You have to admit Grace is a pretty funny name for a girl conceived in the lavatory of a coach bus after a sorority formal. It didn’t matter that she was now twenty-seven and capable of a trip to the post office. I was the only parent she had left and that meant there were obligations.
“I am trying,” she said that morning, “to reimage the garden.”
Around town, there were still the signs I’d put up after my wife’s accident, when she was at this point alive in a strictly biological sense. They were faded and rain-streaked now, almost legible. HIT & RUN SEEKING INFORMATION. I had to do something and stapling flyers to utility poles and the bulletin board at the supermarket masqueraded as proactivity. My thinking ran along the lines of: I am helpless to wake her up so in the meantime let me find the person who hit her. Then, somehow, I conflated the issues. Only if I found the person who hit her would she wake up. I kept putting myself out there with my stack of flyers and stapler, each day wearing a face that said things will not work out. Or maybe my face said no, this won’t do. Or maybe it said hope for the best, but said it in a way everyone knew was a lie.
We didn’t have a garden. The earth was resistant. Puncture it with the head of a shovel and you’d get maybe two inches before striking something impenetrable. Also impenetrable was Grace. She didn’t hear me when I said veggies wouldn’t take in our yard. The land was chockablock with a rich proliferation of shale, the reason our well water retained a faint rust color and the cause of all that confrontation over hydraulic fracturing a few years back. But there were obligations, like I said. Off I went to get a shipment of seeds she said was waiting at the post office.
Bert was behind the counter. I knew him and he knew me. Sometimes I’d see him at Arnie’s Lounge, slurping a pint of Tito’s and Sprite, spouting shit like “Living the dream, buddy!” and “Taxation is theft!” He owned his own darts but rarely played outside of tournaments. I heard he pulled in some decent prize money.
Among the junk mail in my PO Box was a slip, a notification of a package. I slid it over the counter.
Bert looked down at the slip and up at me, not exactly annoyed but making it known this transaction would go down on his terms.
After the accident I looked up our town’s walkability score. It didn’t have one. Once you got outside of the main part of town, there were no sidewalks or crosswalks or traffic lights. There were a few stops signs but those were considered only theoretical. Someone kept defacing them with a Sharpie, adding HAMMER TIME or IN THE NAME OF LOVE or COLLABORATE AND LISTEN.
Bert returned from the backroom with a long cardboard envelope.
“This isn’t addressed to you,” he said.
I told him it was for my daughter, a fact he no doubt already knew.
“I’m supposed to take your word for it?” he said.
Maybe it was the uniform that gave him this irrational sense of authority, that button-up shirt with the patch on the chest, eagle in profile, that he wore with sweatpants and fleece-lined Crocs. He started to turn back to the backroom.
“Just a sec,” I said.
He gave me the second but hid the envelope below the counter.
“You know, the Incas had reliable mail service seven centuries ago,” I said.
“Tell me more about ancient civilizations.”
Our town was deficient in so many ways but the one thing we were supposed to have going for us was neighborliness. Was I wrong taking for granted that if you hit-and-run someone at a minimum you called 9-1-1 anonymously? “Hey, FYI, there’s a woman lying smashed in the drainage ditch on River Rd., thanks, gotta go.” Was that too much to ask?
People think assaulting a postal worker is a federal crime, and maybe it is, but not here. The dolts like Bert who managed our post office came to the USPS through a third-party staffing agency. Technically, they didn’t work for the federal government. If you hit one of them it was still illegal, but only in the regular way. They weren’t a protected class.
This wasn’t on my mind when I punched him. Really, I didn’t even punch him. That was what he said I did, when he filed charges against me. I mushed him hard under his yellowish mustache with the heel of my hand, still clutching my stack of junk mail, shouting, “You know, you fucking dimwit, you know me.”
The other thing Grace didn’t understand was that you needed to be taught how to garden. It was like carpentry or forensic accounting. You needed a teacher, a mentor, to show you the way. No daughter of mine was an autodidact. I had not donated DNA to a Leonardo DaVinci.
Grace was upset the police decided to hang on to her seeds as some kind of evidence until my case got settled, but didn’t let it stop her. She ordered more seeds and this time got them without a problem. On the dining room table were three lamps warming dirt-filled pots. I stared at her work, the pots labeled in her looping handwriting: tomato, zucchini, cucumber, beet, radish, bell pepper.
“Can you give me a ride?” I said.
Grace knew where but said, “Where to?”
I rode silently beside her. The billboards we passed seemed to be telling a story, unfolding sign by sign over the highway. There were two billboards for hospice care, one for a drug and alcohol rehab, one for a spine surgeon, one for a cosmetic procedure that froze your fat cells until they vanished like a miracle, two for competing vape emporiums, one for a personal injury lawyer and one for a lawyer specializing in DUIs, one for debt consolidation, one for an outfit that bought your house for cash, and one that simply read “Let’s talk—God.”
My wife and I were too young to have kids. It wasn’t that we hadn’t taught her things, but they were probably the wrong things. Since we had nothing extraordinary to pass down to her, we tried to give her a set of decent, average qualities. Semi-reliability, for instance. Well-roundedness, for another. Not being a shitheel, for a third. It was obvious now these were skills lacking utility, like being an excellent speller.
My lawyer didn’t have a billboard. He wasn’t even a criminal defense lawyer. He handled the closing back when we bought the house and I didn’t have the energy to look for someone more qualified. He told me not to worry. He knew the DA. When they were in middle school, a few kids on their football team used to hide nudie mags under a big rock in the woods and after practice unearth them and masturbate behind trees.
