The Boaz Stranger, Chapter 1

From my latest novel. Available by mid-November.

A dense fog suffocated the dawn. It seemed I could reach out and touch Rachel’s headstone, yet I was underneath the cemetery’s arched stone entrance two hundred yards away. A bird, a radio speaker, my mind, something from above, kept reminding me of my grandmother’s philosophical mantra. “Live and learn and die and forget it all.” I’m sure my dead wife had forgotten everything, but had she discovered forgiveness? Had she forgiven herself for long ago sins, and had she forgiven me for failing to protect her?

The fog lifted and I realized I was in that netherworld between dreaming and awakening, moving my lips but barely sounding the words. “Oh Rachel, why kill yourself over something that happened half-a-century ago?”

I rolled onto my right side and opened my eyes, semi-surprised. The digital clock on Leah’s nightstand reads 3:58 am. It’s early morning, Saturday, and it has happened again. For the eighth straight week.

Last night I had conducted an experiment. I abandoned mine and Rachel’s master bedroom and slept upstairs in our daughter’s room, thinking this would break the two-month established pattern. It had not. I had awoken at the four o’clock hour entangled in the same dream clawing my way to a peace and happiness I knew I’d never find.

Other than the editing of my thoughts and writings—natural for myself, Lee Harding, Yale Law School professor—my first thought every Saturday morning had been this question about my departed wife. It had been almost a year since I found her hanging from an overhead beam in the basement. Her successful suicide had followed her failed attempt via pain pills six months earlier. That was when she’d told me why she wanted to end her life.

I tossed the covers aside and sat along the edge of Leah’s bed. Rachel’s abortion at age 16 was a secret, at least to me. Somehow, I had chalked it up to youthful indiscretion; that’s the short and simple way to restate how I’d adjusted. For Rachel, it was impossible to digest. Or to cast outside her psyche.

I slipped my feet inside my house shoes and exited Leah’s bedroom, grabbing a quick gaze inside Lyndell’s bedroom across the hall. Oh, to go back in time, to happier days, the house bustling with mine and Rachel’s two teenagers, both adopted but happy when we moved to New Haven in 2000 and bought this house.

I did not linger. I descended the stairs, eager to take a shower in the master bathroom before driving to the cemetery. Although I had made progress, this pattern was more than habit. It was an addiction. For the first ten months after Rachel’s suicide, I would begin each day by visiting her at Eastwood Cemetery, always arriving before dawn. Now, and for the past seven weeks, I had painfully reduced my fix to once per week, still arriving every Saturday before sunrise. The next expected step in my therapeutic recovery would be a once per month visit, but I doubted that would ever happen. Neither of us could survive with such infrequent injections: her dose of trust and loyalty I gave her, and my dose of practical needfulness she gave me.

***

I opted to skip the shower. The house was cold. So was I. It had been an unusually warm fall in New England, and I had not yet switched the unit to HEAT. It was time for cooler, if not colder, weather. I was inside our walk-in closet searching for warmer clothes when I heard my cell vibrating. I returned to the bathroom and grabbed my iPhone, face down on the granite vanity. It was odd my mother-in-law was calling so early. It was only 4:20.

“What’s wrong?” I said, knowing the news could not be good. I normally did not skip a cordial greeting.

“A good morning to you, too. I knew you would be up.” Since my student days in law school in the late 70s, I had been an early riser. Rachel and her mother were close. Rosa’s voice, always pleasant, always proper. Like Rachel’s. Both women had been English teachers.

“Sorry. Morning. I have been up for a while. Are you okay?” Rosa and Rob, in their mid-eighties, retired Southern Baptist missionaries, spent most of their married lives in China. They now shared a three-room suite at Bridgewood Gardens, an assisted living facility in Albertville, Alabama.

“I’m fine. We’re fine. Lee, I know this is short notice, but would you have some time to meet, maybe this morning?” It confused me. I live in New Haven, Connecticut. That’s a long way from the Yellowhammer state. I was unaware my in-laws had been planning a trip.

