FIRST PLACE
18th ANNUAL FICTION CONTEST
      
THE CARETAKER
   
by D. A. Kentner
Archer Foley traced a finger over the smile forever captured in the plastic encased photograph.
        “Pretty.”
        He slapped the Italian leather wallet closed.  His wife’s memory, and the constant pain that accompanied it, belonged to him, not some lounge lizard.  Irritation scratched his throat, dog-eared his words.  “Yes. She was.”
        “Was?  I’m sorry.  I didn’t…I didn’t mean to imply anything.”  Fingernails tapped a staccato beat on the bar.  “I mean…” A sigh thick as smoke rolled over the polished wood.  “I don’t know what I mean.  I’m sorry.  Sometimes I’m not so good with words.”
       
For the first time, Archer glanced in the back-bar mirror at the man sitting on the stool to his right.  A flash of dim, overhead light set the skin under thin gray hair aglow.  He was older.  Probably retired.  The face, furrowed with ruts, held a shape not unlike a balloon losing helium. Tangled, un-sheared wisps of hair splayed over too-large ears. The pink, round nose resembled a long-abandoned pin cushion.  Dirt-stained, threadbare bib overalls were strapped over a dingy T-shirt that might have once been white.
        Archer inhaled.  Varied layers of stale sweat climbed up his nostrils.  He snorted his disdain.  Maybe the old man’s annual bath wasn’t due yet.
    
A monotonous tap drew his attention.  The fingernail was yellowed, unclipped and ragged; no doubt trimmed by breakage.  The finger and hand were shriveled leather spotted like an Appaloosa.
        Archer tipped back another swallow of his scotch lunch and looked in the mirror for an empty stool to make his escape to.  Seeing none, he gulped down the remnants of the drink and slid the glass toward the bartender.
        “Double scotch and water, hold the water, right?” asked the barkeep in his gleaming white shirt, buttoned black vest, and matching bowtie.
        “Yeah,” Archer said with a snarl.  If he couldn’t get away from the stink and annoyance of his unwanted companion, he could get drunk enough that none of it would matter. Besides, stupors temporarily masked the void Shelly’s death had left in his life.
        “You ready for a refill on the orange juice?” the bartender asked the old man.
        Orange juice? Without vodka? Archer shook his head at the folly. The old man could buy a gallon of the pulp for what a glass had to cost in the upscale bar.
        “Yes, please.” The words came out on a gravel pit conveyor of a voice.  “I’ll buy his, too.”  A haggard brown wallet held together by two faded red rubber bands appeared on the bar.  Fingers deftly removed the bands and set them aside.
        Without so much as a thought of what he was doing, Archer reached over and put his hand over the tattered leather.  “I’ve got it.”
        “No sir.”  The old man pulled the wallet from under Archer’s hand and slid a twenty out of the bill holder.  “I appreciate the gesture, but my Mary always said I should be hospitable to folks in need.”
        Anger roiled, churned in Archer’s gut, soured the puddle of booze in his belly.
        In need?  Who does this old fart think I am?
        “I don’t need your generosity or your friendship,” he growled.  “I could buy this place and six others like it if I wanted to.”
    
