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Headstone

by Joe Clifford

 

At the print shop that day, the new kid Roger Maple had hired to run the shipping department had come to him in tears over problems he was having with his girlfriend, which had caught Roger off guard, because this kid had seemed like such a tough kid, riding to work on a motorcycle, forearms covered in tattoos. It made Roger uncomfortable when the kid broke down in his office like that, just the two of them. Roger had tried to be sympathetic, offer what advice he could. In the end, he told the kid to take the rest of the day off, which he figured was probably the best thing for him.
 
Roger Maple unrolled the widow and let the cold air wash over him as night fell heavily across the black country roads. There weren’t any lights up here, just what came from the stars and moon, which were not out tonight, as flurries drifted aimlessly. Roger dialed in his favorite satellite station, Hits of the ’70s. After his conversation with the kid, he couldn’t help thinking of all the lovers he’d burned through when he’d been that age, the summer girls from the Cape and Portsmouth, back when he had a different one every Saturday night. But there was one he got stuck on. Which was weird, because she hadn’t meant that much to him at the time.
He’d only dated Rebecca for two months but he would never fit inside a woman better. He was twenty-two. She was twenty-six, up from North Carolina to visit her brother in Fall River. They met at Larianna’s Fish Market, where he was tending bar. They would get drunk after his shift and fuck in the backseat of his car. He could still hear the metal fumble of his buckle, taste the cigarettes and lipstick of her breath, feel the way her legs slipped apart so easily.
They fought non-stop, all summer long.
When she was getting ready to move back to North Carolina, they talked about him maybe coming with her, but she had an ex-boyfriend who lived there and maybe that wasn’t the best idea, but what did he think?
Her last night in Fall River, they’d made plans to meet at the old King’s Cross Motel on the turnpike. Roger went to Larianna’s instead, where he got very drunk and had sex in a bathroom stall with a large local girl named Marie.
Afterwards, he bought a fifth and walked on the train tracks, swearing that if a train came he wasn’t moving.
No train came.

*
 
At forty-nine, Roger Maple had no children, and at his age he had no desire to start a family. His wife, fifteen years younger, did not feel the same way, which was a constant source of agitation between them. He couldn’t understand why she couldn’t let it go, why she felt the need to take the frustrations of her life out on him. He lived far from Fall River now, on the better side of the bay, up in the mountains.
There was a convenience store across from the Wayland Cemetery, the last chance to stock up before his house, which was ten more minutes up the winding hill through the dense cover of evergreens.
Coming out of the store with his cigarettes and scotch, Roger saw something on the other side of Route 17. He’d left his engine running, hadn’t turned off its lights, which now shone over the gravel lot, falling on a stooped figure moving slowly through the graveyard, a black shadow cast against a slightly less black background.
Roger put his groceries in the car and blew on his hands. He checked for traffic even though he knew there wouldn’t be any, and crossed the street to the edge of the graveyard, which was enclosed by sets of intersecting railroad ties.
Roger could now see what the figure was. An old man, bent over, shuffled along. He had something in his hands. A wreath of flowers.
At a marker, the old man dropped to his knees, fell forward and wrapped his arms tightly around a headstone. He hugged the headstone tightly for a long time.
Behind Roger, the convenience stored switched off its lights, and the crisp smell of snow rushed down from the mountain.

*
 
Roger had bought the large red Saltbox with his ex, who did not ask for it in the divorce. The house, now faded, sat on two acres, with lots of pines and open space between it and the other big houses on the top of the hill. His wife’s car was not there.
The heat was off and it was cold inside the house. Roger turned the heat on, and walked from the foyer through the kitchen and living room to the dining room. There might have been a note on the counter but because he hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights he couldn’t see if there was.
Roger Maple sat at the long table in the dinning room, which looked out over the tall trees to the foot of the mountain and the lake. The water shimmered, lit up by the sliver of moon that now pushed through the breaking northern night sky.

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