Having a police badge had given me the privilege to call up people I didn’t know. All I had had to do was tell them, either when I reached them by voice or by leaving a message tucked away on their telephone answering system which may or may not have notified them instantaneously of my calling them, that I had had a wish to speak. Whether I had placed a telephone call to the proprietor of a saloon or an atavistic candy store filled with bonbons, or to a suspected chimney burglar, it made no difference at all to me. Over the years I rose in rank, retired, and spent afternoons working as a landscape laborer, raking the lawns of neighbors as a hired hand. My pension was never spent, never exhausted, and when the catarrh hit me I was as much surprised as anyone. The denouement was quick. In just weeks I was chewing on food as though it were ashes and gravel. Several rifles with painted white stocks fired their bullets high at an angle to commemorate me. At the outskirts of the funeral service was a man I had once warned decades prior and a woman together, standing arm and arm, who had telephoned the station and been connected to me in a panic once, with thin but empty smiles on their faces now.
After four years she told him that the sparkle she had hoped would happen didn’t. He went to pick up his pajama tops, his bicycle in the garage, and a handful of crystals that did.
I’d changed all the picture places in my house with one another: the daft old woman with the young, blue-eyed fresco; the landscaped lake with the pillows on the dresser; the Spanish seamstress with the Finnish rocks; the mask of evil with the hairless juggler. I switched them, changed them all.
The bed sheets on my bed, I tore them all. I tore to shreds the tiny rosebuds, pink and soft. I shredded three sets of pure white cottons and dumped them outside in a heap. My clownish purple, polka-dotted ones I’d kept for Whitsunday, I cut apart with scissors. Even the gold ones, sewn for Cleopatra, I ripped to garden rags.
All my hats that I had worn for years, I tossed them too. My lucky Filson, I gave away to a stranger in his cups. Three straw ones I set beside fallen scarecrows in three empty autumn fields. My others, whose styles I won’t mention, like pints of blood, I donated to Good Will.
Anything I had to remind me of you, I was beside myself. Grief with Anger. Sadness with Guilt. Joy with Misgivings. Anxiety with Pleasure. I had crossed and crossed myself so many times, I became embedded with my lustrous poverty, almost barren through such eroded wealth.
There are so many things when I am walking that I no longer touch. I may see a leaf or I may see a stone, and these objects in the woods are so lovely I want to take them home. But I have learned to keep my hands still at my side. I have learned to see with my mind better, and look with my eyes. Even dead forked sticks that have fallen from far above, once I had sought to clean them up as I might clean up debris. But these suspended branches are really just hanging there in balance for a time. Nobody could position them as they are. Human hands are really no good for this. Instead, how long will this be so? Instead, what breeze is that? Instead, what life will bring a man at times to walk like this, and what events befallen him just as softly, gently sometimes to his knees?
Time ago it was he had said to his father, “You fail me yet again.” And the father looked around at all the leaves of all the basil plants, all of them a foot taller than his son was then, all having blackened overnight. He had meant to let them grow. He had meant to let them reach their fullest height. He had meant to harvest the leaves when they were at their plentiest. He had done this before. He had done this before that. The point was in planting the basil, and so much of it, to make homemade pesto. But the putting off of collecting the leaves until October allowed the chill of one night alone to ruin the crop, and the boy just pointed out as a boy will do his dashed hopes in his father, a man he so deeply believed in. Since then, the father never failed once to harvest the basil when the leaves were ripe. The yearly stores of pesto, which the two ate fresh, and which in small plastic containers the father froze, they enjoyed over the years, summer after summer. These yearly gardening successes continued. Many other things were allowed to wither. Many other things blackened, some of them overnight, some of them over an entire season, some of them took years of time. When the father himself had been very young he traveled the world and took with him a handful of paperback books, one of them belonging to his own father. He kept close to himself this line inscribed upon his heart from one—“More mischief comes into the world through misunderstanding and neglect, rather than malice or wickedness; the latter two, at any rate, are rarer.” I can’t today say a thing about the ashes of the living, but I know a thing or two about blackened leaves of the dead. And if there is a remaining sorrow in my bones, that grief must be for a little bit of green innocence my wishes for the future had left behind there.
There are places I have known, and regardless of my affections and whatever leanings, this way or that, which I may also have, the somber reminder is there. Cattle die. Kinsmen die. All men are mortal. So said, I read once in a fearsome kids’ book I have never found again, the Viking. When this is seen, not as a marble monument in Washington, nor as some great waxen get-up lying in state in Moscow, but off upon the grassy roadside in the prairie fields of America, death by the wayside strikes another note which is neither religious nor symbolic.
There is instead the blanched grouping of seven well-arranged crosses, none of these lives crucified atop a Roman hill, but all them at once talking, swearing and laughing, teasing each other and probably gossiping about the evening, just enjoying the open speed of the open country in a car together at night, just all slipped away at once. All together. Just like that. Very quietly. These sad reminders are, in fact, everywhere out West in the U.S. They are not anomalies. They are not rare at all. They are there at just about any small bridge or cement-walled overpass you see while driving, clusters of white beautiful crosses, like bright white wildflowers planted by many different pairs of caring human hands grieving across the plains of America.