Northern Stories
Raking the Husband
by John Waltersson

Mourning did not look good on Beth. Beth liked colours, and colours liked her, but she had bowed to convention after her husband had died; she had bought grays and blacks and had worn them to work and to the grocery store and to the club, and she had hated every minute of it, though not as much as she had hated her husband. He had been a bastard, not physically abusive, but emotionally devastating. Wild mood swings, fits of yelling, days of dark, brooding silence. As his career had stalled, Beth’s had blossomed, and he had resented it, resorting to a diet long on scotch and short on anything else. In the end, it had killed him in that post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s period. He had driven, drunk, into the back of a snowplow.

The snow was long gone now. Beth had worn mourning for four months and more. As spring demanded its place, early this year, but forceful, Beth decided enough was enough. Except.

Except for one last, cruel gesture, one last cruel demand made by her dead husband. Bury me, her husband had written in his will, bury my ashes, in a sand trap, in one particular stand trap, the trap to the right of eighteen green. Bury my ashes there.

He’d been a bastard, Beth thought, but once he’d had a sense of humour. It was just too bad that he’d lost it in the last few years. She decided he must have put that last thought into the will before he’d become a bastard.

“Beth,” Kevin Wallace said. “You can ignore this.”

Wallace was her lawyer, stocky, red-faced, but always calm. When he had gone over the will with Beth, he hadn’t been fazed by the request for even a nanosecond. Of course, Beth said to herself, he’d been the one to write it into the will in the first place.
“It’s against the law to bury someone’s ashes in a public place other than a licensed facility. You can ignore the clause, then. The provisions of a will are not valid if they violate the law.”

“But I don’t want the ashes,” Beth said. “What would I do with them?”

Wallace nodded knowingly. “Really,” he said, leaning towards Beth across his polished, empty desk, “really, Beth, many people tell me that. They all end up some place. The ashes, I mean. A mausoleum just for the urns. People care for them, visit them. Very tasteful. They probably mentioned it at the funeral home. Of course it’s … a stressful time.”

Beth nodded. Yes, she thought, they probably had mentioned it, but that whole time seemed blurry to her. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t explain why, not to Wallace, not even to herself, but she would keep to the terms of the will. Her husband, her bastard husband, the ashes of her dead bastard husband would be buried in the sand trap to the right of eighteen green at the club, and she would do it herself.

On a cool and drizzly Sunday afternoon, then, late in April, Beth went to lunch at the club. She climbed the stairs to the dining room, looked around, was happy to see that only two or three tables were occupied. She chose a table as far from them as possible, sat down and placed her oversized handbag holding all the things a handbag usually does, plus the urn filled with her husband, on the floor beside her chair. The handles of the bag stood straight up.

She looked around, but no one was looking at her. People would leave her alone, she knew. Even now, months after the funeral, people avoided her. They scurried away when they saw her coming, or if she caught their eyes, smiled wanly as if tiny weights fought to keep the corners of their mouths pulled down. Then they scurried away anyway. She was too close to death for them, and she supposed that they feared death would reach out and caress them, too. Beth was counting on that fear. She hadn’t counted on Marie.

Halfway through her veggie platter, Beth heard her.

“Beth!” Marie exclaimed as she appeared suddenly at the top of the stairs. She rushed across the dining room wearing what was clearly a new golfing outfit flapping about her rail thin body. All peach and white, with shoes to match.

“How nice to see you, Beth. Look!” She twirled, giggling like a teenager. “Just in this week, and you know Helena – she just never carries enough stock. Well, one just must get there early.” She curtsied then plunked herself down on a chair across the table.

“I’m so glad to see you come out.” She reached for Beth’s hand, which had remained glued to a water glass from Marie’s first words. Marie grabbed it with both of her hands. “And about time, too. I was just saying to Cherie that it was time you came out.” She paused and nodded her head slowly but surely, all the time fixing Beth with her dark brown eyes.

