2011
SHORT STORY CONTEST
Honorable Mention

THE STONE CARVER

by Ann Marie Samson

He went to the woman who was the best stone cutter in the county because he wanted an angel carved in marble for his wife’s grave.

For a long time George Moody had not loved his wife, but he had been very careful not to let her know. In fact he would have flung himself off the upstairs porch before he would ever have let her know. But now he’d come to the stone carver to have his wife honored in a distinctive work of art, to make up on a gravestone for what he had not given to her in the last three years.

What was the stone carver’s name? Already he’d forgotten…named for a nearby city. Fortuna? Arcata? He reached in his pocket for her business card, but before he could find it there was already somebody at the door. Her son, he supposed. Skinny and sneering. An abundance of blonde hair partially subdued with a rubber band at the nape of his neck. Then a woman’s voice cut a groove through the narrow trailer. “Don’t just stand there, Ivan. Have them come on in.”

Ivan flicked his thumb in the direction of the back of the trailer and George stepped into the tiny kitchen, maneuvering through the piles of laundry, bags of dog food, and stacks of newspapers. He met the stone carver as she was coming in from the back, wiping her hands on her overalls covered with a fine dust. Despite bad teeth she was unafraid to smile when she extended her hand to him. “You’re George, right? I’m Carlotta.”

Her hand was freckled and thick like a man’s. The hard-knuckled hand did not seem to match her lenient body, softening everywhere into the comfort of overalls.

“The funeral parlor called today about your stone,” she said. “They said you’d be by.”

His right hand was still in his pocket, still on top of the card reading, “It’s never too early to consider your monumental needs.” Quickly, he took out his hand and shook hers. “I heard about you in town. They say you do fine work. I was told you’re the best. I need…the stone is for my wife. My recently departed wife. She died last month.”

Had he made her blush? No, only he was blushing. Too many words maybe. He hadn’t spilled out so many words for a while. How he must sound to her!

The woman nodded her head and led him through the side door of the trailer and out to a gravel yard in back where she said they could look at the marble and granite. There were piles and slabs of stone, stacked and leaning against a shed. Tufts of dried grass grew around some of the little statues and giant sized pieces of marble, colored like the evening sky, grey and rose and everything in between.

“I can do anything you want,” she told him. “Usually, I try to do the things country people like. Pine trees. Birds. Deer. I do lots of deer. Probably that’s what I do best. Deer. Wanta see one over there?” She pointed to one of the monuments.

“No. No deer. It has to be an angel,” he told her. “I’ve already decided that. It’s what she would want.”

“Sure,” the woman said. “That’s fine.”

“I brought a picture…what I had in mind.” He handed her an old Christmas card. She stopped walking and looked at it. Two angels with their wings spread out like hawks.

“Something like that would do. Think you can do it?” he asked her.

Carlotta held the card up to the sunlight and stared at it a minute.

“This would work up nice in a good quality marble. It calls for some fancy detail but I think we can fix you up.” She continued walking and talking in front of him and he followed after her, catching only the drift of what she was saying.

“…haven’t done angels for a while, for five or six years. My husband Orvis used to like doing them. He’s the one taught me the trade. But I do all the carving now, he mostly drives the truck, goes down with the boy and gets all the granite around Sacramento.”

She asked him where he was from and what he did for a living. He told her he lived in town. Drove a school bus.

“Kids can drive you nuts, huh?” She laughed. He hadn’t expected so much talking.

“I have a couple of my own,” she said. “Boys. We started this business because of them. But now they’re grown they don’t want no part of it. The oldest one ran away last year. I suppose it’s for the best. I don’t want them to stay here for the rest of their lives anyway. Orvis, he’s been doing it so long he got emphysema from all the dust. Before we put the fans in.”

She stopped walking for a minute, waiting for him to catch up. “Over here you can see some samples of what I do.”

He nodded his head and she led him over to a corner of the yard, talking the whole way.

“Orvis, he’s got into the whiskey some, so I do most of the work you see here.”

They stopped in front of a pink fluted stone where she had carved two pistols suspended in mid-air having a shoot-off. “Would you believe somebody would want something like that?” Carlotta folded her arms across her chest and looked askance at the stone. “Died of arguing, I guess. I’ve done guns before. Did a sixteen-wheeler once. Trucker killed on the highway. They brought me a picture of his truck. It was what the family wanted. I don’t dispute with them.”

Back inside the trailer, they decided on two flying angels hovering over a tree. Carlotta sat at a rough hewn table and sketched quickly on a big white pad. The sun showed up the silvery strands in her dark hair. She chewed on her pencil while she talked. “I’ve done dogs and wolves, men fishing, even a turtle once. Some people—like you here— want to design their own. They bring me something they want copied out of a book or a photograph maybe, whatever means something to them. I never question what people want. After I work it up some I’ll start sketching in pencil right on to the stone.” She turned the pad of paper around while she talked so that he could see for himself, the two angels positioned like the two matching .45-caliber pistols in a shootout.

She put some water in the tea kettle. He watched her move through the tiny kitchen, her hips grazing the counters. He watched her come toward him. He decided she was one of those beautiful women whose eyes have made her so.

She set a cup and saucer in front of him. There was a tea bag on the side of the cup. “So, what do you want to say on it?” she asked him.

He was startled by the question. Of course he would have to say something, but what? He told her he was searching for the right words but they hadn’t come to him yet.

After his wife died, this is what he did:

He cut six cords of wood and pushed it by the wheelbarrow load to stack against the side of the house. It was enough wood for six winters.

He ran every day, rain or shine.

He ate dinner at seven sharp, standing up over the kitchen sink and later rinsing his plate off under the faucet. The whole process took about five minutes.

They never had children. He took the things she left behind he didn’t want to remember and he made a big pile of it and had a bonfire in the backyard. He sat on the porch with a beer and watched it all go up in smoke. He pictured his wife, resplendent, floating like an angel among her possessions, moving like smoke straight up through the trees. He felt like one of the pecked-out pines in the middle of the field. He wondered how long he would stay standing upright.

His wife had never been beautiful. She always said she considered herself lucky to have found him—”so good-looking”—a dapper man who decked himself out so good some people took him for a fag. That is why he was so surprised when someone else found his wife attractive. He’d always thought he would be the one to have the affair.

She was unbelievably shy for one thing, and seldom dressed up or went out anywhere, hardly even socialized with other women. Which is why he was pleasantly surprised when out of the blue she told him she’d decided to join an amateur theatrical group. She even had been chosen for a part in a play.

Months later he was astonished when he finally saw her on stage sporting a clinging dress from the forties and a superb British accent. He had to recheck his program to make sure it was her. After the performance they ate out in a restaurant. People actually stood up when they walked in. Everyone rushed her, talking over him and reassembling themselves around the star of the evening–his wife. He was very proud and took her right home to bed, delighted to have found this new woman.

But as she became more and more involved he shrunk down into less and less, and then a few months later she left him to move in with a fellow actor. Someone from the play, in a role he couldn’t even remember. “No hard feelings,” his wife told him. “Gary and I just have more in common.”

He never got over it.

* * * * *

He stayed put and waited in a kind of seething torpor, but he never saw her, not for two years even though she lived only one town over. Then inexplicably, she called him.

She wanted to meet and talk—he supposed about divorce. He went anyway, spurred on by his own animus and not a small amount of curiosity.

He was amazed at how terrible she looked.

Before he could say much she got right to the point.

“I want to come home,” she said.

Well, wasn’t this his moment?

“Why?” he asked. He scratched his chin and with a touch of irony added, “didn’t things work out?”

“I NEED to come back,” she said. In a few sentences she told him she’d been to a doctor and was ill and he immediately realized her illness was what he was seeing in her face. She told him her “situation” was critical.

“What do you mean?” he cut in.

“I mean the worst,” she whispered. She told him she had only a short time left, and it had forced her to take a hard look at things, that now she was in the serious business of dying and needed a different life, a quiet life that could get her through it all.

“I know I’m asking the world of you,” she said, “especially after…after what I did.”

“Never mind that,” he said. He motioned for her to go on.

“I have nowhere to go. I’ve left Gary. I had to. He’s not up to it. He’s not the type.”

“And I am?” he smirked.

“Yes. In a sense you are.” She averted her face and stared out the window. “Gary’s all about himself. Most theater people are. I’ve learned that much.”

He stared at her reflection in the window, avoiding looking at her directly. “Okay,” he said, and begged his mind to agree with him.

* * * * *

With a few swift strokes the diagnosis cut him into a new life. Soon he was the man who took care of an invalid, the man inside the house where the shades were always drawn.

Now that he had her back he wanted her back entirely. If they had only these last weeks together, the least he could do was love her for this short while. Know her. Yes, he burned to know everything. To talk before she left him for good, to hear in her own words what he had been in her life.

He grew bloodthirsty for details about her affair. He wanted his wife to fill him up with filthy talk, the dirty joke of her past, drag him way down into grief, further than he’d ever been, so he could bury his hate for her forever.

He considered coming right out with it, ask her point blank, “Can you tell me why everything changed between us?”

