Winner, Second Selection: Fiction Category
By: Annie Boreson
“There comes a time in your life…
when men stop touching you
and no one listens to what you have to say.
The more the world leaves you in solitude
the more you anguish to leave something behind.
A trace of your existence…
A sweet reminder…
that you once walked the earth…
Those were my Grandma Iris’s final words before she passed over to the other side. Her index finger, normally crooked like a crab claw, lined up surprisingly well and pointed squarely at Mama. It was as if Grandma’s last plea had something to do with her daughter living a decent life without a bunch of good-for-nothing-lowlife-boot-licking-lackeys, slithering under one door and right back out under another. Of course, those are not my words. That is Grandma Iris’s version of how Mama tends to let the most derelict of men suck the marrow out of her.
The only thing that surprised me about Grandma’s last words was her poetic delivery. When I heard her speak it was as though she had been gearing up her entire seventy-six years to release one final pearl of wisdom about life and the platitudes of love. Not a cuss word to be found. When I asked Mama about this, she said people have a tendency to straighten up when they are about to meet their Lord and Maker. I suppose that’s not a bad rule of thumb. God probably don’t have the time to follow every last sin…but a person ready to make an exit? Now that’s a different story. I can only imagine the good Lord drops His almighty self down real close so He knows if folks should be playing a harp or wishing for ice cubes.
When I think back on that day at the Cedar Park Sunset Home it always seems like I didn’t understand what was going on until it was too late. Just like my dog Belle, the air just sort of leaked out of her too fast. I would have liked to prepare myself, especially in the case of poor old Belle because next thing I knew the vet was shaving her hind leg and she was getting nervous. Somehow that dog knew that her days of rolling in fresh clipped grass were over. Then the vet told me to say nice things while he administered the injection. I looked right into her bloodshot eyes and told her she was the best damn dog a kid could ever have. She was listening hard when the poison entered, her skull hitting the floor with a dull thud. No one told me it would be that quick. If they had, I would have cradled her head in my hands. Why I’m telling you this is because it’s sort of what happened with Grandma Iris. One minute she was lying in bed laboring with each breath, then with one final gasp and ensuing exhale came words rivaling a fire and brimstone sermon. All the while Mama was busy interrupting, telling Grandma to hush and get on with dying.
I know it sounds cruel of Mama, but in fairness, it was Reverend Perry, the pastor of Light of the Cross Church, who should take some of the blame. Having had no affiliation with the church, we’d never seen the man, except that he just happened to be there giving last rites to a parishioner passing on in the bed next door. It was a man of the cloth himself who divulged to Mama that people sometimes stick around when they think their family can’t manage without them. The Reverend claimed the kindest thing we could do for Grandma was to tell her to go in peace because we’d carry on just fine without her.
I don’t think Mama was convincing, and she sure as hell wasn’t fooling Grandma because we all knew the truth. Mama had a hard time getting out of her pajamas most days. I can’t remember the last time she held a job. No sirree, without Grandma and her magic money sock we were going to be in deep mud flats. Now that she is gone I’m not sure Mama knows how to pull money from anywhere, especially hosiery.
But that don’t seem to matter much because Grandma was ready to leave this earth. All them nurses and doctors monitoring her bowel movements and vital signs like they thought they were keeping a Kennedy alive. Illness, particularly the terminal kind, has never been one of Mama’s strong suits. When the test results came back saying Grandma wasn’t long for this world, she made arrangements for her to live out her final days at the Cedar Park Sunset Home. A windowless institution with not a twig of cedar, no park, and stunk of Pine Sol.
“You just gonna leave me here to rot, Mary Jo?” Grandma’s lower lip was quivering.
Mama never did take kindly to Grandma’s criticism, especially when she felt wrongly accused. The Cedar Park Resort, as Mama renamed it, was the perfect place in her mind, for tired bones and tumors.
“You want a clean bed, don’t you? A bath when you soil yourself? You know I can’t do that. Besides, you’ve always told us you never want to be a burden.” With that, Mama wasted no time in making her exit.
Things went downhill rapidly after that and I don’t imagine Grandma ever forgave her daughter for putting her in that malodorous holding tank for the aged.
Up until that point, I had never given death much thought. A fly to the swatter, a squirrel squished on the road, a rat in the attic trap…even the goldfish I won at the Fair done circling his bowl; all things that clearly left no imprint and although exciting at first when you touch them with a stick, are soon forgotten. What I came to understand is that it don’t matter when the end comes, it is always premature.
