Gladys and Charlie had been married for forty one years. It had been mostly a good marriage. Their two children had helped to keep them together during some of the troublesome patches that had cropped up during the first twenty years of their marriage.
Now, the kids were grown and gone, each with children of their own. They lived close enough to be able to come visit on occasions when family liked to all get together, but not so close that they used their parents as baby sitters very often. Gladys would have preferred more time with the kids and grandkids, but Charlie liked it just the way it was.
Charlie had waited until he was sixty five to retire from his company. That way, after thirty six years of faithful service, he received the maximum pension, seventy five percent of his average salary over the final three years of his employment. If Gladys survived Charlie, the pension dropped down to fifty per cent of what it now was. Over the years, Charlie and Gladys had been frugal, and money wasn't going to be any kind of a problem to them.
It was dark out now, and the kids and grandkids had packed their things and climbed into their SUV's and driven back home. It had been a long and full day, everyone had come together to celebrate Gladys' sixty fifth birthday. Charlie's sixty eighth birthday was less than a month away. The two of them were sitting around the kitchen dinette, drinking a cup of coffee and having small slices of the birthday cake.
"Charlie, do you ever think about what we're going to do when one of us dies?" Charlie stopped the movement of his fork away from his mouth.
"Where did that come from, Gladys? Who said anything about us dying? Are you trying to tell me something? Did the doctor say something to you about that physical I went in for in April?"
"No, I just wondered if you had a plan, that's all."
"The only plan I have is not to die. So far, it seems to be working just fine, too."
"Will you be serious? We need to do something now, while we still can. I don't want to leave things like that for the kids to have to do. They have these plans where you arrange and pay for everything in advance. We should look into it, and save the kids from having to do it for us. We can select plots, caskets, all of it, so it will be set up before we even need any of it."
"You can do it for yourself, if you really want to, but count me out. When I die, I just want to be cremated. No service, no fuss, just put me in the oven and cremate me. I don't care what they do with my ashes either. I wouldn't want anybody I knew to have them. Having some dead guys ashes on the mantle is too weird for my tastes."
Gladys slowly placed her coffee cup back down on the Formica table. She wiped at her mouth with her napkin, wanting to get any stray crumbs off of her face. The whole time she was doing this, she stared at Charlie. To her, it felt like she was staring at a stranger. What kind of a person would spring something so selfish and hurtful on his own wife, after forty one years? Didn't he know that was like a slap in the face to her. Forty one years of marriage, two children, six grandkids and now he was just as much as telling her that he didn't plan on spending that much more time with her? Could he really mean what he'd just said to her?
"This isn't something I want to joke around about, Charlie. You just be serious. What would people think if I went ahead and did what you just told me?"
"If you tell them that that's what I requested, they won't think anything about it. What business is it of anyone else's?"
"What about Pastor Gary and our whole church family? Did you even stop to think that they might take it poorly that you didn't want to give comfort to your friends and family?"
"Gladys, I don't expect to sit here and argue about this with you. You brought it up and asked me what I had planned. I prefer to be cremated. I don't want a funeral, and I don't want a lot of people gathering around lying about how much they're going to miss me. It's my death, and I should have the final say on how it is going to be celebrated. You figure out exactly how you want yours to be treated, and I'll try to accommodate you, if you don't go too far overboard with the planning."
"I don't know what to say, Charlie. I'm too shocked right now to even be able to think straight. I always thought that we'd spend all of eternity together. Did I do anything to make you want to leave me like this?"
"Want to leave you? I never said I wanted to leave you. All I said was that, after I died, I wanted to be cremated. Do you think the two of us being planted side by side in the ground meant that we'd always be together? When you're dead, the body is just an empty bag. I don't care for being food for the insects and the worms. I'd rather have a quick cremation and be done with the whole decomposing business. Plus, it's a lot cheaper than all that other rigmarole anyway."
