By Kristen Ploetz
Dosis facit venenum / The dose makes the poison – Paracelsus, 1538
Staccato flashes of metallic red caught Ray’s eye as he knelt down behind a massive rhododendron. The light flickered between branches and quickened as a breeze blew in, making him acutely aware of the pungent smell of mulch under his feet. He’d been looking for a pinwheel for a few months now. He wasn’t leaving without it.
His back felt stiff again today. Placing his hand on the house to brace his arthritic knees, Ray pushed himself up after he took the water meter reading. At first he was unable to stand fully upright, but once on the balls of his feet, he peered in the front window just above his head. There was no movement inside. Except for his van, the driveway was empty. A pair of blue jays flitted back and forth from hideouts among the Eastern hemlocks, but otherwise the cul-de-sac was quiet. He needed to do it now. With brisk strides, Ray hobbled across the lawn as fast as his stocky legs would go and plucked the pinwheel from the grass. In one quick motion, he tucked it next to the meter reader resting on his clipboard and hugged it to his chest. She’ll love this one. He hoisted himself into the driver’s seat of the van and placed the pinwheel on top of a faded street map folded on the dashboard. As he pulled away to head to the next house on his list, he checked his rearview mirror to make sure no one was watching.
At the end of his shift, Ray stopped at the public works building to return the city’s van and retrieve his red pickup. It took three attempts before his truck engine would turn over. Not again. He still had 45 minutes of daylight left to check the starter cables before it got too dark. Ray couldn’t put fixing his truck off any longer. He’d have to give her the pinwheel another day.
informal: a small ugly person
When they first buried her, Josephine was the last one in the row. She was easy to find without paying attention. But as more people died, Ray had to count or else he’d walk right past her. Josephine was number 22 in a row of 50. If he reached the dogwood tree, he knew he’d gone too far. It was easy to do when his mind wandered.
He liked to visit early in the morning when no one else ever seemed to be around. With the pinwheel hanging loosely from his hand, Ray walked down the neat row of headstones. The air felt heavy. The invisible sun lazily dissolved the gauze of fog suspended above the graves. The too-long cuffs of his poplin Dickies wicked away the dew that clung to the thick pile of overgrown grass. With each step on the spongy ground, the toes of his work boots darkened from buff to brown.
“Hey! Excuse me,” a gravelly male voice called out from beyond his peripheral view. As Ray turned around, he moved his hands behind his back. A short man wearing a dark green uniform approached Ray, stopping six feet away. Ray didn’t recognize him and figured it was the new cemetery caretaker. “We have rules here about decorations, you know.” With his head tilted up, the man looked Ray in the eyes as he waited for a response.
“Oh.” Ray felt his cheeks grow warm. “Really?” He was never good at feigning ignorance or surprise.
“Yeah. You can’t have all that stuff there.” The man pointed to Josephine’s headstone. “Flowers and one flag or small memento is pretty much it.”
“Oh. OK, thanks. I didn’t know,” Ray muttered with downcast eyes. He refused to make any promises to remove the offending items.
The man softened his shoulders. He offered a half smile of tobacco-stained teeth which widened the shallow wrinkle etched under his spider-veined nose. “It’s alright. Not too many folks know.” He turned around and started walking back toward the gravel lane that wound its way through the cemetery. Ray watched him walk away until he was no longer visible in the lingering fog.
“All these damn rules. Why do they care, right, Josephine?” Ray crouched down in front of Josephine’s pink granite headstone. He looked at the small collection already there. Next to a white ceramic planter of deep purple pansies, there were a dozen garden ornaments spread along the grass. A legless flamingo leaned precariously against a six-inch porcelain angel with gold-leafed lips and cracked wings. Small flecks of red and white paint clung to a fist-sized wooden ladybug seemingly poised to land on an adjacent rusty daisy. A powdery chartreuse bangle of pollen ringed the handful of water in a tiny bronze birdbath. He moved a small spotted fawn a few inches away from a pair of clay turtles, making room for the pinwheel. The plastic stick silently punctured the wet ground. When he let go, the metallic vanes stood still. Ray gave the pinwheel an easy spin with the tip of his finger.
