Ask Not for Whom the Bell Tolls

graveyard

When the bell rang beside his ear he jerked straight up from his slumber against the tombstone. Maybe it was the wind? God, let it be the wind! His eyes flew to the cord that emerged from a copper tube in the freshly-turned earth. The cord was moving. He’d have to dig. He’d promised.

When Edwin’s mother finally died, his sorrow was tempered by a big dollop of relief. Mrs. Benjamin had had a lengthy last illness, a horror story of diminished mobility, dementia and bedsores. How she could continue to live in such a state was a puzzle, but live she did until she and everyone longed for the end. Although she seldom seemed to know who or where she was, one thought remained in her addled brain: fear of being buried alive. She’d discussed it with Edwin many times. As she drew her last breath, she locked eyes with him and whispered, “Promise.”

Edwin knew her fear wasn’t totally irrational. The pronouncement of death was an inexact science in the year of our Lord, 1816. When there was no response to the usual diagnostic tools –  a pinprick, a mirror held under the nose, an ear pressed to the chest – burial took place as soon as possible. Mistakes were rare, but they happened.

The well-off and especially fearful had escape coffins made to give themselves a fighting chance if revival happened underground. Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick designed a coffin with a window, an air tube and a lock, with the key to repose in a special pocket of his shroud. Other coffins, like Mrs. Benjamin’s, were built with cords that rang a bell on the surface. That was the signal for someone topside to start digging.

Edwin had promised to keep watch above his mother’s grave for forty-eight hours so he’d be right there with his spade if needed. Now he stared at the gently swinging little bell, his body drenched in terror-sweat. Dig up his poor mother who had been needing to die for at least ten years? Not dig her up and let her die a second time alone and in panic? There was no good solution. Flinging off his cape, Edwin stuck the spade in the soft ground and began excavating. He dug to the gentle tinkling of the bell.

The spade hit the top of the coffin with a metallic clunk. Jumping down into the hole, he  pried open the lid, clamping his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering. Inside his mother lay in peaceful repose, as dead as she could possibly be. Then what or who rang the bell?

Reemerging above ground, Edwin scanned the area around the grave carefully. His peripheral vision caught a dark figure darting behind the tombstone. Raising his lantern high, he peered around the marker. Two glowing yellow eyes caught the light.  A paw snaked out and flicked the bell, sending a ripple along the cord.

Ting-a-ling. Meow.

Edwin took that black cat home with him. He named it Dead Ringer.

 

 

 

 

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Be Careful What You Wish For

 

boy and girl dating“I wish I could get Tina to notice me,” I said to my best friend, Kevin.

He laughed. “Yeah, well, good luck with that. How does that makes you different from all the other guys?”

Kevin was immune to her charms because he already had a girlfriend. He couldn’t know the pain of my unrequited love.

Tina simply made my sixteen-year-old heart race, and I wasn’t the only one. She was always surrounded by boys. Boys trying to sound funny or wise or bad; boys horsing around to show how strong they were; boys with the courage to ask her out and boys too timid to do more than worship from afar. I was in the latter category.

Shy though I was, I was determined to capture Tina’s attention and I gave it some thought. I wasn’t funny or wise or bad, and I knew it. So, what were my strengths? Well, I made good grades. Yawn. I had my driver’s license but no car, double-yawn. I wasn’t on any sports team, but I did do volunteer work, triple-yawn. I needed to get creative, figure out how to set myself apart from the crowd.

It was while I was working my weekly shift at the humane shelter that a brilliant idea illuminated the right hemisphere of my brain. I was cleaning the puppy cage. There happened to be a litter of almost-Golden Retrievers in the shelter that day, six-week-old balls of blond fluff so cute they made your back teeth ache. One of them had an outsize personality and watching him tumble around with his tiny tail straight up in the air – that’s when it hit me. Girls love puppies.

Sure, my folks had a fit when I brought him home, but I lobbied hard and the puppy was his own best advocate. We became a family with a dog. I named him Buddy.

