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This One Thing
Oddly, when I opened this story it had the limited front and back matter and so on, just as if I’d published it. I must have been on the cusp of publishing it when I got busy with something else. Anyway, enjoy.
This One Thing
a short story by Harvey Stanbrough
As the bottom of the sun touched the horizon and the warmth of the day faded, a slight, humid chill built in the air. Herbert William Petry still stood alone at the freshly covered gravesite in the cemetery, his hands folded one over the other at the base of his only suit coat: a silver, western-cut jacket that was frayed only a little at the collar and cuffs and was only one size too big so it fit pretty well.
Here and there in the various elms, sweetgums, cedar, and stately poplar trees, birds busily quarreled and flitted from limb to limb as they made ready for the end of the day. Here and there, the tiny heads of prairie dogs peeked up beyond the horseshoe mounds of their burrows to wonder what was going on. Just outside the black cast-iron fence, a roadrunner and a rattlesnake eyed each other. But the snake had yet to sound his warning.
Beneath the suit coat Herbert wore his best grey long-sleeved work shirt and his best blue jeans complete with a polished black leather belt and the only boots he owned. But no tie.
He thought he had a tie, was sure he had one—a red one, he was sure—and he’d looked. He’d looked hard. It had to be in his bedroom closet, he was sure. Because where else would it be?
It wouldn’t be in his chest of drawers. He didn’t wear it hardly ever, so it wouldn’t be there, but he looked anyway, pulling out each drawer and moving the contents aside just to be sure it wasn’t there. But it wasn’t there, which is what he expected all along.
So he looked in the closet. He was sure that’s where the tie would be. First he looked on the hanger that held his suit coat because that’s where it ought to be. That made sense, to hang it with his suit coat, and Herbert was careful to always do things that made sense. He was a good, practical man who never lied and always knew the truth of a situation.
But the tie wasn’t there either.
Then he looked on the floor down underneath the far left side of the closet against the wall beneath where the suit coat was hanging, but the tie wasn’t there. So he went hanger by hanger, left to right, and looked at all the rest, all the way to the right wall, and then he looked at the floor again, the whole floor this time, but it still wasn’t there.
He looked slowly at first, sure he’d find it, then a little faster as his confidence fell off. And after a while he gave up. The tie must be there somewhere, but the closet was still mostly full of Mildred’s stuff, especially on the right, though she’d been gone for well over a year. He’d meant to clear out the closet, donate her clothes and purses and all of that like she would have wanted. But it had been only a little over a year and he and the boy had been busy keeping each other together.
Anyway, maybe if he’d had more time he’d have found the tie, though he couldn’t think of anywhere else to look.
But events were often connected. Maybe he’d have found the tie if he hadn’t had to focus on setting up the ironing board and learning the dial on the iron. Or maybe he’d have found it if he hadn’t had to remember to plug the iron in or if he hadn’t taken the time to try to put a crease down the front of the legs of his newest blue jeans. But he wanted to look nice, show respect, and he only had the one pair that weren’t ripped anywhere and were still mostly dark blue.
Or maybe he’d have found it if he hadn’t spent so much time trying to cover up the scuff marks with polish on his old black work boots. He’d seen a pair of nice black lace-up dress shoes at the thrift store only two weeks ago or thereabouts, and they were close to his size. He should have bought them, but he didn’t. So he put the polish on his work boots, not just on the scuff marks but all over, and then let it set for a minute so it’d settle in. Then he worked the brush back and forth over them.
Only the deepest scuff marks still showed through, faint white scars imbedded in the black toes of the boots.
So he’d put on more polish, wasted more time, and it still didn’t work, not like it should have. The polish was black and it even said so on the little round tin it came in, but really it wasn’t black at all. Really it was clear somehow.
And the scuff marks were determined to show through and they did. In the end he could only bend over the boots and hit them hard with the brush, back and forth, back and forth, trying hard to work up a shine. Maybe he could get them to shine enough so the faint white scars would blend in with the glow of the shine.
