As he stood at the edge of Millie’s grave, the misty weather seemed right. The diffused light softened everything. A soft end to a tumultuous life was proper. The grass underfoot, revitalized by the damp weather, made a quiet statement about the continuance of life. That felt right too. He stood there, savoring the rightness.
The others were not sharing his feelings. The Funeral Home people had packed up their paraphernalia and left. The kids had gathered up their families and left. Only the pastor remained—and the men who would fill the grave, standing, a respectful distance away.
He didn’t know, or care, how long he had been standing there when he sensed the Pastor’s gloved hand on his shoulder.
“Mike, how about a cup of coffee?” asked the voice of empathy.
“No thanks,” Mike answered, “I’m not going anywhere for a while.”
“Will you be at the office later?”
No, he wouldn’t be at the office later. His receptionist had offered to book appointments for the afternoon because “keeping busy might be a good idea.” He didn’t need busy. She wouldn’t understand and neither would the Pastor. “I’ll give you a buzz later on,” he lied to give the clergyman a graceful exit.
He beckoned to the men with shovels. “You guys go ahead with your work. Don’t mind me.” As they approached, he eased himself down onto a wet bench. Shovel full by shovel full, the dirt resounded against Millie’s coffin. The sound was right; there was a finality about it.
He stretched out his right foot and rested it on the heel. These days, it was bothering him more, but today, the discomfort wasn’t unwelcome. It reminded him of the first time he had seen Janice. Strange, he thought, to be reminded of another woman while sitting in front of his wife’s grave. Most people wouldn’t understand. Somehow, though, enjoying that memory also seemed right.
Over thirty years ago, while sitting miserably on the school steps with that foot wrapped in an elastic bandage, he noticed Janice walking in his direction. Somehow, he knew she was headed for him.
Lately, the guys in his crowd had been talking less about model airplanes and more about girls. He hadn’t been ready for it. The talk had moved girls from category inconsequential to category formidable.
At that moment, his foot hurt and he feared the hospital visit. The idea of a girl talking to him was terrifying.
She walked right up to him and said simply, “Foot hurt?”
“Yeah,” he said stupidly, “nurse’s called the ambulance—gonna have it X-rayed.” He began to shake.
“X-ray doesn’t hurt,” she offered, “and the people there are real nice to you.”
As he sat there, in the mist, in front of the grave, decades later, he could still recall the wave of emotion sweeping over him. The other guys would have regaled him with tales of horror, but this person—a girl yet—was trying to make it easier. It had been an odd sensation, but quite pleasant.
“You been X-rayed?” he asked.
“Coupla times, nothin’ to it.”
“Mikey,” the nurse asked as she descended the steps with a pair of crutches in her hand, “do you know how to use these?”
“I do,” Janice said, taking the crutches from the nurse. “I’ll show him. Uh, he’s kinda scared. If you think it’s ok, I could go with him. My mother’s at work, 656-8932, if you want to clear it with her.”
He had been enthralled. It was just the way his mother would have taken charge, knowing exactly what to do to make things easier. But this person was one of his peers—they rarely made things easier.
At the hospital, it had been wait for X-ray and then wait for the doctor, but he hadn’t minded. She was fun to talk with. The guys his age were not. You had to be careful—they ridiculed anything. With her, it didn’t happen. Unguarded conversation outside of the family context was a new experience and, most enjoyable.
During the whole time, he had been trying to place her. He had seen her in some context other than school, but it had eluded him until the doctor was putting the plaster cast on his foot. Mr. Watts—she was Mr. Watts’ daughter! His dad had made a big deal of hugging and addressing Mr. Watts as “Brother Watts” when they were co-hosts for the inter-church famine relief drive.
The cast had dried by the time his dad arrived. He walked into the room apologizing, but stopped short when he saw Janice there.
“Dad,” Mike started, trying to break the awkward silence, “you remember Mr. Watts’ daughter, don’t you? She’s been keeping me company. S’pose we could give her a ride home?”
His dad had looked at the floor as he replied, “Well, ah, your mother expects…”
” It’s all right,” she said as she gave Mike a conspiratorial wink and skipped out of the room.
After school the following day, he was wondering how to handle both books and crutches when she walked up.
“Hi. Carry your books?”
“Thanks. Mom’s pickin’ me up, but I could use some help out to the car.” As she gathered his books, he added, “Isn’t this supposed to work the other way? I mean, me carry your books?” They both laughed.
He was both surprised and pleased with the witticism. It was fun to laugh without laughing at someone—like the guys did.
She started to excuse herself as she put his books in the car, but he was already asking his mother to give her a lift home. Mom had swallowed, looked trapped, and agreed.
