The old man swept the floor as he had for years, except now the motions of moving the broom back and forth irritated the arthritis in his shoulders, and reaching down for the dust pan brought a groan to his lips. His wife was seated behind the counter. She too found it necessary to sit more than stand, and to move only when the demands of helping a customer required. Her eyes still captured attention, with their light blue clarity and intelligence. She seemed always alert. She noticed now how her husband took longer to finish the daily task of stocking the shelves, writing out orders, reviewing the accounts, and sweeping the floor. She resolved again to discuss the selling of their little market. He was adamant that they should not. What will we do with ourselves? he asked. We can only travel so long, visit the grandchildren so many times, and then we must return home. Will we just sit around the house?
So they continued for years, establishing a routine around the opening and closing of the store. The neighborhood had changed from the early days 30 years earlier. Families had moved out. Gangs and thugs had moved in. Apartments had been taken over by drug dealers. Mothers were afraid to let their children play outside. No one went out after dark. Many of their customers now spoke little English.
A neon sign from the corner liquor store across the street began now began to pulsate into their store window as dusk settled in. The streets were empty. There would be no more business tonight. It’s closing time, his wife said, as she walked toward the door. Just as she reached it, it burst open. A thin man dressed in black, with a black ski mask pulled over his face pushed her violently to the floor. Her husband turned quickly to see the man place the gun over his wife, aiming it at her as he yelled at him: “Empty the cash register!” The old man looked down at his wife, stunned for a minute, but feeling his heart pounding against his chest. He instinctively put up his arms, and walked quickly to the Register. “You can have everything. Take it all, but don’t kill her, please, he pleaded.” His hands trembled. His nervousness seemed to make the robber more nervous. “Hurry up” he demanded. The old man laid all the cash on the counter. The Robber now scooped it up, stuffing it in his pockets. The old man waited. Would they die? He knew it would all be over in a matter of seconds.
Just then his wife began to get up. “No, he wanted to scream. Just stay still on the floor.” She was never one just to stay still. At the same time, the robber began to back away from the counter, he looked back and saw the old woman moving off to the side, out of his path. Suddenly, he turned the gun toward her. She began backing toward the wall, against a shelf of groceries. He fired once, and she was thrown against the shelf, and then collapsed to the floor, cans and boxes falling around her. The robber bolted out the door.
The old man ran to his wife, blood spilling out of her onto the floor. She was gasping for air. He placed his hand over the wound in her chest. He felt the heat of her blood over his fingers. I’ll call 911 he said. Hang on. Help will get here soon. It will be OK. But it wasn’t OK, and he saw her go ashen before his eyes. She looked at him and tried to form a word, but no sound would come out. Then her eyes rolled up, and she no longer was looking at him. He rushed to the phone and called for the paramedics. Then he returned to his wife, and cradled her head in his lap, and began to weep. He wanted to scream, but fought to keep clear headed so that she could get help. He heard the sound of an ambulance or police car in the distance. He knew it was too late. He stood close by as the paramedics took vital signs and sought to resuscitate her. She was not breathing. Still they rushed her to the hospital. He went with her, holding her hand, feeling it grow cooler with each moment.
Months later, he sat under a large oak in the small town square where he grew up. The years from his youth to this day seem suddenly compressed, as though he had just this morning awakened an old man, and yesterday he was riding his bike around this square as a boy of 12. Why had he returned here? He chose to bury her here, far from the city that had devoured her. He chose to be buried here himself, pulled into the grave by his grief, or suspended here, above the grave, by his numbness. For 40 years they had shared life and all its ups and downs. The loss of one child, the exceptional success of a second, and the disappearance of a third to forces they could not grasp in all their evil: drugs that sucked the identity out of a child and rendered a parent’s love helpless.
Now he heard the crows squawking in the trees surrounding the square. It was nearly noon. A few cars moved slowly around the central fountain from time to time, but mostly, he just sat there, on the bench overlooking the plaza, feeling empty. He had done this for days now, as if she might just be in one of those cars coming around the curve, stop at the corner in front of him, and step out to join him for lunch. He would wait here however long it takes, he thought. He would wait here until he died.
Across the street, a mother and child emerged from the corner ice cream shop. The little girl had long braided strawberry hair, and a pink dress now covered with chocolate spots of ice cream. Not far from them, one of the crows boldly pursued a fast food wrapper in the street, narrowly hopping out of the path of a passing pickup truck. The little girl was fascinated by the bird, and darted toward it, her mother catching her just as she entered the street. Grabbing her daughter, the ice cream cone dropped into the gutter. The child looked up for a second bewildered, then began to cry. Her mother pulled her back onto the sidewalk, showing no sympathy.
He would visit the grave again today in the late afternoon, as the day cooled, and a slight breeze came off the lake. He would take a chair with him, sitting by her headstone, and talk with her, talking of the little girl with the ice cream cone, talking to her of his days as a boy in this little town, and talking to how his father would take him fishing in the lake not far from where they were now. He still could not talk to her of the shooting, or of his stubbornness in not leaving the city long before. Maybe one day he would. For now, he only wanted to sit in silence. Even his thoughts were too much noise now. He wanted only the empty quietness to cover everything.
That morning, the dew had settled thickly over everything. The morning sun illuminated the droplets into prisms of light, and they covered the ground everywhere like a field of diamonds. The groundskeeper drove his truck into the area. Pulling to the curb, he removed a lawnmower and gas can from the flatbed. His eyes scanned the work ahead. It was barely 7:00 a.m., but he wanted to complete his work quickly, before the heat of the day. In the distance he saw a figure sitting in a chair. The gates to the cemetery did not open until 8:00.
The groundskeeper used his walkie-talkie to reach his supervisor: “We’ve got a vagrant here—some guy who probably decided to spend the night or who slipped in through the gate as one of us entered this morning. What do I do?” “What’s he doing?” the supervisor asked. The groundskeeper looked more closely. “Nothing, just sitting there, he replied, then added, “Probably sleeping. The crows are gathered all around him, and he’s not moving.” “Check it out, and let me know.” The groundskeeper began walking in the direction of the old man.
When he arrived at the grave, the groundskeeper realized something more was going on. The figure in the chair did not respond when he asked: “Sir, what are you doing here?” The crows scattered. Then he saw the drops of red covering the man’s pink shirt, and saw that the man’s head was dropped against his chest, and that his body was covered with the multi-colored dew of the early morning. One of the man’s frozen hands grasped a bible resting in his lap. The groundskeeper, shocked and puzzled as he was, still felt drawn to look down on the passage: Zephaniah 1:7 was marked in red. Just then, a strong breeze from the lake fluttered the pages, and the bible fell to the ground.
© FXP 2010