He only wanted to look his best. He only wanted to show respect for his boy. Only in the end, he didn’t. In the end he had to run out of the house and get in his old beat-up pickup and drive like crazy to get to the graveyard on time. He could only hope his boy would understand he was respectful even if he couldn’t show it with his clothes.
And he’d caught the looks from a few of the friends who’d come to the funeral.
They openly looked at the top of his shirt first, where the buttons showed between the lapels of his suit coat where there wasn’t a tie, and then they looked straight down at the scuff marks on his disrespectful boots. Then they looked up again and forced a half-smile and offered a hand and then took his hand in both of theirs and shook only one time and said how sorry they were about “everything.”
Only really there wasn’t “everything” to be sorry about. There was only the one thing if they were being truthful. There was only the fine, decent young man lying in that damn box way too early. Lying in that coffin, balanced on that cheap TV-tray-looking foldable contraption directly over the hole in the ground. That was the grave. His boy’s grave.
But they meant “everything” to be sure to include the missing tie and the scuffed boots and the lack of respect those things showed toward his boy, because really, that’s how they were. And they were successful in illustrating it.
But Herbert pushed all of that aside and looked at what had been the grave and was now a mound of earth that the smell of it told him was fresh. And he thought of his boy, lying six feet below it, cold and all alone in that box, and Herbert shuddered a little.
Only a week or so ago his son had said it was probably time he got his own place, and Herbert said that was probably a good idea and then he’d clapped his boy on the shoulder and allowed that he was proud of him, that he’d grown into a fine young man and his mother would be proud and other things like that. And he’d meant all of that. Every word. Because he would never do his son the disrespect of lying.
And he’d even offered to help his son find a good place and made it a joke, saying that way he’d know where to find him so he could visit now and again.
Only his son said he wanted to find his place himself because he figured it was his to find and it was time he started doing such things on his own, and then he grinned while the old man’s hand was still on his shoulder. And his son said, “You’re my pop. You’ll know where it is, and you’re always welcome to visit.” Then he paused and then he drove it home with, “Anytime.”
And the boy’s eyes were steady so Herbert knew he meant it.
Hard to think that was only a week or so ago. And here he was, visiting already.
Only this wasn’t the place the boy had in mind.
Herbert didn’t want any part of a service conducted inside the church. He wasn’t a hypocrite and it had only been less than a week and he was still a little upset with God. If he was upset with a neighbor he wouldn’t invite himself into the neighbor’s house for any kind of service or spectacle on his own behalf, would he? And it seemed only right to treat God with the same respect.
So the whole thing had been done at the graveside, and there were no chairs either and there hadn’t ought to have been that stupid little blue plastic canopy on the skinny aluminum legs and pegged at the corners into the ground all around. God knew what was going on under that canopy. They couldn’t hide it.
Only Herbert didn’t notice in time to stop them from putting up that canopy. He was tied up trying to comfort the preacher about his fee over in the parking lot of the church when the hearse carrying his boy pulled up at the gravesite.
And while he and the preacher got tied in a knot talking, in his periphery some men in suits moved about over there behind the hearse and things got set up and the box got moved. And then that low-bed white farm truck with the short side rails pulled up on the off side of the grave and the groundskeepers or whatever they were started unloading the bed of that truck like they had somewhere else to be.
As they started putting up that blue plastic tarp Herbert interrupted something the preacher was saying and asked if he knew what was going on over there and the preacher said, “Oh, well, we only thought—”
And Herbert slapped a ten dollar bill into the preacher’s palm and said, “No sir, you didn’t either,” and then he turned and started across the churchyard.
He walked fast, but they were still done putting up that cheap tarp and even all the pegs were hammered in before he could get there. So Herbert was too late to stop any of that, and anyway having a little shade wasn’t a bad idea maybe and there were clouds building in the distance so it looked like it might rain a little too. So he decided not to say anything about the tarp as he came walking up.
