The Last Word

Candice M. Kelsey

April 10, 2022


The papers rustled in the wind as if dew-licked fingers turned each page in haste. The letter was taped to a tombstone in the Mystic Cemetery. More startling, however, was the neon pink duct tape securing the pages and placed as if across a prisoner’s mouth. A prisoner who knows state secrets. But there was no prisoner — only the corpse of a man six feet underground, a man who had clearly pissed someone off.

My Uncle Doug, an eighty-two-year-old retired hypnotist, and his wife of fifty-seven years were visiting the cemetery that autumn day in October. Only they were hoping to pay their respects to the last of Doug’s former band members, the drummer they called Reverend Doctor because he was, in fact, a reverend and a Ph.D. Doug was struck by the rhythmic leaf crunches of each step he took toward Reverend Doctor’s grave; the quarter beat cadence led his mind to decades earlier, a time when The Rainbow Wigs played Thursday nights at John’s Tavern.

His mind fixated on one memory — that humid stink of a July night when the old draw bridge would not close. The patrons were a bit rowdy on Sam Adams and the Wigs’ spirited cover of The Beatles’ “Revolution”, but sight of the frozen draw bridge through the windows resulted in mayhem. Jenny, the late owner’s beleaguered wife, began to toss people out into the sticky south-eastern Connecticut air. She started with the tourists. Doug remembered how Reverend Doctor began tapping his drumsticks together, laughing wildly at the chaos. He suddenly missed that laugh in a soul-deep way. The footsteps and his memory ended as they reached his headstone.

As Doug’s wife, my aunt, slowly bent down to place the white carnations, she gasped. Doug assumed her back had spasmed again and placed his hand softly on her fleece vest. He had often chosen that gentle response over the course of their marriage, and she appreciated it. Other couples, she had noticed, responded in outbursts, exaggerated facial expressions, even platitudes. But not her husband. He knew that human touch was the secret to life’s unending volley of cares. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she reassured him. “It’s that, over there. What is it, Doug?” She pointed toward a nearby plot.

“Wha— oh, you mean those papers?”

She nodded, more curious than concerned. “Can we go see?”

“Let’s pay our respects to good ole Rev first, dear; that’s what we came to do.” And they stood quietly for a few minutes, each their own solemn visitor in the house of grief. She grabbed Doug’s hand and squeezed. Her mind wandered to that cold place where she would someday have to touch the walls of grief, that inevitable day when she would lose him. His hand slipped from hers, and she shuddered. He repositioned the flowers.

Without speaking, the pair of them left Rev and slowly approached the curious papers. Almost in unison with their movement, a parade of heavy machinery rumbled by; construction companies often used Route 27 to avoid the draw bridge in Old Mystic Village.

Doug turned his head to get a better look at the trucks, a site he always enjoyed. To him, it was pageantry. Seeing the faded gold excavator, the backhoe, and the trencher reminded him of the grueling summer work he did with his brother and father, my grandfather, before he left for college. To Doug, construction was his adolescence; construction was his first identity; construction was also his first betrayal. When he left the family business to pursue his degree in psychology, he felt a shift. Nothing was said, of course. He almost wished there had been words. Even so, he knew his position in the family had changed permanently. But the vortex of adulthood had spun him around so fast that one morning he had woken up in Louisiana a married man with a successful, licensed and bonded practice in hypnotherapy. He couldn’t have walked any farther from home.

Turning back to his wife, he was not surprised she had already removed the mysterious, duct-taped papers in question. What he hadn’t expected was that the headstone belonged to his sister’s recently deceased second husband, Edgar, or as he liked to be called, Rooster. My Aunt Mae had married him shortly after her first husband, the father of her two girls, died New Year’s Day on the icy roads of New Hampshire. Rooster moved them west to California weeks after he married Mae, and he bulldozed his way into the role of stepfather.

Doug wasn’t thrown off by the site of his brother-in-law’s grave; many of his family members were buried here, even both of his parents. He had spent so much of his youth digging up the earth with his father that when the day came to lower his lifeless body into the familiar dirt, Doug felt a sense of completion.

“Doug, this is some sort of letter to Rooster,” she said, handing him the pages after folding the tape and running her thumb over the tiny pebbles caught within. This must be how braille feels, she thought to herself. “Should we read it or is it private?” she finally asked.

Doug flipped to the third and final page to the valediction. “It’s from Leanne.” Leanne is my cousin. She’s the forgotten member of the family. The ghost child of Aunt Mae.

A chill broke across the cemetery. Sudden, swift winds often eddied from the adjacent Mystic River. Autumn was a more peaceful time for the town, the rampant foot traffic of summer tourism transformed into the sparse car traffic of foliage looky-loos. In many ways the rhythm of the tourist trade defined the year more than the actual seasons. “Doug, let’s leave it. I can find a heavy stone or something.”

