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Authors: Derek Rempfer

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Hearts Left Behind

BOOK: Hearts Left Behind
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HEARTS LEFT BEHIND

by

Derek Merrill
Rempfer

Text copyright © Derek
Merrill
Rempfer

All Rights Reserved

To all of you I love.

For all of you I miss.

Old
Things

I do like old things.

They tell stories of times and travels. 
A table with a scratch in it.
  A creased and crumpled
photograph that makes the captured child
look
impossibly young and implausibly old at the same time.  An old woman whose
eyes have seen more than her mind can recall or her tongue can speak of. 
Tales are told in the scratches and in the colors and in the eyes of old
things. 
Tales of trials and triumphs, of growth and
experience.
  To forget these stories is to lose part of our
history, part of ourselves.  I have a very difficult time letting go of
old things.  They bring me comfort and so I visit them when I can or when
I need to.

After Ethan’s death, I sought the comforts of Willow
Grove and all of its old things.  But rather than make peace with that new
hurt, I instead aggravated an old one.  And though my intent was to push
Ethan into the past, I instead brought Katie back from it.  It was a
strange and improbable path.  Not to justice, but to truth at least. 
And for some, even redemption.  It’s easy to see all that now, still not
so easy to understand or accept.  People tell you that it brings a higher
purpose to Ethan’s death and as much as you want to believe that, the truth is
that you haven’t found any more comfort in this death of higher purpose than in
any other death.  Higher purpose or not, there is still less to your life
than there had been or might have been

You still have nightmares, but you still wake up.  And while joy has
returned, the sorrow sustains.  Still and forever the sorrow sustains because
he is not with you. 

This is how you feel when Ethan was your son.

 

There is an old couple that lives in an old house in a
little town in the Midwest.  The old couple is my grandparents and the
house is my childhood home, which they bought back into the Gaines family when
my mom remarried.  The town is Willow Grove, Illinois and it is where I
attended my first day of kindergarten, my last day of high school, and all
school days in between.  On its sidewalks I have walked as a son and as a
father.  On its streets I have pulled my Radio Flyer and driven my Dodge
Caravan.  In its open fields I have lain.  The town remembers me and
like a lonely old man it reminds me of my forgotten stories whenever I
visit.  I have come to this place more times than I have left it and
I
suspect this is how it will always be. 
For my childhood still lives and breathes in the green grasses and
the tall trees of this my hometown.

 

It was a Saturday in early May and the weather was
warm.  The citizens of Willow Grove were outside planting flowers,
painting shutters, riding bikes.  As I drove through town I recognized
faces, but did not wave.  Tried to not even look, but couldn’t help
myself.  The Abbot’s house, once pea green was now sweet corn
yellow.  The Huber’s driveway was freshly blacktopped.  A few other
changes here and there, but mainly everything was the same as it ever was.

Running north-to-south are streets First through
Sixth.  Running east-to-west on the north side of town are the President
streets: Washington, Adams, Madison, Monroe.  South of the tracks are the
streets with sturdy old Willow Grove family names:
Orput
,
Kelsey,
Sprague
.  Not a stoplight or even a stop
sign for that matter – only a handful of rusty yield signs on the east-west
paths. 

The Willow Grove United Methodist Church sits on the
corner of Third and Sprague and as I approached it I saw two black cats in the
middle of that intersection – dead and dead.  Good thing I don’t believe
in omens.  Still, I took a right turn rather than pass over those cats
because I also don’t
not
believe in omens.

Old Man Keller came rolling down the middle of Fourth
Street on his Cub Cadet like he owned the road and I suppose an argument could
be made that he does.  That old lawn tractor has probably logged more hours
on these streets than any other vehicle in town history.  Keller stopped
that Cub Cadet in its tracks and waved for me to slow down. 

“How you
doin
’, Tuck?” he
yelled over a sputtering engine. 

“Oh, all right, I guess. 
How
about you?”

“Good, good,
doin

good.  Well, I heard you might be coming back for a stay.  It’ll be
nice seeing you around.”

I spent too many years in Willow Grove to be surprised
by Old Man Keller knowing about my visit. 
“Yep.
 
I’ll see you around,” I said, pulling away.

Nice enough old
guy
, Keller,
but I sure couldn’t imagine living his grass-mowing life.  His wife was a
nurse at the county hospital so I guess cutting grass in the summer and plowing
snow in the winter paid enough for the Old Man and the Old Woman.  I have
often wondered what kind of thoughts the Old Man has riding atop that
tractor.  Plenty of time for thinking, that’s for sure.  At some
point, you’ve got to figure he asked the good Lord what his life’s purpose was
and the answer he got back was
Cut
the grass, Alvin
.  You would think, though, that after enough
time a man would come to care for something greater than a well-cut yard.

Rather than cross them, I slowed to a stop on the
railroad tracks that divide the town and I took long looks each way, wondering
where those trains ever come from and where they ever go.  The trains
never stop in Willow Grove, they just roar through.  It was along these
tracks that Katie Cooper’s body had been found so many years ago, and as my
eyes lingered on the empty landscape of rock and weed, a gruesome slideshow
played in my head.  Images of blood and flesh my mind fabricated long ago
to fit with the stories I had heard. 
Katie’s half-naked
body lying in the
tall grass, a cluster
of interested crows cawing from the telephone wires above.
  Her
eyes open wide in a dead stare and her mouth agape, framed by blood-crusted
lips.  Those green eyes had looked into mine countless times.  Those
pretty lips had kissed my cheek just once.

Off in the distance, a single light flickered like a
solitary star.  Maybe it was Katie, or perhaps Ethan.  Who could
know?  The light grew larger, moved toward me.   Loud bells
ding-ding-dinged and the crossing gates started to lower.  I let my foot
off the brake and rolled off the tracks, just under one of the gate’s falling
arms. 