The next day I raced home after school, collected Buddy and returned to the big oak tree in the park where Tina and her girlfriends held court every day. I jostled my way to the front of the crowd, didn’t say a word, just put the puppy in her arms. She melted.

From then on, Tina singled me out in the crowd so she could see Buddy. I played it cool, kept her wanting more. Sometimes I didn’t show up. Occasionally, I left Buddy at home. Then I caught a virus and was in bed for five days, and whaddya know, Tina actually called me.

“How’s Buddy?” she asked. Not “How are you, you poor sick thing?” Okay, but still she called me. I said Buddy was fine and I was better, thanks, and we’d probably be at the park later that week.

“Why don’t I come visit him, I mean, you?” Tina said.

I took the world’s quickest shower and threw on some clothes. Shaky and pale, I met her at the door with Buddy capering around my feet. I tried to ignore my fever chills and concentrate on Tina’s miraculous presence while she concentrated on Buddy.

After that, we were sort of a couple. Well, more of a threesome because Tina always insisted that Buddy be with us. We hardly ever talked to each other, but Tina talked to Buddy a lot.

“Who’s a widdle puppy-wuppy?” she’d coo, as Buddy rolled over so she could scratch his fat belly. “He’s a good doggie, yes he is.” Buddy would nibble her fingers with his sharp baby teeth and she’d squeal. I’d just sit there. Sometimes I’d do my homework.

I tried to engage Tina in conversation, but once we’d exhausted movies, TV and celebrities she lost interest. And much as she said she loved Buddy she wasn’t interested in learning how to take care of him. She just wanted to play with him and show him off. She bought him little outfits and fancy collars. Then she got all three of us matching bandanas and tee-shirts and insisted we wear them to the park. It was a near-death experience for me. The laughter of the cool kids burned my ears and “Arf-Arf” instantly became my new name.

Tina thought it was funny. Beautiful girls can get away with anything. Ordinary guys like me, not so much.  Being with her wasn’t at all like I’d dreamed it would be.

“I wish I could get Tina to leave me alone,” I said to Kevin.

He laughed. “Yeah, well, good luck with that.”

 

 

 

Carryin’ On

 

old couple hands

“If you don’t like it, you don’t hafta eat it.”

“Well, I gotta eat something, even if it’s slop.”

“Why don’t you cook if you’re so all-fired picky?”

“That ain’t my job, it’s your job. A person would think you’d a’got better at it after all these years.”

“Yeah? Well, a person would think you’d a’got better at raisin’ livestock after all these years. How many calves died last spring?”

“Don’t you go jawin’ about stuff you don’t understand. Them calves got scours. It was just bad luck.”

“Seems like some folks know how to avoid bad luck, that’s what I’m sayin.”

“I reckon you know aaaawl about it, so ain’t no use tryin’ to talk sense into you.”

“Did you put your dirty overalls in the clothes hamper? Tomorrow’s wash day and if your stuff aint’ in there, it won’t get clean.”

“Haven’t I put my dirty overalls in the hamper every Saturday night since Christ was a corporal?”

“Don’t be takin’ the Lord’s name in vain. You’re so forgetful lately I had to ask.”

“You don’t have to ask, you do it just to pester me.”

She felt the first raindrop plop onto her arm and squinted at the sky.

“It’s comin’ up a cloud. I gotta go. Ain’t no point in settin’ here getting soaked.”

“Go on, then. Don’t get wet.”

Scrambling to her feet with difficulty, she folded her canvas chair and hooked her big purse over her arm. She kissed the tip of one finger and pressed it on his name where the letters were etched deeply into the granite.

She’d be back the next day, just as she’d been there the day before and the day before that. Their dialogue had been going on too long to be interrupted by a little thing like death.

