On the last morning of her life Connie Zimmermann opened her mailbox and pulled out a fistful of ads. An oil change and rotation special at Big O, a timeshare offer from the Disney Vacation Club, a fried chicken special at the Bonfire Grill, an URGENT notice from Greenpeace, and a pork chop and rib sale at Schmick’s Market.
What sad things mailboxes had become, Connie thought, as she made her way back to the house. They used to hold intrigue, the sort of mail you waited for: handwritten letters you read sitting down, news that made you smile, news that buckled your knees. Now your mail had nothing to do with you. Now you could be anybody.
Not that her mailbox was entirely useless. A few weeks earlier Connie had opened a notice from Prudential and wound up ordering long-term care insurance for Wayne and herself. Seventy percent of the population, the letter stated, would need extended care. And it was something you had to jump on early, while you could still afford the premiums—while insurers were still offering them: many companies, spooked by rising costs, were dropping out. Not so long ago, she would have tossed the letter in the trash, but this was the sort of information that kept her awake now. She was fifty-seven, Wayne was sixty; it was time to pay attention, time to stop assuming they were exempt from ill winds. There had been no point in discussing the matter with Wayne, God love him—she was the one in charge of their safety. Connie did not hold this against her husband, did not even regard it as a shortcoming. She and Wayne flowed down separate channels, filling the common pond of their marriage. Wayne’s dreamy ways had been vexing at times but never a real problem. So far.
Was it her imagination or was Wayne becoming more distracted? Much of what she said to him lately he either forgot or never heard. She did not of course expect him to absorb everything—they’d been side by side for thirty-seven years—but sometimes when he slipped away, left their shared life for another, Connie grew frightened. She did not know where he went, and even though he was back soon enough, in a blink or two, she could not help thinking about his mother’s demise. Ida had suffered from Alzheimer’s for too many years before it killed her, and Connie did not think she was strong enough to lose her husband that way. Fortunately, Wayne’s father died just before Ida got really bad, before she started screaming obscenities at the dinner table and making passes at her own son. There was probably nothing wrong with Wayne, but Connie felt better having those insurance policies in place.
The walkway from the house to the mailbox was pointlessly long, and Connie could feel the sun burning her scalp. Great fluffy clouds were building in the west, thunderheads in the making. Weather was seldom a surprise in Kearney; you could see it coming from all directions, giving you time to run for cover. Homes, not looking for any trouble, were low to the ground and close together. Yards were unadorned, with lawns that tended to peter out before reaching the street. Trees were tough and oddly shaped—the weather turned them feral.
Still, Connie liked living here, not so much for what the town offered as for what it didn’t: traffic, crime, crowds. She and Wayne had moved to Kearney from Omaha six years before, when an etcher at the Worley Monument Company died, leaving the job open. After nearly three decades at J.F. Bloom, where he had learned his craft, Wayne was ready for a change and Worley was happy to hire him. Wayne was one of the best, everybody said so. It wasn’t just his craftsmanship, it was the way he worked with people, steered them toward just the right words and pictures. There was nothing stuffy about headstones anymore: if your hubby loved gambling, you could have his memorial etched with dice and cards; you could even arrange for an image of his grinning face. Wayne believed in headstones, understood that people needed them more than they anticipated. The world could be spinning apart, splitting open, but these markers, made of granite or bronze or Georgia marble, stayed in place, held their value. One time when she and Wayne were walking through Forest Lawn in Omaha, studying the headstones he had etched—elaborate, funny, heartbreaking—they stopped before a child’s memorial: Kaylin Eve Courange, June 2007 to July 2008. Wayne had etched the baby’s handprints on the left, her footprints on the right. Hushed, Connie cast her gaze over the legion of headstones rising from the grass, each one waiting for a passerby, each one whispering the same two words: Remember Me.
