Seventy year old Luke Johnson tapped the wooden forms around the concrete, and then expertly troweled it down to a smooth uniform surface.
“You’ll be proud of this Rose”. He looked just up the hill to his parents’ grave. “It’s like the border I made around Ma’am and Pap’s grave. I want folks here to remember you, Rose, all the good you done for the community. I want your grave to stand out.”
He looked toward his truck, raised up slowly from aging knees, and walked in stooped fashion to the driver’s door. Hinges protested on the old International as he reached in and grabbed a can of vienna sausages, then walked slowly back to the grave, where he sat with his back resting against the wooden form.
“Almost forgot supper, Rose. It ain’t near what you used to fix for us, but it just don’t seem I have the appetite I used to. Sittin’ down to meals with you after a hard days’ work….you made it all worthwhile”.
He peeled off the top of the can and began to dig into its contents, then paused. he looked toward the grave and smiled sheepishly. “Forgot to ask the blessin’. Seems like I forget a lot of things lately”.
He bowed his head, closed his eyes, and his body gradually began to shake with sobs. “Sorry. Sometimes it gets hard to talk to the Lord. I just miss you. I know you’re there, and sometimes I wonder why I’m still here.”
He shifted his body to accommodate old injuries. “But you always said, God does things for a reason. I just wish he would share his reasons with me every now and then. Sorry. I wasn’t meanin’ to blaspheme, but sometimes it would seem so much easier if we just knew what it was all about”.
He began munching on the sausages with new resolve, and sat quietly until his meal was finished. He then looked skyward. “Thank you, Lord, for this life. Thank you for the happiness I’ve enjoyed. And most of all, Lord, thank you for Rose”.
He walked back to the old International, pulled open the protesting door, and started to get in. Then he hesitated and reached for something in the seat. He grabbed it in wrinkled, sinewy hands, and walked back to the grave.
“Almost forgot. Here’s my Rose for Rose”. he placed a single long stemmed rose from his wife’s garden in a small vase.
“They’re bloomin’ pretty now, Rose. But you know that Gladiola bed you always took care of? All those reds and blues? The dangdest thing, this year, Rose. They all came up kinda black lookin’, sorta like they was in mournin’. They miss you, too, Rose.”
He walked back toward his truck, then turned one more time toward the grave. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Rose. I’m gonna take off the form from that concrete and smooth down the sides real good. We’ll have supper again tomorrow, Rose”.
He folded his long farmer’s legs into the old truck and drove away, wiping his eyes as he drove. He had to keep Rose’s house clean for her.
Promptly at six o’clock the next evening, the old International parked next to Rose’s grave, and Luke eased out again, grabbing a crow bar and shovel from his truckbed.
“I was workin’ the garden today, Rose. Got some turnips comin’ in, and I cleaned out your flower bed. Looks just like you left it. Gonna take this wood off the concrete, and we’re gonna have you a nice grave that stands out, just like Ma’am and Pap’s over there.”
Sinewy muscles expertly pried at the boards and peeled them away without breaking one of them. The concrete was smooth as he expected, with the remaining trace of wood grain impressing itself into the concrete.
“I’ll get this rubbed down smooth, and we’ll have a real professional lookin’ job here, Rose.”
He popped the boards loose all around the concrete, carefully cleaned the nails from the wood and stacked it on his truck, then pulled out his pocket watch, glanced at it, then looked up toward the sun for confirmation.
“Suppertime, Rose.” He grabbed the usual vienna sausages from the truck, along with a small package of saltines. he then took the single red rose wrapped in wet napkins and placed it in the vase. “A Rose for Rose” he said ritually. He sat again with his back to the newly freed concrete. “Brought some crackers, Rose. Them viennas didn’t hold up last night, and I still gotta do some rubbin’ on this concrete”.
he fished out a sausage, bit it in half, and then seasoned it with half a bite of saltine.
