Whispers Until Dark by Carl-John X. Veraja
At the flick of a switch, the coffin was lowered on straps. I thought, what a shame, such fertile, black earth for such a sack. Why be so gentle with a corpse? Why not toss it onto a highway?
I remembered a recurring childhood dream of sinking into quicksand. I tried to scream for help but I was struck dumb. Nearby, other children played kickball, oblivious to my situation. Right now, I wanted a ball to kick into the hole. Then, I could say: “Goodbye, Daddy.”
I found myself choking back a sob and Ryan clutched me to him and the tears, being usually contagious, affected not a soul in this family. Except maybe for my sister, Martha. She glared at me for a moment over her black chiffon and then cast her eyes aside.
I shifted in my tight satin dress and felt as fat as my sister looked. It's almost over. Thank Christ. Now, I'll have to hang out with the family I haven't seen in oh so many years and we'll tell stories about his Goddamn pranks and his shining moments of wit that were most unexpected and sparkling among his mostly unspectacular planetary hours. And I'll drink and drink. Xanax . Seroquel. Ryan wouldn't dream of fucking me afterwards like he ever does anymore. That might be rude or he might be thinking about that waitress at the Sit-And-Go with the perky breasts and that smile she saves for me that’s like a soup can label with a metal shell beneath and all that sex kitten within as advertised.. Sweet Pieces. I’ll look at his face, still chiseled and always stubbly by nightfall, staring purposefully away from me or into one of his serious novels and wonder again why I got married if it wasn’t to take somebody down with me.
Mumbling some quick words about eternity, the priest gestured at the dirt pile. Martha rushed to grab dirt and toss it into the hole. Then, I cast some in some dirt. Soon enough, we were moving back to our sun-hot cars and I entered my SUV thinking how cold the grave is as I waited for the air conditioning to start to work. It was probably sweltering inside my Dad's coffin but it'd be so cold later. I’d worn my black satin dress exactly once before, for my uncle that time. Daddy’s buddy. Why no one thought to air-condition coffins yet was a mystery to me, so much extravagance was wasted on life.
Ryan drove and I turned on the radio and listened to some love song from the 70's, the name escaping me. We were on our way to my childhood home up the hill.
When we arrived on White Street, with the same old oaks and new children biking and skateboarding, I was starting to feel energetic, thinking about the liquor that would soon be flowing. Since the driveway was already full, we parked on the side of the road. Through a garage window, I caught a glimpse of some workshop machinery, all wheels, knobs and levers, that I, being a southern belle, would never know the name of and that Pa probably loved forcibly for long hours, alone.
Ryan smelled good, having switched to a less floral and more spicy cologne. His scent carried me out of the car, up the flagstones, to the wooden steps, across the small deck to the glass-paneled door that had replaced the crappy, hollow door that the house sported before Pa made a lot of money in trailers and campgrounds. Equity. That had been one of his favorite words. And then he was the God damned trailer king, and then it was designer prefabs and finally our own humble home on the hill got less humble. Extensions. It was around that time that I was off to college and I'd never set foot in Pa's home again until he was dead. And here I was thinking my college sweetheart, who never noticed my womanhood anymore, at least in my mind, smelled nice and wouldn't it be great to replay all those early conversations. I'd like to lie there in a hangover on our cool linen at home and gaze out at the tranquil dawn and think about why I was never going to grow up. Wouldn't it be nice to lie there sweating out a night of poison thinking about all those wonderful early conversations we had when sex was a wild, savage thing in between the endless jealous fits and rages? They seemed so careless at the time and now had some significance like they would dictate the destiny of the next ten generations of Ryan's family name. Mullen. But there was only one son who claimed he hated life.
"Kareyann, you haven't smoked in four years," Ryan said.
I had borrowed a cigarette from Aunt Katie. She'd had a pack of Virginia Slims she'd produced from her ancient purple pocketbook. It was held out to me by trembling, withered fingers. "Yeah," I said, "and you haven't tried to quit in four years."
