Early May, and our garden patch is hectic with new growth, the long afternoon pollen-hazed and golden. Purple phlox and daffodils show off for the bees while birds scream in the trees and flash across the sky, all hurly burly to fuck and fight. I watch from the doorway, bracing myself to set my past on fire.

My wife still works, our two sons are grown and gone, and our boon companions all buggered off to the mountains, the deserts, the islands. So, alone, I enjoy a wealth of empty time along with arthritic toes, tired eyes, compressed disks that leave me aching and fumble fingered. I knock around the house, vacuum and do laundry, cook elaborate dinners for two. I fill our pantry with homemade apple sauce and fruit preserves. In the garden, I mutter to the raspberry bushes and fight a pitched battle with greedy rabbits over the fate of our strawberries. Days spool out, shapeless and slow.

Now, I force myself into motion, check my pockets for matches. I pick up the huge, misshapen cardboard box, heavy with receipts, contracts, rental agreements and mortgage documents, expired life insurance policies, the chintzy plaque acknowledging my thirty years of dedication, dozens of notebooks I filled in a failed attempt to explain my life to myself. I stagger out the door and turn into the woods, tripping over cedar branches, blundering into the huckleberries. The old cardboard is cotton soft in my cramping hands, yellowed tape barely keeping the whole mess from spilling onto the ferns and crushing the blooming trillium.

Deep in the tree shade, I use my foot to nudge aside nettles, sprawling blackberries, invasive ivy, then tip out the box. Before I can lose my nerve, I touch a match to a story I wrote to impress someone. My wife, maybe. Possibly myself. My past burns hot but takes a long time to die. Envelopes release their hold grudgingly. My journals curl like weak, charred fists, unwilling, as I always was, to let go of big ideas. I look on like a dutiful son at a crematorium, while above me pigeons hassle in the branches, restless and unimpressed, showering me with fir needles and seed pods. A scolding of Steller’s Jays comes around to mock my tiny pyre, screeching ha-ha-ha. No one wants to take that kind of crap from a goddamn bird but seeing my pity party reflected in their brazen black eyes, it hits me that I’m not quite done with my past yet. I tip my fire-warmed face to the birds, hold up my hands in surrender and say, “Point taken, assholes.”

When my history is reduced to warm, drifting dust, I go to the shed and grab one of the boys’ old yellow sandbox buckets. With my hands, I scoop my warm ashes into the pail and carry them, shockingly weightless, to the garden. I dump them beneath the raspberry bushes and knead the gray mess into the soil with my fingers, talking to the worms as I work, encouraging them to make a meal of my life and then shit it out. I picture the soot broken down into elements, nutrition carried through the dark on droplets of water, drawn up by the sun to build branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit.

I will tend the garden. And in a few months, my wife and I will pick whatever berries the starlings, rats and rabbits leave us, our fingers sticky with juice and our faces flushed in the heat. Then, while she’s at the office, I’ll cook them down to jelly. It’s a lot of work, but I have time now, and it’s nice to have something to look forward to in the gray chill of winter. Little gifts for my wife and family, our friends and neighbors. And for me, too. A taste of all I’ve burned and buried, sweet and bright on my tongue.