So instead of blogging I've been reading, you know, books. And let me tell you if you hadn't heard - books are awesome, and way more rewarding to read than blogs. With that in mind, I decided to usher out the season with the first ever Q at Parkside "Fiction Issue." Out of the many, many entries I chose a terrific story by an up-and-comer named t.t. cummings. Okay, I'll admit it, that's a nom de plume. This is his first effort at fiction in about 30 years, so I guess you could call it a debut. It's called...
Nearly all of the headstones in the Danforth town cemetery have born-on and died-on dates, with one notable exception being the slab of gray granite bearing the name Esther “Etty” Stiles. Etty's text ends at the hyphen, a hyphen awaiting letters and numbers to make its sentence complete. And that's not even the headstone's most remarkable feature.
The tax logs at Danforth Town Hall list 438 current residents, give or take in the summer and winter, the winter being the take and the summer the give, this being New England, but the town cemetery counts 884 dead folks resting interred on the picturesque mossy green hill just past the Danforth United Methodist Church – the only surviving Christian congregation within seven miles. As a result its become fairly more ecumenical in observance and outlook than its name might imply. Three years ago a Jewish family from Boston attended without incident.
The cold hard facts on view at the Town Hall reveal that the dead of Danforth outnumber the living two to one, though just 50 years ago the ratio was reversed, and 100 years prior a whole industry of shoe peg manufacturing and logging had led to 12 separate schools, three hotels, two taverns and even stiff competition in the hardware and farm equipment businesses. Currently there is no storefront business in Danforth, ever since the Ormsbee feed store closed. That was winter of 1983, and the store building has since been removed by the current owners, summerers from somewhere in Canada, who favor privacy to commerce.
For more than fifty years a person has had to set foot outside of Danforth town lines to purchase even a loaf of bread or the county newspaper, the Stanton Wind. The paper's circulation is just under 6,000 and dwindling, though the uptick in online readership holds some promise for the future of the Wind's operation and the mortgage payments of publishers Jane and Jim Starkweather, self-acknowledged hoarders whose absurdly long ranch home lies at the 90 degree bend in the Rootkill River favored by young swimmers and partyers drawn to its seclusion and unusual depths and a 20 foot long rope swing that had claimed the life of (just) two teenagers in its roughly twenty years of thrill-serving.
Danforth is a small town in a sparse county in a mostly rural state in the northeastern region of the America. It has no special properties or industry, no claim to fame, no tourist attractions or specialty cuisine. It is as one summering regular calls it a Historic District without the sign or designation, and even the residents knew they were holding on by sheer will to an agrarian and stubbornly seasonal way of life. You were either poor and scraping by, or you had plenty of money but preferred to live like you didn't. No one drove a fancy car. It would look ridiculous, even comical, and anyway most fancy cars weren't very practical in frequently perilous winter weather.
As with other towns in rural New England, many of the surnames on the headstones match those of the living – Skinner, Harrison, Utley, Thompson and Thomson, so one could be forgiven for not remembering which relatives of which family were dead or alive at any given time. Walking about the cemetery offered a glimpse into the past embellished by the present's rumors, weddings, mischief and tragedies. One could almost imagine the ghosts of ancestors weighing in on the day's events and the exploits of descendants.
Etty herself often took note of the ages of various Danforthers at death, figuring how long the living Utleys and Skinners and Thompsons and Thomsons might reasonably expect to live. She had even written down her guestimates and kept the paper pressed in a book of proverbs, but had recently decided to destroy it lest it be found on estate sale and the town's estimation of her character suffer for it. She could keep the information in her head anyway, and referenced it frequently.
Midway through one particularly cold winter it became clear to Etty that she might very well become number 885 on the mossy hill due to a bout of influenza, then walking pneumonia and a persistent cough. Everyone knew that Stiles' lived long, so despite the arthritis, bad back, overweight, acid reflux and the more acute ailments only Etty seemed concerned with her possible demise. Despite the physical hardships, she still made it to church on Sunday, the Ox Roast each August, and continued to make twice daily trips to the Wayside General Store in Grisby – coffee and newspaper in the morning, various and sundry late in the afternoon. One always needed something, she observed, and 4:30-5:30 pm seemed a good hour to get it, after nap and before supper, and the Wayside was just a five minute drive. The weathered flyer in the window of the Wayside accurately reads “if we don't have it, you probably don't need it” so there was rarely a need to drive the extra 6 miles to the Stop 'n' Shop in Bristol. Plus, Amazon Prime delivers all the stuff she doesn't really need anyway.
