Dallas Bleustrom watched the taxi-cab growl down out of Seven Oaks Cemetery. He maneuvered his wheelchair over tufts of unkempt grass, rattling the pills inside his jacket pocket. He had almost blown the scheme when the cabbie asked, “You got enough for the round-trip, right Mister?”
“Only need one way.” Dallas then hurried to explain how he needed lots of time here, but the driver had assumed the expression of full-bore pity, as in, spare me Jesus from ever being sent to one of these wrinkle prisons.
Dallas struggled on, freed a wheel from a gopher mound. His chambray shirt was dark with sweat. He sought shade cast by a huge, old cedar and set the brake on his wheelchair. He torturously extracted himself from chair and shirt. The bark of the cedar was rough and cool and he slumped against it gratefully, surveying the city lapping at the ankles of this cemetery bluff. Out there in the gray bleating scum of factories and suburbs was the acreage he had once called his own. Grandfather August’s homestead was now an outlet mall, a mini-golf course, and a trio of cookie-cutter suburban neighborhoods with cul-de-sac streets shaped like skeleton key door locks of his childhood.
How quickly his life and the land’s life had been diminished. It was his beloved Ruthie’s impending death that started it. He had labored like a banshee on a chain-gang those last months to try to finish the “living quilt,“ a hedgerow of fruit trees, native shrubs and wildflowers stitching together the patchwork of irrigation ditches serving their farm. “This land belongs to them, too,” Ruthie never tired of saying, pointing to a rabbit or Meadowlark or squirrel or perhaps a red fox with its elegant inflated tail.
“Then we’ll give them back the edges,” Dallas promised. And for a time that seemed to soothe Ruthie’s pain. Even before the onset of her cancer there had been unrelenting pressures from land speculators to sell. Offers escalated to what developers thought were irresistible levels, but Dallas said no which raised the ante and forced him to say no again. “You labor like a fool out here and for the amount I’m talking you’d make more than you could for the rest of your life without having to lift a shovel ever again!” wailed one persistent racketeer. Dallas laughed. “That’s a pretty good description of Hell–me never again having the privilege to work the good Mother Soil.”
Ruthie was barely settled in her grave when their only child began beating on the farmhouse door with the rest of them. “Dad, you know I’m single now and even though my kids–your own grandsons–are out on their own, they’re struggling,” Betsy pleaded. Struggling to be paid without having to lift a finger, Dallas fumed privately. If the “boys” couldn’t find a good job, why not have them take over management of the farm? He could teach them everything. Betsy had backed up a half step and shook her head sadly. “Don’t you get it, Dad? Your day and the day of family farming is gone forever. High-technology will take over feeding the people of the nation and they’ll do it without wasting a bunch of land.”
That word wasting had hurt most. How could this woman be his own spawn? And did she have no respect for the memory of her mother and the living quilt?
He held on for another year and then his heart hung up its hat and said no more of that. The doctors said it was mild as attacks went, but it was a clear warning. And then came the stroke that left his right arm and leg with no more feeling than a lightning-struck snag. He won back some sensation, but with no heirs to run the farm Dallas gave in. He stood the last day he owned it on the highest point of the land. The living quilt shimmered with life around verdant pastures and cultivated fields greening up with tidy rows of corn, sugar beets, and barley. The farm was bathed in the Lord’s own gilded light. Hedgerows blossomed in colors not found in Crayola’s biggest box of crayons. He counted seventeen deer, three raccoons, more than two hundred birds, many building nests. Within nine months all of that was utterly gone, smothered by parking lots and uppity buildings jammed with enticements to eternal debt.
So here he was in his “nice retirement.” Dallas’ gaze picked among the detritus of the city to locate the bland building he was supposed to call home. Most in the place felt as he did: If home is where the heart is, that sterile building is full of the homeless.
Even then he might have kept on, rolling silent and lost through the drab hallways, trying in vain to lose himself in the wasteland of the television set. But he got hooked up with Alice and everything magically, tragically, changed.
