by Michael Wehunt
It seems to rain every time she visits David’s grave. Petra drips a trail from the bus stop into the house and stands in the kitchen, in those empty hours until dark. She picks at leftovers in front of the television until the gravy on the meatloaf thickens into jelly.
She has heard of people following their spouses into the earth. Dying from a broken heart after a lifetime of companionship seems so full of romance. But Petra just keeps going on, she doesn’t know why. She sits with eleven months of dust on her skin. Later, there is thin sleep, David’s smell a little fainter in his pillow each night. She has to breathe deep to get to it.
And waiting each morning is a new set of hours to fill. Her hands won’t allow her much gardening, but still some mornings she rakes them through the earth to collect clods of dirt beneath her nails. She’ll lay outfits across the bed, a dress for herself and one of David’s dark suits. She fusses over which of his ties to fold along the breast.
Through each piece of routine the hole in her life tiptoes behind like a shadow tapping her shoulder. Late in the morning she takes the bus into town and drifts through barnlike antique shops filled with things she can no longer adore. Even the joy of looking has left her and she is left with simply the familiar movement of her body.
At last the fourth in this cluster of shops is exhausted, and she along with it. She is about to pass back into the day, the clouds of minutes, when she sees her husband standing on a shelf behind the cash register, the suit she buried him in as sharp as it was the distant spring day he bought it in Essex. She stands frozen by the door until two women brush by and set her into motion.
Halfway there she can see it is not David, of course, but a doll. It stands not more than half her height, its polished Oxfords affixed to a wooden base with an inviting red button recessed between them. But it has his face. Petra was with David when the heart attack struck. She recognizes the wrenched-open mouth, the eyes that bulged in agony behind his spectacles. That very face has been captured in molded rubber.
She asks the bearded man behind the counter three times how the doll got here. Who sold it and when. Each time, more patiently than the last, he explains that he doesn’t know, only that it hasn’t been here long. It came from a carnival sideshow, maybe. He tells her that its speaker must be going, because he can’t figure what it says when the button is pressed.
Petra doesn’t believe any of that, so she buys it.
The bus seems to float above the road. The sunlight falls liquid and bright through her window onto the tissue paper she holds on her lap. Within its folds is the doll and she will not peek at it until she is home. She hums so that she won’t ask the driver to hurry, please, each time the bus chuffs to a stop.
The house feels like home again the instant she brings the doll inside. She studies every inch and detail, prodding the spongy skin and watching the shallow dents fill back up. It could easily be called hideous, even under the kindness of her soft reading lamp. The eyes that have seen the unspeakable. Red veins reaching up the neck. The lips peeling back from gums as black as the inside of Petra’s grief.
The suit is handsome, though, with an ascot the same wine-red as his favorite tucked into the vest and speared by a lovely pearl-headed pin. The hair is the rich, burnished brown of David’s before it paled into time.
Her finger pauses above the plastic button. It circles the edge before coming to rest upon it. She presses down.
The words sound as though they’re spoken into a tin can, but after the third repetition she is certain the voice is saying, “Everything, all at once, forever.” It speaks brightly, falsely, with an accent she can’t place, but Petra’s eyes shimmer and spill with the knowledge that it is her David. He always was one for funny voices.
The doll will say nothing but the same five words. But what is more gracious, and graceful, than those?
Within two days she has reshaped her dearest memory to contain the words. She and David in May of ‘58, the wind off Lake Michigan blowing a gale as they strolled, her arm hooked through his, toward the future. David stopping to pluck a perfect, discarded rose from the sidewalk, Petra burying her nose in its fragrance. He dropped to one knee and said, “Darling, I was waiting until next month but,” and fumbled with a midnight blue jewelry box.
“But what, sweetheart?” Breathless, Petra swelled until she felt she would burst.
“But now. Because now is everything, all at once, forever,” he said, and opened the box. Its little hinges creaked and heaven shone out.
It’s as good as a second honeymoon, for a time. She doesn’t care that they spend it in the confines of their little house. Their conversation soon comes to revolve around those five beautiful words, Petra phrasing her questions so that only such a profound answer could be expected.
“If I still had the strength for my garden,” she says, getting up from the dining room table to place a finger on his button, “what would you like to see in it?”
“Everything, all at once, forever.”
“That’s it exactly, David.”
He grimaces into the distance and she kisses the top of his head, the horsehair stiff against her lips and tickling her nose.
“How great is your love for me?” she asks. And “What shall we do tomorrow?” and “Do you remember Chicago, and the rose?”
They dance for hours in the living room to dusty jazz records, David lifted into her arms and twirled in slow circles. She undresses the both of them for bed and waits for her body to warm him. And then the most restful sleep in months.
But too soon there are things she needs to know. Answers not held within his reply. She will be seventy-six by Christmas. The “forever” end of his words begins to seem like a dream she will wake from.
She takes David to see his grave in spitting rain, the sky a low sheet of charcoal over the cemetery. Tucked inside her coat he leers out at his headstone.
“Will I be allowed to be with you when I pass on?” she asks him. “As you are now?”
In the shadow of her coat, against her breast, David answers her. “Everything, all at once, forever.”
“You’re right, love. You’re always right.” She looks up and the rain cleans her face. “But I’m afraid not like this.”
She wakes with her husband pressed inside her arms, his screaming face damp with her tears, the eyes straining from their sockets as though she’s squeezing the life back out of him. If only he had passed on more painlessly, she thinks.
Her best outfit is laid out on the bed, mocha pencil skirt, cream blouse with pearled buttons to match David’s pin. She spends an hour curling the red and silver of her hair. Smoothing her wrinkles as best she can.
His small hand in hers, she waits out the day and its light. She can nearly smell the rose he placed in her hand all those years ago, and the ring still gleams on her finger as it ever did.
And then it is dusk. She places David in their bed, his head upon his own pillow. She kisses the blackened mouth and whispers against his cheek, “I’ll see you soon, my love.”
“Everything, all at once, forever,” David says.
Petra walks over two miles. She feels almost young again. The cemetery has one section of low bricked wall, and here she climbs over and hurries through the dark, between the stained marble stones.
There is not a drop of rain. The sky is clear and dry and sparkling with stars. As though the world has cut itself up into pieces to look down upon her as she works.
They chose their plots long ago, and so her grave is waiting for her next to his. She shovels a mound of dirt onto the grass. Her arms ache deep into the bones before she’s a foot down, no matter that the earth is soft and ready and she is eager.
She wishes she could dig as far down as David, to be truly beside him, but she cannot. She stops when her body tells her it must. One last look at the stars, the limbs of oaks twisting across to one another like lovers, and she slides into the hole.
She lies on her back and wishes she still had friends in her life. The few left she hasn’t spoken to since David’s funeral. Someone to do her the kindness of flinging the soil over her so this part of her life can be closed up. And she wonders what she will look like as a doll. If her face should match her husband’s as they stand side by side on a shelf.
She claws at the walls of her shallow grave and they crumble and fall with the weight of reunion. She opens her eyes wide, her mouth wide, and scoops herself full of the earth.
Forever doesn’t happen all at once. She swallows and gags and forces more in. Her eyes burn and peer into black. Someday a button will be pressed between her feet. She has enough time left to think of what she will say, and to put everything inside it.
Michael Wehunt spends his time in Atlanta. Recently his story “A Coat That Fell” was featured in the anthology