by Miriam Karmel
There’s a finger bone from the hand of St. Teresa of Avila in a church in Spain. The saint’s rosary beads are also on display, as is the cord she used to flagellate herself.
Ruth, the checker at Jewel Foods, saw the bone on her church group tour of Spanish cathedrals. While I was getting my money out, Ruth retrieved a picture postcard from beneath the register to show me what she’d seen. She’s always been chatty. Lately, though, I sense she’s been trying to entertain me, take my mind off things. I’m sorry I told her about my mother. My job. Still, Ruth’s stories amuse me and I like her for calling a bone a bone.
At dinner, I told Hugh about St. Teresa. “That can be anyone’s bone,” I said. “Anyone’s beads. Cord.”
“Why would they make that up?” he said.
“Because they can? They made up an entire religion. Why not invent the props to go with it?”
Hugh said it would be bad luck to fake the relics of a saint. That was odd, coming from Mr. Precise. He’s a calculator of carbon footprints. His job is to determine the amount of energy one uses by say, flying from
Chicago to Paris. Then he finds ways to offset such profligate consumption. Suddenly, he’s Mr. Superstitious. He’ll say anything to contradict me.
First my mother died. Then I lost my job. Then while I was peeling butternut squash a man on the radio said, “Cooking is over.” I shouted, “Look at me, wise guy! I’m cooking soup.” Then the peeler slipped and gashed my finger. I trailed blood all the way across the kitchen floor to the bandage drawer.
At dinner, over squash soup, I told Hugh, “I’m thinking of going to Paris.”
“As in France?”
“No,” I said. “As in Paris, Georgia.”
There is such a place. I found it in a book, I Bet You Didn’t Know. There are twenty-six cities in the United States named Paris. There’s a Paris, Ohio, a Paris, Kentucky, and a Paris, Missouri.
I’ve been reading books like I Bet You Didn’t Know, hoping to discover what people do with their loved ones’ ashes. At this point, I could write the book. I’d include the story about a woman in Connecticut who wears her son’s ashes in a locket around her neck. And I’d mention the man who tossed a spoonful of his wife’s ashes into the bouillabaisse he served at a luncheon following her memorial service. I bet you didn’t know that! What I don’t know is what to do with my mother’s ashes. I told Hugh I wished she’d been buried like my father, who is laid to rest in a plain pine box at the Jewish cemetery on the city’s north side. He was lowered into the ground according to tradition, within twenty-four hours of breathing his last breath. It happened so fast my brother Barnet, who was on a Princess cruise to the Bahamas with his latest girlfriend, couldn’t get back in time for the funeral. “There’s something to be said for tradition,” I told Hugh.
Hugh said, “You’ve got to do something with her, Vera. It isn’t right.” He thinks it’s time to scatter my mother’s ashes. He says she’s languishing.
I reminded him about St. Teresa. “If a church in Spain can display her finger bone all these years, why can’t I leave my mother on the mantle?”
“Your mother wasn’t a saint,” he said, and I said, “You never liked her.” Then we fought.
She arrived by UPS one morning in May, though I didn’t know it was her. The package sat on the front hall table for nearly a week awaiting Hugh’s return from a conference. Hugh is always ordering something—a widget for his bicycle, worms for his composter, an out-of-print book. I set the package in the pile with the rest of his mail.
“This must be yours,” Hugh said. I was washing lettuce for dinner and he was at the kitchen table going through the mail. He held up a small container. He turned it over; shook it. He even pressed it to his ear, as if he were listening for the ocean in a seashell.
“Mine?” I turned off the water, wiped my hands on my jeans and took it from him. It was a tin box imprinted with a pretty floral motif. I said it looked like it might contain an assortment of English toffee. “But who would be sending us candy, of all things?”
Then Hugh read aloud from a note that was in the packing box. Before he finished, I tried handing the tin back, as if we were kids playing Hot Potato. Quickly, he stepped away, picked up a penknife and sliced through an envelope. I sank into a chair and cradled the tin. “I didn’t expect her to arrive by UPS,” I said.
I was staring at the kitchen floor when Barnet called. The dog had just tracked in mud. Hugh had tracked in something he’d picked up on his running shoes. I was thinking I’d have to get out the mop and bucket and ammonia. I’d have to run the water until it was hot, and while it was running I’d think about Hugh carping if I let the water run while brushing my teeth. I thought of how I’d have to put it all back—ammonia, mop, bucket. Then it would start all over—paws, running shoes. I’d about talked myself out of washing the floor when the phone rang. It was my brother. “I want half,” he said.
