The casket was made of steel, polished and gleaming blue in the June sun. I didn’t know the man inside, but I knew of him. Everyone in town knew about the house where he’d lived for the last forty years. My dad told stories of how, as a teen, he and his friends had dared each other to enter Mr. Walter’s yard, to approach the house, to lift the brass knocker on the door, to steal a sprig of foxglove from the sunken garden. He told me that he’d won almost a hundred dollars over the course of a single summer. I didn’t feel brave enough to tell him that I’d never made it beyond the fence, but I always nodded every time he mentioned some detail of the grounds.
Mr. Walter’s funeral was simple. He was buried in the graveyard a quarter mile outside of town. Pastor Mikalsen came to do the service, and my dad and I were the only mourners, unless you count Zeek, the gravedigger (who only has the job because he lives nearby and owns a backhoe). I guess that’s what happens when you spend most of your life as a hermit, even in a small town. No one wants to come to say goodbye. Dad said he felt obligated after antagonizing the old man for most of his own youth. We didn’t even dress up, since we’d been out working on one of our tractors all morning. Two mourners whose only black attire that afternoon consisted of grease-stained jeans and t-shirts.
I told Dad that I’d walk home after the service was over, and that I wanted to have a little while to think. He gave me an understanding nod and climbed back into the pickup, calling for Pastor Mikalsen and his wife to join us for dinner that evening as he drove away. I watched as the pastor followed him back to town before asking Zeek if he needed a hand. When he waved me off, I wandered the few uneven rows of remaining stones. I’d always loved spending time in the little cemetery, even waking up early on Saturdays in my youth to ride my bike there. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother were buried there, and I soon found myself standing before their headstone. Zeek finished piling the last of the dirt on top of Mr. Walter and headed off toward home, the backhoe serving as his transportation for the afternoon, and I was finally alone with my thoughts.
I sat down in front of my great-grandparents’ grave and looked at the dates carved in the dark marble. They’d died less than a year apart, and only a few months after I was born. Dad didn’t talk about them much, and all I really knew was that we lived in their old house. Mom talked about her side of the family even less, though I suspected she had good reason for keeping such things to herself, and never prodded her about it. She might as well have been an orphan for all I actually knew about her relatives. I didn’t mind too much, because it meant a hell of a lot fewer road trips across the country to see them. There are only so many times you can drive across Nebraska before it starts to take a toll on you.
After a few minutes, I stood up and dusted myself off. I made a final round of the cemetery, being careful not to walk on the freshly packed soil where Mr. Walter now resided. I set off down the road for home when inspiration struck, and I started walking the opposite direction. Soon I stood before the towering home the old man had once occupied. Daylight, I mused, made all the difference in approaching the building. Even on a bright afternoon, the place loomed over the grounds. The wrought iron gate where I stood was marked with a massive stylized “W,” itself in turn decorated with an intaglio of ivy. I traced it with my fingers, feeling the textures of the etched metal. With a brief glance over my shoulder, I gave the gate a gentle push until it opened.
That was all it took. I felt a surge of confidence as I slipped into the yard, leaving the open gate behind me. I was in Mr. Walter’s yard. Remembering Dad’s stories, I headed for the back of the house, following the flagstone path that led to the sunken garden. I pulled my phone from my pocket, snapping a few pictures along the way. To say that it was beautiful did no justice to the place. I realized that Mr. Walter must have maintained everything himself until his death, and that he had clearly poured all of his energy into that garden. While the rest of the yard, and the house itself, had fallen into some state of disrepair, the garden was pristine. A jeweled mosaic decorated one of the walls, sapphire, topaz, amethyst, and a half-dozen other stones set in patterns resembling flowers. Ivy grew around it, but had been carefully cleared away from the mosaic itself.
I could have lost myself in thought in that garden, but I had work to do before the light faded. Finding a patch of the famous foxglove, I picked a handful and headed back to the gate. The walk back to the cemetery took only a few minutes. I laid the flowers down at Mr. Walter’s grave, knowing that the chances of anyone else ever doing to same for him were slim. I didn’t know the man in the steel casket beneath my feet, but I knew of him. Everyone in town did, but I wouldn’t forget him. Somebody had to remember the dead, after all. When our houses are torn down, and our gardens are left untended, eventually only memory will remain, though that too will fade.
It was time to go home. The sun was setting, and we had company coming for dinner.
(This piece was written for a flash fiction challenge hosted by the inimitable Chuck Wendig. We were given ten words, and instructed to pick five of them to include in a 1,000 word short story. I used topaz, orphan, casket, hermit, and foxglove.)