“Gotta get going. Work today. Like working in this kind of weather. No one notices you.” Ray stood up wanting to say something more, but his mind went blank. He never had anything new to report and he was ashamed by his life of ordinary. “Anyway, I’ll be back in a few days to check on ya.”
Melancholy roared into his chest like high tide on a rocky shore. Ray looked at the inscription carved into the pink granite:
She concealed her tears but shared her smiles
His brother Steve was angry when Ray chose the wording of the epitaph for their younger sister; he thought it revealed too much. But Ray knew the kind of sadness Josephine endured in her life. They had long been united in that unfortunate way, coping with loss many times over ever since their childhood. He wanted to honor that as much as the kindness she gave, like when she took him in after Judy left. He had nothing to offer her in return other than house repairs and the 40 or 50 dollars he could scrape together after paying alimony each month. Josephine never minded. She enjoyed his company and had always been closer to him than Steve. It was why she left what remained in her modest bank account only to Ray when she died.
He looked down at his feet for another minute before shuffling back down the row toward his pickup truck. It started tentatively on the first try.
informal: person regarded as having secret or sinister influence
Ray cruised at 15 miles per hour down the wide avenue of Victorian homes at the edge of the city. With “Water Department” emblazoned on the van, he knew he wouldn’t look suspicious driving so slowly. As he made his way to the next house on his list, he scanned under shrubs and trees in the yards he passed. Older homes always had more yard ornaments than the sterile, anonymous homes in the new subdivisions. A fairy peeked out from a tuft of lavender growing next to a large mauve house with cream-colored trim. Josephine had always been fond of mythical creatures as a girl. They were a rare escape from the torment that bruised both their bodies as children and future as adults.
The two-way radio crackled to life in his shirt pocket. “Ray? You there?” It was his boss.
“Yeah. What’s up, Eddie?”
“Listen, I need you to swing by my office after you drop off the van tonight, OK?” he said.
“Yeah. Sure thing. Should be about another hour or so,” Ray answered.
“Sounds good,” Eddie replied.
Just after four o’clock, Ray made his way to the front of the public works building after parking the van. The heavy steel door creaked as he pulled it open. Usually Eddie walked around pretending to be busy, but today he was thumbing through a stack of papers in his office across from the entrance.
With two knuckles, Ray tapped on the doorframe. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yeah. Close the door, Ray,” said Eddie. Ray closed the door and leaned against it, folding his arms across his chest. “Listen, Ray, somebody called last week about seeing someone take a pinwheel or something from someone’s yard?”
“Hmmm.” Ray didn’t want to deny the allegation without first hearing whether Eddie had more to say. “Really?” He tried to sound surprised.
“Yeah. A neighbor across the street from 25 Walden Circle. Left a message that some city worker in the Water Department lifted a pinwheel from her neighbor’s lawn. Know anything about that? That was the day you were on that street.” Elbows on his desk, Eddie stared at Ray while rolling a pen between his hands. City workers were frequently accused of stealing things from yards and homes. Eddie often fielded calls and complaints like this. Ray couldn’t get a read on Eddie’s tone but it wasn’t the first time he had spoken to Ray about this kind of thing. The previous instances already came with enough circumstantial evidence to implicate Ray, and Eddie had warned him: he’d be fired if anything else was reported stolen.
Ray returned Eddie’s icy stare while he contemplated his response. It was a witch hunt over a cheap toy. He knew Eddie wasn’t going to ask any of the other guys about a missing pinwheel. They’d balk. Ray knew what this really was: the final warning.
“Yeah, I was on that street but…” Ray started to answer.
Eddie dropped the pen and interrupted. “Well, they didn’t leave a phone number for me to call back or a plate number or anything, so I can’t really prove it was anyone from Water and Sewer.” A long pause blanketed the room before he continued. “I just thought you might like to know about the call, you know, in case you heard anything.” The corners of Eddie’s lips smirked up just enough to convey the kind of power he was eager to wield.