He liked Alice so much so from the day he arrived when said his prayers he begged Ruthie’s forbearance. “You’re my number one, Ruthie. Alice is just a friend.” Alice had been “plucked like a weed” from her working life at a florist shop. “Arthritis slowed me up. Took longer to tie ribbons, cut foam bricks and write on the delivery cards. The owner said he’s sorry but he’s got to compete with the big box stores. Artiste though I was he couldn’t afford too few bouquets going out the door.”
Alice and Dallas become co-conspirators to plant life in the tiny outdoor space made available to the residents. Manager Wilmer Cobb patronizingly explained that real grass might trip a walker–then there’s a lawsuit. Real flowers in the outside beds might attract a bee and somebody gets stung and there’s another lawsuit. He lectured them on how Alpenglow was owned by a corporation with deep pockets that made it a good target. “They don’t keep managers who hurt the profit margin by letting their wards make trouble.”
One day Alice knocked on Dallas’ door with her mother-of-pearl cane. “Come with me,” she whispered hoarsely. She had seeds and a two-foot willow sapling smuggled in through a friend. In the inner courtyard the two pulled out faded plastic geraniums, cut away artificial turf. Chunks of a fractured concrete slab were pried out and in the exposed soil they planted the sapling. Over the next days they removed more plastic carpet and chunks of concrete and planted buffalo grass and wildflower seeds. “Soon as that grass gets up and fills in we’ll use my blanket and have ourselves a real old fashioned picnic,” Alice beamed. “Maybe by then there’ll be real live ants to carry off the crumbs.”
“Any life would be welcome,” Dallas said, thinking of Ruthie and the lost living quilt.
The scheme worked perfectly since no maintenance people ever entered the courtyard because its sterility precluded any need to do anything. Grass and flowers flourished under Alice and Dallas’s close care. Other residents found the little garden captivating. Dallas figured once Cobb saw how people sat and smiled and stayed very still he would approve of it as a kind of baby-sitter cheaper than the juice to run all the television sets.
Dallas was wrong. The maintenance company complained about residents tracking dirt onto the gray carpeting. Cobb promptly ordered the grass dug up, merging wildflowers yanked to their deaths, the sapling plucked from the ground, its roots drowning in the stale air. “Lawsuits waiting to happen,” Cobb said, wagging a fat finger at Dallas and Alice.
Dallas grieved. Alice raged. She rummaged in her closet for her “picnic” blanket, grabbed a sandwich from the commissary, and stomped out the front door. Dallas wheeled along beside her, pleading for her to stop, but she simply fluttered her wrist at the oncoming traffic and waded across the first three lanes of the expressway to a skinny grass median strip. Dallas rolled back and forth on the Alpenglow sidewalk frantically calling to Alice to be careful. He winced every time a big rig or a garbage truck roared by, its diesel breezes lifting locks of her white hair. He couldn’t just wait for her to get herself killed. He wheeled to his room, flung himself out of the chair and fished under his narrow bed until he found the flag. Every year on the farm he had proudly displayed it on appropriate holidays. Here, he had not secured permission to affix the stanchion to the wall so Dallas stuck it in his wheelchair armrest and on holidays rolled up and down corridors like a one-man parade.
At the curb he waited for Alice to finish her picnic. He stuck the flag into the first lane, bringing a car to a shuddering halt. He dropped the wheelchair over the curb and crept forward, the flag bouncing ahead of him like a knight’s lance. More tires squalled and he smelled burnt rubber. A driver cursed. Finally, Dallas got to the inside lane and he motioned Alice toward him, escorting her to safety along the line of honking vehicles and shouted epithets.
When Alice didn’t come in for breakfast the next morning Dallas wheeled to the nurses’ station. There was a commotion and the on-duty Physician’s Assistant galloped down the hall, shouting into his cellular phone.
