On a hot, sunny day, I was mowing my little stripe of front yard along Linebrook Road when a long gray automobile slowed to a stop next to me. The driver, an elderly gentleman with bright eyes, leaned over to the open passenger window.
“I have a gravestone,” he said.
Forget the hot, sunny day. A chill went through me.
“Your linden is dead,” he continued.
I was confused. I have two lindens, at the front corner of my property, and they’re both perfectly healthy, thank you very much.
“It’s hanging over my gravestone,” the gentleman went on. Then he smiled a sweet, almost boyish smile. “Would you mind, very much, taking it down?”
Ah! The mystery began to dissolve. He was talking about the opposite corner of my property, a tangle of trees and undergrowth at the edge of the Linebrook Cemetery. And he had started out so spookily — “I have a gravestone” — only because his vehicle was standing on Linebrook Road, and if he took time for the usual pleasantries, he would soon be blocking traffic.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I replied. “What’s the name on the gravestone?”
“Willis,” he replied, and drove off.
I trudged across the meadow to a little break in the crude stone wall that separates my land from the land of the dead. On the other side, it didn’t take long to find Mr. Willis’s gravestone. His beloved Geraldine had already been laid to rest, her name and numbers engraved in the smooth gray marker. Her husband Robert, sharing the marker, had only a name and birth date.
And looming overhead, like a refugee from a Disney movie, was the creepiest, spindliest, blackest dead tree I’ve ever seen. Its bare, claw-like branches were bent over the Willis gravestone like an amateur actor trying to be “menacing.” No wonder Mr. Robert Willis wanted the tree to come down. His dear departed wife was being guarded by a creature from Lord of the Rings.
When I learned how much a professional would charge me to cut down the dead linden, I decided to do the job myself, with a hand saw and a pair of work gloves and a prayer for good luck. The only potential trouble was, if the tree fell toward the cemetery, it would smash Mrs. Willis’s gravestone to smithereens. I needed the tree to fall the opposite direction, onto my property.
My wife decided to come watch.
“I’ve seen them do this in cartoons,” she offered cheerfully. “Whichever side you cut into, the tree falls the opposite way.”
This seemed advice as wise as any. So I slashed into the cemetery side of the tree, until it started to groan — or maybe that was me groaning — and sure enough, just like in the cartoons, the dreadful linden came crashing into my yard. Stand in front of Mrs. Willis’s gravestone now, and the trees framing the background are lush and green and pleasant.
After that, I noticed, almost every day, a long, elegant gray car gliding into the cemetery, slowing to a stop where the linden used to be. From time to time, I walked over, through the break in the stone wall, to say hello to Mr. Willis. As time went by, wonderful stories unspooled. The New Jersey kid, discovering the museums of Manhattan. Getting his wings just in time for World War Two to be over. Falling in love with Geri.
It turns out that my charming friend Mr. Willis was one of the world’s most prominent mechanical engineers. In the Cold War of the 1960s, he worked on a team that designed a high-speed hydrofoil boat to interdict enemy submarines. (He started the project by going to a local store and buying an erector set.) He can show you miles of black-and-white photos of engines and gears and crankshafts and other stuff I will never understand. (I even saw a photo of what they actually built with the erector set!) If you want to see the photos and hear the stories, contact me via Outsidah.com, and I’ll get you in touch with the good man himself.
I called him Mr. Willis once too often. “I’m Bob,” he finally insisted.
And so, here we are. Death brought us together. Death isn’t fun, but I’m glad this worked out the way it did. A wife gone, a tree gone. Yet on the edge of the graveyard, a well-found friendship. Bob and Doug.
Old stories bring new life. We should ask for them more often. Those who arrived ahead of us have more experience, perhaps more wisdom to share.
Case in point. Last week I saw Bob again, heading back from one of his frequent trips to the gym. He’s well into his 80s.
“Man, you’re still rockin’ the workouts,” I said.
He pointed to my belly. “You need to lose that.”
He’s right, of course.
Doug Brendel lives a mostly sedentary life next door to a cemetery on outer Linebrook Road. Visit Doug at his “Only in Ipswich” booth at Olde Ipswich Days on the South Green this weekend.