20211007

Jeff Adams


The Stonecutter's Wife

               I believe that he can be, like me, an impulsive romantic. His bike bumps into mine at Ironman. There is no damage, except to my heart. After the race, which neither of us wins, we begin seeing each other. And by seeing I mean every square inch of each other, every day, until the morning he suddenly collapses for no good reason. This is not the kind of impulsiveness that I fancy. Then, here come the doctors. We need to do some tests, they tell us. It feels like they take forever, and they produce a result we do not want. We ask about retests. There is little doubt, they say. We can do them, but you would have to pay. Then he tells me that he loves me. We had known each other for two weeks. We forget the retests, and we get married.
               My name is Regina, but Scott calls me Reggie. So I call him Scotty. He grew up on a property that I know well. The chance that I may lose him stops me cold and, curiously, throws me back to that place. It is as though any guidance to his future, our future, is buried in my past with that land, whose family history I know better than my new husband. I must explore it slowly, thoughtfully, and with attention to the details, for some clue. Or at least for some way to cope without him. As though this were the case a mere two weeks ago, before we had met. Before he bumped his bike into mine, slyly and with stealth, like a peck on the cheek.
               As a child, if my day were dark with trouble, I would think of that place. I would think of what happened there long ago as a way to feel better about my own present situation. I would wait for an inclement day to go there when nature was in her own dark mood. When the grey clouds deepened into a color closer to coal ash and billowed with the portent of an oncoming storm, I would rush to the tall reeds that delineated a wetland border. Down a gentle slope I would run, then into the level range of muck where deer tracks told me, this is how animals daydream. I would cut my own path then, as now. There was the stink of low tide, quickly blown off and carried to the city square a mile away. People would complain about the stench as though it was not already a marker of their neighborhood. Waves rolled in parallel formation and formed frothy white tips as they skittered across the little bay in a kind of panic, and then dissolved into the thick grasses. The upturning leaves of native maples, spun round and round by an untamed wind, held on for dear life. Why did they not surrender to fate and spiral off in upward columns? What was the point of staying attached to something that did not defend you? Is that hope? The memory intrudes: I have seen flocks of birds fly through buckshot and survive. Wind is a gentler killer isn’t it? The warnings of impending fury told me that the vent of nature would soon spill hard from a ruined sky. I wished it would come for me. Fall on me with everything you’ve got, I would say. Take me with you. But it never did, and my days got better for it afterward. Yes, I told myself, there is hope.