He knew that no families like hers lived in his neighbourhood, but he hadn’t realized—until that afternoon—that they had a neighbourhood of their own.
During the next few weeks, they were inseparable.
His parents were high on social justice and down on prejudice. They had done a good job of imparting those values; he saw no reason not to spend time with Janice. His Mom and Dad never actually said anything, but the atmosphere around home changed in subtle ways. It took him a while to associate the change with Janice. When he admitted to himself that they did not like his seeing her, an element of trust vanished. It was like he was seeing two strangers.
Then, there was trouble with the guys. They had teased him about his “girlfriend” and kept pressing him regarding whether he had “done it” with her. She certainly was his friend—probably the only person in the world with whom he really “clicked,” but the connotations of “girlfriend” disturbed him. He had only the vaguest concept of “it” and when she had explained “it” to him, he was certain that there was no place for “it” in their relationship.
In addition, she had confided that the time she spent with him was causing some rumblings within her family. So, they began to meet on the sly.
The workmen stole questioning glances at Mike as he sat on the damp bench and smiled, but his smiles had nothing to do with them or the grave. He was remembering those secret meetings.
The need to avoid scrutiny had added an aura of excitement and mystery to their relationship.
They visited museums, libraries and exhibits of all sorts for the opportunity to walk and talk and say what you wanted and, sometimes, to enjoy not having to say anything. Functions devoted to the arts were particularly suitable since “arty” people delighted in the young “mixed” couple. Although their parents realized what was going on, they preferred to ignore it.
Their conversations wandered freely over any topic. When Mike’s attitude toward sex changed, the discussion was as natural as any other. He didn’t remember how he had introduced the subject, but her reply was still crystal clear.
“Mike,” she began, looking evenly at him across the diner table, “are you ready to take responsibility for my emotional well being?”
At fifteen, he didn’t feel ready to be responsible for himself, so the thought of somehow being responsible for a sixteen-year-old girl was sobering indeed.
“That’s the way it is,” she continued, “if we get sexually involved, I will feel you have a responsibility toward me. It’s not something I can control. It’s a woman’s normal response to sex.”
He was pensive for a while and then offered, “You mean, it’s kinda like sex is an end for us while you guys look at it as a beginning?”
Her smile told him they were communicating. She shrugged and said, “Biologically, that’s what happens, isn’t it? It’s a relief for you, but it could start the biggest adjustment I’ll ever have to make.”
He began to feel ashamed and looked down at the table. “Sorry, never thought of it that way,” he mumbled.
She reached across the table, grabbed both his wrists and gave them a jerk. She laughed and said, “Of course you didn’t, silly. Guys never consider that end of things. That’s why most women regard men as inconsiderate clods.”
Her grip on his wrists tightened. He looked up. Tears were filling her eyes.
“What?” he stammered.
“God, I love the way you really listen,” was all she said.
By the time she was a junior in high school, Janice had developed into a knockout. When she was a gangly adolescent, he had thought her the most beautiful thing in his life, so her blossoming comeliness had nothing to do with his suggestion that they date like other couples when he entered high school.
She rested her head on his shoulder for several minutes before replying, “I can’t.” He held her and stroked her hair without asking why because he realized she would continue when she was ready. He felt her tears through his sweater when she said, “It’s the brothers. They wouldn’t like it and I can’t afford to lose their homecoming queen vote.”
He had understood. They referred, between themselves, to their respective racial groups as “your kind” and “my kind.” The males of her kind considered one of their girls dating his kind a snub to them as a group. The several girls competing for queen would be a mixture of both “kinds.” A lot of people would cast votes simply for their “kind.”
During her senior year, Janice had decided it was time to go public with their relationship. However, the coach had cautioned Mike about “that girl you are seeing.” It seemed the coach had no prejudices, no personal feelings about the matter, but “others” just wouldn’t be able to stomach the captain of the team in such a controversial context. So, if he wanted to remain a candidate for a leadership position… She had said she understood.
After graduation, she had modeled and studied journalism. His junior and senior years had been week long scrambles to juggle schoolwork and sports so he could see her during the weekend.
After Mike entered university, things were easier. She had secured a nice job in the same town—which was several hundred miles from home. It was another conversation he remembered as though it had happened yesterday.
“Well,” she said, after the greeting kiss, “are we finally going to do it?”
“Do what?” he answered mischievously.
“Well, get an apartment for starters,” she rejoined, hugging him.
