“Let me put it this way. If there is a party, I will not come.”
“Well, of course it’s a party, Daddy. It’s your birthday. Of course it’s a party. What else would we have on your birthday?”
“Then I will not come.”
“But Daddy, it’s your birthday. Why come over if we’re not going to celebrate?”
“Why, indeed?” Isaac Stritch hangs up the phone, gently, so as not to abuse the instrument, gently, only an inanimate object undeserving of violence or misplaced blame, gently, without the rampant anger one so often observes in contemporary life. Just that morning he observed a man at a gas station curse a pump handle, another kick a mower that would not start, a child repeatedly slam a screen door in a pique at his mother. These, all observed on his morning walk, and this walk not even long enough to be called a “modest” trek, this walk what Patricia liked to term a “quickie.” “Care for a quickie, luv?” she would bubble forth, wriggle her eyebrows, and off they would go at that brisk pace that she favored, down the hill and toward downtown where they took in “as much and as many” sights and people as possible before turning and climbing back up the hill to their street, to their house at the top of the hill. Himself, he prefers the quieter, slower, more sylvan strolls, happy if he passes no one, sees no one, hears no one.
Again, the telephone rings. He is expecting this so has already turned and headed out the side door. It rings on as he lets the screen fall back into its frame. Gently. Isaac Stritch walks down the slate steps and around the slate path to the back, pausing to pinch a couple weeds from between the stones. Gently. Deliberately. There is no use fleeing from the telephone; it is not the telephone’s fault. His eldest daughter, Susan, is a thick one, possibly the thickest of his four daughters (saying a lot, considering the middle two), and not one to heed an outright refusal, let alone a hint.
He pauses with his hand on the wooden latch of the garden shed, waiting until he thinks he hears nothing. Satisfied, he enters and gathers his tools. If the telephone rings again, he will not notice. This was his plan all along, formed last night in bed before his pills took effect: to putter around the better part of the day, move some stones, do some weeding in Patricia’s herb garden. To putter there, maintain it, build upon it: new plantings, new trellises, even expand its rock wall boundaries. But by all means to ignore the phone. Though Patricia is gone, he continues on. Things roll on. The herb garden goes on. It makes him feel closer to her. And, yes, he has been missing her terribly the past year. There it is. He misses her terribly.
He carries two long iron bars from the garden shed, continuing down the slate path around to the back. They are heavy things, two 6-foot lengths of crude iron. It feels good carrying them, stretching his muscles, gripping something of heft and ignorant purpose in his two big hands. You are at an age, Isaac Stritch, when most men are past the strenuous life. But here you are, Isaac Stritch, Sibley Professor of History — and emeritus at that — still doing this kind of work and relishing it.
He has a big body, more the arms and hands of a Teamster than of a history professor, but a real teamster of the old days that wrangled with harnesses of mules and draught horses, or even the big hands of a quarryman because, Isaac Stritch, that’s what you’ve been for the last forty years, a virtual quarryman. He stops just beyond the reach of the large expansive summer porch, and lays the two bars on to the grass next to the exposed old stones. Gently. They need no remonstrance.
“I wish you weren’t in the hospital. Such a disgusting smell. Pervades everything. Clothes, books, hands, hair. I get the smell in my nostrils, and it takes no small amount of work and diligent cleaning to get the smell out. An epic undertaking every time. Always is. Don’t you think, dear?”
She smiled weakly, not her usual enthusiasm, her hair hanging limply that morning on either side of her face, falling against the faded hospital gown. Ducks, he remembers, they gave her a gown with little faded ducks to add to her indignity. It was all he could do to look away.
“I wish you were feeling a bit more chipper. Maybe when the doctor comes he can give you something to perk you up.” But what? What could he possibly give? This had started, this entire upheaval of both their lives, a year and a half before. There was the prognosis, and then the chemo and radiation and the loss of the beautiful braided golden hair, and then what they thought of as remission. And then that past week before the hospital, everything seemed to fold in on both of them, really. She had made him promise when her hair grew back (iron gray, not golden, not the Devon gold of the English girl he had married) that there would be no more chemo.
