The Branches of Autumn
R. Harlan Smith
Sarah Wrigley’s hand trembled over the telephone, then back.
“Why on earth does all this have to fall upon me? Look at me. Just look at me.”
She sat in the dark at her kitchen window with her morning tea, her telephone at her fingertips. She watched the lights of an ore boat creeping across the horizon.
“I’m too old to look after some old half-blind, tramp of a man. And he’s too old to look after himself.”
The air was crisp, and there was little light this early in the morning, even with a clear sky. The trees had already shed their leaves. She could see much farther beyond the branches now; all the way to the west where the steel mills lighted the sky, where dear Otis had worked his life away, and to the east where she and Otis had fished off the rocks. Otis would know what to do.
Yellows and reds and browns were scattering across the yard. They were tossed and dragged, scraping across the porch like brittle little hands. Otis would have raked them and burned them.
Sarah Wrigley dreaded the autumn months. She dreaded seeing farther through the branches. They were like the hands of people sinking into the earth. Every year she waited with devotion for the first snowfall. On the morning it came she would sit with her tea and her tablet, and she would list the tasks she would get done in the spring. It was almost as if Otis was sitting right there with her.
It was Otis’ idea to plan for spring at first snow. They had trudged hand-in-hand through knee-high snow, laughing and breathing hard to the lake shore.
“It has to be a surprise,” he said. “You have to wake up to it. It makes a perfect blank canvas, waiting for the colors of flowers and vegetables and freshly painted wood. It was the best time to plan.”
It had been part of his proposal to her, and they had planned their wedding that day.
One year they planned the shed. It would be big enough to garage the van with a bench top and tools and things for the garden. They had spent hours out there, Otis sharpening the lawn mower and fixing things. She would bring him lemonade, and he would hug her and kiss her forehead. Then his heart gave out. She had not set foot in there since, nor had anyone else until old Marcus came along.
Sarah sipped her tea and watched the glowing shed window. What would he be doing at this hour? He could be sleeping. He could have fallen asleep with the lantern burning. He had done it often enough with the candles. She had warned him; “What if the shed burns? Then where would you go?” Her eyes were big and round.
She did not like to raise her voice, but she had to speak up to be sure he heard her. If a bit of impatience crept in, it was because she resented buying the lantern to begin with. She knew he would fall asleep and burn the shed, and himself along with it; stupid old man. Oh, it was a big mistake to let him sleep in the shed. You give a stray dog a place to sleep. People need more, and old Marcus needed a lot more. All he does is wander the neighborhood, asking for odd jobs. The Gibsons refuse to let him mow their yard the way he coughs and carries on. It was too much for him. Now they offer him a sandwich and a glass of milk. He sits on the back steps and eats quietly and goes away, doesn’t even drink the milk. He’s trouble alright. He needs to be looked after.
Sarah Wrigley looked at her telephone then down at her hands in her lap, motionless like the branches of autumn. She could hear Otis’ voice; “When Sarah Wrigley sits with her hands in her lap, she’s about to do something.” They were aching. She knew if she got away from the phone, they would stop.
She wondered what old Marcus did out there. She couldn’t imagine how he spent his time. She had only seen him going, never coming, so she had never seen him bring anything in. There was never any movement out there, never a shadow crossing the window, no noise, not a sign of life. Did he just sit there?
It was Sarah Wrigley’s curiosity that had driven her to buy the lantern. He wouldn’t have to burn candles if she bought him a lantern. It was an expensive solution, but she could knock and give it to him and see what went on in there.
Old Marcus was astonished to see her. She pushed the lantern and a jar of kerosene into his arms. “And you’re to use these,” she said. “No more candles.” He held them to his chest as she pushed past and feasted her eyes.
A pair of overalls and a flannel shirt lay folded on the bench top. There was a cot covered with newspapers and the worn carpeting from the van. In the corner the seat from the van was stacked with more folded clothing. On top of that a box of candles and matches. The floor was clean. The lawnmower, all the clay pots, the rake, the hoe, the spade were all clean, the handles sanded smooth, the metal shining. The decades of dust that had settled over the van had been polished away. She could see herself in the windshield. He had stripped the old engine and cleaned the parts. They were wrapped in newspaper and arranged in some scheme of organization clear only to him.
“It’s all there,” he assured her. “Except for the batt’rey.”
She could hear his fingers scratching his stubble.