But it was too late. Doug’s eyes had already landed on son of a bitch and rot in hell for the abuse and everyone will know what you did to us.

“She wanted someone to find this, to read it. To know. I’m not going to let my niece down,” he declared in what was more an exhale than a response. His shoulders rounded, and his torso seemed scooped like the stony, silt loam beneath his feet. “We’re taking it. Let’s go.”

A week later, the morning of Halloween, Doug met his sister Mae for breakfast. His wife had suggested the popular Bleu Squid Bakery & Café for ease of access; the parking lot offered parking spaces wide enough to maneuver their Buick Lucerne. That’s how she made decisions now, focused solely on avoiding car accidents of any kind. That may be the defining symptom of old age, she thought to herself. That, and burying old friends like Reverend Doctor. Doug saw it differently. Old age, he realized, is merely prologue to truth, the truth of death and the varied truths that death unearths. Like the truth unearthed by last week’s find. The shock of Leanne’s letter caused another shift in him — this time, it was between him and his sister.

He pulled into the Bleu Squid and immediately spied Mae’s white Toyota Forerunner, her first big purchase from Rooster’s life insurance. Doug noticed she had parked askew, but he thought nothing of it. Patting Leanne’s letter folded carefully in the breast pocket of his flannel, he headed into the café. He noticed the sound of his winter boots meeting the puddled gravel with each step, a crunch that was strangely fulfilling. He liked where he lived. But he didn’t like what he was about to do.

Confronting one of his seven sisters was for the most part out of the question. That fact was made clear many years ago. Individually and collectively, the Wertheimer sisters were untouchable, somewhat because of their fabricated vulnerability, but mostly because of their venom. Countless victims, young and old, had been felled for even considering a confrontation with one of them. I was one of those victims. Though in number they were like Zeus’ daughters, the Muses, in sheer ability to avenge, they were more like the Furies. And this morning Doug was next on their altar. He didn’t remember much of what happened. But as he maneuvered his Buick easily out of the parking lot and onto Coogan Boulevard, he realized he had given Leanne’s letter to Mae. He also realized he was still hungry — they hadn’t eaten or even ordered coffee it was that quick. He never heard from his sister again.

Several years later, Leanne’s sister, my cousin Louise, learned of Uncle Doug’s death. He had broken his hip in a minor car accident at the Wendy’s drive-thru and never recovered. His wife kept her hand on his shoulder every waking moment as he lay helpless in the hospital. It was all she could do for him. She contacted Louise with the funeral details, but otherwise Louise heard from no one, not even her sister or her mother, and especially not any of the Wertheimer sisters. And she was fine with that.

As Louise’s plane taxied into T.F. Green Airport in Providence, she laughed to herself. She knew Uncle Doug had found Leanne’s letter taped to Rooster’s headstone years ago. She knew that he had confronted their mother. She knew that he was cut off by all his sisters. For that alone, she loved our uncle even more. He was a man we could trust. It didn’t matter that he was dead and gone because he had done what her mother never had the courage to do — to confront evil. That must be what it means to grow old with grace, she thought to herself, to drive the heavy machinery of courage into life, unearth the truth of it and construct a space for healing.

Mae had stayed with Rooster thirty-one years, not out of love or devotion or even obligation. She had stayed for the promise of inheriting a large amount of money. Louise is convinced that is why she never investigated her sister’s accusations, why she never left Rooster or prosecuted him. Adolescence, to Louise and most likely Leanne, was destruction. And Aunt Mae had profited nicely from staying with Rooster until the end. That is, until she discovered her new love, the Mohegan Sun Casino, that new glittery sphinx on the south-eastern Connecticut horizon.

Other than the luxury car she purchased for herself after Rooster’s death, Mae devoted her time and her inheritance to the blackjack tables. A month after Doug’s accident, Mae stood broke and embarrassed staring at three cards: a nine, an eight, and a six. Bust. The number twenty-three had never been so jarring. She had lost the final hundred dollars Rooster had left her.

“Ma’am, would you like to place another bet?” asked the croupier as he tapped his fingers on the shoe, the opposite of a gentle touch. He was eager to deal again.

She adjusted her pocketbook, straightened her blouse, and turned to leave the casino for good. She replaced defeat with self-righteous anger and thought to herself, See, I can leave when I need to.

As she exited, she heard the croupier’s last words. “The lady is finished.”

Candice Kelsey is an educator and poet living in Georgia. She serves as a creative writing mentor with PEN America's Prison & Justice Writing Program; her work appears in Grub Street, Poet Lore, Lumiere Review, and Poetry South among other journals. She is the author of Still I am Pushing (2020) and won the Two Sisters Micro Fiction Contest (2021). Recently, she was chosen as a finalist in Cutthroat's Joy Harjo Poetry Prize. Find her @candicekelsey1 and