Woodcrest Magazine published A Poplar Vase in March, 2022.
A Poplar Vase
Last week a woman on my voice mail said, "Al, call me as soon as you get this." Only those people from my childhood call me Al and do not say who they are, as if from their voices I would automatically know. And, of course, that's true. It is Aunty Pauline and she wants me to know that John died that morning, out in the field with the horses, watching the summer morning light up the leaves in the poplars. He died of massive heart failure. This
beautiful man who never smoked or drank, who always ate carefully and exercised, died at forty-six.
I remember that he always wore cowboy boots. He made a vase by hollowing
a piece of poplar, leaving a space large enough to hold a mason jar. He often talked about the poplars down by the river, "Catching the light," he said, their bark almost blue in the snow, becoming creamier in the summer when the light was more golden. He’d walk down
there, his polished boots scraping the river-washed rocks. He'd talk about the season like an old man.
My strongest memory of him: he stood in the middle of the river fly fishing, wearing a green vest covered with tied flies, his winter’s works of art. Every time the breeze rustled through the poplars, making them show their shiny undersides and ruffling the smooth surface of the water, it lifted his mane of long, brown hair and he’d raise his hand to brush it out of his eyes. I went back to the car to find a rubber band and waded out to him as quietly as I could to give it to him, wordlessly. I held his rod while he tied his hair back.
At the end of the day, he read what I had written, holding the papers between his knees. Wearing dirty jeans and muddy cowboy boots, he sat on a chair by the door so he wouldn’t track up my house.
Once, he went away for a week and called me every day. He was gone on business, didn’t want to talk about it, but called me anyway with nothing to say. “I wanted to hear your voice,” he said, “that’s all.” So I would try to fill that odd silence on the phone. “I cleaned the fridge,” I’d say. Or, “Last evening I watered your flower beds and picked a bouquet of lilacs.” When he came back from the city his clothes smelled like car exhaust and he brought me a bottle of rose perfume.
I loved him then. I didn't know it wouldn't work out, that we would never compromise on even the smallest things so we couldn't agree on where we would live after we married and so we separated. I always knew right in the middle of spring when there were too many things to do, he would wander up into the hills to pick Indian Paintbrush and Shooting Stars before they were through blooming so he wouldn't miss having them on a table in his poplar vase. I remember the way he held me, his hands splayed across my back. I won't forget that, no matter how many years go by.
And so, John's wife found him in the poplars with the roan, who would not leave him. And I am left with these beautiful memories of a man who once loved me, of a time when I was young and stubborn and did not understand how scared and broken my life would leave me. I’m sure they scattered his ashes in the poplars. They sing to me in the wind. His voice between the branches, the rattle of leaves. He says he never left me. The mountains still echo his scent, his quiet presence where the highway meets the horizon.