by Ellen E. Kazimer
I left for camp with my dog, Angus, the night of my wife’s funeral. Wasn’t nothing left for me to do but pick out Laci’s headstone. Had a lot of work waiting for me up to camp. Dock needed repair, the outboard engine had to be rebuilt, and our old water heater finally went bust. Chimney cap came loose, and a damned raccoon took up residence in the chimney. Had to trap the raccoon, fix the flue, and reattach the chimney cap.
Angus got off to a slow start ridding the cabin of mice. Stopped eating. Curled up with Laci’s old denim paint shirt, and wouldn’t move off his bed for days. Took Angus to the local vet we had used a time or two. She said Angus might be missing my wife, Laci. Wouldn’t give Angus anything for his pain. Said to give it time.
Told my daughter, Shannon, about old Angus. Knew she’d be worried about him. She checked in on him every other day. Other than that, it was awful quiet on the lake in the spring. Fixed a hole in a couple of screens to keep out the black flies. Tried not to think of Laci those months when she was sick. I wanted to remember her in that denim shirt, up on a ladder painting the trim around the windows.
When school let out, Shannon sent my granddaughter, Brittany, up to camp with a couple of her high school friends. Said Brittany needed looking after, and she had to work all summer. Shannon took a lot of time off when her mother took ill. Thought Brittany would perk Angus up as he was partial to her. Shannon didn’t fool me. I knew she done it as much for me as Angus. Probably worried about how I was handling things. Years ago, Laci taped photos of Shannon on my dashboard and rearview mirror. Coming or going, I’d see my kid and think twice before I went off and did something stupid.
Took every minute of my day to keep an eye on those teenagers and then some. Broke up their skinny-dipping party and confiscated their beer one night. Had a mind to pour all their beer into the lake just like Laci did to me once. I remember her standing in our rowboat in the middle of the lake. In the moonlight, she looked like an angry goddess emptying out every bottle and can of beer I thought I had hidden. I called her to stop, but she wouldn’t. The whole lake must have heard us. It wasn’t the beer that got me all worked up. It was her. If she fell over, I was too drunk to save her. Don’t think I ever told her that, but I expect she knew.
I wish I could have saved Laci when her cancer returned.
I was never much good for anyone, but I owed it to Shannon and Laci to keep Brittney out of trouble. Brittany is a pistol, just like her grandmother was. I gave Brittany the same advice we gave Shannon when she was a teen. “Don’t drink. Go to your prom. Finish high school.” I sounded stiff like a damn public service announcement. Laci could have said it better and with more feeling. Don’t think she ever got over marrying a Marine before she finished high school.
Awful quiet again after those teenagers left. Kids must have worn me out, or maybe it was the August heat because I slept a lot. One night I dreamed Laci called out to me like she used to when I was out of my head. “Mike, it’s me,” she said, with her hands on either side of my face. “You’re home. You’re going to be all right.” I didn’t want to wake up, but I did.
This place was always home. We bought this land after my last tour in Vietnam while we were at Camp Lejeune. Cost us $500.00. We wanted to go as far north as we could, away from people for a spell. Friends and family had shunned us, so we ignored the world for an entire summer. I grew a beard. Taught Laci to fish. If Shannon was asleep, and there was a bit of moonlight on the lake, we skinny-dipped just like those kids did. Went back every summer. Eventually, we built the cabin together. Laci could do about anything.
Shannon called. Wanted to know when I was coming back to town and what I had in mind for Laci’s headstone. Told her I’d been too busy. Shannon reminded me if I waited much longer, there wouldn’t be time to set the stone before winter. Wish Laci wasn’t so damn insistent on me putting the right words on her stone.
I had a mind to winter over with Angus just so I could figure it out, but I had lost track of time. I didn’t have enough wood stacked and split to last more than a few weeks. Angus and I are getting too old, I guess. After a week of hard frost, where the temperature stayed below freezing, Angus and I headed back to town.
Laci wasn’t around to nag me about keeping my gear in the garage and removing my boots before I walked into the kitchen. Still, out of respect for her, I left my boots in the garage. Shannon put a few lights on for us, so we wouldn’t bump into things. She made sure I had a few provisions in the refrigerator, dog food, and a bag of ground coffee on the counter.