Ben Ruscher drives the signature brown UPS van up Three Corner Road somewhere from 3:15 – 4 every weekday, and Etty listens to hear if he takes the sharp right at Utley Drive, and if he does she rises or pivots, grabs a glass of water, puts on her yellow Crocs and steps onto the back porch to receive him, and she hands Ben the glass of water as he hands her the package and once in a blue moon he drinks the whole glass, but usually it's just a sip and frankly out of respect not thirst, as Ben is more a seltzer guy and always has a cold one in the truck. He's usually got a half-pint of bourbon in the glove box too, but as a general rule that stays in the box til after the last delivery of the day.
Etty's two grown children live within an hour but in opposite directions. Charley (Etty hates the name and wish he'd stuck with Charles) fixes cars and Judy (a better fit than her birthname Judith) manages a breakfast place. Both are divorced and both are friendly with their exes, a fact that Etty is proud to have modeled for them, as their father Ray wasn't really so much a bad man as a dreamer, and a piss poor gambler, and when he died it was his ex-wife Etty who gave the eulogy that brought tears to the entire crowd of 50, a pretty sizable crowd for a man who'd never met a bet he wouldn't make or a debt he could fully repay. Ray always told a mighty fine joke though, and that has always counted for a lot at the Wayside, and often would earn him a free refill on a cup of coffee. Or a rolled eye and hand gesture from owner Nancy Wilcox. Or both. Usually both.
The tombstone was Etty's idea alone. Always frugal to a fault and quick to pounce on a bargain, Etty had noted the business struggles of Arthur Kaster, seller of monuments in Roscoeville just over the state line, and without mentioning to Arthur the remarkably accurate rumors she'd heard at the Wayside about his financial position, she offered Arthur half the cost of a mid-priced stone that had been slow to move anyhow, and if she were willing to pay cash, might he just happen not to mention it to “the Governor?” That was her way of respectfully protesting sales taxes, which Etty found egregiously excessive, and that firmly held opinion was pretty much the primary reason she'd been an unaffiliated voter in the past several elections, siding more often than not with the Republicans, though she really didn't care much for any of the Republicans serving her currently, on down from president to state representative to county comptroller who she knew to be a weasel of man both a drunk and dating a much too young waitress in Canton. Etty asked Arthur if he'd accept her offer and complete the task by Easter. And she told him that in the next few days she would decide what he should engrave on her headstone, preferably something to match her personality and dry wit.
Arthur agreed to the price and took half of the agreed to cash on the spot, though he ultimately missed the Easter deadline by more than a month. Still, before Memorial Day the finished headstone was loaded on the back of Cal Kindred's pickup truck and hauled to the top of cemetery hill and placed next to Etty's mother and father's joint tombstone, but far enough from any of the Utley family to help ensure the continuation of a decades-long feud over a farm accident well into the afterlife.
The exact cause of the accident with the hay baler was in dispute, but there was no denying that Junior Utley bore the brunt of the deal, having broken his back and lost everything from the elbow down on his left arm. And while no one was laughing that day or for weeks after, Junior was soon quipping that the Good Lord must have been smiling on him that day not to take the hand he wiped his ass with. After hearing that joke a dozen times, most locals just ignored it, but visitors always got a chuckle and probably took the line home to add some local flavor to their vacation stories.
The stone itself was low to the ground – stocky you might say – as was the case with most of the stones from the last 40 years or so. Early in Danforth's history – late 18th and early 19th century – the graves were thin and tablet-like, sort of how you'd imagine Moses with his commandments, though if those tablets were truly made of limestone there's little chance Moses would have been able to lift even a single tablet, even if he'd been buff, and Etty thought to herself that there's no mention in the bible of Moses being ripped or even particularly strong. The tablet-like gravestones must have seemed immutable in their day, but after the first hundred years, most had fallen or broken in half due to one storm-of-the-century or another or to the general clumpiness of the soil, or maybe bugs and worms, but anyway it was clear that a modern tombstone should be prepped for the elements, with its center of gravity as low as possible.
