She never once said a word about in the 25 years they were married.
Year after year, when he took a day off work for the start of baseball season; when he settled himself in his over-stuffed brown recliner (new at the start but faded and worn through in patches by the end); when he popped the tab off a can of Yuengling in the middle of the day and heard the hiss of escaping carbonation; she never once complained.
So it was strange that she would this year, after she was gone.
After 25 years, you think you know someone. What she likes. What she doesn’t. What will leave her steaming and you picking up over-priced roses at the drug store at 7 p.m. on a Wednesday night.
But when he settled into the recliner, sinking into the center where a quarter-century of sitting had left a dip, he heard her voice as clear as if she’d walked into the room, dishtowel still in her hands.
“It’s the most beautiful day of the year so far and it’s perfect for gardening and you’re going to sit there all afternoon?” he heard her say. He shifted uncomfortably.
She had never said a word, but now he remembered little things over the years. How she’d open every window in the den if the thermometer read anything over 50 degrees; how she lingered in her faded jeans and that old college hoody of his she’d claimed the winter before their son was born, standing in the doorway watching him until he looked up.
“Did you say something?” He would ask. “No,” she would answer, slowly, and turn away. And he would always shift in his seat, wonder if he’d been supposed to say something else, before the announcers caught his attention and he forgot everything but the pitch and the swing and the call, red dust flying from cleats against greener grass than grew this early anywhere else.
Today he shifted again and wondered what he had missed. She’d never held it against him, though. Other things, yes – she was no more a saint than he was and she held her share of grudges – but not this. This she seemed to understand was nearly his religion.
She was talking again. (Does this happen to everyone? In the deep silence do we all hear what we want to hear again? Do we all start making things up like this? But he didn’t really care to follow the questions.)
“All winter long there’s been a mound of dirt and rocks over my grave and all winter long you promised to tend to it the first spring day we have and now you’re sitting in that decrepit old chair instead?”
He saw her, almost, standing in the doorway, only healthy and strong and so very alive; not the woman whose bed he’d watched for too many long months. She cocked her head and he heard a teasing note in her voice.
“Now what will people think, Bob Paulina, if my gravesite goes to seed the very first year?”
“They’ll think nothing today,” he said aloud and his own voice startled him, reminded him he was talking to a memory. “No one gardens in April, and no one gardens during the Buc’s game,” he added, anyway, because it was a habit now. Talking to himself, like some old man.
“You are an old man,” she said, from far away.
He turned up the volume on the television and finished the beer in his hand, then crumpled the can. The colors on the screen were dull; the announcers droned on and the Pirates weren’t hitting. His knee itched. His hip ached and he shifted his weight to the other, then back. Then suddenly he stood, punching the remote and shutting off the picture.
“Damn it, woman, they let you torment me up there?” he asked aloud, rubbing at the small of his back.
And so he found himself standing over her grave on a sunny early afternoon in early April, turning over the mud and raking out rocks, flattening the mounded earth into a garden bed.
He had thought it would hurt; that each turn of the spade in the soft earth would rip him inside; that regrets for the years she gardened alone and countless other things he’d left undone or unsaid would be uncovered with the red mud; that the missing of her would turn sharp again as he stirred the gash in the earth.
But the sun was shining and the birds were singing and he could hear the game over the car radio, left playing nearby; and he felt more alive, more like the man he used to be, then he had in a very long time.
He finally had something he could do for her.
He thought he heard her laughing again, the way she did whenever she’d begged and nagged him into doing something that, in the end, was for him.
“You just needed a project,” she was saying.
Only of course, she wasn’t. Memories don’t talk.
He stepped out the perimeter of the dirt, measuring the feet and inches, calculating squares of sod to buy at the Agway by the railroad tracks.
On the radio the crowd cheered a homerun.