Thanaptosis

Arne was an engineer, his head as full of formulas, calibrations and calculations as old-fashioned Swiss watches were full of gears and cogs.  One had to hold those fine timepieces up to one's ear to hear them tick.  It was no easier to discern what moved Arne Johnson.

Except that friends knew it was Olga who had been for more than three decades his mainspring and balance-wheel in his interactions with the world.  His reticence belied his rugged Nordic good looks.  When new acquaintances pronounced his name in two syllables, he did not know how to correct them inoffensively, so he gradually became Arnie to all but Olga.  When foursomes gathered for an evening of cards, he usually won -- not because he read faces as people drew cards or studied their hands, but because he remembered every card played, the data filed in his cranial computer. He took little part in conversations.

Unless the topic was a computer problem, in which case he listened attentively, his face suddenly alive, blue eyes bright behind those rimless glasses, asking a few questions, then solving the problem, impatiently repeating the solution while people tried to write it down on whatever paper came to hand.

“I am an unlovable technocrat engineer,” he told Pastor Norquist once in a private conversation that was more like the confessional he was told Catholics had.  “Olga’s love is a miracle.”

“A miracle from God,” the pastor said.

“Well, yes, perhaps.”  Arne dutifully accompanied Olga to church every Sunday without abandoning his preference for objectively demonstrable facts.  “We’ve been together thirty-five years.”

“I remember; I married you.  You were established in your profession; she was just out of college.  A lovely bride.”

“As pretty today.”

“Yes.  A pillar of the church, and of the community.  You must be proud of her.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without her.”

So it was little wonder that Arne was overwhelmed by her death a few months after that conversation, let alone being overcome by the manner of her death.  At the wake, he numbly endured four hours of weeping condolences from people whose names he couldn’t remember.  He wished Olga could whisper in his ear who they were.  He was silently grateful that they had decided years ago on cremation when the time came:  He could not have coped with an open casket displaying an embalmer’s efforts to repair the terrible damage.

The funeral service was even more emotional.  The church overflowed with parishioners, former students and fellow teachers.  "So like Olga Johnson," Pastor Norquist reflected from the pulpit.  "She died, as she had lived, helping others."   Everyone knew the story, and there were amens and tears as he told it:  "She saw a woman across the park being abused at knifepoint, came to the woman's assistance, and became herself the victim of that knife.  She is with God now."

Arne sat stoically, ramrod upright, expressionless save for lifting his glasses to blot his eyes with a handkerchief.  He looked old:  In the few days since her death his hair had begun to turn white.  There would be no graveside ceremony.  Olga had arranged space for them in her family’s plot, but he could not stand the thought of interring the urn.  He took it home from church and put it on the kitchen counter for the time being.

In the weeks that followed, their friends brought casseroles until he asked them to stop because the fridge and freezer were full.  He warmed the dishes in the microwave one at a time, hardly noticing the smells of tuna or ham or cheese as the appliance hummed, and ate them absently for both breakfast and dinner.  The friends invited him for dinners or evenings, but he declined.  He and Olga had often watched television comedies, but before sleep came each night he spent the time reading engineering reports, a single-minded automaton.

"You ought to take that cruise," his next-door neighbor Eric urged.  "It would do you good to get away.  I know another widower who could use her ticket, if you wanted company."  But Arne cancelled the reservation that was to have been the start of retirement years full of travel, and persuaded the company to let him work a few years longer.

The park the parson mentioned was hardly big enough to deserve the name, a nod toward urban planning that separated an industrial area with a handful of three-family tenements from Arne and Olga’s neighborhood of one-family Cape Cods.  It was a narrow triangular sliver with a few tall oaks and bushy laurels, seasonal flower beds facing a single bench, a pole at the apex where the city raised a flag each Memorial Day and July Fourth.  The long seat and back of the bench were glossy green wooden slats suspended between cast-concrete uprights, with a brass plaque dedicating the park to a past paragon of civic life.  The Sylvester Park.

Within a month of Olga's death, people began thinking of it as the Johnson Park.  It faced the spot where she died, and Arne was there every evening.  He came home from work, took off his suit to put on slacks and a jacket if it was chilly, and walked down the block to sit there until dusk, when he went home for a dinner of warmed-over casserole.

