Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Lay Me Beneath The Oak Tree by Joy Overbrook



Lay Me Beneath The Oak Tree

The better half of Francis’ years were spent with his wife. Death struck just shy of their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, gifting him an earnest void in her place. The days that followed spun around him like spiders’ silk, beckoning the sweet surrender of death. Yet still, he remained, cursing every waking moment, doubting God’s urgency with his own demise.

Francis stirred awake one morning in the only sanctuary left to him: his auto repair shop. He raised his head from the countertop, unsure how long he’d been passed out, and peeled a newspaper clipping from his temple. He clicked on the vintage Lasko beside him and encouraged the fan’s current with the paper. As the lone photograph on the periodical came into view, he noted a familiar figure beside his own, youthful with promise at the time of its capture. The sepia tone did little justice to Helen’s wedding gown - a satin garment that welcomed envy in the way it wrapped itself around her. A fresh smear of sweat streaked the picture, removing nearly all of the ink depicting her face.

“God damn it,” Francis coughed, searching for a black ballpoint pen to correct the smudge. As he hovered the pen over the tarnished image, he realized his mortal strokes would be a shameful attempt to recreate the masterpiece that was Helen. Instead, he flattened the worn page before him and lit a cigarette. 

He turned towards the fan, encouraging each puff of Marlboro Red back into his lungs. The air cooled the condensation freckling his face, but embers of alcohol still swelled in his veins, allowing little relief.

A scuffling of gravel outside jarred him to feign standing, but the liquor sloshed him back onto his stool. The culprit, likely some emboldened townsboy looking for a thrill, moved too quickly to capture. 

Francis had become a whisper on the breath of the townsfolk after Helen’s passing. He severed ties with anyone or anything that reminded him of their life together and resented the very community that reared him because it couldn't save her.

For feeble payback, he bolted up the entrance to his shop yet its fluorescent Open sign remained lit. Crud-covered windows that once quivered with cautious solicitude now stirred only from a rare breeze or childish mischief. Like everything else, empathy withers and dies. Save for the sound of his metal shop sign creaking on one rusty chain, Francis lived in silence. 

“Stupid kids,” he groaned as he bit the cap off a fresh bottle of Jack Daniels, twisting until the plastic cracked like a Thanksgiving wishbone. The bottle’s contents poured into his mouth until reaching the brim, a near imperceptible twitch puckering his face as he swallowed. A second generous gulp of whiskey washed over his cracked lips, and with it arrived a compulsion to take his tow truck for a cruise. 

Helen was back in the holler - he was sure of it - searching for her husband and an overdue reunion. He pinched his eyes shut, envisioning her now celestial body floating through the bluestem field that claimed her grave as its own. He swayed upright, alcohol and gravity united in their efforts to keep him seated. Defying the weight on his chest and delay in his vision, he stumbled toward the door. 

“I’m coming for you, Helen.” 

He braced himself against the metal meshing on the door's window. Fumbling for several minutes brought little progress, yanking on what he believed to be the bolts and chain locks, only to discover splinters and paint chips protruding from his calloused hands. The buzz of intoxication shielded him from the pain though, immune as thick crimson oozed down his fingers.

He finally groped the doorknob and yanked until the door shook free from its frame. Greeted by summertime Alabama humidity, he took a guarded first step off the stoop. The rough gravel provided enough friction to encourage his steps from then on. He pinned his sunken eyes on the tow truck, swinging his arms like wrecking balls with each step, blood from his fingertips splattering the path. 
When he reached the truck, he realized he hadn’t looked for his keys. As he patted the breast pocket of his t-shirt and scratched at the back of his Wranglers, he wished like a child blowing on a dandelion for his keys to appear. 

“God damn it!” he slurred. The profanity had become a common sentiment for him. As if God was making some final petition to Francis, what appeared but the familiar bulge of a full key chain in his front jeans pocket. 

“Thank you, Helen,” he whispered, denying any other heavenly creature gratitude. 

He peeled the dead stub of a cigarette from between his lips and hurled himself into the driver's seat, smearing nearly-dried blood onto the steering wheel. He lit another, pausing to assess the disarray surrounding him – grease-stained paper bags and decaying chicken bones, piled high as the passenger side window – an indulgence he seldom craved while Helen was alive. He tossed his empty cigarette box into the garbage heap, not before verifying a fresh pack was waiting in the glove box.

After jamming his keys above and below the ignition several times, he made contact, summoning the rumble of the truck’s V8. He reclined into the seat as its soothing vibration rolled beneath him. 

Francis always had an appreciation for machines, from Matchbox cars to chugging locomotives. He marveled at the way bits and pieces were just bits and pieces until they weren’t anymore. As a child, he would tinker until sunrise with junkyard treasures if his parents allowed. Not one person was surprised when he became a mechanic. 