Mama says death is just a more persistent way of saying goodbye and she likes to remind me that I’ve had plenty of practice at that. My daddy left when I was two years old. Her boyfriends followed suit. Although Mama is convinced that all of them are still alive, living out their worthless existence in some one-stoplight town somewhere, she claims her men are dead to us, particularly the one who took her virginity, my daddy.
The last time I saw Grandma Iris alive, she had tubes running up her nose and she seemed desperate to free herself. A small thin trail of blood ran from the corner of her mouth and onto the pillow. Her hair, which usually had a little lift and bounce, lay matted to her scalp.
“Where the hell have you been? Hasn’t anyone told you I’m dying?” And then the pain overtook her and she thrashed once more as if her opponent had returned.
I used to think that people slipped into a coma at the end, but not Grandma Iris. In her final hour she pleaded for a cigarette. The cancer had virtually gorged on her lungs and there was no reversing history or the state of her insides so Mama lit a Camel and placed it in her mouth. She was too weak to inhale, but just the fact that she could feel it stuck to her cracked lips seemed to calm her. The smoke curled around her face like an oxygen mask. I maintain to this day that in those last morphine moments, she was seeing God in white nicotine light.
Maybe this preparation for death is secretly a longing for solitude of the one leaving: a deep mysterious need to die as strong and steadfast as a baby’s Olympic freestyle swim to daylight, but all I know is Mama was acting like Grandma’s illness was cutting into her drinking time.
On better days, before the fall of 1957, when the cancer consumed Grandma’s lungs, I would sit in her rocking chair and watch her wrestle her garter belt and girdle. When her housecoat lowered into place, she would corral me in her arms until I felt I would drown in her skin flaps. The daylight made her eyes seem larger than necessary underneath her thick bifocals, like one cycloptic eyeball fused together. Her laugh, a cross between a seal bark and an air raid siren.
My Grandma Iris knew just what to say when I battled my own inner demons. It was almost like she lived in my blemished skin, unleashing every last worry I had before it entered the pages of my diary.
“You’re a champ, Emmy. Your old Granny knows a thing or two about beauty and you are going to be one hell of a showstopper. Besides, there ain’t a thing you can do about it, except develop more acne from all that worrying. Just relax and let God do His magic.”
But I was never quite sure Grandma had all the facts. The way I saw it, not everyone can be a champ. Some people get brains, beauty, and talent, although the majority appear to be walking in my shoes…rolling along like tumbleweeds, picking up all the ugly traits that the pretty girls tossed out.
With Grandma dying and all, I decided there was no harm in testing her theory to see what powers the Lord actually possessed. If God had a special desire to make me a beauty, I certainly wasn’t going to muddy the water with skepticism. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help wonder how God planned to make me a knockout with teeth that looked like He’d thrown them at me with his bad arm.
I was thinking about all these memories of Grandma when those eyes that I adored rolled clear back in her head, and the finger that had been pointing at Mama, dropped onto the sheet. I reached for her hand, but Mama told me to leave it be. That she was resting the way God intended. I was pretty sure that if God had been around He would have performed one of his miracles and untangled those cramped pointers.
“Grandma Iris?” I whispered.
“She don’t hear you, Emmy.” Mama said, staring out the window.
Wasn’t but a few moments before a handful of nurses and a doctor came into the room. They checked her pulse and made a few notations on a chart. The doctor placed his fingers on her eyelids. A little noise came out of me as he closed them shut. The doctor must have heard me because he turned and looked my way, as if he suddenly realized a kid was present. I tried to smile, because I suppose if you look at it in his light, he probably thought he was doing me a favor, removing all that white where there should have been an eyeball.
The next few minutes were spent listening to the staff give Mama instructions on protocol and procedure after death. She listened, but it was apparent Mama was far away, taking her mind with her.
I grabbed some Kleenex on the table next to a few Get Well cards and a glass of orange flavored Tang…a lone straw bent like a dandelion after a hailstorm. Salty tears and snot filled those tissues, but every time I looked at Mama she appeared angry. Not one tear fell from her. It seemed that she couldn’t muster one drop from those ducts. I know Mama can be cold, but Grandma Iris was her mother. She had to feel something for the woman who gave her life and saved us so many times from disaster. I had no doubt that Grandma Iris loved her because people just don’t give up their lives for folks they don’t care about.