“Things get lost in the mail,” I replied.
“Then send them UPS.”
I told him about a UPS plane that had crashed outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He hung up.
Not long after, I received a letter from a lawyer directing me to send half our mother’s ashes to Barnet. Or else.
“Or else, what?” I asked Hugh. “Will they throw me in jail if I don’t comply? I’m not going to pack up half of Francine Bernstein’s remains and send them to Barnet.”
Shall I divide our mother with a measuring cup, the same cup I use to measure sugar and flour? I’d never be able to make another cake without thinking of her reduced to ashes. As it is, I think of her whenever I bake. She comes to me full-blown. Alive. Recently, though, I made her chocolate cake, the one from the recipe on the Hershey’s cocoa box and I knew she was dead. I didn’t know it while I was making the cake, but after I tasted it, I told Hugh, “My mother is dead.” It didn’t taste like the cake she made for all our birthdays. Then I remembered the time mother said to Chubby Levine, “I thought you were making my sponge cake?” And Chubby said, “This is your sponge cake.” Mother thought that was pretty funny, but I thought it was like asking a woman who isn’t pregnant when her baby is due.
When our mother got sick, Barnet took control of her finances. When she was in the hospital, he wrote himself a big fat check and flew to Acapulco with his newest girlfriend. Then he bought a Cadillac SUV.
I told Hugh I believe in karma. “Look at Bernie Madoff.” Then I rattled off the names of all the other connivers who ended up behind bars. Jeffrey Skilling. Michael Milken. Martha Stewart. That suave Indian who ran a hedge fund. The list gives me hope.
People do split ashes. My neighbor Caroline scattered half her mother under a rose bush, and now brilliant pink blooms are growing over the fence into my yard. She scattered the other half along the trail where she and her mother enjoyed walking. But I can’t imagine my mother as compost and the only walks we ever took were up and down the aisles at Costco.
My friend Marsha’s family scattered their mother all around the farm. They sprinkled some of her under the clothesline and recalled all the clothes she’d ever hung. They tossed a bit of her near the backyard swing and remembered the way she was always calling, “Watch out! You’ll get kicked in the head!” They scattered her under the peace sign their father had painted on the side of the barn. There was even enough left for a grave. After the minister spoke, they each tossed some of their mother into it. Then they played a recording of her favorite Glenn Miller song, Moonlight Serenade, while sprinkling some of her favorite food on top of the ashes. Popcorn. Junior Mints. Potato chips.
I told Hugh, “Some families have all the fun.”
In the beginning, he brought me cups of tea. He made pots of soup, rubbed my neck. Then he stopped. “There’s grief,” he said. “And then there’s something else. I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t grief.”
He said he’d never known me to be so unhappy. He even said it to Caroline, while she bent over her vegetable garden and attacked the weeds with a kitchen fork. He was standing over her, rubbing her dog’s neck. I observed them from the back porch, where I’d gone searching for a book. I heard voices, so I went to the screen and there they were. I couldn’t hear what they were saying because of a lawnmower off in the distance. Then the mower stopped and I heard Hugh say, “Vera is not happy.”
His mother (my mother-in-law) is still alive. Ninety-three years old and mows her own lawn. The other day she spent four hours planting tulip bulbs. “What do you know of grief?” I asked him. “You’ve never lost anybody.” Horrified, I clapped a hand to my mouth.
Hugh gave me a book: The Grieving Process, by Dr. H.M. Featherstone. According to Dr. Featherstone, I will react to my mother’s death in stages. When I pass through the final stage, I will be ready, Dr. Featherstone assures me, “To jump back into the stream of life.”
My grief, if that’s what it is, doesn’t comply with Dr. Featherstone’s scheme. It comes in waves. It’s messy. Unpredictable. Disorderly. I can be driving and suddenly it feels as if someone has dumped four sacks of potatoes in my lap. Once, while stopped at a traffic light, I realized there was no one to tell me to put on some lipstick. No one to say, Do yourself a favor. Get rid of that old coat. When the light changed, I couldn’t move my foot from the brake to the gas pedal. Cars honked. Drivers yelled. I sat there and cried. Another time, I was on a garden tour when a woman said, “Smell this rose!” I thought she’d said, “Wake up and smell the roses,” but then I saw her pointing to a trellis laden with blooms. I pressed my nose to a blossom and breathed in my Nonna’s basement, which had reeked faintly of mildew and gas. Sometimes, I can be enjoying a meal and suddenly the food tastes as if I’m sucking on nickels.
