It snowed today, subtly blending what’s underneath together again. Even if it won’t last.
It doesn’t seem possible. But it is. My dress is wrinkled. Then again, it’s been tossed in a suitcase for three weeks, never worn, impulsively purchased, and tried on in front of a mirror that showed only the top half. Quickly, I hang it on the closet door, frowning at the creases in the dark blue fabric but admiring the flounces angled coyly from a dropped waist. It was this single design feature that made me hit BUY NOW on the Nordstrom site.
“Mmh, pretty,” I imagine you giving it a once over, nodding approval. “And do your hair up.”
But right now I need an iron. Inside my mother’s tiny laundry room, I find a clump of wet towels next to drying pantyhose beside a basket of linens crammed against a long metal tool box. I keep prowling. And there, finally, behind the tools, I see a dangling cord. But when I drag the iron out, a lacy pattern of rust coats the base plate, the point nicked and darkened.
“Mother!” I yell. “Your iron’s broken.” This is no surprise and yet suddenly I’m furious, incensed that everything here is bust: the vacuum cleaner spits dust; the kitchen faucet drips; the ironing board’s wobbly; the icemaker leaks; the shower head tilts, one wily spray aimed at the shower door. But when my 95 year-old mother appears in the doorway, her face drawn, her eyes puckered from lack of sleep, hot rollers framing her aging face, I’m deeply ashamed. What am I doing?
“I’ll call the neighbors,” she says apologetically. “We can borrow one. They’ll understand.”
“Oh, I’m being stupid. Sorry,” I nod, embarrassed, knowing that in thirty minutes I’ll need to steady her as she pulls the ivory silk blouse over her head, set the tricky clasp on her pearl necklace then ease her into her skirt and suit coat, all the while murmuring “This is fine. You look perfect,” as if I’m a professional soother sprinkling fairy dust.
It will be a long day.
The day of your funeral. My first encounter with death. And though that’s not even remotely true, what does it matter if it feels true?
To my surprise, a boy bursts through the back door. Tall and lanky, he holds aloft an iron, white and gleaming, as if it’s a prize. “Here’s the one my mama uses,” he says brightly, standing in my mother’s sunny kitchen, our breakfast dishes still stacked in the sink. “It’s a steam iron, so it heats up fast” – he raises an eyebrow – “and you have to watch it.”
Despite the morning’s anxiety, I smile. He’s just the kind of boy I’d have had a crush on in 5th grade: gorgeous brown eyes, faded purple sweatpants (Purple!) and a Marvel comics t-shirt. “That’s great,” I say a little too enthusiastically. “Thanks for bringing it over. I just need to iron my dress.” I notice his taffy-colored hair’s a nest of cowlicks and he’s wearing tennis shoes minus socks, though it’s freezing outside. He’s probably 11.
“Where do you want it?”
I lead him into my mother’s dining room where I’ve laid a towel over one end of the mahogany table, pushed the chairs aside, and set up a tabletop ironing board.
“It gets really hot,” he says as he puts it down and plugs it in. I nod and set the dial. “I mean,” – he glances at me – “you can burn yourself.” He gives me a serious look as if I might be reckless or over-zealous, though I keep nodding attentively. “Really,” he repeats. And minutes later, testing it, he yanks back his finger. “Ow! Ow! See–” he yelps, “–see you got it too hot.” He’s sucking his finger, his face scrunched up as he turns down the dial. Then he flashes me a sheepish, apologetic smile. “I shoulda watched it.”
Once I’ve filled the iron with water and separated the ruffled section of my dress on the board, I expect the boy to get bored and leave. But to my surprise he hovers. Maybe to watch. To guide me. To be my mentor. True, I know nothing about ironing, my wardrobe an odd assortment of sports clothes, leggings and t-shirts, long, limp sweaters and winter boots, simple, utilitarian outfits, good enough for Iowa but not fancy or fashionable the way people dress down here. I’m thinking this as I spread out the top flounce with my fingers.
“Mama lets the steam smooth out the cloth,” the boy advises, stepping closer, scrutinizing my set-up as if we’re about to do surgery. “Want me to show you how?”