“This is gonna be nice, Rose. People will see, and they’ll know. And someday people will ask. This old church, Rose, it held a lot of people together through a lot of hard times. I remember when you taught those Sunday School classes. People said you were a good teacher. I knew you was, Rose, cause I always listened to you, reading the bible to me every Saturday night, before we went to bed. You had a fine voice, Rose. You always spoke soft, but you had a lot of power in that voice.”
He chuckled to himself. “Rose, you remember when we was courtin’ and ol’ ‘Big Jim’ Wilson set his cap for you? Your daddy, he liked Big Jim. Yeah, Jim was a fine man. Had his own farm, lookin’ to the future. He was sure somebody, all right.
“Of course, me and my family, we was sharecroppers. Pap’s family came from Germany, and he didn’t know much about his ancestors. But ol’ Big Jim, he was established. He was goin’ places.
“Didn’t your daddy nor Big Jim have any idea you and me was courtin’. We was keepin’ real quiet about it, but I knew you liked me, and I sure liked you.”
He chuckled and popped a sausage in his mouth. “me an’ Jim, we was friends. Always had been. Guess ol’ Jim had good taste all the way ’round. We was best friends, and he thought you was one fine young woman. He told me what he was plannin’ on doin’ and I wasn’t sure what to tell him, ’cause he was my friend, and besides, he was big enough to beat the tar outta me if I got in his way.
“He told me he was gonna see you that afternoon, si ran on ahead and found you out by the stream, where we usually meet, and I told you he was comin’, and then I’ll be darned if you didn’t smile to yourself, right pleased, and that made me mad. I stormed off,. madder than a wet hen. But I hid and watched til ol’ Jim showed up, flowers in hand, hair combed back like he’d been licked to be swallowed, and then you came out, all dressed nice and lookin’ really good.
“I jumped out from where I’d been hidin’ and I jumped right out there in front of Jim. ‘Jim’ say I, ‘I shouldda told you this before, but I really didn’t know what to say, but truth is, Jim, Rose and me, we been courtin’ secretly for a while now, ’cause her daddy, he ain’t real pleased that she’d be seein’ somebody like me. But darn it, Jim, I know you;re a big man, and I know you’ll kick me all over this yard, but if you try and take Rose away from me, we’re just gonna have to fight. That’s just all there is to it'”
Luke laughed out loud and slapped his knee. “It was the darndest thing! Jim just kinda lowered his eyes, then he looked at you, and he said ‘Is the right?’ I tell ya, Rose, I was scared to death right then. Not about Jim whipping me all over the yard, ’cause I knew there was no doubt he could do it. I was scared because I wasn’t real sure what you’d say. I tell you, it seemed like an hour before you spoke. And then you looked at me, and you looked at Jim, and you said ‘It’s true. We’ve been seeing each other for awhile’. Ol’ Jim, he looked at me, and he looked at you, and he kinda glared for a minute, and I thought I was gonna have to fight.
” ‘You coulda told me’ he said. ‘This is kinda embarrassing. I ought to whip you good for makin’ me look like an idiot’. I looked at him, and then I said ‘Sorry, Jim, but I didn’t want to hurt your feelings’.
” ‘So you’d rather make me look like an idiot?’ he said, ‘We been friends a long time, you and me, and I know you wouldn’t double cross me any more than I would you. You shoulda trusted me, that’s all’ “.
“I felt real bad, Rose, about doin’ that to Jim, but when you stood up and admitted we’d been courtin’, I was proud as a peacock. I strutted like one for the next month”.
He finished the last of the sausages, then stood. “I’d a fought him, Rose, I’d a fought him every day if it took it, cause I wasn’t gonna let you go.”
He looked at a grave just up the hill. “But ol’ Jim, he was a fine man. Found him a good woman, too. Mary, she was a real nice person.”
He took out a rough stone with a handle on it, and began rubbing down the concrete, sprinkling water on it from time to time, as the wood grain began to disappear from the finish.
“They’re gonna like this, Rose. Why, I bet people are gonna want something like this for their graves. Yep, I think they’ll be proud”.