“I don’t think so,” he whispered. He loosened his grip. She pushed away to see his face. There had been fear in her eyes. “Have you considered the disadvantage our children will begin life with?” he said softly. The words “our children” took the fear from her eyes, she lowered them and nodded. “Also,” he continued, “do you remember telling me how your mom thought she couldn’t look at an undressed man without getting pregnant?” Both her smile and nod had been mere flickers. He gently lifted her chin so their eyes met. “We can’t do it to them—I mean take the chance before marriage—can we?” he said.
She had kissed him fiercely and said “Damn,” but she had understood.
Summer breaks had turned out to be the real downer. His dad’s buddy, Julius Thiebold, had offered him summer work.
The crunch came during the late winter of his senior year. A rather militant ethnic publication had offered Janice the fashion editor’s position. It referred to his kind as “whitey.” Nobody on the staff was married to a “whitey.” It made sense to postpone their marriage for a year. A reference from an established magazine on her resume would assure Janice of a decent job if anything happened to him. In addition, it would give him a few months to settle into the business world. Yes, it had made excellent sense. They were elated at first, but he descended into a blue funk after she left.
Accepting the invitation to go skiing with Mr. Thiebold and his daughter Millie during spring break had been a desperation effort to break out of the funk. Who had seduced who? He still didn’t know. All he could remember was thinking afterward, through the alcoholic fog, The first time was supposed to be with Janice.
Two months later, the episode had seemed like a bad dream and probably would have taken its place with his other nightmares if Mr. Thiebold hadn’t confronted him with Millie’s pregnancy.
Instead of berating him, Mr. Thiebold had been very understanding, offering him a position with his firm and assistance in getting established if he were of a mind to “do the right thing.”
Mike had made no pretence. There had been no promise “to love” in the vows, but nobody noticed amid a lavish wedding. Janice, of course, had not attended the wedding. She had said that she understood.
Millie ignored his attempts to explain his relationship with Janice.
Mr. Thiebold made certain that his little girl lacked for nothing as she set up her household.
Mike had plunged headlong into the activities of his father-in-law’s firm. Mr. Thiebold interpreted it as gratitude. Actually, Mike had worked hard to prevent himself from thinking about what might have been. He had worked equally hard at being a good dad, and, with less success, at being a good husband. Husbands were supposed to be in the business of making their wives happy. He could never figure out what it took to make Millie happy—a matter that seemed to elude everybody else as well. When a crisis was swirling around her, she seemed to approach happiness. And, he soon discovered that she was quite adept at turning every event into a personal crisis. One of her brothers had dubbed her “Crazy as a shit-house rat.” Although the connection between a rodent’s mental state and its place of habitation eluded him, the tone of the saying seemed an apt description.
As is typical with most basket cases, Millie’s involvement with raising their son, Jared, had been minimal.
Mike had thrown himself into the dad business with such fervour that thoughts of Janice, and what might have been, became less and less frequent—until she appeared at the front desk asking for an appointment with him.
He told the receptionist to send her right up and instructed his secretary to clear his calendar for the next couple of hours.
The old feelings—and longings—had flooded him as Janice walked through the door. She looked around. “Corner office with a sofa and credenza, you’ve done all right for yourself. Are you a full partner?” Her tone was playful.
“Nothing like that,” Mike replied, moving from behind the desk. “Please, have a sit,” he said motioning toward the sofa. “I’m not even a lawyer.” He moved the overstuffed chair that was in front of his desk so that it faced the sofa across a low coffee table. “I’m more like a highly paid flunky,” he said with a grin as he took the chair. “Old Man Thiebold has people doing all kinds of law. I sort of keep everything working together. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
She smiled. “Love to Mikey, but I haven’t much time.” Her expression turned grave. “I didn’t think you could see me right away. The truth is, I’m in trouble. I need your help.”
“Oh? Uh… Sure. What’s up?”
“You knew I married?”
“I wish I could have sent congratulations. Kids?”
“None, thank God. And, I’m glad you couldn’t send congratulations. He’s turned out to be abusive and crazy jealous. I’ve got to get a divorce. That’s why I’m here. I know this firm doesn’t do domestic law, but I’m hoping you can recommend someone.”
As soon as Janice left, Mike instructed his secretary to clear his calendar for the rest of the day. Then, he started making calls to lawyers and arranging for a safe house. Late in the day, Mr. Thiebold burst, unannounced, into his office. “I hear you were talkin’ with some darkie gal in here.”
Accustomed to such outbursts, Mike looked up, unperturbed. “Her name is Janice Watts. I knew her in school. She wants a divorce—was asking if I could recommend someone.”
“Well, drop it. Them darkies have their own set of problems. We don’t deal with their kind. We’re not getting involved. Izzat clear?”
