Everyone Gone

It took three days to travel up the rain-swollen river. Suhan piloted the boat.

“Doctor go to big house. Very much sick,” he would say over and over like a mantra.

Each day the sun beat down without mercy, and I would feel my skin blistering as the sweat soaked through my clothes. I listened to the brown water pushing the boat onwards, the birds cackling in the lifeless trees, and drank sparingly from my bottled water.

On the second day towards evening, the boat collided with something, and Suhan called out in terror. It was a bloated body. Suhan began to rock and pray.

On the third morning as we drew close to the plantation the river was choked with bodies, and a plume of gray smoke rose into the sky. The great house was burning.

“Everyone gone,” Suhan said, his eyes like black tunnels. “Everyone free.”

Despite the heat, I began to shiver.

This Is The End

“’The end is my beginning.’ Who said that?” Sam looked up from his crossword at Janine.

She was staring out the wide expanse of window, all the while twisting a lock of brown hair. “T.S. Eliot.”

“T.S. Eliot. Yeah. That fits.” He paused. “Funny thing to say, don’t you think?”

“Do you think when we die, we become part of the earth or start over?”

“I dunno. No one really knows. I suppose either way we start over. If there’s nothing after death, we become part of the earth again—fertilizer for growing things, and if there is something after death, we start over again.”

“What about the earth? There isn’t much earth left.”

“You know that’s not true, Janine. There’s plenty of land left in Kansas and Nebraska, and that place we bought in Philadelphia is beachfront property now. Beachfront. We made a killing.”

“I’ll miss New York.”

“I know, darling, but think. It’s a smaller world, but that’s good. Less people to feed. Since the plague, the population’s only a fraction of what it could have been.”

Janine plucked at her sleeve, and Sam noticed how pale and thin she’d gotten. Food rationing had been difficult. Janine was always picky eater. She wouldn’t touch the cans of mystery meat the army handed out in the early days. Now, of course, she had no choice. They were trapped in their apartment. Thank God he had connections. The helicopters could land on the roof and drop supplies, though the flights had grown less and less frequent. He didn’t relish the thought of foraging in the streets for himself and Janine. He doubted it was possible.

Still, things were getting better. He was sure of it. They had intermittent electricity now. And Internet. The army still controlled the city, but the daily death toll had leveled. Soon, he thought, they could leave.

He stood and walked to the window. The streets were empty now. The dark water was still high, well over eight feet. Too high to escape the building. They should have left with the first wave of people, but he hadn’t wanted to panic.

Janine sighed. “It’s a prison, isn’t it?”

“A prison? Of course not. Look at where you are.”

She turned to him and gave him a hollow smile. “Look at where we are: A cement mausoleum. You can’t eat your money, Sam. You can’t buy our way out. We’re going to die here. The end.”

“No.” Sam had never faced a problem he didn’t think he could solve. “We’ll figure it out. I promise.”

Janine turned away. “Our end. It’s beginning.”

A Quiet Place

ImageHe walked through the park, a book tucked under his arm, and went to look for a place not overrun by the raucous laughter of teenagers or the gurgles of children. He’d earn the right to a quiet bit of green, though it was getting harder to find it these days. Maggie always said he was a bit anti-social. He’d tell her he need a little quiet. She’d probably reply that he had al the quiet he wanted, but truth be told, he preferred to come here to sit among the ducks and swans and gulls with his book.

He made his way to his favorite spot: a small dirt path that led down to the stream. Most people didn’t bother with this path as it was very narrow and wound through a grove of trees down to the water. It was weedy and forlorn, but he liked coming this way. It was almost like a secret. He’d sit up against an old gnarled tree, book propped in his lap, and stare out over the water.

He had just settled himself when he heard footsteps, and he sighed. Usually footsteps meant a pack of teenagers with their backpacks and gadgets. They’d eat and talk too loud and roll around in the grass, leaving a mess behind. Wrappers and bottles and and half-eaten bananas. If they saw him, they’d laugh and make remarks about the “old fart under the tree”, but usually he remained invisible.

This time, however, a woman appeared. Her long auburn hair blew in front of her face, and he smiled, though she didn’t notice him. She made a pretty picture in her green jacket and black jeans as she stood by the water watching the birds soar down from the sky to alight on the sun-lit water, until he realized she was crying. The leaves on the swaying tree shivered. He heard the quacking of the ducks, the sobs of the woman, and the beating of his own heart.

He wanted to move because he felt like the intruder now, but he sat paralyzed and staring at the ground, willing himself to disappear. He listened to the woman cry the tears he couldn’t when they lowered Maggie into that deep, black hole in the ground, and he remember all the things he had meant to say to her over the years, but never did. Opportunities lost now. But he had loved her fiercely. My Old Goat. She had called him that, fondly he thought. Had she understood what was in his heart?

He looked up when he realized the air had gone still and quiet again. The woman had gone. His face was wet with tears, and he hugged his book to his chest.

Oh, Maggie, I miss you. I’ll miss you forever.

