In Lieu of Flowers
It must have been twenty years ago: my joints aching as I carried the groceries home. Two baguettes—their long bodies rubbing against each other. I remember now. It was back when I would eat a loaf of bread over the course of a few days, barefoot in the kitchen, sort of staring at nothing. But I will never forget that woman in her car on that night as I walked home. She was holding a cigarette and there was a need in her face when she stopped. There was an urgency that stopped her as she drove. One that made her roll down the passenger's side window and call me faggot.
* * *
The telemarketers called my mother's house upstate every night with a new scheme, and tonight I answered the old rotary phone hanging in the kitchen.
No, I would not like a subscription to Jugs Magazine.
Personally, I always thought of my late mother as an ass man.
Just as I hung up the phone, it rang again. This time it was the realtor, confirming a walk through. She will start the process of selling my late mother's home for me and my sister in a few weeks. "Just make sure it is tidy," she said in her clunky British accent. I looked around the kitchen, covered in stacks of deteriorating cigarette cartons, and magazines and newspaper clippings: my kingdom of forgotten words. The Arts & Leisure section was my court jester.
This poor British realtor is going to self-deport, I thought.
"It's your turn," my sister said this afternoon as she left me to wrap our mother's atrocious china in old newspapers. I told her we should carry the china out to the driveway and take turns smashing the plates on the pavement, and with each one, we'd have to scream a secret about our dead mother. It would be "a shattering confessional", I told her. She responded by telling me what of mine she could shatter. Younger brothers are rarely taken seriously, even when they're all grown up.
After I hung up with the realtor, I left the phone off the hook. The cord dangled carelessly down the kitchen wall and the dial tone set a flatline beeeeeeeep to my evening of packing boxes. My sister had been there for the worst of our mother's illness. Months ago, she'd taken our mother wig shopping and installed the ramps all on her own. By rights, she now got to run the fun errands since.
A few hours later my sister flew into the house on her broomstick. She was uptight but could be fun...sometimes. She was the beautiful trumpet vine out back as it strangled a tree to death.
"Where have you been?" My sister put her hand on her incredibly small waist when she spoke. If that waist was genetic, it surely skipped over me.
"Right here, where you left me!" I gestured to the stacks of papers and unopened mail surrounding me.
"I mean the phone. I have been calling for the past twenty minutes—I thought the place burned down." If there were a place where the furthest, worst possible extremes of one's imagination lived—a place where conclusions were jumped to at the slightest suggestion—my sister would own two houses there.
"And if it had?" I asked.
"Well. Then we'd be at the bar, toasting." My sister wasn't all that bad. See? She could be fun sometimes.
* * *
"Has it really been that long?" My sister wondered a few nights later over TV dinners on mom's tired old sofa. Twenty-two years ago I left this house and I swear to God, my ears still ring from the slam of that broken latch on the door behind me.
I commuted up every day to help my sister, and then returned to the city, usually late at night.
"Must be a long train ride up here."
It wasn't. The train runs up north from the city to my mother's house six times a day. I counted them once because I wanted to see if there was a way to calculate the number of times I avoided my mother. Over the twenty-two years, since I moved out of that house, I have avoided visiting a total of 48,180 times and—let me tell you—I guarantee my mother remembered every damn one.
That night I took the train back to the city and walked to my tired apartment building, where the old fire escape swayed in the wind and my neighbor's panties were drying outside her window, like a lewd windsock. A woman sitting on the stoop of my building asked me for twenty dollars. She had long, beautiful hair that I wanted on my own balding head so I could run my hands through it day and night. She asked me every night specifically for twenty dollars, and each time I told her "Sorry," and explained that I didn't have any cash. Most of the time it was the truth. But without fail, each time she'd reply, "Okay. But you'll come back, right? You'll come back?"