Maybe that’s why Grandma’s last words having to do with leaving something behind felt ominous, as if her message was meant for my ears as well. A clue that could possibly help us figure out who was sending the magic sock full of cash so that we could convince them to continue it at least until we pay the bills that Mama has been stockpiling since Grandma was admitted into the resort for tired bones.
All these thoughts were running wild through my head as Mama and I walked slowly out of the Cedar Park Sunset Home into the cold remains of an autumn night. The fear overtook me as quickly as the chill, for somehow I knew that Grandma Iris was the only person in this entire world who cared enough to keep me breathing. Mama says I have one hell of an imagination, but all I know is these thoughts were digging under the hairline and burrowing into my brain, which was not the most pleasant way to begin my eleventh year of life.
The day of Grandma Iris’s funeral, the wind came cold and angry out of a November sky. A few mourners moved quietly in dark colors and entered Light of the Cross chapel. Centered at the altar between two Carnation bouquets and some candles dripping hot wax onto a white sheet was Reverend Perry.
Mama wasted no time attaching herself to the most eligible usher, finessing her way up the aisle, hips first, followed by the rest of her. She wore a matching skintight fuchsia skirt and top embellished with oversized sunglasses. Draped across her shoulders lay Grandma Iris’s old fox stole, the head of the animal bounced across her chest. This was my first funeral but something told me this was not the right attire for your mama’s send-off, though I wasn’t fool enough to say so. Instead, I followed alongside Mama and her usher, until we reached our designated pew and sat down.
Folks began filing past the open casket, drawing crosses on their chests and wiping their worn faces on hankies. When it was the family’s turn for viewing, I walked alongside Mama, stopping in front of Grandma Iris to take a last look. With the tubes unplugged, she looked relieved, only some nimrod had taken the liberty of parting her hair the wrong way, lifting it clear up off her head like a big wave had hit her broadside. That same person must have decided to douse Grandma in a new perfume, which had taken refuge in the creases of her neck, permeating the sanctuary with a musky smell, like a jungle of rotting fruits and plants.
“What the hell have they done to her hair? And what’s that they smeared on her face? This is a funeral, not a makeover.” Mama wet her fingers and wiped Grandma Iris’s stained cheeks, making it look like some old Grizzly had gotten to her first.
While Mama tried to repair the damage, I couldn’t help but think how angry Grandma would be if she saw all that foundation on her face and her hair piled up like the blue flame on the Natural Gas billboard. There would be another moment of reckoning if she knew Mama was adding spit to the mix. I wanted to cry, but there was no time with Mama damn near climbing in that box to get better leverage on Grandma and the attempted cleanup.
“Mama, people are staring,” I whispered. Someone coughed from up in the choir loft and I turned, just in time to see a fat woman swing a jowl in our direction.
“Let ‘em stare, Emmy. This here’s your grandma lying in a box looking like a hooker.” Mama’s voice rose as she took hold of Grandma’s jaw, and rubbed so hard that her head bobbed up and down like one of them fake dogs you see suctioned on the dash of cars.
“Why can’t you just leave her be?” I said.
“I’m leaving her alone throughout eternity, but I’m damn well gonna clean her up first.” Mama rummaged around in her handbag, pulling out a wad of tissue to finish the job.
“Shall we begin the service and let Iris have some peace?” Thundered Reverend Perry from the altar, his hands clenched in permanent prayer.
“Sounds like a fine idea,” Mama said, and headed back to the pew. I was right behind her, surveying the empty rows before sliding in beside her.
I’m guessing the place holds 150 parishioners on any given Sunday, and yet today, on my dear grandma’s last moment above ground, there were so few mourners that you could still hear her fingernails growing. I knew most of the faces…the postman, the guy from Larry’s Meat Market, one of the old biddies from her Bridge group, a few from her Stitch-N-Bitch Club, and one stranger. An old man in a brown pinstriped suit, who sat clear in the back of the room. I’d never seen him before and yet, this guy was filling his hankie at an alarming rate.
Knowing Grandma’s distaste of men, this wasn’t sitting right. There was only one conclusion that I could come up with. This guy was obviously a funeral crasher. I’d read about them and knew some could be downright despicable. Everyday they check the local obituaries, and then they show up, cry a little on everyone’s shoulder and end up eating and drinking the relatives out of house and home. No doubt he was going to be deeply disappointed with our memorial spread.
If Reverend Perry had been expecting a crowd, he sure didn’t let on. Instead, he picked up his Bible like he was addressing a full congregation and commenced to reading the 23rd Psalm. All eight of us were on our feet, listening to how Grandma is lying in green pastures and beside still waters. Mama blew her nose a few times and dabbed her dry eyes.
