Sara had been at work when she found out about William’s death. As a secretary at Putnam, Putnam and Hobbs, one of the more low-key Savannah law firms, Sara’s days were filled with phone calls.
“Mr. Hart’s office, this is Sara. How may I help you?” This was her mantra. The words that meant the beginning, middle and end of her day. Sometimes she felt that all those years at college had meant nothing. But she was interested in the law. And when this job opened up it seemed like a great way to get some experience. A great way to get some knowledge about whether or not she wanted to put in the time, effort, and money to go to law school. Lately though, it seemed like all she was doing was answering phones. But Mr. Hart was a great boss and the other secretaries were really kind to her. Besides, William had a good job working for a local architect. She wasn’t ready to go back to school anyway.
“Mr. Hart’s office, this is Sara. How may I help you?”
The voice on the other end seemed to hesitate.
“Hello?” Sara prompted.
“Is this Sara Carraway?”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“This is Daphine. I’m a nurse in the emergency department at Memorial Medical Center.”
“Yes? What is this about?”
“It’s about your husband, William. Can you come here right now?”
“Of course, is something wrong? Can I talk to him?”
“We just need you to come down right away. He’s been in an accident.”
The days since the accident had passed by in a haze of decisions and phone calls. Now here she was, sitting on a carpet covered folding chair, William’s body all sealed up and his coffin covered with a beautiful arrangement of white lilies and blue hydrangeas. His mother sat at the beginning of the row of seats, her black dress immaculate unlike Sara’s, which was damp around the neck and armpits. The September afternoon was blistering. Waves of heat snaked from the black pavement and the top of the shiny black hearse. A rain shower just before the burial service had left not cool air, but a standing humidity that made it hard for Sara to catch her breath. Eve was next to her, silently disapproving. Of what, Sara had no idea.
She had not cried since the breakdown at the funeral home last night. It seemed that her tears had dried completely. That whatever grief she was feeling had been locked away down deep inside of her leaving her feeling empty and tired. She barely remembered the rest of the viewing. Eve had stayed by her side for the remainder of the evening, a watchdog, looking for signs of embarrassing behaviors. But she had been good. The incident with the mortuary worker was a difficult memory. She looked up and over the casket to the cemetery road beyond, and saw him, James, standing at attention, his sunglasses on against the glare of the sun. He hadn’t glanced in her direction or made any gesture to acknowledge that he knew her. She was grateful.
Brother Thomas, the pastor at her mother-in-laws’ church, was finishing his brief graveside sermon.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” The pastor’s Southern twang made the scripture almost comical. Sara felt that insane desire to laugh well up again. She quickly suppressed the urge.
” ‘A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up.’ And for this family here, for this family who has lost such a wonderful son, a wonderful husband and nephew, the words of our Lord speak to you. There is a ‘time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.’ Now is the time for weeping, but we will laugh again. Now is the time for mourning but we will dance again.” He paused for effect, took a handkerchief out of the pocket of his gray suit and mopped his brow. “Let us pray.”
The crowd stood sweating in the heat, as the pastor called out to all of them. “Please join me in the words our Savior taught us to pray, Our Father…”
Sara heard the words intoned around her. She knew the words from her childhood. Knew them as a child knows his multiplication tables, as a set of words and facts to be repeated back when called on. Her foster parents had made sure of that. Had made sure that she and Eve were at Mass every Sunday. But she felt nothing as she prayed. Not she was a little girl had she called out to God. She had learned very early in life that what you wanted, what you needed, you got by working hard or not at all. She had been too young to remember her parents. It had always been her and Eve against the world, then after Eve left and went to college, just her. Until William.
Looking back, Sara was still in awe of the fact that she and William even met. That day in the college book store. There was one book she had forgotten to pick up for her philosophy class and the class was due to start that day. Scanning the near empty shelves for the tiny paperback, she failed to notice the rather large column just out of her line of sight. Leaning down to look on the bottom shelf she knocked into it, and fell backwards right on her backside. Looking up she had seen him, tall and muscular, with a shock of blond hair falling in front of his brown eyes. He had smiled. She had smiled. And that was it.
Never mind the differences in their families, their backgrounds, and their politics – they were in love. Happy, goopy, sappy, stay up all night talking and making-out kind of love from that first look. And things were great. The differences they just chose not to discuss unless one or the other just needed a good fight. The fights usually ended with him asleep and her steaming and wide-awake on the couch. Then mornings of awkward silences followed by apologies over coffee and Krispy Cream doughnuts.
But the good times were so good and every marriage had its rough spots. They may have made it. They may have come through it all in the end and been better for all the hard times, but with William’s death all dreams of a bright future were lost. And the baby…well, Sara wasn’t sure she knew what to do about that. And she certainly wasn’t going to figure it out now.
“Amen,” Sara said.
The sweating preacher walked over to Sara, leaned down to her and took her hand in both of his, squeezing it lightly and patting at the same time. “God bless you.”
“Thank you.” Sara replied, letting him pat her, only relieved that the day was almost over. Just a few more hours and she could escape back to Savannah to try and get back her life. She only had to deal with William’s mother one more time and maybe never again.