The doctor, who knew her wishes, stood at her bedside and comforted her. Comfort was all he could offer, and morphine, at least Isaac hoped. And then the doctor stood in the hall with Isaac Stritch and talked softly to him. He had a young, well-scrubbed pink face that looked vaguely familiar. An old student, perhaps? He did not keep in touch with any of them. He was never one to be chummy in the first place, enjoying the certain formality that was distinctly his, a formality that allowed him to erect his own perimeter around himself.
He moved slowly, erectly, and with such lack of languidity and carelessness that everyone seemed to take a breath and hold it as he passed. He shifted in his chair with gravity, crossed and uncrossed his legs purposely and crisply, no creases lost.
There were reasons behind his movements. Motive. Purpose. Cause and effect. He could quiet a department meeting or a restless class by assuming an upright position and remaining perfectly still and silent until the appropriate attention was delivered his way. Sweater vests and elegant ties picked by Patricia helped. He learned this early on.
Of course, she succumbed to the cancer. He had been expecting it for years. He told her so after her mother died of the same, fairly young, still in her sixties. And then, Patricia got word of each of her three sisters back in England, all dying young. It was impossible to leave him for any period. And after each sister passed, he again told her of his prediction. Perhaps he was too matter-of-fact about it, but you couldn’t shock Patricia. She was never taken aback.
“Frankly dear, I don’t hold out much hope for you,” he would say. And not just once, but over and over, whistling past the inevitable upright stones.
Patricia would smile, not even the briefest tick of irritation at him “Yes, dear. So you have said.”
“Oh, I don’t mean to be brutal here, darling. But heredity is a factor.”
“Yes, dear. So they say. What should we make for dinner tonight?” At least she had lasted until he had become emeritus.
Their house sits on the Heights on what he likes to believe is the highest point in town. He determined this from elevation maps diligently researched when they bought the house many years before, and that closed the matter. He would hear no more on the subject. It sits on the very crest of their little street above the Conservatory, the backyard running up against that botanical park, separated by a fence he rebuilt three times by himself in their lifetime here and by a teakwood gate which he still takes unhealthy pride in, stalking down the inclined back yard once a week to inspect it, open it and glare at any strollers or runners on Conservatory paths, then shut and lock it.
He keeps two square ends of old railroad ties out by the herb garden, two heavy creosoted things that he maneuvers this way and that to serve as fulcrums to his two heavy bars. In this manner he moves the rocks to form the walls of the herb garden. Quite adept at it, in fact.
“Give me a lever long enough and . . . !” he inevitably shouts during a session, red-faced and sweating, back aching, hands sore, but feeling fine. And Patricia inevitably right up above him on the summer porch, waiting for his punchline, working at some needlework that never amounted to anything.
Well, maybe he was a bit too predictable with the joke over the years. But one can always find a stone on this hill, small boulders really, at whatever spot the spade strikes. No dearth of material. “We are the harvesters of stones,” Patricia would say, showing the herb garden to friends.
“I’m thinking your mother would like to be freshened up a bit. You know, brush out her hair. Back away from her face a bit so she doesn’t look so . . . well, bedraggled. Make her seem more like herself. Maybe even do up her face a bit. I brought her cosmetics. Whatever she keeps in those little bags on her side of the vanity. I’ll just go for a walk right now. Let you all have at it. Get some fresh air. Just leave you four to it then?”
They flanked Patricia’s hospital bed, and he did not even wait for a response, never really looked at their faces so as to remove himself from the potential of arguments. There were always arguments now that they were grown. Adulthood had not instilled them with reason, and he could no longer impose his will. They never seemed to move fast enough for him, just stand there forming the arguments in their heads. Slow things, all four of them: Susan, the two middle ones, and even the youngest, Jaimie, whom he had some hope for early on, at some point flourishing and showing promise academically out of one motive or another. Now he did not need to meet her eyes.
He has forgotten the spade. He leaves both bars jammed underneath the rock that is to start a new wall and walks slowly back up to the shed. He hears the telephone ringing again, faintly at first, growing louder as he nears. They will not be put off. He can hear Susan arguing with her sisters: “Well, let me just try one more time . . .” Was Susan like Patricia with her three sisters? Four sisters in each generation. Too much. Patricia was the peacemaker in her family. Susan would exhaust all chances and beyond. And the others, especially Jaimie — the fatalist, always the angriest, usually with a disgusting cigarette in her hand — took the opposite tack. “Leave him go. Who cares. He’d just bring down the party.”
