The Last Thing He Touched by Julie Innis
I moved into the backyard that first summer after David died. Not all at once, but gradually as May bled into June and the ground grew hard and dry. A stack of books left out on the patio table, a blanket and bed pillow on the lawn chair, overturned coffee mugs with the last bits of coffee puddled out, though more often with wine dried red in the bottom. A lone flip-flop, a pair of tennis shoes with laces undone, a few stray socks snaked around the rhododendron. These were my things and I needed them around me. Most people had forgotten me by the start of June—too late for condolence calls, but too soon to avoid having to talk to me about David. As my life settled into a skipping groove, everyone else around me moved forward. Maybe abandoned is too strong a word for how I felt. Who really left me, besides David? I had never been much of a people-person, that was David’s area, and most of the concern I received in the beginning came from David’s friends and David’s family. It’s funny. No one ever talks about the importance of developing friendships as a defense against grief and sorrow. Had I known, perhaps I would have made more of an effort to befriend my co-workers, to keep up with my school pals. But as an instructor of English at a local community college, I was required only to show up, teach my classes, meet with a student or two, and then return home. David called me his little recluse. Opposites attract, a phrase I would highlight as ‘trite’ in any student’s essay, but it was certainly true in our case. David was big in every way, broad, big-hearted David. I am more like a closed fist, knuckled and tight. If I had been more gregarious, more outgoing, more “up” for socializing, perhaps we might have been together that night.
I thought about this a lot that first summer.
My yard suits me, a narrow rectangle bordered by a tall hedge to my left and a waist-high chain link fence woven through in patches with ivy to my right. When I first moved in twenty years ago, with a graduate degree in one hand and a teaching contract in the other, I was too busy to do much with the yard, at that time just a patch of gravel and dirt stubbled here and there with crabgrass. David often joked that he married me for my land, all 400 square feet of it. He built the patio himself, laying in the pavers on a bed of sand, just enough space for a small table with an umbrella and two chairs that folded out and back for reclining. On weekends, David liked to putter in the dirt, using butcher’s string to plot out enough space for the tomatoes to spread, where the marigolds should go, how to keep the zucchini from taking over the beds. He knew how to plant things to give the illusion of depth and, at the height of summer when the garden is in full green, it looks as if you could walk right into the center of things and just keep going.
After I received the phone call telling me that David had died, I walked out to the garden and threw myself down on the freshly-tilled soil, wanting to be close to the last thing he touched. It was mid-April and David had hurried to spade the beds before rushing off to meet some old college friends for a weekend fishing trip in the Sound. The wives were planning to join up with them that Saturday for a late-night fish fry, but I begged out, said I had too much grading to do.
Enjoy yourself, I told him. I’ll see you Sunday, I told him.
Instead he decided to skip the dinner to hurry home to me, a cooler of fish in his trunk. He didn’t suffer, Joyce, I swear, his friend John said. Though the way he said my name told me he was lying.
I don't know what caught my neighbor’s attention that first terrible evening, the sight of me face down in my garden or the sound of my cries. As he stood close to his hedge, calling to me, Joyce, Joyce, Joyce, I thought, at first, it was David's voice, whispering up from the dirt, the seeds, the bulbs, that everything he'd touched would always carry some essence of him back to me. Though Tony sounds nothing like David, I fought for as long as I could to keep my face pressed to the dirt to avoid having to look up and break the illusion.
I've known Tony for as long as I've lived here. Before David, I’d even briefly considered dating him. Tony is a quiet man with warm eyes, attractive enough except maybe for the patchy dark beard he keeps, perhaps, to cover old acne scars that stud his cheeks. But quickly, his tics became evident, the way he looked past me whenever I tried to speak to him on the street, and the fact that he only seemed comfortable talking to me across the hedge between our yards, at first a quaint eccentricity that quickly became a daily habit, Tony's voice a constant low buzz in the background of my life. Weather reports, sale prices from the grocery flyer, news headlines. His presence didn't bother me the way it bothered David, who called him "the nut" when we were inside our house, but outside was always polite and kind. “I am so sorry, Joyce. I liked David very much,” Tony said, reaching across the hedge to touch my hand.
Whereas I count Tony among my closest friends, I have never really tried to get to know the neighbors to the right of me. After the owner passed away ten years ago, her son, stationed at an army base down South, came back for the funeral and stayed long enough to carve his mother’s brownstone into three separate apartments, one on each floor. Tiny kitchens sprang up in old closets and shiny new shower heads hung down over old cast-iron tubs. Within weeks, the house was a rabbit warren of tight hallways and hollow-core doors with deadbolt locks. All of this, David reported back to me, after having made friends with the workmen carrying out the project. “No one would ever want to live there,” I said with great certainty.
