by Jane Eaton Hamilton
I’ve found cowgirl boots in one-size-only—not mine. I can’t get my ankle into the left one. I wonder if I can tell Martha Ray I’ve got a business meeting. Martha Ray, I say as I ram in the store’s boot horn, I’ll stay with the kids if you want, but I don’t like funerals.
Tell me, Martha Ray says. Like anyone in this family’s ever recovered from you not liking funerals.
Martha Ray, can’t you leave that alone? She means I stayed away from our grandmother’s funeral. I have very big ankles. The rest of me is petite, but my legs are pylons with toes stuck off the ends.
You come to the funeral and afterwards we’ll take the girls swimming, Martha Ray says. I’ll never bug you one more second about you-know-who’s funeral. She pauses and I consider my answer. She adds, Although I will still give you grief you about having a married lover. He doesn’t even live near you.
George—the five-year addiction I am trying my hardest to overcome. I yank off the right boot but I have trouble with the left. The clerk slides her eyes out under her lashes and asks if she can help. Uh-uh, I say, and give such a bold pull that the boot hits me in the chin.
When Rebecca, the oldest, lets me in, my cousin is lifting up her breasts to set them in her brassiere cups.
Who is this dead person, anyhow? I say, giving her a peck on the cheek.
Martha Ray pulls on pantyhose though it must be ninety degrees outside. They don’t fit and Martha Ray takes to jumping while holding them out. She doesn’t slip on her yellow dress because Dulcie Ann is crying and has to be nursed.
Dulcie’s thin, reddish hair waves over the crook in Martha Ray’s elbow. I lean over to kiss her and discover babies sweat through their heads so your lips get wet. Martha Ray shifts Dulcie Ann to her other breast, says, You should have come to Granny’s funeral.
Our grandmother died of throat cancer, which my mother said served her right for being so bossy.
You’re right, Martha Ray, I should have, I say because by now this is what I think, too.
There are maybe forty pews at the church, twenty to each side, and high above them—letting in the hot afternoon light—stained-glass windows. We’re the first ones here. I go to sit, but Martha Ray pulls me back up.
Here, she whispers, and we move close to the center aisle. We’re not exactly alone. There’s a coffin up near the altar. I didn’t realize coffins could just be left unattended; though, really, why not? It’s not like the occupant’s going to sneak off. It’s not like there’s likely to be a banging on the top, a reedy voice shouting Let me out. Is anyone out there? Could you just lift up the lid for me, honey? Or coffin burglars.
Martha Ray leans over and whispers. Where is everyone? I thought there’d be folks from the rest home, anyhow.
Didn’t she have any family?
Martha Ray looks around. I can’t believe nobody else is coming.
But right then an ancient priest rows an aluminum walker over to the altar. He has the kind of hair which looks like smoke, vaporous and wild. He fiddles with some papers. Finally he wraps the stems of his eyeglasses around the backs of his ears and looks towards us.
He squints. It dawns on him that we’re the only attendees. He clears his throat and then taps the microphone three or four times with a quaking old man’s finger, the nail scraping the metal. Reverb goes through the church in sound waves.
Is it just us? he says. His voice is loud enough to be heard at the Episcopalian across the street.
Martha Ray fidgets. She doesn’t know the etiquette for this, whether it’s okay to answer. Uh, Father, she says, I think everyone else is just probably late. She half stands, tugging down her hem.
We’ll wait a few minutes, then, says the priest.
Martha Ray hisses at me. Where’s the director of the facility? At least she should have come.
Like I would know this.
What if no one else had come to Granny’s funeral, Martha Ray says, and you’d stayed in New York? Can you imagine dying and your life came to this? An empty church? Two strangers to send you off?
I can imagine it, because I date George. I could die tomorrow and chances are good he wouldn’t come to my funeral. Chances are, he’d have plans with his wife just like on every other special occasion. Christmas and my birthdays spring to mind. Of course I couldn’t attend his funeral either.
Do you think there’s life after death? I ask. Do you believe in heaven?
Martha Ray frowns. Becky, for pity’s sake. Why are you asking that now?
