Joseph no longer wanted empty spaces in his
life. When Helen passed away, he felt that he needed to keep a spot open for
her. The bed, the sofa, their old spot by the window at Big
Egg diner. Yet after ten years of empty spaces and now that he was well
into his seventies, he thought it was more important that she was saving a
space for him than the other way around.
The folks at church were good at leaving
Helen's spot open on the pew, but First Presbyterian was the last place where
he wanted to feel more alone. He kept coming to church because it felt closer
to his wife, but he didn't appreciate the constant reminder that his own
judgment wasn't far off. No matter the sermon topic, Joseph felt the compulsion
to stand up and tell Pastor Morgan about his time in Korea. He always came to
his senses though, and decided that nobody needed to hear those horror stories
any more than he needed to dredge them up again. Even if Helen was saving a
spot for him in her new place of residence, he'd have a lot to answer for in
whatever constituted his performance review in the afterlife.
Joseph’s watch revealed that pastor was only
five minutes into the sermon. As far as he could tell it was something about
overcoming the little challenges that were disguised as big challenges. Helen
would have liked it. At the end, every little victory was appreciated. Especially when an undignified death was her only guarantee.
A little boy was drawing in the margins of the
hymnal with one of the golf pencils stuck in the back of every pew. Maybe if
Joseph was a deacon he would have been mad, but he
was more curious than angry. How could you be mad that kids draw in the hymnals
if you give them pencils and a boring sermon? He got a
glimpse of the drawing. One stick figure was vomiting on another. Joseph had to
laugh. Other kids were probably drawing gun fights and worse in their church
books, this was a welcome relief.
Joseph’s drug store reading glasses bounced on
their lanyard as the old ’68 F-100 chugged and sputtered on the dirt mile from
Joseph's mailbox to his house. The Chevy looked as beat-up and
stripped-of-function as the corn fields in his 80 acres. Neither was a pretty
sight, but like the truck, Joseph only needed the fields to last as long as he
The volunteers from the food bank had been out
last week, gleaning what cobs his machines were too
busted to harvest. He always enjoyed their company and hated to see them leave.
After the volunteers left he'd have a whole month alone until Thanksgiving
brought parts of his family home. This isolated waiting time was only a test
for the first months of the new year.
Mail was uneventful. It always was. That's why
he waited till Sunday to pick it all up. Some bills, coupons for dry cleaning
and the fast food chicken joint, pesticide adverts, and his monthly check from
Taladez Inc. He had to admit that he was skeptical at first about leasing them
the stony back corner of his lot, but they stayed out of his business and sent
in the checks like clockwork. He supposed at some point they'd do something
with the unkempt land, creek access, and dried-up well on that plot, but for
now it seems like they were content with just squatting on it.
Joseph spat out his spent Skoal
in the yard as he opened his screen door to the porch. He'd picked up the habit
again after Helen left. It was the closest thing he had to a hobby and managing
the tobacco in his cheeks gave him something to do in church.
He didn't bother to flip the light on when he
walked into his house. The afternoon sun was bright and he knew the way to the
beer in the refrigerator with his eyes closed. He often thought that even if he
lost his sight he could maneuver around his house well enough. It was one of
the benefits of living in the same home for four decades.
He popped his first can of Miller for the day
and settled into his La-Z-Boy. There wasn't shit-all on the TV so he sat, drank
his beer and listened to the Ketner Collie bark in
the distance. The Ketner house was one farm over, so
Joseph was surprised he could hear Daisy at all. Matty Ketner
must be somewhere in his corn field with that dog. When Matty was little he
liked to play fetch with Daisy using some of the dried up cobs that Joseph’s
combine left behind. Nowadays the dog was just too old. Matty preferred to
sneak onto his farm to smoke a joint where his parents couldn't find him and he
thought Joseph couldn’t catch him. The bored high-schooler
would probably be surprised to learn Joseph smoked his fair share of reefer
back in the service and didn't give two shits if Matty did the same.
In these quiet moments, Joseph closed his eyes
and took inventory. First he counted and named each of his twelve grandchildren
and three living children. Then he took account of his remaining cousins and
their children's names. Finally he recalled the name, rank and location of each
of his remaining brothers-in-arms.
His physician told him that remembering these
kinds of lists kept your mind function sharp. As time wore on him and whittled
down his inventory of names, he found that he needed to start counting those
that had passed away in each of his categories to keep his brain from
slouching. That list was longer.
The barking was closer now. Enough to motivate
Joseph to get up, grab another Miller and look out the
porch. Joseph looked out the screen door to find the old dog slowly approaching
his house barking with every couple of steps. He always remembered the dog when
she was young and bounding through his fields with the boy. Now the Collie was more gray than white or brown. How many more winters did
Daisy have in her?
"What do you want, Daisy?" he said
after taking a sip and sizing her up.
She continued barking and approaching him. For
the shortest moment Joseph thought to check and see if her mouth was foaming.
The dog was skittish at best and had never approached Joseph in the past.
Something was off.
"C'mere. You hurt?" Joseph squatted
down as best as his knees would let him, but Daisy kept her distance. Now she
was barking and walking back toward the field. He couldn't help but think that
she was wanting him to follow her. She paused, looked
back at Joseph and continued her barking before slowing working her way back to
"Hold on, hold on. Lemme