Mary and I are sitting in the living room passing parts of the Sunday paper back and forth to each other.
I think this week Im going to the cemetery, I tell her.
OK, thats fine, honey.
I know its fine, Mary. I dont need your permission.
Thats not what I meant, Mary says.
* * *
I met Mary, my second wife, at a support group for people who lost their spouses. Marys husband died of pancreatic cancer three years ago. My wife died eighteen months ago. Mary and I have been married for almost a year.
You OK? Mary says, eyeing me over her newspaper.
Yeah, its nothing.
Honey, do what you have to do.
I know. I know.
We finish the paper. It takes us two hours to read and re-read each and every article. After which I get up and make lunch in the kitchen. Sundays are always spent this way. Reading the paper, then lunch, then a walk, and finally we retreat to our respective studies and prepare for the upcoming work week.
Mary watches as I set out sliced meats, bread, mustard, chopped vegetables. Im stirring soup on the stove.
Smells good, she tells me.
Its just some leftovers.
You make the best vegetable soup. Im still amazed at how comfortable you are in the kitchen.
Im not a chef by any means, but I know what Im doing.
I know you do, she says with a smile.
I smile back and pour the soup into bowls. She takes hers and walks over to the table. I follow. We take turns with the mustard and pickles as we make sandwiches to complement our soup. I chomp down on a carrot stick.
This is so good, she tells me again.
I feel a little silly now. Its just soup and cold-cut sandwiches. She always does this. Mary compliments my Sunday lunches as if they were gourmet creations. At first it was cute, now its annoying. And I dont know why she does it. She tries so hard. I try, too, but not like she does.
So, I say, chewing, you ever go visit Mike, I mean, where hes buried?
Where did that come from?
I dont know, just curious.
Mikes death was no surprise. I had time to accept it. In your case, I cant imagine.
Yep, a little different, I say, bringing the spoon to my mouth.
Mary goes back to eating more soup and dips a pickle into it. Mary is three years older than I am. She wears her hair up all the time because someone once told her she has a beautiful neck.
You know what the hardest part is? I say, looking at a square piece of potato on my spoon.
Whats that, honey?
That I wasnt ready for this, you know? I get a phone call from my brother-in-law saying my wife is dead and, I dont know, never mind.
No, go ahead.
I play it over and over in my head, how it happened, how could it have happened.
It was a car accident.
I know it was a car accident, Mary.
Im sorry. I didnt mean it that way.
I get up and hand wash my plate and screw on lids, twist the mustard shut, and tell Mary Im going to go lie down. She doesnt say anything. Im in that mood where to her I am unreachable. Actually Im fairly calm. Its just the slightest irritation or subtle change is enough to disrupt Marys sense of peace and she deals with it by leaving me alone. I throw myself on the couch and turn on the television. Its baseball season and Im happy to see the Kansas City Royals are playing, although I have no clue who any of the players are. Mary is walking back and forth from the kitchen to her study. I dont know what shes doing. I yell at her—Hey, Mary!—trying to show her that Im OK.
When I was a kid, well, not a kid but fifteen or sixteen I had this breaking ball that I threw. It just dropped out of sight, hung up there for a bit and then boom, it sliced off to the corner of the plate. It was a damn good pitch.
I turn around and look because there is no response. She isnt in the room.
I bet I can still throw it! Loosen up the arm a bit and work on my snap. Technically its probably more like a curveball but coach always called it my breaking ball so thats what I called it.
Its the only pitch I had.
* * *
I went to this support group a few months after Tina died. I went because everyone was telling me I should go. I broke the first rule of the support group the first night I went. Starting new relationships with people in the group was not recommended. Mary was there and we hit it off and that night we got coffee when it was over. Thats the real reason I went, to find someone. I was alone and couldnt handle it. There has to be someone in my life or else I fall apart. I learned that.