Personally, I’m not sure I believe in anything anymore. In getting through the day, maybe. In giving up sugar and married men. In wearing boots that fit.
I think we have a soul, Martha Ray says, if that’s what you’re asking.
That goes somewhere? If all of us died at once, me and George and George’s wife, which one of us would he chose to spend eternity with? If we were both there, would there be friction? If there was friction, would that still be heaven? It’s easy to think his wife would have dibs, like she does on earth, but the thought depresses me. She isn’t any better a person than I am, I don’t think. She just stumbled into better circumstances.
It’s about ten minutes before the priest is ready to give things another try. Sweat is running down my back and between my breasts. My gum has no flavour left at all. If we’re the only ones here, young ladies, move up, he says. Move up.
We might as well be back in elementary school. Neither of us wants to stand up, not one bit. He’s gesturing, and he doesn’t stop when we go to sit somewhere near the middle. We try the third row, but he keeps motioning to us. We try the second, but he’s still at it. So we sit in the first row huddled against each other where Mrs. Alteen’s family belongs. Where is Mrs. Alteen’s family, anyhow, and why have they deserted her? If I ever saw the need for family at a funeral, this would be the moment. My knee cracks against the coffin, against Mrs. Alteen, probably, against her head.
I try to imagine the woman in the casket, but the fact is I haven’t a clue what she looked like. Old. I try to imagine somebody old, but it’s not very specific. I give her blue hair. Swollen knuckles. Age spots. False teeth that clicked when she ate. I imagine her as me, only older. I imagine her with very, very fat ankles.
The priest pulls off his eyeglasses and rubs his nose. I didn’t know the deceased.
He didn’t know her either? Well then, let’s go home. Let’s go have a beer and tell stories on someone we did know.
Why don’t you ladies give me an idea of who she was. One of his arms lifts up the side of his cassock like an exclamatory wing.
Martha Ray says, She liked hamburgers. She had a twin sister named Janine who died. Of polio. Or . . . diptheria? There’s a pause between each sentence. I’m very sorry, Father, but I didn’t know much about her. She was senile by the time I met her. She had heart disease. Her liver wasn’t very good. She had a yellow tinge.
The priest clears his throat and looks out over the pews as if they have mourners in them. He talks about what a fine woman the deceased was, how kind and considerate, how she gave selflessly to her community. She was well known for her work in the Peace Corps, he says. I think he surprises himself as much as us with this information, because he stops and coughs and looks a bit guilty before continuing. She was very well loved in the literacy field. Many people alive today are grateful that she helped them learn to read, he says. As well as—Let’s see. How about some work with— Ah. He looks into the distance a minute, removes his glasses and scrubs at his eyes. Juvenile delinquents. I feel like knocking on her coffin and asking Mrs. Alteen for a word, seeing whether she was really such a paragon. Who knows? Maybe she pulled the wings off flies. Maybe she didn’t pay her library fines. For a minute the priest gets lost. He riffles through his papers and announces that Alison Alteen—here there is more reverb and he has to move his mouth back from the microphone—was very active in her church, and was proud and pleased to supply pies for the annual Sunday school bake-off and fundraiser.
She was unfortunately childless, but this only left more time for her good deeds, the priest says.
This upsets Martha Ray. Uh, Father, she says and wavers up hesitantly. I think Mrs. Alteen had a son.
The priest looks like he wants to shoot Martha Ray. It says here that the deceased was childless.
She had a son, I think. Just one boy.
If she had a son, don’t you think he’d be here?
Martha Ray doesn’t know what to say to that. Maybe the son predeceased her. Martha Ray says, I don’t know about that. Did you ask at the nursing home?
It’s clear the priest is a bit ticked off; his eyebrows quiver. Perhaps, he says in a tight voice, if we’re a little shaky on who she was, we should just sing a hymn.
So the three of us sing Nearer My God to Thee, Martha Ray’s voice startlingly piercing, disturbing the dust motes that until that moment have floated serenely in the chapel air. The priest’s voice is thin and crackled with age, but amplified so that at least it drowns mine out.
