Fiction, Vol. 3.4, Dec. 2009
At first, the absence of her body mattered little in the face of her relief. She could remember images and feelings, every detail intact and effortlessly revived. After all, Margo had always chided her friends that people paid too much attention to their bodies. To emphasize the point, she exercised only as much as her responsibilities demanded and made sure never to look in the mirror more than twice a day. At seventy-seven, her mind had begun loosening itself from painful joints and failing sight—partly relieved of its baggage, even before she passed away. She felt for the first while nothing more than profound stillness.
She wasn’t asleep when it happened, though she was sure her family would imagine she was and take some solace in the idea. The pain startled her out of a reverie of recollections, grocery lists, and plans, a sliver of lightning in her chest leaving no time for fear. The last thing she saw was a photo of her husband, Lloyd, propped against the alarm clock on the bedside table. Grinning, he held the eighteen-pound bass he’d caught the previous summer. As her consciousness ground to nothing and then reopened in this place where she had the odd sensation of being formless and suspended at the same time, Lloyd’s crooked dentures were first on her mind.
She heard a noise that sounded like window blinds clacking against a pane. The sound was rhythmic and soothing, a childhood memory many years forgotten. She relaxed in it. When she was a girl, her mother had complained about cleaning sculptured windows on two floors, but Margo counted on them to offset the tiny yard and imposing iron fence that surrounded their house. Her own children, the pride of her life, had been raised in a crumbling house with few windows and a tree-filled, secretive backyard. She remembered them chasing each other in the buffalo grass, the boys tripping over themselves—all ears and knees, Carol still a toddler. That house had a good feel to it; everyone said so, even her mother, who disdained so many things that Margo mentally cowered every time her mother’s eyes fell on a curling piece of wallpaper. Her father, her greatest ally, told her to be sure to fill the cracks with happy memories, and she imagined them tucked invisibly in every seam.
Two men had moved their furniture and wedding gifts from Florida to the house in Atlanta when she was first married. Both men were tall, too thin. One wore glasses and the other was prematurely balding. It was strange that she had hardly thought of the men after they left; she had spent two full days with them before her husband, who had stayed behind to tie up business, arrived with the freshness of a newlywed.
The moving men said they had been friends since childhood and opened the business together to pay bills. They told her they liked to scale medium-sized buildings in the middle of the night for adventure. In her memory, because they were so alike, she’d merged them into one man: a little self absorbed, maybe, but appealing in a childish way. She had kissed one of them on the mouth on a ridiculous dare from the other while they drank lemonade on the porch the second afternoon. She was young, full of herself, and for a long time the secret only made her more in love with her husband.
Her death had no doubt rocked Lloyd. She was four years younger than him and at least three times healthier. Lloyd’s hand lay heavy on her hip when the pain started. He always slept that way, one hand touching her, affectionate even in the deepest sleep. His hand would be resting there in the morning when he opened his eyes and noticed her stiff in her yellow eyelet nightgown. A feeling of tenderness for Lloyd stirred around her like a breeze.
She regretted that no ambulance siren wailed at her passing. No strong hands lifted her onto a stretcher while a garden of faces looked on in sympathy. She’d carried this image of her own death since girlhood without realizing how much she’d come to depend on it. Still, her death had the organization and simplicity that Margo prided herself on—it was Thursday; she had left the refrigerator full. She’d seen most of her family at her niece’s wedding two months earlier, and she’d updated her will only last year to include her great grandmother’s diamond broach. Her daughter and favorite niece would share the broach, a thought that now brought great happiness. The shock would be difficult, naturally, but resolution would be right behind. She was old enough that her relationships had all settled into comfortable amiability, or—those that couldn’t settle—ended long ago. There was something joyful in being separate, complete. Death provided the point where all lines led.
When the opening appeared around her, it felt foreign and empty, and Margo resisted being drawn in. Beyond the comfortable place where she rested lay something unrecognizable—alien to anything she’d experienced in life, and she recoiled from it. She suspected the space portended loss of self, but how much she couldn’t tell. Vaporous parts of her were pulled into the vortex, and the web of her experiences thinned and retracted in a strange tug of war. She fought. Stubborn, her father had called her, but she knew the right word was strong. Her consciousness seethed and focused, and at last she gained herself back.