Unless there is a baby, Sara suddenly thought. She’ll want to be around the baby. Maybe more than that. It will be the only child of her dead son. Emily Carraway will never let me out of her sight! Oh God, Oh God!
For some reason, this thought gave Sara more panic than anything else. She had never been comfortable around William’s family. They were next to royalty in this tiny town. And she was a foster child with little to no roots. His mother, or Miss Emily as she was known in Oden, had never approved of her, and she had only been around her when William was there as her protector. There were times, in low moments, when Sara thought that perhaps he had married her just to do something that his mother wouldn’t like. Something to rebel. Would his mother want to try and take the baby?
Sara looked down the row of funeral home chairs at Miss Emily. The pastor was leaning over her, whispering words of consolation. Her face was a perfect mix of pain and strength. “I know,” Sara heard her say, “that William would have loved this funeral. It was just what he would have wanted. Thank you for your kind words.” She sniffed lightly and dabbed at her eyes with a gleaming white handkerchief.
A hand touched her shoulder and she looked over to see Eve, motioning to the waiting cars. There was a limousine waiting for them with the air conditioning at full blast. The friends and relatives that had stood in silence during the brief graveside service were beginning to trickle away. Many were in a sort of line near Miss Emily, waiting to offer more consolation. A few people did stop and say a brief word or two to Sara, but most of them did not know her.
It’s just as well, she thought.
It was so hard to believe that it was over. The preparations, the viewing, the funeral and now all that was left was the burial. Sara wondered when that would happen as no one was making a move towards the casket nor the mound of dirt covered by a large sheet of green outdoor carpet.
She walked in the direction of the one person that might be able to answer her question.
“Hello, James,” she said to the tall, still man.
“May I ask you a question?”
“Of course.” He was eyeing her with a bit of suspicion.
“I was wondering…” Sara hesitated.
“Yes, ma’am?” Still Sara hesitated as if unsure of his reaction.
“Please, ask anything. I want to help.” He seemed sincere. And there was something about him, something that said “Trust me.” Man, did she need that in her life right now.
“I want…I want to…I want to put the first shovelful of dirt back in the hole. I need to see the casket in the ground. I need to see it all covered back up. Can I do that? Would that be too much?” Sara was frustrated at feeling so unable to ask for what she wanted, but also unsure of the proper thing to do. But this need went beyond propriety.
“Well, it’s not usual, but it’s also not a problem. If you’d like to maybe go back to your hotel and change, get something to drink, we’ll get started on those things in about 45 minutes.” James looked at her intently. “It’s not really good for you to be out the heat too much without plenty of fluids. Get the limo to take you to the hotel. We’ll wait for you.”
Sara looked up at him. She didn’t know how, but she just knew that he was telling the truth. Knew that if this man said he was going to do something, then that was what he was going to do.
“Thank you. You have come to my aid twice now. I won’t forget it.” Sara turned and saw Eve gesturing to her by the door of the limo. She’s probably concerned about me embarrassing her by talking to the help Sara thought. Eve was in awe of the Caraways and their life in Oden. That’s why Eve couldn’t know about the baby. Eve would have “ideas” about what the best course of action was. More than likely those ideas would involve telling Miss Emily and Sara did not want to hear that. She would make up her own mind about what to do with this situation. There were just two options and neither one was looking all that great.
After stopping by her room at the small bed and breakfast, Sara got in her car and headed back to the graveside. The worst of the day’s heat was over and the sun was in the last quarter of the sky, just getting ready for bed. There were still spots of clouds here and there, interrupting the blue. Sara rolled down her windows and put back the sun roof, letting the warm late summer air bathe her face. As she pulled up next to the newly dug grave, she saw James leaning against a truck. His jacket and tie were off and his sleeves rolled up. Sara noticed for the first time that he was in fact a handsome man, even if he was thin. His hair was cut very short, but looked as if it might be curly if he let it grow out. She could tell that he must spend some time in the sun, for his arms and neck were quite tan.
Sara opened her car door, stepped out and then got back in again. She reached back in and turned on her iPod. She turned to her favorite playlist and found what she was looking for. She pressed play and moved towards the hole in the ground that was the last place her husband would ever go.
James had seen Sara’s car pull up. Had seen her get out and then get back in. He thought for a moment that she had changed her mind. That she had decided it was too painful a thing to do. In all his years helping Uncle Martin, he had never had a request like hers. People just left the dirty work to the hired hands. Lord knows the guys were all pissed at me when I told them that they had to wait until she got here to finish, he thought. But he promised them all a cold case of beer for the extra time and once he went and got the beer and showed it to them, they shut up.
Now he could hear music coming from Sara’s open windows. The simple sounds of a guitar and a man with a gravelly voice floated across the open space to him. Dylan? he thought. She likes Dylan? “Lay down your weeeeary tune, lay down,” Bob Dylan sung as Sara got out of the little car and headed his way. She looked much more comfortable in some sort of simple dress with flowers on it than she had last night in the dark blue or today in the black. She looked, well, beautiful really. And sad. And determined.
