A SHORT STORY
He opened the car door for me, just as he had on this day for the last 30 years. This time though, it was different. It was out of obligation, not chivalry. We made our way through the windy, hilly roads of the countryside. The trees exploded into fiery hues of yellow, orange and red. They burned hot, like our passion once did. Soon all of those beautiful leaves will be brown and on the ground, kinda like our marriage is now. I secretly wished they were already on the ground. The world is ugly, it should look ugly too.
Today, we take our annual trip to the apple orchard. Tomorrow, I bake. Pies, apple sauce, apple butter, apple fritters will come out of my kitchen. Sunday our children and daughter-in-law will join us for dinner and apple everything.
Apple weekend has been the Sumter family tradition since we found the adorable family run orchard . We were on a leisurely quality time drive through the country side as young family. Really, Emma was teething and a drive in the car was all that would quiet her down. Daniel seemed to enjoy the views. He would tell his father and I stories of things that lived in the woods. Dinosaurs and panda bears played together out there, he told us.
The kids have grown up and moved out, Daniel was married now. Charlie and I were empty nesters. We had grown apart. We stopped talking like we used to, we stopped sharing everything. We rarely asked how each other’s day was anymore. Sunday our kids were coming over for dinner and dessert as always. They would take home pie, apple sauce, apple butter and apple fritters as well as bushels of apples as always. We will eat until we are stuffed as always. Then their father will tell them he’s leaving me for his new younger girlfriend. They would get mad at him of course. He would tell them he wants to divorce me, then I would tell them all that wasn’t necessary.
The doctors had been running every test they had and they all came back abnormal but no one put a finger on why. I’d asked Charlie to come with to the appointments.
“What’s the matter, Meg? Are your big girl panties dirty? You need me to hold your hand to go to the doctor?” He’d ask me. “I Don’t need to hear how you’re going through the change.” He’d said.
I stopped asking him to come. I grew more tired by the day. Less and less got done around the house. Intimacy was a foreign concept these days.
“How are you losing weight when you don’t do anything?” Charle had asked me. “You really need to return whatever make up that is you bought. Your skin looks so yellow, you look so much older all of a sudden.” He told me. “I married a thick girl. Have a cheeseburger.” He said.
I kept to myself and cried in the shower. I saw the changes. I felt the changes. This week I finally learned what the changes were.
“Mrs. Sumter we have figured out what’s wrong. Unfortunately your biopsies came back as cancer of your liver. The scans appear that you have it in your lung and spine as well. It’s stage four. I’m sorry but there isn’t any feasible treatment. You should prepare your family and your arrangements.”
I had just stared at the doctor. “Are you sure?” I’d asked.
“I’m afraid so.” He’d told me. I’m going to refer you to the oncologist I consulted with on your case. He will be helpful with some options to keep you comfortable.” I had nodded and walked out of the office completely numb.
Today, I am riding through the countryside as I had with my husband every third weekend in October for the last 30 years. Tomorrow I will bake. Sunday my whole family will gather when their father tells them he’s leaving and their mother tells them she’s dying.
Yep. The leaves can fall. Make it all ugly.
We arrived at the orchard to see it practically empty. Normally there are lots of families around but our town was growing up as well. Those family children are grown as are ours. They’ve moved out and are just starting families of their own. I’d like to think our children would keep the tradition but they, like many others, are more interested in eating than the work that goes into making the yummy goodness.
I stumbled a bit getting out of the car. My legs were so weak from the long ride here.
“Geez Meg do I have to carry you to the trees too? Since when do you have 2 left feet?” Charlie scolded me.
“Since now.” I snapped at him.
Charlie looked at me surprised. I haven’t shown emotion or given him any inkling of anything actually wrong. He had just assumed I let myself go and he moved on without even attempting to figure out what I was going through. I wasn’t giving him the option to do the decent thing now.
I was angry. I was angry at the world for being unfair, I was angry at my body for betraying me and growing cancer, I was angry at the doctors for not fixing me and I was angry at Charlie for not caring even though he didn’t know he should.