He visited her in the hospital as often as his allowance would afford him cab fare. The attending physician said it was a stroke, probably brought on by the incident in the street. She was in a coma. On his way each visit Dallas had the cabbie stop so he could buy a bouquet of freshly cut flowers which he put in a vase by her bed. He would chatter at her, filling in both sides of the conversation. He told her about how when she woke up from her nap they would pick right up where they left off with plans to bring life to the dead zone at the Home. Days passed. Dallas lost count. Alice’s face was curiously illuminated even as her body seemed to grow more pale and small. He asked Ruthie in his nightly prayers to be on the look out for Alice. “She’d be the one fussing with the floral arrangements on the Lord’s own desk. If she does show up, please send her back. Her work is not done.”
Dallas spent a lot of time out front of the Home, rolling in tight little circles, adrenaline singing through his limbs. He’d glance at the median strip–the pathetic Mohawk of grass on the ugly black head of the street. He imagined he could still see the grass slightly flattened where Alice had spread her blanket. It was true, he now admitted, he had been afraid of losing her. Afraid of seeing one more living good thing torn from the fertile soil of this world. Alice seemed to have found a way out, so he would follow her example. That night Dallas waited until the orderly left and spat his sleeping pill into a plastic medicine cup–the start of his cache.
He now fingered that same cup. He looked shyly up through the cedar canopy. “Ruthie–I think it’s time for our reunion. I can’t take another day in that miserable excuse for a place. If I can’t put my hands in real soil or grass, I’d just as soon be under it.” He felt a huge ease, like the first swallow of a cold beer on a blistering August afternoon. But as he closed his weary eyes and began to imagine how it would feel to drift off light as a feather to heaven, a voice loud and plain as if she stood before him sounded in his mind’s ear. It was Ruthie and she was asking him where he had misplaced his brain. Were he to take his own life, the guards on duty at the Pearly Gate would turn him back surely as if he were Satan’s own spawn.
Dallas opened his eyes and wiped away tears. Around him the dry, neglected cemetery appeared to him in a new way. If the dead could nourish living trees and shrubs and grasses here, why couldn’t the living green things nourish those not yet dead? He donated the pills to an abandoned woodpecker cavity and set to work.
On that first day Dallas managed only to cull dead grasses from the living. He pulled himself along by his arms. He uncovered a whole colony of Vervain, flat as moss, toothed petals shy and purple down near the parched soil. He’d crawl a few feet and work a new area, tearing away coils of desiccated grass to reveal small wild plants struggling and starved for light, but flowering bravely, as if on faith sufficient light would come. By late afternoon he had excavated a swatch of the hillside the size of his shared Alpenglow bedroom. He slumped against the base of a blue spruce, his gaze hungrily drinking in newly liberated blossoms of potentilla, pleurisy root, and evening primrose. The scatter of living color so gladdened his heart he pulled himself shakily to his feet. Leading with his good leg, he took three awkward steps before his knees buckled and he went down. He got up again, lurched, fell, rose haltingly to close the distance between himself and his wheelchair. Instead of sitting in it he used it as a four-wheeled walker, pushing it ahead, dragging his gimpy leg.
He found a pay phone at the bottom of the hill and was delighted when the same cabbie showed up who had left him off that morning. The little fat guy scratched his balding head and scampered happily to stow the wheelchair. Dallas knew the driver had figured never again to see Dallas alive.
Like the wildflowers themselves, the residents of Alpenglow began to struggle toward the light of what quietly become known as The Dallas Project. He had returned to the cemetery the next day with Mr. Peterson, a retired chemist who once raised champion orchids. The two paid the cabbie, Butch, to bring them a rake and a hoe from the Goodwill Store. Three weeks passed and the workforce grew to thirteen.
By the end of August Butch had to call in cabbie reinforcements. Twenty-three men and women were convoyed early each morning to the cemetery. They were returned by early afternoon when the heat became intolerable. They all turned out for supper time and the food manager complained that the residents were eating twice the allotted portions. Cobb found himself in the embarrassing position of trying to explain to regional headquarters why he had to increase the meal budget. The cost control agent on the other end of the line shouted: “Sick old drugged people don’t suddenly start eating three square meals a day! Do you know what it would do to our margins if all clients in our facilities started eating well?!”