“Mrs. Carraway,” he said as he nodded.
“Please call me Sara.”
“Alright. Sara. Are you ready?”
“Yes, I am.” Sara pushed back a stray hair and took a deep breath. Then followed James over to the hole in the ground that was to be William’s final resting place. It struck her suddenly that she was a widow. She was twenty-five years old and a widow. It didn’t seem real. Widows were old and wrinkled and walked with canes. She was pregnant. A pregnant widow.
Sara leaned over and looked into the hole.
“We put a vault in first.” James spoke to Sara, explaining what she was seeing. “Then we lower the casket into the vault and put the cover in place. Now we fill in the dirt.”
Sara held out her hand. ”Okay, I’m ready.” James placed a shovel into her open palm.
“You can do as little or as much as you want. I’ll let you start, but in a minute we’ll join in to help. Is that alright?” Sara was looking paler by the minute and James was concerned that she would faint. He was going to have to keep a close eye on her.
“Yes,” she said, still looking in the grave.
Sara took the shovel and stepped around to the now uncovered pile of dirt. The mortuary tent, the green carpet and all the chairs had been loaded onto a truck. The late afternoon sun glinted off the rows and rows of tombstones in Oden’s city cemetary. The graves of William’s grandparents and other ancestors were all around Sara. Again she was struck that were it not for the baby, this grave would mean the end of her association with this family. She didn’t belong here in Oden among William’s family and friends any more than she did among these dead Carraways.
Her shovel sliced into the dirt. She tilted the handle down and pushed. She picked up the shovel and was surprised by the weight of the dirt She moved the full shovel over to the grave and dropped the earth. It fell with a thud on top of the vault. Bob Dylan’s voice was still wafting over the space between her car and the grave. “The water smooth ran like a hymn and like a harp did hum,” Dylan sang. The tears were flowing freely now, but without pain and without noise. Just silent tears dropping from her face into the dirt that now covered William.
James watched Sara from a distance. Noticing the tears begin to fall and then her movements get slower and slower as she walked, moving the dirt to the grave. Finally, as the last strum from Dylan’s guitar faded away, James saw the end of the shovel drop and rest in the dirt. He walked over to her and took the shovel from her hands.
“Let us help now. Come over here and sit on the end of my truck and rest. Let these boys do their job.” James looked up at Beau, the leader of the grave crew, and nodded. He took Sara by the arm and led her to his truck. She put her hands on the tailgate and lifted herself up.
Beau had gotten into the back hoe and maneuvered the end over to the mound of dirt. The large tool was much faster than the shovels and the job would be done in just a few minutes.
James reached into his toolbox and dug around in his cooler for a bottle of water. He pulled it out and handed it to Sara.
“Thank you.” She looked up at him. “And thank you for letting me do this. It… helps. I don’t know why but it does. It completes the task, you know? The task of taking care of him.” Sara looked over at the setting sun. The sky was truly glorious, red, gold and yellow blending with blue and purple clouds. “When the hospital called to tell me he had been in an accident, I rushed over there because they wouldn’t tell me anything else over the phone. I had to come and present ID before they would even talk to me. And then this doctor came and sat me down in this little room. There was a nurse there, too. She just stood at the door, watching, waiting. After he said the words “couldn’t revive him” I just looked at him with what must have been a blank stare because he said “Do you understand what I’m saying to you?'” James had joined Sara on the tailgate. She watched the back hoe as she talked. “I must have just looked at him, so he put his hand on my arm and said, ‘Ma’am, your husband is dead.’ And then I began to take care of things.”
The diggers were almost done now. There was very little dirt left on the ground.
Sara continued, “My sister Eve has always taken care of things, but she wasn’t there and so I did it. And until you ushered me into that room last night, I hadn’t even cried. Not when I saw his body in the hospital. Not when I told his mother. Not even when they put him in that God-awful wool suit. I did what had to be done.”
The man working the back hoe turned it off and got out of the cab. Sara paused in her story and watched the work, sipping on the ice-cold water.
“The rest is shovel work, if you want to do it. I can help you.” James hopped off of the tailgate and was standing with his hand outstretched. Sara put the water bottle down and took the hand that he offered. Stepping carefully around the graves, she moved to the mound of dirt. James walked over and dismissed the crew, who began packing up to leave.
Sara picked up the discarded shovel and started moving the last of the dirt onto the now full grave. James walked over with another shovel and began to help. He was efficient in his movements. Everything about him seemed to be to the point. In just a few minutes, they were done. James picked up a small plaque that had William’s name, birthday and death day with a spike attached. He handed it to Sara.
“This is the last thing until the tombstone is ready which probably won’t be for a few months,” James said.
“I can assure you that William’s mother will be putting that together. I doubt she’ll even ask my opinion. So really, this is the last task. For me anyway.”
Sara walked to the head of the grave. She looked up at the fading sky, now more purple than red. “Good-bye, William,” she said and slid the marker into the dirt.
Copyright © 2015 · All Rights Reserved · Katherine Barron