A Storyby Charlie Watts
The very last thing is Dr. Zee sitting in a ladder-back chair of his own making, gumming the sides of his tongue and looking through the bug-stained windows of his cabin at the light caught in the tired leaves of late summer, his hands pressed flat under his thighs so that he does not flinch when his heart stops from nothing more than old age, just a blunt nub of pain that hijacks his breath and folds him forward onto the floor, where the regions of his brain begin to shut down in an orderly sequence, like streetlamps shutting off one after another with the advance of the rising sun, and lying with his face pressed against the floor, he can see, in detail, the scramble of dust motes and dead-bug parts and clay bits and shiny slices of mica, all of them pulsing against each other like sex and crying, hearing at that moment the continuous clear, high note of his dead wife’s laughter as played on a thick steel string until every last vibration ceases and even the jangled, wild electrons come to rest like so many flakes of snow and so, click, goodnight and goodbye to Dr. Zee, who feels guilt and joy and fear and deep, deep forgiveness flowing out through his fingertips, pushed across the screen porch and into the tangled woods by the twitch of itchy cricket wings, the essence of Dr. Zee settling there in the leaves like another layer of dew, ready for the crossing of deer and the weight of wet snow.
Prior to that, Dr. Zee spends years in the woods—more than the years in prison and three more than the years he was married to Aneira—living alone for so long that he becomes a living ghost who walks to town once a month and collects his staples, government leftover groceries from the food pantry and the magazines that get saved for him by the postmistress, whose name is Delaflora and to whom Dr. Zee sometimes smiles as she inquires about his health and asks a series of questions designed to fuel future exchanges with other townspeople as they stop in to mail their bills and pick up Amazon packages, and so Dr. Zee will drop in things for her to work with, like about the copperhead stew he’s making or the crows he’s trained to take away his garbage or the baby bones he’s found in the underground bunker he’s built, none of it having anything to do with his actual monkish life in which he may experience the passage of entire days without moving from the chair at his table other than to urinate on the ferns, there being only the one table and chair in his cabin along with the canvas cot, the upright piano, the cabinet with his cooking tools, and then the refrigerator and the reading lights that run off a buried tank of propane that gets filled every six months by a truck that comes without him calling it, driven by drivers who don’t stop to talk, thankfully, he knows, so that rarely does he have to hide and instead, mostly, he can sit naked on the front porch with his brush and water jar, working through the set of symbols he has devised to represent specific physical and emotional pains, drawing them on the porous pine boards in front of his crossed legs and then waiting for the water to dry, never in any hurry to get to a specific point in the lexicon and instead satisfied to watch his work evaporate, the horseflies landing on his shoulders, their bites like kisses for Dr. Zee, who, of course, is synchronizing the chemical beats of his mind with the actual drip, drip, drip of his real-world life.
Before he goes to the woods for good, Dr. Zee buries his wife, Aneira, in the backyard next to the single-strand electric fence that keeps the old bull named Henry out of their flowers, the animal stamping, tentatively, as Dr. Zee swings the pick to loosen the sod and then shovels, one deep chunk at a time, the red Pennsylvania clay until he has created a tomb seven feet long—Aneira was a very, very tall woman—by three feet wide by five feet deep, the bottom moist and cool and Dr. Zee, working with his shirtsleeves turned up, teases Henry hey you, hey bull, watch over her, won’t you, you ugly old fart, the bull monstrous in size from where Dr. Zee stands in the grave resting his forearms on the lip until he has caught enough wind to pull himself and the shovel up out of the pit and go back to the house to get Aneira, who is wrapped in a quilt made by her Welsh grandmother, the double-paneled cotton hardy enough to allow Dr. Zee to drag his wife’s body through the house and across the weedy grass to the grave and Henry, who is still standing there, chewing on something now, watches as Dr. Zee drops down into the grave and pulls his wrapped-up Aneira over the edge, holding her tight against his chest and then slumping all the way to his butt so that the two of them, husband and wife, are stretched together on the dirt where Dr. Zee can rest his hand on where he thinks Aneira’s quiet heart might be and tell her he has died too, even though he’ll get up and shovel all that sand and clay onto her body and then go back into the house and arrange with the real estate people to come and sell everything so that he can get in his Saab and drive to the woods where they have the cabin and where he will stay because, as he said to Aneira now I think I might know, it being more than he can bear that it took her angry cancer, untouchable by hospital morphine and drugstore bourbon, to get him to understand.
Near the end of Aneira’s life, but before the vomiting and the ice cubes on her temples and the hot-towel compresses on her emaciated, cramped thighs, Dr. Zee rents a motorcycle with a sidecar and lines it with a fake fur blanket so that he can wrap Aneira up before belting her in along with two flasks, one with coffee, one with her favorite bourbon, and for each of them he has a silver-gray helmet with speakers in the ear pads and a microphone so that, surrounded by the roaring wind-rush, they can still talk and that goes from her asking do you suppose we’re paying for something, in this life, that we did in another life and Dr. Zee thinks about this as he leans to his right to keep the Triumph grounded on a curve and Aneira tries unsuccessfully to get the flask up under her helmet for a sip and it comes to him to say we absolutely are and she says so it must have been something awfully bad and he says not bad enough to keep us apart and she oh yes, I see, so you think we were together, before and he, goosing the machine harder now as they climb into the Poconos, I can’t imagine it any other way and then he hears her laugh, a little, and he knows without looking that she’s turned her head inside the awkward helmet to look at him and she says let’s stop for a while so he gears down and when they get to the welcome center at Lake Wallenpaupack he turns off and they park and Aneira unfurls so she can stand and straddle the actual motorcycle, backward, draping her legs over Dr. Zee’s and resting her head on his collarbone and then asking again but why do you think they keep putting us together and he tucks his hands, because they are cold, down the gap in the back of her jeans, making her shiver, and says because, dummy, we haven’t gotten it right yet and she that’s for damn sure and he you can’t give up on me, you know that, right? but she doesn’t say anything to that and Dr. Zee watches as a big black crow picks a drink straw off the gravel in front of the Porta-Potty and flies away.