are you sorry for what you did? I mean, ending your life before it even had a chance to begin?”
“If you say so, mother.”
She heard voices and when she turned her head to see who it was, she saw two very old ladies hovering over a fresh grave nearby. When she turned back to her son, he was gone. The spell was broken. He wouldn’t have wanted anybody else to see him.
She picked up her blanket and walked over to where the old ladies were and greeted them. One of the old ladies had an excess of makeup caked on her face and the other wore a man’s hat and suit, as if they had just come from a costume party.
“Lovely day,” the woman dressed as a man said.
“Fall is my favorite time of the year,” makeup face said.
“A sad day for me,” Billie Rose Flint said. “My son died thirty years ago today.”
“Oh, my!” makeup face said. “How sad! How old was he?”
She picked up a lily from the flowers that were left on the fresh grave and handed it to Billie Rose Flint. “In remembrance,” she said.
Billie Rose Flint took the flower and, in spite of herself, began crying uncontrollably, trying to cover her face with her handkerchief to keep the old ladies from looking at her. She opened her mouth to speak again but instead hurried off with the flower before she felt compelled to tell them the whole story.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp