(Originally published in Other Voices)
It looked like a party in full swing. On the verandah, people were holding paper plates piled high with food. Everyone drank from plastic crystal tumblers and seemed to be talking out of step with the music. My sister’s husband, Gordon, was sitting in an Adirondak chair on the lawn listening to some friends with a stunned and almost bemused expression, as puffs of smoke from his cigar disappeared into the damp air. Voices rose and fell with a strange uniformity, like the distant drone of a siren.
I paid the cab and stood for a moment just looking up at the house, which had recently been painted. Its fresh yellow facade seemed out of place, jutting out as it did from an overgrown yard with a rusting swing set and two diseased elm trees, their green bark peeled yellow in places, like combat fatigues.
Inside the house, everything gleamed with a housekeeper’s recent waxing. On a mahogany table, a sterling vase was filled with flowers. The smell of lilies was everywhere, pungent and profuse.
“Did I tell you that Jenny found a rat in the ball machine?” someone was saying. I looked into the room where the voice had come from: Dan, an old family friend, was leaning comfortably back in an armchair, smoking a cigar, looking as if he’d been there for hours. He thrust out his big, pot belly; there was a day’s gray stubble on his face. My sister, Hadley, sat by the bay window, her body shrouded in darkness. Her hands were folded in her lap like a wayward schoolgirl.
“Ugh,” said Dan’s wife, lying stretched out on the window seat’s velvet pillows. “Do you have to tell this story?”
“No, tell us,” said Hadley.
“Well,” Dan eagerly continued, “she turned the thing on and got into position to hit the ball, you know. So out flies this rat. Only my daughter doesn’t know it’s a rat, so when she goes to hit it instead of bouncing like a tennis ball the rat lands flat on his paws and staggers away.”
“What did she do?” asked Hadley, her eyes wandering toward the door.
“She screamed, of course,” said Dan.
“Is that it? Is that the story?” she said, alarmed.
“No, no,” said Dan. “Jenny moves back and waits for the next ball. She still wanted to play. And you know what? Out flies another Goddamned rat!”
Dan began to add a moral to his story, but was cut short by a menacing look from his wife.
“Lily got on varsity tennis this year,” Hadley said after a long pause. It was a thin voice that came out, hardly a voice at all. “She takes after her father in that way.”
I watched her face. Her mouth was smiling but her eyes were still at the side of her head, like an anxious thoroughbred. No one said a word.
Suddenly Gordon brusquely elbowed his way past me into the study.
“Time to go,” he said to Hadley.
“Oh God,” she said. “I don’t know if I can.” Hadley put a hand over her mouth.
“Yes, you can,” said Gordon gently. Then Hadley stood up and walked mechanically from the room.
We followed the two black figures as they moved slowly down the steps of their house toward the car. Gordon’s arm was around Hadley, taking faint solace in once-familiar gestures.
When they left everyone breathed easier. Everyone, that is, except our mother. She sidled up to me without a greeting.
“Why do they have to see her? I think it’s morbid. Nobody does that anymore.”
“Oh Mom,” I sighed, “they’re saying goodbye. I’d like to think you’d do the same with us.”
“Ptuh, ptuh,” she spat, to ward the Devil away.
According to the coroner, it was a split second’s somnolence behind the wheel that did Lily in. She had been killed instantly, flown right out of the convertible and hit her head on a streetlight. I thought of Chagall’s woman in red, flying easily away from the earth as the city looked on. She was in a state of ecstasy, not knowing where she was going and not caring, as if she had come unmoored from invisible chains.
We did our best to make things pretty. Swept the floors, laid out platters of cold cuts, plucked dying flowers from bouquets sent the day before. When nobody was looking I went around and removed the lilies from the bouquets, even though they were in full bloom. To me they smelled like death itself.
Suddenly I heard the scratch of a needle and Handel’s Messiah came blasting out over Hadley’s new stereo system. Someone quickly lowered it and said in a whispering shout, “they’re back.”
I looked out the window at the smoky darkness. In the District when it grows dark the air seems to fill with tiny black particles, as if night were made of a different matter from day. I met Hadley on the sidewalk. She looked into my eyes but I knew she didn’t really see me.
“It was all right,” she said reassuringly. “She was all cozy, in her sweaters.” Hadley opened her arms as if there were something inside. “I bent down and kissed her all up, you know, the way I do.”
“You were always such a good mother.”
