Old Joe looked bad today. Clearly he had not seen fit to shave in days. The whites of his eyes were nowhere near white but instead were a sore-looking mix of yellow and red, crusty at the edges.
His T-shirt showed coffee stains and smears of Chef Boyardee in clear finger swipes across his paunch. He regularly bought 40-ounce cans of the gluey spaghetti mix and mostly ate the contents cold. If he was not too drunk, he would pour some in a bowl, butter a piece of cheap white bread and sop up the last bit of sauce before dumping the bowl in the sink with its mates from previous days.
Joe did not have to look like this or live like this. He had a passel of kids and grandkids that lived within spitting distance. They cared about the old man who had, over the years, taken them hunting and hiking, had played Santa to them in season and out by being generous wit his time and money.
The thing was, this was mostly before his beloved Mabel died. She was steady as they come, rolling with the punches that life dealt out as they saw their kids through failed jobs, wrecked cars and ruined marriages. She concentrated on the happy and celebratory; the births, the graduations, weddings and the big holiday gatherings. She could always find something to celebrate when Joe was ready to throw in the towel.
While the chaos of the world swirled around them, she kept their little house and grounds tidy and comforting. Her joy and her therapy came from her garden. Each year she put up dozens of pints and quarts of rosy tomatoes so they would be ready to use in the cold winter months. Her larder was stocked with jewel-like jars of dilly beans, corn relish and crisp cucumber pickles.
But now Mabel was sick. While she struggled with the balding and debilitating effects of breast cancer, she still remained beautiful in Joe's eyes. In these hard days, he stood by her side as she processed the gleanings from her garden. He scalded the tomatoes, sliced the cucumbers, watched the timing on the water bath as she went to rest, exhausted from the effort when her body was trying in vain to heal.
When the end came, Joe felt utterly alone in the tidy little house. His children and grandchildren came to visit, urge him to get out of the house, rake the lawn, go for a ride. Gradually, he came around, accepted their ministrations and their company. When they would bring him a pan of lasagna or a tuna casserole, he would go down the cellar stairs to the stacked rows of gleaming jars and bring up a carefully selected bit of Mabel to share.
It was a kind of communion -- and they all knew it.
Now it was almost four years since Joe had been widowed. In his day he'd been a pretty hard drinker but had given it up as a destructive force in his marriage. One hot summer day he stirred himself to go out for a walk, stopping at the little store down the road. He knew he was going to buy a beer before he entered the door. He headed straight for the cooler door, reached out and took a single tall Bud from its nesting place, excusing himself by saying that it would do no harm to have a "cold one" after such a hot walk.
Soon he was walking to the store for a six-pack and then a 12-pack. He was off the wagon. His kids and grandkids found that they could not stop his demon from returning. Something had shifted and they did not know what it was. He had occasionally gone off the wagon before but not like this.They tried, they pleaded, they invoked Mabel's name but old Joe slid further and further into himself and his drinking. The family still came visiting, attempting to extricate him from his solitary life by their ministrations of sustenance. But Joe no longer went to the cellar to bring up a contribution to the meal.
Trying to re-instate the fragile equilibrium that had existed for the better part of four years, his daughter went herself to the neat shelves in the cellar to fetch some pickles. To her surprise, she found that the shelves were empty except for one lone Ball jar of lovely bread-and-butter pickles, wreathed in onions slivers and adrift in tiny mustard seeds.
She brought it up the stairs and placed it on the kitchen counter while she took her casserole out of the oven.
When Joe came in the room, he started to weep, as inconsolably as a child who has dropped his ice cream cone in the dirt and has no means to get another.
"That's the last of Mabel!" he cried. "Don't you dare open it. As long as I could have a little taste of her each day, I did OK. Now it's almost gone and I'm grieving again ... leave me alone."
Now they knew but they had no answer.
The jar did not return to the cellar, but it did not get opened either. It sits, day after day, like a shrine in the middle of the kitchen table.
Will You Walk?