There was a strong, almost-autumn wind. It upset the grand-kids’ play tent in the backyard, caused the crimson maple to wave furiously. There was a smell that was whipped up in the air. A warm, rich smell.
It made Lucille want to smoke on the deck.
She’d always thought that fall was the perfect season for smokers. Not too hot, not too cold. There was something comfortable about it. The smell of the leaves wilting on the ground, the slight chill in the air, the crisp sounds all around. Somewhere between her chest and her guts longed for just one cigarette. The urge was so strong.
But her only pack was over 6 years old. Hidden away in one of the decorative cookie jars atop the ledge in her kitchen. No one would care and no one would know if she had just one. The problem was, she didn’t know how terribly stale they might be after 6 years. And she’d have to climb on a chair to the counter-top and stand on her tippy toes to reach the cookie jar. It just didn’t seem worth it.
After she was dead and her kids were cleaning out the house, they’d find that old pack. Then, and only then, would they know her secret. She’d smoked for 40 some years without a single soul knowing. Well, except for the guy at the gas station outside of town. Not even Edgar knew. After 53 years of marriage and the man never knew.
Well, not 53 years of ”wedding-in-a-church” marriage. More like “lived-together-so-long” it might as well be called a marriage. Everyone they knew just assumed they were married. Their parents had thought they’d eloped. Their kids never questioned it.
Somewhere around their 41st year together, they started going to church.
“Eddie, I think we need to be married,” she’d said to him after a Sunday evening service. The few kids that still lived at home were all in bed, yet she whispered anyway. “Don’t you think it’s the right thing to do?”
“Well, I guess so.” He’d looked at her like she had a second nose.
“But how? We can’t let the children know that we lived in sin.”
“Do they really have to know?”
“How else will we get married?”
Edgar had thought. Walked out of the room. Returned with something.
“Lu, I love you.” He got down on his knee. “Marry me.”
He slipped a key ring on her finger.
“Um, Edgar. How?”
“Right now.” He had bowed his head. “Lord, God. Uh. Can Lucille and me be married in Your Eyes? Can it work that way? Sorry for living with her out of wed-lock for so long. Amen.”
“Is that it?”
“I guess so.” His eyes had beamed into hers. “Hey, honey, could you help me up?”
“Goodness, you’re old!”
And that was it. Their long awaited wedding. In their bedroom among the unmade bed and overflowing hamper.
After all, where in the Holy Bible did it command a white dress and big, sugary cake? Lucille wouldn’t have felt right wearing white anyway. After giving birth to seven kids she was clearly no virgin. She could have gone for the cake, though.
“Sorry, wife. Can’t have a cake. No thanks to the diabetes for that,” Edgar had said. “How about some sugar free jello?”
“Sounds just fine, dear,” she’d said back.
“Just the two of us,” he had toasted, raising his dish of jello. “To many more years.”
Just the two of them. Lucille had felt a twinge of guilt at that. Even 12 years later, looking out the sliding door at the wind, she’d felt the guilt. It had been just the two of them. For so many years.
But not always. There was that one time. The time she’d failed him. But that was so long ago. In the late 1960′s. And that other man was dead. Killed in Viet Nam. And Edgar had never known.
She’d kept it from him to protect him. That way she bore the whole weight of the pain. But there were moments when she was sure he’d figure it all out. Justice, their oldest daughter, looked a whole lot like that other man. His green eyes, his strawberry colored hair. And not a lick like Edgar.
But Edgar had never said a word about it.
She couldn’t believe she’d let him go to his grave without telling him the truth. It upset her stomach. Brought her to tears. She had to put a hand on the glass of the door. Grief overcame her, putting her off balance.
A flash of lightning lit up the backyard. It was going to storm. It would be a big one.
Lucille hoped that it would all blow over before the morning. A soggy funeral would be miserable.
The night was dark. Full of rain and thunder and lightning. Electricity flickered on and off until a huge popping sound shut it off for the rest of the night. Lucille hadn’t collected candles or found a flashlight. She’d just sat in her dining room waiting for sunrise.
And it came.
In oranges and pinks and reds. Clouds split, fizzling into the sky. A rainbow spanned the atmosphere.
“Edgar would have loved this,” she said aloud. “How he loved the few moments after a storm.”
A key turned in the front door. Trudy walked in.
“Mom?” Trudy called.
“At the table,” Lucille answered. “Can you believe the storm?”
“Is your power out?”
“Yeah. Went out about 2:30 this morning.”
“How terrible.” Trudy looked at her mother. “You aren’t thinking about wearing your bathrobe to the funeral, are you?”
“The graveside is going to be a muddy mess.”
“Are you thinking you’ll wear black?”
“Hopefully, they’ll have all the mud covered.”
“Mother. We have to get you dressed. We’re supposed to be at the funeral home in less than half an hour.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, honey.” Lucille looked at her daughter. “I’m just not looking forward to it. You know, all my life I loved picking out what I’d wear.”
“I know, Mom.”
“But how am I going to pick out the right thing to wear today?”
“I’ll find something for you.”
“That would be perfect. Thank you.”
She stood, flipped on the coffee maker. Nothing happened. She remembered the storm knocking out the power.
“We’re going to have to stop on the way for coffee,” she yelled toward the ceiling, hoping Trudy heard her.
