It was unusually warm for October, an Indian summer day. With his red handkerchief, Nessdahl wiped the perspiration from his face and neck, then the sweatband within his felt hat. He peered out at the work remaining. The job was bigger than he expected, yet if he kept at it he could be done before lunch. Some folks would offer him a sandwich or a glass of lemonade, but the Trandahls were not one of them weed shirts. Then he remembered he had some salami in the refrigerator, and the thought of a nice sandwich made the job more bearable.
His death was most sudden. Just the day before, he had raked leaves at the Trandahl place. High winds the night before had scattered them across the yard giving it the look of a mosaic painting, bright yellows, muted reds, on a canvas of green. Seemed a shame to disturb them, but reluctantly he did so, raking the dead foliage onto a burlap tarp. He’d fold the tarp, then deposit the leaves in a mulch pit at the rear of the property. Periodically he would mix the leaves into the decaying compost.
When he was fed, he’d eat a healthy plate full and then some. He valued good cooking and a clean plate demonstrated his true appreciation. Though he rarely spoke while eating, he left the table with the same courteous words, “A good meal. Thank you ma’am.” And when offered sweets or fruit, he wrapped them in a paper napkin and explained, “For later.”
The old handyman was a familiar sight in Eagan Creek. Dressed in his usual attire, faded bib overalls, a plaid flannel shirt and a sweat-stained brown fedora, folks treated him more so as an oddity than as a hired workman. Strange and aloof, he didn’t fit into this tight-knit community. People found him unsettling, especially those gray eyes hiding behind steel-rimmed glasses–haunting, suspicious. And the deep wrinkles in his face left questions, maybe a vengeful and unforgiving life? Sometimes he could be abrupt and thick-headed. Yet he was a capable worker, even at seventy-one years, lean of body, hair nearly white. Somehow, he managed a meager existence, watching his pennies, working a half-day here, an hour there.
The fancy cooking and complex concoctions that women folk would toss his way also made him suspicious. How could you tell what was in it? Mashed potatoes, gravy, and a slab of meat were his true liking, and when the dish didn’t suit his simple taste, he would pick through it trying to determine its contents. Harley Grooter’s wife said such scrutiny insinuated she was trying to poison him. Maybe so, for she wasn’t that good a cook. That’s probably why Harley took most of his meals at the Roxy Cafe.
He wasn’t finicky about what he ate, but he did have his aversions. Burnt toast was one of them. Once when Elsa Thompson served him a toasted egg sandwich, he looked at the blackened edges, then meticulously scraped the burnt portions onto his plate. Even though he consumed the sandwich, his displeasure was made known. Later, at the Women’s Circle, Elsa called him an ingrate and thus another label was added to demean his already dubious character.
Thought to be only an accommodating handyman, it would be years before the town’s people came to know the true measure of this man. He lived in a walk-up at the rear of Sara Baker’s house, a furnished one-room flat with a hot plate and fridge. It also had a toilet and wash basin, and that’s where they found him laying on the floor, shaving soap on his face, his straight razor close by.
Some town folks resented his passing. “If he was feeling ill, he should have seen a doctor,” quipped Mrs. Pratt. Arnold Lynner was equally upset by Nessdahl’s death. “How inconsiderate, he should have warned us so we could have lined up someone else.”
Mr. Lynner owned the prestigious home on the corner of Oak Drive and Main, the centerpiece of the community. On Sundays, churchgoers would drive by for a peek at what true wealth could buy. With its spacious lawns, wrought iron fence and manicured shrubbery, it was the envy of folks from miles around. And it was the diligent labors of Nessdahl Neavis that made it so, even though he was poorly compensated. “Work is work,” he would say, “you take what’s there.”
Children were another aversion. They and Nessdahl didn’t get along and what upset him most were the tricks these youngsters would play on him. They would hide his tools or sneak up behind him and scare him. The two Benson boys were the worst of the lot and when enough became enough he turned the water hose on them. Unfortunately, they made the mistake of complaining to their father and as a result, felt the wrath of his belt.
The silent relationship continued for years until that day he was thinning out a bed of daffodils. It was a tedious job deciding which flowers should live and which should be uprooted and tossed aside. When Emily came by, she was appalled by the destruction of such lovely plants. She inquired and Nessdahl explained, “Have to give them room to grow.”
The only youngster that Nessdahl tolerated was Emily Penske. She lived in the trailer park at the edge of town and would occasionally see him working when she came home from school. Passing by, she would survey his labors, then acknowledge his good work, nodding her head and throwing him a smile. It was a quick exchange, but nonetheless the moment stayed with him and lightened his heart.
“A heart attack,” that’s what Doc Hansen called it, but in Eagan Creek other stories were being circulated. Some implied suicide, being he was such a loner. “What did he have to live for?” one person injected. Others suspected food poisoning because he hoarded food like a tenacious squirrel. But the talk kept coming back to that nagging question, whom could they get to do this work?
