Sam Cotter’s nerves were frayed by the time his plane landed in Milwaukee. Over the last 96 hours he had relentlessly bounced from terminals to hotel rooms to meetings to bars—all in the name of furthering client rapport. Faces blurred, conversations got lost, and drinks blended together someplace disgustingly dark inside his body. But none of this was of any concern now. He was home, or at least very close to it. That meant he could finally have some time to himself.
As Sam left the airport his adrenaline-addled heartbeat began to fade behind his rib cage. As a result, the faintest of grins could be seen creeping across his face. It hurt. The ceaseless hours of forced smiles and fake laughs had taken their toll on his cheeks. At least he could breathe a sigh of relief knowing work was over, for today.
By the time he arrived home it was nearing dinnertime. Sam wanted to eat and, more importantly, rest. He knew he should exercise. A week had passed since his last run, and a streak of fast food meals had diminished what little confidence he had in his body image. The gratuitously extended happy hours hadn’t exactly helped either.
Sam had caught a glimpse of himself shirtless in the mirror that morning, and he couldn’t resist the impulse to pinch and push around the thick layer of flab at his midsection. Had it always been there? Was it getting worse?
A course correction was needed, but fatigue was threatening to drown him in a viscous pool of good intentions for merely considering exerting himself after such a long trip. Before a guilty conscience could get the better of him, Sam opened the fridge and grabbed one of the Coronas lining the door. He cracked the lid off the bottle and took a swig, thus planting firm roots in his apartment for the evening, or so he thought.
Everything else could wait; he needed to recover. Besides, there was laundry sitting in his suitcase that he should tend to. Maybe by tackling a basic chore he would create momentum for a better tomorrow.
I’ll can get up early if I take it easy tonight, he reasoned.
Sam moved to the living room. There would surely be a basketball game or something equally meaningless on television that he could zone out to before starting dinner or laundry. It didn’t mater what it was so long as noise filled the apartment to prevent him from thinking.
He began to search for the remote, which he never did find. Cushions were flipped, blanket and pillows tossed, and floors were scanned, but the magic device refused to reveal itself. Sam scrambled, and soon began to pace while refining his search. Then he caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of his eye—something that brought an abrupt halt to his lack of plans.
There, on the table, sat the fern he’d promised himself to take care of, its fronds a putrid shade of brown.
“No. No, no, no, no,” Sam muttered while racing into the dining room.
His heart stopped, if only for a moment, as he tried to process the scene. The plant was dying, if not already dead. When this realization set in, Sam’s agitation gave way to mild confusion. The fern hadn’t been important enough to keep alive, and yet, the sight of it withering away stirred a sadness within him unlike any he had ever felt.
As Sam reached out and touched one of the leaves it snapped like a thin cracker between his thumb and forefinger. A voice in the back of his head told him it was too late, but he refused to listen to it.
Sam ran to the kitchen sink to fill a glass with water. During the rush back to the plant he lost a quarter of the cup’s contents. He slowly began to pour water near the center of the plant, pushing away leaves as delicately as possible. The dirt lacked any signs of moisture. He should have left the heat on while he was gone. He should have watered it before he left. He should have removed it from direct sunlight. There were so many should haves and the sad, miserable truth was that none of them mattered now.
“You’re just thirsty,” Sam told the fern. “Come on, drink up,” he begged as he waited for the water to vanish beneath the soil.
Running to his bags, Sam pulled out his laptop. After gleaning over numerous sources, the only new information he discovered was that damaged fronds needed to be snipped away. Unfortunately, 90 percent of the fern’s leaves had lost their healthy green color. By that logic, the entire plant needed to be thrown away and Sam wasn’t ready to do that. He would just have to keep watering. Some areas would surely spring back to life as he poured, then he could prune.
He looked back down at the dirt where water still sat. It wasn’t clear if the soil was absorbing any of the moisture. More water, he decided. And as Sam tipped the cup, his nerves shook the glass causing it to slip out of his hands and into the fern, taking half of the leaves with it.
“Shit,” Sam said.
“Shit!” Sam exclaimed.
He pushed the fern off the table and sent it careening toward the floor where the ceramic pot exploded into a dozen shards. Dirt spilled toward the patio door, and the fern shredded into pieces.
Sam placed his head in his hands. His chest heaved air in and out, frantic. “Why can’t I do anything right?” he asked himself. “I just want to do right,” he mumbled.
It had scared Sam, the fern. He may not have paid attention to it very often, but it had been a part of his life. The plant depended on him even if he hadn’t made time for it. And now it was dead because the only thing he had ever made time for was…himself.
It was too late for a comfortable night in front of the television now—too late for laundry as well. Sam put on his jacket, grabbed his keys, and got back in his car. Though his stomach was begging for food he chose to ignore it. There was only one thing he could do tonight in order to make himself feel better: apologize.