Some people thought he was hoping for a glimpse of Olga’s murderer, intending vengeance.  They sent Pastor Norquist to the park.

“No,” he told the parson, “Olga would not want that.  Besides, he is probably in jail, awaiting justice.”

“You will attend the trial?”

“Probably not.  Seeing him get his due won’t bring her back.  I would rather come to this quiet place to remember Olga and our years together.”

“Thanking God for those happy years.”

“I guess so.  Thank you for coming.”

A week after Pastor Norquist’s visit, a little girl was on the bench when he arrived.  She was dark-skinned, so presumably from across the park, perhaps ten years old, her black kinky hair in pigtails.  She wore a brown skirt and tan blouse that must have been the nearby grammar school's  uniform.  She stared blankly at the flower bed.

He did not know how to talk to little girls, but wanted to reassure her he was not a child molester.  He cleared his throat.  "Excuse me.  Do you mind if I sit here?"

She looked up, obviously startled, and skootched wordlessly to the end of the bench.  Arne carefully sat at the other end, leaving room for a Mack truck between them.

He was a man who prized silence, but the silence grew heavy.  He stole a glance at her.  She had surely been crying.  He and Olga never had children.  What might one say to a ten-year-old so sad she was crying in a public park?

She spoke first.  "Mister?"

He turned.

"Mister, where do people go when they die?"

"I'm not exactly sure," he said.  "It depends on who you ask, I guess."

She must have been storing up questions and grief; the words poured out.  "My aunt says Mama is in heaven, looking down on me, but they put her in a hole in the ground and filled the hole with dirt."

Arne wished the parson were there to comfort this child, wished he himself could murmur the pious promises with conviction.  "That's just her body,” he managed to say.  “It's her soul who goes to heaven, I guess."

"Do they have bail in heaven?  Could Mama get out again?"

The conversation was taking a puzzling turn.  "I'm not sure what you mean.'

"Papa was in jail, but they let him out on bail, and he killed Mama with our kitchen knife."

"Oh."  The knot in his throat blocked any other words.  He was sure he knew, without asking, why her father had been jailed the first time.  Did he use the same knife that killed Olga, or was that held as evidence and he found another?  “I think it’s different in heaven,” he finally contrived.  “I don’t know much about that.”

"He's back in jail now, and my aunt says they won't let him out again.  She says Mama won't get even one chance to come back.  It isn't fair."  She began to cry, tears running down her face.

Arne didn't know what to do.  She decided for him by sliding down the bench.  In a moment he had his arm around her.  She cried into his shoulder; he patted her back vaguely, thinking that he should hang his shirt outside of the closet when he got home so it would dry overnight.

An absurd distraction; he should focus on this child and her need for solace.  He understood that need.  He tried to frame words; none came.  He squeezed, bringing her against his chest as he had so often brought Olga.

Her sobs abated.  "Mister?"  She looked up, her eyes reddened.

"Yes?"

"Why is God cruel?"

"I'm not sure."  It was a question that had been in his mind long before the service for Olga, but he was not comfortable with philosophical or religious discussions.  He wished again that Pastor Norquist were there.  "I'm not sure," he repeated.

She was silent, but pressed against him, snuffling gently.  He closed his eyes, and wished Olga were here.  She had always wanted a little girl.

A voice sounded insistently from across the street, the voice parents use to call children home.  This child had no parents.  He imagined her loneliness.

"It’s getting dark," she said.  "Auntie will whip me if I get home late.  Do you come here all the time?"

"Every day."

"Can I come talk with you tomorrow?"

"Of course.  I would be glad if you could come again."  To his surprise, he meant it.

"I like talking with you.  My name is Abby."

"My name is Arne.  I'll see you tomorrow."


Don Noel received his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2013, and is retired after four decades' prizewinning print and broadcast journalism in Hartford CT. His work has so far been chosen for publication by Calliope, Shark Reef, Drunk Monkeys, The Tau, Indian River Review, Midnight Circus, Oracle, Clare Literary Magazine, The Raven's Perch, Literary Heist, Dime Show Review, Darkhouse Books' "We've Been Trumped" anthology and a "Selected Places" anthology from Simone Press.