by William Michaelian
After buying envelopes and a few other odds and ends, I went to visit Mrs. Fitch at
the cemetery. She was fine, but not really in the mood to talk, so I didn’t bring up Helen Marshall’s decision to move in at the end of the month. I wish I had, though. Mrs. Fitch and Helen have known each other for years — first as teachers in the same grade school, and then of course later on when we lost our dear little grandson, Matthew. That’s when we ran into Helen at the hospital.
I’ll never forget how comforting it was to see a familiar face under those horrible circumstances. Helen was working in the front reception area as a volunteer guide. When the three of us met, she and Mrs. Fitch hugged each other. As it is with old friends, the years they hadn’t seen each other quickly melted into the concerns of the moment. When we told her that our grandson wasn’t expected to live, Helen’s eyes shone with sympathy, and she said quietly so that only we would hear, “What a terrible thing for your family. If there’s anything I can do, please call me.” After hugging my wife again, she squeezed both of her hands and said, “My dear Amanda. It’s so good to see you again.”
As it turned out, Mrs. Fitch didn’t have to call. We saw Helen again at Matthew’s funeral, and then later on at our daughter and son-in-law’s house, where she helped in the kitchen and served a casserole she’d made. That evening she invited us to her apartment for coffee. As tired as we were, Mrs. Fitch and I stayed until after ten, enjoying Helen’s company and the singular relief that comes after a loved one is finally laid to rest.
There were tears, of course. But tears are the surest way back to our old selves. Our grandson was gone, our family would never be the same, so we cried. And by some odd fluke we were still alive, and still able to sit, and drink coffee, and talk, and so again we cried. Chatting together in the peaceful warmth of Helen’s apartment, I couldn’t help thinking how blessed we were to be among the living. At the same time I knew the dead, too, were blessed, for they had earned a kind of rest we can never know.
More than once before she died, Mrs. Fitch insisted that I should remarry. The idea sounded so absurd at the time that I not only told her it was crazy, but absolutely impossible. After fifty-four years of marriage, starting over again with another woman was the last thing on my mind, and — to my thinking, at least — an idea that seemed rude, crude, and grotesque. When I asked her if she would do the same thing if she were in my shoes, she calmly shook her head, then said, “But that doesn’t really have anything to do with it, now, does it. We’re talking about you, not me. And I know you, Homer. You’ll need someone.”
“You’re the one I need,” I said. “I’ve played the game long enough to know that much.”
“But you haven’t been playing it alone.”
“Well, then. I guess I’ll have to learn how, won’t I.”
What I learned, of course, was that Mrs. Fitch was right and I was wrong. But I still marvel at how she knew.
For me, the trip to the cemetery is automatic. It’s just something I do, and I do it often, as many as two or three times a week. I see to it that the area around Mrs. Fitch’s grave is clean and neat, and do my best to bring flowers, though it’s not unusual for me to forget. When I do, Mrs. Fitch doesn’t point it out as some women would. Instead, she asks me how I’m feeling and what I’m doing with myself, and inquires about Matthew’s two older sisters and their mother and father.
Like a true old married couple, even under these circumstances we have a routine. As usual, there are little problems to contend with and scoldings to endure, most of which revolve around matters of dress and personal hygiene. I’m still lousy at deciding what shirt goes with which tie, and to this day Mrs. Fitch lets me have it when she sees I haven’t shaved. For her part, the neighbors are her main source of irritation. Very few, as it turns out, know much about manners, and many people who visit don’t observe the proper cemetery etiquette. Either they talk too loudly or stand directly on the graves, or both. Since I’m free to come and go as I please, it doesn’t bother me that much. But it’s not so easy for Mrs. Fitch, which is why, I think, she wasn’t that talkative during my last visit, and why I didn’t bring up the new arrangement with Helen.
Life is so strange. Here I am, close to eighty years old, and what am I doing? I’m yammering about my dead wife and the pretty gray-haired woman who very soon will take her place — if not in my heart, then at least in my bed. A bed is one thing, I suppose, because people have to sleep — though I’ve also heard other things go on there. But a heart is something else. The thing I have learned about the heart is that no matter how old it is, it can make room for someone new without having to nudge out someone who is already there. That, to me, is a miracle. Anyone who thinks it isn’t is either telling himself stories, or is the victim of bad advertising. Either way, he’s missing out.
You see, the fact of the matter is, I am in love. I am in love with Helen Marshall, who happens to be the old friend of my wife. By luck, fate, or divine meddling, Helen and my wife taught school together, our grandson died, Helen reappeared in our lives, Mrs. Fitch died, I lived, and now Helen and I are going to live together and share the same bed.
I’ve asked Helen if she thinks it will bother her living, as it were, in my first wife’s shadow. Her answer was as beautiful as it was succinct. She said, “You didn’t mind kissing me in front of Earl’s picture, did you?” Earl being her dead husband, of course.
“No,” I said. “In fact, I kind of liked the fact that it was there. If it were me, and it was Amanda who was being kissed, I’d be grateful for her happiness — assuming she was enjoying it, that is.”
A kiss is a funny thing. When I was a kid, the thought of kissing an old woman’s lips was just about the most disgusting thing in the world. Kissing my grandmother’s hairy face on Easter and Christmas was bad enough. Now, I know better. In the movies, kissing is reserved for the young people. This may be expedient in a business sort of sense, but it’s my view that most young people are too keyed up to kiss properly, and that they are much too worried about where the kiss is leading to enjoy it. When old people kiss, on the other hand, we kiss with an autumnal understanding of the world that’s as real and satisfying as the aroma of a fine stew that’s been simmering on the stove all day.
I know this much. I know that, as long as I’m alive, there will be one and only one Mrs. Fitch. Helen and I will marry, but that won’t change a thing. We will sleep together, eat breakfast together, and, I’m sure, tell each other about our aches and pains. We will love each other. But our love will never replace the love my first wife and I shared, and still do share, and it will never replace the love of Helen and Earl.
And why should it?
This much I know. Without Mrs. Fitch, I would have never made it this far, or been this happy. And I’ll still visit her at the cemetery — and, as soon as I can, I’ll tell her all about Helen.
William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.