David laughed. “Honey,” he said. “You better just stick with academics because you don’t know much about Park Slope real estate.”
He was right, of course, and it quickly became apparent that, as the neighborhood’s popularity grew, everyone wanted to live here, and a constant stream of renters poured in and out of the house.
That summer, a new sublet moved into the first floor apartment, the only one with access to the yard next to mine. A young man with a small child. French. Etienne, he told me as he stood at the fence, one hand raised to me, the other atop the boy’s head, Pascal, a four-year old version of the father, both with well-combed hair and crisp white shirts so bright my eyes hurt to look at them. In the city on assignment for his bank.
“Welcome,” I said with a tight smile and turned my attention back to my work. I was busy grading my student's final essays, once again having waited until the last minute to finish. The department secretaries are used to my tardiness and normally would have left several messages by now asking for my grades, prodding me along, if not for David’s passing. Secretly, I’d been hoping my tardiness would prompt them to call, so strong was my desire for normalcy, routine. Instead, Jan, my department chair, just sent me an email, telling me not to worry, that I should take all the time I needed. “Just fax your grades in when you're done. All things considered, you seem to be holding together well,” she wrote.
In fact, I wasn't holding together well at all. I hadn’t been sleeping much, so in the very early hours of each day, I busied myself with projects. I washed windows, I aired out closets, I folded and refolded old sheets. I went through all the drawers and gathered together every piece of paper, every scrap, every post-it I could find that David ever wrote, even his scribbles from the pad by the phone. These I bundled into a small stack and tucked into the drawer by my bed.
I wiped down counters, I dusted books, I stacked and restacked the china. I swept up small piles of hairs from the bathroom floor, reaching into corners and behind the toilet with my fingertips, holding up each hair in the bright glare of the bathroom light and sorted them. Most were mine, but those that weren’t, I added to my drawer.
I ironed, I scrubbed, I whitened the grout. I went through the kitchen cupboards, pulling out boxes of crackers, jars of spice, baking mixes, sampling every powder, jelly, sauce, every jar David had ever opened and every food David had loved, until my stomach ached. I craved pain, would sit in the bathroom mirror, pulling at stray eyebrows, then when this was no longer an option, I pulled at the hairs on my arms, my legs, my eyes welling up with each tug.
Nights I held tight to my ribcage, and with each breath, I felt my bones softening. Mornings I examined my face in the mirror for further proof of disintegration, dark bruises bleeding out from under my eyes, the skin around my mouth chapped, my pads of my cheeks slackening. I was only forty-four, but had aged ten years overnight.
This I did for too many weeks in a row, willing myself to die every night only to find myself still alive every morning, when the first slice of sun came through the window, cutting across my face and I was forced up into another day. If it weren’t for Tony calling out to me in the mornings as I sat with my coffee in the yard, I’d suspect I was no longer here, a ghost hollowed out by grief and longing.
That summer, I got it into my head that what I needed was a tan. A tan would crisp my skin, tighten it up, redefine my borders, I thought. Tanning, I reasoned, would give me a renewed sense of purpose when most days I was too exhausted to do anything else but stretch out on the lawn chair, some book in hand I had yet to read, sometimes a bottle of water by my side, sometimes a bottle of wine. A tan was work, I thought, and I needed something to work on. So one afternoon, I started working on my tan.
And it was pleasant, at first, dozing in the sun, moving only to lift my hand to my face to brush away an occasional fly or two. Far away, I could hear children playing, splashing water, their shouts muffled. Next door, Tony was cleaning his barbecue grate, the methodic scraping soothing, lulling me into a torpor. In that moment of drifting, I managed to completely forget who I was and what had brought me here.
Then suddenly, something soft and sticky landed on top of my feet. I was just on the verge of slipping fully into a nap, so it took me a moment to shake my head clear. There were raisins all around my chair. I looked down at the raisins and then over at Pascal, the neighbor boy, who stood, watching me through the fence.
I've never been the sort of woman to pay much attention to children. I do not sneak peeks into baby carriages nor do I smile bemusedly at the antics of children in my favorite restaurants. So though I’d seen the boy playing in the yard over the past few weeks since they moved in, his presence really hadn’t registered with me until just then, as I stared back at him. The boy stood, looking through the fence, with his belly pushed forward, a thumb tucked into the belt loop of his shorts and a pair of white underwear stretched on top of his head, the elastic waistband snapped tight at brow level. I thought for a moment that he looked a bit like a foreign legionnaire, but then wasn’t sure if I thought this because it was true or because the kid was French. It may have been a little of both. "What do you think you are doing?" I yelled at him.
