Special to The Sentinel
By Sentinel artist Bob Helf
The following article was submitted by Joseph Kuester at Clintonville, Wisconsin, who read it in the Milwaukee Sentinel from which it is reprinted by permission.
He came in, slow and heavy. He didn't look around much, but with his heavy woodsman's boots thumped to the coffin.
He made a sign of the cross, his heavy hands dragging slowly across his chest. Then he let them fall in front of him to dangle a red woolen cap.
The smell of the sawdust clung to his clothes, adding another scent to those of flowers and death.
I couldn't help but think of this man's life. He stood there almost as if he were dead, with my father seemingly looking up at him calmly and peacefully.
Nick's work-sloped shoulders heaved a little, and I wondered if he was thinking what I was.
I was remembering all those times he had come to our place to help with the threshing. How he had always come promptly.
Some said he only came for the good food. I never did think of that, although his only words at dinner were, 'How doin', Miz Mi'wer.'
My mother would answer politely, and it was certain that Nick liked coming to thresh.
Nick's speech problem was the result of some childhood ailment that had impaired the movement of his tongue. It left him unable to articulate well or speedily.
He had never learned to read; no one had taken the time to teach a boy who couldn't speak well and might even be a little strange.
As he grew older, people had time for him usually a short time, though, just long enough to sell him a new tractor or car.
The transactions went quickly, because no one had to wait until he had read the papers he must sign.
Sometimes it was only when the sheriff came out to Nick's farm that he was made to understand that he must make payments.
I wondered if Nick was reminiscing about his life, or thinking about his death.
He shifted his feet, almost ready to turn away from the coffin. He turned back.
What was he saying to my father's body? I saw his lips move. Was it 'Hail Mary' or 'Thank you, Pat'?
Or did he think, 'Pat, I wish we could thresh once again, hear that steamer whistle as she rounded the corner, and see her huff up that long driveway once more.
'I wish once more we could pitch bundles of sweet oats, the chaff flying as we raced to unload our rigs.
'And then Old Art, shaking his fist at us as the pulleys began to squeal when our bundles would almost clog the machine. We knew, though, just exactly how much to throw so that we wouldn't plug that old Rumely Advance, didn't we?'
In my mind I could hear my father reply, 'Yeah, Nick, once more if I could feel the sweat running down my face, smell the warm oats' straw and the granary full of curing grain.
Once more, Nick, to feel the dampness of hard work across my back and smell the deep goodness of horses, harness leather and men at work.
'It's done now, Nick, no more. No more the clinking of cool bottles of beer right up from the cellar, and drinking it so easy, lying on the cool evening grass with one arm propping up your head. No more.'
I don't think Nick saw a gray head on a scented pillow. I think he saw a younger head thrown back in deep laughter, wild, strong and free. He saw it tilted in song and raised in prayer.
He saw the scarred hands, even as they were scarred long ago, still with some earth caught under cracked and broken fingernails, and holding a rosary more quietly than they had ever held anything beads, bottles, shovels or forks.
Nick crossed himself once more. His eyes found my mother.
With his steady tread he approached her, held out his huge calloused hand, and said, 'How doin', Miz Mi'wer.'
My mother almost smiled as she murmured, 'Thanks, Nick.'
Nick gave the coffin one last look, and still with the slow tread, left the wake room, looking neither right nor left.