The other day, I was out walking and the sight of some late-blooming phlox triggered a sense of despair so strong that I felt my knees buckle. It took all my will to keep moving. I couldn’t recall any association with phlox. My mother hadn’t gardened. Like me, she set a few pots of geraniums on the front stoop every spring. Yet something about the fading phlox behind a white picket fence made me weak in the knees. Or perhaps it was the weathered green and white striped cushions on wicker chairs arranged haphazardly on the front porch. The place looked like a home. Not the home I grew up in, but a home nevertheless. I wanted to go home. Only I couldn’t.
When I tried describing the porch, the cushions, the phlox, Hugh said, “Home is where the heart is, Vera.” I’d expected him to say, “You can’t go home again.” Either way, I was sorry I’d brought it up.
Is there really such a thing as too much grief, which is what Hugh is suggesting? Perhaps there’s a grief gene, expressed in some kink on the strand of DNA that determines all one’s other traits. My particulars include washed out blonde hair; green eyes; short, stubby fingers; broad forehead; a slight bump at the bridge of my nose. No one has ever called me pretty. Interesting. Yes. Also lurking on that double helix that determined I would look interesting, not pretty, may be an over-expressed gene for grief.
My Nonna would have passed it on. Nonna grieved out loud. We’d be sitting around the dinner table—me, my mother, father, two brothers, Nonna—talking about the Cubs, or the stock market, or the tree that fell on the neighbor’s car during last night’s storm. Everyone would be talking at once. Then Nonna, who’d been quietly minding her own business, would lament, “Oy, Lou. Why did you die?” Just as suddenly, she’d sit back in her chair and fold her hands in her lap, like a cuckoo bird that retreats into its clock after heralding the hour. Before long, we stopped paying attention to Nonna’s eruptions. Now, if Nonna were alive, I would say, Tell me about your grief and I’ll tell you about mine. Back then, though, we kept on talking about falling trees, the tanking stock market. Someone always predicted that next year would be the year the Cubswould pull it off.
I was spritzing my wrists with perfume at the fragrance bar in Macy’s when I heard someone say, “I have become the kind of woman who wears Enna Jetticks.”
Crazy, but I thought it was my mother. It’s easy to imagine her worrying that she’d become such a woman. She worried about everything. And she was always worrying out loud.
“In my next life,” she’d say, as if she were a member of some esoteric Hindu sect, not a reformed Jew who attended synagogue once a year on the High Holy days. “In my next life, I’ll be carefree. Lighthearted. I won’t give a damn about anything, Vera. Just you wait and see.” So it wasn’t such a leap to imagine my mother worrying out loud that she’d returned as the kind of woman who wore Enna Jetticks. Old lady shoes, she called them.
Not that the voice I heard was anything like my mother’s, which was high-pitched and slightly nasal. The voice that carried down the length of the perfume bar was in a lower register. Finishing school came to mind. Summers in Nantucket. Locked jaw. What would such a woman know of Enna Jetticks? For that matter, what does anyone know of shoes that today might only be found on eBay?
The woman at the perfume bar who was not my mother had on strappy sandals with high heels and tiny gold buckles that fastened at the ankle. They were fire engine red.
Enna Jetticks were almost always black, though occasionally blue or beige. Most had laces and a modest, firm, broad heel. My first grade teacher wore black Enna Jetticks in winter, beige in autumn and spring. My father’s secretary, Bunny Kohlberg, always wore Enna Jetticks, though you’d expect a woman named Bunny would wear a more playful shoe, a strappy red sandal, perhaps. Nobody in my family wore them. My aunts on my father’s side—the Gabors, my mother called them—never left the house in anything but high heels. Every night, before bed, they moaned about their bunions and hammertoes while soaking their feet in tubs of hot water and Epsom salts. The women on my mother’s side wore Capezios or Weejun loafers with knee socks, unless they were off to a wedding or bar mitzvah or a night on the town.
My eye traveled up from the red strappy sandals and followed the curve of the woman’s calf to the point where her leg disappeared beneath a gay cotton skirt with a pattern of blowzy pink peonies. “A nice leg,” I thought. My mother was always quick to remark on the shape of a leg. “She’s a pretty woman,” she’d say. “But get a load of those piano legs. Poor thing.” Sometimes, out of the blue, she’d say, “You’re lucky, kiddo. You’ve got nice legs. That’s nothing to sneeze at.” Later, I would study my legs in the bathroom mirror, trying to figure out what was nice about them. Or I’d try to figure out, for example, how the legs of a woman who’d sat across from me on the bus, had anything to do with the legs on my Aunt Vivian’s Bechstein?