Shannon must have tidied up the place, including our bedroom. Laci’s clothes and all her creams and potions in the bathroom were gone. I started to get riled up about removing Laci’s things without asking, but truth be told, I was grateful. It was better for Angus, this way.
I figured I ought to call Shannon. Let her know that Angus and I were not in a ditch along some old logging road. Thank her for taking care of things. I picked up the handset on our old mustard yellow wall phone and dialed up Shannon. Brittany called that phone a museum piece. She was right, but it still worked. My throat tightened. I could have used a shot of whiskey.
Shannon picked it up on the second ring.
“I’m home, Shannon.”
“Is everything all right, Dad?”
Course not. Nothing was right since Laci died. She ought to have known that, but I replied, “Yeah, everything is all right.”
“Did you stop by the cemetery?”
“No, got in too late. I’ll go by first thing tomorrow. Brought some pine cones and fir branches to put out there.” Laci loved the smell of the trees up to camp.
“That’s nice, Dad. We put out some mums last week from the florist.”
Laci’s plot had sunk, and the grass had turned brown. It looked sad despite the two pots of bright yellow mums on either side of a brand-new headstone. The sight of a headstone where there shouldn’t be one slammed me in the chest. I hadn’t ordered it. I walked around and around it. Shannon and her husband, Neil, must have had it done. No wonder she asked if I’d been to the cemetery. Probably figured I’d screw it up.
The engraving read, Beloved Wife and Mother, Laci Culver Estes b. January 10, 1950 d. April 18, 2019. Hell, that wasn’t right. Maybe I was gone too long, but Shannon should have waited for me. “No, no, no,” I cried, pushing and shoving against that stone, thinking I could topple it. Damn granite wouldn’t move an inch.
Some young groundkeeper drove up behind me in his maintenance cart. “Is there a problem, mister?” he called out over the hum of the motor.
I stopped and pointed at the granite marker. “My wife is buried there, but I didn’t order that piece of shit. Get it out of here, would you.”
The groundkeeper turned pale. “Uh, I don’t know if I can do that.”
“Then, I’ll do it.” I turned my back on him and went back to wrestling with the stone. Must have looked like a damn fool, an overweight, old man pushing on a hundred pounds of granite.
Took a hoist and a couple of calls, but I got it removed by the end of the day. As soon I got home and let Angus out, both phones were ringing. It was Neil.
“Mike, what is going on?” he asked. “I had a call from the cemetery saying you had Laci’s headstone removed. Shannon is devastated. She picked that out. Thought you’d like it.”
“She ought to have consulted me,” I said. “Wasn’t her place to pick the headstone. It was mine. Laci asked me to do it.”
Putting the right words on the headstone was her last request to me. “Tell my story.” How do you tell anyone’s story in a few words? SSgt Michael Estes, US Marine Corps, Vietnam, that’s all I needed. Laci deserved to live longer, have a few more good years, and see her granddaughter graduate.
“Mike, after Brittany left, you didn’t answer your phone half the time,” Neil said. “Shannon was distraught. There was no marker to honor her mother. She thought…”
“She thought she could not trust me, right?”
“No one is saying that, Mike. Shannon was trying to help, that’s all.” Neil sighed into the phone. “Why don’t you come by the house. We’ll have dinner. Talk things out with Shannon. She’s hurt.”
“I don’t wish to cause Shannon any grief, but that wasn’t what her mother wanted.”
“Shannon thinks it was.”
Soon as I stepped in Shannon’s front door, I handed her the bill for removing the headstone.
She tore it up in my face. “How could you? Without consulting me?”
“Hell, you didn’t ask me.” I turned to leave. This wasn’t going to go well.
“Wait, Mike, let’s go into the living room,” Neil said. “We want you to stay for dinner, don’t we, Shannon?”
Shannon let out a long sigh. “Look, Dad, I was only trying to take the burden off of you. I didn’t know if you were ever going to leave camp. What was I supposed to do? Nothing? Mom deserved better than a temporary cardboard sign washed out by the rain.” Her eyes narrowed, and she gave me that you can’t do anything right look she’s been giving me since she was a teenager. I had always hoped she grew out of that, but she still thought her old man was useless.