* * *
I know it was so many years ago, but I wonder what about me made the woman in the car shout "Faggot" at me. Was it the bread? All I can remember about her was her hands on the steering wheel. Her nails were painted with red nail polish as she held her cigarette. Red. Where do people get nail polish so red like that? So...saturated? Maybe it wasn't the bread. Maybe she didn't like my hips—I have these child-bearing hips. Even if I don't want them to, they abundantly switch back and forth when I walk. I like to pinch at them and look in the mirror I keep in my kitchen by the door to the cupboard. I wonder how much of my hips I must lose before it is just a pelvis: that bone structure I cannot do anything about. And then?...and then?
People talk about August in New York, but don't sleep on July: July could roast your goose. The last broiling July that my mother was alive, my old rotary phone—the one that came with the apartment—rang off the hook the whole month, like it had the jitters. My sister would call from the hospital with bulletins. My mother and I were somewhat on speaking terms, but more so on yelling terms.
The sounds of medical equipment in the background made me so irritated. I know I was supposed to be concerned, but as I imagined these machines, greying and floating in orbit around my mother's limp body, all I felt was annoyed that I had to deal with this.
"They said she cannot lose weight once she is on the chemo. She has to keep on as many pounds as possible." My sister spoke with a hushed voice. Mom must have been sleeping.
"Let me guess. She fought with the doctor." I was holding a cold drink and reading magazines on the rug in my living room, waiting for autumn.
"Yep. 'Can you let me drop just five pounds? Just five.' She pleaded with him—begged him. Then she asked if I would sneak her out of here for a manicure."
"Even in death she is vain," I said as I noticed The Country Store catalog had a sale on fly traps. I circled the ad to remind myself later to mail in an order. The summer flies were bad that year. The garbage truck unions on and off strike. I couldn't keep track anymore. "Can you stop being a sniveling shit for one minute of your life?"
I stop, but for only fifty-nine seconds, just to spite my sister.
* * *
If my hips weren't faggot-y enough to stop her on the street, then what was it?
Could it have been my arms? Something so simple—so obvious, as they dangled off my torso. Was she holding a cigarette? I couldn't remember; maybe I made that up. But red fingernails holding a cigarette felt true to me. And she was wearing a yellow dress. It was hot that day. I remember sweating on the street as I walked.
A few months after mom died—well into August—the phone in my apartment rang. I answered it and twirled the cord in my fingers, tapping a cigarette over the garbage can I kept next to the phone for this very reason.
"Hello?" There was no answer at the other end. But I could hear a woman's voice in the background. It was soft and distant—literally distant, it sounded like it came in from far away. I could see the wires across the nation sagging from pole to pole, adding a bit of frill to the drab American skyline.
"Hello?" Was it her? The woman from the car? I could just sense it might be her. But how would the woman—the one who leaned over the passenger's seat and called me a faggot on the street—possibly have found this number? She didn't know my name, or my address. I was just...a bread-eating street faggot to her.
I rolled the fat on my lower back—the bit that sat right on top of my ass like it were resting on a shelf—and wondered if this bit of fat was what she saw first, when she decided to pull up to the sidewalk on Second Avenue.
Hello? Hell-o? I stopped. Stop begging for it.
I thought of her outline in the car. Remembering her shifting her body in the seat made me want to quiet myself to be there with her—maybe for her. I stood perfectly still, afraid to scare off the memory, afraid to spook away any chance of remembering her face.
There was no answer at the other end of the phone. My back hurt. I was pinching my side hard and did not realize.
"I don't care how you found me, but what I want to know is, what did you want me to feel when you said it?" What did she see that she could not bear to witness?
The line clicked and the dial tone radiated through the night.
* * *
Today, a woman from a travel agency called my mother's home upstate while I was opening the mail. She had a thick smoker's rasp and called me hun. She seemed like she had been in the game—the telemarketing game—for a long while. She told me this was her fourth company, and that she loved the work. "What's not to love? You get to talk to a new person every day."
She planned a whole trip for me to get away from it all—to Tahiti, where they serve you drinks in coconuts. She described my upcoming trip as whizbang. We got along swell until I told her I didn't have a credit card to pay for it all.
My sister had put on a pair of gaudy and almost certainly fake pearls, one of mom's sundresses, and high heels that were far too big for her feet.
"Look. I'm Aunt Bernadette." My sister wafted around the living room like a newspaper in the wind and her perfect waist taunted me as she glided.