On another day I’d have laughed at his eagerness. “I better try.” Because it’s the only dress I have. It’s either this or leggings and I know you want me to be presentable. I press the iron gently, easing it around the seam, trying not to think about what’s to come – the crush of people, the condolences, the endless hugs, the hard scrabble of feelings, all things I want to avoid. Instead, I nod toward the windows and go for parody. “I mean, really, look at that! Who ordered this vacation weather?” the snow absurdly white beneath the tall, sturdy pines, the sky unbelievably blue. At 3:00 this morning, unable to sleep, I stared out these same windows, unnerved and awed to see snow blanketing the grass, coating the thin branches of the mimosa trees, the rungs of the ancient jungle gym. A bonus? A concession? A defeat? Already this morning the petals of the camellias look bruised, dusty around the edges. The big fern on the wrought iron table is wilting. Leaves on the cherry trees droop. It never snows this far south. Not in coastal Alabama. Not in early December. Never. It seems uncanny. Unfathomable.
Only five days ago we walked, my arm around your waist, slow, go slow, out onto the patio, the day warm and sunny, a soft wind in the trees. Squirrels raced around the base of the big oak, a flurry of fur and tail. Ivy tumbled from a window into the flowering azaleas. Someone had left an iced tea glass on the table, something for the squirrels to knock over, but instead of worrying, I glanced at you, your nightgown loose, drooping on your skinny frame, your eyes narrowed, scanning the yard for your little dog before you lifted your face to the sun. “Nice,” I said, giving your hand a squeeze. You said nothing, only closed your eyes and let go of my hand. Only later would I think: you were already counting the hours, like someone waiting for her shift to end.
“Yeah, snow’s pretty cool,” the boy says, “but it won’t last. It’s like, you know, showing off.” He shrugs.
I laugh. “It snows like this in the Midwest where I live, but sometimes goes on until April. Then we hate it.” I tell him I live not far from Chicago. It’s what I tell people in Alabama though Chicago is really more than three hours from Iowa City. Chicago might as well be Bangkok.
“Chicago.” He puffs out a breath. “I never been up there. Or to California, or the Grand Canyon. . .that’s where I’d really like to go. But we travel all the time. I mean, Mama gets us up early, like really early, and then she and daddy and my brother and me drive all the way to my grandparents’ house in Bigsville, Mississippi.”
“Bigsville? A big place, huh?” I tease.
“Big enough for my grandfather.” He grins. And suddenly he’s chatty, telling me all about his grandfather, who’s tall and funny and laughs at his jokes. “He’s my favorite though I’m not supposed to say that because I have a grandmother too and a grandfather in another part of the state who gives me money. I don’t want to hurt their feelings, but still, he’s my favorite. He’s sorta old. . . but not like–” He nods to the kitchen where my mother was fixing a pitcher of ice tea when he arrived.
“Yeah, well, she’s a great-grandmother.” I glance at him. “You know, 95-going-on-80, still running the roads, living alone, and texting.” I raise an eyebrow, seeing in my mind my mother’s arthritic fingers tapping the phone and sending lots of strange messages: Her face isso hPpy. Iamfine. O problem. She’s lonely, I think, as I press around the curve of the ruffle, trying not to add new wrinkles to the old. Almost no one of her generation is still around, and if they are, they’re in Assisted Living or nursing homes. “But she has five grandkids,” I say, “and already ten great grandkids. Think of all those birthdays!”
“And the cake,” he says, his eyes lighting up.
When you were angry with her, when she fretted about a grandson not calling or a great grandson not getting a good supper or not letting her finish her story, when she said such things, her voice wobbly, her face defeated by small, daily tragedies while you were fighting for your life, you often exploded. “Don’t you dare do this to me. Don’t you dare complain or ask for my sympathy.” Even as you spoke, you grimaced, pain tightening your face, one hand fingering your bloated stomach. “I’ll never get to see my grandchildren grow up. . . and look at you. . .blessed not only with grandchildren but with great grandchildren you see all the time, so just stop, stop, stop.” You couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on your grandchildren’s lives, not going to their music and dance recitals, not guiding them through the temptations of adolescence, not hearing all the gossip, the private revelations they’d tell you and only you, not being here. Inevitably, my mother would tear up. “I didn’t mean–” her eyes filling, her hands fluttering, but already you were turning, walking out the back door, letting the screen door bang shut, then tearing out of the driveway as if you couldn’t bear the sight of us. The nominally healthy. The survivors. The cheaters! I wanted to yell, “Stop!” to your retreating car. “Stop using cancer as a bludgeon! Stop prophesying your own death! Stop being such a meanie,” but I knew what you were really protesting: the order’s all wrong; I shouldn’t have to die first. It’s not right, not fair! And so I said nothing. I stared out the kitchen window at the dark red berries of the pyracantha bushes, at the old jungle gym, stark and barren, a relic of happier days and held the frail hand of my weeping mother, wondering how we’d become trapped in this Chekhov story.