Connie shut the door against the heat and headed down the hall to the kitchen. She had washed the breakfast dishes, wiped the counters and swept the floor, leaving this room as tidy as the others. Messy homes confounded her; she could not fathom people who gave up their only stronghold. Dropping the mail into the trash can under the sink, she paused a couple seconds over the Bonfire Grill special. The photo was fetching: three pieces of golden chicken next to a fluffy mound of mashed potatoes and a biscuit dripping with butter. No. She had lost thirteen pounds by not eating this kind of food, and she had another seventeen pounds to go. She did not want to wind up with diabetes, which was where she was headed, according to her doctor. For the past couple months she’d been preparing low-fat meals and eschewing dessert, a regimen that benefited Wayne as well—lean as he was, his cholesterol was high. Now and then Connie would come across bakery receipts in her husband’s Subaru, but she kept quiet, believing that marriage was an alliance, not a stranglehold, and you had to allow for a few glazed donuts.
On the kitchen table were the items she was taking with her: a stack of old towels for the animal shelter, a pair of eyeglasses in need of a new nose pad, and a list of items Wayne wanted from Ace Hardware. Connie took one more satisfied look around her kitchen, admiring the crisp yellow curtains and cheerful orange countertops, then lifted the receiver from the wall phone and dialed Bernie.
“Good morning,” said Connie. “It’s me. You about ready to head out?”
“Sure,” said Bernie. “Sooner the better. I’m watching the news, that movie theater shooting. Horrible.”
“Yes, it was,” said Connie, who had heard more than enough about the maniac in Colorado—news that bad was hard to avoid. Wayne still read the Kearney Hub each morning, while Connie did not, depending on her husband to apprise her of any pertinent local events. She had once been able to accommodate the news, however disturbing, but age seemed to be thinning her nerves, along with her hair and skin. Danger was imminent, she knew this, could take on no more trouble.
“I have a couple stops before Ace—is that okay?”
“Sure!” said Bernie, who had to be the most obliging person Connie knew, a quality that made it easy to do her favors: Bernie didn’t drive. This had not been a problem when Bernie’s husband was alive, and as far as Connie was concerned, it was not a problem now. Bernie did have two children, daughters, but they both lived out of state, and one of them, Stephanie, was useless anyway, only visiting when she needed money. Hard to believe that such a shiftless, black-hearted girl came from a mother like Bernie, but that was parenthood: you had no idea what you were unleashing. Connie and Wayne had been fortunate, winding up with David; quietly and in private, they still remarked on it. They had wanted another child, but Connie had miscarried. Perhaps the baby had been unwell, or would have been; in any case they had not tried again. They had used up their luck, or so it seemed.
Doug, Bernie’s husband, had died the previous winter, just two months after he had been diagnosed. He had started having dizzy spells, which Bernie thought had something to do with his ears or his bad sinuses. What he had had was brain cancer, the sort that spreads like ink and for which there is no vocabulary. It had not mattered what questions Bernie had asked the doctors: the answer was no.
The four of them—Wayne and Connie, Doug and Bernie—had been close. They had used to eat dinner together on Friday evenings, alternating houses and menus, playing cards or Yahtzee afterwards. Doug’s death had been a collective blow absorbed individually. For several weeks after his funeral, Bernie had skirted any mention of her husband, avoiding him like a closed door, but as the weeks went on, she had begun to make allowances. “Doug would have loved that,” she would say of a new recipe, or, “Doug always said the mayor was a fool.” Not long after that she would cite his shortcomings, rolling her eyes in mock exasperation: “That man drove me crazy—had to switch on every light in the house.” Grief turned some people into dry wells, but Bernie, who found little in life to argue with, made her peace with death as well and so reclaimed her husband. Connie admired Bernie and often pondered her irrepressible cheer, deciding it was not a quality you could adopt but one you were favored with, like keen vision or a strong heart.
Bernie lived just four houses down from Wayne and Connie and was waiting at her mailbox when Connie pulled up. As always, she greeted Connie with a big smile, then slid neatly into the car, nimble for a woman her size and age. With her steadfast pageboy hairstyle and stout figure, Bernie reminded Connie of a Campbell Soup Kid, and indeed she looked younger than her sixty-five years, which was one advantage of carrying extra weight—it smoothed out the wrinkles. Connie thought her own face looked older since she’d started the new diet, though Wayne said that was nonsense.
