"The man, he a man. Got a beard. Dark, strong. He ain't old or young. The boy, he just a little one, though he think he bigger. Maybe ten. He got a fishing pole in his hand. They going to catch fish."
"Is there a woman?"
"How do you know that?"
"'Cause they going out fishing in they church clothes."
She heard him before she saw him. A small cough, followed by a louder, deeper cough that he tried to swallow back. She turned toward the house and there, in the path between the gravestones, stood an old man. A surprisingly old man. He was thin and pepper-haired, and his eyes were too dark for her to see where he was looking. They were set back too far in his head to distinguish them from the shadows. He stood up tall and held his old bowler in his hand. She could see him nervously massaging his knuckles under the hat, which caused a little halo of dust to rise up off the felt. He wore a long coat that was slightly too short and scuffed boots. His mouth was twisted up in what appeared to be a smirk, but which she knew was not. He watched her closely and walked toward her with the faintest hint of a limp, enough to make her heart break. The twisted and dried-out parts of him still contained just the memory of his old beautyall the parts of him were still there, they'd just been used up. He stood before her, so close she could hear the air whistling in and out of him. She knew him immediately, as if he'd left only the day before.
"Why'd you scare that boy, Mrs. McGavock?"
"I love that boy."
"He one of yours?"
"Do I look like he could be my child?"
"I meant, is he your grandson or something? That's possible, ain't it?"
"No, he's not my grandson, just a stray off the street."
"Just a stray," the man repeated.
They paused and looked at each other, and Carrie felt angry that he'd come without warning. The feeling passed. She pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear and squinted hard at him.
"I didn't mean to insinuate anything," she said.
"I reckon I ain't had anyone insinuate anything about me in a long time. I didn't take no offense."
"But none was meant."
The old man stopped and toed at the grass with his foot. He looked around at the grave markers like he had misplaced something. He started to sway a little, and Mariah moved quickly behind him, ready to steady him if she had to, but not willing to speak or acknowledge him. He spoke again.
"I thought we decided a long time ago that folks don't always know what they mean. Or what things mean, for that matter."
Carrie considered this. "I suppose we did."
The old man bent over in a fit of coughing, slapping at his breast pocket until he found an old handkerchief to spit into. Mariah bent over him with her hand on his back and looked up at Carrie like she'd just seen something she wished she hadn't. He stared at his handkerchief, snorted dismissively, and put it away, all the while bent over like he was catching his breath.
Carrie had the feeling that she was falling. How could he be like this? This was not the man she'd known, not the man she remembered. The air spun and hummed around her.
She walked to his side and took his chin in her hand, hard, and pulled until he was looking her in the eye. Mariah cried out and tried to stop her, but Carrie waved her off. She saw him fully for the first time and reached with her other hand to wipe rheumy tears from the corners of his eyes and to feel the loose drape of his skin over sharp cheekbones. He struggled to keep from coughing in her face.
Copyright © 2005 by Robert Hicks
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