Within a matter of days we were spending all of our free time together. We quit going to the group. We met for lunch. I sent her flowers. We took turns calling each other at work. Then we got married. There was no wedding. We decided we had both done it once and didnt need to do it again. We signed the papers at the courthouse and walked away man and wife. She sold her house and we bought a new one. I was living in an apartment at the time, having sold my house a month after Tina died. Mary has a twelve-year-old son, Toby. Tina and I didnt have any kids. Toby spends the weekends at his grandparents.
We have four bedrooms in our house; ours, Tobys, and we each have a study. It looks like every other house in the neighborhood, same color, and same basic design. The neighbors wave and we take care of each others mail when we go out of town.
* * *
Were in bed reading. After the baseball game, I found Mary outside on the deck. She was thinking about things, she told me. So I left her alone and went back inside. Id been in bed for over an hour before she joined me.
When are you going to the cemetery? she says, reaching to switch on her alarm clock.
I think I might go, too.
No, to Mikes.
Going after work? I say.
Or maybe during my lunch hour, I havent decided.
Im going to turn my light out, that OK?
Yeah, Im doing the same, Im tired.
Its completely dark for a few seconds and I feel lost. My eyes adjust, I see the dresser and I turn over and see Mary on her side, away from me.
Are we OK? she says. I sit up on my elbow and try to get her to roll over and face me but she wont.
I dont know, I tell her. I hear her sniff hard and little puffs of breath come out of her mouth and I know shes crying. I roll over on my back and stare up at the ceiling.
Were not OK, are we? she says.
* * *
The next morning I remind her she has a parent-teacher conference at 10:30. The kids are out of school because of this and Toby is still at his grandparents. She tells me she remembered and to have a good day at work. I havent had a good day at work in two years. I finish my coffee and as Im rinsing out the cup, I imagine what would be worse, losing your wife instantly in a car accident or watching her slowly die. Like watching the closing credits in a movie theater, in the dark all by yourself, knowing the moment will come when the screen will go black and you will have to get up and do something. This is how I see Mary, still sitting there in the dark all by herself.
We had been married ten years when she died. Mary and her husband had been married twelve. Mary never talked much about Mike, or the life they had before he died. I didnt say anything about Tina either. We thought we could leave all that alone and it would disappear.
* * *
When I get home from work, Toby is there. Marys not home. Toby is watching television in the living room and throws a hand in the air when I say hello to him. I take off my jacket and throw it across a chair.
Toby, how about we go outside and play catch?
I can tell hes doing this to appease me but thats fine. Toby plays Little League ball in the spring. Hes not much of a player. He plays right field. Occasionally hell get on base but usually he strikes out. His arm is good, though. Ive seen him make some hard throws the few times the ball comes his way.
Ever think about pitching? I ask him as we fit our hands into our gloves and pace off a good distance between each other.
You have a good arm. You have a very smooth motion, a quick release, Ive seen it.
Really? Will you teach me how to throw a curveball?
Eventually I will. Even better, though, Ill show you my breaking ball.
Is that like a curveball?
Its better than a curveball.
We throw it back and forth for half an hour. I show him how to line up his fingers on the seams. This is a fastball, I tell him. For now though, accuracy is your main focus. Just get the ball over the plate or near it every time, I say with a smile. Toby wants to know what a knuckleball is because he heard one of the older kids talking about it. I tell him no one throws that anymore. He asks me if I know how to throw one. I tell him no. What does a knuckleball do, he asks? It skips, jumps, slows downs, speeds up, fish tails, everything—the thing is, you never know what itll do once you release it. This amazes him. It does all that, he asks? Dont worry about that pitch. Youll never be able to throw it and why would you anyway? He doesnt understand me when I say this. Mary pulls into the driveway.
How do you grip a breaking ball? he asks, holding the ball out to me.
Mary doesnt bother parking the car in the garage and instead gets out. I open the back door and pick up her briefcase. She insists she can carry it so I give it to her and take the ball from Tobys hand. You hold it like this, I show him. Hes not impressed. Its all in the release, I try to explain to him. Theres a snap you have to learn.
