The car’s heater stopped when she turned off the engine, of course, and a chill went up her right arm as soon as she took the key out of the ignition. The car had become warm as toast on the drive from home; it shouldn’t get so cold that fast. She decided it was the leaves from the pecan tree swirling around in the parking lot. It looked cold, so obviously, she had suddenly felt cold. That was it. That and the silence, of course. Silence sounds cold, she reflected.
She flipped down the visor mirror and checked her lipstick. There were small downward lines at the corners of her mouth now, and she always had to check her lipstick. It had a tendency to creep down into those lines. She removed the glove from her cold right hand and ran her forefinger over the lines to remove any wandering Splendid Natural. Maybe she’d look into those injectable wrinkle-fillers when she could get the time to do a bit of research on them.
The wind was strong enough to make a swishing sound, even in the tightly closed car. The bare limbs of the great pecan tree just in front of her parking place were outlined against the gray stone wall of the church behind it. It looked a bit eerie. She shivered—but she shouldn’t be this cold, not in the insulated trench coat, wool muffler and gloves. Well, she was here for a funeral, after all. A chilling enough purpose in itself.
So Mary Louise Watson was dead. It seemed strange. She never would have thought Mary would be the first of them to go. Actually, if anyone had asked her, she would have said that Mary would never die at all—everyone else, maybe, but not her.
She looked at the clock on the dashboard—twenty minutes to go. Why had she come so early? Oh, yes, she knew. It was a bad habit. She was afraid the funeral would take too long and she’d be late for her lunch meeting with Ed. Completely irrational, she knew, but she’d developed a habit long ago of arriving early at any meeting she hoped would not last long, as though her own early arrival would get things moving faster, get them over with. But, twenty minutes! Twenty minutes to sit there and freeze. She thought, this is ridiculous, and started the engine up again, reflecting even as she did that she could, after all, go inside and wait where it was warm. But no, not in there, not with that coffin there and weeping family members sitting in the front pew. It would be better, maybe even warmer, to wait in the car.
She wished she’d brought some of the mountain of work from her desk with her, or at least the laptop. Ed was likely to talk salary increase, and she wanted to check out what other people were making as assistant deans in her field. Why hadn’t she thought to do that before today? Well, she could stall on that topic; that would be the best thing to do in this first meeting, anyway.
So Mary Louise was dead. She was lying inside a coffin in St. Stephen’s Catholic Church. How odd. But had she ever had any sort of life, really? Mary never could find a major in college that suited her, so she just followed the General Studies course, and then dropped out a semester before graduation to marry George and have babies. She sighed. It was the closest she could come to grieving, to mourning for her old school friend.
They weren’t close, never had been, just two members of a group of five young women who were friends in college. Actually, she hadn’t kept up with any of them, and the only reason she was here at Mary’s funeral was that she’d run across her obituary last Tuesday, and she lived in the same city, unlike the others, who were—God knows where. She had not seen Mary Louise in six years. She and Leo had returned to Atlanta so that she could take a faculty position at the university. She rang Mary up and invited her and George to dinner. It was very uncomfortable, awkward, really, though Mary and George seemed to enjoy themselves well enough. But they had nothing in common. She remembered that they sat there on the couch holding hands, for heaven’s sake. How sweet. She’d tried to make teasing nostalgic small-talk, “I see you still love your Georgie, Mary Louise.” Mary just looked surprised and said, “Of course.” Hard to find a common topic of communication. And there they were, she in her jeans and turtleneck, Mary in her blue crepe dress. She was relieved when the evening was over. Later, when Mary called to invite her and Leo, she’d responded, “We’re both just so busy these days.” She never saw her again.
So much had happened in those six years—or was it really so little? That thought startled her. Lately, she’d had these sudden little—what should she call it? Flashes? Little light flashes, like blips on a monitor screen. She caught the furrowed brow in the visor mirror. That wasn’t new; it was there all the time now. She would get Botox, she’d done the research there and decided it was safe. Fifty years old—fifty, for god’s sake.
Leo looked so handsome that night of the dinner for Mary. He laughed at her struggle to make thin slices of the roast, wondering why it wouldn’t cut until he showed her she was trying to cut against the grain. He was still happy then. The memory of his crooked smile suddenly hurt her heart—caused her stomach to lurch. But no. No, it wasn’t that she missed him, it wasn’t that at all. Another of those little light flashes: she didn’t miss him—what she missed was loving him, she missed being touched in that tender spot by that smile. One summer morning about a year after that night, they’d had the inevitable talk, mutually deciding to part, wishing each other well, all the usual good will, no drama or trauma. He’d already become involved with some graduate student. She knew the young woman but not very well. Without untactfully saying so, she suspected that Leo was in a middle-age crisis, and the affair would pass. The truth was, though, the real truth was that she didn’t want it to pass. She was done, more than ready to let go. They had lived together for five years, and they were years of great change for both of them. Their paths had begun to diverge, no longer sharing the same opinions, concerns, interests. It was time to move on. Emptiness was painful, but she knew hypocrisy would have been worse.
