The Scariest Thing About Dying
“How old’s the house?” Shelley asks. The old man has his head and arms buried in the engine of a rusted blue truck.
“Hundred or so,” the old man responds, looking up long enough for Shelley to see the shy glimmer in his eye. He’s wearing a faded navy blue pair of work pants over dusty boots and a light gray cap gone dark.
“It’s a great looking house,” she says.
“Wadn’t built to be a house. Built to be a barn.”
As if he thinks she doesn’t believe him, he adds, “Wadn’t built to be a house at all,” and chuckles.
She wants to continue the conversation but he’s buried his head and arms back into the truck. She can hear the creek roaring, though she can’t see it from where she stands. The house she’s just bought on a whim is across the bridge, on the creek’s south side.
* * *
The next morning, on her way back from the country store, Shelley sees the man again. She didn’t need anything at the store except for a little company.
“Morning,” she says as she steps off the main road onto the smaller one where the man has his head buried in the truck.
The man is wearing the same clothes and hat as the day before. He eases out from under the hood and squints at her.
She asks, “Does that thing run?”
“Sometime it do and sometime it don’t.”
She wants to say something else but isn’t sure what. She’s never been good at small talk, the way her husband was. He’d been the one to make the friends. Once he was gone, she hadn’t known how to keep them.
The old man squints at her for another minute more. When he thinks she might be done with him, he eases himself back under the hood of the truck.
Shelley stands there for another minute and then turns around, back to the road she’s dubbed “the country store road” and over onto the wider two-lane highway. If she gets too lonely or bored, she will follow it south to town. A few feet farther up, the main road crosses the creek, and she stops in the center to look at the view, first to the west and then east.
It’s this view that sold her on the property. If her husband, David, were here now, she would use this as an example of the type of scene that makes a good photograph or painting.
“You see,” she would point out to David, “the eye can travel here. It goes from the creek, tumbling over the rocks, to the place where it curves further upstream, all the way to the green mountains that rise up in the distance and at the very top are dotted with snow.”
She lets her eye travel along the scene, recording it in her mind, not so much the details but how it feels to look at it.
“That,” she would also have explained to David, “is what makes art. The feeling.”
Shelley’s in no hurry to get anywhere today or for that matter in the next ten or twenty years of her life. It’s a crazy thing, this unexpected freedom that David’s death has brought. So far, it’s only felt like the freedom to be miserable and alone.
When David was still alive, she had wished for time – time to paint, time to travel to places like this, time to sit and watch sunlight ripple across the whitewater of a creek. Between her job at the law office typing pleadings and stacking endless reams of paper onto metal prongs in thin beige cardboard files, cleaning the house, shopping for food, paying bills, and doing the laundry, there was barely a moment left over to think. She and David talked endlessly about retirement, a heavenly place, where they would wake up at whatever hour they chose and do nothing all day if they pleased. It never occurred to her that one day David would slump over his desk in the small county office where he worked and never get up again. It never occurred to Shelley that one day there would be too much time and she wouldn’t know how to make the minutes, hours, and days pass.
Shelley steps slowly down the gravel road to where it curves sharply over the creek. She hasn’t painted a single brushstroke since David died. Twice now she has stood in front of the easel, even pulling the palette out once and squeezing a freckle-full of magenta into the center. As soon as she saw the bright dab of paint, looking like a drop of fresh-spilt blood, she started to cry.
She has cried every day, in fact, since David died. Some days she’s done little else. She hasn’t cried yet today. The walk to the store was an attempt to avoid it. As she draws closer to the house, she can feel the lump growing in her throat. She is hoping she’ll make it back to the house before the tears start, even though there’s no one around to notice.
* * *
The check from the insurance company arrived on a bright Tuesday afternoon. Shelley unfolded the letter and the check sailed softly to the floor. Tears slid down her cheeks as she bent over to pick it up. Each one of the zeroes seemed to stand for what was left of her life, now that David was gone.
