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by Charles C. Cole

The gas-powered weed cutter was loud and the vibration unpleasant as I trimmed around the headstones. The bright afternoon was topping 90. The trees at this end of the cemetery were few and small; like those loved ones buried beneath me, these were the more recent additions.

I stalled the yard machine and looked longingly at the tall, wide headstone just beyond, desperate to catch a few moments on the shady side. I was wilting as I stumbled forward, but I was not alone. A white-haired gentleman, formally dressed, knelt on the other side.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I blurted.

“My loss? I have my life. And where do I spend it? Come. Sit. You look like you need it. Please.”

He began his story almost immediately.

“We were engaged and very much in love. It wasn’t the first or second time for her or even the third for me. Still, we’d accepted our pasts and embraced our future. She was quite a find, really: unflappable. We’d bumped into each other, literally, during the morning commute on an otherwise miserably snowy day. We connected almost immediately, through the eyes. They say so much on our behalf, sometimes more than we’d otherwise allow ourselves.

“We soon shared long talks on the phone, with quiet, soulful walks. After only three months, I asked her to marry me. Of course, she agreed.

“But I have money and several grown children naturally concerned for their futures. I had to vet this woman, who might in no time have complete control of my assets. As it turned out, she hadn’t worked in years, an admirable ambition, having been able to survive on the life insurances of husbands number 1 and 2. One was run over by his own tractor and number 2 died of hypothermia when his kayak overturned.”

My face must have announced my suspicions.

“She had not been present. Accidents happen. And if it had been only me, I would have risked it.

“‘What’s wrong?’ she asked one night when my thoughts were particularly clouded.

“I told her, ‘For my fourth wedding, the arrangements thus far are, dare I say it, over the top and a trifle frivolous.’

“It was a test to see if she’d go through with it without the glitter, sans ornement.

“‘Whatever you want, my dear,’ she said. I knew she meant it, but my kids were not convinced and suggested another measure.

“‘Darling, about our honeymoon and the exotic traveling you’ve planned, why don’t we put it off, using the money to redecorate our home, making it ours — yours and mine — instead of mine alone?’

“‘Such a lovely idea!’ she gushed.

“‘She wasn’t upset at all?’ my oldest boy asked later. ‘I can see her coming around, but just smiling and accepting a grave inconsideration? That’s not normal, Father.’

“Collating their suspicions, my kids made a final appeal.

“‘Tell her,’ my oldest daughter said, ‘you want to delay the ceremony a year, while you get to know each other. If she loves you, waiting shouldn’t feel like waiting.’

“‘Beloved,’ I began later, ‘we have all the benefits of a permanent relationship without the business of marriage. Why don’t we enjoy what we have instead of looking for validation through an ancient ritual that, let’s face it, was not written with us in mind?’

“‘I want what you want,’ she said, gently but convincingly.

“And so, we focused on those things that first cemented our feelings. We did day trips, outings, adventures. She seemed, through it all, well-adjusted, if maybe a degree quieter.

“One day we hiked up a steep trail, to appreciate a big sky so close you could almost touch it. We paused on the edge of a small outcropping where the face of it dropped straight down a hundred feet. The trail underfoot was covered with loose shale. I slipped and gently bumped her.

“‘Do you know where we are?’ she asked. She had planned a surprise. She had a seriousness that made me wish to not get it wrong. I risked being witty.

“‘Well, we’ve come full circle, haven’t we? I bumped you the day we first met and I just bumped you again.’ She shook her head and backed dangerously close to the edge.

“‘This is Lovers’ Leap. Ask me again, here, swept away by your emotions, without advisors. Ask me or lose me forever.’

“‘You amusing woman. Is this a scheme to force my hand?’

“‘Ask me!’

“‘Very well, but if you think I’m getting down on my knees on this uncomfortable, rocky precipice...’

“There were tears in her eyes.

“’We have so much going for us.’

“‘Yes, we do.’

“‘But we’re missing the one thing necessary for a true relationship.’

“‘By all means, tell me.’

“‘A commitment to act on our feelings.’

“‘But we are acting,’ I bluffed.

“‘We’re play-acting. All of this and more—’

“She spun around dramatically, to somehow engage me to see, and lost her footing and was gone, fallen. We got her to a hospital, but her injuries were severe. I sat by her bedside for five days, my children supporting me, mostly from the hallway.

“Toward the end of that fifth day, she suddenly gasped loudly and fiercely, like when someone comes up from a deep dive for which they were less prepared than they thought. Much of her battered body was wrapped and bandaged, but her lovely, dainty mouth was uncovered. She smiled weakly.

“‘Ask me.’

“‘You foolish girl, you nearly broke my heart.’

“‘Ask me.’

“‘Very well: Will you marry me?’

“Her inner light faded away, like that. With eyes closed and unnaturally still, she answered, ‘No.’

“She was truly gone, into the deepest abyss. And I need to know. Was she refusing my heartfelt offer, before my kids, or was she bravely acknowledging the end of her earthly visit? I know it’s a test. Which is it? What would you say?”

“Listen to your heart,” I offered.

Copyright © 2016 by Charles C. Cole

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