“It’s an eyesore! Samantha Wilson turned toward her husband, Jim Wilson, Jr, better known by friends as “Little Jim”.
“Now, honey, I know it’s different. But Luke, he was just trying to do something nice for his wife. It was something he wanted to give to her memory”.
“I know, but look at it! Right there close to the church! We just got the church remodelled, brick veneer, took that old tin off the roof and put some decent shingles on it. We even have a really nice steeple.”
“Yes, but Luke and Rose, they were part of something that goes back a lot longer than bricks, or shingles, or that steeple. They stood by this church, honey”.
“Jim, I know, but that was a different world, a different time. People have changed. They’re looking for something nice, something modern. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? People want to come to God, they’re not gonna look here. They’re gonna go to those fancy churches in other places.”
“If that’s what they want, maybe they ought to go to those fancy churches. There’s a lot of history, and lot of good people buried in that graveyard.”
“We put it to a vote, dear. The church says we have to tear down that eyesore. It has to be done. ”
“Votes. I don’t even know half the people who voted in that church any more. Ask me, they can go back where they cam from”.
“Well, they’re not asking you. It was put to a vote, and that was what the vote says”.
“Rose’s grandfather donated that land for the church, so his ancestors could worship as they saw fit, and lay their people to rest. It was for them, not for some group to come in here and decide on a bunch of rules”.
“You have to have rules, Jim. We have a church charter, we have rules, and those rules say there must be a uniform system for grave markers. Luke ‘s grave just doesn’t fit those rules”.
“All right, I’ll talk to him tomorrow. I’ll do it, not some committee. Just me. You tell them that. I grew up around Luke and Rose, and they trust me. If somebody has to stick a knife in his back, at least let it be somebody he knows”.
Jim Wilson knocked on the door. he was almost hit in the head by a piece of flat wood. He picked it up and recognized names carved on the wood by Luke Junior at Vacation Bible School. “The Johnsons” it said.
“See you got welcomed by my boy’s sign”.
Jim looked up to see Luke standing at the door. “Yeah” he laughed, “I remember when Luke did this. Burned it out with a woodburning set.”
“Been there a long time” said Luke, “But I reckon everything’s gotta wear out sooner or later”. he looked back up at Jim. “Haven’t seen you in quite a while, not since I stopped gettin’ to church like I used to. Gets a little harder as you get older. Rose used to get me up on Sundays and get my old useless carcass ready”.
“Yes.sir, she was a fine woman” said Jim.
“Well come on in, son. We can get caught up on things”.
Jim entered a living room kept immaculate, just as Rose had always kept it, every piece carefully dusted and well ordered. Luke’s shrine and offering to Rose.
“Sit down, son”.
Jim sat. “Sir–” he began, but was interrupted by Luke.
“I tell you, son, you bring back memories. You and Luke Junior playing outside. Did I ever tell you about that time your dad and me was nailing on tin on that church roof?”
“No sir” said Jim, although his father had told him several times.
“We was up high on the ridge of that old church, and we’d nailed down most of that new tin, and ol’ Jim, he got to slidin’ and pickin’ up speed. If he’d a fell, he might have broke his neck, but I was just close enough to lean over the ridge and hook his galluses with my claw hammer. Skint his back, but he didn’t seem worried about that. I tell you, boy, if I’da missed, you wouldn’t be talkin’ to me right now, ’cause that was before you was born”.
“Yes sir” Jim thought of the irony in that statement.
“Good memories, boy. Your dad was a mighty fine man”.
“Thank you, sir.” Jim was tempted to simply get up and go back to the church and tell them all to go to hell, but if he didn’t do this, somebody else would come out and break the old man’s heart.
“I came to talk to you about that concrete form you put around your wife’s grave”. He spit it out before it got caught in his throat.
Luke smiled and rocked back and forth, holding one knee. “Figured you’d like that”. Just like the one I put on my daddy and mama’s grave, way back in the forties. Lot of memories there”.
