by Renee Ebert
Tomorrow will be the day after I die. That was Bertie’s thought as she finished rolling out the dough for a pie. She had planned ahead and she knew everyone would say just that. Look at all the lovely pies she baked, and she isn’t even here to enjoy them, her friend Annie would say. Annie would wear her black straw hat with the little violet flowers to the funeral, even in fall because that was her only black hat. Bertie smiled at the thought of Annie adding color to the one dramatic day of her drab little life. She sighed. Yes, Annie was drab. And flat chested. Even in Mrs. Pritchard’s third grade, Annie’s blonde hair held no real color. And it always looked like it could use a good washing. But Annie would like the pies.
Bertie stuck her index finger into the center of the strawberry rhubarb, avoiding the excellent lattice work top she had created. These were the last of the strawberries from the summer’s mother lode from her garden. She had spent too many good days freezing and, in some cases, with peaches, canning. A bird flew up to the window, drawn perhaps, by the smell of bubbling blueberry and apple. Could they smell that sort of thing? I’ll never know, she muttered.
Her niece, Shelly, was flying into Chicago and called Tuesday night to say she would rent a car and drive down to Richmond. At first the news of her niece descending on her shot Bertie’s plan to hell, but she adjusted and went into overdrive. She would be found by Shelly who would then arrange everything. Bertie wiped her hands on her old apron and sat down at the kitchen table. She ran through and examined the thoughts that were teasing their way to the surface, bubbling to the top like the fruit pies. Am I depressed? No more than usual. To her, life had been sliding into this moment since the day Anthony Kopecki died so soon after the war. She could still see his strong features, his dark brow, but mostly his smile. He genuinely loved being alive, and while he was, so was she. So have I been dying then, all these years? She decided last Tuesday that, yes, she had. Now it was time to do something about it.
The phone ringing did not startle her as much as temporarily stop her. Its muted sound came from way down the hall. She didn’t want to answer it but had to put off anyone who might drop by before tomorrow.
“Bertie, I got those chickens here for you.” Mr. Pepper always knew when Shelly would be in town.
“Will they keep a day? Shelly can pick them up tomorrow on her way over here.”
“Now Bertie. I know you’re particular but have I ever sold you a hen that wasn’t fresh?” They had been having this conversation for thirty years, and it was always the same, as comfortable as a pair of shoes broken in so you barely noticed them.
After she hung up Bertie thought about the conversation. Mr. Pepper would bring the chickens to the side door, knock and enter. He would be the one to find her, after slowly going through the house, calling her name. After, when the neighbors and townsfolk all came to the repast which Mr. Pepper’s wife and the other wives of Richmond had contributed their individual and marvelous salads, he would shake his head in that peculiar way he had and exclaim how sad it was that Bertie was gone. He would go back to the farm and bring two or three more chickens because he, her niece Shelly, and her only old friend, Annie, would instinctively know what all mourners know, that they must be fed. It takes a lot out of a person to feel all that sorrow.
The timer bell gave off the tinny little sound. Pies were done. She peeked in at them, the crusts were perfect, slid her big padded kitchen gloves on and carefully moved them onto the trivets. Aunt Iris had given those to Bertie for her Hope chest. Right after Anthony came home from the war, Aunt Iris began filling Bertie’s Hope chest. First were the little tea napkins that Bertie herself had embroidered in tenth grade sewing class. Grandmother Darnell’s crocheted bed spread was next. Iris had saved these things in tissue paper and gave them to Bertie in her typical unceremonious way.
“Might like to put these in that chest of yours now.” Her brusque farmer’s manner didn’t hide her joy at Anthony’s return.
Her mother’s reaction to the heavy trivets was less than enthusiastic. “What could she be thinking?” She could still see her mother’s soft face and hair that had just begun to sprinkle with gray. She nodded in wonder at Iris’s gift, so heavy and not something to place among linens in a Hope chest.
“Now mother.” Her father’s eyes lit up with humor. “Iris has always been substantial.” He would have been sitting behind his paper in the parlor, the lamp behind him casting its glow in a circle around the chair. Her mother didn’t miss the joke but always ignored it. And Bertie and her father had a good laugh. Then he stood, stretched his weary farmer’s back straight, left to check on the cows, or the hired hand, or the tractor. It was always something.
Bertie walked through the dining room to place pie after pie on the great side board. The room is cooler and the pies hold their flavor better. She ran her finger along the polished wood, no dust here. She spent two days washing, dusting, polishing. Yesterday she almost forgot her hair appointment, she’d been that busy. That would never do. Bertie five minutes late for anything would turn heads. Bertie saw Sally pause from pulling rollers out of a customer’s head to check the clock when Bertie charged in. Her large brown eyes followed a slow path around the dining room and out the window. Is my worth as a human really tied to my ability to be punctual? Well, I won’t disappoint any of them this one more time.