"Do you really want to smoke a menthol?" Ryan asked. "You can have one of mine."
“You're right,” I said, casually tossing the cigarette onto the front lawn. "I'll take one of yours."
The cigarette tasted like death and when I exhaled it seemed ludicrous that I used to blow clouds of noxious fumes out of me on a regular basis. It seemed even more ludicrous that I made any attempts at health while I wished for suicide ninety percent of the time and drank myself silly on any given day of the decade. However, soon I felt quite dizzy and almost good. Something definitely missed smoking in me, kicking like a long dormant fetus. After this, it would be my father's liquor cabinet and my alcoholic relatives. Liquor being thicker than blood here.
Aunt Katie arrived after us with Uncle Billy, who was finally bald but still, those great looks. His face was a sand sculpture that had withstood a day of ocean breezes and a brief sun shower. His smile was the dimming light at the end of an intermission. Billy and Pa had been close, antagonists in the play that my childhood had been. Ma and Katie both hated it and approved of it as their Christianity, ignorance and poverty insisted they do. There were certain things that were too unpleasant to bring up anywhere except while your partner was in a drunken rage and would be able to pretend the next day he had never heard. Weren't there?
"Sweet Pieces," Billy mumbled as he passed .
Did he really say that? I let them drift past me. Other old things were stirring inside. Did anything ever really die inside you? Let sleeping dogs lie, it's said. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. A tip from your host, keep your hands off my wife. My wife is the edge of the world but not teetering. Nothing is said of her honor and those that know best say she's got a treacherous past. Don't be like that when Uncle knows best. Did anything ever die?
We were finished smoking and went inside. The living room had two old terracotta couches, which were filled to capacity with cousins, aunts and uncles in varying states of disrepair, awaiting the mechanic, alcohol. A painting of a lake that had hung here since I was a girl still hung here and no one ever knew the name of the lake. There was a face in that lake that I had always noticed before that I couldn't find now. When I had first found it, as a young child, the face looked like the face of an angel but afterwards it became accusing and its eyes seemed to follow me everywhere. Later, in my dreams, it was my mother’s face in the lake, not drowning, but maybe not alive. Still accusing. And then it was the real face in a lake where I was drowning, Billy’s dead face in the sunlight darkening in cold water.
“It somehow isn’t ok to bring up certain things in certain families,” I said.
Ryan looked at me with a blend of worry and expectation. He brought my arm up like it something he was looking for and had forgotten he was holding. Then, he mumbled, “Sorry, dear. Yes, dear.”
He sounded like a hen-pecked nothing but he was actually an emotionally vacant hostage, if anything. I had hooks in him. Hook 1 was: I don’t want to grow old alone. Hook 2: I hope you don’t know about my mistress. Hook 3: my mistress is crazier than you are.
“Well, mister,” I said, “why don’t you get us a drinkie?”
“Vodka? Dear?” he asked.
“Why, yes,” I said. “I commend your memory for the repetitive.”
The most fat, short and prune-like aunt approached me. “Is that you, Sweet Pieces?” she asked.
“What?” I asked.
“I said, this room seems peaceful,” she said. “Aren’t you Bettyjo?”
“No, sorry. I’m Kareyann.”
“Don’t be sorry,” she said. She shook with a jolly chuckle like a life-sized bobble doll. “I can’t help it. I haven’t gotten out much. Barry thinks I belong in the cuckoo bin sometimes.”
“Excuse me,” I said, moving.
I found Ryan in the kitchen. He was stirring my drink with a fork.
“Good work,” I said, grabbing my drink. I held up my glass and said, “Till death.”
I drank half. Hopeful taste of vodka. Iciness spread through my insides. There were several smokers in the kitchen, so I took a cigarette from a pack on the table and lit it with the lighter that sat next to it.
