Facebook, April 5, 12:26pm, New York:
My cousin died last night. We haven’t been close since we were kids. Life got busy. Part of me knows I could have made more time when I became an adult. I hope it was painless. I’m sorry, Wendell. I hope you were happy.
During his junior and senior year of high school, Wendell bagged groceries, stocked shelves, and brought in shopping carts from the parking lot at the Big John’s Grocery Store on Magazine Street. Wendell enjoyed working at Big John’s more than he enjoyed going to high school. He’d barely passed to be a senior. He wasn’t an unruly student; both of his parents would swear Wendell “weren’t no trouble at all.”
Wendell just wasn’t what the teachers called “bright.” Reading bored him. He had no interest in Civics or World History. Math was a blur; he knew how to add, subtract, and multiply. When was he ever going to use the Pythagorean theorem or need to know the radius of an inscribed circle?
But in some ways, Wendell was smarter than most of his fellow students. He knew how to birth a calf and how to bridle a horse. He could identify almost every plant, tree, and bird he saw. He repaired every neighbor’s lawnmower when they needed engine work or a sharpened blade. He could drive his daddy’s tractor and had fixed it too when the motor gave out.
He could mend a leaky faucet for his mother, and he installed the toaster oven under her cabinets when he and his daddy gave it to her for Mother’s Day. He put chains on his daddy’s tires during winter, and changed the oil in the truck regularly. When his mom’s old car needed a new transmission, Wendell fixed that too.
Wendell mowed yards in the summer for extra cash when he wasn’t working at Big John’s. He helped his mom plant her vegetable garden. He fed all their farm animals and helped his daddy in the fields without having to be asked. Wendell picked up pecans for Mr. Finley, and trimmed a dogwood for Miss Nicks when the tree got struck by lightening during a thunder storm. When they offered to pay him, he politely told them to keep their money.
“Your boy sure is a nice one. He’ll make a purrty girl a fine husband one day,” Miss Nicks told Wendell’s mom before church service one Sunday morning.
“Thank you. We’re sure proud of him,” Wendell’s mom said with a grin.
“What’s he gonna do after graduation?” Miss Nicks asked.
“I don’t know. He ain’t said.”
“He should serve his country.”
“His daddy and I will let him decide what he wants to do.”
And that’s just what they did.
In May, the church had a celebration dinner for its graduates which included two students from the city high school and two from the county high school. The two county students were Wendell and his cousin, Celia. As a gift from the church, each student received a leather bound Bible with their name embossed on the cover in gold letters.
As each student stood and accepted their Bible, they were asked to tell the congregation what they were going to do now. The two city kids were going to college in the fall. One wanted to become a teacher and the other a lawyer. Celia was going to college too and wanted to move to New York and be a writer, maybe a journalist or an author or both. She hadn’t decided on that part. Wendell said he was going to read his Bible.
“Read your Bible? You couldn’t even lie?” Celia asked Wendell as they stood in line plating their food.
“Not supposed to lie in church,” Wendell said with a grin.
“Don’t you want to go to college?” she asked.
“I just got out of high school! I been in school for the last thirteen years of my life. Maybe I want a break,” he said.
“You shouldn’t waste time. The longer you wait, the more likely you won’t go.”
“I don’t have to wait cause I’m not going, Celia.”
“Don’t you want to get a good job?”
“I got a good job.”
“At the grocery store?”
“That’s not a good job,” she said and immediately regretted it, but it was too late to take it back.
“Good enough for me!” Wendell said and walked away.
Celia was going to apologize to him when they sat down to eat, but Wendell’s chair was empty. The next time Celia would see Wendell would be at his funeral.
Wendell started the morning at the bank signing the papers that would lease one hundred and eighty acres of his family’s farm to a solar power company for the next twenty years. After twenty years, the lease could be renegotiated or the company would have the option to buy the land outright.
In exchange for the company paying the insurance and taxes on the land, Wendell would be paid fifteen thousand dollars for every four acres of land on an annual basis. This was a profit of six hundred thousand dollars a year after taxes. When the first check came, Wendell signed it and put it in the offering plate at church in honor of his parents.