We had fought over every bit of Laci’s funeral. Shannon made all the funeral plans at Dickerson’s Funeral Home before Laci took her last breath. Dickerson’s was all high polished marble floors, like a palace. I would have preferred Murphy’s, but I let Shannon have her way. As bad off as Laci was, I hoped the doctors might be wrong; Laci would live. Wouldn’t be needing a funeral home. Just didn’t want Laci cremated. I’d seen people get burned. I couldn’t do it.
We didn’t fight about the cemetery. Laci had bought three plots at Mt. Calvary cemetery a few years back. One was for her, one for me, and one for our baby boy.
“You’re right, Shannon. Your mother deserves better, but this is my job. She asked me. Maybe she should have asked you, but she didn’t.”
Shannon’s eyes teared up, and her lip trembled. “How would I know you weren’t going to bail on us?”
She had a point. I took off my ballcap and wiped the sweat from my forehead. Neil kept the house too warm. “Shannon, I know I promised you and your mother the damn moon and came up short every time. Getting her gravestone right is one promise I mean to keep.” I twisted my ballcap one way and then the other in my hands.
Neil cleared his throat. “You both loved her. I am sure you two can come to an amicable agreement.”
“This isn’t your business, Neil,” I said.
Neil stepped between us. His jaw set, he leveled his eyes with mine. “Shannon is my business,” he said.
Shannon put her hand on his arm. “Finish dinner, Neil. I’ll handle Dad.”
“I don’t need handling,” I said. My heart pounded so hard I thought it would give out.
Shannon sighed. “Sit down, Dad. Let’s work this out.”
We sat on either end of the couch. Shannon started to say something until she saw Brittany, hiding in the shadows at the top of the stairs. She and Neil had a rule against arguing in front of Brittany. “Sorry, Shannon,” I said.
She gave me a weak smile. “Brittany, come say ‘hello’ to your grandfather.”
Brittany came down the stairs, wrinkling her nose at the smell of Neil’s cooking. “What’s that smell?”
“That smell is your dinner,” Shannon said. “Should be about ready.”
I knew Shannon was still angry with me, but she kept on that smile and directed us to the kitchen table. “Neil is learning to cook vegan for Brittany’s sake. She is very committed,” she said.
“She wasn’t so committed when she came up to camp. Didn’t turn her nose at real hamburgers and hotdogs,” I said, taking my seat. “Brittany ate a big pickerel she caught, too, if I remember.”
“Gramps, I just started veganism,” Brittany said as she sat down in her seat. “You should try it. You’ll live longer and have more years to ruin my fun.” She gave me a wink.
Neil came in with some kind of vegetarian chili. Shannon poured wine for Neil and herself before she dug into me. “Dad, I think you overreacted today,” Shannon said.
“I don’t.” I shoveled a spoonful of chili into my mouth.
Neil inhaled and exhaled slowly. “Shannon wanted something befitting the love we all had for Laci. We all lost a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, and a grandmother. I know she thought ‘beloved wife and mother’ fit everyone’s loss.”
“It was all wrong, Neil,” I said. “Laci never wanted beloved wife and mother on her stone. Her exact words were, ‘Don’t be putting that shit on my headstone. Otherwise, how will you tell the difference between me and all the other beloved wives and mothers at the cemetery?’”
Laci was one of a kind. Few people know what the war had done to people like Laci. She was never in country, but she became collateral damage. “What goes on that stone is my call, Neil.” I pointed my spoon at Shannon, “Your mother asked me to pick out the right words, nobody else.”
“Words are important,” Neil said. “but you aren’t the only person hurting. Shannon takes comfort in visiting Laci’s grave. She wanted it done properly.”
“None of you knew her like I did. You only knew a piece of her.” I shoved my spoon into the chili, but I couldn’t eat anymore. “You don’t know how to make chili, neither.”
Neil started to speak, but Shannon signaled him to be quiet.
“So, what are your suggestions, Dad?” Shannon leaned back in her chair with her arms crossed. Wore the same expression her mother did when she was angry.
Neil and Shannon exchanged glances. Brittany poked at her chili.
“What about ‘loyal wife and loving mother,’ Dad?” Shannon asked.
“Second part’s right, but your mother left me twice. Wouldn’t be honest.”
