Chapter One: Sad to the Bone
I should have known that Momma would be late for her own funeral.
She'd been late for everything else in her life, so it seemed appropriate that she'd be delayed in death. Some of my earliest memories involved being hauled down the road by Momma, late for this or that appointment or lunch or meeting. I think that's why Daddy went the way he did, quietly sitting in the car in front of Doreen's Curl Up 'n' Dye Salon de Beauté. He died of waiting for Momma.
"Well, it's not really her fault," my sister, Earlene, said. "Wayne was trying to bring her ashes through the airport security, and you know Wayne, he gets a little excited."
"A little excited," I repeated, looking around Momma's house. The casseroles and floral arrangements were already piling up on the kitchen table, and the place smelled like a funeral home. Only we couldn't have the funeral because we didn't have Momma's ashes, thanks to Wayne, who doesn't get a little excited, he gets a whole lot excited. But then, Wayne hasn't been right since Vietnam, and he wasn't even in the military.
"Why the hell did Momma have to go and die in Florida, anyway?" I asked, peeling off my rain slicker. The house seemed strange, as if Momma would come through the door at any minute, fussing over the food and flowers, lighting up a Kool before she turned her attention to clucking at Earlene and me.
My older sister had already given up any pretense of trying to set Momma's kitchen in order and was collapsed in a chair, staring at a coconut cake some Methodist Women's Association lady had dropped off the minute she'd heard the news.
In Oysterback, a death is big news. A town this isolated depends on births, deaths, and criminal behavior for current events, and the definition of a good woman is one who has a freezer full of corn pudding and stringbean casseroles at the ready.
"Momma died in Florida because she was down there trying to get Wayne straightened out, as you very well know." Earlene was a martyr to the end. Her attention had drifted to a plate of cookies covered with foil. She eased the corner up a little and peeked inside. "Miss Carlotta Hackett's black walnut drops," she pronounced, helping herself to one.
I sat down at the kitchen table opposite her. "Well, I guess it didn't work, did it." I lifted a bit of Saran Wrap and peered at a Sunrise Surprise Pecan Jell-O mold. Evidently, Miss Nettie Leery had already come to pay her respects. With the tip of my finger, I swiped a pecan off the top and licked at the Cool Whip. "Just tell me what she was doing with that alligator, that's all."
My sister looked at me as if she were seeing me for the first time. Maybe she was just recalling that she swore, when last we met, that she'd never speak to me again.
"It was an accident," she hissed at me. "A terrible, terrible, most unfortunate accident, and I don't want to hear you say anything different to anyone, you hear?"
"An unfortunate accident with a Florida reptile? The damn alligator ate her, Wayne said!" I eyed Earlene indignantly. It was just like her to put a mealymouth spin on everything. While I considered Momma being eaten by a alligator somewhat romantic, all my sister could see was that it might shock the neighbors. Like you could really shock anyone in Oysterback.
My sister pressed a corner of Kleenex to her lips. "Mind your mouth, Carrie," she muttered. "Momma was peering down into the alligator pit at Gator Gardens and she had a heart attack and fell in. It was an unfortunate accident. And that thing didn't eat her! It just mauled her a little, that's all. How can you sit there and talk about your own mother like that?"
I decided that if I didn't want to see Earlene have a full-blown case of hysterics, I'd best keep my mouth shut. Denial is a way of life for her. Otherwise, why would she stay married to boring old Romilar? Nonetheless, now that I had broken my neck to get here, she and I were fighting. It was just like old times. Call Vince MacMahon and get a Steel Cage Wrestling match going.
"Who told you Momma was eaten by an alligator?" she asked after swallowing a couple more cookies. Earlene is nothing if not nosy.
"Wayne, of course. He called me up three days ago and said that Momma was eaten by a sixteen-foot-long alligator at Gator Gardens, outside of Homosassa Springs."
"Well, isn't that just what you'd expect from Wayne?" Earlene asked the cake. "She had a heart attack, Charmaine, a heart attack!"