His father had passed away of a heart attack about ten years ago. Daddy was in the barn when it happened and Wendell had found him. His mother died a few months later; Wendell thought she died of a broken heart. Wendell’s heart broke twice that year, and for the first time ever he found himself completely alone.
After high school, Wendell had continued to work for his father on the farm and take care of the livestock. He still helped his mom with chores around the house and with planting her garden. He’d been promoted to stock manager at the grocery store, and he still helped neighbors when they needed him. With his parents both gone, it seemed like there was either less to do now or too much for Wendell to do himself. Leasing the land seemed like the smart choice.
Wendell sold the livestock, but kept his and his dad’s horses. They were too old to work anyway. Both tractors were sold too. The power company installed a nice fence around the remaining ten acres of Wendell’s farm for him, and for the first time since his parents death, he felt his world get even smaller.
“What are you going to do now?” Mr. Wilson asked Wendell at church one day.
“I’ve got my job at Big John’s.”
“You gonna continue to work?”
“With the money from the solar power company, you’d never have to work again.”
“What else am I going to do?”
“You could do whatever you want.”
“I have been.”
Wendell’s retirement party from Big John’s was very simple, but he liked it that way. Cake and punch were served in the break room. Several employees gave him congratulatory greeting cards. There was a banner on the wall reading “Farewell Wendell! We’ll miss you!” Everyone signed it.
“What are you going to do now, Wendell?” his boss asked.
He’d been asked that question many times in his life, and for the first time ever, he didn’t have an answer.
His boss hated to see Wendell go. Despite his age, Wendell was his best employee and could work circles around the young kids these days who didn’t know the meaning of hard work, and certainly didn’t care anything about doing it. Wendell didn’t want to go, but he knew it was time. His step had slowed a bit, and his mind was growing forgetful.
When Wendell didn’t make it to church one Sunday, Holly Dixon stopped by the farm to check on him. Holly was a nurse and she’d been calling on him from time to time, making sure he got to and from church okay. After he left Big John’s, she bought his groceries for him and sometimes she cooked for him. He offered to pay her, but she wouldn’t let him.
Wendell was lying in bed, still asleep. He’d forgotten to set his alarm clock. It happened again a few weeks later for the Christmas Eve service, but this time Wendell had not forgotten to set his alarm clock. When she came into his bedroom, Holly turned the alarm off and even though she already knew, she checked him for a pulse and found none.
Wendell left his estate to his church, along with the eleven million dollars he had in the bank. He had written Holly an undated check for fifty thousand and left it with his will along with instructions to send his Bible to a cousin named Celia. Holly found her address among the Christmas cards Wendell had received in the mail that week. Celia was easy to find via the internet. Holly learned she was a well-respected, now retired, journalist living in New York.
“Thank you for calling and letting me know,” Celia said to Holly.
“You’re his last living relative, and the only one he mentions in his will, so I wanted to reach out,” Holly said.
“No children?” Celia said.
“He never married.”
Celia wanted to ask more, but it was her own fault that she didn’t know more about Wendell. She didn’t want to rely on his nurse to catch her up on his life.
“Thanks for taking care of him'” she said.
“What are you going to do now?” Holly asked.
This question surprised her.
“I haven’t seen Wendell since high school. I moved to New York after college and this is my home now. I haven’t been back there in years. I was a journalist, as you know, and I’m retired now,” Celia explained.
“No, I meant the funeral.”
“Oh, sorry. I misunderstood.”
“The funeral is Sunday afternoon,” Holly said.
“I’ll be there.”
Celia ended the call and then opened Facebook on her iPad. She typed in Wendell’s name for the heck of it, already knowing that the search would come up empty. She’d looked for him at least once a year for quite a while back when Facebook was popular years ago. Other than the funeral announcement on his church website, she found no trace of him on the internet.
She typed a quick post about him on her Facebook page and then booked a flight. She turned out the lamp on her nightstand and fell asleep wondering about the life Wendell had lived.
She hoped he was happy.