"Raisins," Pascal said, extending his hand toward me, a mound of raisins in his palm that he proceeded to toss over the fence to join the other raisins at my feet.
"It is very rude to throw things at people," I said, standing up from my chair to better assess the situation. But Pascal just continued to stare at me as he lifted a slice of bread for me to inspect.
"It's got raisins," he said. For some reason, I found myself leaning in for a closer look at the pockmarks in the bread slice where raisins once were. Then, seeming satisfied that I understood, he stuck the bread in his mouth and walked away.
"You are a very bad little boy and you are wasting perfectly good raisins," I called after him, but he did not seem to hear me as he disappeared into the house.
Had Pascal been the sort of child who liked to sit and read books, perhaps we might have gotten past the raisin incident, but in the days that followed, Pascal made it exceedingly clear that sitting quietly was anathema to him. Instead, he preferred to run around in circles, whooping, galloping, singing in broken-English and most often half-naked from the waist down.
"Maybe it's a French thing," Tony mused from his side of the hedge.
"Maybe it's a feral thing," I replied.
Had it not been that first summer, I would have simply retreated inside to avoid further confrontation. But inside I still wasn’t sleeping well and when I did, I had terrible dreams, dreams that I’d wake from with a start, gasping, the walls suddenly too close, the room tight and airless. Outside, there were still the dreams, but at least outside I could breathe, out here in our yard, surrounded by the things David had planted.
Unfortunately it seemed that Pascal had a similar plan of backyard habitation. By ten most mornings, he'd be outside constructing a tent out of beach towels draped over lawn chairs. Around noon, he’d break for a snack, then shed his pants for a quick dash through the sprinkler. By two, he’d reach peak form, tossing all manner of substances over my fence—cherry pits, orange rinds, tiny cubes of cheese, whatever his little grubby hands could seize—never directly hitting me, but always trying to see how close he could come.
This was our little game. As a child, I had been taught that the best way to deal with bullies was by ignoring them. So each day, I tried to ignore the rain of Pascal’s detritus for as long as I could until, seething with rage and frustration, I'd snap, shouting obscenities at the top of my lungs and spraying him with my garden hose.
"Who could blame you? He’s a holy terror," Tony said one afternoon after a particularly loud outburst. Of course I was not proud of my behavior, which failed to produce the desired effect anyway. Pascal loved my shouts and screamed with delight whenever I reached for the hose.
My attempts to communicate with Pascal’s nanny failed as I struggled to parse together enough French words that appropriately represented my anger. At best, I conveyed that I thought Pascal was bad, very bad, to which the nanny, a pinched-faced young girl with long hair she spent hours plaiting and unplaiting while Pascal danced circles around her, replied with only a shrug. “He is little, he love to play,” she said in halting English.
“Where is his father? His pere, his pere?” I demanded.
“No, no, away,” she said, waving her hand in front of her face.
And so, though I was exhausted, I gave up on my afternoon naps, forcing myself instead to stay alert, straight-backed in a lawn chair in the corner of my yard farthest away from Pascal, one eye at all times on the boy. And in this way, I moved forward.
Until, much to my surprise, one day passed without Pascal throwing anything at me, then another, and then a third, until finally it was clear that he had moved on from me in favor of afternoons spent digging in the flowerbeds that ringed their yard. I’d like to think I had something to do with this shift. On days I spent tending to David’s garden, I had sensed Pascal watching me and now as he sat in his own little plot of soil, digging at the dirt with a stick he’d found, I wondered if perhaps I had somehow managed to inspire him and for the first time, I felt a little warmth for the boy.
Though, to be honest, it was more likely that the return of his father had promoted this change in Pascal. The weekend prior, I finally had the opportunity to speak to Etienne when I found him out in the yard, hoeing the border, a flat of impatiens next to him and Pascal ready with a trowel. He was pleasant enough, again, shaking my hand across the fence as Pascal looked on and then apologized to me for any trouble his son had caused. “The nanny explained everything and Pascal has been punished,” he said with a sigh. I nodded. It seemed petty to persist, so I just told him that I hoped Pascal and I were through our adjustment period and I wished him well with his plantings.
"Might be too late to plant anything," Tony said to me later that afternoon. He was right, of course. It had been a very hot, dry summer so far and without proper tending, most plants would simply wilt then die in the heat.
