by Matthew Callender

Pearly Whites

 

 

 

 

-1-

 

 

He drove the shovel’s spade into the ground as dusk set in, the body lying next to him atop the hard Texas soil starting to go cold. Emotion rose into his throat as he removed the dirt and dug deeper, rigor mortis stiffening the limbs of his best friend beside him under the shade of the Chisos Red Oak. A strange mix of adrenaline and remorse intermingled in his gut; making his heart thump as he just wanted to hurry up and get it done, making his eyes water with longing to stay with his friend for just a bit longer. He knew when he put the body into the earth and covered it up, that would be the end.

Trish looked out the window over the kitchen sink and saw him digging, his strong arms removing the ground with each dump of the shovel. Steve was in his fifties now, but hard work was in his bones and he was as sturdy as the day she had met him. She shook her head, hoping his spirits would still be high from their dinner last night.

They commemorated their 25th anniversary with dinner at the same five-star restaurant they went to every fifth year they celebrated being together. She always made the reservation a month in advance.

They dressed to the nines. Him in a suit and the cufflinks she bought him for their ten year anniversary, he shined his loafers the night before. “They’re going to look like mirrors,” he always said.  She wore the pearl necklace he had given her for their decennial and a black dress to match him, one she shopped for weeks to find. It had to be the right


one, the perfect one for their night out. Something flattering, one that was not too showy for a woman of her age, but one that showed off the body she ran three miles for every morning.

Now, she watched out the window as Steve knelt down and picked up Molly-Jane, noticing the quiver of his shoulders as he held her for a moment before placing her into the hole.

The meatloaf was still sitting in the oven with the foil wrapped baked potatoes.

 

Dinner was done almost twenty-minutes ago, but Steve wasn’t done with Molly-Jane. Trish had turned the oven to simmer to keep the food warm while she nursed a beer and  watched her husband.

Molly-Jane had given Steve fifteen-years, which was ancient for a Boxer. She was the poster-dog for man’s best friend, always by Steve’s side; an obedient companion and a reliable work dog who guarded the truck and followed every command. She had been healthy as an ox, too, and Steve would exercise with her on the weekends. Her diet was

strict, no table scraps or unnecessary treats. It was old age that took her in the end, nothing traumatic or painful. She died in her sleep and that in itself gave both Steve and Trish small comfort.

It was just her time to go.

 

 

Trish saw her husband patting down the soil over the fresh grave with the shovel.

 

She drank the last of her beer and began to set the table, knowing he would be heading back soon.


They ate quietly; the sounds of forks and knives clanking against plates, glasses being sat back down atop the wood table, chewing, swallowing, the occasional sniff filling the breakfast-nook of their kitchen.

“It’s very good, Trish. Your meatloaf always is,” Steve said, breaking the silence halfway through his meal.

Thanks hon. You get enough?” He nodded.

“You going to be OK?”

 

 

“She was a good dog, Trish. The best.”

 

 

“I know,” Trish said grabbing his hand atop the table and giving it a squeeze.

 

 

Steve had found Molly-Jane earlier that morning on the rug at the foot of their bed.

 

Normally she was downstairs waiting for him by the backdoor, as dependable as the sunrise she rose with, waiting to be let out. The moment he saw her still on the rug, he knew she had left him.

He had wrestled with her passing most of the morning.

 

 

He knew he had to bury her, though he didn’t want to move her; he didn’t want to eliminate her from the equation of their life, subtract her presence from his days.

As Trish prepared dinner, Steve had wrapped Molly-Jane in one of his work shirts and carried her to the backyard where he finally said goodbye.


“I’ve got some brownies I can warm up and some Blue Bell vanilla bean, or I can pour you some whiskey. What’s your poison old man?” she asked with a smile, still holding his hand.

He looked up from his plate and smiled back, “I vote whiskey, please.”

 

 

“Certainly an occasion worth the Oban 18 I presume,” she said as she stood from the table and collected their plates.