“So, you’re throwing these away?”
The grave was dug in the older part of the cemetery where the tombstones date back almost eighty years. A plot here was impossible to sell yet the city charged the full fee. Pastor Baumgartner and the hearse arrived, and Nessdahl Neavis was in the ground before the final words “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust” were spoken. A small marker was placed in the ground as workers began filling in the grave.
Then suddenly one day a number of city workers came to this forgotten cemetery section. Weeds were cut, grass was mown and the area surveyed. Measuring carefully, they dug out a small rectangle and in it placed a wooden form held in place by stakes. Concrete was mixed, poured, and smooth with a trowel. From a wooden box, they lifted a heavy bronze marker measuring 12 by 24 inches with anchors on its underside. With precision, they pressed it into the wet concrete. It was a job well done and a tribute to the man lying below.
Nessdahl’s body laid in the funeral home and with so little money to cover proper burial expenses, the coffin remained closed. What funds they found stashed in a coffee can barely covered the cheapest funeral. No one stopped by to pay their last respects, no flowers were sent, no cards of condolences, no family to grieve. Yet, when the undertaker came to put the body away, he found on top of the coffin a single yellow daffodil.
Whiffs of snow clung to the plague’s raised letters, frosting the brown grass, capping tombstones. It was now November, bitterly cold, trees barren. A yellow school bus made its way up the twisting cemetery road coming to a stop near the older section. Stepping off the bus, a young woman helped her third grade students disembark. A high school student trailed and moved away in the opposite direction carrying a black case. Bundled up, the children clustered around their teacher then followed her in a reverent procession.
Now Nessdahl Neavis was gone and his death had become an inconvenience to a great many people. Not only to those for whom he worked but also to those responsible for his transfer into the next life. The undertaker was away closing up his lake cabin, and the town’s clergy deflected any obligation to this non-church member. Finally, someone mentioned they’d seen Nessdahl attending a Christmas Eve service years ago at the Lutheran Church. He sat in the balcony wearing a Macintosh jacket over his usual attire: faded bib overalls and plaid flannel shirt. Holding his stained fedora in his lap, he looked out-of-place, probably felt that way too. This one attendance placed the responsibility squarely on Lutheran Pastor, Fredric Baumgartner, who incidentally was planning to get away for some midweek fishing, another inconvenience.
They stood there in silence, feeling the loss, yet savoring the moment that would shape the rest of their lives. Before leaving, they gazed once more at the bronze marker: “Cpl. Nessdahl W. Neavis, April 3rd 1891- October 27th 1962, U.S. Army, WW1 1918 France.” Below were emblems indicating awards for his distinguished military service: Two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and The Congressional Medal of Honor.
Emily was sure she had upset him, but then he returned carrying a burlap sack. He knelt down, put the best of the lot into the sack and handed it to her. “Here,” he said. She stammered a thank you and when she walked away, a smile crept across Nessdahl’s face.
They gathered around his grave and looked at the shiny bronze marker. The teacher began, “This is where Nessdahl Neavis is buried, a soldier, a hero, and my friend.” She recapped the man’s life, his service in World War One, his recovery in an Army hospital, and the subsequent lose of his wife and child to the Spanish flu. She talked about his struggles, about the many places he traveled to find work during the Great Depression. He was a neglected soul she said, overlooked and often maligned. Even his own community failed to recognize his service and achievements. However, one determined soul dug deep to discover the truth.
“Yeah,” he shot back. Fourteen-year-old Emily had a home for these castaways and politely asked if she could have some. Nessdahl looked up at her, his eyes peering over his steel-rimmed glasses. Without any indication either way, he rose to his feet and walked away.
While the bronze marker indicated the start and end of his life, another life goes on. One that lives in the hearts and memories of those he left behind. This was her lesson, a lesson about honor, respect, and human kindness. And through the coming school year, these young children would come to know this man as well as their teacher, Emily Penske.
As the years past the relationship grew, a nod became a wave of the hand and a hello became a short chat. And in the end, Emily Penske came to know more about old man Neavis than anyone else in town. He wasn’t the crazy old kook everyone alleged him to be. And the gossip, innuendoes, and snipes were just that–nothing but talk.
She gave each student a small American Flag and instructions to place it in the ground next to the grave marker. Off in the distance, the sound of “Taps” echoed through the cemetery as each child took its turn. Seventeen flags fluttered in the wind, a fitting tribute to this soldier for tomorrow was November 11th, Armistice Day. When they were done, Emily pulled from her purse and placed on the grave a yellow daffodil.
Years past, the grave and its existence disappeared. A tractor mower had knocked over the temporary grave marker, and weeds soon engulfed this neglected resting-place. It was almost as if the man had never lived at all. It remained that way for almost seven years following his death.