Up ahead of me old Abigail Simpson stepped out of the
post office with a package and a grimace.  Sunnier than sunny and there’s
the Widow Simpson walking around with an umbrella.  She used it as a
walking cane, of course, but you just knew the dour old crank was hoping for
rain.  I wondered whether it was the same umbrella that she swung at me
and Charlie when she caught us egging her house on Halloween way back
when.  The fact that the Widow was even still alive was a marvel in itself. 
She must be a hundred.  We always called her the Widow Simpson even though
she’d never been married.  Never had kids or probably even a family, we
figured. 
Probably just crawled out of the ground one
day and started hating things.
  You see a woman like that and you
wonder why God doesn’t just bundle up all the world’s evils and pains into an
Abigail Simpson care package and drop it off on her doorstep.  I never
used to understand how someone could choose to be so hateful, but I understand
better now.  There’s a kind of strength that is most easily reached from
inside of hate.  Makes you feel like you can take on just about anything
you might come across.

As I passed the house where Grandma and Grandpa
Mueller had lived, I waved at the front window where they used to sit.  My
mother’s parents have come and gone from this life and they watched a good
portion of it from that window.  I’m not sure who it is sitting there now,
but this is Willow Grove so they wave back and their meaningless little gesture
softens me some.

 

I slowed my car to a stop on the blacktop driveway
that had once been yard enough that I had to mow in the summer and gravel
enough that I had to shovel in the winter.  It’s been
a few years, but as I got out of my car and stepped
into the backyard, I could still see a worn-out patch of grass that used to
serve as the batter’s box for what must have been a Guinness Records-worthy
number of
wiffle
ball games.  Between home plate
and the pitcher’s mound, however, there was now a not-quite mature maple tree
that my dad planted on Mother’s Day a few years back.  As much as I loved
the stately old elms that preside over the front yard, this tree was an
interloper and it no more belongs here than it would behind second base at
Wrigley Field. 

I walked behind the garage where Mom used to hang our
clothes out to
get
sun
dry
.  The capital Ts still stand tall, but they are rusty and there
aren’t any clotheslines connecting them anymore.  They just stand there
empty-armed, staring at each other.

The stairs leading up to the second-story sun porch
thirst for paint and would easily soak up two or three coats.  Hell, they
should probably just be torn down.  Yes, just tear them down and let that
sun porch stand tall and alone on the four strong wooden beams rising up out of
the ground

A
place to hide high above the ground, between the heavens and the Earth and with
windows to every sky but the Southern.
 

It was s
uch a
warm secret of a room.  Grandma once told me that this house had served as
the home and office of the town doctor many years ago.  The story goes
that the doctor had a daughter who had contracted tuberculosis and was unable
to leave her bed, much less the house.  The doctor had the sun porch built
so his little girl could spend her waking (and dying) hours nearer to the
outdoors that she so loved and missed.  I didn’t hear that story until
many years after I’d moved out of the house and I’m glad because it would have
made the room something other than it was for me. 

The little girl supposedly died in that room, but you
can’t feel it.  You don’t feel the hopelessness of the little girl who
died in that room.  You feel the love of the father who built it. 
Surely it was a desperate and helpless love at the time, but not anymore. 
Now it is simply love in its purest form.  Still, I can see the mourning
father defiantly pouring his heart, his soul and all things earthly into
providing his dying child a warm room closer to the heavens but still within
his reach.  Like some sort of desperate compromise offered to God with
knee bent and fist
raised

May this room stand
forever.

Such a beautiful place to be, that
sun porch.
 
A beautiful place to be, this home.
 
I was beginning to feel connected to something for the first time in weeks and
it only took one walk around this yard.  It was like taking a trip inside
myself
and walking around my heart.  It was a place I
wanted to stay
and a feeling I wanted to
keep.  Willow Grove was a place where you could remember what you wanted
to remember and forget what you wanted to forget.  I was here to do both.

The rumble of a nearby lawn mower jogged me back to
awareness.  I made a mental note of the sun porch stairs and continued my
pilgrimage.

 

There is
a quiet
nobility
about this house and a stateliness that assumes your respect more than commands
it.  Like an old man to his grandchild, the house appears larger than it
really is.  There are many rooms in this grandfather of a home, but almost
all are tiny and awkward, making it a home that feels big and small all at
once.  I love this house, but I suppose most people would find the
sleeping quarters cramped and unsuitable, lacking the space to store our many
modern treasures.  This house was built for a generation more concerned
with filling their stomachs than their closets.  Still, you can feel it
wrap its arms around you when you enter and you know that you’re in a safe
place. 

I walked inside and found Grandma and Grandpa in the
living room sitting where they sit and doing what they do, her knitting in her
chair and him on the couch reading a magazine with a hooked fish on the
cover.  The television was not on, but I could hear the local news from
the kitchen radio.  Savory smells floated in from the kitchen.

“I was beginning to wonder if you
was
lost,” Grandma said, putting her knitting to the side and greeting me with a
hug. 

“Hi, Grandma,” I said, bending to kiss her.  “No,
not lost, just taking a look around, you
know

Those back stairs could use some paint.”

“Yep, it’s on your list,” she said.

“List?”

“Oh, she’s got a whole list of things for you to do,”
Grandpa said, rising to shake my hand and clasping a strong hand on my
shoulder.  He tipped back in an exaggerated manner and looked up at me
like he was staring up a California Redwood.  “My
goodness, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to having to look up at you,
Tuck.  At least I’m still better looking.”

BOOK: Hearts Left Behind
12.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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