“Yeah,” she laughed, “to the bitter end.”
Suddenly she made a face. “They’ve done something to her hair. It’s dark and her lips are like this—-“Hadley put two fingers against her own lips, flattening them.
Later, hearing the story, our mother would say, “Well if it wasn’t Lily, who was it?”
Our parents had been fighting about their new house alarm system when I broke the news to them. They had managed to set it off five times already because neither of them really knew how the alarm worked, but neither would admit it. They had turned the whole thing off in a huff only moments before I arrived. When I walked down the path with my suitcase they were just standing there, alarmless, with the look of lost and frightened pilgrims. My mother shouted, “Harold, Harold, look who’s here!”
Thirty seconds later, Mom looked as if she’d swallowed strychnine. She began to moan and pull at the roots of her hair until whole clumpfuls of the dyed-blonde mass came out into her whitened fists. Dad grew still as a wax figure and slipped quietly behind the bedroom door, shutting it silently behind him. It was the last straw. As Mom crawled into bed that night, I heard my father say to her, “I can’t bear to look at your ugly face.”
“I knew it,” she said, “I knew they shouldn’t have given her that car. I saw it coming.”
Our mother always thought she could see things coming. She had a talent for nesting chaos in the cozy pocket of a pre-existing plan. According to her, there was no such thing as an accident. You probably didn’t even have to die at all, so long as you were careful enough.
I was always careful, so carefully I hardly breathed. Instead, I watched, hoarding experience the way a rodent hoards food, to devour later in a safe place. Only now, there didn’t seem to be any safe place to go.
At nine o’clock the chaplain arrived. He wasn’t wearing a collar but I could tell he was the chaplain by the slowness with which he moved through space, as if he had all the time in the world. Hadley led him into the sunroom and we pulled Hadley’s wicker furniture into a circle.
“I have this,” he said, taking two pieces of crumpled paper from his breast pocket. He handed them to Gordon. Gordon read with cursory interest.
“Fine,” he said, handing the yellowed mimeographs to Hadley. Her eyes wandered down the page, disappointed.
“I would like something a little personal.” She turned to me. “Didn’t you say you wrote something on the way down? On the airplane?”
My fist tightened around three white shiny vomit bags in my purse. They were covered with faint penciled scrawl. It was nothing I would be able to share: her sleepy voice, the time in the restaurant when we couldn’t stop laughing. The soft luminescence of her eyes. Hadley’s eyes.
I extended my hand with the bags and Gordon tore them from me as if he knew what they contained.
“No,” he said. “No fucking way.”
Hadley’s eyes wandered slowly back down the sheets of paper. “I love the Old Testament,” she said hopefully. “Do you know Isaiah? I love Isaiah.”
The chaplain handed her a bible that had been sitting on his knees, unnoticed. It left a trace of fine red dust on his trousers when he lifted it. Hadley opened the book and passed her forefinger down the double columns of print, enjoying the onionskin’s silken feel. She seemed to have forgotten where she was. Or why.
“Here, here it is!” she cried. She began to read: “For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.”
On the word “forsaken” Hadley and Gordon cried as if from one mouth. The priest waited for them, soft hands folded in his lap, fingertips red with dust.
Hadley was dressed and breakfast was on the table. She wore a black silk mini-dress and looked stunning.
“Your friends have been such bricks,” I said. “They’re really taking care of everything.”
“They’re strong,” she agreed, stirring a packet of Sweet-N-Low into her coffee with her finger.
Our parents, on the other hand, were befuddled by the flashes of hilarity that ricocheted through the house like lightening. There was, as usual, an over-abundance of food, and reggae music thumped out its relentless rhythm on the stereo. No one, however, was dancing.
Hadley and I heard a shuffling noise. Mom had sidled up to us with the tentative look of someone who hadn’t quite nailed down their outfit. She wore a black suit with a green silk scarf bowed unevenly at the neck. Her hair had a greenish cast to it as well. Next to Hadley she seemed as small and insignificant as a speck of dust.
Hadley was practically allergic to her. She sprang up, crying, “Let me go put some music on!”
“Music?” said my mother once she was gone. “Music? Does she think this is just another party? Does she think she has to entertain everybody?”
“She knows what this is, Mom. You can’t cry all the time.”
Hadley returned with her hands in the air, waltzing slowly left and right. She was humming Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Suddenly she stopped and broke into a mischievous grin.
