Ashes, Ashes. . .

Grace spotted Malachi at the end of the cereal aisle on a crowded Kroger Saturday. It was after she’d left the convent but before she learned to smoke on the roof of his building. He was holding a six-pack of Stroh’s. 

He looks the same, Grace thought, mostly. Maybe heavier; still wearing Levi’s and a Tigers cap.  

She waved a hand over the heads of the other shoppers, trying to get his attention when her right knee buckled, as if she’d stepped on a patch of black ice; a familiar sensation began coursing slowly through her body. She tightened her grip on the push bar of the shopping cart and looked up, waiting for what she knew was coming, waiting for another vision to spool out and carry her along: 

Someone wearing a Detroit Tigers baseball cap is sitting near a low wall that runs around a rooftop. Without warning they lose balance and slip, struggling in a slow-motion pratfall, legs sprawled in front, eyes wide with surprise—then fear—as they fall backward, out of sight, off the roof, swallowed by the dark in one easy chug, the smell of cigarette smoke lingering in the night air. 

It was over in seconds, as usual.

                                                                                                                   * * *  

Malachi recognized Grace instantly. 

Just as quickly he found himself back in the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, at the summer camp where he’d said goodbye to this selfsame young woman years ago: a one-pump handshake and he was off, a single father driving home, his daughter tucked in the back seat of a drop-top Kharman Ghia, over the Mackinac Bridge, then south on I-75, cruising at seventy, daydreaming, distracted by the tab of acid he’d dropped, unaware in the dark that his car was about to drift off the shoulder of the expressway and down a steep incline, where it flipped once, then rolled into a drainage ditch. All of it flying through his head and out again before he knew it was gone. 

It’s Grace, he whispered, the girl who babysat Rebecca after school, the girl who promised Malachi she’d be his daughter’s counselor at Camp Sancta Maria that summer. 

She’ll have a great time, Mr. Ross. I’ll make sure of it. 

And she did. Rebecca had a wonderful time at camp. On the drive home she spun funny stories for Malachi about late-night snipe hunts and asked if she could go back next summer, before she fell asleep, before she was thrown from the car, before she drowned in six inches of water somewhere around Saginaw. She was eleven. It was 1968. 

Grace? Malachi asked, his voice not as steady as he’d like. Grace Elsher?

                                                                                                                   * * *   

Grace learned to smoke after she moved in with Malachi. She wanted to inhale but had to settle for frenzied puffing; real smokers teased her unmercifully. Grace had spent a decade as a Dominican nun, however, and had learned to ignore occasional teasing. It was not the smoking she liked anyway, it was the rituals that bordered on compulsion: tamping a cigarette with swift strokes on a flat surface, a motif that left a slim lip of paper at the cigarette’s end, which flared when touched by a lit match. She learned how to thumb-flick a lengthening ash and how to hold a cigarette properly, between the second knuckle of the index and middle fingers. 

Grace reveled in these cool cigarette tricks, as she called them; she hoped smoking would bring relief from caring for her mother, who she wished would just get it over with and die. 

                                                                                                                     * * *   

At twenty-eight, Grace wore her long, dark hair pulled into a ponytail. The morning after Rebecca’s funeral she left on a long-planned escape to the Dominican motherhouse in Adrian, seventeen years old, elated to be rid of an unhappy life in an unsettled home. 

She and Malachi were excited see each other, in the way people are when they realize how much they’d missed the other person. 

Grace lied and told Malachi he looked exactly the same. 

Malachi overlooked it and asked if she was still a nun. 

They blocked the cereal aisle and chatted, oblivious to dirty looks from other shoppers. Grace worried why seeing Malachi had triggered another vision. That’s what she called them now, these unsolicited images that arrived like visual postcards from the future, appearing at odd and confusing times. Her Irish grandmother told Grace she had the two sights, whether you welcome it or not, dear. 

A beaming Malachi shook her hand in both of his and said their meeting was serendipitous, a phrase Grace recalled after their hurried lovemaking in the living room of her mother’s home the following week. 

                                                                                                                   * * *  

Before she’d heard the words premonition or precognition or second sight, Grace called them dreams. She was four and had no other words to describe what she saw in her head. The first one came when her father kissed her gently on the forehead as he tucked her into bed and told Grace not to worry, that he’d be back soon, that he was only going out for some smokes. Just to the corner. 

Grace said OK Daddy. When she touched his hand, she saw him leave the house and turn left, away from the little store that sold candy and gum and cigarettes and beer, saw him walk for a block or so to a car that was idling at the curb. She could see his breath in the autumn night air and smell the smoke from his cigarette before he threw it into the gutter and slid into the car’s front seat. 

She knew he was never coming back. 

                                                                                                                   * * *  

Did you teach again? 

No, said Malachi. It was too hard, being around children. I went back to San Francisco, which was stupid. The Haight had already unraveled. It was just street heroin and crazed junkies. I came home. My father died when I was thumbing back. 