The cemetery was transformed by the middle of September. Dead or diseased patches of old grass had been removed, replaced by a dozen species of native western grasses, interspersed with native wildflowers. Each resident chose a favorite from a nursery catalog and tutored under master gardeners and ornamental horticulturists to become experts on their plant. Several men formed a tombstone restoration committee and performed masonry miracles on toppled, broken, and defaced markers. A local rock supply company was drafted to supply small granite boulders and slabs of red sandstone for graves whose markers were missing altogether.
A suburban weekly paper ran a story on the project which brought volunteers from the larger community, including residents who lived in smaller, older homes on three sides of the cemetery. A furniture supplier off-loaded a picnic gazebo and several tables and benches that were slightly chipped or scuffed. The “cosmetic surgery” team went to work with sandpaper and paintbrushes. A History professor from Front Range Community College in the city enlisted her students in an ethnographic project involving research into the inhabitants of the old cemetery. The students also interviewed the “topside community” of Alpenglow Home residents about their living histories. The profiles were published serially in the local paper and on a website set up through the college.
Dallas tried hard to escape the limelight, figuring that his restored health was reward enough. He had begun to walk without the aid of a chair or even a walker, using only a hickory cane presented to him by the residents who told him at that supper that he had given them all support to stand and live. He stood in the cemetery at the end of each long work day and held his battered straw hat. “Thank you Good Lord–Farmer of us all.” He’d wink and blow a kiss to Ruthie and wait for Butch to whisk him to the hospital to sit with Alice.
He told Alice of the day’s progress, the occasional excitement, like when an adolescent garden snake crawled into Mrs. Phillip’s big old sun hat as it lay on the ground and when she went to put it on the snake panicked and exited down her neck and into her blouse and she yelled and hopped and tore off her blouse and the snake dropped to the ground and fled in terror even as old men and women hid their smiles at the sight of the impromptu strip-tease. “Everything’s right according to plan, even though the only plan we got is to turn that cemetery into a beauty spot.” He’d lean close to Alice and speak to her unmoving lips and try to imagine her startling blue-green eyes hidden under the lids. “Alice–it’s going to be a wonderful place for a picnic.”
Dallas thought they were going to pull off this wonderful scam until Mrs. Donna Obmar keeled over one sweltering day while planting a Blue Gentian. Dallas hobbled to her side, held her head, swatted the breathless air, pleaded for her to stay alive. Butch was on his two-way radio and within a few moments an ambulance screamed up the cemetery road.
Mrs. Obmar was brought back to life by paramedics, but Corporate headquarters saw a chance to stem the hemorrhage of expense. They flew in a team to erect a “liability levee” as a means to kill the project. Cobb was their mouthpiece and he took no small delight in carrying out orders, including an ingenious threat to cabbies: “You’re the ones delivering folks to this site, so if one of these geezers gets hurt, you’re an accomplice and wham! there’s a lawsuit.”
The city slapped a temporary restraint against further work at the cemetery and two competing cemeteries run by corporations used the opportunity to complain to the City council about the “guerilla tactics” of the Dallas Project that used “unskilled and unpaid labor to do the very serious business of interment and the perpetual care of the beloved deceased best left to the professionals of the After Care Industry.”
The more serious challenge was mounted by the City’s legal department. The liability issue loomed large. City budgets were already strained and the prospect of defending lawsuits brought by survivors of any Alpenglow Residents who died on the cemetery restoration project posed a threat to the fiscal health of municipal services. Police sealed the entrance with florid yellow tape and newly planted flowers began to wither.
Butch the cabbie, who had become the “official transport of the Cemetarians,” couldn’t stay away. He’d drive his off-duty cab to the flapping barricade and stare morosely at the dying flowers. It was like watching a great colorful beast suffer right before your eyes and you’re helpless to render aid. He drove to the Home and sought out Dallas one lunch period. There, over macaroni and cheese “surprise,” the cabbie, Dallas, and seven other co-conspirators lamented the turn of events. “Well it’s not like we’ve got a lot to lose by do‘in something,” boomed Morgie Fulmer, an octogenarian and former union organizer. “What they gonna do?–toss us into some sterile lock-up and make us eat bad food?”