Now, if she’d been Mary Louise—thank heaven she was not—she’d have been stuck. She remembered the dowdiness of Mary’s figure in that blue crepe dress. She had five children—five! She narrowed her eyes, frowning in thought, certain that Mary’s love for George, and his for her, had died long before the birth of the third child—maybe even the second. All the hand-holding that night, she reflected, seemed an intimacy born of shared imprisonment. Now, that would be an interesting topic to explore: the intimacy of shared imprisonment in marriage. Maybe she’d think about that some more. Yes, good title already, too: Bond and Bondage—maybe Bond or Bondage? Again she wished she’d at least brought a notebook with her.
She remembered with a start that sitting in a car with the heater on and no ventilation was dangerous and touched the window button to lower the window a couple of inches. Good grief, the wind was cold. A little splash of leaves hit the windshield, the limbs of the pecan tree behind them looked bereft, as though calling after them, but no—the leaves were dead, gone, could never return now. Now there was nothing for them except to decompose. How poetic the wind made her mind. She smiled a little in self-amusement. Morbid, though, dead leaves. Well, it was a funeral, after all.
A car pulled up beside her on the passenger side. A couple got out of the front seats and three people got out of the back—another couple and a portly man with a bald head. She recognized George, and probably the two couples were two of Mary’s children, married now. Oh, she definitely didn’t want to witness all that grief. No, that was one of the main reasons she’d decided to stay in the car until the last minute. The side windows of her car were tinted and they couldn’t see her. She tried to scrunch down in the seat until she realized she couldn’t possibly be unnoticeable with the car engine running. George was putting a hat on his head. One of the women hugged herself and shivered, her husband put his arm around her. But—where was the grief? Suddenly, for a moment, she felt outraged. Where were George’s tears? He looked sober, kind of solemn, but not grief-stricken, just kind of distracted and serious. Bits of voice came over the wind, something about “Giulio’s.” My God, she thought, they’re talking about where to have lunch afterwards! She felt furious that there was no sobbing, no wailing, there was no grief! She wanted to get out of the car and shake George: “You stupid bastard! She gave up her life for you. Now she’s lying in there dead and you’re out here worrying about your frigging lunch!”
My goodness, she thought, where did that come from? But they were about to pass by the front of her car with its untinted windshield. They could see her and she did not want George to recognize her, she didn’t want to speak to him, to be forced into making sympathetic remarks. She slipped her muffler up over her head just as they passed, turned, and looked straight at her. First she saw the young woman’s face. She had to be Mary’s daughter. She looked just like Mary; in fact, she looked just like Mary did on the day she heard that her own mother died. Bette and Lauren were there at the time with them, helping her pack, stopping every now and then to put an arm around her, consoling her. But Mary was just like this young woman. She responded with gratitude to the sympathy, but she was not wracked with grief.
How strange. The young woman’s eyes looked directly into her own now as she passed between the car and the pecan tree. And George, walking right behind his daughter, George, who had been careful to cover his bald head in the cold wind, looked at her with the same eyes, then quickly away. Clearly he hadn’t recognized her, but the eyes startled her. She blinked, feeling somehow embarrassed, as though she’d inadvertently walked in on someone in the nude. There was sorrow there, so deep it was hurtful to see it. Still, there was no hysteria, not even shock, just an odd calmness—what was it? acceptance? Whatever it was, it made her feel small, as though her anger had been childish, immature. Well, she thought, maybe just a little inappropriate. In any case, it wasn’t grief as she understood it.
She looked at the dashboard clock again: fifteen minutes to go. She glanced into the rear-view mirror and saw another car pulling into a parking space behind her. A youngish man, his wife, and three children. Mary’s grandchildren, no doubt. She wondered how many grandchildren Mary had and whether she made those silly grandmother remarks, showed pictures, and cooed. Somehow she didn’t think so. She couldn’t see their faces, but the woman was weeping, or at least she was holding a tissue to her eyes. Now that’s a little more like it, she thought. She’s your mother, for Christ’s sake! Again, she wondered at her anger.
And then she wondered if her own son Ty would come to her funeral when she died. Well, of course he would. Poor Ty would be devastated, she knew very well, not like these ungrateful, emotionless bastards. She was glad she hadn’t forced any religion on Ty. She remembered the response she’d made to someone’s question about that, one of those answers one remembers because one is especially pleased with one’s self for coming up with it: “Oh, I don’t have anything against religion; I just don’t have anything for it.”
Still, she thought, she was glad now that they’d all respected Mary’s faith—never deliberately shocking her with narratives of their exploits, never making Catholic jokes—probably because Mary had respected their unbelief as well and never tried to convert them. But there was that one night when they had a discussion about it. “Mary,” she’d said, “I just don’t believe in any God. I’m sorry, I just don’t.”
“But that means there is no meaning in your life,” Mary said, with something almost like pity in her voice.
“Oh, now, that really is crap. We make our own meaning. We can make a difference for good in the world and in our lives if we choose to, without religion. Our salvation is in ourselves.”