Reflections

 We stand a solemn watch

     The young ones fidget

     Some cry

     Most bow their heads and murmer

      I think they pray for their own immortality

They say you were too young to go

     You lie so quiet in your earth furniture

     Your body of flesh and bone

      Waiting to return

     To the cycle of all life

But your soul is a winged creature

    That has already taken flight

    You travel the night sky

    Waiting just beyond my window

    Inexorable as time

I see you in the pale streams of gold

    That pour through the windows

    Your warmth envelops me

     I can almost hear the flutter of your wings

     Wait, I whisper, I am coming.

 

 

  

 

 

A Crack in the Ice

            “Ella! No!”

            She heard his voice just as the ice around her began to split apart, cracks sliding through it like serpents. She could hear the rush of water below.

            One minute she had been sailing heedless on her silver blades, laughing at Carl’s unease about the glassy lake, especially when there were no other skaters; now she stood paralyzed in its center, huddling into herself.

            “Try to catch hold of my jacket!”

            She flung out her arms and tried to grasp the flutter of orange. Her island of ice tilted and freezing water soaked her feet. “I can’t! I can’t” Already a two-foot wide fissure separated her from Carl. “Get help!”

            She saw the doubt on his face, but he grabbed his coat and skated away faster than she thought possible.

            She was safe enough here on this little piece of ice, she thought. All she needed to do was wait. She stared up at the gray sky. The air felt heavy with the threat of snow, and she rubbed her hands over her arms.

            She’d always mocked Carl for being cautious. “Take a chance,” she always told him. Maybe he had been the smart one.

            The ice cracked again, this time right through the middle of her island, and she had to throw herself to the side to avoid sliding into the dark water. But now the smaller island tipped precariously and cold water poured over the sides. Ella pulled herself up, but she was completely soaked.

            Once she had dreamed of going to the Olympics. She had worked so hard. Practice every morning at six; practice after school; then she finally quit school to practice all the time and work with private tutors. She had come in seventh in the Olympic trials. Seventh. That was her best year.

            Oh, she had gone on to work in different ice shows, but it wasn’t the same. She was never a star. Not the way Mama wanted. Not the way she wanted.

            Flakes of snow began to drift down and caress her face like cold kisses.

            Carl loved her. He never cared whether she was in the Olympics or not. She loved and hated that about him. Could you love and hate at the same time?

            She held up her hand to catch a snow flake, but the effort exhausted her.

            Her island rode low in the water now, and she was surprised that her legs were dangling off the edge. Funny. Her feet were completely numb. Was that good or bad? She closed her eyes and felt the snow brush against her face, cold at first then pleasant like a blanket. A perfect blanket. It was so quiet now. Were there voices in the distance or was it just the wind? She didn’t know. She preferred the quiet.

            Would Carl find her? She didn’t know or care. Everything was serene. She felt like a clock winding down. Tick tock, tick tock, tick . . .

           

Mom’s Last Laugh

              My mother was late for her own funeral. It’s not unusual considering throughout her life, my mother was late for everything. She made an art of it. My father said she worked on Irish time; my mother called him a silly Prussian. They made an art of insulting each other with great affection.

             My mother was a teacher of seventh grade science, and she was never late for class. She was ruthlessly efficient about being on time for school, but in all other areas of her life, time was a thing of little consequence. It drove my father, who fervently believed in punctuality, crazy.

            Nonetheless, she was late for her funeral. It didn’t matter that she lay in the funeral home right next to the church, dressed in her best red suit. I’d picked it because it was her favorite. I remember going with my father the day to make arrangements. The funeral director was kind. He was, in fact, one of my mother’s former students.

            “Do you have a recent picture?” he asked kindly.

            I didn’t want anyone seeing my mother the way she looked recently. She died of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, a disease that turned her lungs to cement. When she died, she was barely ninety-five pounds. She’d hate to be remembered like that.

            My father just shook his head. He couldn’t get past the thought that his Louie was gone. The morning she died, he showed up on my doorstep in a panic.

            “I think Mom’s dead,” he said. “You need to come check.” Then he started to cry. I stood there in my ratty plaid nightgown and patted him. I think I said it would be okay. It didn’t seem real. Mom couldn’t be dead, yet she had been dying by inches for the past five years.

            My husband came downstairs, expressed condolences and said he’d watch the kids who were still asleep.

            It took me a minute to throw on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt.

            I drove with Dad to their apartment right down the road. They had sold their massive five bedroom house because it had become too much to keep up. They now had a lovely garden apartment. My mother hated it because she missed the house; my father loved it because it was small and comfortable and all one floor.

            The sun had just risen over the horizon, and the sky was all pink and orange. I thought it was too beautiful a day to die. The weather was perfect, not too hot or cold, the leaves were falling, but the trees were still bright with color—red and gold and orange. Fall was my favorite time of year, but didn’t it herald the end of life and the beginning of winter?              

            I knew my mother was dead the moment I crossed the threshold of their bedroom. She lay on her back, gray-skinned with her mouth slightly open.

            “Please check,” Dad said, his voice trembling.

            I went over and took her hand. It was cold. I put my hand in front of her face to feel for breath. Nothing. I felt for a pulse. Nothing. “She’s gone, Dad.” I couldn’t believe I was so calm.