"Wayne said she fell into the alligator pit." She knows I hate it when she calls me Charmaine, which is my given name. It sounds either like some bimbo in a toga movie or some bimbo who lives in a trailer park. I became Carrie as soon as I could talk.
Earlene pressed her lips together. "I don't have to put up with this," she told a Tater Tots-chicken casserole.
"She was my mother, too," I pointed out. "I drove all night just to get here, and now you're telling me that Momma and Wayne are trapped at the Miami International airport? Who decided to have her cremated, anyway? No one asked me."
"Wayne thought it was more scientific. And cheaper than shipping a casket." She rolled her eyes.
While I was driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, I swore I wasn't going to let Earlene get to me, and now I was in the house two minutes and already I wanted to kill her. Earlene can do that to me. And I can do it to her.
"This hasn't been easy for Delmar and me," my sister said, and burst into tears as she shoved a piece of coconut cake into her mouth. I watched the crumbs on her chin wobble up and down. I don't know how Earlene can be so thin or so blond. Well, not completely true. I know how she can be so blond. But thin?
I guess it was right then that it struck me that Momma really was dead, but it still didn't sink in, not the way I knew it was going to later. I'd been putting off dealing with the reality of it because I had to drive through some bad traffic, but now it was starting to hit home. Momma was not coming back. Ever.
With Delmar rushing to the rescue, what else could possibly go wrong?
"Why do I have to do everything?" my sister suddenly wailed. "How am I going to schedule a funeral without a corpse? We've got to get the church, and Parsons has to open a grave, and we have to plan a wake!" And then it really hit her. "Good Lord, people will think we're Unitarians!"
While Earlene cried, I got up and went out on the back porch to catch a breath of air. I also wanted a cigarette, and I knew if I smoked in the house, my sister would have a whole new round of hysterics, which I wasn't in the mood to deal with.
I sat down on the wooden step among the potted plants and lit a Vantage, staring out across the marsh to the place where the Bay met the sky. I noted that Momma's geraniums were planted in her old Wedgwood containers, the green and brown glazed ones that I can get fifty or sixty dollars apiece for from one of my dealers. That's one of the things about my line of business: you can't just see stuff as just stuff; you automatically put a price on it. Some people would say I know the price of everything and the value of nothing, but that's not true, not really. I just don't think it's a good thing to go around telling everyone about all the things you really care about. I don't like people knowing too much about me.
I gloomily watched a redwing blackbird soar over the hydrangeas, across the vast openness of the Great Devanau Marsh, where the yellow salt grass goes on forever. Oysterback is a sort of island, an extended piece of high ground threaded between the Bay and miles and miles of flat salt meadow. When you cross that bridge over Oysterback Creek, you come into a different world. Nothing out here but the mosquitoes and the blackflies. Driving here on the causeway, you watch the woods grow thinner and thinner until there's nothing but a skimpy layer of olney three-square grass and sky. A few narrow guts -- shallow tidal creeks -- wind their way in and out of the wet savannah. Here and there, cripples -- small hammocks of spindly pines -- dot the landscape, and if you get out of the car along the way to study a wading heron or a muskrat lodge or just the eerie, primeval beauty of this place, the mosquitoes and the blackflies will descend on you, covering any bare skin until it's black with biting insects. Some say that before the county began to spray the marsh, if you weren't careful, the bugs would pick you up and carry you away to make a blood feast out of your careless flesh. To outsiders, this place is not much, but it's home to us and we're used to it. But its isolation does serve to keep most people away.
The air was so gummy with August humidity, it was like breathing in one of Miss Nettie's Jell-O molds, maybe the Marshmallow Fantasy she'd won the Jell-O Mold-Off with twenty years ago, back about the time I blew out of this town and swore I'd never come back.
I had, of course, but only to visit. Momma had a whim of iron, and when she said she expected you home for Christmas, she meant you were home for Christmas.
