By: Don Tassone
The old man raised his hoe high in the air and brought it down, striking the thick, encrusted soil with all his might. He grimaced and moaned as a pain shot through his arms and into his shoulders and back.
But an even deeper pain tore at his heart. Decades after his offense, he still bore the guilt of it. He could not let it go.
He had reserved this section of the garden for carrots and cucumbers, the last vegetables he planted every year. The earth here had been untouched through the winter and spring. It was uneven, full of clods and covered with the blanched and shriveled carcasses of last year’s vines.
He knew preparing this rough patch for carrot seeds and cucumber seedlings would take a day’s hard work, maybe more. It was only morning, and he was already withering under the June sun.
He felt a tightness in his chest and a stabbing pain in his stomach. He was panting, trying to catch his breath. He felt dizzy, like he was going to fall down. I’m having a heart attack, he thought.
What if this is it? I’m still not rid of my great sin. Will I burn in Hell? Or will God forgive me?
He dropped the hoe and fell to his knees.
“I’m sorry, Lord,” he mumbled as he keeled over onto the dry, hard earth.
Two years earlier
He pulled her forward slightly with his right hand and stuffed the pillow down behind her with his left.
“How’s that?” he asked.
“Better,” she said softly, sitting up best she could. “Thank you.”
“What do you feel like eating tonight?” he asked.
“But you have to eat something, Marie.”
“Okay, Joe, she said, looking over the tray in front of her. “How about a little of that pudding?”
He got up from his chair next to her hospital bed, reached over and pulled the plastic wrap off a small bowl of chocolate pudding. Then he picked up a spoon, scooped up a little pudding and brought it to her lips. She leaned forward and opened her mouth, and he slowly inserted the spoon. She closed her mouth, and he gently pulled out the spoon.
“How is it?” he asked.
“Very good,” she said.
“No,” she said. “Not right now. I think I’d like to rest.”
She leaned back against her pillows and sighed. He pushed the table down toward her feet, then sat down.
“Joe,” she said, closing her eyes.
“I have something I must tell you.”
“What is it, Marie?”
He noticed a tear rolling down her cheek.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Joe,” she said, opening her eyes and looking at him, “I did something wrong, something very wrong, years ago.”
Joe sat quietly with his hands folded on his lap.
“Oh, Joe,” she said. “I was unfaithful to you. It happened only once. It was many years ago, and I feel awful for having done it. I regretted it as soon as I did it. I was foolish, but I knew what I was doing. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway. I should have told you long ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was too ashamed, and I was afraid you might think I had stopped loving you. But I’ve never stopped loving you, Joe. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Can you forgive me?”
He took her hand.
“Yes, Marie,” he said. “I forgive you.”
“Thank you, Joe,” she said with a faint smile. “I love you so very much.”
She closed her eyes and fell asleep.
“Marie,” he said, leaning in. “There is something I must tell you too.”
But she did not wake up. She slept with a look of peace on her face, as if she were no longer suffering.
He held her hand a long time and stayed by her side all night. When he awoke in the morning, she had passed.
“Morning, old man,” someone said.
Joe opened his eyes. He looked up at the white ceiling. He wondered where he was and who was talking to him.
“You’re alive, still on earth, not in heaven.”
Joe looked over in the direction of the voice. There, in a recliner, sat Andy Stewart, his best friend. He was smiling.
“Where am I?” Joe asked. “And what are you doing here?”
“You’re in the hospital,” Andy said. “And I’m here because, apparently, I’m the only person in the world who cares about you.”
“Son of a bitch,” Joe said. “What’s going on? Why am I here? How long have I been here?”
“You had a heart attack,” Andy said. “A bad one. They call it the widow maker.”
“Well, it’s a little late for that.”
“Funny. You almost died, you bastard. If your next-door neighbor hadn’t seen you lying in your garden and called 911, you’d be dead now.”
“My garden,” Joe said. “That’s right. What day is it?”
“So I’ve been out all night?”
“Yeah. They brought you in yesterday afternoon. They put in a stent, near your heart. Saved your life. I guess they drugged you up pretty good because the nurse just told me you slept all night.”
“When did you get here?”
“About an hour ago.”
“What time is it?”
“A little after eight.”
Joe closed his eyes.
“So I didn’t die,” he said.
“No, Joe, you didn’t die. Are you disappointed?”
“Not really, Andy. But I was kind of curious about where I would have ended up.”
Two days later, Andy brought Joe dinner at home.
“Do you want to join me?” Joe asked.
“Do I have to?” Andy said.
“Did you bring enough for both of us?”
“Great. Let’s eat in the kitchen.”
