Two summers ago I looked at the kitchen wall, the one next to the bedroom door, and I pointed at the index cards pinned there and asked about the one that said Dead Folks.
We were all sitting at the kitchen table, Jamie and Tom, and their daughter Alicia, and Mom and I. Mom still had about half of her hearing that summer, and she was paying attention, and I think all of us were smiling.
Jamie explained the Dead Folks. “Those cards are projects,” she said. “Things we need to get done around the place.”
We’d been sisters for–how old was Jamie that year, forty-five, I guess?–and I knew that with her, in her better moods, everything was a joke, but I wasn’t sure what sort of joke this was. Most of the titles on the cards looked like projects, but…
“Okay,” I said, “So you have some neighbors you need to kill? Or have you already offed some of them?”
Jamie laughed. It was a good laugh, and it was good that she had a few left in her that year. Her teeth were gone and her hair was gone and her breasts were gone, but the pain wasn’t too bad, and it was only a few months before they’d be telling her she was cancer-free.
“No, no neighbors,” she said. And then, pointing to a card at the bottom of a column, the other one that hadn’t looked much like a project to me, the one that read Salad, she said, “If there was any homicide on that wall it’d be on this card.”
I might’ve said something or I might’ve just given her a look, but in any case she asked which one I wanted explained first.
Alicia popped up in her chair and repositioned herself to jam one ankle under the other thigh–oh to be fifteen again!–and said “Can I tell her?”
“You mean may I,” said Jamie, “and yes, you may.”
“The Dead Folks don’t need killing because they’re already dead. Didn’t you know we have a graveyard out back, Aunt Helen?”
“If I knew I’ve forgotten.”
“Come here, look,” she said, and launched herself from her seat. She took my hand and led me to the far end of the kitchen, where she positioned me at the sink and pointed out the window. In the scene framed by that window, low and to the right, she pointed to a little crab tree. “If you look real hard you can see one of the gravestones.”
“Right behind the crab tree. I know the weeds are kinda high, but…”
That summer I didn’t hear about that other project, or how salad involved homicide, because Alicia was so eager for me to see the tiny graveyard that she dragged me outside with her, right then, and led me to it, and I forgot the rest of the project wall. There were three headstones, two of them fallen over, and around the whole collection a slumping cast iron fence that stood about three feet high, at least where it was upright.
“So,” I guessed aloud, “the project is to fix this up.”
Yes, Alicia explained, the project was to cut the weeds, and set the stones upright, and weld the fence where it had snapped when Dad hit it with a tractor.
“I guess your mother thinks the dead deserve some respect,” I said.
“Guess so,” said Alicia, and walked us back to the house, stepping lively over the knee-high weeds.
Inside, Tom and Jamie and Mom had moved to the living room, and Mom asked what we’d seen, and I told her, with interruptions and embellishments from Alicia. Mom was in a good mood–I guess we all were–and she asked if the dead folks ever visited. And Tom and Alicia told us ghost stories. Sometimes there are faces that appear at the windows, but they aren’t looking in, they’re just walking by. They just walk past the north living room window, or Tom and Jamie’s bedroom window. And then they’re gone.
But Jamie said more. “Well, there was that one time, all three of them came knocking at the front door, and they said the ground was awful hard out there, and didn’t we have some blankets we could spare? Or an old sleeping bag, or–“
Alicia had pulled a sofa pillow out from behind herself and thrown it at her mother, which ended the yarn.
* * *
Learning about the salad project was left for last July.
That was a much harder visit than the year before. Jamie’s hair had grown back thin, and she was in a lot of pain, pain everywhere, and although they hadn’t told her the cancer was back, I suspected they weren’t looking very hard.
She had slowed down, and only a few of the project cards had come off the wall. Salad was still there, and so was Dead Folks, and I asked about the former. She told me she’d been wanting to put in a little vegetable patch, close to the house on the east side, just a couple of small salad beds. But in this part of Kentucky there’s only a quarter inch of soil over the limestone, and you really have to amend the dirt a lot to get anything to grow.
“So,” she said, “about five years ago I marked out where I wanted the beds, and I tilled up a mess of the soil in the pasture, and Alicia and I put it in wheelbarrow loads and dumped it on the salad beds. But that was already July so it was too late to plant anything that year.”
The next spring, she told me, when the snow was barely off the ground, Tom had brought home a load of junk, and the barn was too full of other junk to hold the new junk, so he just dumped it on the area where the salad beds were supposed to be. He assured her that he’d have it cleared off by planting time, but then his back acted up and the summer went by and the beds went unplanted.
The next year she was all over him, and the junk was gone by mid-March, and she spread the beds with straw mulch. She was thinking about buying some seeds when Tom bought a big old truck and parked it over those beds.
Among that truck’s problems was that it wasted oil every which way, burned it, threw it, belched it and farted it and gave it away to charity. Tom was going to fix the truck up, and of course that meant getting underneath it, and the straw on those beds looked like a nice soft place for a man with a bad back to lie down under a truck.
“I told him that was nonsense,” said Jamie, “said if he was gonna get underneath of that thing it would be on a creeper in the driveway. But he said he didn’t know when he’d get under it and in the meantime he wanted the driveway to have its options open. Well I was damned if I was gonna let another year go by with no salad beds, so when he was away at a meeting in town I hooked up a winch to the big ash tree and pulled that truck off my beds. Which I then found out were drenched in crankcase oil.”
