“Heatin’ the outside?” he complains, clearing his throat. It takes some effort for Dean to stand. His slippers skid over the wood floor. At the door Dean’s brow furls and he draws the blanket tighter across his shoulders. The screen darkens the world, confirming his mood. Life feels like cold honey, and he is struggling against it.
“If it’d help get us a little closer to spring,” says Don. “Give ya a chill?”
“Not when I remember the long winters working in that stuff.”
Don nods in agreement. “Best argument I heard yet for being retired.”
“Got a whole lot more if you’re interested?”
“Six of one, half dozen of another I figure.” Don takes a deep breath. His brow furls too, though Dean cannot see. Don wonders if Dean feels the change, the distance that is growing between them.
“Ladies auxiliary’s havin’ a breakfast this morning,” says Don. “Figured we’d hit the early Mass and get the first run at that food.”
“Mind?” says Dean. “Just as soon not.”
“Cook ya up something here? Got some good pork sausage?”
Dean watches the deer move off, bringing tears to his eyes. He knows it would good to get back out among the world again, to hear the titter of the ladies of the auxiliary, but happiness is just too painful to endure. It feels like a betrayal of Mary Lou’s memory. Happiness feels like a distraction from the fading memories of her.
“If it’s all the same, I’d just as soon be getting home before the snow gets too bad.”
“Somethin’ for the road? Good breakfast’d fix ya right up?”
Dean thought to answer, something about not being hungry, and that such things didn’t concern him any longer. We wanted to tell Don just to let him be, but it felt too much like asking for sympathy.
“Coffee’d be nice.”
Neither man moves, but remain looking out at the snowy fields. The distance between them is immeasurable.
“Good sausage, ya say?” Dean asks finally.
Dean sighs. The cold air is waking him up nicely. He has a thought and can’t help himself. “Mary Lou sure liked pork sausage. Liked a lot of it!”
Don looks and sees a glimmer of the old Dean, the first time since… Don feels lifted.
“Healthy woman she was.”
“Healthy and a half,” says Dean.
“Sure was a good woman though.”
The kitchen is warm. Don is standing by the sink. Dean is sort of slouched at the table, running his fingers along the rim of his coffee cup. They never did make it to church, but did make it to the Hog’s Breath. The snow has stopped, but the clouds remain. Shafts of pale light find channels, falling upon distant farms, like snapshots of things demanding to be remembered, the inconsequential moments that make up a life and of things that will not come again.
To Don these things are an affirmation of the commodity of our lives. To Dean they are a confirmation of a God dispensing great sorrow masked in love and youth and hope. He refuses to be drawn into the vortex of that misery.
“Can’t recall when I had a better breakfast,” Don says.
“Good biscuits and gravy,” says Dean, holding up his cup as Don refills it. Don sees Dean’s eyes darken and knows that he is thinking of her.
“Got some of that pork sausage in there.”
Dean squints as he sips the hot coffee. “Pepper’s the key, though.”
“Did it just right, did they?”
“Believe I’ll have to give that a try.”
The coffee kettle clangs on the stove as Don sets it down. Beside the barn he spots the big orange tomcat. There’s no mistaking that swollen belly, though. Don smiles realizing, after all these years, that the old Tom is really a girl!
“We’re havin’ a roast for supper, creamed carrots and potatoes, the way you like it. Joanne’s gonna make some of her famous buttermilk biscuits.”
“Temptin’,” says Dean, “but I should be gettin’ home. Been a big enough burden on Joanne already.”
“Believe she feels about the same as me,” says Don. “Grandkid’s will be here.”
The idea horrifies Dean. The laughter, the sound of life and love and togetherness will only remind him of all that he has lost. He manages to hold himself together long enough to pack his things and give Joanne the warmest hug he can muster. It takes all the courage he has, a feat that would impress any combat veteran. Out on the road, out of sight, he pulls to a stop and slumps heavily against the steering wheel.
There is another perspective on the world, an idea that the trials and battles of our lives are insignificant against the overwhelming expanse of sky. We are nothing without the light of those who love us. How perfect the world we cannot fathom. The sky turns the seasons like chapters to our lives. And so winter passes and everything seems to turn green in the blink of an eye. Trees fill with new leaves and birds singing, and marigolds erupt with color beside the house.
Don is sitting alone beside the barn. He turns as Dean climbs down the steps. Dean is using a cane now, for just a little extra support. He has a glass of brandy in his free hand. He likes it better than beer these days, says it keeps his blood flowing. Dean has a blush to his cheeks. This is his second glass.
“Sure is a nice day,” says Dean, taking his regular seat.
“Just about perfect.” Seems like forever to Don since he found Dean weeping in his car. It was as if sorrow was a poison that needed to be bled away, and bleed he did. It wasn’t that he had put Mary Lou behind him, but rather that he had come to some conclusion.
“Believe you were right about the biscuits and gravy up at the Hog’s Breath.”
“Didn’t I tell ya?”
“Shame about Morris Drew,” says Don.
“Sure am gonna miss that sausage,” says Dean.
“End of an era.”
“How long you figure we been sittin’ here?”
“A lifetime, I reckon.”
“What precisely did we accomplish?”
“Didn’t know we set out to accomplish anything.”
“No regrets?” Don asked.
“Not a one.”
“How long you figure we’re gonna keep having this conversation?”
“Why, ain’t getting tired are you?”
“I figure we’ll be at it a good while longer.”
Dean smiles and sets the brandy down on the grass. Delicate white blossoms fill the apple tree. Old Dean is content to sit there forever, and thinks that this is about as close to perfect as a body can come in this life.