Francis lingered in the memories of happier times until he sensed the burn of a someone staring. To his left, a woman of about twenty-five years stood no farther than a stone's throw, a sack of perishables bulging in her arms. Her face was twisted like a car wreck. She uttered her words with a sedate drawl. "Mister, are you okay?" 

Had this encounter happened a year ago, Francis would have noticed the woman’s kind yet tired eyes and a brow that crinkled the same as Helen's when she worried about him. He would not have been bitter, nor belly deep in whiskey at that hour. 

Francis sucked the life from his cigarette and held the smoke in his lungs, letting the nicotine work in tandem with the whiskey before releasing it toward the woman. 

"Right as rain," he wheezed. "Now get off my property and get the hell away from me!" 

She moved closer despite the reproach, altruism and good Southern manners getting the best of her. Francis flicked his cigarette butt at her feet, narrowly missing her cotton dress. The shock caused the woman to jump backward, and she toppled over. Empathy lurched him toward her for a moment, but he figured no good would come of helping her. He slammed the accelerator down, leaving a cloud of dust around the woman as she salvaged her groceries. 

“I wouldn’ta done that if you were still sittin’ shotgun, Helen. That’s why I gotta find you.” Francis muttered into the loneliness of his truck cab as he whizzed around the first hairpin with a reignited urgency. He switched on the tape deck and leaned into the steering wheel, veering around another sharp curve. Hank Williams’ melancholy refrains shuddered through him in a fitting proclamation - “I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry”. He knew every word, and the song had once been a favorite, but he sat tight-lipped as he drove along the farm-lined stretch of Route 17. He knew if he sang a verse, he would acknowledge Helen's absence, and thus beckon the tears that had not yet been shed. 


He thought the tears would come on the day of the funeral, but her passing was sudden – a type of brain aneurysm that wreaked havoc on many in her family line. Shock overcame grief almost immediately. The first several days after her last was a blur, and on the fifth that passed, a service was held in her memory. A group of eight, including the pastor, met on the western edge of Francis’ property to pay their respects. It was a calm and beautiful day, a fact that irritated him – how could the sun continue to shine so shamelessly, not so much as a soft wind kicking the leaves on the Oak tree? How could the world go on like nothing was different? 

Helen lived for days like that, especially when fortune allowed an afternoon’s respite beneath that Southern Red Oak. She never much cared for the vast expanse of land they inherited, content to simply have a roof over their heads, but the one thing that always brought a twinkle to her eyes was that big old Oak. She spent hours busying her fingers with the pages of a good book, or locks of her husband's hair, all beneath its comforting embrace. 

“Lay me beneath the Oak tree,” she would whisper, pulling Francis against her in the shade of its branches. He could never resist and held her until the velvet blanket of nightfall enveloped them. The night before her passing, it was the last request she gave, so he fulfilled her wishes one last time. 

The Oak’s canopy swathed the mourners in a moss green shadow as Father Jonah read scripture. Francis tried to listen, but his ringing ears halted any penetration of the Lord’s Word. As the memorial came to a close, he offered a stoic nod goodbye, waiting for each vehicle to disappear before acknowledging the wooden box before him. 

He brushed his forefinger along the top, its solid frame bearing life to his new reality. He paused his touch where he imagined Helen’s waist lay beneath and pulled a single red rose from the inside of his suit coat. Helen loved red roses, something about how romantic they were supposed to be. He laid it perfectly at the coffin’s center, imagining it clasped between her fingers, matching her red lacquered nails. 

The thought beseeched an anguished moan. He collapsed into the dirt surrounding her ditch and brought his head flush against the casket’s smooth surface. He rubbed his cheek against it as if nestling into Helen’s bosom.

“Why d‘ya have to leave me so soon, darlin’?” he choked, feeling a sting developing behind his eyes, one that never produced the tears it promised. He wrapped his arms around the box and pressed his lips to it before drowning in a thick black nothing of sorrow. 

The threat of a storm cracked in the sky as the neighbor’s son approached with a shovel. Francis had nearly forgotten that a proper burial required the earth itself to be put between him and his beloved, but he moved aside for the boy to complete his duty. He steadied himself against the knotted trunk of the Oak tree then began a calculated journey toward their home – only his home now – without a word to the boy. 


Francis had not thought about that day since it passed, at least not in the usual sense of ‘thinking about’ something. His brain had become by and large a vacuum of not thinking, just doing. The only word that passed through his mind with any comprehension was Helen, and the only hope he had was to be with her. 

The speedometer flicked upward as Francis continued down Route 17, his mind still glued to the image of his wife floating around their home. The outline of a farm stand grew on the side of the road, a familiar storefront once frequented by Helen. He had every intention of speeding past Virgil’s stand, but at the last moment he screeched crossways to a stop. To his benefit, he was the only patron, and thus the only wiser of his reckless driving. 

Francis hushed the V8 as his truck lurched across the gravel, beads of sweat building on his hairline. The reward he sought narrowly outweighed the risk he was about to undertake. He hadn't spoken to Virgil since the funeral, and the last thing he wanted was to reminisce. He recovered a flask of grain alcohol from the underbelly of his seat and emptied its contents, heartening just enough confidence to go inside. 

