Bill McCullister is usually tilling in the garden, sweeping off the porch, or oiling the hinges on the banged-up screen door. Except Sundays. He wakes in the morning and washes away soil and sweat not worked into his weathered skin. Two quick swipes through what hair is left him and the comb is deposited into the broken-handled mug on the porcelain sink. A clean tee shirt mostly by faded overalls, work boots, and a tattered baseball cap promoting a grain company no longer in business completes the look. If the wind is especially biting, he might toss on his wool coat. He drives the ‘58 Ford truck down the shady lane to Hagmans Crossing, the rusty rocker panels and fenders rattling. Stones kicked up from the tires bang against the undercarriage. The road ends on Route 10 and he cranks her hard to the right, rolling through the stop sign, heading for Ashwell. Bill watches the signpost for the county line slide across the chipped side view mirror before he pitches over Devil’s Hill.
Bill has only been out of the county once overnight, when his only child was born in Worthington back in ’31. Stillborn that is. Ada, his wife, never shed a tear. For the two days she was in the hospital she kept saying over and over, “God has a plan.” He told her he didn’t need any assurances, but as he looks back now, he realizes it was she who needed the comfort of that thought. The hospital wanted her to stay a little longer, but Ada was not one to let anyone tell her what she should or shouldn’t do. They drove home in silence, she cradling the infant with her eyes fixed straight ahead. At home, she took the bundle into the house and closed the door. Bill made his way around to the backside of the house and slid the door aside to his workshop, or pigsty, as Ada used to put it. For the next couple of hours he worked, measuring and cutting the pine, mindful of the knots in the lumber. He had driven the last nail in when he heard a shuffling behind him.
“Under the lilac tree,” she said.
Bill glanced at the boy long enough to see she had dressed him in the christening clothes passed down from her mother. He grabbed a spade from the corner and eased by her. She was still standing in the shop in the same place when he drove the shovel into the freshly churned soil. Back in the shed he picked up the coffin and turned to find her gone. Perching the bottom of the coffin on his shoulder Bill headed back for the hole, where he saw her waiting. Either she had left it outside or he hadn’t noticed it, but slung over her shoulder was the afghan she had been knitting on for the last three months of her pregnancy. She had finished it just hours before she went into labor. Bill set the coffin down and removed the top. Ada wrapped the afghan around the infant, covering everything except his face, and laid him in the coffin. She rose, took a couple of steps back, opposite Bill, and hung her head in prayer. Bill bent down and took the only good look he ever did of his son, carving the gentle face into his mind. He has my chin, Bill thought. The lid of the coffin in place, he struck each nail into place, a hollow tunking sound. He lowered the coffin and filled the grave. The last shovel full laid, Ada collapsed. Bill scooped her up and hustled her into the house.
He doesn’t remember much about the two days after the burial, except for the forcing of water into her so she wouldn’t get dry. She wouldn’t take her food. They had no phone and the nearest neighbor was fifteen miles away; he thought she would die if he left her. Hell, he thought she would die anyway. Bill guessed it just came down to him not wanting her to die alone. She came through all right. Held on till ’64, when the flu took her.
Bill has gone to Peterson’s every Sunday morning since the day he met Ada there fifty-odd years ago. Ed, the fourth Peterson to run the place, is always there. Ten hours a day, seven days a week. The engine coughs to a stop when Bill pulls up. Ed sits outside the brick building reading one of the Sunday papers. A black sign with faded gold letters hanging from the porch creaks on rusty chains, rocking from the breeze that has crept up.
“Morning, Bill,” he says from behind the paper, voice raspy. “Gonna be another cool one.”
“Yup,” Bill responds, climbing the roughly chiseled granite steps onto the plank porch. “And tomorrow will be hotter than H-E-double toothpicks.”
Ed folds the paper down. “Welcome to New England.”
Their weather bitching out of the way, Bill asks, “How does a man get a cup of coffee around here?”
“Getting ornery in your old age, are ya?” Ed sets the paper down on the combination checker board/table beside him and picks up the stone at the foot of his chair. Bill watches Ed’s hand shake as he wrestles the stone to its place on the paper. Standing, Ed leads the way into the store, the screen door slamming shut behind them.
“Got the shakes bad today?”
Ed turns to look at Bill, says nothing, and continues for the counter.
Bill knows he has just been told to shut up and mind his own business. He picks up the two Sunday papers with his name penciled across them from the newspaper rack. He slaps them onto the countertop as Ed gets the coffee maker ready. The billfold in his hip pocket has seen better years, the leather so worn it can be torn as easy as a sheet of paper. Bill thumbs through the wad and pulls out a couple of singles.
“I’ll bring it over when it’s done,” Ed says, nodding his head toward the small shelf that holds his dining offerings, as he rings up the sale. Up until a few years ago his wife used to bake for the store. Sunday mornings would offer scents of fresh bread, hot buns, doughnuts, and, sometimes, an apple or cherry pie. Now all the shelf has on it is a small wicker basket with two or three store-bought donuts in cellophane.
Bill nods and ambles between two shelves loaded with canned goods. The wide maple boards snap and creak with each planting of his boots. He sits at one of two small round tables at the front of the store where he can see the houses across the street. A couple of cars with out-of-state plates are parked in the gravel driveway and on the overgrown grass at one of them. He watches as a little girl comes around from the backside of the house, chased by an older boy, her laughter filtering through the open window. Ed comes up alongside him.
“That’s Wallace’s granddaughter, ain’t it?” Bill asks.
Ed squints through the filmy window. “Yup. Funeral was yesterday.”
“Right about now he would be coming ‘cross the road for his weekly bullshiting,” Ed says.