Then he considered her probable answer: I don’t want to talk about that. Not now.

Day after day went by without their saying much. She was too weary, too far gone now, to be stirring up such feelings. Even at the last minute, when he wasn’t sure she would even be able to hear him, he bent way over her to listen in case she had something to say. A resurrection of her memories. A resurrection of anything. But it was all too late. Even now, just thinking about it, his knees shook.

* * * * *

Weeks later, after running a race with himself on the high school track, he found himself sitting on a wooden bench outside the stone carver’s trailer. Carlotta brought out two cans of soda and put one in front of each of them. There were chickens let loose into the front yard. A little bandy-legged rooster charged a speckled hen twice his size. The rooster caught her finally and climbed aboard. George pretended not to notice, but Carlotta laughed. It was the kind of laugh that drove right up alongside his brain and waved at him.

“I’m glad you dropped by,” she said. “Now that I finished that stone I need you to decide on some words—something on it besides her name and all.” He realized he had never gotten beyond the name and “beloved wife of…”

They walked into the yard, down the narrow paths between the headstones. She took him over to the fence and showed him the dome shaped gravestone leaning there. The two angels were carved into it, two angels, floating apart, but touching fingers. He knelt in front of the stone for a while, tracing around each crystalline figure with his palms.

“This is perfect,” he said. “She’ll love it.” He realized how silly that sounded. “I mean she really believed in angels. She had a picture of one she saw in a book. An actual photograph somebody took over in England.”

The stone carver leaned forward and listened.

“It had these giant wings that looked fake to me, but to her it was the real thing.” He turned back and sought Carlotta’s eyes.

“But she always believed in all kinds of weird stuff,” he said. “Not just angels. Ghosts. Spaceships. Bio-feedback to cure her headaches. Let me tell you she was into some strange things. Some people are like that.”

“You don’t seem that type to me,” Carlotta said.

“No, I’m not. Not at all.”

“People come in here and say the dead go up into heaven and become angels or descend somewhere into demons. They tell me this all the time. So, what do you think? Do you think of your wife as an angel?”

She was watching him, deeply interested. In the distance he could hear the hum of the highway.

“No,” he replied. “I think of her as devious.”

He was immediately sorry he’d said it.

* * * * *

He didn’t know why he ended up telling Carlotta everything. It was like she’d emptied out his pockets and everything he’d hidden or stolen was laid out right there in front of them. “I tried to love her. Really I did. But it would be dishonest because…I didn’t…couldn’t.” He even ended it with tears. “I’ll get over it. I’ll get over it.”

She patted him gently on the shoulder. He began to feel afraid that she would keep on touching him. Then he was afraid she would not.

“Hey, sometimes people bring things on themselves. My Orvis is an example. I shut him off a long time ago. I’m not about to make love with a drunk.”

They stayed like that for a while, both stooped down in front of the stone. Then she stood up and walked around to the other side of a pile of headstones and he followed her. She looked at him and slipped down the straps of her overalls. Suddenly he was filled with this frightening need.

It was a quick fling down to the earth and they were moiling and groaning in the dirt. He got on top. He already committed himself to the act, busied himself with breasts and nipples, navel, tongue, whatever appeared. He was all limbs, stretching reaching into every corner, nook and cranny twining himself all over and in between folds of woman flesh, always seeking the darkest dampest spaces.

With her tongue she carved out her territory from his nipples down to his crotch. He pounded the earth with his hands. Turned her over so he was on top again, made his entrance carefully but blew apart once inside her.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened.”

She roughed up his hair with her hands and laughed. “Oh, horse droppings,” she said and got up. He pulled up his pants quickly. He was afraid the skinny son was watching, had seen everything.

“Can we see each other again?” he asked her. She stood before him, holding so much power over him now he couldn’t stand it.

“No,” she said, “this was a onetime thing.” She began walking slowly across the yard and he walked alongside her.

“I just wanted you to feel good,” she said. “So maybe now you’ll remember how.”

* * * * *

He walked back to the car, still panting for breath, still undizzying himself. He opened the door and got in, pausing for a moment to look into the rear view mirror for a glimpse of her, but she was already gone. He put his head down on the steering wheel, letting himself feel for a few minutes her big granite-carving hands, and for a few minutes more, the renewed beating of a heart he had thought was vandal-proof.

______________________________

Ann Marie Samson’s short fiction has appeared in Zyzzyva, Inkwell and other literary magazines. She has taught creative writing to people of all ages through California Poets in the Schools. She has also taught at the local college and “blabbed some” on the radio. In ordinary life she’s been a gardener and a struggling but aspiring flamenco dancer.