When the service was over, the minister stepped down from the pulpit and walked slowly past us to the chapel entrance. We followed his black robe out the front doors and toward the open grave just as the first raindrops fell. Didn’t take long before it seemed like the whole sky took to falling on us. Mama was cussing something fierce. The rain bounced off her backcombed bun like fleas in woven carpet. She popped the clasp of her purse and pulled out a plastic grocery bag. Next thing I knew she had placed it on her head and proceeded to tie a bow under her chin. As she walked, the plastic bag lifted in the breeze like it had plans to take off with or without her attached.
“Mama, what are you doing?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you what I’m NOT doing! I’m not standing out here! Got no intention of tampering with what it took God and two beauticians all morning to get right.”
“But the burial?” I said.
“It will have to be without me. Rain makes my hair frizz.” Mama said, stepping gingerly over the wet grass.
There was a part of me that wanted Mama to look like the other mourners, those who didn’t let unruly hair stand in the way of their grief, but neither Mama or her hair were controllable.
“Can’t you at least wait till they put her in the ground?” I whispered. Mama’s bat ears perked up.
“No, I can’t. Besides, smells like dead bodies out here.”
“It’s mothballs, Mama, coming from that weasel around your neck.” I said.
“That weasel, as you call it, was a present to your Grandmother from an admirer. It came from Bergdorf Goodman’s department store and if you play your cards right it might be yours someday. Now, if you’ll excuse me, this fine fur and I are gonna wait in the car.”
The limo driver stepped up, looking eager to oblige. “Need some assistance?” he offered.
“Awful nice of you, young man.” I watched Mama’s small frame hugging the driver like he was some sort of floatation device. He opened the back door of the car and helped her inside, and then he ran around to the front door, climbed in and slipped the key into the ignition to start the motor.
I walked over to the gravesite and stood next to a handful of wrinkled folks waiting patiently by the earth’s incision like old dogs at suppertime. All around the leaves tossed about in the wind, darting in between the rows of tilted tombstones as the minister’s voice drifted along the grassy knolls of sorrow. The rain pelted the white box as the four pallbearers struggled to lift it onto a pulley. It rocked back and forth like a pendulum as they lowered Grandma Iris into the ground. When it came to rest on the earth below, the men peered down into the dark shaft as if it were a mirror. Three of them picked up shovels and a pickax while the fourth lifted a large tarp covering a mound of loose soil. They made quick work of the task, tossing heaps of fresh dirt and gravel back to whence it came.
Next thing I knew a door slammed and Mama was out of the limo. She was cussing as she stormed the hillside. When she reached my side her eyes skimming over me as if she was watching some other child of God whose bony knees shook in tattered tights and wet clothes clung to cold shivers. Standing there, watching the water run off her makeshift hat and looking into her empty eyes, I’d never felt so painfully alone.
Reverend Perry gave a final prayer. He ended it by asking if anyone would like to attend a gathering to celebrate Grandma Iris’s life at our place. This was news to me, as I didn’t think we had prepared for company. I was glad to see Mama come to her senses.
“Excuse me, Reverend, but the celebration for Iris has changed locations. We’ll be meeting at the Dog House Tavern. First drink is on me.”
With that, she gave the other grievers a slight wave before grabbing my shoulder blades and pinching hard. “Now Emmy, off to the car with you.” She said.
We walked through the damp grass and stormy skies down to the gravel road where the limousine was idling. Exhaust was belching out the tail pipe and steam filled the windows. Sitting behind the wheel was the driver, his hat pulled down over his eyes.
Mama punched the front seat with her fist. “Hey driver, are we keeping you up?”
He lifted the hat off his face and smiled. “Just resting. No crime in that.”
“Hell, that’s for sure. No crime at all. What’s your name?
“Jeremy, huh. Jeremy, what?”
“Jeremy Hines. But folks call me Digger since I started working the funeral shift.”
“Are you married, Digger?”
“No ma’am. I’m not.”
“Well, that’s good. That’s real good. Take your sweet time. That’s what I always say. There’s nothing like marriage to poison a person’s hopes and dreams.” Mama untied the bag from around her neck and lifted the dome slowly as if she were removing the mold from an angel food cake. Her backcombed hair clung to the plastic shield like tufts of fiberglass insulation.
“Now Digger…I know you must have some refreshments in here…like a cigarette and a bottle of whiskey?”
