Sometimes governments do stupid things. Everyone knows they are but they abide, for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s not worth the trouble to protest. Maybe they ignore the notice and by the time they find their city or state was serious, it’s too late. So, it was with Mary Pith, when in the spring of 2002, she found workers had cut down her grapefruit tree. Without so much as a by her leave. And the excuse they gave? To stop the spread of canker. As if the yard was next to some orange grove and not in the heart of Fort Lauderdale. Although she’d never cared for grapefruit, she loved having the tree itself. There it had stood, taller than their one-story house, protecting the yard from the hot Florida sun. Plus, she had enjoyed giving the fruit away. It was a small thing that made people happy. But there wasn’t much she could do, so she shrugged and told her friends sorry. Because she hated gardening and manual labor. And it took years for a tree to grow and bear fruit. Replacing it wasn’t worth the effort.
Yet twenty years later, here she was, in a different city, arguing with a sixteen-year-old over the best way to dig a hole.
“A post digger won’t do the job,” Mark said. “It won’t make the hole big enough.”
“I know that," Mary answered, as she lugged the damned thing over. She shoved her curly hair back off her face, leaned the post digger against the fence, and regarded her son. “I think it will be easier to break the ground with this though. Then we’ll use the shovel to widen the hole. Okay?”
“Whatever,” Mark said. He took the shovel and leaned on it as if it was a cane. She gave him her best mother’s glare but he merely watched as she jammed the digger into the ground and pushed the edges open. The earth was dry and not very soft.
“Let me try,” Mark said.
“Just a moment.” Mary swore and jammed the edges in again. These better be the best oranges I ever had, she thought, as she dug. I better have so many I can sell them to Tropicana I swear to God. She put her foot on the digger, pushed it back into the ground, and thought, this man owes me that much.
One can break most of the wedding vows. Mary and her husband had, after twelve years of marriage. Because there was no more for better or for richer. But the until death do you part vow can't be completely severed, no matter how good the attorney is. The couple can separate, divorce, and date other people but they are still bound together. Mary certainly felt that way. She saw her ex when he got the kids every other weekend. They took him out for Father’s Day. He did the same for her on Mother’s Day. Why they’d even spent Christmas together one year with James' brother. For the sake of the children and all that. Awkward, but not as bad as Mary had feared.
These vows aren’t to be taken lightly, Mary thought, as she slid back the closet door in her son’s former bedroom. That’s what the priest said to us in the Pre-Cana class. She stared grimly at the canister on the top shelf. Problem is sometimes not even death will get rid of a guy.
Thirteen years after the divorce, her ex-husband was back in her house. Thanks to his stupid brother, Leroy. John, the oldest son, was about to move to Tampa for his new job and his uncle had wanted to take the boys out to dinner. Mary had a book club meeting that day but figured she wasn’t needed.
Unfortunately, the man had ulterior motives.
“He told me it’s my problem now,” John had said, showing Mary the large black cylinder that said, James Valentine, May 6, 1966-March 10, 2017. “So, for now, I’m keeping Dad in my closet.”
“Cool. Don’t forget him,” Mary had answered, knowing damned well what would happen. Because children always leave their parents behind, living or not. That was how it was supposed to be, after all. Still, when Mary saw the canister was left behind, she texted John to complain.
“I'm sorry, I just forgot,” John texted back. “But I have very limited closet space so it’s just as well.”
Well isn't that convenient, Mary thought, thinking of what to do. Killing Leroy seemed like a good idea. He knew the boys didn't want the ashes. Fortunately for him, Mary didn’t want to deal with prison food. She told John he was a terrible son but he just shrugged it off. And honestly, Mary couldn’t blame him for leaving the ashes as annoying as it was. So, she asked Mark if he wanted them. He was very unenthusiastic as well.
“I don’t want Dad in my room,” Mark said. “That’s weird.”
How do you think I feel? Mary wanted to say. My ex is in my house. She hoped no bad juju came of this. The man already haunted her nights as it was. It didn’t happen all the time, thankfully. But ever since his death Mary would occasionally awaken from a dream where they were remarried or about to do so. Every time she felt it was a mistake she couldn’t stop. She didn’t know if James was trying to communicate, or if it was just some game her psyche was playing with me. Mary prayed it was the latter. She regarded Mark’s messy bedroom with the cans and clothes on the floor. I could probably hide the canister in here for all he’d notice. Instead, she pointed out a lot of people kept ashes.
“Yes, and they’re weird,” Mark said.
“Okay,” Mary said, “tell you what. I don’t want him in the house either. It’s...he’s my ex and... I’m sorry but I don’t like it.” Mark nodded like he understood. Good. Mary went on. “Suppose we plant something and bury the ashes with it. Like a rose bush.”