We sit down. The priest looks out over the top of his glasses, satisfied. Will you two ladies be staying for the graveyard service?
Oh, says Martha Ray, bobbing her head, oh, geez, Father, no, we can’t. I just hired a sitter for a bit. I mean, I’m sorry, but we really, really have to go.
My cowgirl boots are killing me and I realize I probably have actual blisters on my heel.
Martha Ray says, Maybe my cousin could stay. She’s only in town on business, but she has a true fondness for funerals.
I jam my elbow into her ribs. I hit a breast accidentally and it’s like watching a water balloon smash. Martha Ray’s yellow dress floods down to her waist. She hunches over herself. She presses her forearm into her chest. She fishes in her purse and covers up with a cloth, pushing hard, which doesn’t seem like the right thing to do in church. I stand up and say, I’m sorry, Father, but I can’t stay either. I don’t even bother with an excuse. How about: I never knew the deceased?
The priest raises his eyebrows like he sees through me. I sit guiltily back down.
He bends behind the altar and I worry he’s having a heart attack. Should we do something? But he wobbles back up. In his hand he has a twist-tied baggie full of something beige. For a split second, I worry this might be Mrs. Alteen’s cremains which he means to pass along to us as next-of-kin. Then I remember Mrs. Alteen is in the casket in front of us.
Oh, my God, says Martha Ray. She has the heel of her hand jammed against the cloth over her breast so hard it must ache. Every few seconds bluish milk fizzles up around her wrist. Martha Ray digs a fluffy Pampers from her purse and rams this against her chest for its superior absorptive powers.
That’s fine, then, the priest says. We’ll do it here.
It? What is it?
He gestures for one of us to come up. I’d make Martha Ray go, but she’s still busy trying to staunch the river. I go up the stairs and the priest hands me the baggie. He shoos me back down. Sand? It looks like sand. I imagine my new boots scraping over the sand poured down on a dance floor later this evening, my cousin’s handsome husband spinning me around in a two-step.
Each of you take a handful, the priest insists.
We’re going to get sand on the floor of the church. Martha Ray holds out her hands, cupped, pressing the diaper to her breast with her elbow, and I tip the baggie into them. Then I take a handful myself. It’s gritty.
The priest intones, Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. We now commit Your daughter, Alison Alteen, into Your care.
He looks up at us expectantly.
When neither of us does anything, he hollers, the microphone reverbing, Throw your sand. Throw your sand!
Martha Ray looks at me. There is a split second where I realize I could be in New York with George (or in my hotel room waiting for George) instead of here.
Throw it now!
Martha Ray throws like a girl. It’s like being at a beach. The sand is picked up as if on a breeze and kicked back at us so that we have it in our eyes and in our mouths. I’m a better throw. Mine actually lands, some of it, on Mrs. Alteen’s coffin, sounding like what it is, a hard downpour of grit. I watch it pool then slide off the rounded sides of the casket.
When we told the priest we couldn’t stay, we forgot we had family to see. We sneak out back dodging between headstones. I cuss because I’m lame. Martha Ray runs all the way to an oak tree on the perimeter, her hair flying and her dress bright as a headlight. She flops down on the shade of her mother’s grave and breathes heavily before stroking her mother’s headstone. Lord in heaven, she says, but I miss her. I wanted Mom to show me how to raise up my girls.
I say, She was my favourite aunt.
Martha Ray stares at me. She was your only aunt, Becky, for crying out loud.
I think you’re doing a great job with the kids anyhow.
Rebecca’s already sassing me. I don’t think I can stand her turning into a teen. Martha Ray yanks at her sticky dress where the milk has attached it to her skin and it rips away. I prefer babies. Don’t tell anyone I said that. She waits a minute before eyeing me. Maybe you’re the lucky one. A married man and no kids to bother you out of existence.
Across the graveyard, an earth moving machine is lifting dirt and depositing it in a pile. A teenage boy on a rider mower has tied his shirt around his waist, his chest fragile as glass.