“When I took her to the airport last Sunday the wind was so hard on the asphalt that she asked me, ‘Mommy, am I going to die?’ She was such a hypochondriac, you know? ‘No, darling,’ I said. God, if she had known she would have had a fit.”
We laughed, but Mom didn’t think it was funny at all. She pursed her lips and sidled off into another room. I felt a little sorry for her.
It was a dark, rainy morning. I looked out the window and remembered a dream I had the night before. I was watching a home movie. Hadley and her daughter were dancing on a stage. Lily’s hair was in her face and I couldn’t see her. She began to brush her hair away from her face as she walked off the stage into the wings. In the dream I kept wanting to rewind the film back to a moment in time where her hair wasn’t obscuring her. I kept rolling it back, and back, but it wouldn’t go any farther. Lily kept repeating the same gesture, and I kept wishing it would change just a little bit. I wanted her to step a different way, or move her hand just one inch higher. In the dream she felt more dead than ever, as if the film were death, and death but an eternal repetition.
Soon the limos arrived; I heard their fine Mercedes engines purring in front of the house. There was a crush of bodies around the limousines as Hadley and Gordon hastily decided who would ride in which car.
The limo drove slowly down the sunless streets of Rock Creek Park. I peered through the back windshield and watched as it turned off the parkway and finally crept between the cemetery’s open gates. It traveled down past a sloping hill upon which friends and relatives had already gathered. Looking up, I saw a a small green tent, some chairs, and the coffin, covered with long-stemmed red roses.
We got out of the cars and stood in place, turning to each other, glancing up the hill and then looking away. There was a lovely view of the low Virginia mountains just ahead. The leaves on the trees had begun to turn a golden shade of red. Hadley tilted her face up to the hills; Gordon’s eyes were open and waterless, as if flash-dried by the heat of an unspeakable rage.
Our parents stood just down the hill from us. My father looked dignified in his dark suit and vest with its pocket watch, but his face was wan and pinched. When Mom saw where she was she began to take mincing backward steps, whimpering like a frightened animal.
At first my father turned his back and tried to ignore her sounds. But when the moans grew so loud we could all hear them he suddenly spun on his heels and grabbed her arm.
“Will you just shut the hell up?”
The chaplain gave a sign and we began to climb the hill, converging into one circle. Beige metal chairs stood in a stiff line in front of the coffin. They were cold.
“Sit down,” Gordon told Hadley. I stood behind her and looked at the coffin. It was made of finely carved wood and seemed monstrously large.
The chaplain’s first words floated up and over the rainy hills unnoticed. But when he got to Isaiah and the words, “For a small moment have I forsaken thee,” an unbearable image rose up before us and suddenly it wasn’t Chagall’s woman flying anymore but Lily in her new fall blazer and freshly-trimmed hair, her arms stretched out into infinity, in that one forsaken moment when unseen arms released their hold around her.
“Lots of birthday cards, eh?” remarked the postman as he handed us the mail the next morning. We were sitting on the porch having coffee. Hadley nodded absently, took the cards and held them in her lap without opening them.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have given her the car,” she mused once the mailman had left. “Maybe I should have gone down to school with her, you know, to feed her myself.”
The week before, Lily had had all four wisdom teeth out. She was having trouble eating. I knew Hadley was thinking about that one drink mentioned in the coroner’s report.
“She called me and told me she hadn’t been able to eat a thing. Her gums hurt. Should I tell the dentist?” There was that thin girl’s voice again. It sounded like someone had punched all her breath out. “He just sent me his bill and I feel like telling him what he can do with it. Would that be mean?”
Hadley looked at me for confirmation, but I didn’t say a word.
She continued, “Lily just insisted on having all four done at once. Her face was all swollen up, and I was so mad at her. Maybe I shouldn’t have let her. But she was twenty years old. You can’t control everything.”
“There’s a lot we’d do differently if we could see the future,” I said.
“I kept bugging her about her weight. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe that’s why she didn’t eat. I don’t think she was very happy with herself.”
“You know Lil and her diets,” I said. “You know how stubborn she could be. It was all or nothing.”
She smiled. “Or nothing.”
Hadley turned away from me and began to open the letters on her lap. She worked methodically, opening each one with a silver monogrammed letter-opener and then placing each card back in its envelope sideways when she was done. She worked so, so slowly, as if she were in no hurry for the work to end.