Beth tried to smile back. Of all people, she thought. There was no escaping Marie, she knew. She knew that from years of socials at the club. Beth surrendered to the inevitable.

“Thank you, Marie. Yes. I guess, well … I haven’t been …”

“You certainly haven’t! But of course, such a good reason. The loss of the husband. We always talk about that, don’t we, when we play. What would happen if we lost the husband? Thank god for insurance! Oh … but that is so insensitive. Forget I said anything.”

Beth obliged since she wasn’t able to come up with a good response anyway. The husband … the husband … yes, that was the phrase. Not ‘my husband’ and not the so pretentious ‘significant other’ just ‘the husband.’

“Beth. You haven’t said anything about my outfit.”

“Oh … well, it’s very short. The skirt, I mean.”

“It certainly is. Didn’t you hear? But no, what am I thinking. You’ve been too busy. Well, the etiquette committee seems to think some of the women have been playing fast and loose with the dress code. That old harpy, Millie Waters! It’s all her. She hasn’t been happy since the first skirt above the knee was allowed. My god, how long ago was that. Did you even know we had a rule about how long a skirt could be? Well we do! And it’s …”

Beth nodded and nodded, listening only vaguely to Marie’s excited denunciation of Millie and the rest of the “old guardette.” A waitress came by and plopped a cup of coffee in front of Marie, who never lost a beat while pouring cream and dropping two spoonfuls of sugar into the hot, black coffee, on and on and on. How was she going to get away from this endless stream of drivel?

Absently, Beth placed her hand on the handles of the handbag. Something like a shiver rang through her, as if a cold wind had suddenly run up her arm and across the back of her neck. She shivered again. Marie didn’t notice, still talking as she leaned in slightly and picked up her cup for a sip. The world shifted.
To Beth, that was what happened – the world shifted, not much but suddenly, just a little to her right, and it caused Marie to fumble the cup. Coffee spilled everywhere, on the table, the floor, and all over Marie’s new peach and white golfing outfit.

Instinctively, Beth let loose of the handbag and reached across the table as if to – what? Catch the coffee? The world shifted back to its normal. “Marie,” Beth started. “What – are you alright? What happened?”

“My skirt!” Marie screamed. “My skirt … it … coffee … my skirt!”

Beth’s eyes moved around the room. Everyone was looking, although she was sure they were all looking at Marie.

The waitress came over and then just stood there. She didn’t seem to know what to do, and indeed, there wasn’t much that could be done. Marie had started dabbing at the stains with a napkin, but it was no use. Dry cleaning and hope were all that would rescue the new outfit. Mumbling apologies, Marie finally stood up and rushed across the room and back down the stairs from which she had appeared earlier. The waitress gathered up the cup and saucer, the napkin, spattered cutlery. Beth asked for the bill.

By now, the excitement over, the obligatory hiding from Beth in plain sight was back on. While she waited for the bill, Beth looked at the handles of the bag. Slowly she reached for them again, touched them briefly with her fingertips, pulled away. Nothing. She grabbed the handles, picked the bag up and dropped it in her lap. Nothing. Whatever had happened, it wasn’t going to happen again. She popped the bag open and fished in it for her wallet for the waitress who was heading back her way with a small tray and the bill for lunch.

As Beth left the dining room, still no one looked her way, but she could almost hear the collective sigh from the remaining diners. She ignored it and headed outside and onto the rutted, gravelly path that led past the practice putting green towards the pine trees that obscured the eighteenth green from the clubhouse. She knew that anyone sitting by the windows in the club could see her, at least until the pines gathered her up. They might stare, she thought, maybe say something useless like “How sad she still seems,” then look away and forget she was ever there. She guessed correctly, and her still sad self disappeared from sight into the pines.