What does the snap do? he asks.
It makes the ball spin unusually fast and thats where you get the movement.
Where does it move to, where does it go?
It drops down, or breaks away or breaks and falls, it depends. Everyone throws it differently and has different results.
What does yours do? he asks.
It breaks to the left and falls hard, really hard.
* * *
At dinner, Toby tells us about his three-day weekend at Grandma and Grandpas. He talks so fast—and then, and then, and then, he says, listing off all the things he did. Mary and I look at each other and share a quiet laugh. After we eat, Mary tells him to do his homework. He swears he doesnt have any homework. I tell him not to lie to his mother. OK, OK, he says and stomps up the stairs to his bedroom.
I got the dishes, I tell her.
Yeah, yeah. Go relax, I got it.
Dont thank me, OK?
I cant help it.
* * *
Shes already in bed when I go upstairs to the bedroom. She has a book in her face and is wearing her reading glasses. I strip down to my underwear and climb in. I playfully rub my feet up against hers and she giggles.
Quit it. Im trying to read.
Yes. And Im almost done with it.
I kiss her shoulder and rub up against her.
Why not? Because were not right. Thats why.
Why does that mean we cant?
Because we cant.
I nuzzle my face between her shoulder and face, kissing her neck. She shakes me off and sits straight up.
I reach down and grab a book from underneath the bed. I open it and place it in front of me. Im not reading.
Now youre mad? she says.
Im reading, I tell her.
You are mad.
Frustrated, thats a better word, I say.
Frustrated is mad in my book.
She watches me flip the pages. Im looking for a picture, something to focus on. After Ive had the book in my hand for a few minutes, I turn it over and read the title—Flames of Passion. Its one of her romance novels.
Gosh, Ive already read this one, I tell her. Guess Ill call it a night.
I turn off my light and roll on my side, away from her. I close my eyes but Im wide awake. I open them and close them again, thinking this time it will work. It doesnt.
I went to the cemetery today, she tells me. I open my eyes for good.
* * *
She rests the book across her chest.
Do you know, she says, what its like to watch someone you love more than anything in the world die?
No, I dont.
I stop at that, careful not to say the wrong thing.
And then I think, she rubs her eyes, what you went through, and how horrifying that day, that moment must have been. At least Mike and I had the chance to talk, to remember. I dont know what Im saying.
I know what youre saying.
Greg, if you could have seen him. It was awful. He joked that hed be home soon. He told me the night before he died that I was his angel.
I put my hand on her leg.
Im not an angel, she says, then turns to look at me.
Im listening even though I dont want to hear any more.
What was Tina like? Mary says.
Her name almost sounds foreign to me. What do you mean?
What was she like?
As much as I miss Tina, I have to stop and remember her in a way I havent done before.
She liked to laugh. Her laugh is my favorite sound in the world.
I can still remember Mikes laugh. Mary is looking off to the side. Do you remember the first time you kissed Tina?
At a party. Chris Miltons apartment.
Was it magic?
Better than magic.
I sit up in bed and tuck a pillow behind my neck against the headboard.
What did she look like, Mary says.
Fair skin, red hair, green eyes . . . I cant find the right words.
Mike was the most handsome man Id ever met. He had these hands, they were really big but soft, you know? I remember the way Id feel when wed be walking somewhere and hed take my hand into his. I felt so protected, so secure. Did Tina make you feel that way?
She made me feel like everything was arranged the way things were supposed to be. It was when I started waking up after she died and she wasnt there, that I realized how much I needed her. And I thought—
Thought that, oh, forget it.
No, go ahead, tell me.
Thought that anybody could take her place. As long as I woke up and someone was there, I would be fine or have her back in a way.
I know it sounds awful.