Inside one of the envelopes was a bill from the cemetery. I knew that’s what it had to be from the somber gray etching in its upper left-hand corner. Hadley unfolded the bill. She and Gordon had bought their own plots along with Lily’s. I had little doubt that Gordon would have used his then and there if it weren’t for Hadley. Would have gratefully pressed the muzzle of his old hunting gun right into his mouth. Bang. A puzzled look came over Hadley’s face.
“Double depth?” she said aloud. “Gordon!”
Gordon emerged from the house in his bathrobe.
“What is it?” He noticed the paper in her hand and frowned.
“This sounds a little too far down.”
That voice again, thin as a freshly-blown glass bubble. “They don’t put extra dirt over it, do they? Dirt and then another?”
“No,” he said. Gordon placed his right hand on top of his left. “Right on top. Two in a row.”
“Oh good,” she sighed. “It just seemed a little far down, that’s all.”
“Give me that,” he ordered her, pulling the paper from her hand. “Come on. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter a damn.”
We’re like rabbits, I sometimes think. Lowly pray animals. We stare out stolidly from limpid eyes, not showing our wounds, not making a sound, for fear of the consequences.
I had never been brave like my sister. Even when we were children, I always made Hadley do everything first. She was my space voyager, my test pilot, destined to have the first kiss, to report the details in breathless whispers. It was Hadley who dove head first into the murky lake in the Adirondaks, where we spent summers. Sitting dry, immutable, on the shore, I’d watch for signs of her. She’d seem gone for so long, gone nearly forever. I would stand up and then, finally, up her head would bob.
“Look!, Look!” she’d cry, thrusting her two fists out of the water.
“Here it is! I touched bottom!”
Nose wrinkled like an old maid, I’d peer suspiciously at the handfuls of fine, gray mud, unpersuaded. Then down she’d go again, and once more I thought I’d lost her. Then—her hair, long and blonde even when wet, then two proud fists. “Look, come see! And only then would I put on my rubber thongs and hazard my first timid steps into the murky water.
Those days after the funeral, Hadley and Gordon hardly noticed my presence. I cooked for them, the best in my repertoire, but they just pushed the pretty food around on their plates and drank wine until they fell asleep. After two days, I went home. Inside my overheated New York apartment, the one I shared with an old cat named Herman, I felt restless, hemmed in. Usually when I felt that way I would fly down to Hadley’s for the weekend. She would break out the gin, throw a few lobsters in a pot, and Hadley, Lily and I would get drunk and Gordon would imitate Mom, which soon had us falling from our chairs. Then, cruelly, he would imitate the way we laughed—we all had the identical laugh, high and shrill—and we laughed at his laughing at us laughing, until we couldn’t even breathe anymore.
About a week after I got home, Hadley called.
“Listen. There’s something I need you to do.” She told me what it was. Then she said, “Hey, you know what? We got a kitten!”
That night the doorman handed me a large Lord & Taylor shopping bag. Someone—one of Lily’s roommates, I presumed—had packed up her remains in three white manila envelopes, stapled them completely shut, wrapped them loosely in tissue paper, and placed them inside the bag. It gave me an eerie feeling.
The next morning, on the way to the train station, I stopped into a pet store and picked up some toys for the new kitten—a catnip Coke bottle and some rubber balls, tossing them carelessly into the bag, as if to tell myself nothing important resided there.
Maybe it’s primitive, but sometimes, I’ll be holding a pen or a scarf that once belonged to some dead aunt or uncle, and suddenly I’ll smell their presence, their skin’s perfume. Or I’ll hear their voice in my ear. It’s not always a bad feeling, just overpowering. Sometimes it nearly makes me faint. But nobody knows that about me, not even Hadley. Hadley mistakes my cool distance for strength; Mom has always said I was just plain cold. But I know: it’s just the elaborate bluff of the coward.
The ride from New York to Washington can seem very long or very short, and on this day I knew it would be long. The train was crowded and I had to place the bag on my feet. I could feel small, light things shifting against my toes.
I looked out the window. There was no sun and the dry September fields were going to seed. I thought of Hadley and Gordon what would happen to them now. Gordon already blamed Hadley, and it was only a matter of time before Hadley would blame herself. At any moment the generations of superstition would crash down upon her and she would believe our mother with her premonitions and curses. Who, after all, had taught Lily about Tequila Sunrises? About how the wind felt on bare skin? Who gave her the gift of life unafraid, let her dance to the night’s rhythms, this unpardonable crime of love?