I look at my grandmother’s grave, half grown over by an azalea, and beside it, my grandfather’s, sided by a scruffy mock orange. They were born at the turn of the century, and now the century’s turned again. I wonder if a grandchild of mine will sit here in another hundred years wondering about me. But I won’t have kids if I can’t muster up the courage to stay away from temptation.
Martha Ray says, My mom should have lived longer.
I see Mrs. Alteen’s casket now, being pushed on a wheeled get-up into the graveyard. The priest clanks out, but thank heavens doesn’t notice us. I tell my cousin about when Aunt Gail taught me to look after her newborn son. I was giving him a bath and he shot up a spume of pee that landed right in my eyes. Aunt Gail laughed. She said, That’s not the only time a man is going to piss on your parade before you’re done.
Men aren’t so bad, some of them, Martha Ray says. I look at Sean after six years of marriage, Becky, and I know I’m the luckiest woman around. I married the love of my life.
She is lucky. It occurs to me: someone else married the love of my life.
In the change room, Martha Ray encourages me to put my bathing suit on. She doesn’t know my reticence is about the boots, about my ankles.
I don’t want to tend these girls all by my lonesome while you’re stuck under the overhang out of the sun, Martha Ray says.
So I strip. But I can’t get my left boot off for love nor money. My niece thinks it’s hilarious.
It’s a public pool with a shallow end the size of hockey rink and about nine hundred sizzling, yelling, splashing kids in neon bathing suits. Martha Ray sits at the water’s edge feeding Dulcie Ann and wiggling her toes. She has a white dab of suntan lotion on the end of her nose. Her third daughter lurks behind her.
I lower myself into a chair and wish I had a beer, but Martha Ray has fed us all Kool-Aid so our lips are stained blue. I feel ridiculously lonely in the middle of all this family.
Martha Ray sighs. So, Becky, when are you admitting you made a big mistake moving to the west coast?
I like my job.
Granny always said that when she died, this family would fracture into a hundred bits. Martha Ray watches Rebecca go off the board, this time holding her knees in a cannonball. And she was right. It did.
I stretch out my legs with my unfortunate ankles, swollen and sore.
Granny was bang on, is the thing. She said she was the glue that held this family together.
Sticky, I say. She was really sticky. We were all kind of stuck to her and all the things she always wanted.
You should have come home.
I say it again. Lay off now.
This is what happiness looks like. I’m just telling you so that you’ll recognize it if it ever shows up.
Gee, I say, thanks tons. I am happier than I am miserable, Martha Ray, at least.
She narrows her eyes at me. You’re involved with a married man; that is not anyone’s definition of happiness.
I left him, okay?
Clearly Martha Ray is as skeptical as I am about this. For a minute, neither of us speaks. Martha Ray holds Dulcie Ann’s small plump feet in her hand. How could you just forget Granny?
I just wanted to remember Granny alive. You know: In a coma. Subdued, but not quite dead.
Martha Ray can’t stop herself from laughing. I feel something in her change, lighten, and when she speaks again, it’s softly. I guess I can forgive you. And Granny surely forgives you.
Granny never forgave a living soul in her life.
Martha Ray laughs. She’s gotten better at it now she’s dead, though. I can put all sorts of words in her mouth and she doesn’t complain.
You peed a safety pin when you were a baby.
Martha Ray smiles at me. I know that story. Thats an old story. That’s almost a myth.
You don’t know all of it. I saw you eat it. I was babysitting and I didn’t know how to stop you. I never told. You could’ve died because of me.
Well, sure, Martha Ray says. I guess so. She struggles up and moves the whole operation further into the shade, tucking Dulcie Ann into a car seat. I roll over onto my stomach and watch her settle her jumbles of paraphernalia. I think about our grandmother and our fractured family and how, these days with my married lover, I’m helping to rupture another one. I look around at all the other swimmers with their beet-red noses and I wonder where they are all going when they leave this pool. I don’t want to think about it for the wave of self-pity that overtakes me.
But I didn’t, says Martha Ray. I could have died, but here I am. Here we both are.
I look at her grinning towards me. She’s right. Here we both are. I think about Mrs. Alteen again and my grandparents and aunt in the graveyard. We all die, but before we die, we get this.
We get life.