I shift the cloth, keeping the seam close to the edge so it doesn’t bunch up while the boy rambles on about his grandfather in Bigsville, how he’s a ‘talker and a do-er.’ “They’re remodeling their house and he’s helping, you know, carrying tools and insulation and stuff, though Mama says he shouldn’t because he could have a heart attack.” He tells me about the three-story house in Bigsville, how they’re fixing up the attic as a sort of office for him. “So it’ll be nice.”
I press the iron lightly against the outer edge, sliding the point easily with the grain. “What does your grandfather do in that attic?” I ask just to make conversation.
“Work, I think, though he’s retired. He does something on the computer. Prints out charts and things. But–” his voice lifts with sudden enthusiasm, “it’s also where he watches football. He knows all the stats, like who’s got the most running and passing yards, the best defensive tackles.” The boy tells me about the different teams, about the rivalry between the Bulldogs and the Rebels, about how he watches the games with his grandfather when he’s in Bigsville, how they keep each other posted on who’s winning when he’s here. “But–” he sighs, “our teams are having a bad year. . .like Alabama beat the Rebels by 63 points! I couldn’t even watch it.” His voice is solemn as though this is a personal defeat. When I glance up, his lips are bunched as if that’s the way defeat feels. A punch in the mouth. “When things are bad,” he says, his voice lower, confiding, “Sometimes I yell for the other team, so that, maybe, you know, just maybe my team will surprise me.”
“Sometimes you gotta be sneaky,” I say. Bargain with the devil.
“Yeah.” He grins as if the remedy’s that simple: confuse the gods, making them misread their cues. “I guess.”
I smile, then flatten the cloth with my hand, holding it steady; the place where the ruffle meets the dropped waist is hard to iron so I nudge the tip carefully into the crevice. A little puff of steam. He watches it too. Divert the sirens, I think. Let them do their dirty work somewhere else.
The boy leans toward me, watching as I shift the fabric, the ruffle sliding smoothly, cascading off the table. “But sometimes my team just loses.” He looks disheartened. Silent.
And in that silence, I think about his grandfather working in his renovated attic in Bigsville, Mississippi. I like saying that word in my mind: Bigsville, Bigsville. Like a giant discount store. I go down the aisle where the grandfather lives and push right into his life. I can see him, a tall, silvery-haired man sitting at a desk overlooking a garden of lilacs and phlox and daffodils with a perimeter of sage and parsley and basil that his wife has planted, herbs that look like weeds to him, skinny sprigs without any bloom, growing low to the ground. Not really worth the trouble, he probably thinks. I imagine him having once been robust, broad-chested, maybe a little too much flab around his middle though he always walked the first nine holes of the golf course every Friday afternoon. I like to think he stopped smoking in his 40s, cut back on bacon and chips – gotta take care of the ticker — though he still likes his Saturday afternoon beer and pretzels while watching the game. He’s probably shrunken a bit now, his face thinning, his beard flecked with white, his cholesterol monitored, though I imagine his mind still with a flare of adventure. I’m making him up, of course, but oddly, his presence soothes me, distracts me. I like that he lives in Bigsville and has lived there for most of his life. Like you in our hometown.
“You could slide it over a little,” the boy says, startling me from my reverie. “And get more of it.” Even as he says this, he pushes the cloth so that more of it flares out on the sleeve board. He’s right. I’m on the second ruffle now, though I’ve always hated that word and the idea of ruffles in general. Too prissy.