            “Put her teeth in. I can’t stand to see her without her teeth in. She’d be so embarrassed.”

            “What?” I looked at my father like he was crazy, but he was serious. He wanted me to put in my mother’s dentures.

            They floated in a cup beside the bed. I stared at the creepy teeth, floating in the viscous fluid and felt sick. I would have been a lousy nurse. Still, my father stood in the doorway watching me expectantly. I reached into the cup, pulled out the uppers from the slimy water, and wiped them with a tissue.

            “Where’s that denture stuff?” I asked.

            My father produced a tube that contained pink goo that resembled toothpaste. I spread it over the uppers and proceeded to jam them into my mother’s mouth. I suppose if you wear dentures, you get used to the whole procedure, but I don’t wear them. Further my mother was not cooperating.

            She had been dead a little over two hours by now, so rigor mortis was probably beginning to set in. Trying to get her mouth open far enough to push the teeth in was hard, if not impossible. I pushed. I shoved. I climbed onto the bed until I was straddling my mother and jamming these teeth into her mouth, but the effect made her look bucktoothed.

            I felt obscene. I could hear my father crying.

            “Dad,” I said. “We’re going to stop messing with her teeth. I’m going to call her doctor, and the undertaker.”

            We did both, and she ended up at O’Brien’s Funeral Home. Jack O’Brien was running the family business, and in the way of all undertakers was solicitous and kind. His real name was John Fitzgerald Kennedy O’Brien because he was born on November 22, 1963, and his mother thought it was a fitting tribute to the first Irish Catholic president of the United States.

            The O’Briens had an indoor pool, and poor Jack fell into the pool one day when it had been drained for repair. My mother used to say he was a goodhearted boy. She often said that about pleasant students who worked hard but weren’t academic stars. “I’m not sure I want to go to O’Brien’s when I’m dead,” Mom said, more than once. “I don’t want the O’Brien boys looking at my naked behind.”

            “You won’t care,” Dad always said. “You’ll be dead.”

            “I’ll be there in spirit,” Mom would reply.

            I thought of that as Jack O’Brien talked to us fondly about Mom. He said he remembered that every Friday she’d tell them stories about Ireland and England and Rome, or sometimes she would tell them ghost stories or legends from the upstate coal town where she was born. She always thought seventh graders would get bored with story time, but hers became legendary.

            “Don’t worry about the picture,” Jack O’Brien said. “I’ll make her look like she did when I was in seventh grade, and she told us the mystery of the ninety-nine steps. I’ll never forget that. I don’t think I slept for a week.”

            “That was one of her favorites.” I remembered the ninety-nine steps. We even visited them when we went to visit some of our relatives “up state.” They did lead to a cemetery, but in the daylight with small houses on each side, they weren’t terribly frightening. When my mother talked about them, they became shrouded in fog and mystery, with murderers on par with Jack the Ripper lurking in every shadow.

            We shook hands and left, and Jack O’Brien kept his word. On the day of the viewing, my mother looked twenty years younger. In her red suit and crisp white blouse, she looked beautiful. I was glad for my father because at least his last memory would be a good one.

            We went to the church and waited. Mass was supposed to begin at ten; the guests were seated. The organist, a friend of my father played some mournful piece. I wished he would play Chopin’s funeral march because it would have amused my mother, but he didn’t. I don’t remember now what he played.

            One of my mother’s most adamant last wishes was for a piper.

            “I want a piper, and I want him to play McIntosh’s Lament,” she said. “Not Amazing Grace. They all play Amazing Grace.”

            My husband said he’d arrange it. I hoped the piper knew McIntosh’s Lament. I shifted my son in my arms while my daughter peered out the church door.

            “Can’t we sit?” she asked.

            “We have to wait for the casket,” I said.

            “When is that coming?”

            At 10:15, we decided to sit. We walked to the front of the church and wondered what was happening. The priest approached us as discreetly as possible and said, “We have another service at 11:00.”

            “She’s right next door,” I said. “I don’t know what the problem is.”

            A 10:19, Jack O’Brien and his men rolled the casket through a side entrance. No time for pallbearers. They wheeled the casket into place, and Jack came over to whisper, “I’m so sorry; the wheel jammed, and we couldn’t move it. I didn’t have another–”

            “It’s fine, Jack,” I said. I almost laughed. I thought, my mother’s late for her own funeral. It’s fitting. It was her way of having the last laugh. It cheered me immensely even as I wiped away the tears. “Thank you for everything.”

            We zipped through the ceremony. In a way it was a mercy because my father looked as if he was about to fall over. We had used my parents’ old church so the pastor gave a lovely talk about my mother’s many virtues. It was brief and to the point.

            After the ceremony, the pallbearers at last got to lift the casket. At that moment the air filled with the unmistakable sound of the bagpipes. A piper had emerged from the back of the church in full kilt, and he played a mournful tune that, if it wasn’t McIntosh’s Lament, was surely someone’s. My husband had arranged the piper who knew his stuff.

            I followed the casket out along with my children into the sunlight and wondered if having a real Irish piper made up for Jack O’Brien seeing my mother’s naked behind.