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UNTIL DEATH DO US PART
At the edge of the water, white-capped waves began to break, harbingers of the wrath to follow. A short while ago, the clouds had been merely gray. Now they boiled with ominous darkness as they sank toward the cowering earth. The wind whipped off the lake causing the tops of the trees to sway, as if groaning under great weight. Annoyed at having his fishing trip cut short, Joe turned the car away from the lake and the storm that brewed above it.
The road back to the main highway was ravaged with ruts. He steered between potholes, aware of the heaviness in the air and the darkening of the sky. He grimaced. Everything was going against him lately, even the weather.
Rounding a sharp curve, he saw an old man trudging along the muddy roadside with a fishing rod and tackle box. The man’s face was hidden beneath the wide brim of a frayed straw hat.
Beside him, ambled a short-haired mutt of a dog. It had once been a handsome creature. But now, age had grayed its fur, caused its legs to bow and its skin to fall in loose folds.
Joe drew alongside the old man who plodded steadily along as though he were unaware of any human presence. As the thickening mist engulfed them, Joe had an odd feeling of inexistence, or, at the least another dimension.
He banished this crazy thought. The old fellow probably had bad eyesight and didn’t see Joe. He had to be soaked to the skin and in need of a ride. Joe rolled down his window. The old man turned his vacant eyes on Joe, as if he could see through him. The weathered face held a pale, ghostly pallor. A rainy night and an old ghoul made Joe’s mouth so dry he was unable to speak. He struggled to banish the foolish idea and remember he had only stumbled upon an old man who was caught in a storm.
The man looked away, dismissing Joe’s presence. As he continued his lone trek into the mist, Joe let out the breath he had been holding and pressed the gas pedal with a panicked desire to hurry down the road. There was something strange about the old fellow. As Joe left him behind, he couldn’t shake the feeling he hadn’t seen the last of him.
No more than five miles down the road, the car began a familiar shake and rattle. Joe knew the screws in the carburetor often worked loose. Why hadn’t he checked them before he started this trip? He knew the answer. He was anxious to prove to himself he wasn’t the overly cautious and predictable person Tina accused him of being.
He pulled to the side of the road and opened the trunk. Rain pelted down in huge drops that stung his back and chilled him. Nothing indicated it was going to let up soon. Fishing around in his tool box, he made one quick discovery. He had neglected to put the short-handled screwdriver inside.
Without it, he couldn’t maneuver to reach the screws on the underside of the carburetor. He used his pocket knife to tighten them as best he could and got back in the car.
He started the engine. It jolted like a mechanical bull and died as he rounded a curve. It was raining harder now. He glanced down the road, hoping not to see the fisherman. How long since Joe left him? Ten minutes, perhaps? He shivered at the thought of having the apparition catch up with him.
An old, two-story house sat across the road. Dashing through the rain, he reached the cover of the porch. The house was in need of repair. The paint was peeling off the front door and the doorbell wires hung loose outside the buzzer. The front windows were criss-crossed in spider web veins of broken glass. Joe hoped someone still lived here. If it were vacant, he would be stuck here with a dead car.
He knocked, shivering more from nerves than the chill of wet clothes. A sound of stirring came from within. The knob turned and an elderly woman peered through the crack. Her eyes went wide with surprise and Joe knew, soaked as he was, he must be quite a sight.
“My car’s broken down and I wondered if I could borrow a screwdriver. If you have any tools, that is,” he said.
The woman’s crinkled face broke into a kindly smile. “Why certainly, you poor thing. You’ve gotten all wet. Come inside and I’ll see what I can find you.”
Joe glanced at his muddy feet. “I better not. I’ll get your floor dirty.”
“Then pull your car into the garage. You can work on it out of the rain. I’ll show you where to find the tools.”
“Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
He raised the rickety garage door. The garage smelled musty, like the rot of an ancient forest. An old Buick was parked inside. Joe pulled alongside and got out, glad of shelter. Now, if only she had the right screwdriver.
The old woman appeared, carrying a cup of coffee. “Drink this. It will warm you up.” Joe sipped the hot drink gratefully.
She studied him a moment, and then said, “Now let me see. I have to think back to when I used to watch Walter work on the car.”
She squinted as she surveyed the garage. “I think you’ll find some screwdrivers in here. “
She pointed to a metal box that sat atop the workbench. Joe opened it and found a short- handled screwdriver that looked like it would do the job.