“Yeah. Sure. That all?” Ray asked as he started to turn the knob on the door. Eddie nodded and picked up his phone.
Ray fished his keys out of his pocket and looked at his watch as he exited the building. There was still enough time before the cemetery gates would be locked for the evening. With rain in the forecast, he knew it would be better to stop by today instead of tomorrow morning. He wanted to bring Josephine the blue glass heart he found in the potted nasturtiums at his second meter check. All day long he’d been rubbing it like a worry stone inside his pocket.
Strobe-effect sun blinked through the driver’s side window as Ray drove past small stands of spruce and birch, steadfast sentries along the winding road. The distance between houses yawned wider as he got closer to the cemetery. When his rusted red pickup crested the last hill, the iron entry gate came into view. He turned in and drove slowly to the gravel lane closest to Josephine.
The grass had been cut since he was last there. The quiet brush brush brush of short, dry blades punctuated Ray’s quickened pace. As he approached Josephine, he noticed the space in front of her headstone was empty. Only the pansies remained, now centered in front of the headstone instead of off to the side where they usually were.
A surge of tears roiled from inside him. “Oh for Chrissakes! Godammit!” he shouted. When he reached her grave, he awkwardly dropped to his knees with a grunt, bewildered by the missing figurines and decorations. He looked sideways to the other graves and then peered to the back of Josephine’s headstone. Everything was in a pile. He let out a long, measured sigh. The angel lay face up at the top of the small heap, staring blankly at the sky. One of her wings had broken off. Ray noticed it at the bottom of the bric-a-brac mound, partially covered by a plastic wreath of holly sun-bleached to a putrid green.
He moved the pansies off to the side of the headstone. Slowly dismantling the tangle, Ray gently placed each treasure where it had been the week before. After a few minutes in this crouched position, his breathing became labored with a faint wheeze as he exhaled. When everything was back in its spot, he tucked the angel’s wing into his pocket and pulled out the blue glass heart. Ray closed his eyes for a moment and gave the warm glass a kiss before dropping it into the pansies. His fingers nimbly deadheaded a few stems as he pulled his hand away. He remembered how his sister once told him this was how to keep flowers blooming longer.
With his hands on top of the headstone for balance, he stood up. As he shuffled toward his truck, the wing’s jagged edge caught and released the lining of his pocket with each step. The rhythm lulled him as his anger ebbed into a familiar yet comfortable sadness.
After he signed in for the day, Ray handed his handwritten resignation notice to Eddie. It was scrawled on a sheet of notebook paper. He’d be leaving in a month.
“You’re quitting? Does this have to do with the other day? Ha!” Eddie flung the paper on his desk and leaned back in his chair.
“Nah. Has nothing to do with that. Can’t afford my place no more, not without Josephine around anyway. The small bit of money she left me is pretty much gone. My brother says there’s work near him out in San Antonio. Says I can move in with him rent-free while I figure things out.” Ray shifted in the doorway waiting for Eddie’s response.
“Guess that makes sense.” Eddie forced a half smile onto his expressionless face before turning toward his computer. Ray’s cheeks slackened and his stomach pitched as he realized that after more than 18 years working there, his departure wouldn’t even matter.
Ray drove to the first house of the day. He remembered how he used to ride along these streets with Judy when they were married. Every Sunday night, they’d stop for coffee and club sandwiches at one of the city’s two diners, and then head over to Buster’s to buy a new cassette tape. Sometimes they’d have to look for a few quarters on the car floor and in between the seats to round out the eight bucks they needed, dusting off the cigarette ash before slipping the coins into their pockets. They pretended to fight about which music to buy. Eddie Money and .38 Special were her favorites. He loved women like Pat Benatar and Joan Jett, but he always let Judy win. They’d cruise the streets in aimless silence, letting the loud guitar riffs and love-struck lyrics wash over them. After Buster’s went out of business, they had fewer reasons to drive around. Their music grew stale. Eventually, their marriage did too. Judy got bored and fell in love with someone else. Ray traded in their old car and bought the truck after she left for good. It never felt like a fair deal to him. Judy was the one who ended up with love. Once he moved to San Antonio, he knew he’d never come back. Judy’s shadow still lurked in too many corners. Without Josephine to cast light upon that sooty void, he fumbled and fell down deep. It hurt to leave. This was the only home Ray ever knew. But it hurt more to stay, and he could no longer do it without his sister. His cheerleader. His vault of secrets.
