I buried Jane in the later winter when the ground was still firm and radiated trapped cold like an ice chest. My hands ached as I chipped away at the ground with the shovel and scattered clay-rich earth in small pellets. Bennett offered to help but I refused, and he gave me a skeptical look that made me want to turn the shovel end-over-end and bash in his face until it was his blood that stained the ground and his life that snuck away into the hard-packed earth. But that wouldn't bring back my wife so I kept digging and my hands kept hurting.
She was covered in the near-transparent brown shawl that she wore under her two sweaters and black bomber jacket. It was a gift from her mother almost two decades ago and provided little extra protection against the elements, but she looped it around her neck every day all the same. She said it reminded her of how life once was, that different time I was convinced was utterly gone but she insisted would return if we held onto hope and held onto each other through the dusty days and bitter nights.
"You're going to bust your stitches if you don't let me help you," Bennett said.
"Get fucked," I said.
Bennett snorted and dropped his shovel at my feet. "Be that way," he said. "I'll take care of the basics while you deal with this. Don't come crying to me when you rip yourself apart and are leaking like a stuck pig and I have to put you back together all over again."
Our camp was pressed up against a copse of gnarled, bare juniper tree, shielded from the wind that usually came from the west. At its center was a circle of small, chipped granite stones that surrounded steaming coals and red embers from our dying fire. Bennett sprinkled fresh straw on the coals and blew air until it caught, then added sticks and small logs until the fire was going again full-bore.
He walked to the creek that bordered the camp and was little more than a few trenches of shallow water running down the old wash. He filled a metal cylinder that used to be a short garbage pail with water and returned it to the fire, setting it within the circle's perimeter to boil. He then walked back over to me.
"It'll be ready in about ten minutes," he said.
I didn't respond and kept digging. After every few cuts of the earth I glanced over at Jane's body. The shawl was thin enough that I saw everything except her eyes, which I knew were closed but were still somewhat obscured by the cloth. She was pale and drained, strength spent fighting an infection that swept quickly and that we were without the strength to cure. So goes existence outside of life and time.
I swung my hands up and struck the ground once more and felt a splitting pain in my side, like I was about to open up and dump everything left inside of me into the hole I'd been digging. I doubled over, one hand still on the shovel, the other clutching dirt.
"Jesus Christ take it easy," Bennett said. He threaded his arms under my armpits and lifted me up. I dropped the shovel and let him walk me back to camp. He pushed me down onto the ground facing the fire. "Old fucking fool." He spat, fished a bent cigarette out of his pocket, and lit it with his silver zippo lighter that reflected the fire and made it flash in my eyes. "I'm going to finish this and you're going to sit right there. Then we'll have a look at your stupid stitches."
Each time Bennett struck the ground with the shovel he made a whooping, grunting sound which reminded me of long rally in a tennis match, only with one participant missing. I didn't watch him finish digging the hole, and instead focused on the fire, holding my hands out in front of me and waiting for the inevitable pops and sizzles as the wood caught, cracked, and oozed beads of sap. My side burned and throbbed, and I reached for the bottle of Jim we scrounged at the old grocery down the road. We drank half of it the night before, and the remnants sloshed around as I chugged several generous gulps.
"It's finished," Bennett called over to me. I pulled the bottle back from my lips and bourbon dribbled down my chin and onto my shirt. I struggled to rise but moving made me feel like I'd split in two. By the fire, the water in the metal cylinder began to boil and shoot up steam. "Don't get up you idiot. I'll come fetch you."