The old man didn’t seem to have heard him.  “Keep the change.”  He turned the open wallet toward Archer and tapped a hazy photograph.  “This here’s my Mary.  Prettiest girl in the whole school. Why she took up with me, me and her folks never did understand. But she made my life perfect for a while.” The fingertip moved to another picture, never, but old as well.  “Until cancer took her and I screwed it all up.”
        Archer cast a bored look at the pictures. The newer one was obviously a high school graduation photo. The young woman possessed the beauty of youth and untainted dreams, shoulder-length blonde hair, and an infectious smile.  He shifted his gaze to the black and white picture of a woman with curled black hair that fully exposed high cheekbones and eyes glistening with joy. Same smile. Mother and daughter?
        “What do you mean you screwed it all up?”  He clamped his lower lip between his teeth.  Why he’d asked the question, he had no clue. The last thing he wanted was to know anything about some disheveled itinerant.  Still, he looked into the old man’s brown eyes welling with tears.
        The aged fingers carefully snapped the rubber bands around the billfold and tucked it into the breast pocket of his denim bibs.  “Lost sight of what matters.  Too late now.”  The man swiped a hand over his sodden eyes.
        “Too late for what?”  Good God, what are you doing? Drink the scotch and get away from this crazy fool.  Understanding hammered his liquored brain into sobriety.  He closed his eyes and heaved a sigh of surrender.  “Your daughter?  Is she okay?  I mean, is she alive?”  He opened his eyes for the response to the question he already knew the answer to. The girl had taken off.
        Two quick nods of the weathered head preceded the heavy words, “Yes, sir.  Last I knew anyway.”
        “How long’s it been since you’ve heard from her?”  Archer’s heart tightened to a fist then uncurled to embrace his bar-mate’s agony.
        An ignored tear plunged into a crease of skin and emerged to drip from sandpaper stubble on the chiseled chin.  “Thirty years now maybe.”
        Thirty years?  He couldn’t begin to imagine not hearing from, let along hugging, his children.  “Where is she?”
        The old man slowly shook his head.  “Not sure.  Somebody she went to school with mentioned they’d heard she was living out in Oregon somewhere. Said I was a grandpa.  Might even be a great-grandpa by now. Were those your kids?”
        A jolt shook Archer’s body.  How did this man know about his children?
        “Your wallet.  The picture across from your wife’s. Take after you and your missus.  Nice looking pair of young people. Bet you’re proud of them. Bet they’re proud of you, too.”  He lifted his glass and took a sip of juice.  “I’d wager they’re hurting just as much as you are.  At least they’ve got you to talk to about it.  I didn’t pay my daughter no mind.  Lord knows she reached out to me enough.  But I was too caught up in myself, my grief, to see what she was going through.”  He set down the glass.  “Children, people, can only hold so much pain before they got to find a way to turn it loose.  My child latched on to the first man who promised to take her away from me and my stupidity.  Haven’t heard from her since.”
    
A wave of guilt-laden heat scorched Archer’s skin.  He tugged at his fingers. Shelly would never forgive him if she knew what he’d done. Worse, what he hadn’t done.
        The old man slid off the stool.  “I need to get back to work. Been nice chatting with you, sir.  You take care of those children.  Once family’s gone, there’s no getting them back.”  He stuffed his hands in his pockets.  “But then you already know that, don’t you?”
        He turned and strode out the door.
   
Archer dug out his wallet and opened it.  Shelly smiled up at him.  He scoured the faces of his son and daughter, their beauty they each carried within them, their gentleness—gifts from their mother.
        His anguished soul wrenched his face. Tears flowed.
        “I’m sorry,” he muttered to Shelly.  “I am so sorry I let you down.”  He closed the billfold and returned it to his pocket.  “But that ends right now.”
        “You okay, Mr. Foley?  Maybe you need a drink of your scotch.”
        Archer glared at the bartender.  “Dump it.  What I need is waiting for me at home.”  He took a deep breath and held it until his lungs ached. The pain helped to clear his muddied mind.  He loosed the breath and his words through clenched teeth.  “No. Where I’m need is home.  I’ve got a family who needs me.”
        He pulled a sheaf of bills from his trousers pocket, peeled off a twenty, and slapped it down on the bar.  “For you.  Nothing personal, but you won’t see me in here again.”
    
He walked out into the noonday sun. Spreading his arms wide, he basked in the warmth and inhaled clarity for the first time since Shelly died.  A part of him was buried with her, but a major part of him, and of his wife, still lived in their children.  He would never again place himself before his family.
        A jerk of panic rattled Archer’s bones.  He turned back and forth, craning his vision up and down the empty street.  An old man had changed his life, awakened him to what was truly important and the work yet to be done, and he didn’t even know the man’s name or how to get in touch to thank him.
    
He clicked the button on his remote. The BMW beeped its response.  Archer sank into the tan leather upholstery and simply looked around him at the wood grain, then at the empty passenger seat.  A tight smile fought its way to his lips.  His eyes welled.  He inhaled, searching for her perfume. But the year since Shelly’s death had erased her physical presence.
        “I miss you.”
        He flicked his wrist on the key to start the car, then drove away.
        Home and his children were southwest.  But a long overdue visit lay due west.
       