Neither Etty nor Arthur tipped anyone off, but within a couple days the whole town had seen the picture, emails flying back and forth just hours after Sue Rickles took it. Etty had chosen to forgo words on her headstone altogether, and instead opted for an engraved picture of her greatest and most prized possession – a gray GMC Sierra 4x4 with extended cab, a truck she bought the month of her retirement from Grant Guthrie of Guthrie & Sons. Grant's youngest son Bentley (after the car, though he goes by Benji) served ably if drunkenly as best man at Etty's son's wedding, and the elder Guthrie promised to add a few extras to sweeten the deal, at no cost of course, as the Stiles' were like family and “you don't charge family for leather upholstery, you just tuck it into the sales price.”
She'd had her eyes on this truck for years, though another similar American model would've done in a pinch, and in a rare burst of spontaneity she splurged the next Monday after her last day at the Tindex Apparel factory came and went. She'd spent the weekend forecasting the rest of her life and it was clear she had little use for her pension and social security money besides necessities and occasional splurges on her grandkids. She was too old (in her estimation) for traveling the world and frankly a little nervous about planes and foreign languages anyway. The party for her retirement had been a subdued affair on the account of the accident in the finishing department just three days prior, when Anne Graybald had essentially sewn her hand to a blouse after suffering a stroke. Her hand would be fine, but she was unlikely to regain her full range of speech, and there was a chance that she might have lost more than that. Anne was well-liked, never had a harsh word for anyone, and the consensus was that there was a certain injustice that such a terrible thing hadn't happened to someone less agreeable, like maybe Libby Stanton or the new girl.
Etty absolutely loved that truck the minute she drove it off the lot. A great feeling of power and prestige came over her, riding high with her gaze a few inches above the farming men in their much smaller pickup trucks and a couple feet above the Bernie Backers and ex-City ladies in their Subarus, and she took particular pleasure in looking down on the “Mayor” of Danforth, Judge Rickles (he wasn't a judge; that was his name). And it wasn't long before Etty started calling her truck all manner of nicknames, assigning the truck the sort of anthropomorphic qualities usually reserved for dogs and cats. Most often she simply called her Old Lady, or The Old Gray Lady, a reference she recognized but couldn't place until she met the unexpectedly nice family from Brooklyn who'd Airbnb'd the Junior Utley place after he died and they noted that the Old Gray Lady was another name for the New York Times. This ticked her off for at least a week or two, since she was no fan of the NY Times, though she had been known to borrow the Sunday crossword from the recycling box at the Wayside and occasionally cheat by looking something up in her 1979 or 1984 World Book Encyclopedias. In the end, she decided, the reference to the Times was ironic, and she didn't care if anyone took it the wrong or the right way.
Increasingly this was how Etty viewed the world – amused indifference - and it may explain why she felt more content and comfortable in her own skin that she had since her youth growing up less than half a mile away. In a manner she'd replaced her old skin with that of her truck, and the Old Lady was a roomy and warm skin, even if the bed of the truck hadn't seen so much as a fishing rod or bale of hay since she bought it. It was always good to go if needed though, and that's what really mattered. There are times when only a truck will do.
It was on one of her morning trips to the Wayside that Etty first thought of getting Arthur Kaster to engrave a picture of her truck on her tombstone. That was also the first time she'd thought the word “tombstone” in reference to herself. The thought of the truck on her tombstone tickled her silly, though she slept on it for three straight nights just to make sure it wasn't a passing fancy. During those 72 hours she also toyed with the idea of engraving a favorite saying on the stone instead. One in particular made the top of the list - “nothing is written in stone” - and she got many a silent chuckle out of that one. She figured she'd seen it somewhere before, on a stone undoubtedly, but there was nothing on the cemetery hill that even hinted at humor, let alone something as funny as that saying or the image of a prized automobile.