Less than an hour later he arrived in the small town where he’d spent his summers. This was the place where Sam and his siblings would go swimming at the local pool in the mornings and play ball in the park in the afternoons. He drove through downtown finding the quiet street where the video store used to be. He broke his concentration from the road again to examine the bar where his grandfather would take him for burgers after a day at the driving range, Pappy’s Pub. Nostalgia haunted him, though it also caused his heart to flutter.
He hung a left on Gorham Street and proceeded to the outskirts of town. The entire town was asleep under the blanket of night. Sam liked it that way. It was peaceful, but it was also temporary. He could now see the place he feared the most ahead of him, the cemetery.
There, amongst the rows of headstones he found his grandfather’s. He hadn’t visited the site since the funeral; he hadn’t had a reason until now. It all seemed so silly to come to a specific place to talk to someone. If the dead watched over the living, then meeting them at a fixed location to talk seemed ridiculous to Sam. At least that had been the case until the fern crashed onto the floor. There one minute, and gone the next, or so it goes. It was in that moment that it occurred to Sam that visiting was about the effort, not the ritual. Effort had always been his biggest issue. It conflicted with his time.
After gazing at shadows from his car for a few contemplative moments, Sam turned off the ignition. He stepped out of the car where a brisk winter chill immediately nipped at his nose. With each footstep the snow punctuated his march with a crunch.
When he arrived at the headstone there was a long awkward pause. Why was silence so uncomfortable out here by himself? This could only be a one-way conversation, yet Sam couldn’t shake the feeling that he was supposed to fill dead air.
“Well, I guess I finally made time to see you,” he said, his unease increasing the volume of his voice instead of doing the opposite. “I would have done it earlier, but…” But what? There was no but. No lies in death either. “But I didn’t.”
There was something unsettling about talking in the dark to no one. Sam told himself that it was the wind, which made bare branches dance and scrape in the distance, but that wasn’t it. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t alone—that there was something else out in the darkness watching him.
“I should have made more time for you,” Sam said. “I think people made excuses for me when they shouldn’t have.” His parents came to mind. They had always tried to make his absences seem nobler than they were.
“It wasn’t their fault. I put them in that position. The truth is I wasn’t busy. I was more scared than anything—scared of seeing you like that,” he took a long pause and thought about his confession. What weight was he really getting off of his chest?
“I guess you know that now. Or you don’t and this is all pointless. I guess it’s pointless either way. I can’t change anything now. It’s all fucked up.” The words tasted sour on his lips. Even though he was gone Sam didn’t like cursing in front of his grandfather.
“I should have came and visited you. I kept pushing it to tomorrow like you’d still be there, and then, one day, you weren’t.” There was a tickle at the back of his throat, and soon thereafter his eyes began to itch. “I’m not even upset that I didn’t get to say goodbye, I’m upset that you didn’t get to.”
A car turned into the cemetery at that moment, giving Sam pause. He froze and looked down, pretending to not be guilt-ridden. The car continued on to somewhere in the back of the cemetery. Far enough away to make him feel comfortable speaking again.
“That was shi—that was a terrible thing for me to do. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t see you like that because I was scared. That would have never stopped you, and it shouldn’t be an excuse for me.”
A rush of memories flooded Sam’s thoughts. Everything from Christmases to basketball games to summers to ceremonies, all filled with love. But amongst them all was one moment he recalled above all the others that he would always keep closer to his heart than the rest. One that seemed important remembering now that he had time to share it with his grandfather.
“Do you remember that time I showed up to Thanksgiving with my ear pierced? It never even occurred to me what you’d think until we were on your doorstep. I probably looked like such a tool. Ok, I know I looked like a tool, but that’s the point. You called me over to that old leather recliner of yours where you watched football, investigated my ear lobe, looked me dead in the eyes and asked, ‘Is that what the kids are doing these days?’”
“And I waited. I waited for you to tease me like everyone else had been doing since I walk through the kitchen holding one of mom’s casseroles, defenseless. But you didn’t. You said, ‘Well, I liked your ears better before, but you could dye your hair pink and I’d still love ya, bub.’”
That moment had epitomized his grandfather. It demonstrated the type of unconditional love that squeezed at Sam’s heart until tears were forced out his eyes. Sam wiped them away before they could form crystals in the sharp wind. “Anyway, I’m sorry, not that it does either of us any good now. I wish I could have given you something like that to take with you.”
He studied the engraving on the headstone. Edgar Cotter – father, grandfather, husband. All these ordinary nouns failed to represent the person underneath them, and yet, at their very core, defined Sam’s grandfather.
“Well, I don’t know what else to say,” Sam confessed. “I hope you’re happy, wherever you are.” He kissed his fingertips and pressed them to the marble. “I miss you.”