"We'll be dead, what do you care about the money then anyway, Charlie? I'd like a nice funeral, one with all the trimmings, so that people would have a chance to say a decent goodbye. I'd like to pick a nice place for us to spend eternity. A place where the kids could come by and visit with us. I've even done all of the groundwork on this, Charlie. We can both have the funerals that I wanted for us, and it comes to less than fifty thousand dollars if we prepay now."
"You talk to that Carl Cheaney about this? It sounds like something he'd come up with. Did you know that Donna Gillespie's husband just named him as the co-respondent in his divorce petition? It seems he was carrying on with Donna while he tried to sell her one of his Advanced Needs policy's. If Jim Gillespie wins his lawsuit, Carl will probably lose his funeral parlor. Jim is supposed to have pictures of the two of them 'inflagrante dilecto'."
Gladys lost all of the color to her face and stood up weakly, taking her empty coffee cup and the cake plate over to the kitchen sink. She fiddled around at the sink for longer than rinsing out the cup and the plate deserved. When she returned, her color was back to normal. Charlie noticed a slight tremble in her hands when she moved to take his cup and the cake plate. After she'd taken his dirty dishes away to rinse them out, Charlie stared at her back.
You don't live with someone for forty one years and not get to know them. You don't miss too much either when you live in a small town like they did. Charlie waited in the kitchen, wondering whether Gladys was through talking about them dying and having any plans for their final disposition. When she finished up at the sink, Gladys took off her apron and walked right past him into the living room. He waited another few minutes before getting up himself and walking out to the garage. It was after nine o'clock, but he felt like going out for a drive. He wanted to be alone for awhile, to give himself time to get used to the idea that Carl had probably been slipping it to Gladys as well as Donna Gillespie.
When he returned, after eleven, Gladys was already in bed. She pretended that she was already asleep, and he pretended to believe it. He turned away, his back towards her, and waited for sleep to come to him. When he closed his eyes, he could see himself with a much younger Gladys. They used to have plenty of fun together, but that was before. Forty one years. That was certainly a long time, a huge investment in time and caring. Did he really need to find out for sure? After an hour, Charlie finally managed to fall into an uneasy sleep.
Gladys lay there on her side. Her back was facing Charlie's back. 'He knows! I saw it in his eyes, he knows.' She was having so much trouble trying to manage her breathing so that she wasn't gasping out loud for air. How did she ever allow herself to get talked into such a predicament? Carl Cheaney was forty one years old. He hadn't even been born on the day that she and Charlie exchanged their wedding vows. She had been so foolish. Did she really think that Charlie was going to be so easy to fool? She had never deceived Charlie before.
He'd cheated on her before, she was positive about that. More than with just one other girl too. She wished now that she'd confronted him those times, forced him to admit that he'd been unfaithful to her. He knew, and now he had a power over her. One word to Rick or Denise, their children, and she'd never be able to show her face to either of them again. It was after three in the morning before she drifted off into an exhausted and fitful sleep.
The next morning, Charlie got up before seven. After dressing and fixing himself some coffee, he went out into the garage and got his gardening tools. He had found, after retiring from work, that he really enjoyed puttering around out in his own back yard. That discovery had surprised him. He had thought about taking up golf or fishing, but he found that gardening relaxed him more than either of those other things, and he didn't have to waste any time before he got started on it. By seven fifteen he was fully engaged in his project. He was laying in a three foot wide brick pathway from the patio out to the gazebo he'd recently purchased.
He'd worked out just the brick pattern that he'd wanted, ordered in the bricks and was now in the process of digging up the earth so that he could lay the bricks down. He carefully scooped out the dirt, placing it in his wheel barrow. With each full load, he'd take it over to the edge of the yard and fill in the lower areas of the slope. He knew that there wasn't going to be enough fill dirt to raise the slope up dramatically, but he had other projects in mind to get enough dirt to square up his yard. Charlie was a patient man, a planner who knew how to wait for the right opportunities.
As he lost himself in the work, Charlie remembered those times when he'd strayed. Even while it was happening, he'd felt that it was a weakness on his part. He'd simply given in to the temptation of it. Four times he'd strayed. Each time it had been a case of opportunity coming knocking. He hadn't gone out looking for it, it had come to him. It wasn't even that good. It had never been that good with anyone else.