Still, he has been expecting this, his birthday upon him, his first without Patricia. Bound to make much of it. Quite expected. He picks up the spade and turns out of the shed but then jumps a bit as he is brought up standing against his own red face, forgetting Patricia’s penchant for the found, forced to stare at his own face in a floor-length, gold-framed mirror that she bought at the second-hand store for two dollars.
“Something for the rabbits,” Patricia had explained.
“To scare or to primp?”
She had responded with one of her “be-that-as-it-mays.”
He looks at himself in the mirror, scoffs, never caring for his own image. In fact, he trained himself in youth to not really look at his face while shaving. Red, scowling thing. Isaac Stritch turns and shuts the door, gently. It has done him no harm. He walks back down the path with the spade, its handle still slick from the linseed oil he applies to all the garden tools, trying to dismiss his own red face from his mind.
The name of Missy Misamore comes back to him. Remembrances of the morning: faces and names summoned as if excavated up from the earth? Missy Misamore: a wave across the Diag, a dread in his chest, and her words, always the words of Missy Misamore, like a haunting, Missy Misamore:
“Oh, Professor Stritch! You always look so angry!”
The phone fades now, and he digs in with the spade at the base of the boulder and feels Patricia’s presence on the summer porch above him.
Missy Misamore said it cheerily enough, as she always said everything, every damned time she saw him. Cheerily. Bright scrubbed face, hair pulled back with a headband, pleated skirt, one of those students with her hand always in the air in class, ready with a comment, usually inane.
Missy Misamore. The name comes back when all other students have been forgotten, all other students graded and moved on, spit out of that university mill. But Missy Misamore hovers. He digs in with some distaste now, the name ruining a perfectly good morning. Or had it been the phone call?
“Oh, Professor Stitch! You always look so angry!”
A car door slams above him, startling Isaac Stritch again. There again, jumping, he thinks. What is the matter with you? The incessant phone ringing? Voices from the past?
He has a sense that a piano just stopped playing though he does not ever remember a piano playing in the first place. Yes, a distinct sense that music stopped as if the slamming of the car door interrupted it, startling whomever was playing. The girls haven’t sent someone over here to reason with him, have they? A face-to-face plea? Maybe one of their soft, stupid husbands to drag him back?
He looks up the hill, past the garden shed, past the summer porch, past the slated side terrace to the driveway. A woman in a smock holding a vacuum. No, the maid service has arrived. He waves up at the woman as she pauses between garage and house, smiling, waving back, and again the image of Missy Misamore waving at him across the Diag opens in his mind.
“Professor! Do you have time to talk in your office? Oh, please, Professor!” He brings his hand down from the wave to cup around his mouth. “Unlocked!” he calls up to the maid service. She waves back and disappears around the front of the house.
“Oh, Professor Stritch! You always look so angry!”
Cursed, one might say. Haunted. Of course, that is a supernatural idea totally outside the context of meaningful historical discourse, but there it is. Cursed. And what would Missy Misamore do with a summa cum laude anyhow? She was heiress to an office furniture empire in Grand Rapids. All these years with a summa cum laude? Simply brag about it every Tuesday and Thursday over lunch at the club? Maybe feeble whacks at articles of local history for the hometown newspaper? The History of the Credenza in Business Furnishings?
He brings himself up short with his vitriol. What is the use taking it out on an old name not quite forgotten, or a grade handed out, deservedly or otherwise? But it isn’t the grade that bothered him about Missy Misamore. And it wasn’t even her throwing herself at him after the fact — the meeting in the office; the play of her fingers at the buttons of her blouse, adept; the crossing and uncrossing of her legs; her eyes flitting, gad, those cheery eyes. So long ago. Not even that.
Nor the internalizing afterward, not mentioning it to Patricia, of all people, who would have found it a wonderful joke. Absurd! He could hear Patricia’s laugh and comments now; if only he had told her then. But he never shared it. He kept it to himself, even though no impropriety had been committed, no trust broken. And certainly no grade changed!
He threw up his hands and waved Missy Misamore off, and she left his office without gaining a thing. He had shown her the door. And all the while that damned Missy Misamore’s her smile and cheery attitude never wavered. He never shared it, carried it close and unpredicated, cursed to hear Missy Misamore’s words when he least expected it.
“Oh, Professor Stritch! You always look so angry!”
