Mr. Atlas died ages ago, in the afternoon.
He was sitting with one leg crossed over the other in a wrought-iron patio chair. The bricks beneath were herring bone, delicately coordinated with the design of the garden. A copy of Celestial Sphere gently slid from his fingers and the spine slapped the ground with the watery snap of glossy magazine pages. His eyes lost focus, and his flesh, at the onset of twilight, grew cold. Somehow, it was as if he had simply turned to stone, passing from husband to monument between two carefully trimmed juniper bushes in a garden designed by his wife.
No immediate cause was determined which, of course, suggested nothing more vicious than “natural cause.” Perhaps causes? Who’s to say, really; there is a sort of natural elegance in waking one day, as alive as a slick fish, then ending it as cool as a patio in the shade.
Mrs. Atlas discovered the cadaver to be cold and content. A strange smile was spread across his lips. His shoulders, at long last, had relaxed, the same shoulders that his neighbors had wrongly traced to his redemptive work ethic when, in fact, he led a sometimes tortured life. His work oppressed him, chained him dutifully to a fate of mechanistic endurance that culminated in the imperceptible shift to a stopped iron machine. Punctuality from nine to five didn’t even figure in to what Mr. A did. But only his wife ever knew this. The neighbors just smiled and made friendly comments that said nothing.
They had trouble fitting such breadth into his casket. The shoulders were hereditary–genetic, even, and he juggled a shifting mass of different weights, some no more than the empty space between chasmic thoughts. It didn’t always seem heavy but it was pendulous — perhaps even more than Mrs. A ever realized.
They never told her, but the mortician gently tapped his clavicle with a chisel until it splintered. Shortly after midnight, they arched his shoulders like the buckle that crowns the gable of a roof to stuff him into the casket. When she looked in on their work sometime around dawn, they had to ensure her with petting motions that he was indifferent about his burial. They had to plead that she not find fault with their choices.
But she noticed, oh, she noticed with a stiffness in her lip. Her lack of a smile was disdain. They had preserved him for eternity with his shoulders cracked into an unnatural shrug.
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That night was one of those big celebrations where fireworks reinforce tradition. There was no evening breeze, and there were no clouds.
The moon was a thin, little slit that fireworks obscured with smoke. Ear-splitting pops punctuated Mrs. A’s restrained and breathy sobs. Each pop reverberated. Each was thunderous, accompanied by a flash. A parlor thunderstorm tethered to a divan with a leash pierced her melancholy with each successive burst of white. The low rumbles rattled bits of dust and plaster from the walls as Mrs. A sat, alone, in her living room. Her hand clutched a damp kercheif to her chest, the damp corner resting wetly on her clavicle.
The ceremony would be the next day. The pews would be full of people. Remnants of the celebration would lubricate their grief. Wreathed darkly in fatigue, their deep-set eyes would be teary before they even heard the news. It made crying easier and the extinguished cinders gently settled like snow, completing the final segment of their descent from the festivities of the evening before.
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His house, though, thanks to the work of his dutiful wife, remains to this day more or less the same. She has taken great pains to preserve the character of the place. But despite her fierce commitment to the way things are, Mrs. A has had to make a few changes, here and there.
She installed a fire alarm, for example. An extra freezer in the basement. A carbon monoxide detector for the master bedroom.
She stopped sitting in the armchair, though, because she became convinced it would be fatal. It was an antique treasure from the Second Empire when Napoleon was just subdividing into a legacy — well, it was a recreation, a period piece. It was made of ornate carved wood and deep velvet that receded into perfectly anchored buttons that somehow held the whole thing together. From a distance, one wouldn’t even notice that the velvet was polyester — the recycled life of some old 2-liter Coke bottles. One wouldn’t notice that the wood was pine already beginning to split. The terror that she could so shortly follow her husband tethered her, standing, to the living room. There, with nothing but browning astronomy magazines and a television, she paced back and forth. She traced delicate plans in midair with an extended finger to renew her approach to life.
But still, it wasn’t long before she fell prey to the late night sermon of a man with a red tie on a TV infomercial. Fire and brimstone, carbon and oxygen combined in a consumptive trigger that won her over. She pounded the 900 number onto the keys with her gnarled old fingers.
The detector was a gift, almost. The needy, beeping remnant of her grief. It became advertising’s one victory over these two austere, domestic titans. Sure, she had seen ads before. She always thought they were silly and saw through efforts to strain memory like a bicep and a dumb bell.
Each of Mrs. A’s changes was minute and calculated. It was necessary.
A visitor to the house would notice none of changes, even in light of the careful planning. She envisioned the kind of modern house where everything is sleek. The kind of house where a summer breeze sweeps through with a hollow groan — no curtains to rustle, no papers anywhere to upset. An interior as unornamented and as elegant as the desert.
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Her backyard, which was already specious, has changed a great deal. It is impeccably kept. She even cuts the grass with scissors.
Mrs. A is an amateur gardeness, you see. She has set up a lengthy and rigorous system of small innovations to fit her yard to a grandiose garden scheme that she is constantly devising. She makes small plans that contribute to larger ones. In this way she creates a chain of progressions that blossoms with each plan.
A neighbor once jokingly chided her that she’d landscape the globe if she could — but the humor was lost on her, so she simply affected a courteous smile and a gentle nod.
