Kind Gestures by S. Webster
Ed Hargood – 9 a.m.
It is just before nine o’clock on Tuesday morning when Ed Hargood, his brother, Glen and three others find themselves standing around a still soft mound of dirt, covering the remains of Gerald Boggs.
The actual funeral for Gerald took place earlier last month inside the Oliver Baptist Church. Ed was beginning to think the funeral was easier than this. In the company of fellow mourners the men were part of a collective whole going through the prescribed ceremonious procedure of public grieving. They could all nod in agreement with the good that was said about Gerald’s life as they blocked out the more personal and less generous thoughts that would start to filter through.
At the funeral they paid their respects to the widow when each embraced her with sympathy and offers of, ‘Just call Ell if there’s something we can do.’ But they doubted she’d ever call any of them. Ed figured that all El wanted then was to experience being by herself in a place she’d had to share for over fifty-seven years with Gerald. After all that time and in particular living with a man like Gerald how could she not want to know what it would be like to be by herself. No, El wouldn’t call any one of them, certainly not any of Gerald’s friends.
She told Jeffy’s wife that she would be fine. She was looking forward to simply being alone and not having any other person’s needs and ideas interfering with the nothingness she was planning for herself – for the next few months anyway. And she was thinking that once the sadness of not having Gerald there had passed, she could do whatever she wanted or more to the point stop doing whatever she did not want to do. No more constantly cooking for a man who never forgot how much better his mother’s food tasted. No more cleaning up after a man who could mess up an entire room just by sitting in one place for an hour. No more washing of clothes that never came clean, still having traces of whatever he ate dribbled down the front with the stench of cigarette smoke. Maybe she’d give the house a good cleaning. Maybe she wouldn’t.
El also said that once all of these casseroles were eaten and the dishes returned, she was going to gather every ripe vegetable out of the garden and make a large pot of soup. No meat. Then she’d eat it for every lunch and dinner until it was gone. And while she ate she’d think of all the other things she was not going to do anymore. Yep, according to what they heard, El was looking forward to having a life that was all her own.
Now it is better than three weeks later and everything’s back to normal at the corner store where they meet up each morning before starting the day. Gerald had been ill for several weeks before he passed so the men were used to his absence by now. Ed noticed how Gerald’s usual place on the bench outside was just eased into by the rest of them spreading out. They were getting used to him not being there, getting used to not looking for him.
But sometimes in a lull of conversation Ed and the others really felt Gerald’s absence. Because it was during pauses like these that Gerald would clear his throat and talk about anything he wanted, whether it connected with an on-going conversation or not – he had the floor. Anyone within six feet of him had to wait until he finished before they could pick up where they left off. Beyond that distance of six feet, you were free to strike up another conversation with someone else, away from that generally acknowledged space that Gerald or anyone else talking held control over. It did not sit well with any of them to interfere or interrupt someone talking. Gerald knew that as well but he was very good at stepping in where others had paused too long in their story or held the foam cup too long at their mouth to take in or expel a brown liquid of coffee or tobacco. Gerald just waited to take his turn for talking during all the pauses.
And so it was that with Gerald’s absence the pauses became longer and some never did get filled in. Ed noticed that he, Glen and the rest of them would just slowly drift out of range of one another and head off to work, off to do errands or just go someplace else.
On one of these occasions of emptiness his brother, Glen, filled in with saying how much he missed Gerald being there. Ed commented on how it was Gerald who always told them what the weather would be that day. No need to look in the paper if Gerald already had, and was either waiting to be asked or the pause when he could slip in his long version of rain or sun.
Jeffy Toggins remembered how he could count on Gerald for a cigarette rather than having to go back out to his truck to get his own and then maybe miss something. Ed wondered why it didn’t occur to Jeffy that he wouldn’t have missed anything anyway. It was always the same – every morning.
But Ed had a feeling that in this simple ritual of meeting up each morning there was a sort of affirmation of who they were in relationship to one another. Gerald passing was like someone had stepped out of line and left a space no one wanted to move into. In this circle of men each one was reminded daily of who and what he was and more importantly who and what he wasn’t. No one wanted to be in the position of being Gerald. And now with him gone there was space left for a shift that could result in an imbalance. Sooner or later one of the men who gathered at the corner would just have to end up there, taking Gerald’s place in the order of things. To be honest, Ed thought, whoever it was going to be would be in the the unenviable position of the one who made the others look better. So to compensate for the space and pause left by Gerald they took to filling those gaps with talk about Gerald. And in a way this put him back there among them. It did not take long before there was more talk about Gerald than anything else.
When he was alive and just one of several guys sitting around, no one paid Gerald much mind. As a matter of fact, most of them found Gerald’s presence somewhat irritating. He had an answer for everything, commented or corrected at will. And the way he parked that old pick-up at any angle out front made it downright impossible at times for them to pump gas. It was irritating. They all thought this and more about Gerald but never once said anything. The most any of them ever said out loud was, “Her comes Gerald.”
Likely one among those left would become the silently selected source of irritation. It simply had to be. It was how things worked, how they gauged their value to each other and themselves.
And now after a few weeks of feeling Gerald’s absence at the corner store, Ed found himself and Glen driving out to the grave site with some of the others close behind. It seemed like a good idea earlier when they were just sitting around drinking the coffee that one of them made according to the directions. So it was probably a caffeine-induced high that got them here. Someone just said, ‘You know, we ought to go see Gerald’. Another group of guys in another part of the country and it would have been a Saturday night after more than just a few beers. But this is the South and most of them are Baptist or close enough and this was how they thought they’d like to share a last respectful moment with one of their own.
So before the dew has dried off five of them have made their way out to the cemetery and are just standing there looking at Gerald’s headstone to avoid looking at each other. Ed has taken the lead in this excursion and is wondering what he should be doing next when Jeffy clears his throat and thanks Gerald for being generous with his smokes. Once it got started the rest of them in turn say things that come to mind about Gerald – most of it good. It feels right and each of them seems glad they took the time to do this. When they are through Ed pats the headstone and steps away. Glen and the others follow walking past other graves and memories as they make their way back to their trucks on the side of the road.
The Hargood brothers are heading back to the store to pick up Glen’s truck and go off in different directions. Glen needs to pick up some migrant workers for a day of baling hay and mending fences and Ed has some errands in town. He starts to pull into the parking lot at the corner store and sees he will have to navigate around George Saunder’s old pick-up just to get his own truck off the street. He looks around and finds the pastor’s son sitting on the bench where Gerald always sat. He and Glen grin at each other and get on their separate ways.