So just after lunch on the fourth day Etty had called Arthur, on a landline as there still wasn't much cell service in the hills and valleys of southern Vermont and Middle Eastern Upstate NY, and Arthur said he loved the idea and told her to drive down the next day so he could sketch it for her. It was rare he got to use his true artistic talent, and anyway he needed the sale in order to meet alimony to wife Number 2, who was now dating the Sheriff, meaning the law was less inclined to let it slide each time the bill came and went due. It irked Arthur to no end that Sheriff Bates might occasionally end up the recipient of some of his alimony money that had gone to buy items in Number 2's refrigerator, like maybe a six-pack of Michelob or a half-dozen eggs and hunk of cheddar. Number 2 was one of the great omelet makers in the county, as most folks knew, or at the very least her ex-husbands and boyfriends who rightly considered an omelet to be the best possible cap to a night of drinking, love-making and sleeping all tangled up with a sweet-smelling – or in summer sweat-smelling – woman. After six years of marriage Arthur had grown tired of the first three of those activities, but the omelet still appealed, and that's what he decided he missed the most about Number 2 – the omelets and the $150 he was out each first of the month or thereabouts.
Once the headstone had been placed, and Arthur and the town's cemetery fund and the casket company had been paid, and everyone at the Wayside had had a great laugh over the engraved truck, Etty felt a wave of contentment envelop her, and it stayed right through summer and the following winter. In fact, she hadn't felt so good in years, maybe ever, and the fact that she would cause no financial burden to her heirs made her beam with pride as she sang hymns of praise at the Methodist Church each Sunday.
Life was good, and death wasn't looking so bad either. It was that balance – an appreciation for life in the present and the lack of fear for the future - that was the secret to life she thought, and she'd stumbled upon it.
It was almost three years before Etty noticed just how hard it had become to climb into the cab of the Old Lady. Three unhelpful trips to Doctor Walden convinced her to try acupuncture, which seemed to work a couple times and provided all manner of great stories for her Wayside afternoons. But things were getting worse, not just in her legs, hips and back but also in her hands. By the time she could barely hold the plastic digital pen to sign for her packages from Ben Ruscher, her spirits had sunk and she had come to dread pulling herself up into the cab of the truck each morning. The following spring she had a knee replaced. That summer it was the hips. And then that winter her back hurt so much that even sleeping was impossible. A special orthopedic chair from Amazon Prime brought her some relief, but now she had to take most of her sleep in the sitting position, with a heavy dose of Tylenol and maybe even one of the pain killers she'd swore she'd never take after hearing one too many stories at the Wayside about cousins, aunts, uncles and high school buddies who'd become addicted to the heavy stuff.
And then one freezing cold day, Etty fell backwards into the snow as she tried to pull herself into the cab of the Old Gray Lady. It took her half an hour to right herself, and the fact is had she been unable to do so, first on her knees and then ever so slowly back to the house, she would have frozen to death, unless by chance Ben Ruscher had brought a package that very afternoon. Such was the very real consideration of every older person living alone in the country anywhere on earth. Dying on the floor of one's own house was not unknown to the people of Danforth, and several of the 884 on the hill had passed in that manner.
Etty's children finally convinced her to give up the truck, though she half expected it was because Charley wanted it for himself, and in fact he did end up taking it off her hands never offering to help buy her another more sensible car. Etty never mentioned it, but she made a mental note to go light on Charley's Christmas gift that year. The envelope was thin, he noted at the time, and not because the bills inside were of higher denominations.
From the near freezing scare forward, Etty drove a used AWD Subaru, bought from one of those summer-only Bernie backers who'd politely agreed to remove all the political stickers for her before transferring ownership; she liked Bernie fine but would rather walk into the Wayside in her underwear than sport political slogans on her primary form of transport. It was three whole years before the thought occurred to her to call Arthur Kaster one last time and ask him how much it would cost to add a line of text near the bottom of her monument. He offered to do it “at cost,” which seemed a bit silly since all you were paying for was the labor anyway. Cash of course; no need to tell the Governor.
The phrase “Nothing Is Written In Stone” was added to Esther Stiles' headstone, in a font that looked like Olde English. Etty never did drive up the hill to see it and give Arthur compliments on his work, but her spirits rebounded quickly, and endured.