"That would mean you were huffing markers in the kitchen at my bar mitzvah," I said.
"That was Great Aunt Shirley." She stopped and posed with arms draped over the dusty mantle, getting soot on the breast of her yellow dress.
"It was both of them." Back in the city I couldn't sleep, so I walked downtown to see a midnight showing. I chose the most distant theater so the long walk would make me feel like I was getting something done, that being robbed of a good night's sleep wasn't so bad.
During a scene where the leads were arguing—I think it was Marlon Brando and Sandra Church?— everything went slow, their voices slacked; the image sagged and warped, as if time fell onto itself. I watched their faces as they grew long in the jaw and their eyes went white, and felt the relief of knowing time is not significant. Of remembering time is what we say it is; of knowing there was life beyond the limits of time, and that I could enjoy it, even in this purgatory where time is irrelevant.
Turned out, the reel caught fire in the projection room and the film burned and I will never know who won the argument.
* * *
This morning in my mother's kitchen I talked to the man calling from National Geographic for almost an hour. Turns out we both went to college in the same town at the same time. We could have been friends, maybe even lovers? Then I heard children and a woman's voice in the background. We could still be lovers.
The phone rang again in the afternoon. Was it the man from National Geographic calling to tell me he was leaving his wife?
"Hello?" I asked, but there was only breathing on the other end.
The latch on the screen door was broken so it had been tapping on the frame all day, and I couldn't remember what it was in the first place that broke the door, so the handle failed to catch? Oh wait! It was my mother: She was headed out to the yard and our cat with the crooked tail got out, and my mother stumbled and the door slammed and broke. We spent all night chasing the cat around the woods.
"Hello???" I asked into the phone.
Where is that cat now? I hope it died years ago because I haven't been feeding it.
I clicked the receiver and left the phone off the hook.
I realized I had been saying "Hello?" in a really deep voice, trying to hide my faggot-y voice, just in case it was the woman.
* * *
It was dangerously late at night when I got back to the city. The winds had picked up and my street moved like a twitching organism. There was one confused bird, chirping in the middle of the night outside my apartment.
I couldn't sleep because I was thinking about the last dinner I had with Mom: we both knew it was likely going to be the last. So, it was unusual. We both wanted to make sure it was positive! There is no history here!
I remember looking at her folded hands at the dinner table as we talked obsessively about an old celebrity who was incredible in his time: people adored him—men, women, children—for his dancing. The way this man moved was rhythmic and complex and mesmerizing, and he was most famous for a dance he performed dressed as a fish. People moved dinner parties, canceled trips, to tune in on the late-night shows to see this dance. It was hysterical. We saw him at a county fair when I was young and a woman collapsed from excitement when he appeared on the stage in his fish costume. This went on for decades: his famousness only grew with new iterations of the fish dance. Next it was a merman, and then Poseidon. And, as with all meteoric rises, it all ended horribly when he was arrested after authorities found a kilo of heroin in his fish costume. In the fins of all places.
It felt like this was the only topic Mom and I could agree upon: the talent of the heroin fish guy.
Nights like these—when the teeming atmosphere outside overwhelmed me—posed a high risk for nostalgia. Even I, the most bitter of all, was not immune, and I would scrub at my kitchen or fold things that didn't need folding (all of it to the bleating of my pathetic metal vacillating fan) and wonder if there was more I could have done: maybe I could have bridged our differences, maybe we could have eaten dinner every week and only spoke of the heroin fish guy.
Little did I know, I was that confused bird, chirping into the dark.
* * *
It was the hottest summer night on record for the city and the radio wouldn't shut up about it—far too hot to even think about moving through the dark to the train station to go upstate, so I went out only for ice pops. Foraging, I thought. My body was wild and lit by the moon.
"Do you have twenty dollars?" The woman on my stoop spent most of the day napping, in-and-out of a daze from the heat. Her hair was pulled up off of her neck, and I brushed the back of my neck to see what it would feel like to scoop hair from my shoulders to my head.
"I wish." I had been buying ice pops one at a time with nickels.