But when they started unloading the grim black hard-back metal folding chairs from the truck and carrying them toward the shelter, Herbert walked through underneath the canopy that shouldn’t have been there in the first place and waved both hands in a big X across the air in front of his face.
The guy in front of the two-man procession, a stocky, bull-looking guy—he was in faded jeans and a stained white t-shirt and a brown ball cap over long, stringy blond hair and had a fat neck and half a cigar with a half-inch of grey ash on it sticking out of the left corner of his mouth—he kept coming and he even frowned at Herbert.
And a lot of things settled down through Herbert’s chest all at one time and he said, “God damn it, stop!” Because Herbert’s son was dead, and this guy was still coming on and frowning at him.
And then around one side of the cigar in what looked like it might have been a sneer the man said, “These are for your comfort, sir. And for the comfort of your family and guests.”
And Herbert said, “I got no family left. And folks shouldn’t be comfortable at a funeral. They should be respectful. I reckon they’ll stand all right.” And he raised one hand, palm facing out. “No damn chairs.”
And the stocky man looked at him for a moment and finally shrugged. “Your call,” he said and turned around hard and told the skinny kid who was following him with a few more chairs to, “Put ‘em back in the damn truck. Guy don’t want ‘em.” Then he added, a little more quietly but not quietly enough, “Prick,” and he was talking about Herbert, not the kid.
Herbert heard it, and he glared for a long moment at the back of the man’s head.
How good it would feel to hit the man there, to ball up his fist, take a couple of strides to build momentum, and empty the tension from his whole body out through his right shoulder and forearm and fist as he punched the thoughtless asshole right there where his fat, stupid head was glued to his sweaty, bulbous neck. He could almost hear the wet, sweaty smack! as he made contact, could almost see the fat pig of a creature drop to his knees and then fold over onto the ground and lay there, the cigar smashed and shredded back against his rubbery lips, which they deserved for allowing such a stupid, thoughtless string of words to dribble out of them in the first place.
But he didn’t want sweat from such a filthy, ugly creature to seep into the ground. Not here. Not into this ground. Not into the ground that would soon hold the body of his boy.
And then he took up a position next to the hole in the ground, the coffin on the contraption hovering over the hole, and he folded his hands one over the other and he waited.
The preacher moved past on his left and stood on the other side of the coffin and made some symbols in the air with one hand, his bible in the other, and talked a little bit about God’s love and other things like that. And then he was through and that was apparently ten dollars’ worth. And for a tip he added something about ashes and dust and Herbert wondered why they always said “ashes” and “dust” when it was flesh and dirt they were dealing with, but he didn’t say anything at all.
He thought two or three times he’d like to lay a hand on that box that held his boy, but that might not be right. He might rip that box open and pull his son out and stand him up and send him on his way back to his life, and wouldn’t that give them all something to wag their tongues about? Only he’d never had that kind of power and he didn’t want to hear them talk, so instead he kept his hands folded together and only nodded now and then to just get it all over with.
And pretty soon the same people who’d inspected him before came by again and offered their hand again, but only one hand this time. And they all said what they thought were nice clichés and then they moved away without looking at the space where his tie ought to be or down at his boots where the scuff marks shouldn’t be. So that part was all right, but only because they were in a hurry, and that was fine. The only two there were Herbert and his son anyway, really.
And by the time everyone had distracted him with how sorry they were and offered “anything you need, please call” and he’d comforted all of them and they finally moved the hell away, he turned to look at his boy one more time and maybe go ahead and lay his hand on the box, but—the box was already gone into the ground and there was nothing there but that pile of fresh dirt.
And Herbert wasn’t sure what to do.
He looked around to make sure there was nobody left but him, and they were all gone, so that was fine. It was as it should be. One of the apostles even said so. One of the apostles said a man should pray when he’s alone, not when he’s got a crowd watching. Not for his own “edifying” or something like that, but because he really meant it.
And at 64 years old Herbert didn’t have a lot to be proud of aside from his lack of pride, but he kept that close and was sure it was probably of some value. And then he decided to cash it in.