I spent much of my childhood trying to decipher my mother’s remarks. “It was like learning to speak a foreign language,” I told Hugh, early in our relationship, when I told him everything.
Turning my attention back to the fragrances in front of me, I spotted my mother’s perfume. I dabbed some on my wrist to get a whiff of her heady, floral scent. After she died, I went through her closet, heaped her clothes on the floor and rolled around in them, hoping to soak up her essence. Later, I packed her clothes off to a women’s shelter, but I kept her perfume. It’s on my dresser, flanked by all the other bottles—queen among the pawns. I never use it. Sometimes, though, I uncork the glass stopper and expect my mother to pop out of the bottle. Crazy. I know. Crazier still is that the perfume feels more real to me than her ashes, which are still on the living room mantle. How did Hugh put it? Languishing.
I set down the perfume and glanced again at the woman in the red shoes. She appeared to be in her mid-forties, like me. Her hair, a striking white blonde, was cropped short, showing off, to great effect, silver earrings the size of bangle bracelets. Other than a splash of color on her lips, she wore no makeup. She was pretty.
My mother was a bolder kind of pretty, like the peonies on the woman’s skirt. Her hair was black. She wore it long, even at an age when most women lopped theirs off, as if they were entering a convent, not middle age. During the day, she controlled her hair with a plastic headband or a silver barrette, but at night she set it loose, like an animal that had been caged for too long. She smudged kohl around her eyes. And she always wore red lipstick, even when she cleaned the house. She played her beauty to the hilt, though she rued her legs, which were covered in a tangle of varicose veins. “Them’s the breaks, kiddo,” she’d say, as she held out a leg, studying it from this angle and that, while seated on the edge of the bed to put on her nylons.
The woman who was not wearing Enna Jetticks had smooth legs, though my mother would have found some flaw. If I were to say, “She has nice legs. Don’t you think?” my mother would purse her lips and give me the stink eye. “Have I taught you nothing?” she’d say. “Look how bowed they are. Wait till she walks. You’ll see. Rickets. They were probably too poor for milk when she was growing up. Her father drank the milk money.” If I were to say, “How do you know all that?” she’d smile a crooked smile. “How do I know anything? Let’s just say I know.” My mother was a firm believer in her own infallibility.
My cousin Simca called her a witch. “A good witch,” she’d say. “Not the kind who eats children who get lost in the woods. Your mother knows things other people don’t know.”
“She’s just smart,” I’d say, and Simca would shake her head and give me a baleful look. “You don’t understand. Your mother knows things that nobody can possibly know. Not from books. Not from anything.”
“You mean she has ESP?”
Simca sighed. “Oh, Vera, forget I said anything.”
If my mother was so smart, why didn’t she tell me what to do with her ashes? I read that Peggy Guggenheim gave instructions that she was to be buried with her Lhasa apsos in the garden of her palazzo on the Grand Canal. My mother, of course, hated dogs. “Why would anyone have an animal in the house?” she’d say. Still.
I considered asking the woman what she would do. But she and her red sandals had taken off. Vanished. Poof. Just like my mother. One day she was sitting up in bed telling me to get a mirror and her lipstick because the rabbi was on his way; next day she was gone. Later, when I told Hugh, “She could have given me some warning,” he said, “She was very ill, Vera. How much warning did you need?”
Dr. Marx was no help. “Everyone’s different,” he’d said. “But Francine is remarkably resilient.” Then he shrugged, held his hands out in an empty gesture, and said, “Your guess is as good as mine, Vera.” While I appreciate a doctor who willingly acknowledges his own limitations, I felt troubled when Dr. Marx turned my mother’s prognosis into a guessing game, one that I, an out-of-work teacher of English as a second language, might play as well as a medical specialist. Guess how many jellybeans are in the jar! Guess what’s behind Door Number Two! Guess when your mother will die!
I glanced down the counter again, but the woman was still not there. I didn’t need her advice. I’ve had enough of that. Simca suggested scattering my mother at Père Lachaise. “Near Jim Morrison’s grave,” she said. Simca dropped a lot of acid in college and followed The Doors everywhere. As far as I can tell, she’s never regained her equilibrium. Even before that, my mother would say, “Vivian must have dropped Simca on her head when she was a baby.”