Rumspringa

For Part I of Joseph’s story, go to Feb. 11, 2018; for Part II, go to Aug. 26, 2018

rumspringa

It took every bit of Joseph’s strength to pull the dead weight of his brother out of the car. Jacob’s head lolled dangerously and Joseph steadied it as he stretched the limp body on the grass. Rumspringa had hit Jacob hard. When Joseph heard the car’s engine break the nighttime hush he knew there was trouble. The car should have been left at the back of one of the fields where it couldn’t be seen by Amish neighbors. Jacob wasn’t supposed to have a car at all, and certainly wasn’t allowed to disgrace his family by parking it in their lane in plain sight. But Jacob was too drunk to know or care that he’d flouted his father’s orders. Joseph wondered how he’d ever made it home.

Now Joseph would have to wake Pop for help getting his brother into the house and up to his bed. Mom would cry and the sisters would whisper behind their hands, wide-eyed at such sin in their own home. Joseph wondered again why some Amish young people chose rumspringa, literally “running around.”

Before they were baptized and formally joined the church, youngsters in their mid-to-late teens could sow their wild oats. Some stayed close to home, content with decking out their buggies, coming home late on Saturday night and maybe having a portable radio. Others, more daring, chose the worst options their communities had to offer in the 1950s: reckless driving in unfamiliar automobiles, binge drinking, smoking tobacco and pot, and promiscuous sex.

Amish elders kept hands off, but watched and worried. The theory was that the kids would become so sickened by excess they’d want to return to their roots, to the plain, wholesome lifestyle in which they’d grown up. Usually, that’s what happened. Sometimes, though, an Amish boy or girl wouldn’t survive, dying in a car wreck or succumbing to alcohol poisoning. Joseph knew that’s what worried his folks as Jacob, their eldest son, careened out of control.

Joseph and Pop sat at the kitchen table with coffee cups in front of them. It was four in the morning, not quite time to get up but too late to go back to bed. They’d confuse the cows if they started milking too early, so they made a pot of coffee and broke out some of Mom’s homemade sweet rolls. Pop hadn’t said much as he and Joseph had half-carried Jacob into the house and dumped him in bed. Now he looked at Joseph searchingly.

“So…do you think you’ll go on rumspringa when the time comes?” he asked.

Joseph shook his head. “It doesn’t look like much fun,” he said.

“What would you do instead, if you could?” Pop asked.

Joseph looked up in surprise. Was Pop talking about choices? Were there any?

“I guess I’d stay in school,” Joseph said. “I really like learning, especially science.”

He didn’t add that he also really liked Patty Lanahan, the local doctor’s daughter. She was pretty, funny, college-bound – so far out of his league that he was astonished when she made a point of talking to him. Gradually, their conversations grew from casual discussions of class assignments and school gossip to sharing viewpoints, philosophies and feelings. Now he felt closer to her than he’d ever felt to anybody. They met in homeroom every morning, eager to resume the conversation interrupted by the last school bell. There was no question of them getting together outside of school; Amish and English kids didn’t socialize, let alone date.

“Maybe,” Pop said, peering into his coffee cup as if he was looking for answers, “we should think about letting you graduate high school. Your teacher told me you have – what was the word he used – aptitude, that was it. He said it would be a shame if you couldn’t continue your education.”

“But we don’t do that,” Joseph said, scared and filled with hope at the same time. Amish kids left school as soon as they were sixteen, and he never expected to do anything else.

“Most of us don’t,” Pop agreed. “But once in a great while…well, someone comes along who…” His voice trailed off. “I’d rather see you stay in school than go out and get drunk like your brother. At least you’d be safe.”

“What would Mom say, though?”

“We’ve talked about it. Mom is afraid you won’t stay Amish, but she wants what is best for you. We hope you’ll join the church some day. Well, we don’t have to decide anything right now. You’ll be sixteen next year. You have a year to decide.”

Joseph’s head filled with possibilities. If he could finish high school with a high grade point average, maybe he could – did he dare? – think about going to college. He’d told no one his secret dream of becoming a doctor because it was so out of the realm of reality. Now he could hardly wait to tell Patty.