“I want a fruit tree,” Mark said.
“That’s fine as long as it’s not grapefruit.”
“How about an orange tree, then?”
“Done,” Mary said. “Where should we put it?” She walked to the sliding glass door and looked out at her yard. In front was a small patio with two tables. A small grill sat on one of them. On one side of the patio was a shriveled bush. Its twin was on the other. That one was seven feet tall, and thriving. Why one did well and the other died Mary didn’t know. She suggested they dig the dead bush out and put the tree there. But neither of them wanted to do the work. Mark also thought the yard would look asymmetrical. He suggested putting it in the far-right corner and Mary, who didn’t care, agreed. To be polite, she texted John who stated once again they could do what they liked with Dad’s ashes. She had let Mark pick out the tree. All was ready.
Mary lifted down the canister. Amazing that a man’s remains could be reduced to maybe ten pounds. She said, “Okay, James let’s go,” then turned and headed for the sliding glass door.
Outside, Mark had been widening the hole Mary had dug. It seemed good enough, about two feet deep. She tried to open the canister and found it was held together by tiny screws. She put it down, went inside, and found the smallest Phillips she owned. Mary came back and unscrewed the lid, taking it off. Inside was a sealed plastic bag. She held the canister out to Mark, who recoiled. “Do you want to do the honors?”
“Umm. You go ahead,” he said.
Mary dropped the bag into the hole, figuring this way none would get on her. She handed Mark the scissors. “You cut the bag,” she said, “I’ll pour it.”
Mark cut at the plastic, but nothing happened. He dropped the scissors which fell into the hole. “What the hell?” he said.
“Sorry, they’re right-handed scissors,” Mary answered.
Mark sighed, muttered something about the world being against the left-handed, and fished the scissors out. He took them in his right hand and this time was able to cut a jagged hole into the bag. Mary tilted the ashes into the ground. They rose up in a cloud and settled. All the while she was thinking, why, James? Why did it have to be this way? She had cried when Leroy had told her the news. Mostly because no one should have to die alone and so young. James had only been fifty-five. Mary was glad the kids hadn’t been there that day but still wished they could’ve said goodbye. And she wondered what would have happened if they had stayed together. If James hadn’t fallen out of love with her or hadn’t met that girl online. If they were able to make it work. Would Mary had seen signs and insisted he go to the doctor? Or did he go himself? Would he be alive or would she be living this scenario anyway?
If only, if only.
Mark interrupted her. “Mom? What are you doing?”
Mary shook herself. “Nothing. Just thinking for a minute. Let’s get the tree.” She got up, her knees stiff and complaining. She walked in a circle to loosen them up, then grabbed the tree's trunk. “Here. You pull the bucket away, okay?”
After a bit of tugging, they got the tree out and dropped into the hole. More ashes rose, then settled. Mary shoveled in some dirt, while Mark held the tree. Sweat fell into her eyes, for it was hot for January. Damn you Leroy for this. “Why am I doing all the work?”
“Because you took the shovel, Mom.”
“A ‘no Mom I insist’ would’ve been nice,” Mary said, glaring at Mark who stood holding the tree like it needed the support. Damn thing was standing fine all by itself.
“Or you could’ve asked me to do it,” he said. That was reasonable, but Mary also didn’t care.
“Well, here then,” she grumbled, handing him the shovel. He put in the last few mounds of dirt and tamped it down.
“Done,” Mark said and started for the wooden gate. “It needs water.”
“Wait,” Mary held up her hand. “Maybe we should say a prayer or something.”
“I don’t think it matters. We’ve already had a memorial for him.”
“It does.” But all Mary could think of was the Dies Irae, the old Catholic Mass for the dead. She knew it from the opening song of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But she found the verses extremely depressing with their talk of God’s judgment and wrath. The man hadn’t been that bad. Mary bowed her head and said, “God take this man to heaven. And give him peace, until we meet again. Amen.”
“Amen,” Mark said. “Now I’m getting water.” He got the hose, brought it back, and watered the tree. “Okay, I think we’re done here.”
But Mary hesitated and then cursed herself. She’d been perfectly happy without James. When the divorce was final, she’d felt free. Now she didn’t have to deal with his laundry, his spendthrift ways, or his messy way of living. She didn't have to feel that instead of a husband she had a roommate who lived in the spare bedroom. That was like a five-hundred-pound weight off her heart. For there is no loneliness worse than living with a spouse who no longer loves you. But still...
So this is what is left after a life? Ashes that no one wants?
“What’s your favorite memory of your father?”
“I don’t think I have one.” He thought for a moment. “The cruise, I suppose.”
Shortly before he’d died James and the boys had cruised to Key West and Cozumel. Mary knew that everyone had enjoyed it. “What about it?”