Friends have suggested scattering my mother from a mountaintop. My Aunt Vivian told me about a charter boat that takes groups out to sea. When it drops anchor everyone tosses their loved ones’ ashes overboard. It sounded like those Korean weddings where a thousand couples get married en masse. I told Vivian, “That’s creepy.” She agreed and confessed that her friend got into a fight with a man on the boat because he wore shorts and flip flops, and left his shirttails hanging out. “Your mother would have turned over in her grave at the sight of him,” Vivian said. “That’s the problem, Aunt Vivi. Mother isn’t in a grave. Remember?” Then I reminded her that my parents had fought the day they were scheduled to buy their burial plots.
My mother’s version of the story started with my father peering over the morning newspaper and saying, “Today’s the day, Francine.” When she said, “The day for what?” he reminded her they had an appointment to check out the plots. That’s when she announced her plans for cremation. She reminded him that their tour guide, on the cruise they’d taken for their fortieth anniversary, had informed them that every plot on the Venetian burial island of San Michele had been spoken for years ago. New arrivals are dug up after ten years and moved to a common burial site farther out in the lagoon. “Venice!” Father exploded. “Are you cuckoo? This is Chicago. We have an option on two plots at Waldheim. Nobody is going to dig us up. Ever. Now go get ready, or we’ll be late.” Later, my mother confided, “Your father shouldn’t have used the word ‘ever.’ I was already thinking of which handbag to use on our little outing. But the thought of spending eternity with him.” She paused. “I can’t explain it, but something came over me.”
Now my mother is on the mantle wedged between a ceramic candleholder from Oaxaca and a wooden doll from an Indian tribe whose identity I no longer recall. The mantle is full of stuff I’ve carted home in suitcases. A crystal vase from the duty free shop in Dublin. A water jug from a potter at a street fair in Santa Fe. It’s all there, in what Hugh calls, “Vera’s pantheon of tchotchkes.” I can pass by six times a day and never see any of it, not even my mother, whose remains are stored in a pretty tin box. Hugh is right. My mother is languishing.
The other day I came upon her while tearing the house apart in search of a cookbook, which I’d mislaid on the mantle. “Hey, Francine!” I said, pretending it really was my mother languishing in the tin box. But my mother was tall and full-figured. She had a presence. People looked up when she entered a room. The last time I saw her, she was sitting up in a hospital bed, telling me to get her lipstick. “Hurry,” she said. “The rabbi will be here any minute.” I held the mirror for her and when she was done coloring her lips, she said, “Now plump up my pillows, and find a way to dim the light. Nobody looks good in fluorescent.”
When the rabbi arrived, I kissed her cheek and said I’d see her in the morning. Now she’s in a tin box. “That’s pretty weird,” I told Hugh. “One minute, she’s putting on lipstick for the rabbi, the next she’s being vaporized in a sixteen hundred degree furnace, and then pulverized in a high-speed blender. And I’m supposed to believe that whatever is in this tin is my mother? For all I know, it might contain somebody else’s ashes. Such things happen, you know.”
I still haven’t opened the tin. One afternoon, about two weeks after it arrived, I carried it into the living room, sat on the sofa, and poured myself a glass of wine. With each sip I promised myself that before the next sip, I would lift the lid. But I couldn’t stop thinking of Pandora.
And then I thought of Lillian and the afternoon I ran into her, on my way back from the mercado. This was years ago. Her eyes were red from crying; her cheeks were streaked with blue mascara. Even her hair, which ordinarily covered her head like a protective shell, a blonde, lacquered carapace, had collapsed. “Bobbie died,” she said.
Bobbie was a yappy white terrier who had gone everywhere with Lillian. She kept him tethered to a baby blue, leather lead, though sometimes, like a French woman, she tucked him into her handbag. Lillian was from Teaneck, New Jersey.
I hugged Lillian and offered to escort her back to her place, which was also mine. We were both renting rooms for the winter from the Aguados—Rafael and Lolita—who owned a rambling home on a dusty road in San Miguel. Their place was about a fifteen-minute walk from the Plaza Civica and even farther from the bougainvillea-covered tourist posadas that looked like money. Lillian refused my offer. “I took a valium,” she said.
