This story is by Nathan Cross and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Graying weathered porch boards creaked as the couple see-sawed in their Carolina rockers. The few remaining pumpkins and wheat shocks glimmered against the western sky.
Hartwell was carved on the back of his chair. Beulah on hers. Each chair, bowed through decade’s long use, formed a custom fit for them both.
“Honey bunch, this rocky chair is sure comfy. Kind of like you and me all these years–comfy.”
It escaped Hartwell’s mind he said that three minutes ago. Beulah didn’t mind. She could listen to him say it a hundred times a day. She sometimes did.
“Millie,” he cooed, “such a purty sunset. Cain’t hold a candle to you though.”
“Aww Hartwell, your eyes are getting ’bout as bad as your memory…and it’s Beulah dear.”
Hartwell couldn’t see her wearing of the years if he’d been looking through a magnifying glass. His eyes may have seen the sun crinkled skin, liver spots and thinning hair, but that image never translated to his brain.
“Not looking with those eyes darlin’.”
“I know, you’re using those ‘Jesus Eyes’ ain’t ya?”
“Yep, after ‘ceptin the Lord to my heart, I found out He don’t see me the same way as before. He don’t see no spot, nor wrinkle. That’s how I’m seeing you. Besides, look at these autumn colored trees. The closer they get to dyin’ the purtier they get, like us.” Beulah heard that many times as well.
“Think Eugene will visit before winter sets in?”
“Honey, don’t you remember, Eugene never came home from that Vietnam? I put the flag they gave us up on the mantle so’s you wouldn’t forget.”
“Oh… yeah… the flag. I do remember one thing. I asked him not to go, but he said, ‘it’s important, Pa’ and off he went. I remember Congressman Henchel writing that letter sayin’ they was sending him back so’s he could help ’round the farm. Shouldn’t he be here by now?”
“Getting chilly, Hartwell, let’s get your sweater on.”
“Did we have a good life?” he asked.
“Sure Hartwell, a good life,” she replied, helping him on with his sweater.
Sadly, Eugene’s death all but extinguished their heart fire, leaving embers where flames once blazed. Beulah breathed on those fading coals each anniversary. Sometimes they’d flare up, sometimes not.
Outliving Eugene was something Hartwell never recovered from. He stopped loving life the day two Army sergeants delivered the news. He refused the death gratuity, which could have saved the farm. “They spilt his blood once,” he said, “I’ll have no truck with spillin’ his blood money on the ground he was born. I’ll go on the county first. It’s not right; his life never even got started.”
Beulah pulled out her journal. “What ya got there?” he asked, as she turned to a blank page and wrote in the date.
November 20, 2017
“My journal,” she told him.
“Oh, is it time to change the number again?” he asked.
“Yep, nice that you remembered. I know yer’ hands are hurtin’” she said, “so I wrote the title part. You just have to write the year’s number in okay?”
He smiled that adoring smile that appeared too few times these last years. He took the journal, studied the incomplete sentence she had started and wrote 67 years and —in front. He closed the book, tapped it on his chin, then let it rest there. He stared at the half-swallowed sun and said, “Not just our anniversary is it? When did ya say Eugene was coming? Do you need help preparing his room? I can help some if ya need.”
“No, honey, I took care of that yesterday,” she lied, turning to her favorite page of the journal.
November 20, 1957
Great day! It’s our seventh anniversary. Hartwell was so sweet and romantic. Took me to dinner at the Dutch Pantry. He wrote me a poem. Called it, “Seven Years and You’re Still a Dream Come True.” He paid the Billy Hills Bluegrass Band ten dollars and a few chickens to put it to music.
At just the mention of your name
I had that table dream
You didn’t even know I was
but you spent the night with me
It seems like yesterday
when you first came into view
Months passed like days
years with light speed flew
The years are over seven now
and you’re still a dream come true
No longer need the sun to shine
could do without the moon
My darkened world would still be lit
by the shine that’s all ‘round you
God could grab the sky
and yank away the blue
I’d still have all these seven years
and you’d still be a dream come true
Beulah closed the journal, letting her thoughts drift back to the most romantic day she had ever shared with Hartwell.
The Hills Band put on a great performance causing quite a ruckus. Everyone was crying, even Hartwell, especially after the band explained the dream to all the patrons.
They recounted the day Hartwell overheard a conversation at the church social about the new choir director, Beulah Parks, coming to town in a few days. For three nights straight, he dreamed of Beulah. Each night he dreamed of the two of them sitting in rocking chairs at his kitchen table. After the third night, he carved ’Reserved for Beulah Dill’ in one end of the table. That was the spot he knew a loving fate decided his wife would spend the rest of her life; writing letters, making pies, numbing her tongue from stamping up the S&H green stamps books and unveiling Sunday dinners for the family.
She paged back to November 19, 1970
Yippee! Hartwell finally let me order a new kitchen table. I pestered him for years to let go of this old worn out thing. He argued that the spot the table sat in was the cross hairs the universe aimed with to shoot his destiny into the world. He said removing it would be like tempting destiny. After lots of protests, he agreed. He said he loved my smile and part of his job was to make sure that smile never went away. He put the table in the barn, wrapped tight in a tarp. The chairs he got from the Sears & Roebuck catalog went out to the porch. He still keeps the wood shavings carved out from our names and ‘my reservation’ in a little glass jar. He says, “May be leavings, but they’re part of the love the universe blessed me with and I’m hangin’ onto every scrap.”
November 20, 1970
The two Army men just left. They told us our precious Eugene died in an attempt to rescue some POWs in North Vietnam. Hartwell can’t stop crying. Neither can I. I managed to rescue the chairs out of the bonfire Hartwell set, but the table is smoke and charcoal now. He never outright blamed me, but I know he does. We stood for hours in the kitchen staring at the empty space where our destiny was born and had died. Each anniversary will be a sore reminder of this day. Is this my fault, I keep asking myself? Should I have left the table be?
November 20, 2017
He filled in the blank without argument this year, completing the sentence, 67 years and you’re still a dream come true. I look for the silver lining in the disease that’s chewing away at his brain. Thankfully, it has swallowed much of his pain, leaving blank spots where agony used to be. Blank spots are better I think. We take our meals on TV trays in the living room now. He won’t let me replace the table. Losing our son poked a big ole hole in his love tank. No matter how much love I pour in, it just leaks right back out. I think Eugene lives somewhere in his brain now, but there’s still pain in his face when he stares at the empty space in the kitchen. He’s clean forgot to send me flowers the last three years, or refused to; I don’t know which.
She closed her journal, reached over and squeezed a colder than usual hand. His chair had stopped rocking. Mercy had smiled on him at last and she was okay with that. He always said he wanted to set with the sun. The sky was now a bank of coals invaded by headlights from a van coming down the gravel driveway.
“Mrs. Dill,” the driver said, “I’m so sorry about this. We took over this company three years ago, shortly after the owner died and our accountant recently discovered something. Apparently, your husband knew he was getting forgetful and prepaid the company three years in advance to deliver these to you every anniversary.” She opened the card and it read, “Happy Anniversary, darling. I fell in love with you, sight unseen, and you’ll always be my dream come true.”
Chris Murphy says
Lovely story, Nathan. Very well done. Excellent imagery and you captured the bittersweet pathos of loss and love beautifully. Excellent work.