Every New Year’s Day Ingrid set herself an annual goal. One year she called: The Year of Getting Rid of Debt. She cut back on everything, rarely ate out, and twelve months later had not only paid off all her credit cards but had a hefty balance in her bank account.
Another year she named: The Year of Getting Rid of Things. She was relentless. Week after week, month after month, she plowed through her closets and drawers, stripping her belongings down to the basics.
This most recent year she truly challenged herself. It was: The Year of Getting Rid of People.
“I’m shifting gears,” Ingrid said.
“What the hell does that mean?” Tyler said.
“Not fully clear. But I can’t take you with me. It’s a solitary journey.”
“This is ridiculous.”
Tyler was the first to go. It was very satisfying. He had been making noises for several months like he was anticipating moving in and Ingrid knew that mustn’t happen. Fifty-four years old and twice divorced, she was not fooling herself any longer. He was too busy for her, always wanting to do things, always wanting to entertain her. Meaning: himself. So it was goodbye: please don’t call.
She felt like she had the wind in her sails then, so Tricia was the next to get thrown overboard. Well, that’s rather harsh. Ingrid termed it: setting us both free.
“But I thought we were friends?” Tricia asked. “Maybe best friends.”
“Yes. But we both need more space. We need to open up a bit.”
“I don’t need more space. Who told you that?”
“Well, there you go. I do. And good luck to you.”
It would be easy to overdramatize Ingrid’s plans, to say that something was wrong with her, that she was suffering a mental aberration, some vengeful drive to hurt the ones who most loved her. Or, maybe some hideous event in her childhood had warped her essential grasp of human decency. Perhaps, horror of horrors, she was thinking like a man. Ingrid certainly recognized that people might judge her with those kind of biases and that was fine with her. It’s a free world: they could fantasize all they wanted. But the simple fact was that her days were much more pleasant with less people involved. There wasn’t the same compulsion to perform. She could breathe.
Ingrid worked in that cemetery just north of downtown, the really old one where the musty politicians and rich celebrities end up. She wasn’t a mortician or an undertaker. She didn’t deal with the bodies, she didn’t even see them. She was a salesperson. She dealt with people when they came in to make ‘arrangements’. That sounds a little crass in the context of human death but Ingrid didn’t let that bother her. It wasn’t like she was hustling used cars or dishwashers. She was a low key cog in a low key industry and that suited her just fine.
Because they were off balance with grief few of her clients made many demands of her. Most basically towed the line, nodding their heads to everything she proposed. It was perfect for her. Perhaps not perfect. Almost. There were always a few individuals who figured they knew better than her but she would call in her supervisor, Jack, when that happened. Jack loved bailing Ingrid out and Ingrid was content to be bailed. She resented unnecessary turmoil.
Most days Ingrid arrived well ahead of starting time, hid her knapsack behind the vestibule wall at the office entrance and set off for an hour’s walk around the cemetery’s maze-like lanes. Ingrid always took the same route, winding round the oldest part with the largest and most historic mausoleums first, then through the newer section with its endless rows of humble markers, then finally circling back to the office and the real world. Ingrid never tired of this walk. It was uplifting: the morning calm, the dim light, the occasional fox or even a deer ducking behind the stones, the stones themselves, like familiar friends sharing her affiliation with the night’s fading tranquility. It was almost mystical, or as close to mystical as Ingrid could tolerate.
Many mornings she encountered a solitary runner on her walk. He was an older man, undoubtedly over seventy, with spindly wire glasses and skinny legs in wispy blue shorts. Despite his age he was obviously an accomplished runner: he ran smoothly, his feet barely leaving the ground, his body erect and his arms under control. And he was fast: he forged ahead like someone was chasing him, his head slightly askew from the strain, dribble across his cheeks as if the demands of his mission prevailed over spitting properly.
He ran circuits around one of the grave sections that connected to Ingrid’s path, so on those mornings he was there she might see him three or four times. When he passed her the first time he always gave her a weak smile, as if too preoccupied with keeping going than with seeking out a new friend. Ingrid smiled back. She saw no harm in smiling; he was clearly too focused on his task to stop and make small talk. When he passed a second or even a third time he showed no sign of recognition; there was simply his steady breathing, the scuffing of his shoes, the fleeting hint of hard working male sweat.