“Where’s the goddamn meter?” Ray yelled to himself as he searched behind prim boxwoods and wide azaleas near the front bay windows. He moved to the side of the house. As he walked, Ray glanced toward the backyard and saw a once loved but now neglected flower garden. Weeds choked out complacent perennials. Footpaths were no longer defined and maple seedlings dotted the dried out mulch. Garden decorations peeked out from leggy shoots and branches in need of pruning. Among them, a small metal sunflower, petals painted canary yellow and freckled with rust. He thought of Josephine. Every June, she planted neck-craning sunflowers in their claustrophobic side yard. After checking the water meter, Ray walked over to the flower and tugged it out of the ground by one of its cold petals.
“What the hell is going on here?” Ray shouted at the caretaker from the middle of the grassy row.
“Lookit! I told you there were rules about those things. I thought you’d get the hint the other day and just take those things home after you saw them in a pile. I didn’t want to throw them out, but you gave me no choice. I’m sorry, but that’s the rules.” With his edging shears, the caretaker turned back to the uneven grass bordering a trio of dwarf Japanese maples.
“This is ridiculous. These people are dead! You think anyone else coming here cares about how many potted plants and stuff I got in front of her stone?”
The caretaker didn’t turn around. Ray sighed loudly to provoke a response. After a minute, Ray shouted, “Did you hear me?” His brusque tone was answered with the coarse snip snip snip of metal blades.
Ray walked toward Josephine. Without looking down, he dropped the sunflower on the ground near her headstone as he strode past. The petals scraped along the granite before landing in the grass with a shallow thud. “I’ll be back soon, Josie,” he muttered. He clambered into his truck and slammed his foot against the gas pedal, launching a low cloud of gravel dust into the air.
Also garden gnome: a small garden ornament in the form of a bearded man with a pointed hat
The next morning simmered with evaporating rain and soggy pollen while the sun torched sharp angles on damp stockade fences and wet aluminum siding. Sitting in the driver’s seat of his van, he avoided looking at the other city employees nearby and glanced down at the day’s list of meter readings. Lantern Drive and Vine Street were on the north side of the city near his apartment. Between readings he could stop to take out a few bags of trash and some unwanted furniture so he wouldn’t have to do it after work.
He remembered the Tudor on Vine Street. It was Josephine’s favorite house. She loved to take walks there to admire the garden. Sometimes he’d walk with her. A stretch of wildflowers and heirloom roses ran the entire length of the yard and teemed with whimsical creatures made of ceramic and stone — human and animal, and some in between. Lingering in her frizzy gray curls, slippered feet, and frayed, mint green housedress, she’d stand there for more than an hour sometimes, talking to herself and touching flowers over the split rail fence, coveting what she would never have. The owners would peek at her through their pale window sheers. Maybe they took pity on her because she looked sick. Maybe it’s why they never seemed to mind. Whenever he saw the sheers shiver closed in the window, Ray silently thanked them for leaving her alone.
In less than an hour, he worked through the houses on Lantern Drive. As he turned down Vine Street, Ray spotted a garden gnome at the far end of the fence in front of the Tudor. He’d never noticed it before. Maybe it was new. Most gnomes he’d ever seen were extreme caricatures, silently fixed with anger or joy. But this one was different. Stoic and benevolent. Quietly yielding to the bursting kaleidoscope of living color and delicate decay around him, humbly standing guard. A kindred spirit made of stone.
Ray parked his van in front of the house and found the water meter. Waiting for the gallons to flash on the digital reader, he looked around. The house appeared to be vacant. There were no cars in sight. When his reader beeped, Ray took quick steps toward the far end of the crimson roses and then stopped to adjust the laces on his boots. As he stood up, he plucked the gnome from its post.