A light drizzle began to wet the leaves on the drive, and on the few that resolutely held onto the trees. It was the season of the year that once held so much promise for her, that long since only held remorse and increasing dread. One more year, and then another. There was a time when mid-fall was magical. When she was in high school and the dances began, and excitement was everywhere; class elections, who would ask her out? There was only one boy, could ever only be one boy. The wet leaves and colder and darker days had been friends back then, alerting her to high school and then Anthony. Now they were barely noticeable.
Just after the war, all was in expectation of Anthony’s coming home. He wrote her for three long years, told her his plans; how she would share them with him because she was part of his dream. Bertie flipped through the photo album again, as she had so many times this week. There she was, long brown hair streaked by a summer sun. She stood tall like Anthony, who was not just handsome. He was a good boy to his parents and would be a good man to know, and for her to love.
She turned the pages slowly, adjusting her glasses, turning on the light. Photos of her father, sitting on what might have been his first tractor, his smile cutting furrows across his face like those he would cut into the yielding earth. So young, before she was born and just after the Great War. She traced her finger over his face, embracing him one more time as she did the day of his wake. She remembered thinking that she was glad her mother had gone first. Better that way. His pain was hard but her mother’s pain would have reduced her. Good to have memories of her mother mentally acute, whole and intact. Most of the time Bertie would hurry through her own pictures to get to Anthony but today was, of course, different. She almost laughed at herself in a plaid dress with braids down her back. Was that first or second grade? And her brother James squinting into the camera.
I don’t think he ever forgave me for being just an inch shorter than him. James was tall, but so was Bertie. She knew for sure he never forgave the fact that she was born first and named for her father, Albert. Only a week ago he had called and drawled out her name, “Hi there A…l…b…e…r…t…a. He once called her junior, but only once. He felt as though she had stole his thunder. And perhaps she had. She was athletic while James preferred art, music, the kinds of things that tell a father his son will find his living in the city, and not the farm. Her father didn’t seem to mind, saying he was grateful that one of them would keep the land. On the day of her father’s funeral she sat in this very chair, contemplating his face in his coffin, now immobile. She had opened one of the glass doors of the bookshelves that were built in on either side of the fireplace, and had leafed through Whitman and Frost and even Millay. She realized that day that her father’s death, like her mother’s, opened a world of what had been their mysteries. Why do we see them so clearly only after they are gone? What would her legacy of solved mysteries be for Shelly? For James? Bertie didn’t believe she had any. Perhaps that’s not for me to say. Perhaps that’s what the living get to do. Surprise themselves with what must have been in front of their noses all this time. Was she bitter? Yes, she finally decided, she was. She had wanted to share her life, this day even, with one person. Bertie was suddenly very tired. The day had begun early, but it wasn’t that. The tension was gone, she had made her decision to end it now. She was bereft of all that it took to stand up to her life, every day and all these years. How old was she? Had she really stopped living when she was twenty-two? She was to be a bride. But while Anthony was away in the war, they both just seventeen, she had gone on to the state teacher’s college. Her mother had been adamant, and her father was simply pleased and very proud that she had a profession.
“But Dad, it’s not that important. I’m only a teacher.” He fussed with her mortar board so the tassle wouldn’t interfere with his photograph. She looked at the picture now in the album, the strong rays of the sun making her squint, her eyes seeming deeper set than they actually were. The photo wasn’t firmly set in the album. Bertie lifted the photo and turned it over. She reached for her glasses from the pocket in her apron and adjusted the lamp better to see. In a long and familiar scrawl were written, “Alberta Winstead. July 1944.” Behind the picture was a letter written by the same hand. Interest giving her energy, she read it fast and then again more slowly.
“I was so proud of you that day, even though I couldn’t be with you, I was there. I love you and can’t wait to come back home to be with you forever. Anthony.”
Bertie had not read that letter since the day she first opened it. The ink was brown from age. Like the age spots on my hand, she thought. Like me. Her fatigue gathered up in one big ball and spread over her again. But the memories poured from her now, unleashed because she no longer wished to keep them at bay. She turned to the last page where there were photos of Anthony in uniform, as he descended from the train that brought him back to Indiana and her. He stood, almost rigid, and the camera caught the slight frown that played across his forehead. Was it the sun slanting toward his eyes? She looked more closely. No, she remembered, it was the war. All that he told her, he told her less than he actually saw or did. No one tells those stories. They remain as long as a soldier lives, she decided, and they die with him. And now, this final moment, she allowed herself to remember the day all those years ago which seemed to precede this one, as the day before she died.
