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Short Story Tuesday: The Tombstone

March 12, 2013

My turn again. I’ve got my big-boy Underoos on, so fire away. They’re asbestos, so it’s all good.

If you’d like a built-in audience for your short story, please let me know. The rules are fairly simple. You must own the work you submit. It must be further along than a first draft. It shouldn’t be something you’re submitting to the FWA Collection. Other than that, if you submit, we’ll publish and people comment.

The Tombstone by Chris Hamilton

The tombstone said: Brian Adcock, 1933-2001, husband, father, grandfather. A good man.

I don’t look at tombstones. There’s nothing there for me in cemeteries, never has been.

The first day I remember is when my parents died. Car accident on my first day of school. Mrs. Conners’ class. Jefferson school. Before seat belts and personal-injury attorneys advertising on TV.

They pulled me off the playground, my first time ever at a school playground. A rough-looking cop came with the principal, Mr. Martin, and told me my parents were dead. First time at a school playground, shot to hell.

I cried because I couldn’t stay. Not about my parents dying. I’d like to think I didn’t understand what happened.

My aunt—the woman who pretty much raised me—died the week before my high school baseball team played in the state championships. My first question on hearing the news was whether I could still pitch the opening game. After all, it was the state championships and they were counting on me to carry them. I was our best pitcher. I would make them winners.

My uncle didn’t understand. I still feel his backhand across my cheek. I moved out the day school ended. Never went back. I’m not sure when he died.

I blew out my ankle running last week. I can still run ten miles, deep into my fifties. I regularly smoke guys who look twenty years younger. I let them hang with me for a while, but make them work. Then I smoke them. Sometimes a guy smokes me on the trail, but not very often.

Right now my ankle throbs if I run more than five steps and I can’t drive my car, can’t drive a standard for the first time in forty years. And I needed milk. The quickest way was through the cemetery.

I’d be damned if someone else gets me milk.

The stone wasn’t much to look at. A granite block with simple letters, bored deep. Permanent. It spoke volumes about the man it memorialized.

Husband. I stared down at the vacant third finger on my left hand. Empty. And honestly, after three tries, it would stay that way. Strike one.

Father. I missed my daughter Tina’s graduation because my plane had to land in Minot, North Dakota because of thunderstorms. It was before cell phones and I got in three hours after she walked. She didn’t speak to me for a week, and that set a pattern. Strike two.

Grandfather. My daughter’s mother—my first wife, Nicole—told me not to bother attending my granddaughter’s birth, so I didn’t. Strike three.

Good man. Seriously?

I used to think I was like that granite rock. I’d built three companies and turned three others into profit machines.

Two months ago, my partners told me that I should step back and enjoy the fruits of my labor. I told them my labor was the fruit of my labor. I worked because I was good at it. I made wealth for my business partners, made it possible for their kids to attend the best universities and for them to wow their wives with vacation homes and diamond rings. Apparently, those things weren’t reminder enough.

They said something about millennials and the changing workforce and my abrasive, threatening nature. Then they insisted I enjoy the fruits of my labor, and showed me the contractual language that gave them the power to insist.

I stared at Brian Adcock’s grave and envied a dead man.

And then I stared at the envelope I’d been carrying in my pocket. Post-marked Schenectady, NY, where Tina lives. I’d written when I found out she was pregnant—more or less begged to see her again. I got the response nine days after Nicole told me not to go. I’d held it since then.

I can walk into a boardroom of hostile employees and when I’m done, they do what I say. They’re terrified, but they do it.

I can go to a bar and talk a woman into bed, if I’m in the mood. That’s how I met Nicole. I talked my way out of a speeding ticket last week. And I talked my way into the Rolling Stones concert at Soldier Field after it was sold out. Even got to meet Mick.

Some of the people who worked with me called me Rumpelstiltskin for my ability to make gold out of nothing. A guy I eventually fired once called me Audie Murphy for my supposed lack of fear.

I feared what was in that envelope more than all those people feared me. A stupid piece of paper.

“She’ll tell you what I told you,” Nicole said a little more than a week earlier, before the letter came. “She doesn’t want to see you.”

Nicole and I have a complicated relationship. Taken together, we’re oh-for-six at marriage. She says I’m the best lay in the tri-state area. I suppose she would know.

For my part, I like sex. I like how it feels to be with her. It’s the closest thing to permanent I’ve ever had. When she forgets she enjoys hurting me, I like Nicole.

“She doesn’t want to see you,” I told the guy holding the envelope. Then I put it back in my pocket and found myself hating Brian Adcock. Hating dead people you never met, that’s something a good man doesn’t do.

“You’re screwed up,” the guy with the envelope said. Who was I to argue?

When I stepped forward, my foot twisted and a hot tongue of pain ran around my ankle and up the inside of my left leg and I fell onto the dead gray grass and screamed son of a bitch. None of the residents helped me. Then again, none of them got angry, either. Least of all, Brian Adcock.

Money buys a lot of things, including the admiration of the office manager of a local orthopedic. The next morning, she picked me up at my condo and drove me to her place of work to get fixed—on the condition that I did whatever she wanted. As I said, I like sex.

“Wait for me. I’ll get you a wheelchair,” she said.

“I’m not riding a wheelchair.” I was bitchier than I wanted to be. I’m not good at dependence. That’s for the people I’ve had to provide jobs for.

Bonnie—that’s her name—knew I didn’t like dependence. She smiled wickedly. “You have to do whatever I say.”

“I thought you meant in bed.”

Her head tipped slightly. “Oh, you poor son of a bitch.” Her eyebrow arched and I thought I heard something about my wearing an apron.

Then my hand found the envelope again and thought about Brian Adcock. The allure of Bonnie faded. It was just me and my accumulated successes, maybe, and that envelope.

“Open it,” the guy who presided over the boardroom meetings said. “Don’t be a pussy.”

I opened it.

When Bonnie got back with the wheelchair, my cheeks were still moist.

“Jesus are you okay? You didn’t try to walk did you?”

If I’d answered, I’d have bawled. And I don’t do that.

Instead I handed her the open letter and she read it. And her smile wasn’t even a little bit wicked.

  1. March 12, 2013 9:05 am

    I started reading this when I knew I didn’t have time to finish it. I though, “I’ll just start it and maybe finish it later.” Then I didn’t stop. And the farther I got, the more I said to myself, “Oh, please don’t have a crappy ending. Don’t let there be a coincidence. Don’t tell us everything. Let us figure it out.” So, thank you. I loved it.

  2. March 12, 2013 12:09 pm

    A well-written, well-structured piece. You were able to provide an excellent characterization and psychological profile of the protagonist without shoving it down the reader’s throat, while maintaining the overall death theme.
    Some suggestions: Instead of “The tombstone said” you might consider “The epitaph read.”
    The sentence “The first day I remember is when my parents died” though strong, could be stronger. Perhaps: “My parents died my first day of school.”
    Instead of using “bored deep” you might consider “etched deep.”
    That’s it. A good example of a modern short story.

  3. Not Well Versed permalink
    March 14, 2013 8:12 am

    This inspired me to attempt my first short story. Thank you for sharing.

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