I run my hands through my hair. I know better than to look at her. I get up and walk into the bathroom and sit down on top of the toilet lid. I drop my head into my hands and sit, thinking about how I want out of this. And I know, through this door, in the other room, Mary is thinking the same thing. For a while, maybe an hour or more, this is how we exist. Nothing is spoken; nothing is created anew; there is no movement, no path. We dont know what to say to each other and, even more, what do we tell ourselves?
* * *
Eventually I hear Mary moving around in the bedroom. Thats when I open the bathroom door. She asks what I was doing in there. Nothing, I tell her. She sits down on the edge of the bed.
Im going downstairs to get some juice, want anything? I ask her.
She nods her head. I sit down on the bed next to her and count to myself, the drops falling onto my arm.
Sometimes, none of this even feels real, she says.
I tell her, I dont think it is real yet.
* * *
I hold her hand as we walk downstairs. She allows this, but shes not holding my hand back. Mary turns on the kitchen lights and I pour her orange and I pour cranberry for myself. She sits down at the kitchen table, running her finger around the top of the glass.
Mike called me his angel and I never understood that.
Did he always tell you that?
He said he believed in angels the day he met me. And at the time and even now, I guess I dont get it.
Thats too strong of a comparison to make. Im just me, you know?
Youre more than that.
I refill her glass and I continue to sip at mine. She points at the bagels and I put one on a plate for her. I ask her if she wants it toasted. Cream cheese? No, just plain, she tells me. She pinches off bites and delicately chews each piece she puts in her mouth.
I always liked the way he smelled in the morning after he got ready for work, she says.
You know what I loved? I got up before Tina and Id shower and then come back into the bedroom. She always slept on her stomach and the blankets would be pulled back from when I got out of bed. And Id see this big mess of red hair and her bare back all the way down and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Her freckles sprinkled like cinnamon. And Id get to see it every day.
We talk all night and it isnt until we hear Toby in the bathroom upstairs that we realize a new day has begun. Ill make Toby breakfast, I tell her. The toilet flushes upstairs. He comes down with a baseball in his hand.
Greg, can we play catch after school?
I want to be a pitcher. I decided that last night. Mom, I want to be a pitcher like Greg used to be.
Well, I can show you what I know, I say, crossing my arms.
The breaking ball, right?
Yeah, I nod.
I ride along when Mary drops Toby off at school. Im sitting in the back seat. Toby still has the baseball in his hand. I tell him to put it in his backpack before he gets to school. He turns around.
Show me how you grip that pitch again.
I show him as hes getting out of the car.
* * *
Mary drives. I stay in the back seat. I see her glancing back at me in the rearview mirror. I watch the trees and kids and the cars out of the side window. Theres a different way the world looks when you see it in a way youre not used to. Even though the neighborhoods, the streets, the strip centers we pass are all the same, I feel like Im looking at all of it for the first time. I notice, too, that were not going home.
Where are we going?
Yeah, so what?
She looks at me again in the rearview mirror; her eyes are red and reflective.
Im going to drop you off for a little while.
* * *
Mary turns into Royal Gardens Cemetery. She follows the road as it curves left and then right, to the administrative building. She parks the car.
Ill be back in an hour. Is that OK?
I cant move.
Im sorry, she says. Maybe this was a bad idea. She puts the car in reverse.
No, give me a minute. I havent been here since the funeral. I barely recognize the place. But I do recognize the place, every detail, every turn in the road, the faded handicapped parking sign in front of the administrative building.
Greg. Marys mouth stops. She doesnt know what to say. I dont either. Words dont work anymore. They quit working a long time ago.
Ill get out now. I know where it is. Ill meet you back here in an hour.
* * *
Mary drives away and I walk to the street where she is buried. The sun is bright and the humidity has already begun to descend. Its early and Im the only one in the cemetery. I get to section G. I can see where I think her gravestone is from a short distance. I put my hands in my pockets and walk up the small hill. I find it.
Just me, I tell her.
I sit down Indian style in front of her gravestone. I stare at her engraved name. Tina Susanne Werner. I trace her name with my index finger, over and over again. I do this for a long time.
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