“I love that outfit,” said Connie. She and Bernie had gone to Sears the week before and Bernie was wearing the items she had bought: white shorts and a yellow top that exposed a generous portion of her slack freckled breasts. That she was no longer young and firm did not seem to concern Bernie, as if age were a law she chose to ignore.
“Thank you,” Bernie said. “You look nice too. That’s a good color on you,” she added, pointing to Connie’s blouse.
Who didn’t look better in pink, Connie thought, which was why she had three pink blouses and a pink dress, even a pink bathrobe: pink was a serviceable color. While Connie liked to look her best, she gave little consideration to her attire and seldom bought new garments. There was a time when clothes shopping had been a thrill, when a new dress could make her giddy, but those feelings had subsided, and any purchases she made now were only to replace something frayed or stained, bringing her the same satisfaction she might get from new shelf liner. Which was fine. Connie didn’t mind being past the age when clothes were lures and each day was burdened with high expectation.
“It’s a hot one,” said Bernie, buckling up. “Looks like we’re going to get some storms.”
“I think you’re right.” Connie eyed the treetops, which had begun to sway as if in warning; the solid trunks looked ready, defiant.
Driving down the wide open streets of Kearney still gave her pleasure. Aside from the friends she and Wayne had left behind and that perfect kitchen with its big pantry, there was little she missed about living in Omaha. Both she and Wayne had grown up in Broken Bow, and Connie was glad of that, thankful to have been raised in a cozy community where people looked out for each other, but she was ready to leave when Wayne started working at the monument company. People in Broken Bow knew everything there was to know about her, or thought they did, and Connie wanted to be someone else: someone daring, or kinder, or smarter, someone at least mysterious. And then there was the massive feedlot just south of town where thousands of cows were fattened for slaughter. As a child, happily immune to worlds outside her own, Connie had not considered the cattle, had not even minded the odor that soaked the town on hot summer days. It wasn’t until she was out of high school that images of those animals, their bright panicked eyes, began to take root in her, to become a chronic affliction. She stopped eating beef, hoping that a clear conscience would save her, but her tiny pledge made no difference. The cows were still there, and all she could do was leave them behind. Opportunity for Wayne, escape for Connie, Omaha rescued them both; thirty years later Kearney did the same.
“Where to first?” Bernie asked.
“The animal shelter. I’m dropping off some old towels.”
“What a good idea,” said Bernie, slapping her thighs. “I should do that. I have a couple blankets I don’t need.”
Connie looked over. “Do you want me to turn back?”
“Oh no. It’s going to take me a while to find them.” This was true. The closets in Bernie’s house were overflowing with the paraphernalia she used to make Christmas decor: Styrofoam balls, squares of red velvet, sequins, rickrack, gold cords, miniature nativity scenes, tiny sleighs and mangers. Bernie fashioned these whimsical ornaments all year long and sold them to friends and local gifts shops, then put her earnings in an IRA. Clever gal, that Bernie. She’d worked in cash management at First National and was good with her money; it probably wasn’t by chance that Doug had carried such a sizeable life insurance policy.
They were on Route 30 now, heading west. Just above the pale horizon, the clouds had massed into a huge gray slab from which sleeves of rain emptied onto fields and towns. A plastic bag whipped across the road and plastered itself against a church sign: “Today’s To-Do List…Thank God.” Fast food cups skittered by, followed by a wheeling paper plate. To the left, a lone dog trotted down the middle of the sidewalk.
“Wonder where he’s going,” said Bernie. “I don’t see the owner.”
“We’re almost at the shelter,” said Connie. “Let’s see if we can get him in the car.” She put on her turn signal and pulled over, but when she opened the car door, the dog gave a worried look over its shoulder and broke into a sprint.
Connie shook her head and slid back behind the wheel. “Let’s tell the folks at the shelter. Maybe they can send someone out.”
“Oh, I’m sure they can. Poor little guy.”
Connie drove on. By the time they pulled into the shelter the sun was gone and the sky had turned a yellowish-gray. She should probably skip Lind’s Optical, but her old glasses were giving her headaches, and the store wasn’t far. “You coming in?” she asked, lifting the pile of towels from the back seat.