After an unnatural pause, I said, “sure.”

During the next several minutes, Rosa declared she and Rob were about an hour away, in New Rochelle, New York. Two days ago, they had felt “smothered” and planned a road trip, including a visit to see me. It had been too long. Almost a year, to be exact. The weekend we buried Rachel. Before Rosa ended our call, she said, “Lee, there’s also a legal issue we need to run by you.”

I suggested they come to the house around 7:00 but Rosa would not have it: “I don’t want to rekindle those memories, and practically, I don’t want you scurrying around to tidy up the place.”

I’d agreed and first recommended Denny’s on Sawmill Road, then changed my mind to Bella’s, my local favorite. It was downtown New Haven, near the law school. Although it made for a longer drive for us all, the food would be much better.

***

The drive to Eastwood Cemetery was only two miles, something Rachel had thought important when she insisted we purchase our burial plots. I would always believe it was more than coincidence she had demanded we complete our “pre-planning” four months before her death.

I turned left and slowed my speed to five miles per hour before passing beneath the rock archway. Beyond the entrance was sacred ground, according to Gordon, the head caretaker of the twenty-seven acres. The gently rolling hills with intricately aligned rows of headstones always reminded me of a game of dominoes, even though any toppling could not start the process given the widely spaced graves.

Even with minimal light, I could see Gordon already busy. He was loading his lawn mowers, weed eaters, and an assortment of tools on his work trailer when I passed the maintenance shed on my right. We exchanged waves, though I doubted he could see mine.

Rachel’s grave was on Gethsemane Trail. Eastwood had used the Bible as its only source for naming the perfectly designed pathways. The major routes, the tributaries—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—formed a square, two running east and west and two north and south, all lying as a circumference on the outer reaches of the twenty-seven-acre tract. The trails sprouted from the tributaries and ran east and west.

I drove north on Luke and turned right on Gethsemane. Rachel’s grave was in the middle, on the upper side of the trail. I exited my Tahoe and removed the lawn chair from inside the rear hatch. The sun was just coming up when I positioned myself to the right of the headstone, just outside the stone foot-markers to Rachel’s plot. The thick grass was reaching for the sky. Gordon, the barber, would be along before noon with clippers and shears at the ready.

“Good morning, Rachel Anne.” She always hated me for verbalizing her middle name. I mostly honored her request while she was living, but now I wanted to be mean. Sort of. Since I would not dare cuss her or figuratively give her a beating, I resigned to the dastard-like greeting.

She did not respond, but continued her early morning duties. I had always had a vivid imagination, and now was no different. I pictured the tall brunette scurrying around the kitchen before another day of teaching high school English, no doubt spreading an extra layer of mayonnaise on the sandwich she would eat at her desk while reading essays or developing lesson plans.

“You’d be proud of me.” I wondered if other husbands, widowers they’re called, visited their wives’ graves and talked to them as though sitting hand in hand in low slung chairs in burning sand watching the ocean waves roll forward.

“Why?” she said, tossing her silky hair over a shoulder as her eyes stole a glance my way. She filled her Yeti with another cup of coffee, grabbed her lunchbox, blew me a kiss, and waited anxiously for my reply as she opened the back door to the deck.

“I’ve agreed to help Professor Stallings. With the interviewing.” My good friend, twenty years my senior, Bert Stallings, head of the law school’s civil torts department, had long promoted women’s rights. Rachel, while living, was not a big fan, but she was happy I had expanded my social network, something I had trouble doing ever since my childhood friend, Kyle Bennett, had gone missing in tenth grade.

“Good.” Rachel was off to Amity Regional High School without asking a single follow-up question.

I poured a cup of coffee from my old green Thermos. I had loved Rachel since the ninth grade. That was my secret. It was not until we were both in college that I had shared my early high school infatuation.

It had happened suddenly, at first sight. It was the first day of school, a hot and muggy August morning in Mrs. Stamps’ English class. I’m sure I was a distant planet to the smart sounding girl sitting across the aisle and one seat forward. Probably, I was an undiscovered planet. Rachel was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. Later, at the midmorning break, I learned from Kyle that she and her brother, along with their missionary parents, had returned from China for a two-year furlough.