               It was, long ago, a stonecutter’s place. He went by his surname, Moncrief, but everyone called him by his given name, Harold. At least the historians tell us so. Harold’s legacy was littered about the property, tossed here and there, abandoned along the wide swath of thistle and thatch cut down to the stub, by labored hands, all the way to the shore two hundred yards away. I was drawn to wander the full length of the path once I realized the treasures that would be revealed to me. The first one I found was a beautiful chunk of granite – if a headstone can be called a chunk – with the word SISTER carved into its face, but off center. If not an obvious failure, I supposed it could be an early trial. Or perhaps it was done in haste the morning after a raucous night, a deep dive into the local pub, for which Harold was apparently known. They would buy him beers and whiskey to pry from him the secrets of his life. They would make remarks about his teenage daughter Agnes, about their appreciation for the progress of her womanhood, and how joyously she received their attention.
               Abigail was Agnes’s mother, Harold’s third cousin (twice removed, as he used to joke) and his wife. Agnes was not his natural child. She came into the marriage with Harold’s promise to her that he would never attempt to physically consummate the union with Abigail. He made no such promise with respect to Agnes herself, he would later assert. He was also committed to his artistry, wed to it, more so than to any person. As if one could make love to a chisel, Harold fell fully, wholeheartedly, into a relationship with the tools of his trade. But unlike most people, who would grow their expertise with greater practice, Harold maintained a steady mediocrity. He seemed to revel in it. As a painter might lean his finished canvases, stretched tightly on their new frames and tipped carefully, one against the other, in parallel rows along the walls of a studio, Harold distributed his unsold works along the path to the bay. But he laid them about randomly, arranged them in weird postures, as though they had been tossed around by a trespassing colossus prospecting for buried jewels.
               Only the statue of Mother Mary was properly placed. Standing there like a sentinel, it faced the Moncrief house halfway up the grassy slope that defined the interior-most portion of the stonecutter’s land. If it protected anything, this was not made obvious, given its position in the middle of things. Do enemies attack from the within? I wondered. Or maybe this was precisely what Harold had in mind, being a man of suspicions. Hers was the classic pose, with the upward bent right forearm and two blessing fingers pointed toward the sky. Her left arm extended downward with palm cupped forward, as though to introduce her little toddler to worshippers. The face wore the beatific visage of a woman chosen by God to be his Son’s mother, but little else of gender or empathy. Upon closer inspection, certain body parts were a gross mismatch. The right upper arm was short and proper, as in that of a grown woman. But its hand was the size of a small child’s, perhaps that of a three-year-old. The left arm’s elbow looked to be at least three inches lower than the right one, and its hand had the girth and length of an adult man’s. As a young girl, when I first encountered this monstrosity, I realized there was no solution to the defects. In this type of work, what one removes defines the art. And there is virtue in consistency, if only for its own sake. Such was the case in a block of granite, which sat at the statue’s feet, into which the word SALVE had been etched in elegant serif letters - unfortunately, a wholly inappropriate font for an abstemious clergy averse to even the subtlest display of frivolity. It also struck me as incomplete, a thought that prompted me to add my own name to it and recite it to myself, like a prayer.
               The rest of thrown objects seemed to be finished headstones with names and dates and, in some cases, quotes or sayings about the person in question. I could only wonder why they were there. If they were done correctly, why weren’t they where they should be? It wasn’t as though the person hadn’t died, right? Was there a problem of payment? Was it wishful thinking on Harold’s part? A miraculous recovery? In those days, refuse from daily life was destined to a hole in the ground somewhere near the house for the convenience of a brief freezing walk in the dead of winter, or closeness to a facility for the quick relief from a screaming bowel. The Moncrief property, if it had such a ditch, concealed it where the casual visitor could not find it, as if it were worth something. But the detritus of work gone wrong or an incomplete transaction? Have at it.
               I walked further down the hewn path, toward the water, and discovered layers of cemetery fencing stacked neatly in evenly spaced piles. By my calculation, there was enough of it to construct a squared off perimeter capable of accommodating a family of four, or six, depending on the size of the individuals. The quality of craftsmanship was obvious and of the highest order. Why Harold should possess these deftly twisted and turned wrought iron artifacts was not clear to me. Perhaps he had envisioned his ultimate future. But my mind associated much of his stonework with tributes to those who have left us, or to those we imagined to have lived and inspired us, and not simply to pleasure the living eye. So then it made sense. I did not dwell on such morbid thinking then, nor do I now, but in this case it was unavoidable, in my opinion. A bit later, I was extremely pleased to approach what I thought to be an enormous jewel, alone there by its gorgeous self, sitting flat atop the remnants of a stone fence. It was a rough-cut section of rose quartz and appeared, to my child’s eye, to be as big as a side of beef. Due to the sun’s lower position in the sky, light seemed to beam out from within it, giving it an aura – lovely ribbons of pink and gold - that can only be described as heavenly. It gave me hope.
               When I proceeded down, closer to the bay, I recalled what I had been told about its dangers, not the least of which was the tidal rush. In the days of Abigail and Agnes it was the brutal outflow, as unstoppable as a tsunami but without the hideous wave that crushes everything in its path, that swept the unsuspecting mother out to sea. She had told Harold that she wanted to watch the sunset from the new pier that he had built. He warned her to be careful, that the king tide was at its peak and the outbound tide was sure to be as violent as after a summer deluge on the Amazon. As he predicted, it was so. But what he could not and dare not tell her was that he was unsure of his skills as a builder of piers. Unfortunately, it was commensurate with his abilities as a stonecutter. Abigail was as careful as he warned her to be, but that held no candle to the force of water against a post he had improperly fastened, and which pulled away in the blink of an eye. It was hers to hang onto for the better part of the night, well past the edge of the continental shelf where the bay drops to ocean, and where Abigail gave up any notion that Harold would be her savior.
               The irony of the incident, if you will, was back on land, the nearby presence of a huge structure. It was composed of squared off granite blocks, bumpy on all sides except for one smooth and polished surface, into which the name or names of the newly deceased would be carved. There must have been a hundred of these blanks, ten by ten across and in ten levels separated by a system of crisscrossing oak boards. They were arranged not fifty feet from the pier, the source material for Harold’s next headstone project, which under usual circumstances would have been to memorialize his wife, the victim of his imperfect carpentry. The mother of the woman he actually loved. But Abigail was never found, as you might have surmised, and Harold thereafter sought Agnes’s forgiveness in the form of being her perfect husband. They were married for five years, during which she bore him four children, all of them boys, until he took his last breath suddenly, and without compliance, in his tool shed. He could never bring himself to repair the pier, which survives today, looking exactly as it did in the aftermath of that king tide. As does the medical mystery associated with their offspring, and within their descendants. That would be the tendency to drop dead for no apparent reason. Against the odds of her life, Agnes raised her boys alone from the proceeds she earned waitressing in Harold’s favorite bar.