Ingrid looked forward to seeing him. She liked that awkward little smile of his, and the fact that both of them seemed to share a common bond with the early morning quiet. It was reassuring as well knowing that this encounter was never going to turn into anything burdensome. She had practiced some lines of course, she knew exactly how to repulse any overtures, but the need had never arisen. He seemed as willfully isolated as her. She enjoyed the brief encounter but after he had fled past her he was gone. That was it.
That Tuesday morning was little different than any other except that as this runner circled around for the second time, their usual acknowledgements already exchanged, he stumbled just a few yards in front of her, perhaps catching his foot on a crack in the pavement, perhaps momentarily weakened by fatigue and tripping over his own feet. He started to go down, giving off a shrill yip as the threat of the fall seized him, lurched forward hands out as if he might yet right himself, tumbled several more yards, and finally plowed into the pavement, his hands partially breaking the impact but still smashing his head and his knees into the asphalt. He lay quite still.
Ingrid hesitated. But really, she had no choice but to stop, hovering over him for several seconds, hoping he would rise on his own, then kneeling beside him as she recognized that wasn’t going to happen.
He groaned but that seemed to be more reflex than any real comprehension of what had happened. Though he was lying on his stomach his head was turned so she could see the side of his lacerated face, his nose askew, the blood seeping onto the pavement, the bruising already swelling around his eye. She could imagine what his elbows and knees looked like.
Ingrid glanced around. It wasn’t wise to move him herself and whether he was truly badly injured or simply in some kind of shock, she knew she shouldn’t just encourage him to get up and limp off home. She hauled out her phone and called the office. Naturally at that hour no one answered. She left a message so someone would eventually know what was happening, then rang off and called 911.
By the time the ambulance arrived she had him sitting up on the pavement, his legs straight out, his head hanging over his chest. Ingrid, her arm around his shoulders, tried to keep him upright. He moaned every so often as if trying to come to grips with his situation, but his vacant gaze suggested he was still far away.
“You’ll be all right,” Ingrid whispered. “Help is here.”
He didn’t answer. As the paramedics examined him he raised and lower his arms as commanded, swiveled his neck, nodded when prompted, but didn’t say a word. As they lifted him off the ground onto the stretcher and into the ambulance Ingrid gave his arm a little squeeze. A police car had arrived and the officer asked Ingrid a few questions but it was obvious that this was little more than an unfortunate accident and he quickly lost interest.
“You’ve had quite a morning,” said Jack when Ingrid got to the office and told him what had happened.
Ingrid shook her head.
“Well at least he won’t be staying here over night. Not yet anyway,” Jack said. He shrugged. Every profession has its in-jokes.
Ingrid chewed on her lip.
“No. He won’t.”
It turned into an easy morning. She didn’t have any funerals until after lunch and no sales consultations until late in the day, so she turned to paperwork. But the image of the old fellow tumbling onto the road in front of her, his bloodied face, his stunned gaze gnawed at her. She realized that she had come to see him as a bit of a friend, her kind of friend, a distant friend demanding little commitment, only an occasional nod.
But really, hardly a friend. She didn’t even know his name. What would that matter anyway? She had more or less assumed he was a kindred spirit, another wary introvert, picking his way through life in search of the same distance that she sought, the same refuge from the boiling camaraderie that seems to drive the world. But that wasn’t necessarily true. Maybe he was nothing of the sort. Maybe it was she alone who craved isolation. Heaven only knows what the old guy was really after – smashing out the kilometres that way every morning. What kind of make-believe kept him going? Strange man.
Jack was back at her doorway after her last appointment.
“That fellow you helped this morning – he died.”
“His son just called,” Jack said. “It wasn’t his injuries. His heart just gave out. Maybe the shock of falling. He was seventy-seven.”
Ingrid turned to look out the window. From there she could see nothing but gravestones, rows and rows of gravestones only losing themselves in the trees at the far end that screened the cemetery from the street. She had grown used to this scene. Never gave it a second thought any more.
“They want him here,” Jack said. “Will you handle it?”
“Apparently he had told his son long ago that he wanted to be buried here. But the son didn’t even realize where the accident happened until I told him.”
Jack hesitated, kicked at the floor a little, caught Ingrid’s eye.
“Tough,” he said.
“So he will be staying here over night.”
“Yah. Seems that way.”