“I looked everywhere. I’ll put it together. Then I’m headin’ up to the northern forests. I’ll just stay there in the van, don’t you see. Mother Earth’ll take care of me ‘til the angels come and take me to Heaven.”
Sarah Wrigley frowned. She looked at the engine parts spread out on the floor. She didn’t know what they were or anything about them except that they were very clean. He must have spent hours.
Then, “Do you know how to work this,” she said. “You pour the kerosene in there.”
Slowly, old Marcus filled the lamp. He pumped it a few times and lit a match to the filament. The lantern hissed and glowed. He adjusted the glow and held the lantern up between them. The light filled the shed, casting fine-edged shadows over everything. He saw her shadow, a little crow of a woman, shimmering on the wall behind her.
“A mighty fine light,” he said.
Old Marcus was layered in sweaters and coats. His pea cap was pulled down over his ears and low across his forehead, hiding his eyebrows, almost covering his eyes so that he had to tilt his head back to see her. His cheeks, the pouches under his eyes, his thick lips hung from his face, as if weathered loose over several lifetimes. He waited politely holding the lantern up, providing the light they shared. The old woman would say something any minute. It had been years since anyone had looked into his face, since he had looked into someone else’s face.
Sarah Wrigley pulled her cardigan close as she faced old Marcus in the light. She had not intended a social call. That was out of the question. Yet, the longer she faced him, the more personal it became. The poor man needed to wash and shave.
She moved back towards the door, stepping carefully around the engine parts.
“No more candles,” she said.
She pushed the door closed and hurried across the yard. She remembered telling him to bring her the battery from the van. It was just last summer. She had watched him come out of the shed every morning. She was frightened at first, and then she saw it was Old Marcus. He went back into the weeds and disappeared as if he had somewhere to go.
“Alright. If that old shed’s agreeable to him, he can sleep in it.” But she wanted the battery. He was certainly not going to drive Otis’ van. She had the battery and she knew exactly where it was.
Sarah Wrigley sipped her tea. The sky was brighter now. The ore boat was clearly visible. What could he be doing out there, burning that lantern at this hour? He couldn’t be spending every minute polishing those engine parts. She was sure of that. The northern forests, indeed. He just sits out there, sits in this cold and rots. Her hand was on the telephone. She was dialing.
Old Marcus was awakened by two men in white. They stood in the doorway, looking in.
“Geez,” the younger one said.
The sun flooded the shed, blinding old Marcus to everything but their blurred silhouettes. They managed to raise him up and get his legs over the side of the cot. The young one looked around and whistled a drawn out note of amazement.
“Lookit all this. It’s like a museum of very uninteresting… stuff.”
The older one took old Marcus’ hand. His eyes were bright and alert, like a sparrow’s eyes. Old Marcus could see that. He carried a sweet aroma, as faint as the memory it nudged way back in Marcus’ mind. It was something light-hearted, flirtatious. There was laughter under a warm sky and something else.
The man explained to old Marcus what they were going to do and where they were going to go. He repeatedly asked if old Marcus understood.
“Can you walk pretty good, old-timer?”
Old Marcus let them walk him out into the cold air. He smelled leaves burning. He could feel the sun on his back as they helped him manage the shiny step into the ambulance. They helped him to lie down and they tucked a warm blanket around him.
Old Marcus looked around. It was warm and clean and polished, and there was something in the air much sweeter than kerosene.
“Buckle up,” the young one said. “I’ll find out what I can about him from the old woman.”
Old Marcus heard the door thump shut. He turned his head to the side to see the man in white.
“Is this the van?” he whispered.
“A brand new van,” the man answered.
Old Marcus blinked, trying to focus his eyes. Brand new. He wondered if it would get all the way up north to the forests.
“Start it up,” Old Marcus said. “Let’s hear it run.”
“It is running, sir,” the man said. “We’ll be rolling in a minute. You just relax and enjoy the ride.”
Old Marcus smiled. Amazing. It is running. He kept very still, listening.
The young man came back and jumped behind the wheel. He scribbled something on his clip board and tossed it on the dashboard. “She was crying. All she knows is he’s sick, he’s feeble, and his name’s Marcus. Don’t know if that’s his first name or his last. Don’t know anything else about him. Period.”
The van began to move. The driver picked up speed as they pulled onto the main road. He made a turn and rattled the boards across Newell’s bridge and they picked up speed again. Old Marcus heard the clatter of the bridge and closed his eyes. They were headed north.
Sarah Wrigley sat with a fresh cup of tea. She cradled the steaming cup in her hands. It did not stop the aching.