by Gerald Kamens
The nurse left work at five o’clock. By the time she’d arrived in their driveway, her husband had already started digging, after the July heat had begun to fade.
“I was reading about political prisoners in some godforsaken country,” her husband shouted, when she came into the yard. “Forced to dig their own graves. Then, afterwards, the soldiers would shoot them on the spot. Fell right over into the holes. Jesus Christ!” Carving out a tiny grave for Oscar, her husband muttered snatches of curses and bellows as he sweatily dug down into the hard ground.
As she watched him, Martha thought about Roger’s rough childhood, their rough marriage, the second for both of them. She could barely make out his words, so disconsolate was she about her faithful cat, who’d befriended her, in his own sweet fashion, for going on sixteen years, twice as long as she’d known Roger.
Until yesterday, when she found little Oscar, lying under their bed, silent, barely moving. And this morning, he was dead. She hoped he’d have a better life in the feline hereafter, and wondered if it were true, as she’d heard from a friend, that departed pets came back to this earth as angels.
“I’ll get us some lemonade,” she said to Roger, a smallish, thinnish man, except for his incongruous paunch, which hung over his belt, as he hurled his pickax up and down, to make a big enough dent in the rocky ground out by their back fence. “Least,” he said, “we didn’t have to take him to the vet’s to put him out of his misery!”
She walked up to the kitchen, trying to recall exactly what had drawn them to each other initially, and into what wormhole that attraction must have disappeared a while back.
“Hey, wife, this is hard work. Squirt a little gin in that lemonade!”
Those were the last words she heard from him. When Martha came out from the kitchen and onto the back porch, carrying the tray with the two glasses, she saw one point of the pickax rooted in the earth, and her husband slumped over on that ground. The beginnings of Oscar’s grave could contain only the man’s hand. She walked over to her husband slowly, and, kneeling down, saw that he didn’t seem to be breathing. She took the pulse in his right wrist, the one hanging down in the half-finished grave. In her ER work, she’d taken many pulses.
Knowing for sure, since she was a professional, that he was dead, she walked slowly back up onto the porch, and slumped down in a chair. She sat there, immobile, for what seemed a long time, but probably wasn’t, wondering about mighthavebeens. Martha knew at some level that her customary state of feeling lonely had been replaced by one of being really alone, adrift in the ocean of the world. Finally, moving to the kitchen phone, although she realized it wasn’t really an emergency, she punched in 911.
Gerald Kamens has worked in a mental hospital, the White House, the U.S. Senate, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Most of his recent works are children’s stories, essays, and short plays. His last acting role was in Chekhov’s The Seagull.