They stepped into the kitchen. Andy had brought two spaghetti dinners. Joe got out plates, forks and napkins and put them on the table. Andy pulled plastic containers of spaghetti out of a bag and slid the pasta onto the plates.
“What would you like to drink?” Joe asked.
“Are you allowed wine?”
“Probably not,” Joe said. “Chianti okay?”
Joe uncorked a bottle and poured generous amounts of wine into two glasses. He brought them over to the table and sat down across from Andy.
“To your health,” Andy said, raising his glass.
“Thank you,” Joe said, clinking his glass. “Thank you for dinner.”
Over dinner, Andy said, “So Joe, I have question for you.”
“Why are you always so miserable?”
“Well, in case you don’t remember, I had a heart attack a few days ago.”
“I don’t mean that. I mean before that.”
“Well, maybe it’s because I lost my wife.”
“No. You were miserable long before Marie died.”
“Look, I’ve known you for 50 years. You haven’t been yourself for the past 30.”
“And you’re asking me now?”
“Yeah, I’m asking you now.”
“And you really want to know?”
“Yeah, I really want to know.”
Joe pushed his plate aside and took a drink of wine.
“About 30 years ago, I committed a great sin.”
“Thirty years ago? And you’re just getting around to telling me?”
“Well, you never asked until now.”
“Go on,” Andy said, sipping his wine.
“I was at work late one night. I was in my office. I thought everybody had gone home, but there was a knock at my door. I looked up, and standing there was a beautiful young woman. I mean a knockout. She looked familiar. Then I realized she worked for me. She was on my team. Her name was Kimberly. I didn’t know her very well. Anyway, she apologized for coming by so late in the day but asked if I could give her some advice with a project. I said yes, and she came in and sat down.”
“Oh, boy,” said Andy.
“Yeah. It started out okay. She slid a draft recommendation across my desk. She wanted my thoughts on it. I read it. The whole time, she was looking at me. When I was done, I gave her my reaction and made a few suggestions. She was taking notes, seemed very interested in what I was saying. When I was finished, she thanked me and asked if there was anything she could do for me. Andy, I must have been a fool but, until that moment, the thought that she would want anything to do with me never crossed my mind. I mean I was old enough to be her father.”
“What did you say?”
“I know remember exactly. Probably something like, ‘Keep doing a great job.’ Well, the next thing I know, she saying she’d like to pay me back right now. By then, I knew what was happening, but she was so sexy, I felt powerless. She got up and turned off the light. Then she came over, behind my desk, and sat on my lap and started kissing me. I knew it was all wrong, but I kissed her back. We started making out, and the next thing I know, we’re doing it on my desk.”
“You’re making this up, right?” Andy said. “You read about this in Penthouse or something, right?”
Joe closed his eyes and lowered his head.
“Joe? Are you okay?”
Joe looked up. He had tears in his eyes. Andy had never seen him this way.
“I screwed up, Andy. I screwed up big time.”
“I’m sorry, Joe.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry too.”
“So what did you do after that?” Andy asked.
“Well, first of all, I called Kimberly to my office the next day and told her I was sorry for what had happened the night before. She said she wasn’t. I told her I was serious, that this could never happen again. I told I thought it was best if she no longer worked on my team. ‘But I don’t report to you directly,’ she said. I told her that didn’t matter. I offered to make arrangements to have her assigned to a different division. She asked if that would hurt her career. I told her it wouldn’t. For a moment, I worried that she might file a complaint or something. But she said okay. Thank God. I talked to a couple of people later that day, including Kimberly’s boss, and we came up with a move that made sense for her. Kimberly’s boss told her about it, as if it were all his idea, and she was all for it.”
“Did you ever work with her again?”
“No. I followed her career for a while. She seemed to be doing just fine, getting promoted on time, all of that. The buzz about her was good, and I assumed she was happy. Honestly, I didn’t want to ask too many questions.”
“I can understand why,” Andy said.
“At some point, I knew I would be okay at work, that this incident wasn’t going to ruin my career, that there wouldn’t be a scandal, that I was going to be able to retire. And Kimberly must have never talked about what happened because I never heard any rumors.”
“You’re lucky,” Andy said.
“In a way, yes. But I did something terrible, Andy. I committed a mortal sin, and I’ve carried that sin around with me for 30 years.”
“Do you think Marie ever suspected anything?”
“No,” Joe said. Then he proceeded to tell Andy about Marie’s deathbed confession.
“Good lord,” Andy said. “Why didn’t you tell her then?”
“I tried, but she fell asleep as soon as she told me and never woke up.”
“Andy, you screwed up, but that was 30 years ago, and unless you’re not telling me everything, it happened only one time.”
“Yeah, just once.”
