She walks through the room in silence, yet she’s never silent. There is a liveliness to her, a lightening of the room, a lifting of the spirit that stays long after she’s gone. Madison is almost perfect. Unfortunately, she has bad taste in men; she married me.
She likes that joke less than I do but she smiles and kisses me anyway.
“Why is there a bottle of champagne on the table?”
I ask this merely for information. I admit that Maddie sees more than I do. Always has. The champagne on the table is evidence that whatever is going to happen today will involve the liquid in some important way. Since it’s Maddie’s doing, it will also be surprising.
“Today’s the day we go see your grandparents.”
That’s it. That’s the surprise, unwelcome as it is.
“Really? Today? I don’t – “
“Of course you don’t. Neither do I, but it’s something you need to do.”
“It feels weird.”
“Yes, I imagine it does. Grab the bottle and the glass.”
I gaze at Maddie, unsure of everything right now, but very sure that my wife won’t lead me astray.
I am struck again by her beauty. This sort of thing happens to me almost every day. I see the woman I love, the girl and the woman I’ve known for twenty-three years, but when she’s around me, I see her for the first time. Again and again.
“Today, you’ll do all the talking. I’ll be there for you, but I’m not saying anything.”
I smile and turn to my wife.
“That’s a change.”
She nods, not offended at all.
“Yes, I do most of the talking in our relationship. If I didn’t, I would never hear any sparkling conversation.”
I laugh out loud, a little too loudly, probably. She laughs as well, but her laugh sounds like a gathering of angels singing.
“When did that all start? Me doing most of the talking?”
Maddie asks, but she knows the answer. She always knows the answer.
“Remember our wedding day?”
“That’s when it started.”
Maddie punches me in the arm, but with no oomph behind it. It’s her way of showing affection without being all lovey-dovey. Like I said, she’s almost perfect.
The walk to the two grave sites takes about fifteen minutes. We crest a rise in the land and there they are. Twin headstones bookended by live oaks and about a billion bluebonnets. Maddie put a bench on either side of them last year, but I haven’t been here since the funeral. The benches have been “devoid of human buttockry,” as Maddie says. I don’t think “buttockry” is a word, but I ain’t gonna challenge her on it. Lost way too many Scrabble games to her that way.
“Who – um – who do I talk to first?”
I look to Maddie for guidance. As usual, she doesn’t get mad or roll her eyes when I ask stupid questions.
“Rules of chivalry, dear.”
“Ladies first.” She knows it doesn’t matter, but she gives me direction anyway.
I sit down and hold the bottle of champagne, staring at it. The bottle feels strange in my hands, like it doesn’t belong.
“Why champagne? They never drank the stuff.”
Maddie looks off into the distance. She does this when she gets philosophical.
“Your grandparents have champagne souls.”
I look at Maddie but she continues to not look at me.
“I don’t get it.”
Finally, she turns to look at me. She has a soft look in her eyes.
“They may have looked like carbonated water to the world, but if you got to know them like we did, they would have been seen as bright and bubbly. And they always made you feel good.”
I nodded. I would never have thought of that.
“And, if I go before you, I want Merlot at my grave site.”
Maddie smiles that impish smile of hers, the one that makes me go all tingly.
“Figure it out, sweetie.”
“May take a while.”
Maddie brushes a leaf off her blouse after this little shot. She’s good at getting in those little shots. It’s like she doesn’t even have to think of ‘em. They just come to her.
“But you’ll think about it, won’t you? Even if it takes all those decades.”
True. I don’t give up on a thing just because it stumps me at the time. I got resilience. Maddie calls it stubbornness.
“Decades. Together. You and me and an assortment of cats and dogs and horses and cattle. We’ll fight the good fight, win the unwinnable, eff the ineffable. We might even – “
“Eff the ineffable? That sounds dirty.”
“Says the man who wears an acre of dirt when he comes home.”
“You know what I mean.”
She always knows what I mean. It’s a little irritating at times.
“Indeed I do, dear.”
We sit in silence for a few minutes. I twist the bottle in my hand, but Maddie takes it away from me and sets it between us.
“Hey. What if I go before you?”
Good one, right? Maddie’s smile brightens at my question. Weird.
“Either a cheap rosé or a Lone Star beer, in a can.”
I may be a little offended. I’m not sure.
“Honest and true. Unspectacular, which makes it spectacular.”
Maddie says this, but does she mean it? I think she does, but still.
“I don’t buy it.”
I might be buying it.
“You don’t have to. As long as I believe it, it’s true.”
I don’t know how to argue with this. It sounds so wrong, but it also sounds like she means it. Maddie never has been attracted to showy things. That kind of explains why she’s with me.