She could have been dead fifty years already, or five hundred. Could an eternity go by without another voice breaking the silence? Margo had few girlfriends growing up. She was used to being alone with her thoughts. She had been raised in a family of three girls and a father who traveled selling custom windows, so she wished for a boy every time she found herself pregnant. She couldn’t help but wonder now at how much she wanted to say a few more words to her daughter. Carol had been tomboyish as a kid, timid and apologetic as a teen, sarcastic as an adult. Her transformations took place so slowly that Margo only recognized them when she looked over the family’s photo albums, surprised at the past faces of her daughter, how at every stage Carol revealed herself a stranger. Carol had fair skin and pale freckles like Margo’s mother. Long ago, when Carol was a baby, her face looked like a lily in the darkness of that bedroom, her tiny hands clenched while Margo waited for the postpartum fog to lift. Margo remembered and suddenly agonized over the weight of the small head—full of unbearable trust—resting against her collarbone.
She would miss the sound of her oldest son’s joking voice on the telephone, telling her to be sure and keep her chin up to the bar…or chin up to the star? Kyle was in the navy, she thought, and had learned the expression there. Or maybe her other son, Peter, was in the navy. She was fairly sure Kyle had eyes like Lloyd’s, short-lashed and narrow, unpleasant at first glance. Her thoughts wobbled within the space around her, tossing images haphazardly. She wondered if her father would be at her funeral to place a hand on the shoulder of each of her two boys, to stubbornly wear the tan sport coat and blue-and-yellow striped tie he’d worn to every dress-up event since his own wedding. No, she reminded herself severely, her father had died. He must have died. She thought she remembered Carol carrying roses down the aisle at the memorial service, her hands shaking so badly that the flowers appeared to be weeping. The ceiling of the church was crisscrossed with beams, and she recalled how her father’s—no, her mother’s body looked regal in the coffin, finally dignified after years of battling the cancer.
Her father had learned to do the laundry himself and change toilet paper rolls. He had time to adjust to life without his wife. Lloyd would have no such transition. Margo imagined him eating frozen dinners every day. Washing his clothes without removing the coins, ear plugs, receipts, and pens from the pockets. Leaving the television on all night just for background noise. That thought got to her a little. If he was with her now, he could tell her if Kyle had been in the navy, but it had been so long since they’d spoken. Had they spoken the night she died? She tried to remember but the knowledge was beyond her grasp now, secreted away by a force she couldn’t control. How long had she been dead? Maybe Lloyd had passed; could her children be gone now, too? Her thoughts were still intact, she reminded herself, holding back a gust of fear. That was the important thing.
Wasn’t there a truth about she and Lloyd she’d never owned up to? He’d loved her for a few months after they were married, but hadn’t his feelings changed—even before they had Kyle? She loved him longer. She remembered crying silently into the pillow at night and moving about the house with the air of a festering sore. Anger stiffened around her. Why hadn’t she seen it long ago? That house had darkness in it; she’d drifted in it for hundreds of years. They got along fine; much better in private than around other people. When they fought, it ended quickly and without grudges. She’d never regretted, mostly because she had her two…three? children. Now, though, her rage circled and flashed. She wanted to go back to the man who moved her into her new house when she was still young and awake, to whisper how much she wanted him to help her drift in the darkness.
Someone, maybe a pastor, had told her once that if she lived life well, she could enjoy it a second time when she remembered it in old age. Would she have to spend eternity, now, remembering a life she had lived only partially well?
Margo loved walking on warm sand, and she had spent her adult life in a place full of trees and rocky floors. It was tiring, being dead. Tiring like a string of sleepless nights. And lonely. Her life had been a sequence of winding clocks and closing the screen door after kids and dogs. Why, now that she was dead, was she still capable of mourning? Her sisters—she could not recall their names, but their faces lit up like marbles around her—they would take care of her father. He took her on a drive to buy tobacco once when she was twelve and he was home for a long weekend. She felt so proud to be the one he chose that day. Had he spoken to her during the drive? Scenes blurred in and out of focus. His face had looked tired in the afternoon sun, his hands slack on the steering wheel. He had not looked at her during the drive that she could recall. She never should have listened to him when he told her Lloyd was the kind of guy a woman could depend on. He had taken her for granted, the old fool, him and her children, who didn’t really deserve her great grandmother’s diamond broach.
An opening came through the ceiling of her thoughts. Had it appeared before? She couldn’t make out what lay beyond it, but the space felt empty and foreign. She resisted being drawn through it. Her life was here. The strange pull gripped her, and she pulled back. She felt strong, now, in control; she knew how to win this struggle. The fissure sealed again, little by little, until she felt sure that it would not return again. She settled into a sound that reminded her of blinds clacking against a window pane.