Bernie shook her head. “I’d better not. You know how that goes.” And yes, Connie did. Bernie had adopted three cats from this shelter and was feeding a stray. Connie had brought home dogs, two on the same day, a black Lab and a pit bull mix. Dick and Jane. They were adults at the time of adoption and so their ages could only be estimated, but Dick, the Lab, was clearly older than Jane. His face had gone gray and he walked with effort. The dogs kept continual watch over each other, monitoring subtle changes of mood and responding with a lift of the head, a tentative tail wag. After Dick, there would be another dog, there would have to be, on account of Jane.
The girl behind the desk regarded Connie without interest, her thumbs poised over her cell phone. Connie described the dog, some sort of terrier, she thought, with light brown fur. “Can you send someone out? It can’t be far—I just saw it.”
The girl shrugged. “Maybe Louis. When he gets back from lunch.”
“When will he be back?”
“I don’t know,” the girl sighed. “Not long. We only get a half-hour.” From the back rooms came the howl of a dog, a plaintive, pointless note. Other dogs, roused to hope, began to bark.
“I tried to get him in the car,” Connie said, “but he was scared.” She placed the bundle of towels on the counter. “Anyway, I know you can always use these.”
The girl frowned at the towels. “Yeah, thanks. We have a lot of them already, but whatever.” She turned back to her phone. Her round face was raging with pimples; even without them she would not be attractive. Connie understood her grudge against life, but this place was too fragile for rancor.
“You need to be nice,” Connie said, “If you can’t make the effort you should quit.” The girl looked up, stunned, and Connie walked out. She would never have spoken up like that when she was younger, and she was pleased with herself. People said that age took away your inhibitions, but Connie thought it took away your blinders, made you see how many things depended on you.
“They’ll send someone out to look for the dog,” Connie told Bernie, getting back behind the wheel. “Supposedly.”
“I hope so,” said Bernie, frowning with concern. “How are Dick and Jane, by the way?”
“Fine. We’ve had to up Dick’s Cosequin, but he’s doing pretty well. That stuff is amazing—I don’t think he’d be walking without it.” Connie pulled onto the main road and got behind a vintage Oldsmobile traveling well below the speed limit. At each intersection the car slowed to a crawl, the driver apparently not trusting the traffic lights.
“For the love of Pete,” Connie murmured, stepping on the brake again. “Of all days.”
“Maybe they’re having car trouble,” Bernie offered.
Connie laughed. “I’d say so.”
Finally the driver signaled a turn, and the Oldsmobile swung wide to the left. Connie could see the driver now, a tiny white-haired woman, and she felt bad for laughing. She pictured herself at eighty-five: muddled, half-deaf, peering through clouds of cataracts. And that was if she were lucky, not wheelchair-bound or worse.
The sky was darker now and more bits of trash whirled across the road. A sheet of newspaper, caught on a light post, shivered in the wind. Just as they drove past Dollar General, a large black O fell from the yellow sign and bounced down the sidewalk.
“Golly,” Bernie murmured. “That could have hit somebody.”
Connie accelerated, drove as fast as she dared: five miles over the speed limit. Seven miles was the cut-off, that’s what Wayne had told her; the police didn’t bother with anything under that.
Connie glanced over at Bernie. “I have to pop into Lind’s Optical. You okay with that?”
“Sure, honey, whatever you need to do.” Bernie glanced out the window, then turned back to Connie. “What do you hear from David these days?”
David was an anesthesiologist. He worked at Scripps Health and lived in San Diego, which was where he wanted his parents to move when Wayne retired. “The weather’s perfect,” he told them, “year round. No more shoveling snow, Dad. No more black ice.” Naturally, Connie wanted to be near her son, but she wasn’t at all sure about California with its earthquakes and high taxes and long naked coastline. She liked living in the middle of the country, no jagged edges, just wide open land farther than she could see, farther than she could imagine. And she had come from this land, was a measure of it. Maybe it was foolish to think this, but Connie wondered if, like plants, people did best in the place they were born in, if the air and soil of Nebraska were nourishments she would falter without. Maybe she was just afraid of change.