Francis swept past bins of watermelons lining the building's perimeter, neglecting their sweet aroma as it perfumed the summer air.  Virgil caught sight of him through the open door and froze where he stood. He dropped the plums in his hands, leaving half a dozen others to topple from their pyramid. Instinct guided him to his humble floral department at the back of the store.

“How are you holding up, Frank?” 

Francis met Virgil’s gaze with a grimace. 

“Dozen roses. Red’ns.” Francis slurred his demand as he slapped a twenty dollar bill on the linoleum counter. 

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot, Frank. Been calling. Damned thing never gets answered...” Virgil’s words hung in the air like fog in a valley, too thick with honesty to welcome a response. Virgil shifted in his shoes, directing Francis’ eyes upwards to a tall, slender vase. It teased him from the highest shelf, with at least thirty long stems, all topped with luscious burgundy petals. 

“Red roses. Dozen red roses,” Francis repeated. 

“Maybe since you’re here now that means you’re ready for some company. Finally tired of bein’ alone with your own thoughts. How’s about Nancy and I stop by with a couple slices of meatloaf tonight? That’d make for a nice summer evening. It certainly would.” 

Virgil turned toward the perennials on the shelf beside him, busying his fidgeting hands with the arrangement. He adjusted each pot, then shifted them once more, waiting for Francis to break the silence. As the delay stretched on, Francis lost his last stitch of patience. 

“Virgil, please! The roses! Just give me the goddamn roses!” 

Francis hurled around the counter and shouldered Virgil into the pots beside him, clearing the pathway to the roses. As he reached for them, smaller vases dove from the shelf and shattered around their feet like bombs. 

“What the hell is wrong with you, Frank? I was gonna get ‘em!” 

“Keep the change,” Francis grumbled, then stormed out of the store with every last red rose in tow. He clutched them to his chest like a newborn as he stalked across the parking lot. When he got to the truck, he shoveled the passenger side trash onto the gravel below and secured the vase beside him. 

“Sure as the wind blows, I know Virgil wouldn’t’ve pushed your buttons like that, darlin’. I don’t have no time to be wasting with niceties, not now.” 

Francis rolled down his window and lit another cigarette, the rose petals vigorously fluttering in the wind. He apprehensively glanced at the bouquet every few seconds, worried to let even one petal fall. “You're gonna love these, Helen.” 

The flowers were beautiful beyond words, though he would never tell Virgil that. Stems near two feet long, most of the thorns trimmed off, with leaves only up near the buds, like the ones you see in the mouths of tango dancers. The silky red petals closed in on themselves, demure and mysterious, just like Helen when they first started courting. Francis reached out his hand to caress the vase as he took another sharp turn, bracing them against the force. 

“Almost there,” he crooned as he drove down the shallow valley that led to his home. He took in a deep drag of his cigarette before getting too close. Helen despised the habit, so he thought it best not to upset her. He idled up to their detached garage and scanned the horizon for Helen’s figure.

Scrunching his eyes together, he creaked the door open, swearing to upturn every inch of their property until he found her, the same as he envisioned that morning. 

“Where are you hidin’, my girl?” 

Giddy excitement washed over him as he played a game of cat and mouse inside his own mind. He thrust himself around a corner, then another, expecting to find Helen giggling, but each time he was met with an empty hiding place. Irritation crept under his skin as he realized she was harder to find than he hoped. As he crouched around the side of his truck, he was suddenly drawn to the Oak tree. 

“I know where you are!” he chuckled, slinging himself into the driver’s seat. He jerked the stick shift and peeled off toward the Oak, the accelerator flush with the floor.

Pressure filled his sinuses as he crossed the open field. With each passing stretch, he pieced together the suppressed memories of their life like a jigsaw. Breath heavy with grief finally come to fruition departed his lungs, and belated tears fell like summer rain.

The speedometer needle flicked higher as he hastened toward her burial ground. He slipped his arm around the vase and pulled it to his chest. Hunched over the wheel, determined to keep his promise, he uttered, "I'm coming for you, Helen." 

The Oak was merciless upon impact. Francis crashed through the windshield and struck the unforgiving trunk, at once liberated him from his pain. He lay atop her grave covered in red roses with a smile teasing the edges of his bluing lips. Just above his head, the engraved epitaph glowed in the setting sun: "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”

-End-

Bio Joy Overbrook is a writer, poet, and Managing Editor of the niche online lit mag, Wax Seal. Find her published or forthcoming works in Train Flash Fiction, (b)OINK, occulum, and many more. For more information, follow her on Twitter @joy_overbrook.

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3 comments:

  1. Feed the authors, show ‘em some love.

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  2. Great job. You really captured Francis's character, from his surliness, nostalgia, down to his uncontrollable need to be with Helen.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading, Edward! I appreciate your words!

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