Was there a bit of temptation there? A lot of temptation? Were there actions there other than a stern waving off? He didn’t think he could possibly alter history that much. No, it wasn’t in him. What bothered Isaac Stritch, even now, was that insipid young woman’s drawing attention to his demeanor, yelling it across the Diag whenever she passed.
“Oh, Professor Stritch! You always look so angry!”
He works hatless. Even when he first bought the house, he did not wear a hat, and then in an era when all men wore hats and not the rampant backward-baseball-variety of today. He signed the papers hatless downtown in Detweiler’s law offices, walked up the drive hatless with Patricia, and then carried his bride over the threshold hatless.
“You’re too damned vain to wear a hat, dear,” she said to him once.
He takes a break from wall building for some light weeding, all according to plan, to sit comfortably on an old camp stool he keeps close by. Admittedly, the boulder has taken it out of him. Beyond the back fence he can hear the scuffing of shoes, running and otherwise, on the winding gravel trail of the Conservatory. Vanity, yes, one of the sentimental sufferings. Patricia herself would laugh. They were not the sentimental kind. They were not a couple who spoke in that low whisper of lovers that only two sets of ears could hear. He had not even bothered with a headstone. Cremation was their way. Her ashes remain here in the herb garden. He putters. He is emeritus after all. The question of vanity is not a valid argument. Validity, likelihood, cause and effect. The forces of life. Momentum. Movement. Inevitability.
Again, he feels there is piano music somewhere but cannot really say for certain he is hearing it or is just aware of it: that, yes, there is a piano playing, somewhere someone playing a piano. He also hears a car door slam and an engine start but isn’t sure if this is happening now or several minutes in the past or if these things happened at all and maybe thinks they should have happened: yes, the maid service should be leaving about now; yes, slamming her car door; yes, starting her engine. Yes, this all should happen. Yes, this is the natural movement of things. Yes, this is the likelihood. This is the direction of prevailing forces in effect.
And here you are, Isaac Stritch, sitting at the bottom of the yard weeding, hearing all these things, thinking of hats, thinking of fences, thinking of levers, thinking of stones, thinking of likelihoods, and thinking of carrying Patricia over the threshold, considering your vanity. His view of the side door and the side slated terrace, the drive and carriage house, is obscured from the bottom of the hill where he sits. Assumptions can and are made. He will make an effort to move the big rock one last time before he goes in for the day.
Isaac Stritch stands from the camp stool, and his legs waver. He cannot find his balance; the earth rolls. He looks up, a bright day still, the leaves dancing slightly, and then looks lower and, yes, tree trunks and the back of the house and the garden shed seem to dance a bit, too. He is unsure of himself, not exactly dizzy, but off the usual level in his life, no longer the man of a short time ago with two big sweating hands that lifted the world in them. The unlikely possibility of an earth tremor crosses his mind, a seismic event, which does not help his orientation anymore because it seems so unlikely, and yet . . .
He can see just over the fence now into the Conservatory: strollers, joggers – they seem unaffected, unaware. He does not know what to think, does not know what conclusions to draw, the history of the world low and rumbling in his ears, heavy as if taking place in the basso registers, and first thinks it is some ragtime rolls being performed by that piano player, wherever he is, on the very bottom keys. The sound of something ancient, low. And then Isaac Stritch falls against the stone wall of the herb garden, striking one of the iron bars, loosening the rock he has been trying to move all morning, which finally does move, rolling over twice, pinning him against the wall.
To his credit, he holds no anger toward the rock. That would be misplaced, so rampant. He has had ample opportunity for intimate and up-close observation of the thing itself. How much of the day passed as he lay between the rocks he cannot tell. The shadows are long now, the sun obscured behind the house at the top of the hill. The back of the house is all he can move his head to see, the house and the dominant thing directly below his chin that pins him to the stone wall of the herb garden. He cannot even cough, such is the weight of the rock, and only his left calf and foot and left hand are free. No doubt the hour is late, but he does not remember time passing. Somehow he holds a curious attitude toward time, toward that bit of his own history lost, as if for the first time in his life he senses that he is unencumbered, unfettered even.