“You guys didn’t have VCRs?” I said.
He said I was missing his point. He would get his old jerkoff bud to reduce the charges. Then I would plead guilty and pay a fine. I might have to go to anger management classes, he said. Or maybe grief counseling.
At home Jared was waiting in the driveway. It was a relatively new thing between Grace and him because she’d only been back a short time since the accident. He was lanky but red-blooded beneath his flannel and wool, his rigid denim. His handshake got your whole attention. He’d come from somewhere else to live here and that made me suspicious of him. I didn’t believe in ghosts but when I wanted to complain about him, I heard my wife’s voice, as if she were standing just behind me, saying, “At least he’s not a cop.”
Her voice unsettled me, but it beat the shit out of other sounds I sometimes conjured: the sound a truck made as it veered on bald tires, braking abruptly but too late; the sound of collision and something being knocked away from itself; the sound of an engine crying out under the force of acceleration away.
I guess most people ignored the billboards, letting them dissolve into the landscape. Or else they took them at face value. For me, though, they washed over me in the aggregate, coalescing into some darker vision of our present moment. A destiny. A reckoning.
I had to admit the plants were flourishing in that nutrient-dense soil under the lamps. Grace was eager to get them in the ground. She’d dug up the backyard, painstakingly filling the wheelbarrow again and again and dumping the rocks over the property line. Then she stretched wire around the garden to keep out deer. I realized she wasn’t winging it. What did I know, maybe she would pull it off?
My lawyer was getting pushback from the DA. Bert was a founding member of their jerkoff crew and the DA was reluctant to take sides. My lawyer asked Bert off the record to drop his complaint as a favor. Bert said no dice. After our tussle, he went on disability and put in a workers’ comp claim. He was making more money now, so he couldn’t back down. On the upside, my lawyer said, there was a fifty-fifty chance Bert wouldn’t sue me personally on account of everything I’d been through.
One Friday night there was a late frost. Grace greeted the morning to discover her plants dusted with snow, icicles hanging from leaves. The worst part was that by noon the temperature was back in the sixties and the sun sat there big and dumb in the sky all day. But the damage was done. All her work shot to shit. I knew she was crying for much more than the plants, and not just for her mother as well, but for the way her failed garden was symbolic of a greater cosmic fist-fucking.
That same day I got served with Bert’s lawsuit. He was suing me for a hundred million dollars. I should have laughed it was so ridiculous but now I was crying too. These were the same kind of tears Grace shed, the ones that come from being overwhelmed beyond rational belief, borne out of a sense the universe was once again cracking its knuckles and balling up its dry, chapped hands.
We did the only practical thing we could think of. We cleaned up and went to Arnie’s Lounge.
My wife did that thing women sometimes do where they get very attractive in their late thirties. It was as though she’d bided her time to shed away some parts of herself and gain in others, a sort of reallocation of resources to boost total bodily efficiency. She’d maintained that prime for a decade and it was possible I got comfortable with the idea of her invincibility.
Arnie’s had Keno. That gave us something to do while we drank. Watching the white ball bounce around on the screen, waiting to see if it landed on our numbers, was sort of hypnotic and blissful.
Jared showed up after a while. He got the next round and drank fast to catch up. I was just drunk enough to stop disliking him. After his 4-spot bet won, I said, “At least you’re not a cop.”
She was stronger than me. I don’t mean pound-for-pound. Flat out. Her legs were outrageous. You should have seen her calves.
Then in walked Bert. I heard him before I saw him.
“Another day in paradise,” he announced.
The first thing he did was lay his case of darts next to his phone. He ordered a Tito’s and Sprite and looked around, deliberating not seeing us, making a big show of pretending we weren’t there. I would have ignored him too, but he was wearing a foam cervical collar.
“You got to be shitting me,” I said.
He looked at the pile of ripped-up Keno tickets in front of me. “Don’t go spending all my money.”
My father-in-law was a cop. That was the joke. She would have thought it was so funny.
Bert jumped off his stool when I stood up. I told him to calm down. I wasn’t going to hit him. I made him a proposition. One game of darts. If I won, he would drop the charges and lawsuit. If he won, well, I didn’t have much to offer, so I said I’d give him a free shot at my face. To make us even.
I didn’t expect to beat him. I just figured once the two of us were shoulder to shoulder, throwing darts, drinking, maybe talking a little shit, something would awaken in him—not benevolence but possibly camaraderie—and we could end this conflict. We might have never stroked our dicks in the woods together, but there were other forms of connection, weren’t there?
You can’t go almost thirty years with someone and not make promises. When you cleared away everything else, there they were. Countless promises. They piled up. A bulk of them we upheld, some we renegotiated, and more than a few we looked the other way when they weren’t kept. That was what the flyers around town were about. My last promise. I failed but had no way of knowing if I let her down in the end.
Bert was an assassin with those darts. I had to give him that. Triple-20s off the bat. Then he closed out bullseyes just because he could. The camaraderie never materialized. In competition he was more humorless than usual. I didn’t even manage to put up a heroic showing, which was beside the point because we never finished the game.
While Bert was tallying his score on the chalkboard, Jared, who seemed to be minding his business with Grace, was on him fast, tearing that brace off his neck, and yoking him up with those incredibly strong hands. Jared buried one of those expensive darts deep up his nose, the flight hanging out and tickling his mustache. Bert was on his knees, begging for mercy. It was funny and sad and frightening to see, and that felt appropriate, or at least consistent to how everything felt.
Call me shortsighted but it just never occurred to me I would outlive my wife.
Of course, this story ends in violence. Weren’t you paying attention?