Bertie remembered Carl, the Kopeki’s handy man running up the walk, face as ashen as the cinders she sprinkled on the ice there in the cold weather. She saw her father jump down off his tractor in the corn field close by where she stood, and saw him take hold of Carl’s arm as if to restrain him. How did he know to slow Carl’s progress toward reaching her? Was it the way he ran? Could he have seen his expression that far away? They were all much younger then, even her father, so it was possible he could see Carl’s face, and read it to know something bad had to have happened for Carl to come to them, and to head straight for her. That must have been why, she decided. He was rushing toward me because I was the one who needed to know first.
“An accident. Tony was hurt.” Carl’s words were pushed out of him. All these years later she could still feel the calm that lay over her, but it was not that, it was more like a leaden cloak, a resolve to accept the news she had feared for the three years that Anthony was in harm’s way in the war.
“Just tell me.” She finally sat on the step of the side porch, and dug her hands into her apron pockets. She had been canning the late summer peaches and the smell of them permeated her hands, her clothes. And Carl sat down next to her and told her how Anthony offered to help fix the tractor, had squirmed under the machine that was set on cinder blocks and held up with them and a single hand jack. How the dog ran by after a squirrel and bumped the jack and the cinder blocks could not hold the weight.
Bertie had jumped up, pulled out of a frozen reverie, to go to him. But Carl and now her father stood either side of her and her father put his great strong arms around her as Carl said what she knew from the first. “He’s gone. He died right there. There was no time, he was gone.” There were no remaining hours to that day, nothing she could remember, only days later and the funeral.
She recalled Mrs. Kopecki’s head lowered as she talked, her big hands still in her lap. Bertie looked at them. They were farmer’s hands capable of getting the hay bundled before the rain soaked and rotted it one day and the next embroidering altar cloths with the other church women. Bertie took one of those hands and held it. Mrs. Kopecki looked up for a fraction of a moment to acknowledge the young woman who would have been her son’s wife, who would have been the bearer of her grandchildren. She said as much to Bertie now.
“Do you know, Alberta? I was looking at these just the other day.” She held out some old photos of Anthony as a six year old, dressed all in white for his First Communion. He had on a white shirt, jacket and short pants and stood near a fancy stuffed chair, looking very serious. In his hand was a white book, his First Communion bible, and white rosaries, small like the child who held them.
“I was saying to Anthony that soon it would be his turn to have photos taken of his children.” Mrs. Kopecki became conscious of what she had implied and apologized, “I didn’t mean they would have to be Catholic.”
Bertie held onto her hand, and was quick to assure her, “It’s okay, Mrs. Kopecki. Anthony and I decided that your religion would work just fine for both of us.”
Mrs. Kopecki smiled and Bertie felt Anthony’s death had inextricably bound the two women. It was at this moment that Bertie knew she would never live fully again, that she would not bear Anthony’s babies, nor anyone else’s. She could almost see down her dark future where the sun had no place. She would know amusement, she would share other people’s happiness, but her personal world was closed off to those experiences.
She never left Mrs. Kopecki’s side that day. She accompanied the family to the funeral Mass the next day, and to the grave, and sat next to the family there. She was Anthony’s widow although she had never been his bride.
Bertie stood and felt the stiffness in her joints from being still for too long. She smiled a secret smile and said out loud. “Time for a nice hot bath.” She luxuriated in the big cast iron tub that her niece said was back in fashion in the city. Bertie closed her eyes and felt the steam and hot water relax the muscles in her neck and shoulders. She placed the warm washcloth on her face and the heat traveled to the corners of her cheeks and forehead. Afterward, she straightened the towels on the rack so they might dry. She examined the dresses in her wardrobe, some she had taken down from the attic to consider for this occasion, and was surprised that her almost virginal body had not changed. Childbearing had never happened, and her body, like her life had gone into hibernation. If Anthony was waiting on the other side, she would at least come to him in a body not too unlike the one he had known. She decided on the navy blue suit she had worn to greet him when he returned from the war. It was to have been her going away suit for her honeymoon, and it was still very stylish.
When she was dressed, she lay on the bed, plumped up the pillows and began to take the pills, first two at a time, and then finally, eager to go, she took handfuls and gobbled them down with large gulps of water. She left no note, her affairs had been in order, her will, for years. All would go to Shelly and any children she would have. She dozed and then she dreamt a light dream of Anthony. And then she was gone.
Renee Ebert was born in Philadelphia and lived in New Jersey near NYC while growing up. She lived in a lot of places since and likes writing most because she can relive the experience and wonder of the countryside as much as the snow on a side street in New York City. She has a BA from Georgetown University in English Literature and a Masters in Public Health from UCLA. Her career has focused on nonprofit philanthropy and fundraising for programs that shelter, feed, advocate for, and heal. She has one epublished novel, and her next novel, Dead Eyes In Late Summer was accepted by a publisher of fantasy/paranormal fiction.