A few nights later though, a strong rain passed through and soaked the ground thoroughly. That next morning, four days into our truce, I watched as Pascal busied himself in the flower beds, his hands and knees muddy, another pair of briefs snapped tight to his brow. In one hand he held a yellow pail, with the other he was delicately plucking earthworms from the wet soil.
"You should leave those in the ground," I said to him. Who knows what he understood, he just looked at me for a moment, smiled, and then continued his search. I smiled as well and returned to my book, figuring it was good he was showing an interest in nature and besides, what was the harm? We had entered a new era, Pascal and I, and all was right in our respective yards.
But the next morning as I walked out outside with my paper and a mug of coffee, I found a large number of worms, dried out, on my chair. "This is too much," I told myself, and as I swept the worms into a cone of newspaper, I knew I had to confront Etienne with evidence of Pascal’s deeds. I didn’t feel good about this plan. We had already exchanged our pleasantries and I really wanted no further communication. He did not know of my circumstances and I did not know of his. I preferred it this way. But, now at his front door with worms in hand, I was at a loss as to what to say. Telling him that his child was a terrible child who was making my life hell seemed perhaps too extreme. Telling him that I was grieving and wanted to be left alone felt too naked. There was, of course, a middle ground, but I’d long since lost sight of it. By the time Etienne opened the door, I had the paper spread out on his doormat with the worms in a neat pile in the center. "Please, please tell your son to stop bothering me," I said, barely able to get my voice out through my tightening throat.
Etienne stood, staring at the worms and then at me. Pascal appeared from behind him, and also stared at the worms. "They dried out, he put them on my chair and they died," I tried to explain, gesturing at Pascal.
Etienne looked past me, wearily it seemed, and rubbed at his brow. “I am very sorry. This is not acceptable,” he said in a quiet voice. Then he turned to Pascal and let loose a stream of French, none of which I could understand, but which had a profound effect on Pascal, who promptly began crying. Not the babyish crying of a child in the midst of throwing a tantrum or the wailing sobs of a child who has skinned a knee, but the silent crying when tears slide down your cheeks, your lips a quivering tight line. Etienne knelt down in front of his son, placing his hands on Pascal's small shoulders. More French, this time soft and quiet. Pascal nodded his head and whispered the only word of French I could understand,"oui."
Etienne then stood and turned back to me. "Pascal did not realize the worms would die. He is very sorry. I will make sure that he will not bother you again." He paused and looked at me. “You are upset, please, come inside," he said, reaching for my elbow.
"No, no," I said, crying harder now. I wanted to protest that, no, Pascal could bother me all he wanted, that this was just an unfortunate misunderstanding. Instead I turned and ran back to my house. I did not know how to explain what I wanted. I only knew that I didn't want what I had.
David had always wanted children, but I was never as sure. We'd talked about maybe trying in a year or two, or possibly adopting. Instead, he died, the front end of his car crumpled against a concrete embankment. No alcohol, no signs of other cars, no wet pavement. Most likely, he'd fallen asleep at the wheel, hurrying back to me, after a long day spent under the hot sun. He didn’t suffer, everyone tried to assure me, but in my nightmares, he is always awake at the moment of contact, eyes open, his fingers spread out in front of his face.
Later that morning, I stood at my kitchen window, watching Etienne and Pascal in their backyard, Etienne passing Pascal the worms from the newspaper packet, and Pascal pushing each one back into the ground like little twigs, his face bright and smiling as he looked up at his father. I watched them until I could not watch them anymore.
Things with Pascal calmed down after that. The weeks passed quickly, and soon it was Labor Day. A colleague-friend called with an invitation for a cook-out. “Last chance to enjoy ourselves before fall semester starts,” she said and I agreed, though it was strange to be away from my yard for so long.
When I got back home that night, I stepped out onto my patio, where I found everything as I had left it. Everything except for the addition of one small yellow truck sitting exactly in the center of my chair. I knelt down beside the chair and with my index finger, pushed the truck around in a few circles, then picked it up and ran it along the palm of my hand as I stood, looking next door, hoping for signs of Pascal, but finding none. The yard was empty, the windows dark and quiet. Summer ends, sublets end.
That night, I slept without dreaming, the little truck parked in the drawer next to my bed.
Many months have since passed and an older couple has moved in to the apartment next door. Tony says it may be permanent, though I know few things ever are. The couple and I share a glass of wine every so often, and several times I have been on the verge of telling them all about Pascal, but then decide against it. Still, I think of him from time to time, wondering what sort of man he’ll be. Wondering if he is beginning to understand the things I do not.
Julie Innis lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her stories have appeared in Pindeldyboz, Fogged Clarity,The Legendary, Slush Pile Magazine, and Seven Letter Words, among others.