I still found it hard to believe that she was dead; I half expected her to come out of the garden shed at the foot of the yard and reprimand me for sitting on the steps smoking. Momma was dead against smoking since her first heart attack, even though she still snuck her Kools.
It was more than a sense of unreality that bothered me, though. I just couldn't picture Momma being dead because, well, Momma thought that the world couldn't go on without her. It was simply out of the question. I doubted that there was an alligator in the world big enough or mean enough to take on Momma. She simply would have fixed it with that look of hers, that cold-eyed Medusa stare, and the poor old thing would have backed away, muttering sorry, no ma'am, it must have been a mistake, before sinking into the mud to breathe a sigh of relief at escaping from that terrifying woman.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something glitter under the leg of the aluminum glider. I stuck my fingers under there. It was a bottle of nail polish. Rusty Red.
Suddenly, I could see Momma sitting on the glider in the cool of the evening, watching the sun set over the marsh as she carefully painted her nails for her trip to Florida. "I had to go get Wayne straightened out," she would say matter-of-factly.
And it was just as if she were sitting on that glider now, I could see her so clearly, looking at me over the top of her glasses, daring me to challenge her decision.
It was so real that I jumped, and burned myself on my cigarette.
But when I looked at the glider again, it was just the same old glider it had always been, and of course no one was sitting there.
I'm not a weeper like Earlene, who turns her tears into a grand and public production number, or a drama king like Wayne, who can make a paranoid conspiracy out of a sneeze. I've never been very good at displays of emotion. But now I felt as if something deep inside of me had been hollowed out and taken away, as if I'd lost a part of myself that I didn't even know I had until it was no more. That's when I knew for sure that Momma was really gone and this time she wasn't coming back.
Finally, my mother had met something bigger than herself: death.
"I'm sorry, Momma," I whispered, and suddenly I was crying silent, red-hot tears. I didn't know if I was sorry that she was dead, sorry that we hadn't gotten along better, sorry that I hadn't been there to say good-bye, or sorry for myself that I was all of a sudden an orphan. I was just sorry, sorry about the whole damn mess.
The first wave of grief was washing over me, searing and engulfing, like molten silver being poured inside my body.
So I sat and smoked my cigarette and watched the sun going down over the marsh and I cried. I was glad no one could see me, especially Earlene. The last thing I wanted was a pity party with her.
When I finished the cigarette, I ground it out in the soil around one of the geraniums. Then I stood up and went inside.
"So where's old Romilar?" I asked Earlene, who had polished off most of the pralines and was cutting herself another slice of coconut cake and holding it between her manicured nails as she slid it onto a paper napkin. She stopped long enough to give me a sideways look. If my eyes looked red and puffy, she didn't comment on it.
"His name is Delmar. D-e-l-m-a-r. He was named after his grandfather, who was a state delegate in Annapolis, if you'll recall. I wish you wouldn't call him after a cough syrup," she said resentfully. "It isn't fair and it isn't dignified."
I thought about Romilar, who looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy in a short-sleeved rayon shirt, and I winced. Years of living with Earlene and running the View 'n' Chew Sandwich and Video Rental Store has made him a chronic passive-aggressive.
"If you must know, Delmar left just as soon as we heard the news," Earlene added stiffly. "He caught a five o'clock flight from Salisbury, and he called the minute his plane landed in Miami. He's down there in Florida right this minute, tryin' to straighten things out with Wayne and Momma's ashes and all those security people."
At the thought of Momma's ashes, my sister began to tear up again, and at the same time she started to break off pieces of the coconut cake and stuff them into her mouth. It will never cease to irritate me how much Earlene can eat and still be as skinny as she is. I decided I would watch her to see if she went and threw up later. Maybe Earlene had been bulemic all these years and I just never noticed. That would certainly explain a lot of things.
"So, what happened in Miami that Romil -- Delmar had to go down there and get Momma and Wayne?" I asked.