               I believe in hope. When Scotty collapsed, he did not die. The result from the doctors is that there is no result, meaning there is no answer, yet, to whatever affliction that is or may be upon him. But I think I know where the answer may lie, based on my ruminations. So I ask Scotty if we can visit the property, which is still in his family. He and a brother act as caretakers, and the house is currently unoccupied. It would be available to us if we wish it to be so.
               We retrieve a wheelbarrow from the small tool shed located next to the house. We make our way along what we remember to be the path to the bay, slicing through the regrown jungle of thatch and thistle, until we get to the statue of the Mother Mary. With some careful maneuvering of the heavy brush around the base of the statue, I locate the block of granite with the word SALVE etched into it. Further down, atop the remnants of the stone wall, we spot the beautiful rough-cut section of rose quartz. Seeing it now as an adult, I realize it is not the size of a side of beef, but perhaps that of a suitcase, one that could fit in the overhead bin on an airplane. We place both objects in the wheelbarrow and roll them back to the house, where the block of granite goes next to the front door. We rest the rose quartz on a porch railing and wait for the sun to set behind it.
               “How about a beer?” Scotty asks.
               “Beer? Uh, okay, sure.”
               “I hope you didn’t touch any poison ivy,” he says, climbing down from the railing.
               “Poison ivy?” I ask.
               “There’s tons of it here,” he replies. “The place is crawling with that shit. All the way to the water,” he says, gesturing toward the bay.
               Don’t ask me why, but all of a sudden I firmly believe that we will be together for a long time. “Don’t know,” I answer. “It wasn’t something I was looking for.”
               “Yep,” he says. I don’t know what ‘yep’ normally means to him but to me, at this moment, it means you may deserve what you get.
               “Yep,” I answer in agreement. It is enough for me to accept that Scotty is among us, so why not join his verbal tribe. “Should I wash?”
               “Yeah, but it probably won’t help,” he says. I am wondering if his sudden bluntness, the first I have seen of it, will be toxic to my ruminations. Also, if I have misjudged him, I wonder whether I am ready to forgive myself for the choice I have made. “Have you had your fill of Moncrief?” he asks.
               “Fill?” I look at the rose quartz, fully aglow now, while trying to visualize the greenery that had grown around it, and which I had foolishly removed with my bare hands. Same with the thick overgrowth I tore away at to get to the submerged block of granite marked SALVE.
               “He was a schmuck, okay?” Scotty says, as though he was admitting to being one himself.
               “Okay,” I answer. “But what should I do about this?” I ask, regarding my hands, all the while feeling somewhat stupid. “About the poison ivy.”
               “Well, for one thing, we shouldn’t touch each other right now,” he says. “I’ll look inside the house for some calamine lotion. If it hasn’t solidified after years of neglect, or if some mouse hasn’t eaten it, we can try it. Place is a disaster.”
               “Disaster?” I almost don’t care about the sunset now. But if this is the real truth of the matter, so be it. I’ve only known him a few weeks. There’s going to be more to him than I first thought. Am I prepared for that?
               “My brother. He was supposed to caretake inside.”
               “I thought you both were.”
               “I took outside. You can see how good I was at that,” he says.
               “Both of you?” I say, as though to insist that it should have been.
               “Hey, watch it,” Scotty says, smiling, making it a joke at his own expense. How could I be mad at him? “Nothing ever stays the same as you remember it to be. Except for the past. And even then not to those who don’t want it to.”
               “And even then?” I repeat.
               “That’s what I like about you, Reggie. You soften me up.”
               “I think you’re softer than you know,” I answer. “Like the bike bump at Ironman?”
               “Pure accident,” Scotty says.
               “Oh, God.”
               “But hey, then I saw you.”
               “And I saw you,” I reply. What else could I say?
               “And here we are,” he says. “Sitting on the decaying porch of a decrepit teardown.” He turns and enters the house. After a few minutes he comes back with an unopened bottle of calamine lotion.
               “It looks new,” I tell him.
               “It is,” he answers.
               “You knew,” I say.
               “I am a product of my ancestors,” he replies.
               “What s that supposed to mean?” I ask.
               “You’d better go wash your hands first. There is hot water here. It won’t matter, but you will feel better about yourself.”
               I enter the house and go to the kitchen sink, where there is a brand new bar of soap and a fresh hand towel waiting for me. As I wait for the running water to heat up, I look down at my hands, which are slightly redder than usual, and splotchy in places. I let the water run, dip the bar of soap under it for a second, rumple up the hand towel a little, and return to the porch. I notice that Scotty has an open bottle of calamine lotion in one hand, and a ball of cotton in the other. He dabs my hands with the calamine lotion. It feels cool and refreshing.
               “This place spooks the hell out of me. Enough said?” Scotty asks.
               “I have a different recollection,” I say.
               “That’s fine by me,” he answers, finishing his ministrations. “Whatever works for you.” He goes to his truck and comes back with two beers. “Here’s to cardiologists,” he says, hoisting one of the two cans into the air while handing me the other one. He pops open his can and takes a huge gulp. “Hey, tell me the stonecutter story again?”
               For people like me, the risk of dying enhances the obligation to live. I am not worried that Scotty will suffer for Harold’s insufficiencies. He will prosper from Agnes’s strength. It is what I have learned by revisiting this magical property. As with the stonecutter, it comes down to what is left after he makes his cuts, which tells me, be mindful of what material you start with. Trust your instincts. If a thing is beautiful as it is, make no cuts. If a thing is beautiful because of its flaws, rejoice in its imperfections.
               “C’mon,” Scotty says to me, gesturing to the open passenger side door of his pickup truck. “Let’s go get some tacos.”
               He will come around. I am convinced of that.



Jeff Adams lives in California’s Napa Valley with his wife Jane and their pet hummingbird Hoover (he is an outside bird). Jeff’s short fiction appears in literary journals, and he has just completed a novel. He earned a B.A. from Binghamton University and an M.B.A. from Fordham.
 
 
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