Short fiction: “Commemoratives,” by Jack A. Urquhart

©2012 (1110 words)

English: The Lewis river, which can be seen in...

There had been little warning.  Only a puzzled look on Drew’s face when he paused creek side an hour into the hike—as if he were remembering something.

Five years had taught Claire to expect her husband’s sudden reveries—his oddly timed moments of woolgathering.  She’d recognized the signs: the way Drew cocked his head, his birdlike sideways glance, the pursed lips and clenched jaw.

Standing there in the pathway, nothing about him had suggested alarm.

In truth, she’d been mildly irritated, thinking how much quicker her first husband’s trail pace would’ve been.

Geoffrey had always been in a caffeine rush, always in a hurry to get there!—in and out of bed.

Drew took his time.

She’d thought he was stopping to adjust the straps on his backpack.  After all, he’d spoken in his normal voice:

Something’s happening, Clairie, he’d said.

She’d followed his gaze up the trail, wondering—‘what?’

A kinetic response was the last thing she’d expected—Drew, folding chest to thighs, knees buckling, arms crossing, fists to sternum.

Claire heard the breath leave him.

It wasn’t like he fell.  More of a slow, quiet descent.  So … calm.

That is how she described it to the Park Ranger.

He was pale—and his freckles seemed brighter, more speckled.  Like a wren’s egg, she’d told the poor man.  Then I started CPR.

She didn’t mention that Drew’s body had settled onto the ground in an “S” shape, that his straw-colored hair blended with the autumnal wheatgrass and fescue tufts, or that his wide-open eyes shaded from blue to grey when the sun came out.

She didn’t say that she’d called out to him.

A single, tentative Drew?—as if she weren’t sure the man on the ground was her husband.  As if something had happened—something that changed everything.

Anterior-wall myocardial infarction.  That’s what it was, the emergency room physician explained.  The worst kind.  The infarction involved the full thickness of the myocardium; necrosis was complete.  A shame it happened in a remote location … to a man that young … and that there weren’t earlier symptoms, he said, making cursory notes in his chart.  I’m very sorry—for your loss, he’d added hastily, as if she might be thinking, ‘for which one?’

It wasn’t until the charge nurse took her aside that she’d been certain of the post-mortem.

Yes, Dear.  A heart attack.  Quite severe, the woman confirmed, patting Claire’s hand as if she were a child.  Given where you were, there’s not much anyone could’ve done.

No.  Not much, Claire reminds herself pulling into her driveway at dusk.

Already the windows at the house on Dogwood Court are ablaze, Drew’s automatic timers right on schedule.

She’d insisted on driving herself home, certain that she could, positive she’d begin screaming if she didn’t get away from them—the well-intentioned strangers.

Some time to think, Claire had explained, taking care to make direct eye contact and to employ a modulated tone.  Nothing that would suggest lingering shock.  Some time alone.

Now it occurs to her: there will be plenty of that.

She turns the key in the front door, stands in the entry hall, remembers how twelve hours earlier she’d waited in the same place for Drew, dawdling upstairs—how she’d shouted for him to remember the first-aid kit.

A hundred miles, round trip, separates ‘then’ from ‘now’.

The telephone had been ringing then, too.  Now it begins again.

In the kitchen, Claire finds the breakfast dishes stacked in the sink where Drew left them—his coffee cup, a quarter full, is on the counter.

He’d slurped … noticeably, she remembers; a habit that had only begun to annoy her when it caught her mother’s attention.

Coffee, juice, milk—even wine!  Is he a man or a Collie? Dottie had once cracked over a private lunch.

Claire remembers forcing a laugh.

Now, she turns and heads for the stairs.

The telephone again—four rings before she is halfway up, another four before she makes the landing.

Probably Drew’s sister in Missouri, living in ignorant bliss, phoning belated anniversary wishes.  That would be like Amy.  Or maybe her mother.  Peggy had never cared for Drew enough to trouble about punctuality.

Strange, Claire thinks, that hereafter all such communiqués will fall into two categories: the ones that came ‘before,’ and those that arrive ‘after’.  Time suddenly bifurcated.

The notion makes her light-headed.

In the upstairs hall, she stoops to retrieve one of her patent leather pumps, and the blood rushes to her head.

“There you are,” she says.  “Happier days.”