Beth found the silence comforting, and she allowed herself a moment of smugness. Other than Marie, Beth had been right. People had let her be, and now, in the light rain, shielded from the clubhouse, she could continue with her plan. She emerged from the pines and the stopped at the edge of the trap by the eighteenth green. She looked down and across the fairway out into the lake that bordered it. There was a chop on the cold, dark water, though not much of the wind that caused it made it to the edge of the trees. She looked down to the rain darkened sand.

She took a deep breath and got down to business. She dropped the bag, popped it open, pulled out the urn and a very large spoon. Beth had first bought a small, collapsible shovel, but it hadn’t been small enough to fit into the bag. Ultimately she had settled on a large serving spoon she found in the set of good silver that she and her dead bastard husband had rarely used, had never used in the last few years. The silver had been a gift from his parents. She smiled when she had first thought of it, smiled at the irony that her in-laws’ gift was going to bury one of their own, but the irony was bitter and she didn’t really enjoy it. Her in-laws were generally nice people. It was her dead husband who had been the bastard.

Carefully Beth stepped down into the sand, three, four, five steps until she seemed to be fairly in the center, at the lowest point in the trap. She dropped to her knees, ignoring the gritty, wet feel of the sand through her slacks, and began to dig. The sand itself was barely six inches deep, but Beth didn’t stop at the sand. She jammed the spoon hard into the heavy earth under the sand, down into what turned into a layer of fine gravel, then into more clayey earth. The going was tough, and though she tried to keep the material from different layers separate, she made a mess of it in the sand around the hole. Still, she kept at it until finally she felt she was deep enough.

he looked up and around. No one. A small puff of wind chilled the perspiration on her forehead. Deep enough she thought and stood up. She reached for the urn, hesitated, dropped her hand to her side, suddenly unsure. She clenched her fists, balled her eyes shut and breathed the cold, wet air in deeply. She Would Do This! She relaxed, unclenched her fists, opened her eyes – and froze.

The dirt and sand, the green, the lake, all were gone. Instead she was in her living room, her own living room, in her apartment, the one that her husband had moved into after they married. The television was off, and the lights down, the windows dark. Late, she thought … but …when was this?

Her eyes looked down to the coffee table beside … the couch. She felt the stress rise in her. She hated that couch. It was there, in the last year they lived in the apartment before buying a house, there on that couch that he had spent most of his time. He had taken to sleeping there, leaving her alone in the double bed. He had always been a restless sleeper, and he had taken to complaining that she kept jabbing him. “You’re snoring,” she would say, and she jabbed him. “Turn over.” He had taken that as an excuse to escape to the living room, pillow in hand, and blanket. Eventually he stopped bothering to go through the charade of being chased out.

There was a small plastic bottle on the table, a pill bottle. A hand reached for it, his hand, her dead husband’s hand, picked it up and brought it close enough to look at. She read the typed label – a prescription bottle. She read the name: Anglund, Dorothy M. And then some unpronounceable chemical name. Muscle relaxants, Beth knew. Her mother-in-law’s prescription to help with a problem in her neck.

The hand flipped the cap off the bottle; another hand came into view, palm up, and pills spilled onto the palm, nearly a dozen, she thought. There was a moment of hesitation, then the hand clenched and moved up. Darkness, sudden darkness. She could “feel” her – his – eyes close, feel his mouth open, feel the pills fly in. Then liquid – scotch – splashed around his mouth, gathering up the pills, and he swallowed.

“No!” Beth staggered and fell against the side of the trap. She opened her eyes. She was back in the trap, in the rain and the cold and the dirt. No, she thought, it’s nothing, it’s just … scared. She stood up, shook herself, breathed the cold air deeply again, determined to get this done before someone should accidentally find her. She reached into the bag and grabbed the urn. She had pried the top off it earlier that day and secured the ashes with a cloth held in place by a sturdy elastic. She took off the elastic, the wind blew away the cloth. The wind was stronger now, and seemed to be driving in directly across the lake. The light rain became heavier.