“So, you’re the expert at grave sites now?”
“Consider me the sommelier for the dead.”
I nod my head, mainly because I don’t know what a summerleer is, and because there’s no way to respond to that. I think Maddie loves me because I know when to shut up. Basically, I keep my teeth together when she talks.
“Ok, buster. Let’s do this thing.”
I nod. Maddie opens the champagne and pours out a glass for me. I drink it. She pours another glass. I drink it. She takes the glass away.
Yep. Now I’m ready.
“Hi, Grams. Well, I know I should’ve come before now, but it still hurts, you and Pawpaw bein’ gone. Maddie says I need to talk to you guys, let you know how much I miss you, why I love you. All that stuff. I know, you women need to hear reasons why we love you. Ow! Maddie! I’m talkin’ here!
“Anyway. Remember when my parents divorced? They promised that they’d be back and that they’d take care of me, but they wouldn’t be together. Somehow, I knew that was a lie. About them comin’ back to get me. So did you, I think. I saw how sad you were. It was the middle of August, the end of summer. I guess it was also the end of my childhood.
“The thing is, you let me cry. You let me hug you. You’d put your arm around me and not say anything. I didn’t realize it at the time, but you were making the pain go away without being smothering. Just what a ten-year-old boy needed, I think.
“What I didn’t realize until years later was that you had your own heartache in the matter. My mother was your daughter, and I reckon that it tore your heart out to know what she did to me. But you never let that show, at least not to me.
“How did you do it, Grams? How did you take all that pain and hide it so well? You were always bright and cheerful. You had a smile for me all the time. And cookies. And pies and cakes and great birthday parties.
“I told Maddie that maybe this was your way of making up for my mom, but she disagreed, with her tough voice. She said that you loved me extra hard because I needed it. No more, no less. Don’t overthink love, she says.
“You remember the first time you met Maddie? She came in, half-frozen, an almost-dead cat wrapped up in her coat? You and Pawpaw tried to save it, but it was no good. Pawpaw took it outside and shot it. I looked at Maddie to see if she was gonna cry, but she didn’t. That’s when I really noticed her. I never stopped.
“Anyway, I helped Pawpaw bury the cat. I cried some, but Pawpaw didn’t say anything. I was surprised. He never liked what he called ‘unnecessary crying.’ I guess he figured it was okay this time.
“I reckon it all comes down to your heart, Grams. You had a stout one. Never let me go hungry. Never let me feel like I was alone in this world. Never got on to me for missin’ my mom and dad. Never harped on me when I made mistakes. I reckon I saw you in Maddie, and that’s why I married her. Except she thinks I eat too much beef. Hey! Stop pokin’ me!
“Maddie and I had a rough time when you and Pawpaw died last year. I felt like I done lost my anchors in this world, but Maddie bein’ here and all, it made it bearable.
“So, I love you for all those things, but it seems to me I don’t say things right sometimes. What I’m sayin’ is that you didn’t have to love me as much as you did, but you did it anyway. It didn’t seem like a chore to you. Maddie says it added years to your life. I didn’t get that when I was a kid, but I got it after Maddie and I got married. And no, she didn’t have to tell me. I figured it out on my own. Maddie made me smarter about stuff like that. Now she’s smilin’.
“Maddie used to tell me I was the best thing to ever happen to her. I think she’s blushin’ now. Hard to tell, it’s so dad-burned hot out here. If that’s true – and I reckon it is – then I bet my bottom dollar she got a lot of that from you. You know, seein’ what’s in a man’s heart and not necessarily what’s in his words. I stumble over words sometimes. But I don’t want to stumble now, Grams. I can say that Maddie’s the best thing to happen to me after the first best thing to happen to me, and that’s you and Pawpaw. I think I said that right. Maddie’s nodding, so it’s right.
“I don’t want you and Pawpaw to miss me. Or miss Maddie, for that matter. I know you think of her like blood. That’s another thing, Grams. You always treated her like kin. She calls it greatness of soul.
“So, we’ll be here, runnin’ the ranch. The twins’ll be in college next year. Maddie says she’ll be glad to get ‘em outta the house, but I catch her cryin’ in their rooms sometimes. Necessary cryin’, in my opinion. I’ll miss those two little she-devils too. Got their brains from their mamma, I reckon, but their good looks from me. Maddie’s shakin’ her head. I reckon we’ll just have to disagree about that.
“I’m sayin’ adios for now, Grams. I’ll be back soon. You keep Pawpaw company, ok? He wouldn’t rest easy without you beside ‘im.”
