Sun shone warm upon his hands as he read and reread the quote. Narrowed eyes disbelieving it was printed there in black ink; margins ruled neat, words pressed in so hard he could feel their backsides ridging the book’s cover.
”He was the only one left to fulfill that contract and try to justify the labor and the harshness and the mistakes of his parents’ lives,”
His glance shifted, down along the lane, up along the corner: suspicious, wary: Was someone watchin’? Someone with grey blue eyes, watery brown, green so light as to be nearly colorless; watching watching with fast beating heart and a smile so faint none but the keenest hunter amongst us could spot them.
“Fulfill the contract” he snorted aloud to himself, tucking the book beneath his arm, hauling light into the truck and taking off in a fury of exhaust and blood red clouds of misery anger. The words trickling through his mind as he drove, even as he pulled off the main road, dust puffs piling up, those words rattled singsong in his ears, memorized at first glance; branded upon his mind alongside the lines upon her forehead and the broad spots upon his hands.
“…that responsibility was so clearly his, was so great an obligation, that it made unimportant and unreal the sight of the motley collection of pall-bearers staggering under the weight of his father’s body, and the back door of the hearse closing quietly upon the casket and the flowers.”
Those flowers left had dried in the desert sun. What the women (hens) hadn’t taken away to place in jam jars upon the kitchen sill or press between pages to brown and flatten with time stood crooked above the settling dirt mound. Yellowed stalks of faded ginger and white chrysanthemums, rose stems curled into claws; their blossoms plucked or scattered, sharp thorns intact.
He heard the mourning dove sounds among the willows. Soft calls drawn out, nearly a whinnying; most certainly a lost lament and he paused in his tracks to stare into a cloudless sky; envisioning that funeral, the bulk of that casket, the sight of his own fist gripped about the brass handle and the weight it had carried. He clutched the book so tight his short nails dug into the cover, leaving a thin blood trail as he shifted it into his other hand and kept walking.
He stood silent at the foot of his father’s grave for longer than he’d intended. The words gnawing at his breath: that responsibility was so clearly his…
Responsibility. The idea came near to bringing a smile to his face. Words inscribed in his father’s schoolboy lettering on the inside cover of a bible worn grimy round and smooth at the edges from rough hand thumbing. Obligation. True enough he was the only one left, but contract fulfillment hadn’t been part of his upbringing and he wasn’t about to make nice now; not after so many years and the long trouble he’d taken to stack things up neat.
The shovel was rust rimmed, stained dark along the edges but sharper than his mother’s tongue, near as hard edged as his father’s heart, “Damn but that’s almost poetry” he muttered, plunging it into the hardening earth with a vigor the old man would have almost been proud to watch.
But he is… He paused, glanced toward the now silent doves, the still clear sky, the hole he had dug; three feet and counting and soon now he would hear the clink of his weapon against that casket. He’d settle this book of his father’s upon the dust dulled surface, smile at the rotting remains trapped within and fling dirt back down with a storm all his own.
See how I fulfill my responsibility he’d whisper, nestling the book in deep; watching earth trickle between its pages, the cheap gold lettering disappear. Shovel after easy shovel. How I justify your harsh labor, your mistakes.
Yours, not mine.
He’d fill that hole tight, tamp the earth down firm and just see if that old son of a bitch could fight his way up outta this one.
Written for Master Class 2014 Volume III
from this prompt:
from The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner:
”He was the only one left to fulfill that contract and try to justify the labor and the harshness and the mistakes of his parents’ lives, and that responsibility was so clearly his, was so great an obligation, that it made unimportant and unreal the sight of the motley collection of pall-bearers staggering under the weight of his father’s body, and the back door of the hearse closing quietly upon the casket and the flowers.”