One declaration of indignation followed another and by nap-time the revolution had been hatched. Assignments were furtively noted on napkins and stuffed in pockets. Over the next days phone calls were made from pay phones down the street to sympathetic “armaments” dealers, the press, and the three ecology clubs that had been working at the cemetery site. The recreation room afforded the revolutionaries opportunities to refine plans behind the cloak of cribbage boards and bridge hands. Cobb had been alerted by staff that something was up because oldsters were not dozing off over their chessboards and card games. Someone found a crude map showing the cemetery and small red “x”s at points around the perimeter. Cobb tossed it into his shredder. “The old coots are playing a war game in their fantasies. If it’ll keep ‘em occupied, it’ll cut down on art supplies.”
July Fourth dawned cloudless and hot. Dallas arose as usual and made his bed. He retrieved the rolled-up flag. His wheelchair had been long since parked, so he anchored the flag’s aluminum pole in his front pocket. Nearly all of the ambulatory residents had gathered in the cafeteria and Dallas limped to the center of the room while Beverly Shane pounded out a John Phillips Sousa march on the old upright piano. Dallas then led them on his usual “parade” down the corridor. When they got to the front door he pushed out into the sizzling day. Residents followed. Down the front sidewalk they marched to behold the entire block lined with waiting cabs. Butch has his cab in the lead and its paint gleamed from a fresh wash and wax.
“Charge!” Dallas yelled, his flag aving madly. Residents did their best to hurry into the waiting cabs as Cobb, two nurses, and a corporate V-P who had come for the holiday celebration yelled frantically after the departing flotilla of cabs.
Seven cabs had unloaded their fares at the cemetery site before the first police cars appeared. Dallas hollered to the other cabbies, “D-2!” The cabbies grinned, saluted, and began to pull away with their grinning occupants. A police lieutenant congratulated Dallas for his cooperation in disbanding this unlawful assembly. Dallas just shrugged and hobbled off toward a place in the hurricane fence that had previously been cut in preparation for the “invasion.”
Now decoy munitions vehicles began to arrive. There were nursery trucks, vans from hardware stores. Their drivers made rehearsed protests to be let on to the site as they had work orders and deliveries to make that had been bought and paid for. The diversion worked perfectly, allowing the real supply vehicles to cruise quietly through adjacent neighborhoods where sympathetic neighbors opened driveways and side-yards to admit volunteers with wheelbarrows, hand dollies, and electric golf carts to haul materiel and residents through a dozen different breaches in the perimeter fence. A police observer on the highest brow of the cemetery grounds sputtered into his portable radio: “Sir! The place is a sieve!”
A media helicopter whomped overhead and the reporter from High Five News described the scene for a special live telecast. “It looks like an anthill. Almost everyone is carrying something–I hope these aren’t weapons. Jake–let’s move Chopper Five for better position for our cameras. You’re seeing it as I am, folks. They’re carrying…shovels! And hoes and rakes. And bags of something in wheel barrels. Potting soil. Potted plants and flowers. Look over there! Two old gents have a pretty fair sized apple tree in a little red wagon and they’re lugging that up the hill, too.”
The chopper hovered over a cluster of people. “Oh my God! We’ve got people down! Jake–I hope this isn’t one of those mass suicide packs. We’re zooming in. Wait! The guy on the ground is moving. He’s alive. Now they’re shoveling dirt over him, mounding it right up to his neck. They’re planting flowers right on top of him. How can he breathe? We’re switching down to Jan Matson who’s right on the scene.”
“High Five–Jan here. Some of the folks are being buried alive–symbolically–though that soil looks plenty heavy for old chests. We’ve uncovered a reluctant leader by the name of Dallas Bleustrom. Here’s what he has to say.”