“And you’re clearly sorry for what you did.”
“Well, then, why are you telling me all this now?”
Joe held his glass of wine in both of his hands and raised it to eye level, his elbows resting on the table, and stared into it.
“Because I’m afraid, Andy. I’m afraid this sin is going to kill me and that, when it does, I’m going to burn in Hell for what I’ve done.”
“Joe, you’ve got to let this go.”
“Let it go? Andy, do you have any idea how this sin weighs on me?”
“Not exactly. But I can see it’s tearing you up.”
Joe sat his wine glass down on the table and looked up at Andy.
“Do you believe in Hell?”
“I don’t know. I mean I used to, when I was young. But now, I’m not so sure.”
“Well, I believe in it.”
“And you think you’re going there because of this one mistake?”
“It’s a pretty big mistake, Andy.”
“Are you sorry for what you did, Joe?”
“Well, don’t you think God knows that? Don’t you think he’s forgiven you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, let’s just say he has. How would you feel then?”
“I’d still feel terrible.”
“Because my sin wasn’t against God. It was against Marie. We made a promise to each other, and I broke it.”
“She broke it too, Andy.”
“I know. But it’s not the same.”
“How is it not the same?”
“Because I forgave her.”
“So you want Marie to forgive you? Is that what you want?”
“Yeah, I guess it is. But now it’s too late.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what’s keeping you from asking Marie now? She can hear you.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“Actually, I don’t think I am.”
“What are you talking about? You just told me to ask Marie to forgive me.”
“Yeah, and then what? Will you feel forgiven?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because I don’t think it’s Marie’s forgiveness that will set you free.”
“Well, then, whose it is, Andy?” Joe said, sounding irritated.
“It’s yours, Joe. You need to forgive yourself.”
Joe thought about this for a moment. It sounded too simple. If it were that simple, I would have thought of it long ago. This is not the advice I need. Maybe I shouldn’t have confided in Andy. I’m looking for a way to save my soul, and he comes up with this crap?
“I’m tired,” Joe said, standing up. “I think I’ll get to bed early. Thanks again for dinner.”
“Okay, Joe,” Andy said, getting up. “Can I help you clean up?”
“No, thanks. I’ll get it.”
“Okay. Get some rest.”
Joe walked him to the front door.
“Good night,” he said, extending his hand.
“Good night,” Andy said, taking it.
Joe cleaned up the kitchen, then poured himself another glass of wine and went into the family room. He sat down on the sofa, where he used to sit with Marie and drink coffee in the morning.
He thought about when they first met, when he began to fall in love with her. He thought about the first time she invited him over to dinner with her family and how nervous he was and how she put him at ease by asking him to go out back with her after dinner. They walked into her backyard and sat on a bench next to her father’s garden. It was a large garden, bordered on three sides by apple trees.
Marie asked Joe if he would like an apple. He said yes, and she got up and picked one for him. He bit into it. It was juicy and bursting with flavor. Apple juice ran down his chin which made her laugh, and she wiped it off with her fingers. It was the first time she had ever touched his face. He would never forget the feel of her fingers on his face.
Forgive myself? How ridiculous. It’s Marie I’ve sinned against. It’s her forgiveness I seek.
He finished his wine and went to bed.
Joe woke up the next morning, went downstairs and made himself a cup of coffee.
He decided to drink it on the patio. Sitting there, he looked out over his backyard. He looked out on his large garden, bordered on three sides by apple trees, which he had planted for Marie 40 years earlier. She had loved her father’s backyard and asked Joe to create the same for her. It took him years, but he did so gladly.
He walked with his coffee to the edge of the garden and sat down on a bench he had built there. He used to sit there with Marie. Sometimes they sat there together in the morning, sometimes in the evening and sometimes to rest after working in the garden. They had always worked in the garden together. Now he felt so off-balance working in it alone.
He looked up at the apple trees. They were beginning to bear fruit. He sat his coffee mug down on the bench, got up and walked over to an apple tree. The branches were filled with apples, partly red and partly still green. He reached up and pulled one down.
He bit into it. It was surprisingly juicy for being so early in the season. Juice dripped down his chin. He imagined Marie wiping his chin with her fingers. But there was no one there, so he brought his fingers to his chin and wiped the juice away.
Then he did something he had not done in a very long time. He rested his fingers and the palm of his hand on the side of his face. He closed his eyes and thought only about the feeling in both his fingers and his face. To his fingers, his face felt warm and perfect, and to his face, his fingers felt like they belonged to the hand of God.
He opened his eyes and looked at the garden and saw it not as a thing to be tamed, like a wayward child, but as part of creation and, as such, perfect and beloved just as it was, and he felt light and free and forgiven.