Preserving His Wife
“She’s been hanging up there nearly a year ain’t she Roger?” asked Bill, his Sheriff’s uniform holding his belly in as best it could.
Roger could barely watch him circling around his Mary, like some wild predator skulking about waiting for the perfect moment to seize his prey. It was almost indecent the way he looked up at her, up under Mary’s white Chiffon dress. He remembered the afternoon he’d bought it at Farnham’s in Dover. Miss Sally Tate waited on him, helping him pick out just the right dress for their 25th wedding anniversary. He hadn’t known then it would be their last.
“Been painting’ her I see,” said Bill.
“Can you move away from her?” he asked, still unwilling to look at Bill, despite their long-standing friendship; instead, he stared at the paint-spattered floor. All those attempts, and finally today he’d gotten the right color white. It wasn’t dead white; no it was a warmer, paler white.
“Jim said you’d been buying a number of them canvases. Said something about painting still life. Guessing you didn’t tell him what kind of still life.” Bill chuckled and pulled out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled, then flicked an ash onto the worn wooden floor of the barn. Roger stared at the grey ash and scurried over to stomp it out.
“Jesus Bill, that’s oil paint. Put that damn thing out.” He stole a quick glance at Bill, trying to emphasize his concern. “What do you want?”
“It ain’t normal.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Maybe not, but it ain’t normal Roger, it just ain’t. Where are those other canvases?”
He stared at the floor wondering if Bill would ever leave. Leave him to paint his Mary, his sweet Mary. Bill never married, how could he ever imagine the kind a woman Mary was, the kind a marriage they had. He couldn’t, just couldn’t.
“Why don’t you just be on your way, leave me and Mary in peace. Just leave us be.”
“Ya know I can’t do that Roger. We’re gonna have to cut her down.”
“No.” He wanted to lurch at Bill, chase him out of the barn, protect his Mary.
Bill stepped back toward one of the old horse stalls. “Ah, this is where you keep ‘em.”
Bill open the wooden stall door that once housed strong Colored Cobs and Tennessee Walkers. He surveyed the paintings as if he were a collector.
“There must be several hundred in here.” Bill picked one up, looked through his bifocals, puffed on his spent cigarette, catching the long ash in the palm of his left hand. “Dancing, she’s dancing, like a ballerina in all of them.”
He couldn’t let Bill cut her down, watching familiar men haul in ladders, slice away at the rope with sharpened army knives talking about him and her, he just couldn’t allow them to release her from her place, the place she’d chosen. It had been her final wish to end it, and she’d led him to the barn, unknowing. He’d thought he knew her so well, the tender spot on her lower back, how she liked black licorice, but only the kind from candy store in Portsmouth, how she refused to talk about God or her mother, and how she couldn’t refuse the beat of a big band on a warm summer night, but he hadn’t known her plan.
“I’ve got to radio the station, Roger.”
“Better yet, just go on back there,” he said keeping his eyes focused on Bill’s muddy boots.
“Can’t do that, she’s coming down.”
“She isn’t a –”
“No, she was a human being who deserved a decent and proper burial,” said Bill taking a step toward him, then another.
“Just leave us be.”
“I’ll give you a moment or two, while I step outside, say your peace, Roger, say your peace.”
He watched as Bill turned, his footsteps heavy against the creaky old boards of the barn. Once Bill disappeared into the sunlight, he turned around and looked at Mary, dangling from her rope. The white dress no longer hung from her body the way it used to. Staring at her feet, he realized they were no longer beautiful like the lilies from her precious garden. He closed his eyes trying to remember, remember them before the sickness, before she’d ended it. There had been picnics, weaning calves and baby goats, church suppers, and fireworks, but he couldn’t manage to grasp any of those memories.
He looked up at Mary, wanting her to hear him, wanting her to tell him everything would be fine, just fine. “Bill thinks it’s time you come down. I know you always wanted your portrait painted and I’ve tried. Lord I’ve tried.” Mary’s gone he told himself. She’s gone. He looked back at her one last time, at the darkened bones and missing flesh.
Bio: Anne Converse Willkomm is completing her MFA at Rosemont College. Her work has appeared on FlashFiction.net, in Sibyl Magazine, and in Memoirs of Meanness. For her longer fiction, Ms. Willkomm was twice named a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition. She also teaches writing in the Rosemont College Accelerated Undergraduate Program.