He bowed his head, not because that’s what he’d seen others do but because that’s how he felt. And he prayed directly to God himself. He couldn’t bring himself to go through the man’s son since he’d just lost his own. This prayer needed to be man to man, straightforward and blunt.
And quietly, so as not to be overheard by so much as one of the sparrows starting to come to life again in the few trees around or the prairie dogs he imagined were tucked just beneath the little mounds of earth here and there, he said:
“You and me ain’t always seen eye to eye, but I’ll allow you’ve got a bigger view of things than I do. Clearer too, maybe, most of the time. And I suspect you’ve got a lot on your plate, so I reckon a high percentage of the time you’re probably right. I’ll give you that.
“But on this one, God, you’re just wrong. And I’m sorry to call you on it, but you can see I’m doing it respectfully. I’m doing it in private, the way it ought to be done. I wouldn’t call you on it in front of nobody else. What goes on between you and them is your business and none of mine. But this deal here, this is all between you and me, so I want to clear the water. And from what I’ve heard, that’s what you’d want too.”
Herbert gestured with his top hand toward the mound of fresh earth before he remembered to be respectful and laid it back atop the other one at his waist. “You’ve lost a boy, so you know what it is. And mine, he had a great purpose, same as yours. Only yours had to go before his time in order to show his purpose. But that’s where the likeness ends.
“For mine to show his purpose, he needed to keep breathin’, and you damn well know it. He needed to find the right girl, learn about workin’ at his job and savin’ money against rainy days and raisin’ children and all of that. That’s how we do things down here—though I can understand how you might’ve missed it, overseein’ all the big events you have to juggle up there.
“So here’s the deal. And remember, it’s only you and me here. Ain’t nobody else gonna have a thing to say about any of it except you and me, and only you later. And from what I’ve heard, you ain’t all that talkative, not that I blame you. I’ll allow as most of ‘em down here ain’t worth talkin’ to. And me either. I ain’t worth your time, except I’m hopin’ you’ll hear this one thing, this one time.”
Herbert’s shoulders slumped the slightest bit. “Just take me, God. Let my boy live out his purpose like you let your own son live out his purpose. I’m mostly done anyhow. About all I had left to do was interfere with my boy while he tried to do what he needed to do. And even you didn’t interfere with what your son had to do, even when it had to be tearin’ you up inside. Wasn’t it? So all I’m askin’ is that you give me that same chance. Give me the chance to be as good a pa to my boy as you were to yours. That’s all I’m askin’.”
And no answer was forthcoming, and maybe someone thought Herbert was being just a little impertinent. A heavy raindrop hit in the center of his head, its impact blasting aside the few hairs he had there, and he felt it good and solid.
And in one motion, he fell to his knees and raised both hands over his head. “Please, God! Please! That’s all I have to give you, me here in the dirt in my best clothes. Please take me and let my boy go on about his business. Damn it all, please!”
And as the sun disappeared below the horizon, lightning flashed. Thunder rumbled across the sky, and the rain came down hard.
And Harold Phillips fell forward, his arms still outstretched, his fingers clutched into fists around mud from the fresh mound of earth.
And sometime later the rain lessened and stopped and a great mist rolled over the land. The birds were silent in their nests in the trees and the prairie dogs were deep in their burrows, sleeping peacefully, for God works in mysterious ways.
And sometime after that, the new day dawned and the ground was oddly dry.
And William James Petry stood next to a mound of earth, though not quite fresh and settled a little from the rain. His head was bowed and his hands were clasped at his waist to show the proper respect the way his father had taught him.
And after he’d offered up an appropriate prayer for the most recent blessing he’d received, he nodded at the small black marker set in chrome at the head of the mound of dirt. On it was inscribed Herbert William Petry, Loving Father, June 3 1956 – April 13, 2021.
And Bill Petry wiped a tear from one cheek. He allowed a smile to tug at one corner of his mouth, and he said, “Thanks, Pop. I know where to find you. And I’ll visit often.”
And he turned away to go live his life.