“You are a wise woman.”

 

 

They sat on the back porch and drank whiskey in the silence of each other’s company. A company built upon years of trials and hardship, of success and joy.

“She was a good dog, Trish.”

 

 

“I know hon. I’m going to miss her.”

 

 

“Yep,” he said as he took a sip from his snifter. “You n’me both.”


-2-

 

-Five Years Later-

 

 

Trish stood in the dressing room and looked over her reflection in the mirror. She knew they tilted the mirrors back a bit to create a more flattering angle now-a-days and that the lighting along the mirror’s frame reduced shadows, but, all selling gimmicks aside, the dress was perfect.

It fell just above her knee and hugged her waist to show off her hips, but it wasn’t too tight. It had thin straps that ran over her shoulder to an open back. She turned back and forth and watched as the skirt shook a bit over her thighs.

“Mmhmm,” she said to herself. “This is the one.”

 

 

The associate outside the dressing room breathed a sigh of relief as she heard Trish.

 

They had been trying on dresses for over an hour, and she worked on commission.

 

 

Trish opened the door and stepped out in the dress.

 

 

“Oh, it is fabulous on you!” The associate said. “The sleeveless v-neck is such a classic look, and you are working it!”

Trish smiled and laughed a bit. “I think this is the one, Shannon. It feels just right.” “You like the beaded waistline?”

“I really do,” Trish said as she ran her fingers along the white beads wrapping around her waist. “I’ve got a pearl necklace that will match.  Steve got it for me for our five year anniversary. Her mind drifted as she remembered getting the pearls.


There was no way Steve could have afforded them. Their budget was as tight as a snare drum, but he had worked extra jobs and saved bit-by-bit to buy her the necklace. She could still remember opening the hinged black box and staring down at the beautiful string of shining white spheres. She remembered Steve’s hands running along her collar bones as he draped the necklace across her neck and clasped it together. The pearls were precious to her, a symbol of their marriage and bond; forty-two perfect white spheres as a tangible memento of how hard her husband would work for her, of how much he loved her.

She hid them every year after their anniversary dinner, as her mother taught her to do with fine jewelry. After she wore them to the dinner celebrating five years of marriage, Trish put the pearls in a Ziploc baggie and hid the necklace under the fake soil of a plastic plant they kept near the front door.

For their 10 year she wrapped them in foil and stuffed the package in the back of the freezer. For their 15 she put them in a sock and shoved them into the toe of an old pair of sneakers she kept with their winter clothes. For 20 she rinsed out a bottle of shampoo and placed the pearls inside, keeping the bottle in the hall closet next to the extra rolls of toilet paper. For 25, the day before Molly-Jane passed onto the hereafter, she put them inside the breast pocket on one of Steve’s old work shirts in the back of his closet; it was one of a dozen thick plaid shirts that no longer fit him, but he didn’t want to throw-away. This one was red and gray plaid with pearl snap buttons, the elbows worn and the shirt tail stained; she committed it to memory, anticipating their next celebration.

“It will be a great ensemble. Can I wrap it up for you then?”


Trish was pulled back from her mind’s wander at the question. She lifted the price tag hanging on her shoulder strap and looked at it again. $275.00. Well within her funds for the big day.

“I think so, yes.”

 

 

“Unless you want to wear it out?”

 

 

Trish chuckled. “Oh, no. This is for a very special occasion.”

 

 

Shannon nodded and turned to return the other seven dresses Trish had tried on earlier. Trish stepped into the dressing room and looked at herself once more before she slipped out of the dress.

“Yep,” she said to her reflection with a nod. “This is it.”


-3-

 

 

The lights flashed and the horn beeped on her two-door Volvo as Trish locked the car on her way into the house, the garage door shutting behind her. She walked upstairs straight to her closet where she sat the dress box down.

“Don’t I get to see it?” Steve asked, from his reading chair in their room. “No, sir, you do not.  You know the rules.”

Steve laughed, “Friday night then?” “Friday night,” she said with a smile.