Only 20 minutes had passed before Eddie’s loud voice cut through the sound of Ray dropping trash into the metal trash cans outside his apartment. “Ray! I just got a call from a resident on Vine Street. You need to get in here. Now.” Without answering, Ray turned off the two-way radio and climbed into his van. An unusual calm spread across his shoulders and down his aching spine. He opened the window and with his left arm resting on the window frame, cruised slowly back to the water department. Whispers of cool air stroked his left cheek and he wondered if he’d be able to tolerate the ear-splitting heat of Texas. His thoughts shifted when the breeze stopped at a red light. Ray didn’t know how he was going to reconcile with Steve, but he knew he had no other choice. He was happy the drive to San Antonio was going to be a long one, and maybe enough time to figure it out.
He pulled into the city lot and parked near his truck. On any other day, Ray would have stormed into Eddie’s office ready to argue with nothing to lose. But today he fought the urge. He ignored the angry boil of irrelevance that had long festered inside him, begging to be punctured. It was time to let go and yield to grace.
The van keys dangled from the ignition as he slammed the door shut. With the gnome under his arm, he unlocked his dusty pickup. “Screw you, Eddie,” he shouted while facing the building and holding up a middle finger. A minute later, his truck roared to life, tires squealing as he merged onto the main road.
Typical: a legendary dwarfish creature supposed to guard
the earth’s treasures underground
Like a shawl pulled over bony shoulders, the hush of encroaching twilight settled along the wooded perimeter of the cemetery. Ray kneeled down and steadied the gray gnome next to the pansies. In the waning lavender light, it looked darker against the pink granite than it did among the ivy and rudbeckia in front of the Tudor. He closed his eyes and kissed his salt-scented palm before placing it firmly over her name. The gloss of her headstone was smooth and pressed the day’s warmth against his calloused hand. A swell of grief ballooned in his throat.
“I stopped by your favorite house today. You’d love it, Josie. The roses are in full bloom.” The letters in her name blurred and twisted and the gnome doubled in two before he blinked away the tears. “Josie, I’ve got to go.” Ray couldn’t catch his breath between his heaving sobs. “Steve’s got a place in Texas now. Said I can move in with him. Says there’s work out there. I don’t know if I’ll get back anytime soon, but I can’t stay here anymore,” he stammered. “You were always there for me, Josie. We came from the same dark place, you, Stevie, and me. But you were the only one who understood me after all that. I don’t know how Stevie moved on, but…”
His mouth filled with the brine of tears and loneliness and grass-sweet scent of death below his feet. A slow drop of drool fell from his lips. Tears howled out of him until the jagged stone of sorrow dislodged from his chest, allowing him to breathe again. “I miss you so much, sweet sister.”
Ray pulled out a yellowed handkerchief. Glancing up, he noticed the sun had descended behind the trees. The iron gate would soon be locked. He stood up and stuffed the damp square of cotton back in his pocket. The sharp scent of evergreen filled his lungs as he inhaled. It was the smell of resurrection and new life. His fingers dropped from the top of her headstone and he slipped his hand into his front pocket. As he bent forward, Ray plucked the angel wing out of his pocket and leaned it against the gnome. He muttered a small wish as his fingers let go. He knew it was something that would never come true. Before turning to leave, he pulled the sunflower from the ground. He would find a place for it in Texas.
After he climbed inside his truck, Ray set the sunflower down next to him and then turned the key. Gravel crunched under the stiff rubber tires as he drove his truck onto the narrow lane. He watched Josephine’s headstone flatten into the darkening horizon of his rearview mirror, joining the anonymous silhouettes of others. As Ray steered out of the cemetery gate, he whispered, “Goodbye, sweet Josie,” knowing it would be the last time.
* Definition references are compiled from oxfordictionaries.com
Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former land use attorney living in Massachusetts. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) in The Hopper, The Healing Muse, NYT Motherlode, The Manifest-Station, The Humanist, Modern Farmer, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and can be found on Twitter @littlelodestar.