It was my idea, when he asked what he was supposed to say when the tenants asked who I was.
“Can I be Jane?”
And so his cousin Jane accompanied him to the property on Lighthouse Drive, and we walked around as Daniel realized that everything outside had gone neglected for the entire three year lease.
“That will have to be redone. This deck needs to be power washed. Look at all the dead shit. This was a beautiful tree…”
I worked, and I worked, and I worked like I had signed my life away. Not my home, not my idea of a good time, not my burden, not anything like the rest of what that town was doing for the Fourth of July weekend. I was on the ground in the kitchen scrubbing grime. Then I was taking a shovel to the root balls of hostas and hammering them apart, getting them properly divided and replanted. Meanwhile the lake was crowding with boats, jet skis and men standing in water to their waistline as they held fishing poles. I would see them all on our runs to Home Depot for tools, riding along with him, dirty, waiting to be whatever assistance he wanted.
Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t some kind of reward at the end of this.
“There’s just so much bullshit to catch up with Mom,” he said in to the phone. Always Bluetooth, always playing through the dash while he drives. ‘Say a command.’ ‘Call Mom Cell.’
“You and her shoulda gone out there every year, Danny-“
“She wouldn’t have come out here, Mom.”
By the time we were done Daniel was hungry. When he says we’re going out to eat, I don’t have the slightest disagreement.
He took me to a local Chinese place that he and his wife had frequented. When he looked down at the paper placemats he read the zodiac symbols for him and her.
I have a Chinese Zodiac, too, I thought to myself. I was starting to feel left out.
Later, during one of our unpleasant conversations he would reflect, “I’m sorry. I missed it.”
The Asian waitresses came over and recognized him. He relayed the news about his wife. He relays the news about his wife at every single opportunity, with every person he encounters. I don’t blame him – it’s just that it so happens to be every person I encounter as well, we when we’re together. We can encounter a lot of people. And it does begin to sound different towards the end of the day.
By the time we were done with our meal, he was standing at the counter talking with the staff and I found myself seated alone, watching everything as I always have, one world apart. I was nobody. I was just Jane.
Jane got really sad, hopped up and ran in to the bathroom to pull herself together. Jane fights with bouts of jealousy and depression because she’s the brilliant one who thought there was nothing wrong with letting her heart go to Daniel. I would suddenly seem different. I wouldn’t smile or look at him. I’d hold my head down or look out the passenger window until he made me tell him what was on my mind.
“Let’s not ever do that again,” he suggested on the drive home. I think I knew, even the moment I claimed it as my idea to be Cousin Jane, that it would only cause a problem. It had made me think of a song.
“So alone all the time at night
Lock myself away, listen to me, I’m not
Although I’m dressed up, out and all with
Everything considered they forget my name
They call me Hell
They call me Stacey
They call me her
They call me Jane
That’s not my name
That’s not my name
That’s not my name
That’s not my…name”
Maybe I just had to try to forget in order for me to remember.
When you’re picking up stones, there is no where to kneel.
I quickly realized this out under the hot afternoon sun with my pale, unprotected skin and not the single shadow of a tree in sight. Daniel had just landscaped along the side of one of his rental properties, a project along the way of many projects in a very long, hard day.
“Hey Autumn,” he always says when I am in the midst of completing something in the idea of him, “Can you come’ere a sec?”
Do I really have a second? I suppose all I have is an uncertain amount of time. Sometimes I worry about the time I lose for my tasks, accompanying him in his, but maybe I’m learning something about support. I stopped power washing his back deck and walked around the house.
“What do you think if I put those hostas over there, over here in this bed?”
The hostas wouldn’t have enough shade and they were overgrown, overgrowing as it was.
“How about we divide the day lilies.”
He practically breathes through his electronic cigarette, the drag and the long sigh I’m used to hearing before his sentences, “Alright.”