Millie had worsened after Jared left for university. By the time he completed his junior year, she was on a roller-coaster of weight gain and diets. Her physician had warned her that a heart weakened by rheumatic fever wouldn’t handle much of that, but she had seemed convinced that her anxieties were related to weight.
It was a year or so after Jared received his degree that Thiebold called Mike into his office. As Mike walked in, Thiebold waved a newspaper. With bushy eyebrows drawn together, he growled, “That black you were seeing in school—seems she wrote a book!”
Even though Thiebold hadn’t offered Mike a chair, he took one anyway, crossed his legs, and leaned back. “That ‘black’ has a name. It is Janice Watts, and yes, I believe she has written a book.”
Thiebold thrust the paper at Mike. “Well, look at this!”
Mike reached, took the paper, and scanned the article. “I see,” he mused.
Thiebold’s face became red. “What you see there is that she got into a tiff with her publisher, sued him, and got one helluva settlement.”
“Good for her.” Mike’s voice was expressionless.
A vein stood out on Thiebold’s forehead. “You,” he pointed a finger at Mike. “You had an inside track on this! You must’ve known this was happening. Why didn’t we get the action?”
Mike had sat back, recrossed his legs, adjusted the way the crease in his trouser leg lay, and looked at his fuming boss/father-in-law. “Not so many years ago, you said to me, ‘Them darkies have their own set of problems. We don’t deal with their kind.’ ”
The mist became a light drizzle. Mike shivered and drew his overcoat around his neck while he watched the workmen smooth the mound. The tremor was not cold-induced. He always shivered at the approach of the next memory.
He’d harboured a secret hope that Millie would relax and learn to enjoy life once Jared was on his own. Instead, the empty-nest syndrome became a permanent crisis upon which she piggy-backed other crises. It had almost been his undoing. He hadn’t reacted well. For relief, he experimented with infidelity, drugs, and alcohol. A long-time employee provided his salvation. He recalled the conversation as if it were yesterday.
“Mike, you got a minute?”
“You bet Rog. Come in and have a sit.” Roger had run the firm’s property transactions desk since before Mike had entered the picture. After many years of faithful service, Roger had emerged as a fountain of uncommon good sense. He was now a regular member of policy discussions and things had been “underway” to make him a partner. The reason for this visit put Mike in shock.
“Mike, I have to resign. I’d like to leave as soon as you can arrange to do without me.”
“What?” Mike stammered. “I’d no idea you were unhappy. We can fix whatever is troubling you.”
“I’m not unhappy, Mike. Working here is great. You guys are wonderful people. It’s the wife. The cancer is back. It’s all downhill from here and I belong with her as things progress.”
“We can help with getting her treatment! There are those clinics in Mexico! Whatever she needs, we can help.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that, but it’s no go. The cancer is all through her lymphatic system. It’s only a matter of time. She doesn’t have any fight left in her. What she needs now is me. I need to be available twenty-four-seven.”
“But…” Mike spread his hands. “Your retirement…”
Rog smiled. “Yeah, I know. It’ll blow my retirement plan. But whatever it takes, I need to be on hand to take care of her needs. I want the last words she hears to be me telling her how much I love her. I have no way of knowing when that’ll happen, but I’ll be with her when it does.”
Mike sat back, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly “Uh, our employee coverage extends to stress leave. I’ll get the paper going so that your pay will continue for however long they pay; I think it’s about six months or so.” Further words failed him.
“Thanks Mike. I hadn’t thought of that. You are really a decent human being.”
The remark almost caused Mike to choke. Decent human being indeed! The company could easily afford to give old Roger time off with pay. He just didn’t have the backbone to fight Julius Thiebold for it. In fact, wasn’t that the problem in a nutshell? He’d never had the backbone to stand up to his father-in-law for anything. Even though he’d been running the business for the last dozen years, Mr. Thiebold still owned fifty-five percent of it. Hell, he hadn’t even protested when Thiebold willed his share to Millie and Jared.
As Mike stood up, water ran off the brim of his fedora. He shook his head remembering how Millie had gone downhill during the last few years. He was glad she’d lived long enough to see Jared’s son born last week.
The workmen had left. He’d seen it through to the end and that was right. He stuffed his hands into his coat pockets as he walked away and fingered the envelope. It had come with all the sympathy cards, but it contained only a business card—her card. It read, Janice Watts—editor. On the back, “Home: 2833 Ringwood Drive, 539-7750” appeared in her neat hand. He knew exactly where he was going, and it wasn’t to the office. Where he was going would make Thiebold mad as hell. Mike didn’t doubt that it could cost him his share of the firm and a lot more. So what? Going forward, somebody other than Janice could do the understanding.
– end –