I pour a glass of champagne on Gram’s grave site. Maddie refills the glass and tells me to drink it. I do. She may have to carry me home.
“Hi Pawpaw. I just talked to Grams. Maddie’s here, too. She ain’t talkin’ right now because she tells me it’s me that needs to talk to you guys. Grams seemed okay with it.
“I thanked Grams for you guys takin’ care of me, so I’m thankin’ you for it. Personally. You and Grams were kinda like the complete package, if you know what I mean. She taught me to be forgiving and you taught me how to do it.
“Remember the first day you took me fishin’? Two days after mom dropped me off at the ranch. What I remember most of all was your hands. They were so rough and scarred, but when you held my hand to take me to the river, it was so gentle. I felt, I guess, peaceful when you held my hand. Like nothin’ bad was ever gonna happen to me again.
“You always took the time to show me how to do things. When I messed up, you showed me again. I really didn’t like you all that much before I came to live with you guys. You always seemed so gruff and mean. But when you were showing me how to rope or ride or fish or a million other things, you had this softness in your voice. Your eyes smiled. Maddie’s nodding right now, so I guess she saw in you what I saw.
“I remember your rules for unnecessary cryin’. Do you remember how I got that long scar on my right arm? Runnin’ around like a idiot and I run into the barbed-wire fence near the north pasture gate. I’m bleedin’ like hell-o and you come up to me and just stand there. I’m cryin’. You just wait it out. Then I finally stop and you take care of my arm.
“That’s when you told me about the rules for cryin’. Don’t cry just because you bleed a little. That there’s teachin’ you what you ain’t supposed to do. You can yell and even cuss a little, but you don’t cry. Don’t cry when you kill a chicken that winds up on the dinner table. Don’t cry because Billy Tompkins is pickin’ on you. Did I really cry that much, Pawpaw? I guess I did.
“But that was only part of it. You also told me when it was acceptable to cry. Missin’ people you love. Feelin’ the hurt that other people have. Maddie says you were ‘country smart’ because of that. I reckon you were just plain ol’ smart.
“I remember the first beer I ever drank. You give it to me when I was – what – sixteen or seventeen. Grams didn’t much like it, did she? But you were a wily one, Pawpaw. Give it to me on an empty stomach. I went and chucked it up real fast. I guess you knew what you were doin’ because I don’t drink much. I’ll have a beer or two every week.
“Maddie and her friends drink wine. She’s givin’ me a look, but I seen them ladies with their persimmon wine, sittin’ around a table and talkin’ a mile a minute. What Maddie doesn’t know is that I know she drinks half a glass and just listens to the others complain about their husbands. Now she’s givin’ me a different look.
“I guess what I’m tryin’ to say is that you did all these things for me. You give me a dollar every Sunday to put in the collection plate so I’d feel like I was a part of it all. You didn’t get mad when I whupped Billy Tompkins on the playground for pickin’ on me. And, I guess, the best thing is that you adored Maddie, even when she got pregnant before we were married. Promised us a home and even built on so the twins would have their own rooms.
“So, I reckon the best thing that happened to me was you, Pawpaw. You and Grams had grit, takin’ on a kid at y’all’s age. Maddie tells me it was love, but it was also grit. I hope to be half the man you were, Pawpaw. If I am, I’ll feel like I done right by you and Grams.
“I’m gonna say adios for now. I’ll be back, I promise. Grams is still here beside you, so you two rest easy.”
I pour a glass of champagne on Pawpaw’s grave and finish off the bottle. There wasn’t much left. I think Maddie may have been sippin’ on it behind my back. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ to her, though.
“Lord!” Maddie had her right arm in my left arm. The empty bottle hung from my right hand, and I was twirlin’ it, wonderin’ why it still felt so heavy.
“What?” I turned a little to Maddie, interested in why she was ‘Lord’ing.
“Sometimes I look at my wedding ring, just because it’s there and I feel it. But I don’t pay it any mind. It’s just…there. Always has been, always will be. I think I do the same thing with you, sweetie. I take you for granted sometimes. And then you go and say all those things you said, and I remember why I love you so much.”
“Me too. I mean, you’re always there. I reckon I’m as guilty as you, Maddie.”
“Reckon we oughta change that up a little?”
I look at my wife and I see her again, for the first time. That girl. That half-frozen girl tryin’ to save a cat that can’t be saved. But this time, she has tears in her eyes.
Maddie’s lips taste salty, but they crush into my lips, just like when we kissed the first time. I’m better at it now. The kissin’, I mean.
I give her a hug, take her hand, and we walk to the house without speaking. I never mention her crying.
Necessary tears, I reckon.