Fiction selection from the 2011 issue
Interview with Richard Dokey about this short fiction available here.
by Richard Dokey
We stopped the car on the gravel path. We walked to the headstone. Mom’s name was cut now beneath the Old Man’s, but in smaller letters. She had outlived him by forty years.
My brother, Frank, stood beside me. Frank’s companion, Angela, stood next to him, then his two kids. Julie, my companion, stood on the other side, with my two kids. Valley oaks drooped overhead. Mounds of earth rose above the mat of cemetery lawn. Concrete surrounded the mounds, like miniature castle walls. Some mounds sprouted a dozen headstones or more, all with the same name.
Mom’s name was yet unweathered, one salmon-colored slab now for two lives, as separate as night and day.
Mom had been presented that morning in the viewing room at the mortuary. A few people came. They looked. They signed the book. At ninety-six, Mom was the last of everyone—uncles, aunts, a friend or two with whom she had sipped tea.
Frank and I stood above the casket. Mom’s face was powdered and pulled smooth. Her lips were rouged. It was Mom all right, but it wasn’t Mom. Frank placed his hand upon my shoulder.
I said, “I wonder if we just might get closer now.”
“Don’t you think it’s maybe already started,” Frank said.
My eyes blurred. So did Frank’s.
Later they took Mom away.
A little man in a blue suit stood to one side of the headstone holding something draped by a black velvet cloth. A second man in a blue suit stood at the headstone. He was the mortuary designee assigned to say words. Mom had not been particularly religious, but she did believe in God. The designee said words. We stood in the hot light staring at the clipped lawn. Traffic echoed from the street beyond. The wail of a siren sounded, going away. I glanced at Frank. Frank was crying.
A man in shirtsleeves came from the gravel path. He held a hollow rectangular spade. The man drove the spade into the moist earth behind the marble stone and removed a plot of turf. He drove the spade again and placed the dirt carefully into a white plastic bag. The first blue suit removed the velvet cloth. He held a square brass box. The suit lowered the box into the earth. The other suit replaced the first cut of grass and tamped it gently. At the end, Mom and the Old Man were together.
We climbed into the vehicles. We drove to the tiny, white-frame house Mom had lived in those forty years. It was a rented house, a bit smaller than the one Frank and I had grown up in, which had been rented as well—the Old Man could not commit himself. Mom had the Old Man’s social security and some insurance money from a small policy at the mill where he had worked for thirty years.
The caterer arrived with tins of ravioli, meatballs, tossed salad and garlic French bread. The caterer brought two apple pies. An aluminum urn was filled with coffee. We used Styrofoam cups and plates. We ate with plastic forks and spoons. We squatted on the back step or in a few lawn chairs Mom had saved from the old place. We sat on the grass. No one said “do you remember this?” or “do you remember that?” We talked about stuff.
It was old stuff. Everything in the tiny house was old stuff. A small closet in the front bedroom, where Mom had slept, contained woolen cardigans and coats, their pockets lined with moth crystals. On the floor of the closet were slippers, their heels crushed, and two pair of polished leather shoes, which Mom seldom wore. A box of white tennis shoes sat next to the leather shoes. The box—from a Christmas past—had not been opened, since, even though the sides of the pair Mom always wore had split open, there was still wear left, as she always said.
Behind the shoes, against the rear wall of the closet, were an electric fan and a floor heater. A mahogany chest from the old house stood against the south wall, its drawers packed neatly with faded lingerie, patched woolen socks, bleached underwear and black and white photo albums. The bottom drawer held spreads and tablecloths Mom had crocheted throughout our childhood.
The stuff in the kitchen was from the old house, along with the stuff in the linen closet. The old house had two bedrooms. This house had two bedrooms. The stuff from the old living room and dining room fit this living room and dining room. The G.E. refrigerator in the kitchen had to be defrosted every month. It was the G.E. refrigerator from the old kitchen. Frank and I grew up with this stuff.
I thought about proposing a museum, a museum of Mom’s stuff. We would take turns dusting, cleaning and polishing Mom’s stuff. Mom was big on polishing. “I like to make things shine,” Mom always said. We could dust and shine everything, In Memoriam, one might say, a shrine to dusting and cleaning and never throwing anything away. How could we haul it to the Goodwill? How could we give it to St. Paul’s or to The Salvation Army? It was Mom’s stuff.
Angie, Frank’s girlfriend, said, “I know how it is at a time like this. I’ll take care of it, if you like.”
Angie loved to organize. Angie loved to take charge. She loved to make things work. Making things work was how Angie loved Frank.
“We’ll go through everything,” she said. “We’ll see what’s what. We’ll make lists. We’ll get boxes and newspapers. We’ll wrap things. People can decide what they want or what they don’t want. I did all this when Mama passed away. Don’t worry about any of it. This isn’t a time to worry about anything. I’ll take care of it.”
Julie wanted no part of it. She had wanted no part of pawing through her own mother’s stuff years before. She said it was like burying her mother, piece by piece. She said she might help with the boxes and the wrapping, but tell her what to do and forget the inventory. Julie had hated the inventory with her sister, Joyce, and her brother, Tom, and her mother’s stuff spread over the floor. I patted Julie’s shoulder.