Lillian was not the kind of woman who evoked pity. Once, I’d stopped her in the Aguados’ courtyard to ask directions to a panaderia she’d been raving about. She started to explain, then stopped, looked at me, as if for the first time, and said, “If you ever expect to find a husband, you’d better do something with your hair.” Still, that afternoon, as she blew her nose into a shredded tissue, I felt sorry for her. I felt even sorrier for Bobbie, though I hadn’t liked him. He was an exotic breed, with white extravagant fur that frizzed around him like cotton candy. He yipped and cried on the rare occasions when Lillian left him alone. In the mornings, he chased after Lourdes, the young girl who cleaned our rooms, nipping at her ankles.
After Lillian and I parted, I slipped into a small church and lit a candle for Bobbie. As I watched the flame flicker then bloom, I repented for ever having called Bobbie the Devil Dog, if only under my breath. I also prayed that I would not be punished for impersonating a woman of faith, a woman of a different faith, one who had no business standing before a shrine to Santa Rita lighting a candle for a dead dog. Then, audaciously, I crossed myself, following the example of the woman who had preceded me at the altar.
A few days later, I watched through my window as Lillian tended the flowers outside her room, which like mine, faced the courtyard. I was waiting to catch her do something. But what? Sob and fling herself in despair onto the ground? Kiss Bobbie’s baby blue leash? Fill his water bowl, which she kept outside her door? Instead, she did ordinary things like press a finger into the flowerpots to test for moisture. She deadheaded some marigolds and moved a potted begonia out of the sun. Then she looked around, as if she sensed someone was watching her. Foolishly, I ducked behind the curtain, but she saw me and waved, motioning for me to come out and join her.
When I asked how she was doing, she ignored me and continued watering a Bird of Paradise. I was beginning to think that I’d only imagined she’d beckoned me, when she set down the watering can and said, “Come inside and see Bobbie.”
Lillian had a deluxe room. Unlike mine, hers had a kitchen and a capacious living room. “He’s over there,” she said, pointing to the mantle above the adobe fireplace. The mantle was lined with blue and white ceramic mugs and plates, the kind you can pick up in the mercado for a song. I scanned the mantle not knowing what to say. I thought that Lillian had gone off the rails. Then, just as I was about to pretend that I saw her poor mutt lurking amid the crockery, she plucked a shiny object from the mantle. It looked like a tennis ball can that had been sprayed with silver paint. “He’s in here,” she said. “Bobbie’s in here.” She held the can close to her cheek and kissed it. “Such a little dog,” she said. “And so many ashes. How can that be?”
When I asked what she planned to do with his ashes, she backed away from me, hugged the can to her breast, gave me a fierce look and said, “How did you get in here?”
I don’t know what became of Lillian and Bobbie. Perhaps he’s still on the mantle. More likely, Lillian took him home to New Jersey. By now, Lillian may be on a mantle somewhere. That all happened so long ago, before I met Hugh and settled down. It happened, as my mother would say, long before moveable type.
“A tour bus driver stopped me and asked, ‘Are you from here?’” Hugh pauses and looks around the table, gauging his audience. I’ve heard this story. He told it at dinner the night he returned from his meeting.
He’s embellishing now. Or else I’ve forgotten this particular detail— that the driver had an English accent. Perhaps I spaced out when he told it the first time. Lately, he’s been accusing me of that. Spacing out. More likely, I received the abridged version, the energy-saving iteration of a story that, either way, isn’t worth stopping a dinner party in its tracks to tell. Before Hugh grabbed the spotlight, the guests, eight in all, were talking in little groups. The room buzzed with their chatter, reminding me of my neighbor Caroline’s bees. Then Hugh cleared his throat and launched into his story—the unabridged version. When it had been just the two of us, he must have done some mental calculation, the kind he does for a living, and decided there was no need to squander his energy on me. Now he’s the SUV he rails against, the energy hog releasing too many hydrocarbons into the air. He repeats the bus driver’s question, this time with an English accent. Then he says, “We were in New England, for God’s sake.” He’s shaking his head in faux bemusement, signaling that laughter would be appropriate since after all, he had not been in England. He’d been to a meeting of other carbon offset calculators. They hold their gatherings in expensive, inaccessible venues. This one was on an island. “We were in New England,” he repeats, with another shake of his head.
Colin, the lawyer for Hugh’s non-profit, is sneaking a look at his watch, and Susannah, the group’s web guru, just telegraphed a desperate look to her husband across the table. Hugh, undeterred, is barreling ahead. “I told the driver that I was just visiting. Nevertheless, he said, ‘Do you happen to know if John Belushi is buried at the cemetery down the road?’”
