"Do Not Open"
Originally published in The Cape Cod Voice
His middle son Matt was giving him this extra day after the funeral, while the other two boys—men—got right on with the rest of their lives.
"Thanks for staying," Cliff said with an arm around those high shoulders as they stood at the end of the driveway to watch the Budget rental head off to the Providence airport with even more time to spare than was required for today's make-work security.
The Independence Day weekend would provide their next already planned opportunity to reunite here where retirement included the best protected ocean beach in New England, but Cliff couldn't wait the three weeks until then to open the pair of envelopes he'd found in the drawer under the portion of kitchen counter that his wife had designated as her desk. Of course he'd only been looking for Sandy's red leather address book for the phone numbers of those childhood friends and college classmates he ought to call with the terrible news, certainly not two envelopes fastened with her gold sealing wax and what always looked to him like someone else's family crest—lions—to reinforce that instead of "To Whom It May Concern" she'd written the more ominous "Do Not Open" in her most ladylike script.
Was it that Cliff felt he needed his son's witness to their contents, or only a little support in defying his wife for the first time ever?
Once the car was out of sight the two of them came through the back door and stood together before the open refrigerator to decide what could be done with all the food the neighbors had begun to drop off almost as soon as the ambulance was out of the driveway. It was Cliff's way of keeping Matt in the kitchen long enough to eventually dare to say, "Look what I found," and though he'd considered the option of pretending to discover the envelopes only then—let this lawyer son of his define what privacy meant these days, if anything—Cliff preferred to show Matt the dread he'd been suffering under for these five days since Sandy's death, when the worst was supposed to have already happened.
"No way," said Matt, dropping the envelopes onto the counter like crime-scene evidence his fingerprints shouldn't be on.
Now Cliff felt he could afford to glance beyond Matt, out the window over the sink, to the garden he'd been studying all spring like a syllabus. There had been the unpleasant surprises too—old plumbing—but he'd decided that their windfall inheritance of those chartreuse shoots with the flamboyant power to suddenly become either saffron tulips or indigo irises was a more sustaining retirement bonus than his shares in the company he'd sold once it was clear that none of the boys cared to venture above the bottom line of the insurance business. He'd never much noticed the tidy conventional gardens his wife had tended in their mid-western suburbs, but here where only the topsoil wasn't sandy, he'd been activated by the arrival of this first spring of the rest of their life. Wasn't it a way of admitting that, after almost four decades at his risk-calculating desk, there were certain surprises he was open to?
"Go ahead," his son coaxed.
"You inherit the realm," Matt said softly, "and I'll leave the room if you'd prefer."
"No, please don't."
Cliff carried the envelopes to the kitchen table where he and Sandy had eaten their last breakfast together, and because Matt couldn't know which chair was which, and sat down in his father's, Cliff took his wife's seat. His hands trembled, as if in addition to claiming her place at the table he'd long ago done her some grievous wrong she'd never gotten up the nerve to accuse him of.
"In Case of Accident," was what it said on the top of page one, but instead of this being the headline for a list of the people to contact should they have been killed together in a car crash here in this town where nobody knew them well enough to miss them, he read, "As a matter of both principle and habit, Cliff could always be counted on to provide for every emergency, beginning with our first—blind—date when he thought to bring a movie listing in case we had nothing to say to each other."
Cliff remembered his first sight of her so vividly that it shocked him to realize it was 44 years ago, almost to the day, when one Saturday night he appeared at the door of her college dorm with the name "Sandy Larcom" written on the scrap of paper his roommate had given him. It was one of those Brown-Pembroke pairings that was indeed Providential—her pun—since neither of them ever again dated anyone else. She'd tanned her skin that freshman spring with iodine-tinted baby oil, which gave her an otherworldly beauty to exceed the confines of his paler world. "Are you a gypsy?" would have been his first question if, from her blond name, he hadn't known better.
"What is it?" asked Matt, not feeling entitled to look over his father's shoulder to read his mother's decorative handwriting.
"Sort of a diary, I think," Cliff answered as he let go of the air he'd been holding onto as if that breath could be his last.
The next day after that first date they'd driven over from Providence here to this very village, called Dennis like her father, where they'd walked the flat depth and breadth of the beach, each already hoping to live one day in exactly the kind of weathered shingle house they'd ended up buying as soon as their last son was out of college and they could afford to. Or couldn't it be a love letter? They'd so rarely been apart, he might not know how to recognize one.
Matt went back to the fridge for some of the chocolate mousse he thought ought to be permissible to eat first thing in the morning of the day after you'd buried your mother, and was consoled to find that it tasted like all of those contradictory elements—velvety but elastic, airy but dense—that it was designed to.
By now Cliff had read far enough along to sense that this was more like the text of a speech which was more about him than about them as a couple. Sandy paid tribute to how diligently he'd always provided for their needs, and how little he'd given himself.
"My regrets are many," she'd written, "but none more painful than the joy Cliff took in these past few months when he would observe the sun at the end of every day here where it has the chance to set over water. Other than because my whole family was there, what were we ever doing in Indianapolis?"
It was true that until Cliff's client list became established his business was more portable than Sandy seemed willing to be convinced of, but once they'd missed that opportunity to settle somewhere else, he'd deferred his longing for this coastline. It was nice of her to admit this, but he got the feeling that something wasn't right. The sense he was getting was that he was no longer part of the equation.
"Dad!" Matt said when the throbbing sound broke out of his father's throat like an alarm. "What?"
"It's a eulogy," answered Cliff in the faintest possible voice. He let the three pages fall to the floor as he said, "It's a goddamn eulogy!"