Dallas had not wanted any of the limelight. He was a tiller of fields, a listener of birds, an appreciator of clouds. He feared his powers of speech, let alone reason, would flee before the microphone. But now here was this nice-looking blonde T.V. woman and her microphone right at his chin. “The Home we come from is not much of a home,” he started. “Might as well have signs posted, ‘No Living Allowed!’ We tried to put in some life, some grass so people could shed slippers and run their tired old toes through genuine grass. But the corporation that runs the place said it was too much maintenance and tore it all out and put back concrete and artificial turf and plastic plants. If someone brings you in a real live flower, you’re not allowed to plant it. “One day a brave lady, Mrs. Alice Carmichael, she finally had it. Said a human being has a right to have a picnic on real grass and she went out to the median strip on the avenue and almost got herself killed there and then the next day–” His voice deserted him. The moisture that should have been in his throat was in his eyes and he stared helplessly at the reporter’s shiny blonde hair. “Are you all right, Mr. Bleustrom?” Dallas shook his head, no, he was not all right. Not as long as Alice lay in that bed with tubes in her and a machine breathing for her. But then he thought he heard Alice’s voice or maybe it was Ruthie’s. Something about all that has been lost need not be in vain. That’s what this cemetery project was all about.
Dallas dried his eyes on his soil-smeared wrists. “I apologize. Mrs. Carmichael was brave for us all, so we just followed her example, except we didn’t want to have to have a picnic with cars and trucks screaming by. We chose a spot that’s quiet and beautiful and where the earth still breathes and lives and where if he’s a mind to the Good Lord can find us even through all the junk humans have piled up on his Creation. Most of us are gonna be called home soon, so we might as well be pretty close to where we’ll give back our bodies and fly like swallows to Heaven.”
Dallas was surprised to hear a steadiness return to his voice. But it was a braided voice, his own, Ruthie’s, perhaps Alice’s, too. The microphone was still there, which he guessed meant he could say more. “I’m just a farmer. Always took my greatest pleasure in seeing things live in God’s green earth. Life loves life, you know. All those T.V. shows–no offense–and this computer talking back and forth business is to me a poor substitute for feeling your fingers deep in the living black soil. When a life is done and a body’s played out, there’s no better place than to be laid right down into the living earth herself. I remembered this old cemetery from the early days ’cause I got a few folks resting here. Butch, that cabbie guy over there, I had him bring me up here to, well–nevermind about that. I was soaking up all this beauty and quiet and thinking how lucky the folks are resting here in this soil. It hits me! Why couldn’t the place of the dead be the place for the living?” Dallas swept an open palm over the scene. “As you can see, a whole bunch of us have never been so full of life as here in the company of the dead.”
The police lieutenant moved up cautiously and motioned for the reporter to stand aside so he could make an arrest. “What are the charges?” the reporter now stuck her microphone under the lieutenant’s chin.
“Trespassing, for starters. Destruction of private property. Inciting a riot.”
Laughter rippled through the ring of elders. Someone muttered, “sure–in slow motion.” The lieutenant turned crimson as the penstemons “planted” over the loins of old Charlie Burger. Charlie began to laugh and the penstemons trembled. The lieutenant turned from the reporter and faced Dallas. “Tell your people to cease and desist. We’ve got a police bus on the way and when it arrives anyone who has not left for home will be arrested and transported to city jail.”
“This is home,” said Mrs. Cooley, raising her walker defiantly off the ground and bringing it down dangerously close to the lieutenant’s highly polished boot.
“That’s right,” said Laura Trevor. “You better bring lots of handcuffs.” Her arms crossed beneath her ample bosom. There were grunts of support and several residents raised arms and made shaky peace symbols.
The reporter’s microphone was a mustache under the policeman’s nose. “Will you cart these senior citizens off to jail?” He backed away and hurried down the hill to the command vehicle where a half dozen heavily armored SWAT team members stood drinking coffee. A dark minivan rolled up with the city seal on it and the Mayor got out to join the police commissioner and the lieutenant for a hasty conference.