“And what did your grandfather do. . . I mean, before he retired?”
“He was an engineer, I think. He did something with water.”
And that seems right. I can imagine him planning bridges or dams or maybe being in charge of water quality, testing for toxic chemicals, for lead and mercury and arsenic.
“He likes fishing too, likes to go waaaay out in the Gulf of Mexico and I go with him sometimes. But that’s a big trip so mostly we just stand on the banks of the river and see what we can catch.” The boy puts his hands in his pockets and stares out the window at the snow, then says softly, “And every time I go there, he shows me things. He’s the one taught me to fish, showed me which bait to use and how to clean whatever we catch.” He glances up at me. “He says I’m his best friend.”
While you slept in your big Lazy-boy, drugged with morphine, a heating pad draped over your lap, a Gregorian chant low in the background, I read on the couch, trying to stay awake, needing to be keen to your every move. When you grimaced in sleep, shifting, I paused, alert and ready. When your brow relaxed, your body still, I turned the page. Only then did I let myself become engrossed in my book. And that’s when I read this sentence: “She wants suddenly, more than anything, to yield and become what Marina wants.” I stopped reading and stared at you because this is the irresistible force of you: you make us all want to yield, to please you, to try to be your best friend. How many times had I felt that pull, the grab of your seductive energy– amused, clever, impulsive — and how many times had I put up walls, defenses, closed doors, turned off lights. I had to work hard, very hard, to stand alone while secretly wanting you to yield, to work hard to be my best friend. It was a continual dance, the deliberate and secret oscillation of our desires. The times I let your ideas claim center stage, I often felt weak, even shamed. And yet I remember once resisting your opinion, standing up for something I believed in, arguing you point for point, word for word, when, to my surprise, your face crumpled. “You don’t like me,” you said in a shattered voice.
“What?” I was astonished.
“You heard me.”
“What are you talking about? I just disagree with you.”
But I’d never forget the devastation in your eyes.
Somehow I’ve bungled it. Made a new wrinkle where there was only a tiny crease. Dammit! When I lift the iron, I glance at the boy. He’s frowning.
“Maybe you gotta let the iron cool,” he says, eyeing me with concern. Damn those brown eyes.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, frustrated. Suddenly I don’t want to be doing this, making myself presentable, getting ready for this awful day. I don’t want to be nice or useful, to put on stockings and shake hands and receive kind words. I don’t even want to be here, talking. Forget it! I’ll stomp off to my room.
“My mama just–” the boy starts, but he doesn’t finish as if he intuits my resistance. Instead, he turns away, fixing his eyes on my mother’s monkey lamps on each side of the sofa, their china faces impish, wily. “What are those?” he asks suddenly as if they’re strange, too weird to believe, though immediately I glance at them and want to insist that they’re perfect. “Just right for this room. . .the whimsical mixed with the formal.” Instead, I feel a sudden sharp sting, the iron too close to my palm. Oh, stupid, stupid, stupid, I suck on red flesh as if saliva can soothe the pain, then stubbornly pick up the iron again as the boy turns back to me, laughing. Laughing at my mother’s lamps. And like a child, I want to vindicate my family’s choices, yes, and even our defeats, our sadness. We don’t need your stupid iron! But more than that, I want to confuse the gods. Divert and surprise. Outwit them. Seduce them. Send me the devil and I’ll bargain. I’m not going to let you go. Not yet. I’m not going. . . I close my eyes as if in the mind’s darkness I can make it so: I see the favorite grandfather sitting at his desk in his nice, pleasant attic admiring the newly mowed grass on the nearby hills and the daffodils bunched beneath the oak tree. I imagine him watching the distant mowers moving like giant industrial insects up and down the slopes, one almost hidden by the folds of the land, then reappearing sharply as it angles uphill. I imagine him musing on them as if they’re ancient warriors, readying for combat, a reminder of the game in twenty minutes, the pretzels already in bowls, the beer cooling, when he’s surprised by an odd surge of pain, a vise-like pressure in his chest, a force constricting and compressing, then blocking all sensation. I make it quick. Sudden. An opening of light, the fast beat of wings, then nothing.