The British accent is getting on my nerves. After the guests are gone, I’ll say something. You sounded like Sasha Baron Cohen impersonating a Russian oligarch. Hugh will groan. I was that bad? I’ll nod and he’ll laugh and I’ll laugh, and then we’ll finish our nightcaps and toddle off to bed. No. I won’t say anything. Not tonight.
He’s still holding forth. “Of course, I said that I didn’t know where Belushi is buried. But then, get a load of this, the driver said, ‘Oh. That’s okay. I’ll assume that he is.’”
An uncomfortable silence settles over the table. When Hugh told me the story, I said, “Assume? You don’t think he actually drove by the cemetery and announced that John Belushi is buried there?”
Now the man seated to my right—I’ve forgotten his name—hits the rim of his plate with the base of his wine glass, which he has just drained for the third, or possibly the fourth, time. Meanwhile, Hugh’s story hovers over the table like an auction item for which nobody has offered a starting bid. I must break the silence. I catch Hugh’s gaze and say, “You don’t think that he drove by the cemetery and announced that John Belushi is buried there?”
For my effort I receive a withering look, the look Hugh has sent at countless dinner parties, the one suggesting I might not want to pour another glass of wine. Only this look doesn’t feel protective. He is reprimanding me for speaking out of turn, for rushing in before any of our guests—his co-workers, dullards every one—has had a chance to speak. Why do I feel as if I’ve helped myself to the hors d’oeuvres before all our guests have been served?
I return Hugh’s look with a shrug, then continue. “It makes you wonder if you can trust anyone. Or any thing. I mean, here are all these people, paying good money for a tour, and their guide is making things up. Lying.”
In the right setting, my remark might trigger a discussion of trust. Trust in government. Trust in your fellow man. Or woman, I might add, should the conversation take that turn. Who can you trust these days? What can you trust? Can you trust that your government isn’t spying on you? Or that your pilot has landed the plane many times before, but not so many that he’s too old to be flying? For that matter, can you trust that your husband hasn’t fallen for your neighbor, the one who has become a beekeeper? There was something about the way he chatted with Caroline the other day, the way he stood there rubbing her dog’s neck while she weeded her tomato plants with a kitchen fork.
But the conversation doesn’t turn to trust. Instead, Colin asks Hugh, “Is he?”
“Is he what?” Hugh sounds peeved. It’s the tone he reserves for me whenever I challenge him. Once, I suggested that buying carbon offsets is not unlike buying indulgences for absolution. “The rich can pollute, then buy a tree and feel absolved,” I’d said. He didn’t speak to me for days.
Colin is trying to clear up the confusion. “I mean, is John Belushi buried in that cemetery?”
When Hugh shrugs, the lawyer says, “Well, I suppose you didn’t have time to go look for the grave.”
It is a statement that can be read either way. Colin may be acknowledging that Hugh had more important things to do. Or perhaps he’s suggesting that Hugh lacks curiosity. I’m putting my money on the latter.
I’d asked the same question, more or less. “Did you go to the cemetery?”
“Why would I do that?” he’d replied.
When I said, “Why do we do anything?” he accused me of being “too existential.”
“But your story raises the matter of existence,” I’d said. “Didn’t the bus driver say, ‘Are you from here?’”
If the assembled weren’t such dullards, I’d try to revive the conversation along such lines. Instead, I hear myself saying, “My mother didn’t want to be buried.” Suddenly, I’m launching into the tale of how, on the day she and my father were scheduled to buy their burial plots, she announced her intention to be cremated. “If my mother were buried,” I tell the assembled, “I could visit her grave. Lay flowers beside it. Set stones on her marker. Instead, she is languishing on the mantle. That’s what Hugh says. ‘Just leave your mother to languish on the mantle, Vera.’ But really, if my mother is languishing, it’s her own fault.”
Nobody is checking a phone, consulting a watch. I have everybody’s attention when I say, “Peggy Guggenheim specified she was to be buried with her Lhasa apso’s in the garden of her palazzo on the Grand Canal. I bet you didn’t know that.”
In one of my V8 talks, the talks I imagine I’d had with my mother when she was alive, I tell her about Peggy Guggenheim and her dogs. Then I say, And you? What are your wishes? Of course, true to form, she replies, I can’t see why anyone would have an animal in the house. I certainly don’t want to be buried with one. Honestly, Vera, you take the cake. Then I explain that the Lhasa apso story was only an example. It would just help, I say, if you could tell me what you want me to do. With you.