“I remember the food. It was so good,” Mark said and smiled. “I want to try making stuffed lobster ravioli like we had at dinner. But James preferred the steak. And we saw street performers in the Keys.”
James. Mark often called his father that, although not to his face. Mary had never really asked why. She figured it was just a habit. John had often mentioned that when talking about her, Mark didn’t say mom. He’d say, Mary. But now she wondered if it was more. “Your dad would’ve been proud of you.”
Mark looked at Mary, eyebrows raised. “He thought I was crazy.”
“Mark,” but Mary stopped and looked at the son, the one who resembled her brother and her father. James was thin as a rail, with short black hair and eyes. Mark has wide shoulders, narrow hips, and was now taller than his father’s 5’6. His hair was blond and his eyes blue like her grandmother's. She knew James would’ve hated Mark’s shoulder-length hair. He was an accountant and wouldn’t have understood why his son wanted to study art. James had gotten straight A’s in school and had a 3.8 in college. Mark on the other hand was known for sleeping in class. Once a teacher had made him stand at a podium. Mark had dozed off there too. Mary had found that a fantastic feat. She’d said it would someday become a family story she’d tell at Mark’s wedding. James on the other hand had been angry. And of course, had blamed her. She’d told him maybe he should come to a damned parent-teacher conference on occasion and-
“He said it enough times. He preferred John,” Mark continued as if just stating facts. “It’s how he was.”
Because John looks like him and got good grades. And works an office job as a programmer. “I’m certain he teased you,” Mary said. “But-”
“No, Mom. James wasn’t joking.” Mark threw down the shovel as if to drive home his point. “One time he came into the bedroom and I hadn’t done my homework yet. Some essay bullshit on Romeo and Juliet. He said if I didn’t finish, we couldn’t go to dinner or whatever. I said I didn’t know what to write and he got mad.” Mark slammed his hand against the fence. Mary said nothing. She had been able to bullshit her way through an essay by skimming a book. Sometimes just by reading the back cover, then the beginning and the ending chapters. But her son was different. He continued, looking straight at her. “I told him the whole play was stupid. And he said quit complaining, you idiot and do the assignment.” He made quote marks with his fingers and said, “It’s so easy, why can’t you do it, son? It was always like that, Mom.”
James you stupid bastard. Mary wondered if in heaven she’d be allowed one kick. Just one punch to the head, God, and then she’d forgive her ex-husband. “Mark, I yelled at you too,” she said. “I hated when you wouldn’t do your math homework. You’d sit there like you wanted me to write down the answers. Played dumb. It drove me apeshit batty.”
“I probably called you crazy too. In fact, I know I did. Then I’d walk out.”
“Yeah. But you’d always come back and try to help.”
Mary no longer saw the tree or the yard. In her mind, she watched James play with Mark. He’d lie on his back and lift the baby into the air as if Mark was flying. The boy would laugh and laugh. James had done that with John also, but Mark had liked it more. They’d gone to Marlin baseball games and did all kinds of things with the kids. But then James lost his job and his father in the same year. And to Mary, after that, he lost his way. Her husband had turned down some path she couldn’t follow. He had stopped playing with the kids, stopped cleaning the house, or caring. At first, Mary had tried to talk to him, but like their son, James never wanted to. But unlike John, he isolated himself. After a while, she started nagging, then yelling. James responded by saying she didn’t respect or care what he felt anyway.
Maybe he was right.
Then he started talking to people he met in online games. People who apparently listened better than she could. By the time James got another job the damage had been done. And not even counseling could fix it. Mary realized Hemingway had been right. What they were wasn't just one person's fault. And instead of a tall grapefruit tree in a big city, Mary was looking at a small orange one in a town called Stuart. A new start for them, while James remained behind. She gave Mark a hug.
“You're an Eagle Scout,” Mary said. “Like your dad. He’d be proud of you for that. I bet he would’ve taken the father’s scout pin and treasured it. And he’d want to see you graduate. He always came to your graduations, you know.”
Mark let her go. “Well, he had to do that.”
"Look. Your dad had his faults, Mark. He was critical, sarcastic, and probably thought I was crazy too. The feeling was mutual." Mary ran her hands through her already frizzy hair. I think he was also depressed.”
Her mother’s voice piped up in her head. Don’t make excuses for the man.
I’m not, Mom. It's the truth.
“You’d done things that would’ve made him proud, Mark. And you should be proud of yourself."
Mark rubbed his eyes and nodded.
"Now let’s go inside.” Mary put her arm around her son. “And I'll make lunch, okay?”
That evening, she went to grab the shovel they'd forgotten. She stood, looking at the tree. "Well, James," Mary said, "you were an idiot. But maybe I could've done better too. Well. whatever. I...I just hope you're at peace now."
That night when she slept, she had no dreams.