Their son, their only child, a doctor, an achievement she and Wayne had little to do with, having determined early on to be tolerant parents, to accept middling grades and modest athletic performances so that David would be spared the humiliation Wayne had suffered. Connie well remembered Wayne’s father, Karl Zimmermann, his narrow eyes and near-constant scowl, his coarse brown hair sticking straight up. Even when he got sick and Wayne was over there every day helping out, he could not find a tender word to say, just sat on his porch and glared at the world.
“We just spoke with him yesterday,” Connie said, smiling. “He’s good. He’s fine. Oh, get this—he and Jamie are getting married.” Jamie was a dermatologist; she and David had been living together for nearly three years, sharing a condo near the hospital.
“Oh my,” said Bernie. “That’s wonderful. Are they having a baby?”
“That’s what I asked. No, they’re not.” They were almost at the mall. Connie switched on her signal and pulled into the left turn lane. “I don’t think they’re going to have kids—where would they find the time?”
Bernie nodded. “Two doctors. Isn’t that something?”
When he was in residency in Omaha, Connie asked her son why he wanted to be an anesthesiologist, why that instead of, say, a cardiologist or a pediatrician, and he said he liked the idea of taking care of people, keeping them safe, while other doctors did their work. Not until David starting working at Scripps, holding his patients in that eerie, unassailable stasis—Connie saw it as a deep red labyrinth—did she begin to apprehend the risk involved, the reason for his stratospheric insurance premiums. What a brave man her son was! Connie had undergone general anesthesia just once, when she had had her varicose veins stripped. Excited at the prospect of normal-looking legs, she had not been apprehensive about the surgery. It was the consent form she had had to sign the day before that gave her pause. Dying itself did not scare her—everyone died—but Connie wanted to be present for her death, to feel herself slipping from this world into the next. She wanted that grand surprise, saw it as part of the bargain.
There weren’t many people at the mall, and Connie was able to get a parking space right in front of the optical store. “Be right back,” she said.
Bernie smiled pleasantly. “Take your time. I’m going to text Brenda.” Brenda was Bernie’s other daughter, the good one, the one with four children and Bernie’s pretty blue eyes.
Dominique, the woman who did the eyeglass repairs, came out of an office in the back. She was a wiry woman with short black hair and dark skin. Darker freckles of varying size spotted her nose and cheekbones. As always, she nodded and beamed at Connie, her wide white smile overtaking her face. When Connie had first met Dominique she had assumed the woman was uncommonly friendly, but when she had smiled back and said it was nice meeting her, Dominique had pointed a finger at her mouth and mouthed the words, can’t talk. Laryngitis, Connie had concluded, or a recent surgical procedure, but this had not been the case. One of the sales gals had let Connie know that Dominique was a mute, and Connie had realized that the nodding and beaming was how she communicated. Having no voice, she presented a smile, a peace offering, the world’s first language. Connie thought it was a sweet way to be, and she wanted to share these feelings with Dominique but did not know how.
The sky looked odd when Connie came out of the store, a charcoal mass from which hung lighter lobe-shaped clouds, rows and rows of them. They had a name, Connie was sure of this, but she couldn’t remember what it was. She got back into the car and pointed up. “What are those called?”
Bernie peered through the windshield, grimaced. “Storm clouds.”
“Ace and then home,” said Connie. “Hopefully we’ll miss the worst of it.”
“They say we’re going to have a snowy winter,” Bernie remarked.
“Then I’m glad I’m buying a new snow shovel.” That was on the list. Their old shovel had snapped in two and Wayne wanted to make sure they replaced it before winter. He also wanted weatherstripping and a backup roll of duct tape. Bernie needed a sink stopper and another bird feeder.
“Well, at least you’ll get a little break in November, you lucky so-and-so,” said Bernie with a wink. “That was so thoughtful of David.”
Connie’s face softened at the sound of her son’s name. “Yes, it was.”