She stands, draws a breath, opens the bedroom door.

On the threshold, it takes her—the stomach-punching shock of the ordinary.

A gasp, another one, and then the raw, aspirated words:

“Oh God, Drew!  Would you just look!” she cries, wondering if there is still enough of him left to see:  that the bedside lamp casts the same saffron sheen as at dawn; that the bed looks to have been only recently vacated—the quilted coverlet, rumpled—head prints in the pillows; how her cocktail dress of the previous evening is strung from the chair stiles, its heart-shaped bodice breaking onto the seat bottom, the scarlet skirt exsanguinating onto the floor; how an easy kick away her other pump lies close by his loafer.

All these are commemoratives now, fossilized in the room’s ambered light.

Riding a wave of nausea, Claire slumps against the door jamb, clutches her arms, slides clumsily to the floor, loses herself in jagged memory: Drew in the midst of an anniversary shimmy, kicking off his shoes, pants pooled ridiculously around milky-white ankles.

How she’d laughed at him, felt herself warm to the absurdity of a grown man—in striped boxers—making hoochie-coo—polishing his arse with a necktie.

It’s there on the bed now, the tie—right where he’d tossed it.  Before taking her in his arms.

Hey there, Anniversary Girl.  Something’s happening, he’d whispered, pressing hard against her.  Something wonderful.

She remembers the impish grin, his freckles disappearing as he blushed.

Can you guess what?

Happiness.  That’s what.

Contentment.

Persistent belonging.

Not a fevered, exhausting fixation as with Geoffrey; not just orgasmic earthquakes fleet-footing it away.

Better than either by reason of—comfort.

Claire understands now, wonders how many times a day and for how many tens of thousands it is all … about … to stop?  How many commencing routines even now in blissful ignorance—shaving, putting on make up, leaving unmade beds and dirty dishes, their “I love you’s” until some less harried moment?

It is so easy to forget, she remembers.  How it’s out there.  How it has been all along.  The end.

About jaurquhart

Jack Andrew Urquhart was born in the American South. Following undergraduate work at the University of Florida, Gainesville, he taught in Florida's public schools. He earned a Master of Arts degree in English, Creative Writing, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was the winner of the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Award for Fiction (1991). His work has appeared online at Clapboard House Literary Journal, Crazyhorse Literary Journal, and Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies. He is the author of So They Say, a collection of self-contained, inter-connected stories and the short story, They Say You Can Stop Yourself Breathing. Formerly a writing instructor at the University of Colorado’s Writing Program, Mr. Urquhart was, until recently, a senior analyst for the Judicial Branch of California. He resides in central Florida.
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9 Responses to Short fiction: “Commemoratives,” by Jack A. Urquhart

  1. Now I know what you’ve been doing with your time! Writing this wonderful story! It really is a fine one, Jack! Keep them coming!

    • jaurquhart says:

      Hello Lorinda, and thanks for your encouraging words. I wrote the story for a local contest. Just one problem: a 650 word limit. Seems I’m practically incapable of hard-core brevity. LOL.

      • termitespeaker says:

        Well, speaking of brevity … ahem! I’ve never written a story this short in my life! I am constitutionally incapable of it! Anyway, I think a story sets its own limits – it is destined to be the length it turns out to be!

  2. rlboyington says:

    Understated, yet, a punch to the midsection, a reminder of what is precious.

  3. marydpierce says:

    Another exquisite piece from the master of breath-takingly beautiful prose. So well observed, so heartbreaking. Can you write a happy story (asks the student of the Scarlet O’Hara school of avoidance)? I’m on my way to an art opening and now I’m all sad and stuff.

    Seriously, though, it’s a gorgeous story!

    • jaurquhart says:

      I ask myself the same question, Dear Friend: How come I don’t write happy stuff? Must be because I’m such a serious guy? Thing is, I wrote this from a photo prompt as required by a local writing contest, but couldn’t bring the story in under 650 words (sigh). So here it is–on my little blog–without the benefit of the actual photo that inspired the story (don’t have the copyright clearance). Oh well, good thing WordPress offers alternative, copyright cleared graphics. I appreciate your kind words and sincerely hope I didn’t ruin your art opening. xox

  4. Smashing story Jack, well observed and described, your words cut to the quick – best wishes Eamonn

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