“No, ma’am. This is a complimentary church limo. Our spirits are only of the holy kind,” Digger said.
“Stop messing with me Digger and pass me a jigger. That’s a good one!” She said, and slapped my wet tights.
The young man pulled a dark bottle out of the glove compartment and filled a silver cup to the rim. Mama took a sip and settled back into the seat. “Now a cigarette and I’ll be almost happy,” she said.
Digger produced a pouch of tobacco from his pocket and began rolling a cigarette with his stained fingers. When he was done, he lit the end and passed it back to Mama. She took a drag and blew the pale gray cloud toward the closed window.
“How old are you, Digger?” Mama asked.
“Your folks did a good job raising a young man to work so hard at your age.” She took another sip of whiskey.
“My mom raised me. My dad died when I was young.”
“That’s a shame. Emmy here don’t have one neither. Sonofabitch run off to be a big shot rodeo star.” Mama made a sour face.
Digger ignored Mama’s scowl. He turned toward me with wide eyes.
“Rodeo? I bet you are proud of your daddy.”
I grinned at Digger and opened my mouth to speak, but thought otherwise when I saw Mama’s face.
“Proud my ass!” She sent those words flying. “Cal couldn’t ride a horse if they sewed him on. Haven’t heard a peep from him in nine years.”
“Sorry to hear it,” Digger said, and shoved the engine into gear. He peered through the rear view mirror. “Where you folks off to now?” He asked.
“The Dog House. I need a real drink,” Mama said.
“Maybe we should go home…” I offered.
“Emmy, it was my mother they just planted like a seed. If I don’t deserve a drink on a day like this, I don’t know when I will.” Mama took a sip of her whisky and rolled it around her tongue, and then tapped Digger on the shoulder.
“I assume you know the way to the Dog House?”
“I can find it.” The driver headed down the gravel path and through the big iron gates of the cemetery. I wiped the murky window with the heel of my hand and watched a few people shuffle toward the parking lot.
Just as quickly as a winter storm disappears, Mama’s mood abruptly changed. Her voice became soft and affectionate as she lightly brushed a string of wet hair from my forehead.
“It was nice, don’t you think Emmy? I think your ol’ Grandma would have enjoyed herself.”
“Sure Mama, it was real nice.”
“Still don’t understand why the hell we had to stand out in the rain,” Mama said while staring down at the water dripping off my wool coat, and forming a small puddle on the soiled floorboard below.
“It was so we could say our goodbyes.” I said.
“Emmy, let me tell you a little something.” Mama moved in closer and put her hand on my wet knee. “Your Grandma Iris, God rest her weary soul, ain’t occupying that body anymore. It’s like she’s moved and left no forwarding address.”
“Where is she then?” I asked.
“Well now, that’s a good question. If you ask Reverend Perry, he’ll probably tell you one thing, but since you’re asking your Mama, I’ll tell you what I think. You see…right about now, your Grandma is sitting in a lobby, like the fancy kind you see in theaters with bright red carpets and oriental fixtures. And hanging from the ceiling are little gold angels looking like they are about to explode from blowing trumpets.”
“I’ve never heard about a lobby.”
“I said they don’t talk about it much.” Mama looked around for an ashtray in the back seat, gave up, and flicked the ash to the floor mat.
“How long does Grandma have to wait there?” I asked, since this was a rather disturbing new vision she was offering up.
“Till St. Peter calls her number. Then there’s the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost she’s got to have a meeting with.”
“Why do they need a ghost?” I asked, watching the pleats around Mama’s mouth break into a smile.
“Nobody knows for sure. I figure if you got God and Jesus straightening out all the problems in the world, they’re bound to disagree. So that’s why they bring in the ghost. To break the tie.”
“I’m scared of ghosts,” I said.
“It’s one of them Holy Ghosts, Emmy. Nothing to be afraid of.”
“Do you think Grandma Iris’s got a good chance of getting into heaven?” I asked.
“Course she does. Just got a fair amount of explaining to do is all,” Mama said, and took a drag of her cigarette.
“Why do people have to die, Mama?”
“Plain and simple. We got to make room for the next batch.”
“Mama, how long we gonna be in the Dog House?”
“Hush, Emmy,” Mama said.
I was trying my hardest to visualize Mama’s mental image, but the fact that Grandma was supposedly sitting in a red lobby waiting for her Judgment Day was not comforting. No matter how good Grandma was as an earthly being, she did mess up from time to time. I could just see her in her housedress, sweating through her old armpit shields with no way of washing the fear clean.