While Matt read what his mother had written, his father tore open the second envelope, only to learn that, in this case, his death seemed to have occurred after a long illness. Here Sandy's regret wasn't about her not having had the chance to say goodbye—this was rendered quite effectively, for a fraudulent chronicle—but that in their short time here in Dennis he'd spent most of it in a hospital bed gazing out the window at the sky and the water. Because she never mentioned the perennial bed—he knows this is where he will be looking—he felt completely misrepresented.
The last page of each of the two versions included references to readings and hymns that were either different or the same but which, in either case, represented far too much preparation. Of course he'd encountered the possibility that one day he might die here, either on Route 6 or under the watchful eye of the hospice organization they'd become aware of, but did that give her the right to plan his funeral—funerals, even—as if in addition to signing the contract for this house he'd initialed his own death warrant?
Matt had so little idea what to say to his father that he wished he were stuck in the bridge traffic with his escapist brothers.
Bitterly, Cliff said, "Well, she thought about my death a lot more than I ever did!" He'd never given a thought to hers either, for that matter, as if the dream they'd finally realized with the purchase of this house had as infinite a shelf life as the nylon fishing line sold in the local hardware store.
"Creepy," was Matt's reaction, which then allowed him to wonder if there weren't two other envelopes in the drawer, or somewhere, that might have given them a clue as to what she'd wanted them to say and/or sing while the four of them walked her body down the aisle and then lowered her into the ground. Would she approve of the way all three of her sons had made an inadequate attempt to say something, though mainly in order to spare their father any sense of obligation to? "I'm no public speaker," was all he'd had to say, but which they already knew.
Like a schoolboy Cliff rested his forearms on the kitchen table and pressed his forehead into his folded hands as if grieving something as simple as the less consequential loss of a semifinal championship game that his team had been slated to win. "I don't know why she did this," he helplessly acknowledged, "or what to do now."
Matt didn't know why either, but as a litigator he usually had some idea what to do to make things right. He also knew all there was to be told about why he shouldn't smoke, and he'd already quit a lot of times for someone who wasn't yet 30. During the funeral he'd promised the remains of his mother that he'd try to quit again, starting tomorrow—today—and so far it was working, thanks most recently to the chocolate mousse. His Camel Lights were on the dresser up in the guest room, but in the front pocket of the jeans he'd put back on this morning was the Bic's tumorous bulge.
"Yes, you do, Dad," he said.
Cliff tipped the lighter from side to side, like an hourglass, and watched the contained fluid move around to less effect than those fine white grains of sand that have the power to divide all time into three-minute increments. "What, burn them?" he asked. "But wouldn't it matter what her motive was? You're the lawyer." Now he set the lighter upright next to the salt and pepper shakers, more like another condiment he could either need or not need, depending.
"Yes, it would," Matt confirmed as he picked up the local newspaper and pushed back his chair in order to leave his father alone with this deliberation. His brothers wouldn't yet have reached Providence, and if his cell phone weren't also on that dresser—but if he went up there he'd have no choice but to grab a cigarette too—he'd tell them to get their asses back here. Instead he had to settle for checking the real estate listings to see what this place was worth. If he were his dad, he'd have it on the market by noon.
The sun was on the other side of the house in the morning, so Cliff decided to abandon the kitchen for the warmth of the back yard. The two eulogies could sit there next to the lighter for however long it took him to decide what on earth it meant that Sandy had so vividly imagined herself a widow. Was this wishful thinking—both of their mothers had brightened considerably after the deaths of their husbands—or merely good insurance practice for her to weigh all the options? But if it was this, why hadn't she also considered the possibility that she too could be mortal?
Their marriage had been neither "better" nor "worse" than what was covered by their vows, and with the sole exception of her fatal aneurysm, "sickness and health" had been as immaterial as whatever "richer" or "poorer" might mean to a couple with three kids to educate. They'd made it this far together, was the point, which made him the only other person in the world with the right to know her deeply enough to guess at her true intent. It couldn't be ignored that in the 44 years since their first date they hadn't ever willingly hurt one another.
"I'm overanxious," Sandy would always complain about herself, "so I tend to overcompensate, don't I?" To which he'd offer something nice like, "It's only that you're exceptionally well organized," to see if she couldn't relax enough to finish one meal without worrying what to serve for the next.
His big mistake had been in not coaxing her out of her hometown when he had the chance, not having seen in time the debilitating grip her competitive family had always had on her. When they pulled into the driveway of this house, coming from the closing, she'd burst into tears over all the time they'd lost by being so safe, by not being bolder in claiming an independent life for themselves. It was entirely possible that in writing out these guidelines (this is what he would call them from now on, instead of eulogies), she'd merely intended to prepare for the worst—"Let's get it out of the way," she'd tell the boys about their homework—in order to feel secure enough to stop fretting. "You're the ideal wife for a guy in the insurance business," he'd loved to tell her, "since for us there's no such thing as too much protection."
Cliff's discovery here in Dennis was that he was less motivated by the bright blue sky with its matching water than by this little yard of theirs, where the russet stems of the peonies supported such voluptuous white buds that he could hardly wait to see the size of those blooms next to the hot pink roses that were almost ready to flash their wealth like gemstones. He'd fertilized the beds and mulched with a brand called Coast of Maine—the opposite of sand—and become a faithful waterer. Forgiveness tended to come fairly easily to him, so he knew it would now too, eventually. For these five days since Sandy's death he'd had an unearned advantage over her, and this was what made it possible for him to believe that, in her heart, she wouldn't want him gone any more than he did.