Dallas watched the activity and grinned. “Okay fellow outlaws and outlawesses–let’s plant some more people. If the police insist on arresting us, they’ll have to desecrate a cemetery by digging up the living!” Laughter all around. Old Charlie huffed from under his mound of earth and posies, “It’ll take them a while to get an exhumation order to dig us up”
Three weeks passed. Dallas stood fitfully in the shade of the big cedars where once he contemplated leaving the earth. At a signal he bent to affix his signature to a document freshly signed by the Mayor. Clustered in a crescent around Dallas and the Mayor were all the residents of the Alpenglow Home, including two on gurneys with freestanding I.V. packs and nurses at the side. Only one resident was missing. Alice Carmichael. Dallas had been at her bedside last night reading her poems and prayers and giving her details on the cemetery project. He thought once or twice her eyes rolled suggestively beneath closed lids, but he couldn’t be sure.
Also in attendance were residents of the surrounding neighborhoods who had aided the Cemetarians in their takeover. Most had signed on as honorary members of the newly formed cemetery park district. The Mayor now stood before microphones and proclaimed the official opening of the High Prairie Living Memorial Park. It would be, he said, a place of beauty and tranquility for those gone, those still here, and those generations to come.
The City would retain ownership, but through a cooperative arrangement with the corporation that ran the Alpenglow Home the residents would become perpetual caretakers. Plans were being formalized to convert an abandoned industrial site at the foot of the hill into a new care facility for those residents who chose to live nearer the site. So far, everyone at the Alpenglow had signed on. They would literally be able to walk out the back door of the new facility and be on the cemetery grounds. Solar-powered golf cart trails were to be installed to help those who were non-ambulatory to have access to native wildflower and butterfly gardens, gazebos, and picnic greenswards of buffalo grass.
After many hand shakes, back slaps, and media interviews Dallas was exhausted. He prepared to excuse himself to go to his favorite spot when Henry Elliott, Cobb’s replacement, walked up to Dallas and handed him a cellular phone. “It’s for you.”
He felt foolish holding the little thing to his ear. It was City Hospital, Dr. Cushing. “There are no guarantees, Mr. Bleustrom, but I want you to kno that Alice Carmichael has regained consciousness. She’s weak, still unable to speak, but we got eye signals in answer to questions and we know she’s lucid. You’ll be able to visit her briefly tomorrow, if you like.”
Dallas staggered off toward twin cedars and sat dazedly on a newly installed bench. He inhaled the pungent cedars, gazed over the gentle swell of the cemetery hill with its rainbow necklaces of wildflowers. He gazed up between the trees. “Ruthie, my sweet, things are looking powerfully good. He snuffled back tears, whispered into the swaying blue branches. “Ruthie–this is the best crop I’ve ever put in. There are terraced beds made so someone in a wheelchair can roll right up alongside and work from the chair. We got the young people, too. It’s a partnership with the horticulture program at the community college. There’s room for food gardens and flower beds so the kids can learn to raise food for the residents of the Home and flowers to be transplanted to other city parks. Proceeds from cash crops go into the perpetual care fund. Everybody who works in the cemetery gardens gets a free burial here, if he or she chooses. Even the animals are coming back. I’ve seen raccoons, squirrels, and every feather of bird.” He paused. “Ruthie–it’s like the living quilt we grew on the farm. It’s got almost everything–’cept you.” He waited a long time to let his throat ease its ache.
He pursed his lips and said almost apologetically, “Ruthie, I thought Alice was on her way to meet up with you, but she’s not quite through down here, so if it’s all right with you, when she gets stronger I’m going to bring her up here to this buffalo grass and we’re going to spread her blanket and have a class-A picnic. I hope to have quite a few picnics up here, Ruthie, and you’re always invited along. I’m going to pick a sprig of lilacs or wild roses and lay them on the blanket for you.”
He stood now on his ever-stronger legs. He made a sweeping bow to the cemetery grounds falling away from his vantage point. “When my time comes, dear Ruthie, I hope I’ll be right up here so when I topple over all they got to do is rake some soil over me. It’ll take a little extra ‘cause they’ll have to fill in the big ole grin gaping all over my face.”