July Writing Challenge Day 4: A Husband in the Garden

Happy 4th of July everybody. If you’re in America, happy Independence Day! If you are elsewhere….happy Saturday!

Today’s story is actually a full story. I had the idea for it a few months ago, but I never got around to writing it. I’m actually really pleased with how it turned out. I’m sure it could be better, but it’s a damned fine first draft. I won’t say much more, because I want you to go into it as fresh and unbiased as possible. But please, as always, let me know what you think. I always love feedback.
A Husband in the Garden
By E W Morrow
Word Count: 2161

Gerald grunted as the spade cut through the soil and bit into something hard. The impact rattled his bones and made his joints flare up. At first he thought it must have been another rock, but when he went to tug the shovel back out of the dirt something held it in place. Frustrating as it was, he took it as a good sign. He’d finally gotten deep enough to hit a root. Now that he had a rough estimate of depth, he could begin to work his way around the stump, clearing enough of the soil away to rip it out once and for all. He wasn’t actually sure what it had been. When they’d moved in to the ranch style house they now called home, almost five years ago now, it had already been there. Just a shriveled up bush of some kind, something ugly, gnarled, and tenacious sticking out of a patch of rocky soil in their front yard. Yesterday had been spent cutting away the twisted body of the thing, and today he was going to rip the rest of it out. He stepped back from the hole he’d made, the handle of the shovel standing erect where he left it, and glanced at his watch. Then he groaned.

How could he have only be at this for twenty minutes, he thought? It felt like an hour. And where had that gentle breeze gone? The heat of summer, which had seemed so mild and beautiful only a third of an hour ago, bore down on him now, simmering and sour. Sweat beaded his brow and his shirt clung to his sides and belly. Worse, the burning in his joints seemed to be striving against the heat of the day, as if the two were trying to outdo the other. Suddenly the hole he’d dug didn’t seem quite so deep.

He cracked his knuckles and flexed his fingers a few times. The arthritis wasn’t so bad, but he had a feeling it would be. Right now every part of his body hurt, from the ache in his temples to the swelling of his ankles. They hurt just enough to make him realize how much he hated this particular chore, but not bad enough to render him incapable of doing it. The little voice in the back of his head, the one that whined and moaned, urged him to stop, to leave the shovel where it was and just give up. It made a compelling argument, and fought hard, but it was a small part of a stubborn man, so it went largely ignored, heeded only enough to make his job worse.

Casually he glanced over at the front window of his little one story ranch. There, inside in the cool, dimly lit air conditioned living room, he saw Sheila. She was standing at the window, arms crossed. She had her silver hair pulled back in a bun and, in contrast to the grubby shorts and sticky t-shirt Gerald was wearing, she was dressed in her Sunday best. Everything about her demeanor, from her crossed arms to the way her thin lips pursed slightly and her gray eyes narrowed, suggested dissatisfaction with Gerald’s progress so far. Gerald sighed, and the sigh became a snarl as he grasped the oak handle and angrily ripped the shovel from the dirt.

As he dug, Gerald reflected on the way things had gone. It had been like this for a long time now. So long that it seemed like it had always been this way. But he knew it hadn’t. Once he and Sheila had been happy together. They’d done things married couples do, settled down, raised two children, traveled abroad when they could afford it, reminisced when they couldn’t, and they’d done it together. Complimented one another. Sheila had been beautiful and full of life, with the touch of the artist’s flare. And he, well, some would say he’d been handsome, and strong, down to earth and practical in a steady, reassuring way. He kept her grounded, and she helped lift him up. Life had been good.

But now things were different. Just like today something had changed, maybe it was the times, maybe it was them, but their marriage had turned sour, stagnant. They never fought, but a distance had grown between them. A cold war of sorts. Sheila’s buoyancy and artistry had morphed into a capricious, passive-aggressive attitude. She seemed to spend her days flitting from one idea to another, always thinking up new tasks she wanted Gerald to do, new projects she would hint at on a daily basis. If he ignored her, she got angry, and if he did as she wished, she always found some way to be unhappy about how he went about it. His attitude. His results. There was always something.

Now his blood was really pumping, and Gerald drove the spade into the dirt over and over again. Part of him knew that he was being at least a little unfair to Sheila. Yes, she was often unreasonable and impossible to please, but he couldn’t help feel partially responsible. He was prepared to admit that, from her perspective, his level headed attitude had changed over the years too. He really had hardened into a stubborn man with a tendency towards aloof behavior. If Sheila was never satisfied, maybe he was too content. Maybe he was ignoring too much.

Still, he thought as the shovel hit another rock hidden beneath the soil and sent another jolt through his aged body, she could always lend a hand. Especially with this damned garden. It was her newest pet project. She said she’d wanted one. A proper one. A little place out front that she could make beautiful, bring a little light into their life.

