Morning Rose

Morning Rose

            Edward Miller sat across the table from his wife. She held the morning newspaper in front of her so the only parts of her body visible to him were her fingers with their bright-red nails gripping the edges of the paper. “This is just the most interesting obituary,” Marlene Miller said. Edward put his spoon by his cereal bowl, picked up his coffee cup and listened to his wife read Nancy McKenna’s obituary to him.
            “Yes, very interesting,” Edward said when she finished. “Almost makes me wish I had known her. Maybe we should visit her grave. Would you like that?” He traded the coffee cup for his spoon and began to scoop up the cold cereal mixed with fresh blueberries and sliced strawberries in the teal-green bowl.
            Marlene folded the paper and stared across the table at her husband. “Edward, you say the strangest things sometimes,” she said, not sure if Edward were mocking her or if he really meant they should visit Nancy McKenna’s grave. “Why would we do that?”
            Edward put his spoon down before answering. “Every morning you choose an obituary you think is interesting and read it to me. That makes me an unwilling participant in the death ritual of another human. Usually, a visit to the cemetery is the culmination of this kind of ritual. So, it seems to me a visit to this person’s grave, this Nancy McKenna, would be an appropriate thing for us to do.”
            “People write obituaries because someone they loved died. They’re allowing us to feel their grief, their pain, and share in their admiration for the person who is gone. It’s a very human thing to do, Edward.”
            “It’s also a human thing to visit the grave, as you say, of a loved one.”
            Marlene frowned. “Don’t be obtuse, Edward. I didn’t say I loved Nancy McKenna. How could I love her? I didn’t even know her. Her obit was interesting, that’s all. I thought you might enjoy hearing it. She sounded like a wonderful person.”
            “I’m sure she was.” Edward nodded his head and looked down at the cereal mixed among the bright blue and red berries, getting soggy now in the milk in the teal-green bowl. “If I die first, are you going to write an obituary for me?”
            “Don’t you want to write your own? I’ve written mine. You’ve seen it.”
            Edward stirred the cereal then spooned up another bite, chewed and swallowed before saying, “No, I’m not going to write my own. Obituaries are written for the people who are alive. It doesn’t matter to the dead how they are remembered. They don’t know anything.”
            “Of course, obituaries are written for the living. They’re a celebration of someone’s life. They are the final say on how a person is remembered. If you die first, I’m going to write a very nice one for you. Edward Miller, you are a good man and I want everyone to know that.”
            Edward felt his face get hot and knew he was turning red. For years he did not feel like he was a good man, but didn’t know how to tell Marlene why he believed this. Edward thought of their two children, Sharon and Jeffrey, whom they rarely saw now. Sharon had fled to England, married a British man, taken out British citizenship and had never been back to the US. Edward doubted she would ever return so he and Marlene were forced to fly to Europe to visit her and her husband for a few days once a year. After every visit Edward reproached himself and asked what terrible wrong had he committed that had compelled their daughter to turn her back on them and seek life in another country.
            Their son, Jeffrey, had done a similar thing; moving to France, taking out French citizenship and marrying a man from Spain. Every year, following their visit with Sharon, he and Marlene flew to France and stayed with Jeffrey and Santiago for a few days in their rural home. During these visits Edward asked himself what sin had he committed to make their son leave. He did not have a satisfactory answer so took the burden of guilt upon himself, unable and unwilling to share it or discuss it.
            Once, long ago, Edward had voiced his concerns to Marlene but she brushed his worries aside, saying their children were like birds released from a cage, flying free to seek their part of the earth where they felt they belonged. She reminded him the children were free to live their lives as they wished, that she and Edward should be happy for them wherever, and with whomever, they chose to live. Marlene did not share the guilt that haunted Edward every day.
            In his heart Edward knew neither Sharon nor Jeffrey would ever return, not for a brief visit, or even for his funeral. That they would not return for his funeral did not bother him because he would not know one way or the other if they were in attendance. But a visit while he was still alive would be nice. He couldn’t argue against that.
            “Why Edward, I’ve embarrassed you,” Marlene said and reached across the table to squeeze his hand. “You are such a dear man.”
            “If I die first, will you get married again?” Edward didn’t know why he asked this question. It seemed intrusive, and deeply unfair, to ask after thirty-eight years of marriage. He knew she could not give an honest answer but he had to know. His children had abandoned him. He had to know, should he die before Marlene, if she would remarry. He had to know if she would abandon him as well.
            A look of alarm crossed Marlene’s face. “Edward, are you all right? You’re not hiding anything from me, are you?”
            The concern in her voice made Edward smile. “No, no, I’m not hiding anything. There’s nothing wrong with me. I just want to know if you’ll marry again after I die.” Edward imagined a faceless man, Marlene’s second husband - good god, her second husband! - sitting in this chair at this table, eating breakfast as Marlene read aloud the obituaries of strangers to him.
