They’d spoken only a few days before it happened. One mid-summer morning, Jack asked whether Davis would mind if he trimmed the line of river birches separating their properties. Grown so large they interfered with satellite reception, Jack’s wife Leslie wanted it done. Davis had no objection. After all, they were Jack’s trees.
Two days after he finished trimming—not much, actually, because Jack thought the birch beautiful as they stood, and would have preferred to leave them be—he tied one end of a rope around the base of a porcelain commode and the other around his neck and flung himself off his second-floor landing. Leslie discovered her husband swinging in the foyer when she returned from coffee with the neighbor ladies. Davis heard her scream and rushed to where she lay curled on the grass like a fallen leaf. He took one look inside before calling 911.The police arrived, cut Jack down, and bagged his body.
A week after the funeral and cremation, Leslie hired a man. Davis watched as the river birch came down, hacked to the ground by a chain saw. The sudden loss of shade and privacy left him feeling exposed. Plus, the lack of greenery afforded an unfettered and unwanted view into Leslie’s house—the kitchen, where she’d once sipped coffee with her husband, and her upstairs bedroom, where she’d slept beside him.
Davis wondered whether Jack had purchased his rope for the purpose to which he’d put it, knowing his intentions all along, or if he’d bought the rope for some other, less deadly, reason, maybe anchor his boat, and only later decided its final use. At Lowe’s, Davis easily found clothesline and nylon for towing skiers, but had to seek help from an aisle attendant and climb a ladder to reach Jack’s five-strand hemp, guaranteed to hold.
The Carolina summer lingered into October. Recently retired, his wife Cheryl in her final year of teaching before doing the same, Davis filled his solitary days with mulching and house-painting, cleaning and repairing. When he ran out of home-maintenance chores, he volunteered to teach a civics’ class at the community center, putting his background as a lawyer to good use. At Cheryl’s urging, he signed up for tennis lessons, but he lessons ended when autumn arrived on a strong north wind that swept the hickory and magnolia bare. The few leaves left untouched by Davis’s rake swirled in corners like ashes.
Early mornings, from the darkness of his family room, Davis watched Leslie across the way, practicing Pilates in front of the big-screen TV she’d purchased with Jack’s life insurance. Everyone expected her to put the house up for sale and move nearer to relatives in Michigan, but instead she got a facelift and had her breasts enhanced.
Davis pointed out to Cheryl that Jack hadn’t hung himself just anywhere, say in a back closet or garage, but in the foyer, eye level with the front door where his wife would see him the moment she stepped inside. Leslie claimed they’d chatted over breakfast that morning, no hint of what was coming, just the ordinary banter between husband and wife. He’d been in good health, other than the usual maladies associated with aging. Blessed with grandchildren from a son with his first wife, he kept in touch via Skype.
Jack had sold his business, so maybe, he’d harbored regrets. Maybe, he’d suffered debt of which Davis was unaware. If he’d left a note, Leslie never said.
Cheryl advised him to let it go. It wasn’t like they’d been friends, just friendly neighbors. Besides, she said, no one knew what went on in a marriage.
Shortly before Christmas, Leslie bought a dog, a Cockapoo or some such. Afternoons, she strutted the neighborhood, dressed in black spandex and neon pink Nikes, her new breasts jiggling, the dog trotting beside. Not long after, she sold Jack’s pick-up truck, replacing it with a saucy new sports car complete with leather seats and a convertible top.
When asked if she’d seen the new car, Cheryl said Davis had too much time on his hands.
They might not have been friends, but he’d known Jack to be a meticulous man, the kind of man who researched his options. Gunshot he’d likely deemed effective, but too messy, not to mention Jack wasn’t violent and didn’t even own a gun. So, too, he must have ruled out sleeping pills, drowning, and asphyxiation by carbon monoxide, rejecting all of those as hit or miss. So, too, over the side of a cliff invited probable but not certain death, and what a horror to survive in an incapacitated state, dependent on the reluctant kindness of strangers.
Hanging, although attended by that nightmare jerk, was tried and true. After all, whether administered by the mob, the constable, or one’s own hand, hanging came recommended by centuries of success, provided the rope was sturdy and the anchor to which it attached solid.
One of Davis’s grandfathers had passed of pancreatic cancer, the other died of a heart attack. Davis’s own father suffered from Parkinson’s. He told Davis he preferred to linger, not die in his sleep or be taken off life support, but linger. Davis wrote it in his papers—he didn’t want to linger.
The spring following Jack’s death, Davis bought enough birch saplings for a stand, and hired his own man. He didn’t mention it to Cheryl.
Parallel to the birch Jack had trimmed and Leslie had removed, the man dug and planted.
She glared out her kitchen window, arms folded across her chest. Davis remarked to the hired man that he hoped the trees wouldn’t interfere with his neighbor’s satellite reception. The hired man shrugged and said she could always move her satellite dish. She should be happy, he said, they’d both have more privacy now. Anyway, it was Davis’s property, and he could plant as he pleased.
Davis smiled and waved at Leslie across the way. Damn straight he could.
Gary V. Powell’s stories and flash fiction have been widely-published in both print and online magazines and anthologies including most recently the Thomas Wolfe Review, Fiction Southeast, SmokeLong Quarterly, Atticus Review, and Best New Writing 2015. In addition to winning the 2014 Gover Prize for short-short fiction (Eric Hoffer Foundation), his work has placed in several other national contests. His first novel, Lucky Bastard (Main Street Rag Press, 2012), is available at http://www.authorgaryvpowell.com/debut-novel/. A collection of previously published stories, Beyond Redemption, is available at http://www.authorgaryvpowell.com/beyond-redemption/.