A Flicker in the Ashes

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By Roland Howell

They sat slouched, each in one of the pair of old creaky wicker chairs, their legs stretched out, jeans and sweatshirts, barefoot, widow and widower, watching the flames dance in the big stone fireplace.

“The fire feels so good,” Ellen said. She pointed out her toes and lifted her shoulders, stretching out, speaking dreamily.

“We need a fire almost every evening from late August on,” Nick said. “As soon as the sun goes down the chilly dampness sets in. In some ways I like this time of year at the cottage best. People begin to leave. It’s quieter, not so many stinker boats disturbing the peace.”

“You and Paul and the stinkerboats. Paul used to say big stinkerboats were a false symbol of manhood like hanging shotguns in the back window of pickup trucks. You both were a little snobbish,” Ellen laughed.

“Maybe we seemed that way. I guess it’s how you were brought up. Paul and I were taught to sail, taught to love the wind and the water and respect both. I’ve got no problem with guns, just with people who don’t know how to respect them. Sometimes I think things are moving too fast; people are losing respect. You know, respect for traditional and natural things, for each other, for the guy that thinks or acts a little differently, doesn’t quite fit the mold of the day. Hell, maybe my problem is I’ve got too much time to think being alone since Mary was killed. Sometimes I get pretty introspective.

“Maybe that’s what I liked about Paul and you. You were both a little different from other men,” Ellen said. “Mary and I should have been jealous, the way you two forgot us when you were together. Like a couple of pre-pubescent pals.”

“That’s a clever alliteration,” Nick said. He stood up with the chair creaking and went to the fire. He gave it a poke, took two splits of wood from the pile next to the hearth, and placed them on the flickering coals. He waited until the new wood caught fire before returning to his chair. Ellen watched him carefully. She watched the certain way he knew just how to place the wood and how he looked at her, smiling, as he turned away from the fire. He was like a quiet protector assuring her of continuing the pleasant warmth.

“That should keep up warm a little longer,” he said.

They sat, not talking, for several moments looking into the rekindling fire. Then Ellen broke the silence.

“Thanks, Nick. Thanks for taking me on that sail this afternoon. I needed to see where you scattered Paul’s ashes. Without a grave, I had to do that. Do you understand?”

“Yes, It didn’t end when I handed you the box with his ashes last year. Watching him slowly die for months I thought it would but it didn’t.”

“And now?” Paul asked.

“I guess it helped. At least I’ve seen where he is, out there free in that lake he loved so much. It’s better to think of him there than packed in the ground. Paul always needed space, lots of space. How did you handle it with Mary? How long did it take?”

“Over a year,” Nick answered. “At first it was the flash of her image everytime I walked in the door and then the terrible realization she wasn’t there, never would be there. Gradually the sadness faded but the loneliness didn’t. Mary’s ghost drifted off but the loneliness just got worse.”

“It’s been just over a year for me. Jack leaves next week for college. It doesn’t seem possible he’s a Junior already. I’m not looking forward to the winter in an empty house,” Ellen said.
Nick got up once again to poke the fire alive. It had gone to a smoky smoulder with little struggling licks of flame dancing at the edge of the wood. He rolled the charred chunks to shake down some ashes and the flames burst higher and brighter. Then he laid another split of wood to the rear.

“Ellen,” he said.

“Yes.”

“Why don’t we pick up where we left off a long time ago.”

He stood directly in front of her and for an instant she seemed puzzled, but only for a moment. She started into his face, the face of a man turned back to a boy’s in her mind, the boy as a Senior in high school and the crush and the promises of forever and her first time, his too, and how it all changed when he went off to college and met Mary with Paul home every week-end from the nearby teachers college becoming her boyfriend, her lover, and finally her husband. So much changed except for the friendship of Paul and Nick, that never changed. She sat very still, saying nothing, continuing to look at the boy-man face. She knew where Nick was going. She was just not certain what it would be like when he got there.

Nick walked to the front of the room and stood gazing out through the multi-paned French window at the lake with the moonlight shimmering off it’s rippling surface.

“You know, Ellen,” he began. “There is something I have to confess to you. I don’t know how it is with you, but I don’t think I ever totally lost my feelings for you. That rainy day you brought Paul’s ashes here last summer and stood looking so sad, almost helpless, and I gave you a hug and held you a moment, it all came back. I loved Mary deeply but hidden somewhere deep down there was a tiny flicker that never died. Hell, my kids are on their own and your Jack will be in a year or so. The ghosts are gone, they’re ashes. Mary’s in the brass urn in the ground under the Chestnut tree on her family’s farm and Paul is in that great big lake. They are gone but if they could look down and say something I’m sure they would tell us to stop being lonely.”

They stayed back to back, Ellen’s eyes at the fire, Nick’s at the lake. Nick waited.

“You want us to start seeing each other, going out, sleeping together? Is that what you mean, Nick?” Ellen asked.

“Yes, but not just that. I think we should get married, a simple civil ceremony. We can ask Pat and Todd to stand up for us. I’ll take you to Talbot’s so you can pick out one of those stylish petite size dresses for petite you. We’ll get flowers, a corsage and a bouquet for you and a boutonniere for me. No invitations, just Pat and Todd and our kids. Only a small paragraph in the local paper. You should sell your house and give the money to Jack. We’ll live in my house and here at the cottage in the summer and never by lonely again.”

“This has been on your mind for quite awhile hasn’t it, Nick?” Ellen asked.

“Yes, but it’s all up to you. I want to take care of you, Ellen. I have enough money for us to be secure. There is no reason we should accept loneliness. Please think about it, you know me well enough to know I’m sincere.”

The wicker creaked and Ellen walked to stand beside Nick, not touching him, just standing next to him, looking out at the lake, at Paul’s grave.

“I think it could be very pretty,” she said.

copyrightCopyright Roland Howell

 

Read the Part One of this story – The Swim.