"It was wrong, what that lady in the car called you." She sat up and said as I walked towards the market.
"What?" It dawned on me who she was talking about, all those years ago. She must have seen her pull up in her car on Second Avenue.
"What she called you, it was wrong to say that."
"Oh. Yeah, I'm used to it." I don't know why I couldn't just have agreed with her. Instead, I needed her to think I was okay.
"Will you come back?"
* * *
The day the realtors were scheduled to arrive marched towards us whether we wanted it to or not. I felt like I promised the British realtor she would be getting a gift, and instead I was the weird uncle who showed up to Christmas morning with a grubby package wrapped in newspaper and twine. My sister was violently jerking Mom's 1990s Oreck vacuum across the stairs, sort of shoving the dirt around with the appliance, while I waited fifty minutes in line to set up a forwarding address at the post office. Fifty.
The post office in my mother's town had termites, so all the mailboxes had holes and cracks in them, and sometimes smaller cards or notes slipped through the deeper cracks in the wood to the mailbox below. You might get three extra Christmas cards on any December day. But today, I found a handwritten letter among my mother's stacks of coupons for cartons of cigarettes. I knew it wasn't for my mother and that I should turn it into the man at the counter since it was addressed to some other woman, but I opened it with very little guilt. I felt I was owed this small pleasure after waiting so long in line.
The letter was to a woman, seemingly the friend of the writer, and she was profusely begging for forgiveness. There was an incident where the letter writer's dogs were staying at the home of the recipient. The recipient's kids were wrestling with the dogs and everyone must have been screaming and the dogs got too excited, and, as the recipient's cat ran through the living room to find a place to hide, the dogs kicked into predator mode and ate her cat. Without trying, I imagined this woman's children weeping, covered in blood.
I threw the letter out at the gas station on my way home. I needed to stop for gas anyway.
She would never receive this apology letter. I decided the letter-writer did not deserve forgiveness.
* * *
Back in college, a friend's mother died and I stayed behind after the services to dry the dishes. It turns out you need to disassemble the fruit baskets fairly quickly, or else they become a small inferno of greenhouse gasses and rotting fruit. There must be exploding melons at the funerals of the hot Southwestern states. My sister had to disassemble mom's fruit baskets alone, during that excruciating July heat wave.
"It might be your last chance." I remember my sister rang my apartment after Mom took a sharp turn for the worse.
"It might be her last chance," I replied.
"It might be your last chance to say goodbye."
No shit. I wove the phone cord through my fingers, giving each one a wire wedding band, like the nights as kids when my sister and I would try on my mother's rings—not just one ring, all of the rings, at the same time, so our fingers were like armor.
"It's your turn." I laughed, but she didn't.
"Get here. Now."
It was the loudest summer on record, the radio told me on the cab ride to the hospital. Not the most dangerous, like last summer, and not the most humid, like the summer before that. The loudest. Cars backfired every few minutes and drag racers peeled up First Avenue.
I was jumpy and sweating and I wanted to strip all my clothes off and run away. My mother's room was at the end of a long hall, and I think she did this on purpose, just so I would have to really put in some effort to get to her.
"Hi Mom..." Calling her "Mom" felt like speaking another language, one I didn't know I was fluent in. Her hand was thin, and a tube ran out of it as if it held her up on strings. She looked at me briefly but did not speak; it was more than I could bear. Had I known the sound of the door to her room creaking as I ran out of there would be the sound that I heard every night as I dreamt—of roots and the earth coming up for me as I walked on the streets outside my apartment—then I would have climbed out her window. The creak was always with me. I couldn't stop hearing it.
"Where are you goi..."
My sister called after me, but I was already in the stairwell and in a cab, then downtown, then in a further neighborhood, and the next, and then a long train ride until I was far up the coast—running north to escape the oppressive heat of the city. It was a month of ground-floor motels and each one was too hot, so I kept going north and north on the train until one night a waiter at a restaurant in a seaside town—finally one with a breeze—asked me would I like another? His eyes were inkwells and whomever he spoke to could dip their pen in them, and I was unctuous and warm in my tired shirt as the wind blew through it and the moon glowed in a wet reverie of darkness.