Brittany choked on her Diet Coke.
“I am sorry you had to hear that, Brittany.” Shannon glanced at me with her eyes wide as if I had told Brittany there was no Santa Claus. Brittany’s seventeen, not seven. She was old enough to hear things straight.
“Either time wasn’t for long. The first time was when I shipped out to Vietnam. I left her living in a trailer park outside Parris Island. She was seventeen just like you, and I was a young, stupid marine private. Didn’t know enough to send her my pay. She was out of money in no time. Nothing for heat or food. Couldn’t call me neither. Shit, one phone call cost as much as your cellphone back then. Letters took weeks.
Landlord found her sick on the floor of our trailer. Ended up in the base hospital. Wrote me that she was done with me. She didn’t give up her prom to live so poor. Going home to live with her parents. Tours were too long back then.”
“Wait, when did you and Granny get married?” Brittany asked.
“The night of her prom. Just finished basic when your grandmother asked me. Must have been a dozen guys wanting to ask her, but she asked me. I didn’t have money for a tux, so I wore my dress blues. She was a beauty—long, curly, ginger hair, like yours. Had on a light green dress with tiny straps. We never made it to the prom. We eloped instead.”
“And the second time she left you?” Brittany asks.
“That time hurt,” I said to her. “Didn’t think she was coming back.”
“What happened, Gramps?” Brittany asked.
Shannon sniffed loudly and wiped her eye with a napkin. I hate it when she cries, but I went on.
“That was during my second tour. Laci saw my unit on the nightly news. A booby trap had gone off, some poor grunt was badly wounded, crying out for his mother on camera. The newscaster said more of us were wounded, some killed. Laci figured one of those was me. Didn’t know for weeks, and I couldn’t find the words to write about it. I wrote her some lame letter about the bad food, mosquitoes, and the heat. Like nothing happened. She said I wasn’t honest with her. She felt alone, abandoned by me, the Marine Corps, and her family, who were all against the war by then. Laci said she couldn’t live this way anymore. Wrote she was leaving me for good.”
“Mom was a saint,” Shannon said.
“She was no saint, and neither was I, but we fit.”
“She put up with a lot over the years. I wish…” Shannon paused
I finished her sentence for her. “You wish it had been me instead of her. Should have been me by all accounts,” I said. “But it wasn’t, and now I have to live with that.”
Shannon ran off from the table, and Neil went after her.
I tried to stand up and leave, but my legs were too stiff from sitting too long. I rested my head in my hands, gathering the energy to stand. Neil was right. Words were necessary, and I didn’t have them. I failed Laci and hurt Shannon. She, too, was collateral damage. Laci would be so mad at me for messing this up. I ought to let Shannon have her way.
“So, Grammy missed her prom?” Brittany asked.
I raised my head. “She never let me forget it either. Whenever we had a rough go of it, she’d say, ‘I missed my prom for this?’ Said it after twelve hours of labor with your mother, and the night our baby boy died. But she said it in good times, too, like when she first set eyes on you.”
“I miss her, Gramps.”
I got all balled up inside, remembering those special times when it was just the two of us. She would lean over in our bed and whisper in my ear, “I’m glad I gave up my prom for this.” I started weeping like a baby, embarrassing myself in front of my granddaughter. She came over and put her arm around me. “I know what you could put on the stone,” she whispered to me.
Had to wait till the next spring to put in the new headstone. Most of the graves were buried in snow all winter. As soon as I could, I had the new headstone set. Angus and I were the first ones at the gravesite. It seemed just right. I knelt with one hand atop the marker, talking to Laci, praying. When Shannon and Brittany arrived, I stood up, brushing the cold mud from my knee, blocking their view of the stone. “Thanks for coming.”
“Sorry we’re late. I let Brittany sleep in too long. Hard being a teenager these days.”
“There’s no draft anymore, so what does she have to worry about?”
Shannon started to protest, but Brittany laughed. She had heard that line from me at least a hundred times since last summer.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” I ask Brittany.
“Move out of the way, Gramps. I want to see Grammy’s marker. You’re blocking it.”
I step aside and let them get a good look.
Laci Culver Estes b. January 10, 1950 d. April 18, 2019. She gave up her prom for us.