This was the big three-zero. Thirty years. They were celebrating a milestone together.

Steve’s handyman business had become a remodeling name-sake in the area.   He was booked up three months out and clients were happy, so happy he hadn’t needed to advertise for the past two years. Every job and client he’d landed was purely word-of- mouth, the best kind of advertising an entrepreneur could ask for.

Their days thrived on routine. As with any couple their age, they depended on the regularity and reliability of one another.

They both awoke to the sound of Steve’s alarm chirping at six in the morning on the nose. Trish ventured downstairs to get the coffee brewing and make breakfast for them both while Steve hit the showers and readied for the day.


But today was a different day; a day that fit into their routine, no doubt, but a day that was elevated above the rest.

Today was their 30th anniversary.

 

 

“Happy anniversary sweet girl,” Steve said as he kissed his wife on the cheek and sat down at the table.

“Happy anniversary back atcha old man.”

 

 

They had tried for children for a solid six years, and they’d tried everything. From fertility doctors to homeopathic remedies, they had done it all. But children were not in their future, it was as simple as that; over the years they had accepted it as a couple and moved on. There was comfort within each of them that their namesakes would pass on, both with multiple nieces and nephews they spoiled and watched each chance they got, but there would be no children between them, and that was something they could not change.

“You’ll be home around six then?” Trish asked as they finished their breakfast. “Yes, ma’am. Wrapping up the Zale job in Dallas and should be back on time.”

“Dinner is at eight-fifteen; we should probably leave ‘round seven forty-five. It might storm and we don’t want to get caught in traffic.”

“Got it,” Steve said as he wiped his mouth with the napkin and rose from the table. “Thanks for breakfast, hon. Looking forward to tonight.”  He kissed her on the head, then grabbed his lunch from the refrigerator and headed out the garage door.


Trish cleared the table and put the dishes in the dishwasher, humming to herself.

 

She was in a good mood. She recollected over their past years of marriage as she tended to the house, thinking of how they met while she ran the vacuum cleaner in the living room, as she moved the laundry from the washer to the dryer she remembered their first date and how Steve kissed her on the cheek as he said goodnight on her doorstep. A chill of excitement rose up her back as she thought of their upcoming evening. She was smitten, and this was their big celebration the Christmas that came every five years.

She expedited the rest of her chores, cutting corners and skipping a few tasks so she could go upstairs and set out her ensemble.

“A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do,” she said, making her way down the hall to their bedroom. “And tonight, a girl’s gotta look good.”

She pulled the dress box from the closet and sat it on the bed, then slowly opened it and looked at her purchase. She nodded to herself. “Mmhmm, this is the one,” she said, admiring the dress. She placed her two-inch heels next to it, the open toed ones with the thin ankle strap she knew would work. From her jewelry box on the dresser she picked a white gold tennis bracelet and her pair of three stone drop earrings, also white gold, and sat them on the bed. They went well with the beaded waist band. Trish clapped her hands and lifted her shoulders in delight as she saw the outfit coming together.

She walked to the closet and turned to Steve’s side, the top left hanging section, to get her pearls. Her fingers riffled through his old work shirts at the back until she reached the red plaid she had put the pearls in. Humming to herself again, she grabbed the hanger, lifted the shift, then unbuttoned the breast pocket and reached in to get the pearls.


But they were not there.

 

 

There was a hiccup in her exhilaration, and it caused her brow to furrow into a frown of confusion. She looked at the shirt. It looked like the right one, but obviously wasn’t. She reached into the pocket again just to make sure, but her fingers only found old lint and two empty corners thankful for her touch. She hung the shirt back up and looked at the other retired garments hanging. None of them were right.

She took each shirt down and searched every pocket, her blood pressure rising with each hangar she pulled from the rack. Her fingers fumbled open the buttons of each breast pocket and dove in for inspection, finding nothing.

Trish stood in her closet and stared down at a heap of old shirts, each of them with their own story to tell, none of them with her precious pearls.