“Me and your daddy, we got together back in the depression, and walked from house to house, beggin’ for change to replace window panes and put some new glaze on the windows”.
“Yes, sir, my dad told me”.
“We didn’t always have that central heating and air conditioning, either. You folks got it nice now”.
“Yes, sir, I guess it is nice.”
“When me and your daddy was boys, they was a big old pot bellied stove at the front of the church, right in front of the pulpit. That was the only heat we had there on cold winter days.”
“I tell you, on cold winter days, that preacher would get to holleron’ with the spirit, talkin’ about hellfire and breakin’ out in a sweat from the heat, and me and your daddy, we’d sit in the back and think maybe a little hellfire wouldn’t be so bad in the back of that church right then”.
Jim chuckled. Then he looked Luke in the eye. “The church wants to take down the form you put around Rose’s grave”.
Luke suddenly focused his eyes on Jim. “Why?”
“Rules. The church took a vote. They want to be more modern. Got all that money invested in those new Sunday School rooms, that new brick veneer. They want a better class of member”.
“Son, there ain’t no better class of people than your father, my father, and those people restin’ in that graveyard right now”.
Tears formed in the corner of Jim’s eyes. “Yes, sir, I know”.
“Rules, charters, laws. I tell you, boy, we built that church without rules. We just got together, the whole community, and we built a church to worship God. We sang together and we made the rafter shake. We had potluck dinners, and we all knew each other. Didn’t have no next door neighbors. We all lived on farms and we lived scattered out, but we all knew each other, and we all helped”.
“Yes, sir, I remember”.
“Now you think God only looks at you if you have some rich fancy building approved by some man. Can’t build something from love. Gotta build it by the rules. I tell you, son, when I gave my heart to God, I wasn’t kneeling on some fancy red carpet in front of a shiny pulpit. I knelt in ankle deep cow manure in the middle of my barn. I wanted to be a good husband and a good father, and I knew there was only one power in this universe that could help me do that”.
“Rules don’t make you better, son. They can’t make you better, cause here in your heart, it ain’t about rules. It’s about forgivin’ and lovin’, and carin’ for every person. It’s about a heartsick time in your life when you know there’s nothing you can do but purge your heart, open it up to God, pour the evil out and ask goodness to fill your soul, ’cause you ain’t gonna find it in a million rules, no matter how hard you look”.
“Yes, sir. I’ll be happy to take the form down for you.”
“No! I put it up, and I’ll take it down! It’s my responsibility. That’s something that ain’t about votes and majority rule, boy. Responsibility. I did it, and I’ll take responsibility for it. Now you’re free to go and tell them”.
Jim walked meekly out of the room with no further word.
The sledge hammer slammed into the concrete form, shattering it with each blow.
“I messed up, Rose. You always told me I needed to listen to people, but I just didn’t do it. You woulda kept me straight, Rose, but I just wasn’t askin’ anybody else. Had to do it my way, again.”
He began picking up the fragments from one wall and throwing them on the old truck. “I tell you, Rose, this ain’t as easy as it used to be”.
He stopped and wiped sweat from his forehead, then picked up the hammer and began to swing again. “Boy, this is gettin’ awfully–”
he never finished the sentence. He clutched his chest and fell across Rose’s grave.
“They found him lying there, sir”. A young man stood beside Luke Johnson, Jr.
“Place this on the grave as I instructed”.
“Yes, sir, but they won’t like it”.
The huge gravestone was composed of the chunks broken from Rose’s grave. They were hideous. In the center of the stone was a smooth slate that read:
“Luke Johnson. World War Two Veteran. Purple Heart, Silver Star, Loving husband of Rose and living father of Luke, Junior.”
“You sure you want it like this?”
“Exactly like that. Mount it at the head of the graves.”
“They’re gonna raise a ruckus”.
“My bank owns the mortgage on their church”.
Luke walked toward the church, looking at its huge steeple, its professional lines, and the newly finished brick veneer. He suddenly remembered a scripture from the Bible, the book of Genesis:
“And slime had they for mortar”.