He sped along the tree-lined streets
to the edge of his concrete world.  Just beyond the city limits sign, he turned into the cemetery
       
      
(top of page)
and parked at the office.  His face heated in embarrassment.  It wasn’t he’d forgotten where Shelly had been laid to rest—he could never forget that—it was that he hadn’t thought to bring flowers.  Here he was, a year delinquent in visiting, and he didn’t have so much as a rose petal to give his wife.
        “Christ,” he grumbled.  “How’d you ever put up with me?”
        While this might not have been the first time he’d neglected Shelly, it damn sure would be the last.
        Hopefully, the people who managed the cemetery accounted for such oversights and had a wreath or two on hand.  He pulled open the glass door to the small building and entered.  A couple in their late twenties to early thirties stood on the customer side of the counter in deep discussion with a man in a wrinkled sport jacket on the opposite side.  In a corner stood a grassy cross on a metal stand. Archer sighed with relief.  If the cross was for sale, it belonged to him.
        “I know it’s expensive,” the man softly said, “but the prices are set by corporate.  I’m just the manager. All I can do is offer time payments.  I’m sorry.  I wish I could do more for you.  I really do.”
        The woman’s knees folded. The man beside her grabbed her around the waist and lifted her. She clung to the counter for support.
        Archer read the gold letters attached to the cross: Mother. Wife. You showed us how beautiful life can be.  “Perfect,” he whispered.  “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
        “I guess we don’t have a choice,” the man rasped out.  “It’s not like you plan on your child getting killed.”
    
Archer spun around. The couple’s clothes were clean but beyond worn. A fragment of black sock was visible through a hole in the man’s tennis shoe.
        “I just need you to sign here.” The cemetery employee set some papers on the counter.  “And, we need a hundred dollar deposit.  Payments will be due the first of every month.”
        “A hundred dollars? Today?” The grieving father shook.
        His wife grabbed him in a consoling hug.  “I’ll talk to my box.  Maybe he’ll loan me the money until payday.”
        “It’s…it’s…”  The father swallowed hard. Anger spilled out of him.  “Everybody wants money up front. The hospital, the funeral home…Jesus Christ!  My boy just died! Where the hell do you people think we can come up with all this money?”
        “We’ll come back,” the woman mumbled through her tears.  “We’ll come back.”
        She pulled her red-faced husband out the door.
     
“Can I help you, sir?”
        Archer stared at the door.  “This isn’t right. Those people just lost their child, and you make them jump through financial hoops?”
        “It’s business. Somebody has to pay for the cemetery plots.  If they were on state aid, the state would pay for it, but they’re not, so the cost is on them.  Nothing I can do.  I wish there was, honest.  But I can’t afford to buy a plot for every person who doesn’t do proper planning.”
        Maybe the manager couldn’t do anything about the situation, but Archer could.  He pulled out his wallet. Shelly smiled up at him. The warmth of her memory blanketed him from head to toe.  Now, this was right.  “You take plastic?”
        “Yes, sir.”  Elation glowed about the manager.
        “Good.  I’m paying for their plot and whatever other hidden expenses there might be. Call the funeral home and tell them to send me the bill as well.”  He set the credit card on the counter, then added a business card.  “Whenever you encounter folks like them, you call my office, and we’ll see what we can work out.
        “Yes, sir, Mister—” The manager looked at the card.  “—Foley.”  He pointed to the cross.  “The florist just delivered that for you.”
        Archer’s eyelids snapped open.  “For me?  You sure?”
        The manager slid a piece of paper across the countertop.  “Archer Foley. That’s you, right?”
    