She dropped to her knees, her eyes blinking wide as she licked her lips and tried to

 

think.

 

 

“I hid them here…” she said to the closet, which said nothing back.

 

 

Her mind raced, trying to ascertain where her pearls where.  She closed her eyes and traced through her hiding spots, remembering each five year mark, remembering each spot she had tucked them away.

“Red and gray plaid, elbows worn and shirt tail stained,” she said to herself as she stared down at the pile of shirts she had just removed and riffled through from Steve’s wardrobe. “Where the hell are they?”


Anxious flutters vibrated within her gut and she felt heat in her cheeks as her face became flush with worry. Without the pearls, their evening would not be complete.

Without the necklace Steve had given her for their five year anniversary, everything would be wrong.

“All wrong,” she said in the closet, tears welling up in her eyes. “It will be all wrong!”

 

 

She sat and cried in the closet of their master bedroom; unable to remember where the pearls were, sitting amongst the mingling of anger and worry. Angry at herself for not remembering where they were, for not being more careful, worried at how Steve would react when he learned she had lost the pearls he had worked so hard to give her.

Her shoulders shook as the sobs overtook her, and she let them come. She cried until she ran on empty, only heaving air and shaking.

Then she stopped.

 

 

She sat up and her eyes grew wide with realization.

 

 

Steve had buried Molly-Jane in one of his old work shirts. They found Molly-Jane the morning after their 25th celebration. That was it. Simple. She smiled ear to ear and pulled in a cleansing breath of air.

Simple.

 

 

“I just have to dig her up and find my pearls,” she said laughing to herself, her cackle bouncing off the walls of the empty house. “My pearls have been buried in my backyard for the past five years, hiding with my dog!” she laughed hysterically, falling to her back and


clutching her hands together across her chest.  “They are in the backyard. Safe. Molly-Jane has been keeping them safe. Oh, thank goodness. I just have to dig them up.”


-4-

 

 

“Honey, I’m home!” Steve called as he entered the kitchen and sat his lunch pail down on the counter.

Trish sat up quick from the floor of their closet, she had lost track of the time. She gathered the shirts and shoved hangers into them, hurrying to get them all back in place before Steve came upstairs to shower.

“Whatcha doin hon?” Steve asked, peeking his head into the closet.

 

 

“Just straightening up, this house doesn’t hold itself together you know,” she said as she spaced the hangers evenly across the rack.  “How was your day?”

“Busy, been raining most the day but we finished Zale on schedule. I’m hittin the showers.”

“Get clean old man.”

 

 

As Steve cranked on the shower, Trish walked to the window and looked out. She hadn’t noticed the rain. It wasn’t a downpour, but she could see the ground was soaked and the windows were beginning to fog.

“Great.”

 

 

She bit her lip and picked at her nails as she stared to their backyard, her eyes looking under the Red Oak where Steve had buried Molly-Jane.


There wasn’t enough time for her to go grave-robbing with Steve in the house. Her mind began to churn on how to get him out.

I can send him on an errand… The car has gas. Does he have cash for the valet?

 

 

“Hey hon!”

 

 

“Yeah?”

 

 

“Do you have cash for the valet?” “Uuhhh, I should.”

“You will need to tip the sommelier, too.” “The who?”

“The wine expert guy!”

“Oh. Uh, I think I only have a twenty. I took the guys out to lunch today.” “Steve! We can’t go to the restaurant with only a twenty dollar bill in cash. You

better run to the ATM before you get dressed.”

 

 

She looked back out to the backyard, thunder clapped in the distance. She would need more time than a trip to the bank would give her.

“And we need a new umbrella. The one we have is brown and old. We need a new one, a black one to match us.”

Steve exited the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his waist.


“Seriously?  You want me to go buy an umbrella?”

 

 

She stared at him, giving him the gaze only permitted between a husband and wife after thirty years or marriage. It read, I’m not budging, best get in line or pay hell.