Jamie and Alicia, the story went on, scraped the oily earth off the lime hardpan and hauled in another load of good stuff from the pasture, and Jamie would’ve had her salad beds but her chemo started about then and her energy was low, and another growing season was lost. And in the winter Jamie told Tom that if another year went by without her beds she’d be fertilizing her spinach with the ground-up ass of her lamented husband.
* * *
This summer I felt I couldn’t take Mom on another long road trip, not by myself. She’s too old to help with much of the driving, and the last two years I got no work done on the road, while journals were waiting for articles I didn’t write until September, and this year I just couldn’t do it again.
But Jamie died in April, and I didn’t want to just fly Mom out for the funeral, so I talked to Tom and we made some arrangements. Alicia had her learner’s permit, so I flew her out to Boulder and she went with us and did most of the driving.
We stopped and saw some relatives along the way, but our first major stop was back in Kentucky. We’d scheduled a memorial for Jamie for early July, so all the relatives with school-age kids could come from all over the country. Mom and Alicia and I rolled in three days before the memorial, and I almost cried at the prospect of what we’d have to do to put the place in order.
The weeds hadn’t been cut since first thaw, and were head-high everywhere. We’d have to leave the back of the place alone, but Alicia could mow the front, and she did, while I cleaned up the porch and inside the house.
When we had time to sit with Tom and talk, he and Alicia sang out of the same hymnal about what an everlasting bitch Jamie had been. I stewed and steamed in fury. Yes, she’d been in pain much of the time since the cancer had hit, and especially the last year and a half. But Tom made out that she’d been horrible for fifteen years, ever since he’d moved them here from Chicago. She’d never wanted to live in Kentucky, he said, and was always sour about it.
That a very hard three years might’ve distorted his view didn’t surprise me. But Alicia sat and nodded and echoed everything he said, and inwardly I raged.
More than that, I worried. With Jamie gone, and even before, as she was fading from them, had Alicia and her father become too entangled? I worried, but at least he was letting her take this trip with me, so if they were entangled, it probably wasn’t pathological.
The memorial came and went, and we put Mom in the backseat in her little shell of deaf oblivion, and Alicia and I drove us up the eastern seaboard seeing all the relatives who hadn’t made it to Kentucky.
We read to each other. We got through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and a good bit of The Horse’s Mouth, and then around Boston, when I was driving and Alicia was reading aloud, she stopped and asked why I, as a poetry teacher, wasn’t having us read poetry. I was delighted, of course, and I named a few we might read. She said she liked Robert Frost, and asked if we could read some Frost together. She got out her cell phone and prepared to Google. I asked her if she knew “Home Burial”.
She found the poem online and scanned it silently.
Before I asked her to read it, a thought occurred to me and I asked, “Was that a tasteless suggestion?”
“Why would it be?” she asked.
“Well… your mother…”
“Oh, it’s okay,” she said, and she read the poem to us. I let her read it through, and then we went back over it slowly, and I prompted her to note Frost’s choreography, what the bodies of characters were doing. She read it carefully, and interpreted it well.
“He can’t stand being in the down position,” she said. “He starts at the bottom of the stairs, below her, when she’s looking out at the graves, but then her fear threatens him and he comes up until he looms over her. He wants to be her biggest fear.”
“What are the conflicts within him?” I asked.
“Let’s see… I guess he really loves her, but when he sees they can’t connect, the only thing he can fall back on is force. Even if he doesn’t dare to say it until the end…” she paused and found the place and read:
“I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!–“
Alicia looked up and out at the road and went on. “Even if he won’t say it till the end, force is there all along.”
“Is it his fault they can’t connect?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Is it okay just to say it’s the fault of the connection?”
The question wasn’t one I’d ever thought to ask in class, and I didn’t know why I’d asked it now. I didn’t know until were were through with Boston and Newark and Pittsburgh and were back in Kentucky.
And I was in their kitchen and overwhelmed with how much work needed to be done and how little Tom was able to do, and how with the tractor dead, Alicia couldn’t be expected to mow everything back of the house by the time school started in three days. Even the front had gotten overgrown again while we were on the road.
And Frost and his farmer and the farmer’s wife Amy were with me in the kitchen, where I stood at the sink washing dishes, and Tom sat at the kitchen table and complained about my sister, and I wanted to slap him. And Alicia’s words came to me: Maybe it’s the fault of the connection.
And it occurred to me that he didn’t resent Jamie for all the years she’d kept the farm barely going while he moaned about his back, or how she hadn’t always been sweet about it. But he couldn’t say what he did resent: that she had abandoned him. What he really wanted was what Frost’s farmer wanted, and more. In Tom’s case, he wanted to do better than Orpheus or Gilgamesh, and break the bonds of the underworld. “I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!”
And I knew that in the morning, after some sleep and a little more time, my jaw would unclench and I would know in my bones what now I knew only with my forebrain, that Alicia was right. It’s the fault of the connection.
Now, though, I can’t feel this. I can only feel I’m Amy, that before me is a window, and a fear. And below me is Tom. And will he see my fear and fear it? Will he rise and tower over me?
Does he see how I see how the grass grows tall over the dead folks?
# # #
Max Christian Hansen is a management consultant who also writes and edits for business publications. His business journalism has appeared in Harvard Business Review and Quality Progress, the journal of the American Society for Quality. Other work has appeared in Earthlight, the Quaker environmental journal, and in Best of Earthlight. He writes literary and speculative fiction, and his poetry has been professionally published.
Photo: Kae Sable