That had been what did it. The way she talked about it; describing the flowers she’d plant, the little decorative pieces she could make to place among the petals. For once, just for a moment, she’d sounded like the old Sheila, the Sheila he’d fallen in love with. Even his hard heart had softened a little.

And besides, even if she didn’t tend the garden, he could always plant something useful. Maybe a few tomatoes or some nice, plump peppers. But first, he had to get rid of the damn stump.

As he worked, the work got easier. The hateful nature of the job, which at first had been a hindrance, now fueled his motions. It was no longer something to accomplish, but something to strive against, no longer a task but a foe. The thought lent power to his muscles and efficiency to his movements. Even so it took nearly an hour for Gerald to dig his way around the thing, digging roughly two to three feet out from the main body of the stump. Once he’d made the full circuit and had uncovered most of the larger roots, he set about clearing the dirt from the space around and under each one. By the time he’d finished, the sun was noticeably lower in the sky. Not long before evening turned to dusk. His back ached, as did every single major joint in his body, but he knew he was getting close to done.

Dropping the shovel he’d been using, he walked over to small pile of yard equipment he’d pulled from the shed earlier and selected another. It was less of a shovel and more of a sharpened wedge at the end of a long wooden handle, but the general motion of use would be the same. Then he went back to the edge of the hole he’d dug and placed the center of the wedge over one of the bigger roots. Then, after carefully placing one foot on an even patch of dirt, he lifted his other foot and drove the heel of his boot down hard on the top of the shovel head. The steel wedge drove a few inches into the root and Gerald reared back and stamped down again, and then again. By then he was nearly three quarters of the way through the root and he judged it to be sufficient. He made his way around the stump, doing the same to the half dozen roots radiating from the main trunk.

All that was left was the easy part. Gerald went to the driveway and got into his pickup. It was a fairly old thing. It was dinged up a bit and the paint, cherry red, was giving way to rust in places, but he’d taken good care of it over the years. He backed it up over the lawn until it was about five feet from the hole. Then he got out and grabbed a length of chain from the bed, clamping one end to a tow hook on the truck and throwing the rest towards the stump. He looped the chain around and under it and hooked it down tight. Before getting back into the truck, he stopped to catch his breath and savor the moment. His body hurt. He shirt was a different shade than it had been when he started, drenched as it was in sweat, and he could already feel at least a few splinters in the palms of his hands. And it would all be worth it when the foe was vanquished.

He keyed the ignition and gave it a little gas, slowly at first. The chain pulled taught and the truck struggled for a moment, but there was little the stump could do to resist. A series of pops and cracks sounded from behind him, audible even over the hum of the engine, and then something gave and the truck jumped forward. He let it roll a few feet before he stopped.

The stump was a beautiful sight, in it’s own way. Sure it was ugly as hell, twisted and covered with dirt, a jagged hole in the earth beneath it, but the pleasant feeling of satisfaction that washed over him at a job well done was all he needed. What happened next was just icing on the cake.

Gerald was leaning against the bed of the truck, wondering if he felt like taking the bags of dirt from the garage and filling in the hole before it got any darker, when he heard the screen door bang shut. He turned, and saw Sheila coming across the yard. She was carrying a glass of lemonade in one hand and wearing a smile. Gerald rounded the truck and met her half way. She handed him the glass. It was wonderfully cool to the touch. He rolled it across his forehead, letting the beads of perspiration on the surface wash away his sweat. He smiled at his wife, and she smiled back at him. Everything suddenly seemed like it was going to be okay.

Sheila turned and wandered over to the hole, and Gerald followed, gulping down the cool lemonade as he walked. It was bitter. At any other time it would have been almost unbearably so, but just then he didn’t care. He finished the glass in another series of gulps and then put his arm around his wife. Together they stood and stared into the hole. Gerald had been married to his wife long enough to realize that what they had here was a pretty good metaphor their marriage. They had taken something ugly and were left with a void. But now they were going to fill it in and make it beautiful again.

What happened next happened quickly. It started as a pain in his chest and a slight dizziness. Gerald wondered if he’d overexerted himself. The pain intensified and it became quite difficult to breathe. Within a matter of seconds the world was spinning and his vision was beginning to dim. The empty glass slipped from his hand and landed in the dirt with a thud. He fell to one knee, clutching his chest with one hand and his wife’s wrist with another. He couldn’t breathe at all now and his body was beginning to spasm. He looked up at his wife, the edges of his vision growing darker and darker.

The smile on Sheila’s face was gone, replaced with a curling sneer of repulsion. The last thing Gerald saw were her eyes: cold and gray and full of anger.

Sheila reached down, pulled her late husband’s truck keys from the pockets of his grubby shorts, and then she rolled his body into the hole he had spent the afternoon digging. Then she heaved the wooden stump into the bed of the truck and drove the truck back into the driveway. And then, she went to the garage and wheeled one of the bags of dirt her late husband had purchased earlier that week. The light was failing now, but before the night was over, her new garden would be covered with soil, and ready for planting.

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