She dropped to her knees, tipped the urn and spilled the ashes into the bottom of it, then rapidly began filling in the hole, trying to keep the dirt and the gravel and the sand in its proper order, but when she was finished, there were any number of small stones and clumps of damp earth and clay around her knees. She ignored it, stood and smoothed the sand as best she could with her feet. There was no rake. That would come with the opening of the season.

The rain thickened again, flying almost sideways as the wind gusted strongly. Beth grabbed the spoon, jammed it in her bag, clambered out of the trap and headed back towards the club. She was wet and dirty, but if anyone spied her from the dining room windows, she never found out. She took the path around the clubhouse, using her large bag to shield her from the weather as best she could, making her way to the parking lot. There were only half a dozen cars in the lot, including hers, and no one was around. She had to fumble in the bag for her keys, but finally, wet and shivering and scared, she slammed the car door on the storm. Then Beth cried.

The next day Beth called on her mother-in-law. The two had tea and a nice chat. Beth told her how Marie had spilled coffee over a new outfit at the club; she told Beth about a summer trip she was planning to visit relatives on the east coast. Before leaving, Beth excused herself to use the bathroom. When the door was closed, she reached over the sink to the mirrored door that covered the medicine cabinet, opened it. There it was. At least, its twin, the twin to the medicine bottle she had seen in the … vision … in the trap. It was identical, seemingly, down to the faded print on the label and the long and unpronounceable chemical name. She twisted the top off the bottle and looked into it. There seemed to be about a dozen pills there.

She put the bottle back, closed the cabinet door, then stood there, wondering. There had been a time when he had been sick suddenly. How long ago? Before he had transformed into the bastard, she thought. After leaving the firm. That was it. He had left the legal firm he had started with, said he wanted to start his own practice. He had never said he’d been fired, though that rumour had made it to Beth. She hadn’t pushed him about it. He had started his own small office, had a few clients, but he struggled. It had been the beginning of the slide.

A few months later, Beth had been promoted to her first supervisory position, while he had still struggled. It was then, she remembered, or sometime shortly after that, when he was starting to sleep more and more often on the couch. That was when he had gotten sick. She’d come in to the living room one morning and found him, uncharacteristically still asleep. She roused him, but he was barely coherent. He struggled to stand, to grab the pillow and the blanket, and staggered away into the bedroom where he collapsed on the bed. He’d stayed in bed for most of a week, but even as he had recovered, he had never been the same, not really. It was then that the long silences began.

Had it been that bad, she wondered? Had it seemed so bad to him that he tried to kill himself? Beth had no one to ask. He’d only had two close friends left in the town, and she didn’t like either of them. What would she ask, anyway? Did he ever talk to you about trying to kill himself? No, that wouldn’t do. Still, she wondered, how could things have seemed so bad that suicide appeared to be a good thing? Then, what must it have been like, what must he have felt that morning when he woke and realized that he hadn’t even been able to kill himself properly? What would that do to someone?

There were too many questions, and no answers. Beth put it out of her mind as well as she could. It was over anyway, although she started wondering if the accident that had killed him had really been an accident. Too much scotch, probably, but maybe it had been deliberate anyway. Again and again she tried to put it out of her mind.

Happily, the golf season was underway now, and Marie had practically demanded that Beth be part of the regular group on Ladies’ Day at the club. The first one was difficult, but with Marie dragging her around, Beth was soon back in the group. If people were still leery of her, they let it show only by never asking her anything about it. In fact, most of them talked as if she still had a husband. She suspected that if she had been older, like Millie Walters, things would have been different. Most of those women were widows, and she had heard snatches of their conversations, about expenses, and buying food for one, and why kids and grand kids didn’t visit more often or visited too much. But Beth was part of a younger crowd, the only widow in the bunch, and no one was going to bring that up.

On the third Ladies Day, Beth hit a shot so badly on the last hole that it flew deeply into the pine trees beside the eighteenth green, hit a tree solidly, flew back out of the trees and landed in the sand. Beth just stood there, staring.