“Walter used to work on the car all the time. It was his pride and joy. I used to come out here and read the paper to him while he worked. If I were the jealous type, I would have taken a tire iron to that car.”
She tilted her head towards the Buick. “When he wasn’t fishing, he was working on that.”
Pausing, her face softened and a small smile parted her lips. Then she added softly, “I miss him a
“Was Walter your husband?”
“Yes. We were married forty-six years. It’s hard being parted after so long.”
Joe felt a twinge of pain. Would he and Tina be together to celebrate forty-six years?
He sighed. “It’s hard, no matter how you part. My wife moved out last month. We’ve only been married two years.” He was surprised to hear himself blurting this to a stranger.
As he maneuvered around the carburetor, she said, “Walter and I broke up once. We hadn’t been married very long.”
She gave a soft chuckle. “Nowadays, they’d say we were incompatible. Our dispositions were very different. Walter was a precise person. Everything had a place. It used to drive him crazy when I’d
move things around and forget where I put them. Anyway I got tired of his constant harping about being organized and moved back with my parents. They weren’t surprised to see me. They thought I’d made a mistake marrying such an intolerant man in the first place.”
She paused, lost in the past.
Curious, Joe prodded. “You must have decided you could make it work.”
“We did. We missed each other terribly. All we could agree on was to work on the things that bothered us most and ignore the little things. It’s funny, after a few more years, those things didn’t seem important anymore.”
“I wish Tina and I could make things work. She complains I’m not spontaneous. But it drives me crazy when she does things without planning. Last month, she talked me into going on a weekend trip. It turned out there was a convention in the town she picked. We had to stay in a ratty hotel in a crummy part of town. I told her she should have let me handle the arrangements. I guess that was the last straw.”
She smiled softly. “Love sometimes means you have to accept someone and stop trying to change them. Goodness knows, Walter put up with my sloppy housekeeping for years.”
Joe tightened the last screw and rubbed the screwdriver across his jeans. The old woman was right. He had been trying to change Tina. Being an independent woman, she had resisted. He glanced at the old woman. She had a far-away, wistful look on her face again. “I wish I could touch Walter, kiss him one more time. I miss our life so much. I even miss that old gray dog he took fishing. I used to watch him come down that road while I did my knitting by the widow. He’d come in and tell me, ‘Aggie, I caught us some fish.’ He’d clean ‘em and I’d fry ‘em and that dog would wait for the scraps.”
“Old gray dog?”
“Yes. He was Walter’s most constant companion, if you don’t count that old straw hat.”
The hair rose on the back of Joe’s neck. The old man walking along the road had an old gray dog.
Was his ghost coming back to his beloved wife? He was seized with a desire to get away from here.
“I appreciate your loaning me the screwdriver. Will you take a little something for your trouble?” Joe spoke hurriedly as he reached for his billfold.
“Goodness, no. I just hope you and that young lady get back together. Don’t grow old alone. You have so much life to live together.”
“Thanks. I won’t, at least if she’ll have me.”
Joe jumped into the car and backed out of the garage. He could see the old woman looking down the road. She was waiting for Walter. She knew he was coming. In his rearview mirror, Joe saw the ghost trudging along, unaware of the soaking rain. He was heading for the house.
In less than a half hour, Joe made it to the nearest town. He stopped for gas at a truck stop. Still shaken from his near miss with the apparition, he decided another cup of coffee might calm his nerves.
The café had a homey atmosphere with checkered tablecloths and a counter where the country folk could sit elbow to elbow and talk. It made him long for Tina. He hadn’t talked to her since she left. He’d been too proud to admit he missed her. When he got home, he would give her a call.
He sat down at the counter and waited for the matronly woman who was serving food. She glanced his way and gave him a quizzical smile. “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.”
“I did. There was an old man coming home with his dog from fishing at the lake. He had the strangest expression I’ve ever seen. It still gives me the creeps.”
“Oh you must mean old Walter,” she interrupted.
“Yes. That’s his name. He was heading back to his house to see his wife. Have you seen him since he died?”
The woman smiled. “Wait a minute. Old Walter may look like a ghost, but he ain’t one. At least, not yet. He’s just an old fellow who likes to go fishing.”
She paused. A sad look filled her eyes. “He ain’t been the same though, since his wife Aggie died."