The second check arrived two days later. Like the first, it had what appeared to be an infinite number of zeroes, printed after the initial number 5. Once she could stop crying long enough to let in a thought, Shelley realized that David had left her a rich woman. He’d kept it a secret all these years, dutifully sending in payments for insurance she’d never known about. It made sense, Shelley realized now, since David liked to say that the scariest thing about dying was knowing that Shelley would be left alone.
* * *
It’s dark and cool under the trees that surround the house Shelley bought with money David left her. She can look out toward the creek, though, and see sunlight. In fact, the small garden shed she turned into an artist studio is set away from the house, where light pours in through the windows. She can even hear the creek when she’s standing inside.
Instead of heading for the house, she decides to walk toward the creek and the sunlight. Tears are causing the view up ahead to blur. The prior owner set a bench out there, overlooking the water. On the Internet when Shelley was clicking through the photos of the place she had come to one of a couple sitting on this bench.
That had made her bawl, knowing if she ever sat on this bench, she would be alone. Still, Shelley kept coming back to that photo, every time she turned on the computer to look at the pictures of the house and property again. She couldn’t understand the feeling that came over her. As she heads for the bench now, she realizes what drew her to this place. “Hope,” she whispers, and then stands behind the bench composing her next painting.
* * *
His name is Walter Steen, she finds out from Karen, the owner of the country store. He has lived most of his life here in the mountains.
“His daddy brought the whole family here when Walter was a boy,” Karen says.
Shelley is sitting on a beige plastic chair that wobbles when she leans to the right. Karen is sitting to her left, out front of the country store. The morning is warm, though it’s too early in the season for campers to show up. The snow melted two weeks ago, but on the highest peaks Shelley can still see particles of white.
It’s been over a year now since David died and Shelley bought the place over by Coffee Creek. She left for a time, during the snowiest part of the winter, but has come back now. A different Shelley has begun to emerge, as if after David died, the old Shelley figured her life was done. This new Shelley is calmer and less afraid. She can talk more easily to strangers.
She has also decided to paint a series on the mountain. She wants to paint the old man and his house that “wadn’t supposed to be a house.”
“Why did they come here?” Shelly asks Karen. She has already seen that Karen, like country people in most parts, takes time to talk, offering information only when asked to do so.
“They came like everybody else did in those days. To strike it rich with a mining claim.”
“Well, pretty much what happened to everybody else. Walter’s daddy didn’t have much luck on his own, so he got hired on at one of the mines over by Crawford. Just about everybody around here worked one time or another at the Crawford mines.”
“Is that when they got the house? The one Walter Steen lives in down the road.”
“No,” Karen said and shook her head. “The mining company had little houses for the miners and their families over near Crawford. The Steens lived there. Until the accident, that is.”
One afternoon, a huge shaft of the mine caved in, Karen explains, burying twelve of the miners. It was the worst mining accident the locals had ever seen. Buried in the rubble was Walter’s dad. By the time they reached the miners, they were already dead.
“Walter’s mom took the kids back to her parents’ farm, over there by Weed. But Walter wouldn’t go. He was sixteen and stubborn, a lot taller and stronger than his mom. So, she couldn’t tell him what to do. He found this old shed up the road and he started sleeping in it. Been there ever since.”
“Wow,” Shelly says, thinking about the look on Walter’s face when she asked him about the house. “What about a family? Does he have a wife and kids?”
“No,” Karen says and shakes her head. “They say that some woman came up here one summer from the city and left her husband and kids to live with Walter. If you can believe that. She lived here for a time. In that house. She’s the one that made it more homey there. One day, she got tired of the mountain or Walter or both and just up and left. I think he’s been alone ever since.”
“What does he do to make a living?”
“He fishes some. Does odd jobs. Fixes machinery. This and that, I guess. He’s just an odd bird, that’s what. All of us who live up here kind of are.”
