The lawnmower tractor’s engine coughed, thick and choking, for a few minutes before the whole contraption shuttered to a halt, steam hissing out from under the green painted hood and masking the lengthy cursing of the man who now had to push the stupid machine a quarter mile uphill, back to the shed where it lived but rarely earned its keep.
The cursing wasn’t particularly sincere. Herb didn’t mind that the tractor had died three times already this season. He enjoyed fixing the lawnmower, and he enjoyed cursing it out when it failed yet again. He even secretly enjoyed how his back would seize up after wrestling it back to the house, because the pain meant he had finished something hard to do.
He liked it when his wife would throw a tube of IcyHot at his head when he came in the door, call him a damn fool – say he was too old for this nonsense – demand that he get a new mower. Then, after dinner, she would work out all the knots in his aching back with her long fingers, laughing, teasing him, while answering all the questions on Jeopardy! over her shoulder, swearing that one day she’d get on that show and teach them how it’s done.
The Kolskis had been married for forty years and had loved each other for longer. After raising two kids and losing a third, they had settled down outside of Oneonta to thirty acres of rolling pastureland, three cows, a dozen chickens, and four temperamental alpacas who would follow June around like puppies but would pitilessly savage Herb if he came within ten feet of them.
He didn’t mind that the alpacas seemed to have it in for him – he had always felt much more comfortable around the cows, anyway: good, solid beasts, not overly intelligent. But then, what use did a cow have for brains?
He pushed the tractor past two of the cattle, who followed his slow, sweating progress, swinging their big heads around to stare at him as he inched up the hill. He waved to them, almost losing his grip on the mower, and then redoubled his efforts to get it the last few feet.
It was funny, he thought, as he finally crested the hill, took off his ball cap and wiped his face with a blue handkerchief, how as a boy he would use any excuse, from a paper cut to an alien invasion, to get out of doing farm chores. It was funny how satisfying the labor was to him now. It was funny how lucky he was to have this good land, two grown sons, and a beautiful wife who loved him. It was even a little funny, he frowned as he locked the door to the shed – it was even a little funny how he already knew the secret that June had been preparing to tell him for the past three days.
It was all sort of funny, he thought, as he sat on the steps of his house and looked up at the sky, slipping into evening with pinks and purples layered on the horizon like soft cream, a crescent moon like a great shining pendulum hanging above the tree line. Funny how quickly it would all disappear.
The screen door creaked behind him, but he didn’t turn around.
“Herb?” June asked as she came outside, a shawl around her slim shoulders, and sat next to her husband on the step. “Did the tractor die again? I’ve been waiting for you all afternoon. I thought we were going to go to town. Do you want some casserole? I can heat it up for you if you’d like.”
“Thank you, sweetheart. Maybe later. Stay with me here for a while, if it’s not too cold.”
They sat together on the stairs. She leaned her head on his shoulder and they watched the stars come out.
“You’re a stubborn old fool with that tractor, Herb,” June said mildly after a while.
“You should get a new one.”
“Maybe next year.”
“You can’t hold on to it forever, you know.”
“I know,” he said quietly before the silence grew long between them.
All he wanted to do was sit there forever. There were knots twisting in his heart, not in his back, because he knew what she wanted to tell him. He knew she was choosing the right words in her head. He was all twisted up because he thought that maybe if she didn’t tell him – if she didn’t say those words, even though they both knew what they were – maybe it wouldn’t be true and they could sit on the steps together in that silent, comfortable peace under a sky blazing with glory just for them, for just a little while longer.
She would have to go inside soon, though. Six o’clock, on the dot, to uncap and unscrew the endless line of prescription bottles arranged in a neat row on the kitchen counter, like little soldiers sent to fight a hopeless war. No refills, the doctor had said. He didn’t expect June to need them, and that was the thought that kept Herb awake at night long after the powerful painkillers had put his wife to sleep. Six months, the doctor had said. Six months and it had been three already.
Herb looked down at his hands – big hands, calloused now from turning his good land into a home, and in the fading light of the swinging moon, they swam with the tears in his eyes, because he knew what she was going to say, he couldn’t stop it, and the only thing he wanted was to sit in fake ignorance on the steps with his wife, under that sky, before it all faded away.