“Probably up there thinking the Communists are gonna overrun us now that he ain’t here to warn us of their plans. Never seen anyone so stuck back in the fifties.”
“Jesus, I never thought…I’ll get your coffee,” Ed says, turning away from the window.
Bill lays out the first newspaper to read the headlines. He hears coffee being poured into mugs. “Don’t scrimp on the cream,” he calls over.
“Fifty cents extra for another dollop,” Ed chuckles.
“Ayah. Is that how you treat your reg’lars?”
“No,” he laughs as he brings the beverages over to the table, “only the tourists.”
The mugs twitch until they settle on the table. “You prob’ly have them convinced…hey, this ain’t my cup. Where’s my cup?” Bill asks.
Ed looks up at the ceiling and then outside. “I broke it last week,” he admits. “I was washing it after you left last Sunday and got a nasty bout of the shakes. Slipped right out of my Goddamn hands and busted all to hell.”
“Did ya hurt yourself?” Bill asks. Ed hung his head and clasped his hands, seeming to strain to keep them from shaking. “Ed, it’s just a cup.”
“Bill, I’m selling the store,” he says, looking not directly at Bill but over his shoulder. “A few weeks ago this couple came in, out-of-staters. Pulled up in a BMW. Anyway, they wanted coffee. I told them to have a seat and I’d bring it o’er. Hands had been acting up earlier that morning, but seemed to have straightened out. Well, just as I’m setting the coffee down, they jumped and I spilt coffee all over the gentleman. I must have said sorry about a hun’ert times. Kept telling me it was all right. Well, betwixt the three of us we cleaned the mess. I was going to get him another cup and give him his money back when he asked me about my hands, how long they’d been doing that. They were twitching, life of their own they had. I told him it had been going on ‘bout a year or so. And that’s when he told me he was a lawyer. And I’m thinking, shit, I’m going to get sued. Then he says he was going to give me some advice.” He stops and looks at Bill. “And I’ve decided to take it.”
“Ed, just ‘cause of one–.”
“Mind’s made up, Bill,” he says, voice solid. “I’ve already spoken to the guy down at the gas station. He’s fixing up his place so he can start selling stock again and he’s gonna buy mine. I got my last delivery this past Monday.”
“Ed, you can’t close this store and–.”
“Damn it, Bill! You were here last winter when I nearly burned the place down! If you hadn’t stopped by when you did, we wouldn’t be sitting here. No,” he says. “I’ve thought it through and what’s done is done.” He stands and leans against the window, looking out across the street. Bill follows his eyes to see a car pulled up to Wallace’s house. A woman stands outside, driving a real-estate sign into the lawn.
Bill lets the door slam behind him. The breeze is no longer soft, a sharper edge slicing from the north. A look at the sky shows clouds have moved in. The engine rumbles back to life and Bill drops it into reverse. Before he backs out he looks through the windshield. Ed is still there, eyes focused elsewhere. Bill pulls away and drives down Route 10, watching Peterson’s fall back, disappearing as he rounds the corner.
Out of habit, Bill wakes the next Sunday and gets dressed. He is in the bathroom, picking up the comb, when it comes to him that Peterson’s doesn’t exist anymore. Dropping the comb on the floor, he heads for the porch, bypassing the coat rack holding the cap and the wool jacket. At the door he steps into the boots resting on the newspaper.
Last night the spring holding the screen door ripped out of the frame during the rainstorm. The wind slaps the door out of Bill’s hand, snapping it against a window, the knob, an old wooden thread spool nailed on, cracking a spider web in the single pane glass.
“Damn it!” He thrusts it back into place where it is caught by the latch.
The truck sits in the driveway, pointing down the road. He steps off the porch and goes around back. Noting the workshop has sunk into the ground considerably over these past few years he thinks briefly about digging under it and jacking it up, putting some stone beneath it so it’ll stay for a while. He notes the lilac tree standing amidst a sea of tall grass and tries to remember when he decided that piece was no longer worth mowing.
The lawn mower, holes in the deck where rust has eaten away at it, sits in front of the workbench. Bill eases himself down on one knee and checks the oil and the gas. He empties the gas can into the tank and pulls the mower down to the edge of the clean-cut grass. Five tugs on the starter cord and the motor sputters into life, although it chokes on full throttle. He backs off on the fuel, letting it run a minute or two before edging the stick up. He jabs the machine into the thick green, killing the motor. Once more he starts it and drives into the work, taking care this time to back off when it starts to sputter. He mows a few feet and then backs out to start a fresh path beside the other one. In minutes, the white tee-shirt smells of his sweat and beads of moisture roll down the furrows in his forehead. He is relentless, keeping focused on the lilac tree and the small spot beneath it where a patch of white flashes in the waving grass.
An hour later he makes the final cut and shuts the mower down. He kneels in front of the cross stuck in the ground, white paint flecking off it. Bill yanks the handkerchief he keeps in the back pocket of his overalls and swipes at the grass that sticks to the monument, paying close attention to the letters carved into the wood, the name he and Ada had given their son. Placing his hand on the top of the cross he eases himself down onto his knees and then into a sitting position, legs stretched out in front of him. Billowing sheets of clouds flitter across the sun, their shadows traveling the terrain of the field at his feet. He follows the passing whiteness with hollow eyes, letting their laziness ease his exhaustion. Pursing his lips, he grasps the cross and heaves himself upward.
Bill reaches into the red and black box perched next to the banged-up mailbox and pulls out the bundle secured by a rubber band. He meanders past the house, his boots stirring plumes of dust from the driveway, and down the path to the cross. Settling into the same spot he has sat in for the past three Sundays, he opens the paper and flicks his eyes across the bold print. “You’d have gotten a kick out of Wallace,” he says, glancing at the cross.