Death should be like that. A quick punch in the face. A rending. A tearing. Then a wide empty space, the soul set free, a surge of atoms let loose in the galaxy. Yes, yes, like that. Not like your death. Not agonizing and slow, the thick green-black bile rushing from your mouth, oozing from your lips in long, sour threads, the smell as fecund as rot. Not you soiling yourself, crying out in pain, one thin leg dangling from the bed. Not you shivering uncontrollably, clutching at air, your face drained of all color as you struggle to get warm, to make the shivering stop, begging us to make it stop, please, please, even as we pile on robes, blankets, quilts, talking in soothing voices while inside you the inflections and tumors rage and feed.
“I like those funny lamps,” the boy turns back to me, pointing. He’s smiling, grinning. “I wish we had something like that in our house.”
The steam iron hisses and when I look down I see I’ve pressed too hard, the cloth darkened, the shape of the iron imprinted like a shadow. I set the iron down, my eyes filling. I wanted it to be perfect. I just wanted. . .
The boy leans closer, studying my mistake. “You pressed too hard,” he says, then he glances at me, surprised at my face. I wipe my eyes, embarrassed, but the tears keep coming. “I think it’ll be okay. This happens when my mama irons too,” he says quietly. “It’s just steam.”
I don’t say anything. I don’t trust my voice. And what would I say? I wipe the tears, shake my head. I look away. I hear my husband in the kitchen mumbling about coffee, the refrigerator door opening, a cupboard closing. The boy hears him too. He glances at my face, at the dress, and I nod, go on. He reaches out, then lets his hand fall. “I think it’ll be ok,” he says again before he turns towards the kitchen. In minutes I hear him telling my husband that he brought over the iron, as if this is his new identity.
Now I’m alone, hanging up my dress, unplugging the iron and letting it cool on its stand on the dining room table. I glance at the monkey lamps, but I’m not thinking about them anymore, not caring. I go to the window and stare out at the snow. It’s lovely, fresh and clean, but oddly sad too. I’ll have to borrow a coat. And gloves. My ears will be cold. I watch a car drive slowly down the street as if this is the most ordinary day. Across the park there are silent houses, a dog’s forlorn barking. Someone decked out in fleece is briskly walking on the walking path that circles the park, getting his morning exercise. He looks intent, self-absorbed, white cords dangling from earbuds. I press my face to the window. As I watch his arms pump, I realize I can’t remember the last thing you said to me or the last thing I said to you as if we’re already fading from each other, as if my mind is losing the entanglement of us, sadness blurring the details. Why wasn’t I more vigilant? Why didn’t I write things down? How could I not notice that our lives were slippery, dissolving? That I wouldn’t give a hoot who yielded to whom?
I don’t know how long I stand in this blur of myself before the shadows inside me shift and I remember clearly, as if you’re on the other side of the glass, the way you lifted your head that last evening, the way you stared at me, your eyes ancient, knowing. I was picking up one of your blankets that had fallen to the floor and was about to drape it over your lap. It was only a second. But in that flicker of time, we looked at each other, our gaze locked as if forever searing recognition into our hearts. You, your face said. You.
From the kitchen, I hear my husband talking to the boy, their voices animated and happy. At some point I realize they’re comparing notes about the best ways to squash younger brothers. My husband’s telling the boy a story, one I’ve heard before, about how when his brother was four David used to taunt him, saying, “John’s a human. John’s a human,” until John, incensed, went running to his mother, begging her to make David stop calling him a human. I hear the boy giggle, then a shriek of laughter. And before I can stop myself, I imagine telling you about this morning, about my stupid dress and the ironing and the boy’s instructions, about the favorite grandfather and David’s story. Already I can hear you laughing: the sound sudden, infectious, your mouth widening, showing all your teeth, your eyes holding mine in reckless hilarity. You love to laugh, love these silly complications, the little ironies of our lives. And then I’m laughing too as if you’re standing right beside me, the two of us giggling at this fuss, this inevitable drama, the possible and the impossible held so tentatively in our grasp.
It snowed today. We stand bunched together with frozen breath beneath the shadowless grey light. There are stars on the horizon, frost in the trees, a hole in the earth. I know what’s coming but I close my eyes to see where you are.