The kitchen was a mess. My mom looked like a pile of rags waiting for the incinerator at the head of the kitchen table which had a Snow White and the Seven Dwarf’s tablecloth on it. I noticed other new additions. “Bless this Mess”. A fish on a plaque that probably sings “I’m Walkin on Sunshine” while flapping and suffocating. A ceramic pair of baby shoes. A stress toy that resembled a colon. A bloom of mold on the ceiling over the sink that resembled Elvis. A smiling cow with a sign hanging from its neck that said: “Smile”.
Martha was behind Ma, assiduously rubbing her shoulder like she thought the angel of domestic bliss would pop out of Ma’s dead eyes and make everything golden and Martha looked into my eyes again but this time it wasn’t a glare really and I thought maybe it hadn’t been a glare in the first place and there was some commiseration here but that seemed ridiculous after the “struggle” we had gone through and the denial and the accusations and the acrimonious self-recriminations followed by decisions to take things to an uglier level that we never carried out and now it was too fucking late for that anyway, wasn’t it?
I started running what was left of those nights with Martha when she got into bed with me and I trembled. I didn’t want to run those tapes again. There were too many related faces and names I had forgotten, might as well be helium balloons with mournful faces drawn on them. I was dizzy and I needed to make another drink already. Ryan was staring quizzically at a napkin, probably being reminded of the sheet he fucks that naďve slut on.
Shhh. It’s all right. It’s all just like a scary movie. It’s not real. It’s a bad dream. Just go to sleep and forget. There, there. Shhh.
Uncle Frank was suddenly standing next to me. The one I missed occasionally. He was fatter, balder and more avuncular. His black suit seemed worn out enough to have run a gamut of funerals since the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “Would you like a cocktail?” he asked.
I had one, but I nodded. “Vodka tonic,” I said.
“On the rocks?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Just a splash of tonic water. I don’t want to waste it.”
“Hmm hmm, we wouldn’t want that,” said Frank. “This is good vodka and the tonic is just average.”
I smiled through the yank of the xanax and alcohol spinning piano wire webs in my head. “Well, it was a fabulous funeral, so let’s stick with the good,” I said.
Frank blinked hard. “I’d like to tell you something,” he said.
“I’d like to forget I’m here,” I said.
“Well, I’ve always wondered…,” He paused, curling his lip. “I mean, I always wanted to ask you. When you were a kid, I’d wish I could be there more. You know, for you. But your father—“
“Frank, could I speak with you a minute?”
Martha was suddenly at my side, interrupting us.
“Sure,” said Frank. I noticed how murky his eyes were.
“Outside,” said Martha.
“Yes,” said Frank.
They moved to the front door. Aunt Katie came into the kitchen, clutching an orange drink in a plastic cup. She was alone. Wasn’t she? She put her bloated white hand on my mother’s shoulder. My mother at the table, looking like a defendant awaiting sentencing. This isn’t the free love flop house. This is my house and you live under my rules. It would all make sense unless Katie’s hand wasn’t sitting there like a frog on my mom and they both looked at me for a moment and then Mommy was on her feet and hugging Katie. I’ll have to give you a stern talking to. You’d like that, wouldn’t you. When I put it in there. My mother hugging my aunt like the beaten mule she would always be. With a pension paid out by the city and the money from the sale of the business and talk of stocks and coins in safety deposit boxes that my sister couldn’t wait to get her lazy hands on. But he’s a good provider. I’d walk away from home, up the unhurried streets, watching the birds. There was no place to go, so I’d keep walking.
Daddy loves me better.
“You can have Frank now,” Martha said stonily, next to me again, leaving Frank.
She marched to the far side of the table again, next to Mom, strength in numbers. I caught her look and smirked slightly, her eyes lighting.
Frank’s glass was empty.
“Excuse me,” he said.
He set his glass on the kitchen table, right on Snow White. Using metal tongs, Frank filled his glass with the ice from the red ice bucket. He was bringing his shaky hand around a bottle of vodka, glancing up at me. Pleading? The vodka rippled in the bottle as he poured it over the ice where the colors of Snow White, distorted through the ice, pulsated as the gin flowed.
Then, he took a small bottle of tonic, twisted off the cap, filled the glass, and was done.