“Bad luck, Beth!” Marie said brightly. Marie clearly didn’t think it was bad at all, judging by the sound of her voice. Their group played for nickels, and Beth was thirty cents up on Marie. “No good just looking at it, sweetie! Better in the sand than in the trees!”

Beth looked at Marie, who was trying not to smile too obviously, then turned and put her club back in her bag, grabbed the handle of the pull cart and trudged up the slight hill to the trap beside the green. As Beth looked at her ball, sitting neatly in a small, raised circle of sand in the center of the trap, Marie called over.

“Do you want me to mark my ball to the right or the left?”

Beth looked over. Marie’s ball wasn’t in her line. “It’s fine there, Marie,” she said. “It shouldn’t be in the way.”

“Well,” said Marie doubtfully, “if you say so.”

Beth turned to her bag, pulled out her sand wedge and stepped down into the trap. She took her stance beside the ball, wriggled her feet a bit to set them in the sand, stopped suddenly. Not too deep, she warned herself. She looked around her feet but couldn’t see any sign of her digging. It was all sand. There’s lots, she told herself; there’s lots of sand. She wriggled her feet more deeply in the sand and then lowered her club so it hung close behind the ball, just barely above the sand, was just about to swing when a sudden, vicious gust of wind swept through the trap.

The gust came from nowhere, the day until then having been mostly still. It snapped the bottoms of her pants and swirled around her feet kicking up sand and dust high enough, hard enough to sting her face. Beth cried out, dropped her club and covered her eyes. The wind died as suddenly as it blew up. Carefully, Beth opened her eyes.
Darkness.

She wasn’t blind, but the bright daylight had become full blown night. She was cold, too, from a chill breeze that started as soon as she opened her eyes, and she was no longer in the trap. She was, instead, standing on the top step of a short set of stairs leading to a wooden, wrap-around deck at … her home. Her parents’ home, where she had grown up. She had been living there still in the early years of university, when she had first met her husband to be. But more than just a place, this was a moment, too, a particular, important moment, that one, special night that once, when her marriage had still been good, her husband had recalled for her.

She had asked him, “So when did you know your were in love with me?”

He had looked at her, smiling slightly, or frowning slightly, she wasn’t sure which. He had never liked talking about things like that. But this time turned out to be an exception.
“School, we were still in school,” he had said. “October, late October I guess. We’d come back from the pub, back to your place, on Bloor Street. We took a bus from the campus to downtown and walked up from there. It was cold. We got to your place, but we stayed outside, on the porch. I can remember the sound of it, all that old wood creaking under us. We were lying on the porch. You were on top and your jacket was sort of open and trying to cover both of us, but it was still cold. I could see up through the trees.

“The moon was out, a quarter moon, and there were high clouds racing the wind across the face of the moon, and the wind was blowing the branches of the trees around. I could hear them clicking, the branches and the few leaves that hadn’t fallen yet.

“We were making out. It was so cold. You were lying on top of me, but I was shivering anyway. Except that, everywhere we were touching was like fire. You’d look down at me, and then kiss me, and your lips would be cold for second, and then get hot, and sweet. You tasted so sweet.

“I fell in love with you right there, that night.”

Beth looked down the porch to her right, shivering at the memory more than the cold. This was that night. She peered into the darkness, past the slight, yellow edged rectangle of light that seeped out around the edges of a blind, peered into deeper shadows where the porch passed under the huge, old elm trees in the yard. The branches clicked in the wind, she could hear them. She peered up and saw a quarter moon, silvery, almost haloed, but appearing and disappearing as high, thin clouds flew across the face of it.

She looked down into the darkness again, deeper into the shadows, and as her vision adjusted she saw … herself. A young woman again, lying on top of a young version of her dead, bastard husband, kissing him and pulling away only to bend her face back down and stare into his eyes, then droop suddenly to kiss him again.