* * *
Shelley walks slowly down the road toward the highway. When she reaches the short gravel stretch that heads off toward the creek and Walter’s house, she turns her head. She glimpses Walter sitting in a rocking chair on his porch off to the right. She hesitates for a moment and then says under her breath, “What the hell?” She’s inhaling deeply to calm herself as she turns onto the gravel road, listening to the pebbles crunch under her tennis shoes. The sun, on her left, has risen in the sky. She can tell by the position that it’s almost lunch time.
“Good morning,” she says to Walter, her voice louder than necessary as she nears the house. He doesn’t seem to see her, so as she walks closer she says it again. “Good morning.”
Once again, there’s no response. She walks a bit closer, but carefully, her steps slowing as she nears the house. Walter is sleeping. His head is down, his left shoulder slumped.
“Mr. Steen,” she says, just to make sure, but Walter doesn’t respond.
Shelley continues to keep her eyes on him as she pulls out her sketch pad and charcoal and starts to draw. She’s pleased with the chance to get nice details of the man and his house – the punched-in shadows on his hat, the dark grease spots on his overalls, all the rusted hooks and chains hanging from the edge of his porch. He doesn’t wake up the whole time.
When she’s finished, Shelley takes a few steps toward the porch. And then she stops.
Without another thought, she turns around and marches over to the country store road and up to the highway.
He’s only sleeping, she assures herself. He wouldn’t have appreciated it if she’d woken him up.
* * *
The canvases are lined up against the wall around the studio, on the paint-spattered wooden floor. Shelley stands in the center, twirling like a child, taking in one color-splashed canvas after the other. She stops, at last, in front of one painted in oil. Looking at the canvas now, she has a hunch that the painting titled Walter will be the first one sold.
The van is parked next to the door. Shelley lifts the first painting and carries it out. After setting it in the van, she turns around.
“Will I miss this place?” she wonders out loud, but isn’t able to come up with an answer.
She sets the painting of Walter Steen in last, then stands and looks out toward the creek, where the yellow-green canopy of trees opens to a clearing right before the beach.
It’s been a year since she finished the painting of Walter. He hadn’t known. She sketched him, his head slumped over, that May afternoon. Later in the week she headed over to the country store.
“Did you hear about Walter Steen?” Karen asked as Shelley stepped in the door, walked over to the cooler, pulled out a carton of milk, and carried it back to the counter.
“Hear what?” Shelley asked.
“He passed,” Karen said, almost in a whisper.
Shelley’s mouth went dry. Her heart started beating high at the side of her throat.
“Passed? You mean, he died?”
“Yes. A massive stroke. They say it probably killed him right off.”
Shelley didn’t want to ask the question but couldn’t let the opportunity pass her by.
“What day was it, do you know?”
“They think it was on Monday. Ranger heading down to the creek found him.”
Shelley would never tell a soul that by the time she sketched him, Walter Steen had probably died.
She finished the painting that same week, working furiously through the night. Something had come over her. She refused to quit until the painting was done.
Just after the sun came up, she stepped back to survey what she had done. Whatever emotions had been raging through her, pushing and pulling her hand across the canvas as she applied the brush, burst out, and she slumped down to the studio floor and bawled.
She cried about David, and, strangely enough, Shelley cried for this old man. Mostly, she cried for the part of herself that, with David’s death, had died. She cried for all the days and nights she and David would never spend together. She cried for how lonely she’d become.
* * *
Shelley thinks about that morning now as she gazes out. She’d stood under the shower a long time, washing off the dirt and perspiration, the tiredness running through her arms. She slept then, awaking in the middle of the night, half-starved.
After getting up and eating a banana and a slice of buttered toast, she walked outside. The flashlight lit the path to the creek, though the night was bright with a nearly full moon out.
Standing in the clearing listening to the creek roar, Shelley let her head fall back as she looked up. A beautiful expanse of small white dots met her eyes.
Her heart thumped. If David were here, he would have pointed out the Big Dipper and the Milky Way to her for the millionth time. She would pretend that she was hearing these descriptions from David for the very first time.
And then she would squeeze his hand, throw back her head, and lose herself in the vastness of that unknowable cosmos.