Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Flowers for a Dead Man

Decided I shouldn't let an entire calendar month go by without posting something, so I'm pulling out a short story I wrote about a year-and-a-half ago. It was a rejected submission (too short) but it was my wife's favorite of all my stories. She really really really liked it, which pleased me to no end, of course. 

Fair warning: The tale's just under 1,500 words, considerably longer than my typical post length.

Flowers for a Dead Man
By Jeffrey S. Hargett

Sara told me she loved me with all her heart. What a load of crap that turned out to be. Cousin Kevin said love was the brain's creation, nothing more than hormones, pheromones and trigger-happy neurons. Turns out he didn't have a clue either. Hearts and brains have nothing to do with love. They have nothing to do with hurts and hate either. That kind of stuff lives in the soul.

Need proof? Check my grave. Nothing left of Franklin David Jones but ash and bones. My baby blues turned to dust years ago, right along with my adorable dimples and dashing smile. That's how twenty-three-year-olds like me end up when the Fairlane's got a new set of whitewalls and the girls need impressing. And I did my impressing with all eight cylinders.

That's how I met my Sara.

I'm not really sure what it was about me that caught her eye. She did have a lot to choose from though. Momma raised me to be a modest boy, but still, it wasn't me the ugly stick took to beating. Leastways, I never thought so. But I suppose it could have been the Fairlane's apple-candy red. It did have a dozen or so pounds of the shiniest chrome you ever saw. Most girls like shiny. Sara did too, but I think what got her motor running was the two-hundred horses under the hood. I ain't met a woman yet that didn't like a little muscle. She had all six-hundred-forty-two of mine flexing from the get-go.

Now, Momma raised me to be honest, so I'll admit that Sara caught my eye first. Sara caught just about everyone's eye first. Men tend to notice things like a woman more beautiful than dawn with hair the color of a sunrise.

She'd just got done waiting tables at Charlie's Grill down on Worth Street next to the old Firestone. Charlie dressed his girls in yellow with frilly, white aprons cut to accent hips and hind ends. Charlie's customers were good tippers. I liked to watch from the Fairlane. Watching was free and it didn't require tipping. Besides, the burgers over on Main cost less and came with fatter fries.

When Sara stepped outside Charlie's, I lost every bit of sense I'd collected in twenty-three years. Maybe it had something to do with those hormones and trigger-happy neurons Cousin Kevin always went on about, but I thanked God for my Fairlane. If I'd not been in the driver's seat, I'd have been a red-faced fool. Those swaying hips of hers had my engine revving. Love may live in the soul, but it stirs things you can touch.

I spent the whole night wondering what her name was and where she lived. I'd have followed her, but the sheriff gets involved when guys do that. So I did what any other guy my age would do in that situation. I called Stephen, my best friend since second grade. Now Stephen always gave advice you'd only take on a dare, but she'd left me in a daring frame of mind. And for once, that low-life best friend of mine didn't lead me astray.

I put a ring on Sara's finger less than four months later. I said my "I dos" and meant them all, but just because a man's got a wife at home don't mean he can't still impress the ladies in town. I might have been a married man, but I still looked good sitting on two-hundred horses. When a girl lets her eye linger on you, she expects you to be a gentleman and return the favor. Momma did raise me to be a gentleman.

Nobody ever mistook Franklin David Jones for Ward Cleaver. Some guys got the makings for T.V. dads. Some don't. I was who I was. Folks can say about me just whatever they please. It don't mean I didn't love Sara. Maybe if I'd had a daddy helping Momma raise me I'd have been a better husband. Then again, maybe not. It don't much matter now. I'm dead and can't change a damned thing.

I've got Stephen to thank for that.

Along about September, Stephen calls. He'd found him some cute brunette from the other side of town and his Mercury was in the shop again. Far be it from me to deny my best man a lift in his hour of need. Besides, I was more than a little curious about what kind of girl dates a low-life like Stephen. I loaded Sara into the Fairlane and we set out to salvage what little dignity he had left.

Now I'm willing to overlook a few faults when a girl has a pretty face, but that Angie girl he found didn't know how to shut up. The girl yammered straight through dinner, the whole way to the drive-in and right through the pre-show cartoons.

I kindly yanked Stephen's butt out of the car and dragged his "gonna get me some" grin all the way to the concession stand. The boy thought he was Rock Hudson out with Doris Day. Even asked me if I found Angie attractive. Was he kidding? Anything wearing a skirt's attractive when you're twenty-three. Didn't mean he was getting lucky though.

I'd have spent my whole check on popcorn, Goobers and Raisinets too, just on the chance it'd keep that girl quiet. The funny thing is, every time she got quiet I found myself looking over my shoulder. Stephen was my best friend, but ain't nobody allowed to mess around in my Fairlane except me and Sara. My Fairlane, my rules.

Angie's battery finally ran low just about the time the second feature ended. I enjoyed a good three minutes of quiet on the drive back until Stephen somehow set Angie to squealing. A sudden commotion like that startles a man. I jerked the wheel and the next thing I know I'm Park Lawn Acres' newest resident.

I always did hate cemetery names. I do have to admit though that I'm decomposing under the greenest damned grass in the county. Of course, it'd be a whole lot nicer if all the neighbors weren't dead. Some of these poor souls have been here since Moses saw God. The living might not be able to see us, but we can see each other. We're like faded Polaroids and shimmer when the moon's right.

Some take to moping about and peering at tombstones, sometimes theirs, sometimes not. I thought at first they were searching for someone. They're not. They're just doing what I'm doing. Remembering. The dead don't got much else to do but remember. And we got forever to do it. Dying's a serious thing. I don't recommend it. It takes a spell adjusting to being dead. Some never do. Some go mad. Maybe they were mad before, but now they've got angry and crazy in a gift-wrapped box. Mine comes with a pretty bow.

I never saw Angie here in Park Lawn Acres. Maybe she's staring at tombstones over in Poplar Grove or one of the church cemeteries. Maybe she's still jabbering at drive-ins and squealing in back seats. One thing's for certain. She ain't with Stephen. Stephen's with Sara. My Sara. They've been here. Together. He puts his hand on her shoulder while she plucks stray weeds and places flowers next to the headstone. Flowers! What damn good is flowers to a dead man?

I'd almost come to terms with it, being dead, being a ghost. Never did figure out why I didn't pass on to someplace else. I never really expected it to be Heaven. God knows Momma tried. I always figured I'd be dodging red devils and pitchforks. But this is where I am. The smile-flashing Franklin David Jones everybody loved stays put six feet under. The Franklin David Jones that still feels the loves and hurts and hates stays put too. Ghosts don't leave their corpses behind. Ain't a matter of won't, it's a matter of can't.

Maybe that's what stokes our anger. That, and seeing a new gold band on your wife's finger that matches the one your former best friend's wearing. I can't help but wonder which came first, them patting down the dirt on my grave or Stephen moving in on my wife. At least he don't come here much anymore. Sara does though. She brings a little girl with her. She's got baby blue eyes. Just like me. And she cries every time Sara brings her here. Just like me.

Smiles fade and dimples disappear. You're left to linger on, cling to hates and hurts and loves because you can't lay a hand to anything. The worst part about dying? It's the living that comes after. Especially on the days they bring you flowers.

 - The End