            Would the second husband eat the same kind of breakfast Edward ate every day, cold cereal with fresh fruit, or would he eat something else, something exotic that Edward would find pretentious, even outrageous?
            “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about getting married again if you die first.” Marlene said. “Is that something we should talk about?”
            Edward got up, filled their coffee cups and sat down. “Promise me you will not marry a man who eats poached eggs on toasted English muffins, smoked oysters, and drinks Champagne for breakfast and listens to Cimarosa while he’s eating.”
            A shocked expression twisted Marlene’s face. “My god, Edward, where did that come from?”
            “You played Cimarosa when we were first married. You like his music.”
            “Yes, I do, but he’s not the only composer I enjoy. You know that.”
            “His piano sonatas were your favorites.” To Edward, Cimarosa’s piano sonatas sounded grating and harsh, but he never told Marlene how he felt; it would break her heart to hear him be critical.
            He and Marlene had married when they were in their early twenties, he newly discharged from the army and working as a crane operator unloading gigantic container ships at the Port of Seattle and Marlene a member of the Seattle Symphony, just beginning her musical career. Even now, nearing the sunset of their lives, she still taught at the University of Washington’s School of Music where she was a tenured professor.
            Marlene’s circle of friends was composed of people Edward did not understand. He lacked the necessary emotions and words needed to communicate with them on the occasions when he and Marlene mingled, and her colleagues, bereft of the ability and quite possibly the desire to make him feel at ease in their midst, made no effort to embrace him. He knew his marriage to Marlene was never going to confer acceptance by her peers. Early on, Edward realized this was a condition of his life he could not change so he set it aside.
            Edward stood up and cleared the dishes.  He refilled their coffee cups, sat down and said, “I think we should visit Nancy McKenna’s grave. It’s Saturday. We have the time.”
            “Edward, that’s creepy.”
            “No, it isn’t. We’ll say we met her this morning and wanted to wish her a good day, wherever she may be.”
            Marlene folded the paper and put it on the table. “What do you mean, wherever she may be?”
            Edward grinned. “You know, heaven or hell, if you believe that sort of thing.”
            “Now you’re just being silly,” Marlene said but the smile had gone out of her eyes. What Edward was proposing did not seem appropriate. Instead, it felt ghoulish, an indecent thing to do. “You really want to find her grave?”
            “Sure. It’ll be fun, something different. I’ll look up her location.” He got up and went to his computer to find Nancy McKenna.
            Edward turned into Lake View Cemetery on Seattle’s Capitol Hill and parked. He gave Marlene one of the two yellow roses he had bought at a flower shop before arriving at the cemetery. Marlene had asked him when he bought the flowers why yellow. A yellow rose, he told her, was the flower of friendship, red the flower of love. Edward got out. “I know where she is.” Marlene followed a step behind him. “Here we are.” He stopped at a plain, polished gray granite rectangle set low enough into the ground so the summer lawnmowers could roll over it without difficulty.
            Only her name, date of birth and date of death were chiseled into the stone. “Now that is a life briefly told,” Edward said and placed the yellow rose on the grass next to the stone. Marlene looked at him then put her rose next to his.
            “Aren’t you going to say anything?” she asked.
            “You can tell her why we are doing this.”
            “It won’t matter to her, or to us, what I say. We can go now.”
            The rest of the day they spent in a kind of impersonal and necessary silence, saying little to each other, occupied with things that kept them apart. They ate dinner watching television so they didn’t say much. The evening passed equally muted. Neither of them felt a compelling need to say anything to the other. After Marlene had gone to bed, Edward sat in the dark nursing a glass of scotch. He thought about the day and what they had done and what they had talked about and he felt foolish now, embarrassed by his behavior and how he had diminished himself in Marlene’s presence. He finished the scotch, looked to see that Marlene was asleep and left the house.
            Marlene smelled coffee when she woke. She came into the kitchen to find Edward wiping his hands. “I was going to call you,” he said. “Breakfast is ready.” Marlene looked at the table, saw two plates with poached eggs on toasted English muffins, smoked oysters, an open bottle of champagne and two flutes. A red rose lay next to her plate. Edward’s laptop was at one end of the table. He punched the keyboard and Cimarosa’s piano sonata number 4 in A minor began to play.
            Marlene sat down and looked at her husband with astonishment. “Edward, whatever are you doing?”
            He picked up the flute by her plate and said, “Opening the cage for you,” then poured the champagne. 

Robert P. Bishop

Robert P. Bishop, a former soldier and teacher, lives in Tucson. His short fiction has appeared in The Literary Hatchet, The Umbrella Factory Magazine, CommuterLit, Lunate Fiction, Spelk, Fleas on the DogCorner Bar Magazine, and elsewhere.

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