That must have hurt, said Grace, losing him as well. 

Not really. We didn’t get along much. 

Grace puffed on a Virginia Slim, a new brand she’d discovered.  

So you stayed in Royal Oak? 

Yeah. My old man left me the store. I’ve been working here since I was ten. It gives me structure, running it. It’s fine. 

Malachi, who thought Grace beautiful, paused for effect, then said, You’re amazing, Grace. I’m glad you’re here. He smiled. 

Thanks, she said. First time I’ve heard that. Clever. She smiled back at him to take the sting out. 

It’s great here, said Grace. 

She hoped Malachi didn’t hear the uncertainty in her voice. He did, though. 

                                                                                                                   * * *   

Grace came to work at Malachi’s dry goods store one month after her mother died. She sold the only house she’d ever lived in as soon as possible and put the money in a bank. She moved in with Malachi, who lived on the top floor of the building he owned on Main Street. Their south-facing apartment had floor-to-ceiling windows that made it bright in winter and hot in summer; the apartment spread across the length of the building, with room enough for two bedrooms and a kitchen, a living room with poster art on the walls and built-in bookcases, a television no one watched except when Gunsmoke was on. A ladder inside a closet led to the roof, where they drank cold beer on hot nights and listened to cicadas rattle while they smoked cigarettes and talked until 10:30 or 11, unless it rained. 

The first time Malachi brought her to the roof Grace recognized it from the Kroger vision. She hadn’t told him what she had seen. Instead, she brought three rickety folding chairs from the basement and set them far from his usual spot, next to the edge of the low wall that ran around the roof. 

It’s not safe, near the edge like that, she told him. You know it’s four stories down, right?  

I’ve been sitting on that wall since I was a kid. 

You didn’t drink beer when you were a kid, she said, which made Malachi laugh. 

                                                                                                                   * * *  

Grace liked to watch her filtered Virginia Slims hold fast to an eighth-inch of ash, which teetered when she set the cigarette on the lip of a metal ashtray. 

She tapped the cigarette once. The ash dropped without a sound to the bottom of the ashtray, stippled in deep, brown welts from stubbed-out butts, a gas-station gift provided by the local Sinclair with every fill-up.  

When she was fourteen Grace woke up to a house cold in winter. She saw her mother lying in a snow-covered parking lot outside the tavern down the street. It was 2 a.m. She got dressed and grabbed a baseball bat and a flashlight that worked and found her mother where she expected, bruised and broken, her rib cage crushed, her purse gone, the same giveaway ashtray lying a yard away. 

This is the last time, Mom, said Grace, who wondered why her visions were never about something good, and why she never knew what they meant or what she was supposed to do about them. 

                                                                                                                   * * *  

Two nights later on the roof, Malachi told Grace he bumped into his attorney at the bank. He asked if I had a will, which he knew I didn’t because he would have drawn it up. I thought about it, though. I told him what I wanted. He wrote it up. 

Good idea, said Grace. You want burgers tonight? I’ll grill. 

Don’t you want to know what it says? The will? 

Grace stared at him for several long seconds. 

What did you do, Malachi? 

Look, sweetie, I’ve got no one else. It was either give my stuff to you or the State of Michigan. I don’t give a crap what you do with the store or the building or any of it. I just want you to have it. 

                                                                                                                   * * *  

On his way downstairs for one more beer, Malachi paused and asked, You want another one? 

No, I’m good, said Grace. 

OK, I’ll be right back. 

She saw that Malachi had pulled one of the lawn chairs over to the spot he liked, near the edge of the roof. He’d left a pack of Camel cigarettes on the chair along with his Tigers cap. Grace had never smoked Camels. They were short and unfiltered, strong, like Lucky Strikes. 

She stepped carefully over a puddle left from an afternoon thunderstorm, popped the cap onto her head and sat in the chair. She tapped a cigarette from the pack of Camels and pulled a book of matches from her blue jeans, lit the cigarette and leaned back, pushing the matches into the front pocket of her pants, a motion that tipped the chair to one side, a motion she might have righted if she hadn’t stepped on a slick of rainwater, if she hadn’t tried to stand and push the chair back from the wall at the roof’s edge, a wall that was not high enough to keep her from falling backward, out of sight, off the roof, swallowed by the dark in one easy chug, the smell of cigarette smoke lingering in the night air.

Photo by Rae Tian on Unsplash.

Timothy Kenny

Timothy Kenny's short stories and narrative nonfiction have appeared in more than two dozen U.S. and European literary journals, including The Gettysburg Review, Irish Pages, The Kenyon Review Online, The Amsterdam Quarterly, Banshee, The Honest Ulsterman, The Apple Valley Review and Two Thirds North. His 2015 collection of nonfiction essays, Far Country, Stories from Abroad and Other Places, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 

For additional information see Kenny’s listing in Poets & Writers.