She always has something in the works. Something is always soiling her fertile hands with the wet, black dirt.
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Her neighbors, longtime friends on either side, come around regularly to chat with her. Their relationships have grown with the children. Inevitably, they become independent, as these relationships hit their twenties. Neighbors like these begin to blend genealogies. Neighborhood takes on a life all its own.
One leans on the interior of the low wooden fence he built a decade ago. He peers over, keeping a careful eye on his widowed friend. Another joins Mrs. A for a drink on her deck every second day after a lunar tide. (That one has a little sailboat in the backyard with its mast peeking over the fence). The thin, wood-plank fence divides her life rigidly from loneliness. Despite her circumstance, she is comfortable among friends. Despite the hullabaloo about widowhood, she’s got things to do on the weekends, events that qualify as parties.
The chat, whenever it happens, is slow and smooth. As hollow but pleasant as the rustle of fiery leaves from an idle breeze in early autumn. One is always interested in Mrs. A’s designs, in her designations, because she thinks them through down to the smallest detail. From the contours of each path to the texture or translucence, the density and variety of each leaf. Every decision is watchful, pregnant with balance and attention.
The two of them will stay up late in Mrs. A’s dining room. They pour over blueprints together with untouched glasses of ruby wine. Mrs. A’s brow is furrowed in critique as she puzzles over a slight imbalance. Her neighbor looks on in awe, mouth agape, at the way each branch has been drawn, the presence of every pebble along the path, each blade of grass in the drawings.
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Mrs. A is, in short, something of a detail freak. The slightest imbalance sometimes sends her storming out of her study, trailing debris behind her. Little chunks heaped in unsightly piles by rage. A path of muddy footprints that merge and trail wrathfully like a mythic river across the white carpet in her living room.
When Mrs. A sees something she can fix, little can stand in her way. She would knock down a fence — perhaps flatten a neighboring house or rend the whole block into a cliffside, if it came to that. Meanwhile, her guest praises her vaguely abstract virtues like intricacy, tenacity, clarity, her impressive control of the medium, her picturesque layouts.
On more than one occasion, one has come to verify her safety — for they understand the delicacy of widowhood — only to find her gleefully wearing her sunglasses and one of her wide-brimmed hats while she roasts a foiled garden plan over charcoal with a pair of velvet dull steel tongs. Failure is a personal milestone marked with flames and a sense of release. For synchronization’s sake or perhaps to commune with an unknown regime of retired gods, Mrs. A tries to line this roast up with the wildfires and the prairie burnings that used to happen naturally, before the days when crickets would not (refuse to) cease on quiet nights. The empty feeling of coincidence, at least, lets her feel justified, sprinkles naturality on her grief like salt.
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One has just arrived punctual and smiling. Occasionally, caught in a wave of generosity, one might bring a pie.
Sometimes it is bought in a store. Presented, complete, with a limp crust and a disposable tin pan. This gesture depends, in sentimentality, on foresight.
The other may stop by with regularity, holding short conversations with Mrs. A. In both cases the unwritten code of neighborliness is no more than an excuse for checking on her continued lucidity. Both neighbors have long since resolved to find her contented and stable, which is what they seek. And where everything validates their desire to see nothing out of place, the neighbors on each side live the life of jigsaw puzzles that never received their cuts.
Mrs. A, of course, is no stranger to hospitality, to gentility, to that unwritten pact of nearby bungalows. She smiles and engages both (though rarely together). She rises early, cleans impeccably and wears ribbons from the Cordon Bleu in Paris. She sees dialogues on the rims of differently shaped wine glasses. She laughs heartily. She is radiant and will invite one over for a drink. Out of sheer politeness, one might accept.
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It is early fall. The two of them are sitting on Mrs. A’s deck. They sip chilled Ouzo, tilting their heads back to savor each drop of the cool, anise liqueur.
Mrs. A is wearing a hat. The weaving of the brim is loose. Dappled sunlight trembles across her face. The two of them sit in silence, staring out over Mrs. A’s garden as it sits completed for today.
Some of the leaves have wilted at the edges. Browning flower petals dot the paths like splotches baked into arms by the sun. The little lesions that spoil the color on the flesh of overripe fruit. A thin smile, imperceptible, crosses Mrs. A’s lips.
Her guest makes a vague, best-to-date compliment. That one uncomfortably thinks “any progressions are good progressions, I guess.” One does not remember her entire plan. One cannot appreciate how nimbly the torsions decorating her fingers still work.
Mrs. A just smiles that smile. She swishes her glass along an exactly, circular trail. With aggression that only she would notice, she watches an aphid trace exactly his path along a rose’s stalk.
Mrs. A has very sharp vision.
The glass glides on a trail that is just slightly irregular — a tilt so gentle it might’ve been responsible for the change in seasons. The motion is measured and precise; the rustle and clink are form and substance for a wordless exchange. There is a distantly passing car, the faint hum of a bee, the groan and creak of old wood as their feet burden the deck. Suddenly, Mrs. A lifts her glass for a final gulp — a hint to dismiss the neighbor so that she can be alone, so that she can enjoy her last days in solitude. With the sudden movement, a droplet of perspiration slides from the glass and splatters darkly on the deck. It darkens the wood to scarlet where it soaks in. The two of them sit in silence while the Antarctica-shaped ice cube at the bottom of this thing we call a tumbler slowly melts.