But the matter of her ashes never came up. We talked about everything but dying, unless you count the time she said, I suppose I had a good life. Only in one of my V8 talks did I think to say, Tell me more.
When Simca suggested Père Lachaise I said my mother never shared her enthusiasm for The Doors. Then the next day, while going through my mother’s belongings, I found a satin handbag. Inside, in florid script, a small tag read, Paris, France. It felt like a sign.
The bag has a delicate golden chain to wrap around your wrist. A spray of flowers is stitched to one side. Why does the word posy come to mind? Ring around the rosie. A pocketbook full of posies. Or ashes. I’ve considered packing my mother in it. But it may be too small, even though my mother, who was forever dieting to lose the same twelve pounds, has been reduced to a mere four pounds of ash.
The satin bag has a small zippered compartment in which I discovered a tissue. My mother’s lips are on it, blotted in red. Funny, but that lipstick stain feels more real to me than her vaporized, pulverized remains.
I even found a penny in the bag. A penny for your thoughts. I never said that to her. Not even when she was in the hospital and said, “I suppose I’ve had a good life.” I remember there was resignation in her voice, as if she were telling the butcher, I suppose that rump roast on the end will do.
She’d been sitting up in bed reading the newspaper and I was sitting across from her knitting a scarf for Hugh. I remember dropping a stitch and saying, “Crap.” Then I picked up the stitch and finished the row. I never picked up on my mother’s remark.
If that had been me sizing up my life, Dr. Becker, the therapist Hugh found for me, would say, “Suppose? Aren’t you sure that your life was good?” Then there’d be a long silence, during which time I would be wondering whether Dr. Becker counts the minutes waiting for me to speak. Or I would calculate the cost of saying nothing. Or I’d try to guess the cost of the shoes Dr. Becker tucks beneath the chair that she sits upon lotus style. Then she would say, “The hour is up, Vera. We’ll take this up next time.”
I thought there’d be a next time when I gave my mother a swift kiss on the cheek and said I’d return in the morning. When I asked if she wanted anything from the outside world, she said, “Paul Newman.” We laughed. At least there was that. A last laugh.
But I never cut through to her when she had a voice. I never said, Aren’t you sure your life was good? Now I have conversations with her in my head. I call them my V8 talks. Hugh thinks that sounds like a summit meeting of the Western Allies. “It’s nothing like that,” I told him. I asked if he remembered the commercial where a man drinks a sugary beverage, then slaps his forehead and says, “I could have had a V8!” That’s what I do. I slap my forehead and say, I could have said this when she was alive. I could have said that.
There were so many times when I could have said this or that, like that day in the hospital when she read the paper and I knitted. I remember at one point, she said, “Get a load of this.” Then she tossed the paper aside. “Oh, never mind.” She sighed and flopped back into the pillows. “The Republicans exhaust me. I won’t miss them.”
“Are you going somewhere?”
“Honestly, Vera. You take the cake.”
“You said, ‘I won’t miss them,’ implying.”
“Implying nothing. When those bums are voted out of office, I won’t miss them. End of story.”
Now, in my V8 talks, I say things like, There’s more to the story. Sometimes I ask if she’s afraid. Predictably, she says, Afraid of what? To which I reply, You know. Dying. And then she says, Who said anything about death?
That’s how it would have gone, even if I had talked to her when she had a mouth.
Now I imagine her walking into the store where she bought the satin handbag, selecting it from among all the others, one prettier than the next. What was she wearing that day? What day? What was I doing when she walked into that shop? And where is it? So many questions. Why didn’t I ask them when I could?
When I told Hugh I was going to Paris, I didn’t tell him I plan to find the shop, though by now it’s probably a Benetton or a Gap. But if it’s still there, I intend to find it. Then I’ll stroll in with my mother dangling from my wrist by a golden chain and I’ll say, “I bet you didn’t expect to see this place again, Francine. Did you?”
Miriam Karmel’s stories have appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Water~Stone Review, Pearl, Bacopa Review, Passager, and Jewish Women’s Literary Annual. She is the recipient of Minnesota Monthly’s 2002 Tamarack Award for her short story, The Queen of Love. Her story, The King of Marvin Gardens was anthologized in Milkweed Edition’s Fiction on a Stick. Being Esther (Milkweed Editions), her first novel, was published in 2013.