Leave the Living by Joe Hart
In the winter, there was always bad news.
It waited until the cold beset everything, and everyone who experienced loss knew that the warmth of summer was reserved for laughter, carefree words, and warm nights to dream while the darkest months were where sorrow held sway.
It came in twos. The oldest woman in the family would say something about the other shoe dropping when the first bit slipped in through the phone lines or by the mail slot. Then the second would come, just as she’d said it would, and she would be triumphant amidst the sadness or anger, too mortared in her age to be any more burdened. Sometimes it came in threes the way questions did on forgotten game shows. There would be two notices, and then everyone would hold their breath, waiting, waiting, before the last would arrive. And after that, any more misfortune wouldn’t be counted as a fourth but a new sequence of three.
When the phone rang that day in early January in the middle of the evening between dinner and bed, Mick knew it was the news that came only once. Nothing worse could follow, for he didn’t believe in successive disaster. Each was unto itself, a universe of anguish held in a microcosm of time. He listened to the voice on the other end of the phone, first his stomach going cold, then his fingers, then numbness beyond the shock that buffeted him. He nodded when the voice asked him a question, and it was over a minute before he realized that the officer on the other end of the line couldn’t hear him bobbing his head.
He hung up and sat down in the leather recliner that Cambri had given him on a Christmas five years ago, when their marriage had been whole and unaffected by viruses of money and daily worries that slowly stripped their love bare until there was nothing left but the bones of what once was. He sat and looked at his hands for a long time. The calluses were gone, and he wished they were there again. He wished they still looked like his hands had.
He dialed his ex-wife’s number and listened to the bell in his ear toll, counting the rings. She picked up between the fourth and fifth.
“Hey, it’s me.”
“Hi, can I call you right back? We’re just sitting down to dinner.”
“My dad died.”
Stabbing silence cut through the handset, and he ran a splayed hand through his hair, pacing out to the enclosed veranda, its windows framed with scaling frost, the skyline of Chicago a bar graph of lights in every direction.
“What?” The sound of tears in her voice was too much, and his own welled beneath his eyelids that he clamped down to stop.
He kept his voice steady in revolt against the burning in his throat. “He had an accident near his house. Apparently he was cutting down a few dead trees, and one fell on him.”
“Oh God. I’m so sorry, Mick.” Now she was crying, and the sound of her fiancé’s voice asking what was wrong came from the background. She mumbled something that he couldn’t hear and then was back, her voice wet and raw.
“That’s terrible. Oh, Mick, I’m so sorry.”
“When did it happen?”
“They’re not sure yet, but probably sometime yesterday or the day before. You know how far out of town he lives.”
Cambri issued a short sob and breathed out. He imagined he could feel the warmth in his ear. “What do you need?”………………………….
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