Earlene sniffled. "You know what Wayne's like. He'd made such a fuss about carrying Momma's ashes on board the plane that someone had called security, and they're holding him and Momma. Delmar will straighten it all out. You don't want to make a fuss at an airport these days. Even I know that. But apparently Wayne doesn't. I guess the urn set off the metal detector," she added uncertainly. "And that set Wayne off. And, of course, when Wayne went off, those security people went off, and, well, airport people have been so jumpy lately anyway that you can just imagine."
"Oh, Lord," I said, heaving a heavy sigh. "Maybe one of us should have gone down there when Momma died, instead of letting Wayne handle it all. And just who decided she should be cremated?"
Earlene straightened up, and her mouth got thin and hard. "In case you missed it the first time I told you, Delmar had to take time off from the View 'n' Chew to go down there! And it was Wayne who decided she ought to be cremated and went right on ahead and did it, before he even asked me! We couldn't get ahold of you! And speaking of that, you know, you could have gone down there. It's not like you have a real job or anything, living out of that van and driving all over the place looking for junk!"
"And do what? Haul Momma's body home in the van? Isn't it interesting that Wayne can call me on my cell phone, but you can't? And besides, I have a job! And it's a better job than standing on my feet all day, making subs and renting videos! I'm an antique trader!"
Well, actually, I'm a picker, but since I don't file for taxes or use credit cards or bank accounts, it doesn't really matter. Besides, Earlene doesn't know a damn thing about old stuff. She and Delmar bought everything in their house from Montgomery Ward, back in the seventies when they got married. It's a veneer and plastic paradise in shades of avocado and harvest gold.
Earlene tore the napkin from the coconut cake and scooped up the shaggy white icing with her finger, jamming it into her mouth. She eyed me nastily. "Now I remember why I swore I was never gonna talk to you again," she said around a mouthful of white mess. "Look at you! You're forty -- "
"Thirty-seven years old. You have no home, no savings, no job -- and no husband or children!" She regarded me triumphantly, as befit a woman who has a house, some money in the bank, a job, and two children -- if you want to call those hell monster nephews of mine children. Personally, I think they're spawn of Satan, both of them. Loud, loutish good old boys with a worldview limited to TV talk shows and riding around in their SUV, four-wheeling on eight-lane highways.
And, of course, she also has a husband, if you want to count Romilar as a man and not a cipher.
"All you do" -- Earlene was really getting into this now, her voice rising -- "all you do is drive up and down the road, buying junk from people's auctions and yard sales and stuffing it into that old truck! That's no life for a lady! You're just an old hippie, Carrie, and you need to grow up."
"It's a good life! It's my life, and I do one hell of a lot better than you do!" I snapped back. "Wait a minute! Old hippie?"
"While you've been out there being an old hippie junk dealer, who the hell do you think stayed here and looked after your mother? It certainly wasn't Wayne or you! Oh, no! You both left me holding the bag!"
"Well, that was your choice, Earlene!" I was yelling now myself, but I didn't care. "Besides, what happened to Mike? I thought he was supposed to take care of Momma, not empty out all her bank accounts and run off with Reverend Claude Crouch, the Traveling Evangelist!"
Earlene's lips got thin, like they do anytime anyone mentions any one of Momma's former boyfriends. Since Mike had been a lay reader at the Oysterback Memorial Methodist church Earlene is so devoted to, his defection was a special sore spot. He'd run off with a tent revivalist and the Methodist Men treasury. Just another one of the no-account losers my mother seemed addicted to after Daddy died. My father had been a lawyer; most of these guys couldn't earn a living walking and chewing gum at the same time.
"You've spent your whole adult life avoiding responsibility!" my sister accused sullenly. "You weren't here to deal with that mess, either! Or the one when that idiot Dog got killed -- or any of Momma's boyfriends!"
"I don't need this," I muttered, and slammed out of the house again. I was so mad at Earlene I could spit nails. But I was even angrier with myself.
The thing about death is it brings out the worst in everyone.
Copyright © 2003 by Helen Chappell