by Margaret Shaw
Tom Walsh parked the Corvette in the empty lot and sat for a moment, his ruddy hands firmly on the steering wheel. He slanted his eyes left out the window, seeing and not seeing the green meadowland and the highway beyond. His mind was thankfully blank, between things. Most of the time his thoughts ran over themselves since he’d decided to run for mayor. He’d continued to maintain his engineering office, but only mornings, saving the afternoons for strategizing and campaigning. The printed matter was prepared, with carefully worded biography surrounding a professions photograph that made him appear ruggedly distinguished: hair short but not cropped, his eyes brows intellectually questioning and forthright. His vision statement bulleted the generalities of greater economic growth, repaved roads, and “a perfect place to raise your kids in the American dream.” The lawn signs, red and blue on white, were stacked in his garage, awaiting emplantment.
Motionless, steeling himself, he felt his resolve drop into place, like the main gear in the Corvette’s transmission. He was ready. He opened the door and swung out. He reached into the back. First, he arranged his campaign sign to be visible even out here thirty miles from town. Lots of folks would be taking advantage of the sunny forecast today, like him, looking for a gentle hike among the bouldered formations known by its Arapaho Indian name meaning Land of the Earthborn Spirit. He pulled out his backpack, locked the door and headed toward the outcropping, the ancient sculpture of rounded rocks plunked down at the highest point of the I-80 corridor. The scent of pine and sage drew him down the road to the path that followed the stream around Turtle Rock, where he would stop, alone. Still early, the air kept its nighttime chill, but the sun, rising steadily past the clouds, promised blue sky and warmth.
The dirt path took off at a right angle from the pavement, leaving room for only one hiker. Adjusting his straps, he stepped from the tar onto the packed earth without hesitation. This particular path, Tom knew, followed a trickle of a creek around the base of Turtle Rock, a gentle hike of about three miles. His plan was to go a ways in, but he hadn’t decided whether to go all the way around. That would depend on how long he remained at the stream.
As he warmed to the hike, his thoughts left the strategizing of the race and even the problems of the city. He wasn’t particularly interested in the problems of the city in the first place. Getting elected was his goal and beyond that, only the money made available through federal grants. His engineering firm was about to go bigtime, and winning this race was crucial.
He slowed his pace, relishing being alone, but fully accompanied by his wife of fifteen years, bouncing along on his back with every step. The urn he’d selected was large enough to contain both of their remains, their ashes–dust to dust–and being brass, was heavy. She had loved this hike, raising her face to the sun to breathe in the pure, cool air, as if it were as primeval as the fossilized sand dunes. An earthborn spirit herself, she examined rock faces for impressions of sea urchins, snails, or sea lilies found in some of these rocks.
Somewhere, after he’d come to terms with her absence, he’d changed his mind about living out his eternity in a brass urn, even if it was mixed with the person he loved most. He wanted that urn out of his life. He might even leave it at the stream, once he’d emptied it of her ashes.
Toward the end, it was her idea for him to run for office.
He revisited Maryann, his wife as he walked, reliving the long talks he’d had with her after her passing, going over his reasoning that led him to change their post-life plan. Remains. He was the remains. He remained without her unfaltering guidance, her suddenly raucous burst of laughter, her quiet reveries. He didn’t try to come to terms with the unfairness of her death, but the sharpness of the pain had lessen as the anniversary approached two years. Their fight to save her from the invading cancer had drawn them even closer, till they were truly one, giving it everything they had to defeat the disease. They believed they could win, if they fought and focused their minds and prayed and convinced God they were worth His mercy. They tried humor, watching hours of Charlie Chaplin. They sent away for expensive, erudite remedies that didn’t work.
She gave in before he did. She accepted the inevitability of her death and even managed to look forward to leaving behind her physical being and learning the ways of Spirit. When she looked at him in that last month, she seemed to be peering into him, seeking a part of him he didn’t know was there. For long minutes, she searched him in this way, without words, and strangely, he too had nothing to say. Words were not the means of communication now, having become hindrance to the silent exchanges between them. Later, he would wonder whether it was her pain medication that rendered her speechless, but at those moments, they came to know one another in a fundamental way. It was this knowing that brought him to the place of the spirits. He wanted her as she was at the end, and he wanted the person he became in that wordless state.
His thoughts brought him to a large flat rock beside a wide place in the creek. He stopped to look the spot over. He consulted the weight on his back. Would this be a good place? There wasn’t any response from the ashes, but at least he didn’t get a bad feeling. So he removed the backpack from his shoulders and sat down cross-legged on the rock. Still now, he took in the place: aspen responding to every nuance of breeze, young pines that had survived the beetle kill of previous years, yellow flowers and orange Indian paintbrush speckling the hill on the other side of the stream. Occasionally, the water made a little trickling sound. The grass, flattened by a deer bedded down for the night, indicated peace.
He carefully removed the urn from the backpack and held it out. It vaguely resembled a Chinaman in a coolie straw hat. Inlaid into the brass lid and around the shoulders were red and blue flowers, delicate and tasteful, he thought. Like Maryann. He brought the container to his chest, to evoke their spiritual closeness. The brass was cold and hard. He tried to get past this rigidity and into the softness within. Ashes, yes, but the softness of her cheek and soul. A vision came to him then, her hair gone and her face gaunt. Her greying skin suggesting tracing paper, transparent and dry. All that was left was her tawny eyes, enormous and wet, peering into him.
He opened the lid of the vase and without looking in, leaned forward over the stream. The jar tilted in his hands and poured its contents into the stream. It seemed to take a long time, the ashes of her body spilling out into the brown-green water. He watched her go. Heavier pieces of bone splashed and sank. Lighter ashes floated along the surface until they too succumbed. And the famous dust didn’t go to dust, but took to the air, following the tender breeze back upstream.
At the end, he juggled the urn to sprinkle out the last bit.
What would he do without her? He had no idea.
He sat there till the day grew hot and ants discovered him and the container that lay open beside him. It was time to go. He was, after all, a man of action. He swiveled his position and pushed himself to standing. He looked both ways along the path, deciding whether to go on around or to return the way he had come. He looked up. No rain clouds. Crows dive-bombed a golden eagle who swooped away with a hoarse, irritated cry. He thought he might take the longer way, to take a little more time before he rejoined his life alone.
For more by Margaret Shaw, read “Big Time in the Big City” on this blog. If you haven’t read it, you won’t want to miss it!