“Oh, and, uh…I might have killed your fern by the way. Not that it was yours. I’m pretty sure your thumb was as green as mine, but Aunt Hazel insisted I take a plant. That’s her bad. But I guess if it finally got me out here so maybe she’s smarter than I give her credit for. Don’t tell her I said that though.”
Sam left the cemetery a little less ashamed than he’d entered it. Still, his words would most likely only drift through the wind and be lost in the ether. It was all he could do now though. It was what he’d have to live with.
The small amount of guilt that was shed did give way to some semblance of an appetite as Sam started driving. It had been ten hours since he had anything to eat during his layover in Denver.
Pappy’s Pub was where his grandfather would often take Sam as a child. It wasn’t much better than fast food, but Sam decided he could use a little company even if he was just going to eat alone.
The inside of Pappy’s was just as Sam had remembered it. A long cedar bar, a row of red stools, high tables against the wall, and televisions littering the ceiling. The place was still recognizable even if Sam felt like a stranger in it, or even an imposter.
He grabbed a stool away from the crowd of older men gathered near the entrance watching the Thursday night football game. Sam could sense he didn’t fit in with his leather jacket and dark denim jeans next to the gruff men in overalls. He desperately wanted to, but after a long week of schmoozing and boozing his charm had long since been exhausted.
Pappy himself was still tending bar. He was chatting it up with the group of football fans, not appearing to have aged much since the last time Sam had seen him. Sure, the bags under his eyes sagged a bit more and he had added a few more wrinkles to his forehead, but the face remained familiar.
“What can I get ya,” Pappy called from down the bar as he approached Sam.
“7 and 7, and a hamburger with fried onions—medium, please,” Sam said. He waited to see if the man would notice him. When the moment passed he felt his muscles relax and tilted his head up to the screens above like everyone else.
It didn’t take long for the food to come out of the kitchen. No one was eating at nine o’clock on a Thursday in the small town. For the first time that week Sam enjoyed being in a bar. He could just let the noise wash over him. It was soothing to blend into the background as life happened at his peripherals.
When Pappy came back over to check on his customer after five minutes the sandwich had disappeared. “Jesus, did I even bring you out an order?”
Sam laughed. “I was hungry.”
“Well, I’m glad you seemed to enjoy it.” Pappy chuckled. “Can I get you anything else?”
Sam reached for his wallet. “That’ll be it for me, thanks.” He handed his credit card over, and Pappy went to the register.
As he calculated the bill something caught his eye. “Cotter?” he called back. “No relation to Edgar, are ya?”
“I was—I am his grandson.”
“No shit.” Pappy looked speechless, if only for a moment. “You aren’t that little fat kid that used to come in here and eat up our entire week’s supply of beef are you?”
Sam could feel his cheeks flush. “That was probably me.”
“By god, it’s been what, fifteen years since I seen you? Jesus, kid, you ain’t no fat little shit no more,” he laughed.
“Thanks?” Sam joined the raucous laughter. Somehow the way Pappy had said it made it sound like a compliment.
“Well what brings you back here?”
The question gave Sam pause. It was guilt that had led him here, but he didn’t think that was appropriate to say. “Ah, I was just feeling like a visit to the cemetery was overdue.”
“Goddamn shame about that,” Pappy sympathized. “Your granddaddy wasn’t no spring chicken, but that never makes it any less terrible seeing someone like that go.”
“Yeah. It’ll be a while before I get over it I suppose.”
“Be awhile? Old farts like your granddaddy don’t ever go anywhere. They stick with you. That’s what makes ‘em special.”
“So he’s an old fart and I’m a fat shit. It’s a wonder how you’ve stayed in business all these years with compliments like that,” Sam chided.
“Yep, you’re a smartass just like him too.” Pappy swatted Sam on his arm playfully.
“Gee, that grandpa of yours came in here every Monday to watch the news of all things while your grandma was making dinner. He’d stay about an hour each visit just to watch the news repeat so he could crack the same stupid joke. They’d have a story about a guy jumping off a bridge or something like that at 5, then he’d wait for it to come on again at 6 so he could yell, ‘Someone oughta stop that dumb bastard from jumping again. He didn’t learn the first time, what makes y’all think he’ll do anything different the second time!’ He’d always get a laugh, that piece of work.”
The story brought a smile to Sam’s face. “I wish I could hear him make that stupid joke again.”
“Hell, we all do. He was always good for a laugh, the decent ones always are. Wouldn’t shut up about you either.”
“Me?” Sam asked. He all of a sudden felt like he was eavesdropping on a ghost.
“Yeah. God, even that last time he was in here he was just going on and on about how you were traveling around the country for your job. He was pretty proud of you, but you probably don’t need me to tell you that.”
Sam didn’t, but he decided he needed to know anyway. “Go ahead,” he told Pappy. “I’ve got time.”