We sat around eating and talking. The sun dropped behind the house. The weather was mild. We talked about where we had been and what we had been doing. We caught up on things. Jim, Frank’s son, talked about his new dog, Rusty. Rusty was something special. Rusty wasn’t like any other dog. Wait until we saw Rusty, Jim said. What a dog!
Jessica, Frank’s daughter, and Angie talked about stringing glass beads. This was Angie’s latest craze. Angie made glass bead necklaces and glass bead wristbands. She made bead anklets and bead earrings. Angie was into beads. Last year it was home brewing.
My daughter, Ellen, and Julie nibbled around the crust of an apple pie. They talked about Portland, where Ellen lived with her husband, who was a theater tech. My son, Ed, talked about a new software program that protected everyone from everything. He was a database administrator for a security company in San Bruno. Frank and I tried to talk about fly-fishing. Fly-fishing was what we had. It was the one thing the Old Man had given us, but I didn’t want to talk about flyfishing, not with all of Mom’s stuff spread around the floor.
The sun went down behind the sycamore trees across the street. We agreed to meet at nine the next morning. I said I could borrow a pickup from a friend. Everyone thought that was really convenient. With our cars in front and all the activity, someone in the neighborhood had notified the landlord. So the landlord butted in while we were finishing. He said he wanted to paint inside as soon as possible. As landlords go, I suppose that’s understandable. But the damned rent was paid until the end of the month. We had two weeks. Mom had never vacuumed a floor of her own, so to hell with what any damned landlord wanted. I locked the front door, and we went home.
The next morning we were there with Angie’s boxes and newspapers. The only thing I wanted was a black and white framed photograph my grammar school pal Harold Ferris had taken on one of his trips through town to see Mom and how Mom was doing after the Old Man died. Harold had worked hard on the farm his parents sharecropped, and Mom always was kind to him. Mom was kind to everyone. Mom never put herself first.
“She’s the nicest lady I’ve ever known,” Harold said, and snapped the picture.
In the picture Mom stood against a wall of the new, rented house. She faced straight at the camera. She did not smile or frown. Her left arm was crossed over her chest. Her left hand held her right arm at the elbow. She wore the apron she always wore. Her hair was black, only just touched with gray. Mom had a long way to go. She looked at the camera. She looked through the camera. She looked at anyone who looked back. Mom had survived The Depression and her own childhood. She had survived the indifference and neglect of the Old Man. Through the camera, she saw the years of solitude and loneliness coming down the road. Mom was as strong as stone.
Frank wanted the furniture. He wanted the dining room table and chairs with the black leather seats. He wanted the matching buffet and the ornate cut glass mirror above the fireplace. He wanted the mahogany clock with the tiny photo of Jim kissing Ellen on the cheek when they were children. He wanted the double bed we had slept in as boys and the chest in Mom’s bedroom. Over the years, except for holidays, Frank had not come around much. He had left the details to me. I was older. Now he wanted all this stuff together in his house.
The kids took small stuff, figurines from the mantel, brushes, combs, porcelain vases, costume jewelry, candleholders. Ed took the mahogany smoke stand with the broken drawer. He took the metal coasters upon which Mom had insisted we place the ice-filled glasses of pink lemonade she made from scratch. Jessica said she knew where the sweaters, shoes, pants, bed sheets and pillow cases could be put to use—some charity or other in Santa Cruz, where she made a living baby sitting houses. Everything was wrapped in newspaper and placed into the cardboard boxes. Angie was a whirlwind of cardboard boxes.
Frank and I made two trips to Goodwill. The stuff in the pantry, the canned goods and cartons, the laundry soap and light bulbs and all that stuff were first come, first serve.
Frank’s son, Jim, who was a painting contractor, brought his van. The table and chairs, the buffet went into the van. We disassembled the bed and put it into the van. All the stuff Frank’s kids wanted went into the van. Frank and I sat on the front step drinking coffee.
“What about Christmas now?” Frank asked. “What about Thanksgiving and the birthdays? I wonder if we should keep all that going.”
“Maybe we should keep it going, Frank,” I said.
“Sure. Why not? That was Mom.”
“We should try it, then,” I said.
Shadows had crept in from the trees across the street. Frank lived in the Bay Area. Frank was anxious to get going.
“We sorted out all the stuff in one day,” Frank said. “I didn’t think we could do it all in one day.”
“Mom didn’t have that much.”
“No, I suppose she didn’t,” Frank said.
We looked off across the street.
“Well, then,” said Frank.
I stood up.
Frank put out his hand. I took it. I held my brother’s hand. I looked at the boy with whom I had lived. I looked at the young man who had followed me off to college. I looked at the middle-aged man who had left his wife, as I had left mine. I looked at the old man, waiting with me now in the fading light.
“I’ll lock it up,” I said.
Frank and Angie climbed into Frank’s Jeep and drove off. Jim and Jessica got into the van. I told Julie and my kids to wait in the car; I’d make one last check and be right out. I went into the house and closed the door.
The day had become evening. Shadows covered the empty floors. In the tiny house I gave up holding on and succumbed to loss and the folly of hope.