She looked at the sink. White porcelain with chips that revealed some kind of black material. Edgar had installed that so many years ago. And the faucet. The back splash. Counter tops, flooring, windows, paint. Her Eddie had done all of it. He’d been so skilled and strong. There was nothing around the house he couldn’t fix or replace.
Except her. He never figured that out. But, then again, most of her damage he never knew about. But he’d tried. And she loved him for it. She only wished she’d been able to love him enough. She always knew he loved her more than she could have ever loved him.
“How about this one?” Trudy walked to Lucille, carrying a burgundy dress.
“Yes,” Lucille didn’t turn around. “That’s fine.”
“It’s the one you wore at your 50th anniversary party.”
Lucille couldn’t hold back a small chuckle. “Oh, yes.”
“What’s so funny?”
“If you only knew.”
Lucille went into the guest room to change.
The funeral home was old. About as old as Lucille. The founders were still the owners and operators. At one point or another, they’d buried most of their siblings, classmates and neighbors. Including the man who was Lucille’s one time infidelity. Herbert Lane.
Everyone had come to that funeral. Edgar had been a pall-bearer. Lucille sat in the back, round with child and guilt. But no grief sunk her heart. More of a relief.
As Lucille walked into the funeral home she wondered at the relief she’d felt so many years before. And she remembered thinking that this man, this father of her oldest, was not so heroic.
“Mom,” Trudy said, “do you want to look at Daddy?”
Her daughter’s voice snapped her back to the day. It was her husband’s funeral. That was today.
“Yes, I do,” she answered. “Alone.”
There’d been no visitation. No extras. Edgar didn’t want that.
“Just throw my body in the hole and call it a day,” he’d said. “And I don’t want anyone saying how good I look.”
Lucille walked into the small room. Chairs were lined up. Enough for 100 people. She expected far more. People would have to stand or pull up a chair.
The coffin was black. Silver handles ran down the sides. She saw his nose before anything else.
“You always had a big schnoz,” she said out loud.
As she got closer she realized that his make-up made him look three shades darker. Clown red cheeks, salmon colored lips, a little blue on his eyelids. His hair was slicked back.
“No one’s going to say you look natural, babe.” She took a tissue from her sleeve and wiped his face.
It was cold, clammy, hard. Not the warmth of living flesh. And yet she still felt a closeness with that body. She moved her fingers through his hair, parting it to the left. It made her feel better.
“Well, Eddie, we’ve had a good run,” she said. “You were always so good to me.”
A wail burst through her. Uncontrolled. Unstoppable. She groaned from her loss. Eventually, that wave of pain passed. A calm soothed her.
“Eddie, I have to tell you. This is something I never told a soul before. And I’m sorry I never told you when it mattered,” she leaned in close to his face. She told him about her affair.
In the telling, something occurred to her. She’d told Herbert no. She’d fought him. Clawed. Kicked. Bit. Begged. Cried. But he wouldn’t stop.
But why had her brain let her think it was her fault for so long?
“You’d better not tell no one,” Herbert had hissed in her ear. “Eddie’d never believe you.”
She remembered his voice, his smell, his weight pressing down on her.
She suddenly found it impossible to breathe.
Lucille struggled to regain her breath. “He forced me, Eddie. But I didn’t know what to do. I believed him that it was my fault. And then I was pregnant. You were so excited.” She gulped more air. “How could I have told you that Justice might not have been yours? And she came out with that same chin as Herbert. I was just so afraid. God help me, I was terrified of what Herbert was going to do to me.”
“Mom.” Justice stood in the back corner of the room. Her strawberry blonde hair didn’t even have a hint of gray. No wrinkles creased in her face. She looked more like a 30 year old than a 40-something.
“Oh, honey,” Lucille whispered. Her eyes grew wide, tears spilling from the corners. “Oh, no. I didn’t…”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
Lucille looked at Edgar’s body. “There’s a lot to it, honey.” She shivered. “I never wanted you to think you were a curse.”
“Why did you keep me?”
“Because your Daddy was so excited. And that got me through the pregnancy.” Her eyes closed, cherishing a memory. “When I saw you, when they put you in my arms right after you were born. Oh, Justice. It was the happiest moment. It healed me. You made me whole.”
“But he wasn’t really my father,” Justice nodded toward Edgar. “Not really.”
“No, Justice, he was your daddy. You know how he loved you.”
The rest of Lucille’s children filed in. Chatting with one another is soft tones of reverence. Lucille and Justice held each other’s focus. There was a tension, a pull and push at the same time. Both women felt it. Both women felt vulnerable. Lucille was sure she’d lost her daughter.
Justice made her way to her mother, arms held out long before she reached her. She knelt on the floor, holding Lucille. The other six, not knowing what was going on, gathered around, circling their mom and older sister.
“She’s taking it so hard,” said Trudy.
That night, Lucille sat in her bed, drinking a cup of steaming tea. She looked at his pillow. It was still dented where his head would rest. There were a few short, silver hairs on the pillow case. The carpet bore the track of ambulance stretcher wheels. He had already been dead when they took him out. A black case closed up around him.
She smiled. Felt love blended with sadness seep from her heart to her throat.
I’ve had a great love in my life, she thought. Thank you, Eddie.
Lucille sipped her tea and remembered her Edgar.