Right now I was even angry at the apple tree I was standing next to. I was angry at the stupid ladder that was holding Charlie up as he picked apples and handed them down to me.
“AUUUGGGHHHHHH” I screamed as I chucked an apple as far as I could. The others in the orchard looked at me. I sat on the ground with the apple basket between my legs.
“For God’s sake Meg, what has gotten into you?” Charlie asked.
I glared at him. My words came out as a sneer. “You stood in front of everyone we loved and you promised me in sickness and in health until death do us part. I’m sick, I’m not dead yet and you’re parting.”
“What are you talking about?” Charlie stared at me with a shocked look on his face.
“I know about Lisa” I snarled.
I remembered back to cartoons where the characters slid down ladders with their feet on the sides of the rungs because they’d lost their grip and they landed on the ground. Charlie did just that as my news sunk in.
“How did you find out?” He asked me.
“You were distant. I asked for your support so many times and you just blew me off. I knew something was up. Your social media has new followers. I looked at Lisa’s profile and what do I see but pics of you two together all over it.” I snarled at him. “Then last night on the phone you thought I was asleep in the other room but I heard you. I heard all of it. I heard you tell her you’re leaving your family. You’re walking out on your wife because you can’t just wait until I’m dead.”
“Meg what are you talking about dead? You’re not making any sense.” Charlie said. He was so confused.
I picked apples out of the basket and started chucking them at Charlie with every word I yelled. “I. Have. Cancer. You. Entitled. Prick!”
Charlie fell back against the tree. Apples fell all around him. His mouth gaped open and his eyes widened as he stared at me. “I had no idea.” He said.
“That’s because you were too self absorbed to find out.” I said.
Charlie looked at the ground. He was ashamed. “So all this time you’ve been reaching out to me because you needed me and I’ve been pushing you away because I just thought you’d become complacent and lazy.” Charlie summarized.
“Yep” I said, making a popping sound on the ‘P’
“How long do you have?” He asked me.
I couldn’t tell if the expression he was giving me was concern, pity or both. I no longer needed either.
“How long until you’re permanently rid of me? Don’t worry. We give our kids one last family tradition together, we get divorced, you go off with your friend and you’ll never hear from me again.”
He stared at me silently.
“Go! Pick more apples!” I yelled.
Charlie picked enough to fill up all our bushels of apples. He lugged them back to the car one by one. With the first, he opened my door for me and then started the car with the air blowing since it was stuffy in there.
“We don’t have to get a divorce” Charlie said. We had been driving for several minutes. Clearly he had been thinking things over.
“Hmpf, what are you going to tell Lisa? Sorry honey you have to wait a little while longer, I’m gonna play house till the old broad kicks the bucket?” I couldn’t believe him.
“Meg it’s not like that” He said.
His tone was soft but my anger was still there. How could he?
“Oh now that I’m sick you suddenly want me? You have an illness fetish?” I snapped at him.
“Meg I can be there for you.” He said.
“Charlie I don’t want your pity. You were ready to leave until you found out I was sick and you didn’t care enough to ask me about what was going on in the first place despite me giving you every opportunity. I had to literally hit you with it to get you to listen. We are going to have one more weekend apple tradition, Sunday you’ll tell the kids you’re leaving we get a quick divorce seeing as I don’t need any assets. Just let me die in the house then you can sell it. We won’t even tell the kids I’m sick. They’ll need you after I’m gone. I don’t want them to hate you.” I looked out the window and cried.
This was my last time doing this drive with my family and the memory I will take with me will be horrible.
Charlie parked the car in the driveway next to the back door.
I couldn’t wait to be out of the car. I ran inside and locked myself in the spare bedroom. He hadn’t even noticed I’d been slowly moving all of my things into here. I sat on the bed and cried.
I fell asleep in my tears and woke up a few hours later to a knock at the door.
“Meg?” Charlie called from the other side. “Would you like to come out for dinner? I’ve made chicken soup.”