Hadley picked me up at the train station in her old BMW. I noticed that she wasn’t wearing her seat belt. I noticed, too, that the car’s back seat was strewn with Lily’s stuff—-faded Polaroid pictures, Bob Marley tapes missing their plastic cases, a lone white tennis sock.
“Hi,” said Hadley, eyeing the shopping bag. She seemed strangely energized and drove off with a screech. “Did I tell you we were at the cemetery Saturday? What a riot. I didn’t tell you? We were prostrate, kissing the earth, making a total scene. I finally open my eyes and there are these revolting pink roses, and a card. ‘Condolences from Rosie’s Restaurant’ it says. We look around and all of a sudden we realize that we’ve got the wrong grave! Well, Gordie and I just started laughing our heads off.”
We came to a red light and Hadley put her head down on the steering wheel. It was such a soft crying, I could hardly hear it.
“I’m worried about Gordon. Last night, I found him lying on the bedroom floor. He was just clutching his wrist and his mouth was wide open. ‘What are you doing down there?’ I asked. His face was smooth as petrified wood. Then he whispered, as if someone were listening, ‘Hadley, it’s Lily. She’s holding my hand.”
Hadley turned and looked at me.
“Last Sunday, when we took her to the airport, Lily held his hand the whole way. Did you know that? Have you ever heard of a twenty-year-old girl holding her Daddy’s hand? Did you know that’s how they were?”
“It’s going to take time, Hadley.”
“Time is no friend of mine,” she said.
We got to the house and the moment we opened the front door a little gray puff of kitten raced up to us. I thought of the rat in Dan’s story of the flying rats.
“I brought him something,” I said, reaching into the bag and tearing open the plastic cellophane. The airy colored balls bounced on the wood floor and the puff of kitten stretched out its limbs in all directions, skidding off after one of the balls. Hadley’s eyes were on the bag.
“What’s his name?”
“Lydgate? What kind of name is that for a cat?” My sister was always naming her pets after characters in 19th century novels.
“You know, Middlemarch. I thought he looked just like him.”
To me he still looked like a rat.
“He’s adorable,” I said.
I am deathly allergic to cats. And dust. This cat was covered in a greyish film of dust, like a dumpling ready to be fried. Hadley sat down in the hallway, crossed her legs, and lifted the white envelopes out of the bag. She buried her face in them.
“I’m so glad you brought them.”
My nose started to itch and my eyes watered as Hadley began to open the envelopes. She poured the contents of one onto her lap, letting them fall through her fingers. I tried not to look but I couldn’t help it. There was jewelry and the things they found on her: two gold necklaces, a pair of earrings, a brown Filofax, a small bottle of Fibertrim.
When Hadley got to the smallest envelope she stopped and looked at me.
“I know what this is,” she said. “I asked them to save it.”
Hadley reached into the envelope and pulled out a long lock of pale, pale blonde hair. It was tied at one end with a pink ribbon, like they do at births. Only this one was grotesquely large.
I gasped when I saw it.
“Oh my God,” she said. Hadley held the lock in both hands, shifting it back and forth between them, as if here arms were the two wings of a delicate scale.
“Can you believe it? “Can you believe that’s all that’s left of my daughter?”
Before I could say no or move to avoid her Hadley grabbed me firmly by the wrist and pressed the lock into the palm my hand. She did it like giving something to a blind person. It was soft, nearly weightless, and so pale. Suddenly, I could see Lily’s face. It was a soft oval, luminous as a reflection on still water. I remembered how, come summers, Lily and I would sit on Hadley’s porch and she would brush my hair so gently, so slowly, with that serious motherly intent of young girls. When she was done—my hair smooth, its French braid cinched tightly in place with an elastic—she would hand the brush to me and I, hardly more than a child myself, would braid her soft, fine strands, then unbraid them, then braid them, as she sat so quietly.
Hadley took the lock from me and looked away, and her eyes weren’t angry anymore but filled with a kind of inner light. Not heavenly, more like a candle in a hollow gourd. Her hands relaxed their hold, and her palms opened themselves up to the empty air. She smiled but it was like no smile I’d ever seen and it frightened me. So I asked her, “Why are you smiling, Hadley?”
And she said, “This is what grief looks like.”