It was six years later, at the University of Virginia, we had our first conversation. We had both been students living in Charlottesville for a year and a half, wholly unaware of the other’s presence, before we had our chance meeting in the Student Union. Rachel always called it a miracle. Less than a month later, we had our first date. By the end of summer, after our sophomore year, we married.

Another old memory arrived. During our ninth and tenth-grade years, I never generated the courage to talk to Rachel, much less ask her for a date. Eleventh grader Ray Archer had latched onto her by the second week of ninth grade. That was 1968. Now that I think about it, Rachel and family returned to China before Christmas of tenth grade. No doubt breaking Ray’s heart.

My right leg suddenly cramped. Instantly I stood. The remains of my Thermos spilled onto the ground. I walked twice around Rachel’s grave to relieve my pain. I hated getting older. It was awful to be sixty-six, not that I was in poor health, but because of the mental pressure. I simply could not shake my guilt. Although Rachel had consoled me after her failed suicide attempt and surprise confession, I still strongly believed I was at fault. I should have helped the woman I had fallen in love with at first sight. It was my fault she had not found peace during those stressful six months before she toppled the chair beneath her noose. These guilty, gut-wrenching feelings were like what I had felt when Kyle had gone missing. My firm belief was that I had failed my best friend. After his disappearance, I was alone. I am alone now after Rachel’s suicide. The bottom line is, neither Kyle nor Rachel could trust me as a friend.

I stood for the longest next to Rachel’s headstone. Facing east, I felt the rising sun as though I was two feet from a heat lamp. I removed my hat, keeping my eyes closed. Until the depressing thoughts attacked. I reopened my eyes when the image appeared: toppled chair, rope, the limp body of the woman I loved, the one who kept me at a distance. My dead wife’s secrets proved we had never been truly intimate.

I returned to my lawn chair, this time facing west, and removed the Sand Mountain Reporter from my leather binder. Rachel insisted I read the obituaries from our hometown newspaper. It was Thursday’s edition. As usual, it was thin, two sections, maybe ten or twelve-pages total.

Local deaths were always on page 3. I turned there automatically as usual, hardly glancing at the front page. I started at the top. Rachel insisted I read every one. Aloud.

“Norma Jean Silvers of Douglas, passed away peacefully at home on Sunday, November 1, 2020. She was 93 years of age.” After reading Norma’s civic and social club memberships and leadership roles, I skipped her education, employment, and religious history. I hoped Rachel didn’t mind. The SMR could get rather windy.

Jorene Horton was up next. I lost my place when my iPhone rang. It was probably Rosa reminding me to bring the book she had asked me to mail. That was nearly a month ago, and I was still searching for it in Rachel’s library.

I stood and removed my cell from my front left pocket. It was Gordon, probably using the old Samsung I’d given him Labor Day as a birthday present.

“Hey my friend. Sorry I didn’t stop to chat when I arrived.”

“Not’s a problem. I seed you and hope you’s well.” Gordon was humble, the most decent person I knew. He had been caretaker at Eastwood since he was a teenager. I did not know how old he was now, but he’d told me the only time he’d been away from the cemetery was during the “big war.” Although I had never seen it, Gordon lives alone in a little cabin through a patch of hickory trees on the northwest corner of the cemetery, out-of-sight from the intersection of Matthew and John.

We talked at least five minutes before he asked if starting his mower would upset me. He promised he would be almost out of earshot and would start on the far east end of Gethsemane. Of course, I did not mind.

I would have invited him over for a cup of coffee, but I was all out, and I was only halfway through the obits. I wished him well, but he’d already ended our call.

I checked the time before pocketing my iPhone. It was 6:16. Dang, I had to go. I folded the newspaper and tucked it inside my binder. “Sorry Rachel, I know you’ll understand my rush. Mom and Pop are in town. We’re meeting for breakfast. I sure wish you could join us.”