Thirty years of marriage that man has never cooked a day in his life. I got up and went to the kitchen. There was a large stock pot on the stove and it did in fact smell like chicken soup.
“Charlie who did this?” I asked him.
He held up my recipe card on the counter. “I did.” He showed me.
I sat down and let him serve me. I was hungry but I couldn’t really taste much of food these days. I took a mouth full and almost spit it back out.
The soup was terrible.
His face was so hopeful as he looked to me for my approval. My time on earth was coming to an end. I had decided during my cry that the last memories my family has of me are going to be good ones. All of my family, including Charlie.
He sat down and watched me eat the dreadful soup. I’d almost thought it was poisoned the way he was studying me.
“I’ve broken things off with Lisa.” He announced finally.
“What?” I looked at him through widened eyes “Why?”
“I want to be here Meg. I want to be here and make apple stuff with you this year. I want you to teach me how. I need you to teach me how to be you to our kids. I want to go to the doctors with you. I want to hear what they say and I’m not allowing you to go through this alone.”
I stared at Charlie. He continued on. “We will tell the kids together about your cancer Sunday night. They deserve to know. We will do this as a family.”
It was then that Charlie took a big spoonful of soup. He coughed.
“This shit is awful!” He exclaimed.
I burst out laughing.
“How are you eating this?” He asked me.
“Despite everything that happened today, I didn’t have the heart to tell you that it really does suck” I burst out laughing again.
He laughed with me.
“Would you like to go out for dinner with me?” He asked.
“You’re buying” I told him.
We cleaned up and piled back in the car. We stopped for gas on the way to the restaurant and I went in to get some water and gum. I decided to buy a lottery ticket. After all, it would be just my luck to win the lottery right before I died.
Charlie and I had a lovely dinner. We talked about our favorite years apple picking.
“Remember when Daniel set the oven on fire just throwing the sugary apple filling in without the pie crust?” I asked.
“No, that was when I bought pre-made crust trying to impress you and didn’t know it had paper packaging that had to be removed.” Charlie confessed.
“You let Daniel take the blame?!?”” I was astounded.
“He got a new video game for his sacrifice and silence!” Charlie announced.
I couldn’t be upset. It was too funny. We both laughed until we cried.
Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I was trying to suck air into my lungs and it wouldn’t work. The room was spinning. Charlie became a blur. The more I panicked the worse it got.
“Are there any doctors here? Someone please call 911!” I heard Charlie say.
Darkness set in.
“I can’t believe it happened that quick.” Daniel said through his tears.
His wife Victoria held her hand on her stomach. “We were so looking forward to telling her about the baby.” She said with tears in her eyes.
Emma stood on the other side of her big brother, in between Daniel and their father. Her tears fell steady. “We didn’t even know she was sick.” She said, her voice so soft and innocent.
“I had just found out myself that day.” Charlie told them.
They all took flowers from the arrangement on the casket. “Good bye Mom, I love you” Emma cried.
A month had passed and the family gathered in the lawyers office. It was a big fancy glass building that had views of practically the whole state. A tall man in an expensive three piece suit came out of an office door that read George Covington III. He led them into a huge conference room where everyone took a cushioned rolling seat around a large mahogany table.
“Do you have any idea what you want to do with the winnings?” The lawyer asked.
“Yes” Charlie said. “The lottery I understand will pay out over time. I want my children to own their homes and cars, the little bean in Victoria’s belly will have education paid for, all the best schools.” Charlie looked at his children. “And I want to buy the apple orchard. The one just outside town.”
The lawyer looked at Charlie like he’d lost his mind. “The apple? Orchard?” He repeated.
“Yes. The owners are retiring, their kids don’t want it. It’s going up for sale in a few weeks and they said if I make an offer they will consider it before listing the land.”
“Mr. Sumter what will you do with an apple orchard?” Mr. Covington asked.
“I will honor my family and remember my wife. For generations to come Sumters will have apple weekend and spread that love to other families to do the same.”
So the tradition continued.