“No, I know you’ll do good. But how can you live without love?”
“What?” She’d almost laughed. “Well, of course, I will love—that is the real meaning of life—here and now, in this world, human love. Why would you think I wouldn’t love? I don’t believe there has to be a God for me to love someone! That’s crazy.”
“But you are mortal—don’t you know that?”
What the hell mortality had to do with it she did not understand, and the discussion just ended there. She didn’t want to get into any talk about an afterlife, and she assumed that was what Mary meant by her mortality. Humanity, she knew, was the force for good in the world, not some god, and it was human love that gave life personal meaning—she knew that. Still, it was odd that she should remember the reference to mortality here at Mary’s funeral. Well, maybe not. The mind makes logical connections even when we ourselves do not, one of those little light flashes told her. She watched the leaves in little dead whirlwind dances and thought of Ty.
Ty. She saw him in memory and smiled, saw him as he was when she’d adopted him. He was eleven, Vietnamese, and small for his age. She saw his dear little face, so serious, far too serious for a child. He was in college now at Emory, wanting to become a doctor—so smart, and very determined to be successful. She was very proud of him. Her biological clock had started ticking, or anyway, that’s what she told people when she adopted him. The idea of a womb wearing a timepiece, though, had always struck her as a silly metaphor. Actually, she’d just come out of a gut-wrenching relationship, and it was not her womb that felt empty, but her heart. Adopting a Vietnamese child was an attractive idea for other reasons; she felt she was doing something good and “right,” something to right the wrong her country had done and something right for humanity. Plus it had the added attraction of not increasing overpopulation.
And Ty was just adorable. She could see in her memory that solemn little round face almost worshiping her. Of course, like all working mothers, she never had as much time for him as she’d hoped to have, but she had sincerely tried to be there for him always, and she made sure he had everything he needed. She had even hired a personal tutor to help his English—and he was so smart. He learned English—he learned everything so quickly. When had she talked to him last? Oh, my goodness, she whispered aloud. My goodness, it was two months ago! Instantly, like a reflex, she flipped through the pages of her mental calendar to see if she’d been unavailable to him, if she’d been unable to talk to him when he called. It always concerned her that he should know she was there for him. And it had not been easy to be there sometimes, but she was careful never to let him know that, never to let him see that listening to him, spending time with him, caused any sacrifice on her part. She didn’t want him to feel guilty about anything.
Then it occurred to her—it was not Ty who called two months ago, it was she who’d called him. And it was he who didn’t have time to talk to her. Why hadn’t she remembered that? It didn’t matter, of course, she certainly didn’t expect him to drop everything when she called, even if she did feel a little stab of nostalgia for the times he’d called her when he first left home. How he had missed her. She was glad that he was involved in his studies and in his life at Emory, busy, building a life of his own and a career. But shouldn’t he have called her back later when he had time to talk to her? She watched a leaf, clinging to the windshield in front of her; then it was gone. Odd, his not calling back. How was it that she hadn’t noticed that? How was it she hadn’t noticed that two months had passed since her call?
She realized suddenly that Ty was gone. He would not come back now. Not really. Perhaps at Christmas for a day or two, perhaps not, but she knew that even when he came home, he would never really be there again, never really be her son again. He would have a deep regard for her, respect, admiration, fondness—gratitude, certainly—but not love. That was gone. Taking in a deep breath, she thought, well, okay, so how do I feel about that? After a minute or two, she decided she felt a bit sad, but she was glad she’d had the experience of mothering, glad Ty had been in her life for the ten years she’d had with him. She felt pleased with her answer and leaned her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes to savor it. Then, for no apparent reason, she remembered the dim early light of a dawn some years ago. She and Leo lay in bed, their faces inches apart, their bodies still clinging together, moist and warm. She traced the lines of his face with her finger, encountered a tear, stopped, and looked at him in the dim light.
“You look at me,” he whispered, “and I see myself as a fact, real, and the world becomes fact then, too.”
“And that makes you feel . . . safe?”
“Terror,” he whispered, and he turned his face away from her. Why had he done that? And why had she not asked him what he meant? Suddenly she felt profound sadness. She wanted to cry. Things leave and don’t stay, and we don’t see them leave; we just see that they’re gone. “But you are mortal. Don’t you know that?” Mary wasn’t talking about an afterlife.
She raised her head upright to see the bare tree in front of her, the church behind it, and felt a silent detonation somewhere inside her—not a light flash. She knew why she had not asked Leo what he meant. She knew why she had not noticed the passage of two months’ time. The tears that had welled in her eyes froze there and did not fall.
The clock on the dashboard told her it was time to go inside the church. But she didn’t. Instead, she put the car in reverse and backed out of the parking space away from the tree. She drove away quickly. She had time to go back home and get her laptop before her lunch date with Ed. Maybe if she got to the restaurant early, she’d have time to look up some of those figures before he arrived.
Dena Hunt lives in Valdosta, Georgia, where she is a part-time English instructor at Valdosta State University. She is currently working on her first novel.