“Alright.  Let me throw on some shorts and a t-shirt.”


-5-

 

 

Trish waited until she heard the garage door shut and Steve’s truck head down the road before she moved. When she heard his diesel make the turn at the corner, she ran to the garage.

She grabbed the shovel and a pair of gardening gloves, then power walked to the back door.

“Simple. My peals have been hiding with Molly-Jane,” a bark of laughter leapt from her throat, “for five years! And I’ve got to dig them up.”

The rain fell on her shoulders as she exited the back door and made her way to the oak tree, humming to herself.  Lightning flashed above her and thunder bellowed just as Trish stopped and looked to the ground.

“Forgive me ol’ girl. I do not mean to disturb your rest, but you have something that is mine and I am in need of it. I appreciate you keeping my necklace safe,” she laughed to herself again, the rain beginning to soak into her clothes, “but I need it back now.”

She drove the shovel’s spade into the ground and began to remove the moist soil, making haste so she could be done before Steve got back.

The rain increased as she got deeper, bringing with it a swift breeze that shook the branches of the oak above her. It was as if those leaves were cheering for her. Their rustle in the storm fell to her ears like sweet applause.


“Thank you, thank you!” she said into the backyard. “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. And tonight, a girl’s gotta get her necklace back from the dead.”

The tip of her shovel hit something solid and slid forward, causing Trish to falter a bit. She tossed the shovel aside and knelt into the hole, not caring for the mud as it splashed on her knees and onto her waist. Lighting flashed again, giving a flash of bright clarity to the moment.

She reached into the earth and began kneading the soil as one needs dough, her hands clenching the soil and squeezing it into her palms. Something hard, several things hard in a row.

“Ribcage.”

 

 

Her hands moved forward and she leaned over, clenching the ground and investigating. Something soft, fibrous.

“Hair, skin…the shirt?”

 

 

She grabbed a’hold and lifted it to her. “Skin.”

She tossed it aside, a giggle bouncing her shoulders.

 

 

It ran against her forefinger of her left hand as she scraped thought the mess, she felt it and knew it was the shirt. Pushing her hand deeper into the ground she rubbed it between her fingers, testing its resolve, feeling its character.


“Bingo.”

 

 

She lifted the shirt from the muck and pulled it to her chest, running her hands along it for the pearls.

It was falling apart, decaying after years within the soil.

 

 

“From dust we were made and to dust we shall return, am I right Molly-Jane,” she said with a burst of laughter. She was scatterbrained giddy; excited to find them, relived to find them, proud that she had been able to get Steve out of the house, pleased with her craftiness as she fumbled with the fabric.

She felt them.

 

 

They were loose. They had come apart from their strand, but they were there. All together, she felt them in the dark.

Lighting flashed again and she saw the shirt. Red plaid.

Her grin spread from ear to ear, humming again as she began to count the pearls. “Nineteen,” humming in the rain. “Twenty-nine,” her grin showing her age. “Thirty-

seven,” her knees sinking into the hole, pressing against the carcass of her husband’s best friend. “Forty,” her adrenaline pumping, she was going to make it. “Forty-two! That’s all of them!”

She would have to re-sting them, but that was a cinch. Nothing a needle and some nylon string from her jewelry kit couldn’t fix.


Her hands clutched the pearls and held them close to her chest as she stepped from the hole. A wave of comforting relief washed over her. There was still time to fill the hole and get back to the house and be ready for the evening. Her brain was already spinning with lies to tell Steve why the yard was dug up.

I want to plant flowers over Molly-Jane. I had to loosen up the soil before I started planting them.

She laughed into the night and grasped the pearls.

 

 

“The evening is saved, our ensemble is complete,” she said to herself.

 

 

She stood and turned toward the house. She opened her hands and looked into her wet palms that cradled her treasure.

Lighting flashed above her and shocked the evening bright for a split-second, the bright white showing all forty-two of Molly-Jane’s teeth Trish held in her hands as thunder roared across the sky.

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