Such a long day. I got burned pretty badly and I was emotionally tired. Toward the end of what I personally refer to as my “shift”, Daniel had another suggestion for me.
“Hey, do you think you could just pick up those rocks out front and put them in this bucket?”
The previous tenants had dumped small gravel on to the front lawn, causing a mess. Simple enough, I should have believed, I looked out at that searing yard and I could not believe some of the predicaments I had willingly entertained at the request of this man. But they were what he wanted, what he believed mattered most – even if at the cost of his own well-being – so they were what I had to do. As long as I mentally and physically could.
These are our days, together. This is what we do. This is how we are.
When you’re picking up stones, there is no where to kneel. I laughed when I thought that to myself, the hard lumps in the grass digging in to my legs. And as I was reaching out, combing the soil, sweating, completing this task, the new residents pulled in and I heard Daniel shout excitedly to them…
“Come over here and look what I did.”
What I did?
“My wife would love this. I should have done this years ago. My wife would just love it.”
It is during moments like those, when I am pushed beyond my limit and tested to the fullest, that I understand why it is so highly advised to refrain from romantic involvement with a recent widow. It isn’t fair, that someone lost their life – but it also isn’t fair to feel how your heart’s desire would be happy only if their late spouse would spring up from the grave and fill in their ghostly, number one spot with flesh and bone again.
My image is instantly discarded. I am suddenly a fool, a mistress, an idiot. My chest begins to hurt and I wonder, what I could have to gain by being placed here by God. Did I owe the world more karma than I could have possibly restored if I wasn’t struggling now? Had I been selfish, had I walked away from too many things that I did not think would fail to follow me wherever I went?
Did I say goodbye to happiness? To time, to moments in the shade, to the peace I seemed to steal between the mundane things I called responsibilities?
Did I say goodbye to love?
Daniel teases me about everything, without reservation or consideration. Normally I welcome the challenge and I try to match the audacity. Today I said, after he had related the granola bar crumbs and abandoned yogurt lid on the counter as something only a breaking-and-entering-pig could have left (“I’m calling the police”)…
“So why do you always leave the empty toilet paper roll on, and the full roll on the sink? Why can’t you finish the task?” It was something I had observed on separate occasions, amusingly enough, and I always removed the cardboard and put the new one on for him. No big deal. It’s just something he’s done.
“You know what, Autumn,” he asked. It was the way he wasn’t really asking me anything. It sounded like putting on gloves. Rolling up sleeves. Picking up stones.
I am the hardest person on myself. I am not my biggest fan, although I know I ought to be. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I endure these rollercoaster days filled with grievance. Consoling. Suggestion. Accompaniment. Support. Affection. Tears. Survival. Work. Maybe I lack the self-respect, but I will tell you something. My name still means something to me. And the tone in his voice, when he said ‘you know what, Autumn’… it hurt. And I will be dammed if someone else takes my name, after everything I’ve been doing, and uses it like that.
When you’re picking up stones, there is nowhere to kneel.
He said, by means of a heated lecture, that the toilet paper was left on the sink because his life is over once he goes back to his teaching job in the fall and the seconds it had taken to complete the change were decidedly lopped in order to tackle the even bigger, more impossible, heart-wrenching duties that drowned his soul that day, that week, that month, etc.
I was just pushing back, mirroring the granola crumbs. He was supposed to call me a bitch and we were supposed to go back in to the living room and sit down together.
“You don’t have a clue. (insulting) You’ll see, if you last that long (I can’t believe you just said that), when I’m working, how hard I have to work.”
I stood in the kitchen, wiping the counter tops after a meal I had prepared for on his behalf, and I listened to many things I had heard before. About the absence of free time. The loathing and the misery. This man is surrounded by a lifestyle that he has, in part, created. I do not waste my sympathy on his decisions no matter how they have dominoed and snowballed with time. I listened to his speech, to the way he said my name, and my mind went back to the stones.
I felt the bucket getting pretty full.