As an anniversary present, David was sending Wayne and Connie to Maui, a gift that included their stay at the Hilton, along with a luau and a helicopter tour. Connie was looking forward to this, having read the brochures and scrolled through online pictures. Paradise, that’s what everyone called it. Palm trees, pink sand beaches, wild orchids; the islanders spoke English, and you didn’t have to worry about parasites or foreign currency. (David had actually given them a choice. Knowing that Wayne had a robust interest in his forbears, David had also offered them a trip to the Mosel Valley in Germany. Wayne had said either option would be fine with him, so Connie, picturing gloomy castles, heavy foods and people she could not talk to, had made the decision.)
A few minutes later Connie and Bernie pulled into the parking lot at Ace Hardware. This time there were no available spaces in front of the store, so they parked a short distance away. As they were walking past a green Volkswagen, Connie noticed a woman with long blonde hair in the passenger seat. Her hands were covering her face, her shoulders were heaving. Connie gaped, looked away. How awful it was to see a stranger crying. The woman’s business was her own, but walking past her felt wrong, like leaving the scene of an accident.
“That woman was crying.” Connie said.
Bernie looked around. “What woman?”
Connie tilted her head toward the car. “The one in the Volkswagen.”
Bernie peered behind them, shook her head. “Poor soul. You never know, do you?”
“No,” said Connie. “You don’t.” Sickness, maybe. Or a broken heart. Maybe something too awful to speak of.
“I know just where I’m going,” Bernie said as they entered the store. “Meet you at the front.” Familiar with the store’s layout, it did not take the women long to locate what they needed, and in just a few minutes, they were back outside, bags in hand. In her other hand Connie held the new snow shovel like a scepter, its wide flat surface rising above her head.
“Darn,” said Connie. “Too late.” The rain had begun, fat drops exploding on the pavement, pelting their heads and faces. The air was dense, pungent with asphalt and ozone.
Connie looked at Bernie, at her faultless hair, her flimsy sandals. “You stay here. I’ll get the car.” Bernie started to protest, but Connie was already gone, hurrying across the parking lot, her shovel jerking wildly.
Bernie never saw the lightning; her phone chimed with a new text from Brenda just seconds before the ground stroke hit. She did hear the terrible crack of thunder, and then she saw Connie, sprawled in the lot.
Bernie would not remember dropping her bag, running to her friend, would not remember falling to her knees and taking Connie’s hand in hers, would not remember the deepening puddle she was kneeling in. What she would remember was the rain pattering Connie’s face, her calm expression, her knowing eyes, which blinked several times before they stayed open. For the rest of her days, Bernie would remember Connie’s arm rising, her finger pointing to something Bernie couldn’t see, and the last words she uttered: “There,” Connie said, “there.”
People would blame it on the snow shovel, would claim that lightning struck the shovel and killed Connie Zimmermann in an instant. This would not be true. The mighty bolt that felled Connie ignored the tiny shovel and detonated on the earth itself, scorching the air and sending its jagged volts sixty feet in all directions. The currents that hit Connie traveled up one leg and down the other, knocking her flat and halting her heart. The snow shovel was thrown three yards; the hand that held it was not harmed—there had been no time for flesh to burn. The only marks on Connie’s body were just below the skin, red rivers of burst blood vessels on her legs and torso that looked, strangely enough, like bolts of lightning.
The odds of being killed by lightning are 300,000 to one. Though Connie didn’t know this statistic, she would not have been surprised to learn that she was the one. Somebody had to be the one, and wasn’t she somebody?
She could not have said what hit her, was not even sure that she’d been hit. There was only a blinding brightness, and then, slowly, a darkness that fell in velvet folds all around her, and she was somehow moving through this soft dark toward a small glowing screen. It was as if she were watching a movie from a distance, a beckoning scene both familiar and unknown, the colors more vivid as she grew closer. She was nearly there, could see the colors turning into shapes, her path unfurling between them. There it was, had always been, another world, a promise kept. More than anything she wanted to tell Bernie, to let her know about this lovely place, but she was inside it by then and on her own.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Crack the Spine.
Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies. Nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, she has also published a novel, Lost Sister. Her debut collection of short stories, Survival Skills, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press and was shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award.