Too much guilt, and not nearly enough reward to justify his feeling so bad. He'd finally quit giving in to the temptation. Other than Gladys, he hadn't slept with another woman in over twenty eight years. He suspected that Gladys knew about Connie, his secretary. She had asked some questions about her during the time they had been having their little fling. Connie had been the last one. He'd felt guilty about those four women for nearly thirty years. A little more than that even, because the first one had been right before their tenth anniversary.
He tried to picture Carl and Gladys together in his mind, but the image refused to come. After a minute of acute frustration at not being able to picture the two of them together, Charlie gave up trying. He knew that Gladys had cheated. He saw it by the way her face got so suddenly pale when he told her about the Gillespie's, and about Carl being named as a co-respondent. She looked like she'd been hit. No, he was certain they had done it together.
The question was, what was he going to do about it? Forty one years. They were both too damn old to be starting over. He felt eyes on him. He knew, if he turned towards the house suddenly, he'd see Gladys staring at him through the window behind the kitchen sink. He refused to turn. Instead, he got down on his knees and squared up the sides of the pathway he was digging. He looked at his watch, astonished to see that it was already three in the afternoon. Where did the time go?
He gathered up all his gardening tools and put them into the wheel barrow. He went over to the side door in the garage and carefully wiped his tools on the slightly oily rag and put them away. He treated his wheel barrow the same way, before climbing into his car and pressing the remote control door opener. With his head turned and facing out towards the street, he couldn't see Gladys when she opened up the connecting door from the house. He purposely never looked back when he pressed the remote again to close the garage door.
He drove over to the market and picked up enough groceries to last him for a week. He pulled out his cell phone and called Myrna, his sister.
"Hey Myrna, how you doing?"
"Chuckles? Is anything wrong? You never phone me. I don't even remember the last time you called me."
"I wanted to make sure it was okay if I went up to spend some time at mom and dad's cabin? You guys aren't using it right now are you?"
"I thought you hated the cabin? How long has it been since you were there? Thirty five years? I bet you don't even remember how to find it now."
When Charlie's parents had died, Myrna and her husband Scott had wanted to keep that cabin. Charlie and Gladys had kept a nice lot in town for themselves, and that had been it. Myrna had said at the time that they could use the cabin if they ever wanted to. That had been twelve years before. Until five minutes before, Charlie had never wanted to go back there. It was an hour's drive to the cabin, and Charlie did get all turned around once, but he doubled back until he found a landmark that he remembered. He had spent a lot of summers in that little cabin when he was a boy. He might get turned around, but there was never any question in his mind that he'd be able to find it.
When he did find it, he almost didn't recognize it because of everything that Scott and Myrna had done to it over the past twelve years. It wasn't a little cabin anymore. They had added on so much that he'd never have been sure it was the right place if there wasn't that big log carved out as a bench sitting right in front. His mom had bought it after his dad had died. She had taken pictures of that bench, and sent them as a Christmas card the year before she died herself. The keys were right where Myrna had told him they'd be. He let himself in, and brought in his things from the car. When he checked his cell phone there were thirteen calls from Gladys, and two from Denise, his little girl. She was thirty eight years old, and had two sons and a daughter herself, but she'd always be Charlie's little girl. He hoped that Gladys wasn't dragging the kids into this. That would be all that he'd need. He dialed his home number.
"Charlie, what are you doing? Have you taken leave of your senses? You can't just take off like that, not without saying a word to anybody." Gladys sounded really worried. They had caller ID, so she knew it was him without him saying anything to her.
"I'm over at Scott and Myrna's cabin. I need to take a few days to think about some things. I'll let you know when I've decided what I'm going to do. Did you say anything to Denise? She's tried calling me twice today."
"I called her and asked her if you were there. You left without mentioning where you were going. At first I just thought you went down to the home improvement center for something or other. Why did you pick that old cabin of all places?"