He hadn’t been dead long. They found him under a bent dogwood tree, the white flowers petaling his face and old shoulders like a soft dew or the sprinkle of a small girl preparing the way for a bride. The warmth of his body softened the petals so they clung to his cheek and chin and neck. He was so recently shaven that his face was as smooth as bowling ball.
“Billiard ball,” Harv said.
Gayle raised her head and looked at him with those round cow eyes of hers, the gaze that had said what are you talking about? to him too many times.
“I’ve seen him,” Harv said. “He was one of those old guys hanging around Mack’s. You know the kind that wants a game, tries to con you, but nobody ever played him. Man couldn’t hold a cue steady.”
Gayle continued to kneel by the dead man. She had slipped her hand in his shirt pocket and each of his jeans pockets, but found nothing. She’d done it gingerly, never letting her finger rest against the warmth of his body, holding the fabric up just enough to check for ID.
They both knew that one of them should walk back to the car and drive to a phone, call the police, get some help, but the presence of the man’s body covered with the sharp white petals of the dogwood paralyzed them, made them whisper, softened their own harsh edges.
Gayle had found him, literally stumbled over his bare foot stretched across the path like a prank. She was walking fast, fast and faster, away from Harv and their latest argument. ”Just a discussion,” he had said. “I’m entitled to a different point of view.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she had said and hurried away, head up so he wouldn’t know the tears were already running down her face. The shuffle of leaves and twigs in the path muffled her first oh of surprise so Harv didn’t know why she had stopped, why she was bending over, what she was looking at.
He had a flash of her kneeling before him, throwing her arms about his legs, apologizing, even as he knew that was impossible. Gayle was the head in the air that he could recognize a hundred yards away, not a sudden stooping in the middle of a path.
He pulled two quarters out of his pocket. “Here,” he said. “For his eyes.”
She took the quarters without looking at him, but couldn’t put them on the old man’s eyes, not yet. The eyes were the sky blue color some old people get just before cataracts glaze them white. She knew she should close them and finally did put her hand on the crinkly lids and forced them down.
“Now what?” Harv said.
Gayle stood. “I don’t know."
“We need to tell somebody.”
She nodded, whispered, “Not yet.”
They could hardly hear each other over the low rustle of wind through the trees and the insistent call and response of a pair of ravens.
“Let’s make him comfortable,” she said.
“Before. . .” Harv said.
“Yes,” she said, “before he becomes rigid.” While the bent knee and out flung arm could be moved back in place.
He had stiffened just enough to offer a little resistance as they pulled his leg straight and tugged his arm along his side.
“I should have played with him,” Harv whispered suddenly, “should have bought him a beer or bet him a beer and played him.”
“But you said….”
“I know. But he was old. I could have done it once.”
Gayle looked at the man lying on his back in the bed of dogwood blossoms, two new quarters on his eyes, his jaw smooth. She straightened his shirt, buttoned the top button, crossed his hands on his stomach just above the silver belt buckle. “Find his shoes,” she said.
They both looked. Each of them found one soft soled shoe and slipped them on his feet. They moved slowly, the two of them laying out the old man, preparing him for the ordeal ahead, the police with their orange tape and cameras and forms to fill out.
When he was ready, Gayle found a slip of paper in her pocket and wrote Do Not Disturb on it and slid it between the old man’s fingers. Then she leaned into Harv, and they went down the path for help.
2012 Kathleen Coskran