Isaac Stritch throws all his attention on the rock, on the thing: its shape, its texture, its color, its history — strangely, he little cares about its weight, because any weight is too much for him now — this the last stone flung out by whatever was holding it there, by the bones of the very Earth itself that held it so long. No, the rock’s very being consumes him, surely as it lays him in like another brick in a wall. And for all he knows, there he will remain, his world now forever.
Again, he hears the faintness of the piano, Patricia’s piano; there is no mistaking it. She was a music student at that university; that university that had seemed to him like the entire world, like all of history, all he could really remember, no real childhood, he didn’t think. Had he even a family? Simple biology told him yes, but that university is all his memory holds, surely passing for the known world.
He first saw her walking across campus one bright morning, and then again later that same day, eating lunch under a statue in a grassy area surrounded by newly manicured boxwood. He saw her the same time the next day, and began looking for her when it became evident that their schedules coincided.
He was drawn at first out of purely base and sexual instincts. He admitted as much. He followed the sway of her hips, the assuredness of her legs, and the gold of her hair in the light breeze that always played around her head. He eventually followed her into the music building and on through the labyrinthic halls, excited even as it was happening, as if in pursuit. He followed her down the stairs and then up a half stair to a narrow hall, where she disappeared behind one of maybe a thousand doors (could it have really been a thousand doors?), all with little windows like pleasant amiable cells. Practice rooms.
And so, he peeked in each one until he finally found her, back to him, gold hair unmistakable, playing the piano, beautiful sounds coming from her fingers. He sat down on the floor, his back to the wall, only the sound of her playing holding him there.
He supposes this is dusk now. Inside him there is a clicking which he first mistakes for a clock, several clickings, and then realizes that it is his breathing. It occurs to him that his lungs are filling up with all manner of liquid and that he is dying. He tries to call out but it will just not come, just as his cough will not come, and worse, he finds he cannot grasp which words to call out.
What are the words one uses in this situation? “Help” is the obvious choice but that does not seem right for some reason, a simple word he uses every day with only one possible spelling but still not seeming right at that moment, strange and foreign. And then it occurs to him, well, you’re hallucinating, aren’t you? You’re drifting in and out, Isaac Stritch, laying here on the ground squashed like a pill bug, hidden between the layers of stone, hallucinating and grasping for the correct word.
He is aware of the Conservatory just behind him beyond the tall fence he checks for loose boards every week and of the gravel trail and of the scuffing shoes and of Missy Misamore passing on that trail, an old woman herself now (although she still tries to look young and cheery), an evening stroll with her husband (whichever number he is), a purple velour jogging suit, her hair up (dyed to the appropriate shade). Missy Misamore, the last person to pass within feet of him, albeit on the other side of a meticulously maintained fence, as he draws his last breath. “Hello!” he tries to rasp. “Hello!”
“Oh, Professor Stritch! You always look so angry!” the voice bubbles through a knothole.
The sun has set completely now, and it is nearly dark, and he can feel his body grow colder. If the neighbors’ lights have come on, he cannot move his head far enough in either direction to see, only the narrow shoot up the slope to his own house, his and Patricia’s, his world, the back windows growing darker, darker, dense with the night.
He closes his eyes. For how long? When he opens them it is very dark, indeed, but he can still see the outline of the house on top of the hill and even the windows, the glass in the windows, their sheen like that of obsidian, perfected for years inside the earth. And then a light moves behind the black sheen, across one window, then reappears in the next. A passing car? No. Occasionally it will pause at one window, as if looking out, and then continue on, no rhyme, no reason, no rhythm, and then pauses in the window off the sun porch.
And he is aware again of a piano playing, no melody or beat. He listens; what else can he do? He hears shoes in the dark on the other side of the fence and is sure it is Missy Misamore, and then the sound of the teakwood gate rattling. He looks up to the house, impatiently now.
The light begins moving again, passes the line of black windows and emerges out on the slated side terrace, keeps moving, drifting slowly down toward him. The gate rattles again. The shoes scuff on the gravel as if pulling at the door. And on the light comes on, drifting down the slope toward him, the light comes on, and he recognizes its stride and its sway. But he recognizes the shoes behind him, too, the hand at the teakwood gate. Of both he is sure.
“Hurry,” he says to the drifting light. “Hurry, Patricia, hurry.”
BD Feil has credits in Mississippi Review, Slice Magazine, New Plains Review, and is nominated for a Pushcart this year. He lives in Michigan with quite the brood.