This story is by Carole Wolfe and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The caretaker lowered himself to the cold hard bench. It was the one day of the year he sat on it: the anniversary of Doris and Glenn Nevill’s death. Other than that, the birds used the bench as a stage for their chirping and tweeting which went unheard by the cemetery’s residents.
His sister-in-law’s headstone shone up at him. It twinkled, though not as much as it had in past years. Cleaning the stone was hard to do these days. He liked to kneel down and polish the smooth granite, but his arthritic knees made it tough to stand. The last time he tried, he couldn’t get himself off the ground.
He’d still be stuck there if Ol’ Mrs. Whittaker hadn’t come along, making her weekly flower pilgrimage. The caretaker used to mock the woman’s regularity until it saved him. In exchange for not telling anyone how she found him lying on the ground like a beetle too weak to flip itself over, he cared for her flowers daily. Nowadays, Mrs. Whittaker visited every other week.
Since that incident, the caretaker relied on the spray mop he stashed in the back of the maintenance shed. A special mix of soap and water and a quick cleaning every day or so kept Doris’ headstone sparkling, despite his aging knees.
He’d even taken to cleaning his brother’s headstone. After his niece’s surprise visit a few weeks ago, the caretaker decided both of her parents’ graves should get the same attention. Helene insisted she would never return, but in case she changed her mind, he wanted her parents’ final resting spot as presentable as possible.
A sigh escaped from his mouth. Helene didn’t even know who he was, so why did it matter? He’d made peace with his decision long ago. He buried his guilt with his brother and sister-in-law, but Helene’s visit unearthed some of the emotions he thought were long gone.
His niece had asked his name. What would have happened if he’d told her? Would she have accepted an uncle she didn’t know existed?
The caretaker closed his eyes and tilted his head back. The sun warmed his chilled face. Getting old changed a man. There used to be a time when he didn’t need to throw on the flannel shirt or wear extra thick socks under his scuffed cowboy boots. And don’t get him started on the damn cane he needed to make it from one end of the cemetery grounds to the other.
Old age sucked.
He looked at the two graves in front of him and nodded.
Dying young had its advantages. No cataracts, blood pressure medications or colonoscopies. Sure, the two people lying under the ground never discovered the benefits of cable television, cell phones or Justin Bieber, but they never experienced their bodies falling apart either.
His decision to disappear into the shadows all those years ago was the right one. He’d never questioned it. Until Helene showed up.
If he’d told her his name, he’d be forced to answer an endless series of questions that wouldn’t change the situation.
“Why didn’t I know about you?”
“Was my father an alcoholic?”
“Were you at my birthday party the night my dad drove drunk into a tree?”
It was the last question the caretaker couldn’t face. That memory was scorched into his mind forever. He used to wonder if he could have saved his brother and sister-in-law. Was he the reason his niece was raised by an angry grandmother and a grieving grandfather? How could he tell Helene who he was if he hadn’t had the strength to tell Doris about his feelings for her? Nor had he been able to protect her from his brother’s drinking. He’d even fed Glenn’s problems.
A image of Helene’s sixth birthday party popped into his head. It was the last party he’d attended with his family. Hell, there was no family left after that.
He remembered Glenn holding Helene so she could blow out the candles on the cake. His brother swayed and he had called out, “Don’t fall in the cake, Glenn. You’ll never live that one down.”
The caretaker pulled his filthy cowboy hat from his head. He tapped it on his leg and dirt puffed out of it, a cloud of dust dispersing into the air. He dropped the hat on the bench before he looked at the headstones.
“Still wearin’ the hat ya bought me, Doris.” He didn’t usually talk to his sister-in-law, but decided to give it a try. What was the worst that could happen? “It could use a good cleanin’ but seeings’ how it’ll git dirty again, I reckon’ it’s fine.”
A bird chirped and he enjoyed the sound. If he were a God-fearing man, he might think the bird was a sign that Doris was listening but he’d been on this Earth long enough to know that dead was dead. It was too late for anything else.
“That time of year again. Anniversary of the accident. Not much of a celebration, if ya ask me. But you two stopped celebratin’ even before then, so I guess it’s okay.”
The bird flew off, leaving the quiet rustle of the leaves behind.
“Helene dropped in. She’s all growed up.” His voice hitched before he forced a chuckle. “Looks like you Glenn, poor thing. I’d ‘ve recognized her anywhere.”
The caretaker didn’t add how much Helene resembled Doris. That’s the reason he’d been restless since his niece’s visit. Helene’s face triggered the memories.
It reminded him of how he left his niece’s birthday party with some woman whose name he no longer remembered because he couldn’t stand to see the woman he loved with his brother. He recalled how he wasn’t there to stop Glenn from getting in the car when he was too drunk to drive. His decision killed his brother and the only woman he would ever love.
But seeing Helene’s face, knowing some part of Doris was out there, made him consider the possibilities. He could go to Helene and tell her who he was. His niece might embrace him and welcome him into her family, the long lost uncle she never knew.
The brief hope fizzled when he thought of what he would have to tell Helene. He was the reason her parents died. All he had to do was stick around to give Glenn a ride to the bar. Instead, he’d only thought of himself.
The caretaker looked down at the headstones.
“You’s got a great daughter. Ya worried about that, Doris. What kind of life could you give lil’ Helene, what with Glenn drinkin’ all ur money, but I heard her talkin’. She’s got a husband who loves her. Loves her so much she went to a therapist. She’s makin’ amends with her daughters. Maybe if I’d done somethin’ like that, you and Glenn’d still be alive.”
He didn’t put much stock into talking to a stranger about problems, but if he had, his brother and the love of his life might not be six feet below him right now. But he spared his niece the truth. That was the least he could do for someone whose life he’d ruined.
The caretaker pushed off the bench, steadying himself with his cane. He took in the sight of his brother and sister-in-law’s graves and made a mental note to bring over the weed whacker. Some of the grass was creeping in, threatening to cover the stones he’d carefully chosen years ago.
“Happy Anniversary, you two. At least ya have someon’ in the end.”
Without another glance, the caretaker turned and hobbled away, leaving the empty bench behind.