As one, the two entwined lovers turned their heads so that both of them, their faces barely visible in the dim, silvery moonlight, were looking straight at Beth. As one, their mouths opened and they said, “Scotch.”

Beth cried out in fear, covering her eyes against the vision, but the word struck her like a physical blow, knocking her back off the top step so that she stumbled down the steps, tripped and fell backwards, landing hard enough to jar her teeth.

For a few moments she just sat there, breathing. Fearfully, slowly, she finally opened her eyes to see –

“Beth! Oh my god, sweetie! Are you okay? What happened?”

Marie was in the sand leaning over Beth, her hands grabbing at Beth’s shoulders. The two other members of the group stood on the edge of the trap and looked down, quiet but with concern clearly on their faces.

“Beth! Are you alright?”

“I …” she struggled to get up. “I’m fine,” she said. She grabbed Marie’s arm and pulled herself up. Trying to clear her mind, she tried to smile, failed, but then said, “A bee, I guess. I thought I saw a bee, and … well … I don’t know. It just startled me.”

Marie didn’t say anything to Beth’s remark, and the others just looked at her blankly. They weren’t buying the bee excuse, but they kept quiet.

“If it’s okay,” Beth said, “I think I’ll pick up. It’s your hole.”

“Oh, sweetie,” forget the hole,” Marie said, still unwilling to let go her grip. “It’s only a nickel.” There was a pause. “Besides, I had the hole anyway.”

Beth just nodded. She started to reach for her club in the sand, but Marie snatched it up, and the ball, too. They all picked up then and walked in through the pine trees towards the clubhouse. Marie insisted on pulling Beth’s cart as well as her own, even though Beth insisted she was fine. But she wasn’t fine, not yet anyway; she was still trembling when they pushed through the swinging door to the locker room. It was only after several minutes in the shower, with hot water pouring over her as she leaned against the wall of the shower stall, that she finally stopped shaking. It was in the shower, too, that she decided what she had to do.

That afternoon, after finally escaping Marie’s continued concern, and ignoring the whispered conversations and sideways glances that worked through the entire locker room, Beth drove straight to the liquor store to buy a bottle of scotch whiskey. Johnnie Walker Red, she decided. His favourite drinking whiskey. He – her dead bast … the husband, she finally said to herself … it was the brand the husband preferred. Black Label he had saved for company, but there hadn’t been much company in the last few years.
She considered buying a mickey at first, but thought better of it. The husband had never bought a mickey “when a twenty-sixer would do.” A twenty-sixer it was.

Late that night, when Beth was sure that no one would be around, she drove to the club, walked around it to the path that led through the pine trees to the eighteenth green. She had told herself not to hesitate, just do it. Get it over with. She stepped quickly down into the sand trap, down to the middle of the trap, pulled the bottle from the same, oversized purse she had hidden his ashes in, twisted the cap off the bottle. She fumbled the cap, and it fell to the sand. She ignored it. As close to the spot as she could remember, she tipped the bottle and poured out its contents into the sand. When the last of the scotch had fallen, she dropped the bottle into her purse, peered about in the darkness until she found a rake and pushed the wet sand around until as much of the alcohol soaked sand was buried as she could manage, wondering if any of his ashes had worked their way up into the sand to greet the offering. It had been a long time between drinks for him. There was a soft sound in the air, like a far-off whispering, and she guessed the answer was yes. She continued pushing and pulling the rake through the sand.

Only once as she raked did she wonder if the whole exercise was a waste of good money, but she pursed her lips and pushed the thought aside. If it kept her dead – if it kept the husband quiet in his secret grave, a bottle of scotch was a small price to pay.

The late night offering seemed to work. Several times over the summer, usually while taking more nickels from Marie, Beth found herself in the trap to the right of eighteen green. Never once, however, no matter how bad the lie, no matter how deeply her ball was buried, never once did she fail to get up and down from the sand.

- John Waltersson, Sudbury