Ingrid went home early, fell onto her sofa without having supper. It surprised her that she was so upset. She was used to dealing with death. She knew how to manage the anguished survivors when they sat before her, their faces blotched with grief. She knew how to delicately steer them through it all, extricating the painful decisions that go into creating a fitting send-off for those they loved and would never see or touch again. This was her skill, her profession.
Why this guy? He was nothing. An old man trundling along in his shorts; busting a gut though he was halfway into the grave anyway. The fall? Come on. People fall down all the time. Perhaps not right in front of you, but somewhere, so that innocent bystanders are unaccountably chosen to witness the spectacle and for a few minutes become part of the crisis. A small crisis. Nothing to get overly excited about. Something to relate to someone over lunch and then let it drain away in the face of everyone else’s all-important nothings.
No, it was the cry that had seized her. That gasp, that squeal, that shriek – whatever it was. Hapless, rearing unbidden, the pure animal reaction to the unexpected literal tilting of his world, the awesome acknowledgement that he was going down, going down, going down … and …just … might …never …rise …again. None of this and all of this might have shot through his sweat fogged brain in those final out of control seconds. That sound stayed with her.
Jack sought her out the next day.
“You all right?” he asked.
“No. That old guy, the runner, he got to me. I don’t know why.”
“Maybe it’s a wakeup call. Maybe you’re feeling a little isolated.”
“I’ll be all right. I just need a few days to work it through.”
“Maybe you’re overworking it. Maybe you should just listen to what it’s saying to you.”
Ingrid turned back to her computer.
“Leave it with me.”
The son, his name was Jared, arrived with his wife, a tall broad shouldered woman who might have been a swimmer in her youth. Jared was subdued but under no particular duress; he listened to Ingrid’s suggestions, asked a few questions, then signed the required papers and handed over a credit card. He had no requests of his own; he seemed resigned to it all. It was a fairly normal interaction from Ingrid’s point of view.
“It’s ironic that my father collapsed in the very cemetery where he would be buried,” he said as he stood up to leave.
Ingrid hesitated. Said nothing.
“Apparently someone on staff here helped him. That was the last person to see him -functioning as himself. He never really recognized us in the hospital.”
Ingrid’s mouth was dry; she clenched her hands together under the table.
“Yes,” she said.
“He was a loner,” Jared said. “He loved the running. But always shy. He would have hated the attention when he collapsed. I can’t help wondering what he was thinking. But it’s still nice that someone was there with him.”
Ingrid took a deep breath.
“Sounds like quite a character,” she said.
Jared’s reached out to steady himself on chair.
“I guess that’s what it’s like at the end,” he said. “We’re all alone, whether we like it or not.”
Ingrid pressed the nail of her middle finger into the palm of her other hand. It hurt. Not badly, but enough to hold her in check.
“Yes,” she said. “That seems to be the way it is.”
Jared appeared to waver between prolonging these thoughts and bringing all this to an appropriate end. Finally, his wife took him by the arm, led him away.
Ingrid watched through the window as the pair made their way across the parking lot towards their car. At one point Jared stopped, leaned over his wife’s shoulder, clung to her, then clasped her hand and continued on. He got in the passenger side, she took the wheel. They sat motionlessly in the car for several minutes, then finally the wife leaned forward, started the car and off they went.
Ingrid sucked at her cheek. She felt like something precious had just unfolded. Those spontaneous gestures, the firm bonds of support, it was strangely moving to see them, to sense the shared history that enveloped that couple like an invisible comforting cloud. Death had become too familiar to her, she realized. She had become too immune to it, too remote from the true reality of it, of its permanent loss. That runner’s haunting gasp as he went down? Inescapable.
So why did she envy him? Why did she feel this affiliation with him, the sense that he had gifted her something precious, a silent corroboration of how she most wanted to live and die? There was something heroic about that man, something that she wanted to embrace.
She smiled, raised her hands and slowly, rhythmically clapped them together, almost but not quite as if she was applauding a notable accomplishment. Fine, she thought, I’m not blind to the obvious. She walked back to her computer and Googled: Athletic Stores.
If she was going to take up running then she needed a proper pair of shoes.
Wayne Yetman’s short fiction has been published in The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly (twice), Grain, The Antigonish Review (three times), FreeFall, The Dalhousie Review and Literally Stories. He placed second in the 2017 Grain short fiction contest and first in the 2018 FreeFall short fiction contest.