"How long will you be staying in town?"
He didn't need my answer because I was already in the waiter's bed, and we were there for weeks and weeks: weeks where I padded around his tiny beach house that clung to the side of a cliff like a rock climber, and each night I brushed my filthy feet off with my hand before getting into bed.
Those weeks he would bring home little boxes of the leftover foods no one ordered that night, and during those awful weeks I would wake up early to throw away his newspapers so I wouldn't go through the obituary section in a moment of weakness.
Later, my sister would tell me that after I left, Mom could no longer hide the things she didn't want us to see. So, laying out on the hospital bed, she was so, unthreatening, my sister described, and it was what she had hidden from us for her whole life: her weakness. I dreamt for weeks of her veins, and her—I hate this word—knuckles. And there was this sound to my dreams: muted and weighted, steady clapping sounds that were dense, like it came from the heaviest hands. Still today I can hear the echoes—when I am walking to the store or getting the mail. But it isn't an echo, is it? It's the deafening vacuum of all we never said.
So yeah, now that I finally left the coast and the waiter and came back, when my sister says "It's your turn," she really means it. It's funny, I guess. After all that time away, the moment I got back to my street—my block, the one where the garbage men take their cigarette breaks in the middle of the night and leave their truck growling in idle—I expected the woman on my stoop to be long gone. But then I saw her when I turned the corner and she smiled, and I felt relieved.
The film on the reel had melted and there was life leftover for us, in the place time had forgotten. I got closer to the stoop and she gave me a wave with her fingers.
"You came back."
* * *
"I've been here all morning and the place is still not ready." I swear my sister's hand lived on her hip.
The realtors were coming and the house was still filled with...stuff. Not trash, not valuables, just generally unwanted stuff. All I could think to tell the realtor was to sell the house with everything in it and charge admission to this freak show.
Come see the world's largest collection of rubber bands!
"Get on the train." I wasn't thinking, but just blurted it to my sister.
"What?" She gave me the older sister face, the one that said, "You work for me."
"The cab is still in the driveway—go to my apartment and wait there. We are having dinner tonight." I handed her my keys. "I'm not sure what we are making, but I am all out of ice pops so don't ask."
She paused, and for once in her life, she did what I told her and walked out the broken screen door.
"Maybe spruce the place up? She didn't want to be remembered like this, I am sure," the realtor said, her British accent muffled by the stacks of cardboard boxes surrounding us. "I decided she does not deserve forgiveness."
There was such beauty in the burning reels of my mind, I felt an immense freedom from the limits of time, and I welcomed it. Later, in the driveway, I waved goodbye to the realtor. I felt truly alone with that house for the first time as the sound of her car faded into the distance. I went back inside to drop the keys on the filthy kitchen counter before leaving for the last time through the broken screen door, and the phone rang.
Isn't the phone getting tired of its own nonsense? Maybe it will break. Maybe I will break. "Hello?" I waited. I stopped wondering what they were selling months ago, after one marketer surprisingly offered me a mail-order subscription for various cheeses. But there was no response.
I could hear her breathing. It is definitively her: the woman from the car. "For the last time, stop calling."
I knew it was the woman in the car because, well, you know that sense you get when you know the other person on the line is smiling? It's a tingling, and you sort of shake your head in response to it. I noticed I was pinching my back again and I shook my arm of the habit. I could see her long arm and the red nails and her hand holding that cigarette.
I looked up from the seatbelt buckle across her waist and I could finally see her: it was my mother's face in the driver's seat, floating above the wheel just before she opened her mouth and said it. I pressed the phone hard to my ear and listened closely. The broken latch on the screen door tapped a rhythm behind me, and in the depths of my mind I could still hear faintly in the distance the sound of the hospital door creaking. I was so close to finally leaving this damn house for good, but without thinking, I asked, "Is that you, Mom?" And as soon as I said it, I noticed my hand was on the receiver. The line was dead. How long was my hand there? The dial tone radiated through the kitchen, and me.