Archer picked up the delivery form. Sure enough, his name rested on the top line.  He didn’t know how long he blankly stared at the paper, but some time must have passed, as the manager stuttered, “You didn’t order it?”
        Archer set the paper down and shook his head.  “No.  I have no idea where it came from.  I came in here hoping you might have some flowers or something.”  Heat singed his ears.  He garbled the words, “I forgot to pick some up.”
        “Wait a minute.” The manager reached under the counter.  He produced a soiled spiral notebook, which he laid on the Formica-topped counter.  He flipped through aged pages then stopped and tapped at a line.  “Shelly Foley?  You’re her family?”
        “Husband.  Yeah.”  Archer tilted his head to get a better look.  His wife’s name was amongst a long list of names printed in pen and pencil.  Most had lines drawn through them.  He looked at the manager.  “What’s this all about? What is this book?”
        The manager gave him an odd grin. “Henry’s log.  He keeps track of every single grave that doesn’t get visited.”
        Archer’s mind melted to mud. This was beyond weird. What kind of sicko kept track of such things?  A growl of resentment rumbled in his throat.  Someone had been keeping a closer eye on Shelly’s grave than he had.
        “Henry one of your employees?”  Might as well find out what Henry was before he called corporate and arranged for the man to be fired.
        “No.  He’s not. But it’s not like we haven’t offered him the caretaker’s job enough.  Hell, he spends more time here than we do.  I swear, there isn’t a name out there he can’t tell you where the grave is.  He comes just about every day, cleans away any debris from his wife’s grave, then busies himself cleaning markers, raking leaves and grass, and throwing away dead flowers.  He keeps track of the graves in this log.  I take it it’s been a while since you visited?”
        Archer’s ears burned again.  “First time.”
        The manager nodded.  “That explains it then.  I’m surprised he hasn’t dropped in on you.”  He closed the book.  “Or did he?  Henry wouldn’t have ordered the cross if he didn’t believe you’d stop by today or tomorrow.”
        Archer’s head jerked up to meet the manager’s eyes.  “What do you mean?”
     
The manager folded his hands on top of the logbook.  “I don’t have any personal knowledge.  I guess it’s something that people don’t want to talk about or admit to, but we hear rumors.  Henry supposedly has a way of talking to families that aren’t dealing with their loss very well.  The deceased don’t have anyone visit, and then out of the blue, relatives show up.  Sometimes one person, sometimes an entire family.  It gets pretty emotional around here when it happens.  Pent-up feelings flow like rain.”  He massaged the backs of his hands with his fingers.  “Understand, what we’ve seen people go through isn’t about the grave, it’s about the release.  It’s about finding their lives again. After it happens, Henry comes in a few days later and draws a line through a name in his book.  That’s how we know he had something to do with the people who showed up.”
        Archer chuckled. The chance meeting in the bar wasn’t so “chance” after all.  Henry had sought him out.
        “What do you know about Henry? Why does he do this?” he asked, although he knew the answer.
        The manager shook his head.  “His wife Mary is buried here. Other than that, he doesn’t say much.”
        Archer set his jaw and his determination.  Henry had reunited Archer’s family. A debt was owed.  “Well, I’m going to do for Henry what he’s done for a lot of people.”
        “What’s that?”
        “I’m going to bring his family together.  One way or another, it’s going to happen.”  He picked up the cross and headed for the door.
        “Not easy work is it, Mr. Foley?”
        Archer paused.  “What work?”
        “Being a caretaker like Henry.”
        He couldn’t have hidden the smile if he’d tried.
        “No, probably not. But there isn’t a better paying job on the planet.”     
    
   
                   About the Author
     
        David “DA” Kentner (also known as KevaD), is the author of the romantic comedies Out of the Closet and Back in the Closet, as well as the romantic suspense novel Sunday Awakening, all published by Noble Romance Publishing.  His romantic horror series, “Catherine’s Toys,” is awaiting contract for publication.  In addition, DA writes the weekly column, “The Readers’ Writers,” which appears in newspapers across the U.S.A. 
        A former army medic, EOD specialist, police chief, auctioneer, furniture restorer, and antiques dealer, DA clearly can’t hold a job.  But he loves to write—about anything. And people actually pay him to do it.  “How cool is that?” he says.
        When not at the keyboard, shoveling snow or mowing their five acres outside Freeport, IL, he tries to explain to his wife that the soap and game networks aren’t the only channels on TV, and that pizza really is a food group.
        DA Kentner’s last appearance in Calliope was a science fiction story, “Love and Crescendium” (Spring 2010, Issue #127), which earned Honorable Mention #1 in Calliope’s 2009 Fiction Contest.
        DA Kentner can be found at the following web sites: http://www.kevad.net/index.html and http://dakentner.blogspot.com/.
Calliope
on the Web
Copyright ©2011 Calliope, All rights reserved. Future rights to works published in Calliope are retained by individual authors and artists.
Calliope
5975 W. Western Way
PMB 116Y
Tucson, AZ  85713