Another Story

May 3, 2009

posted & written by Caroline Picard

ashes

THE LITTLE BOX.

Anna opened her eyes in time to notice a middle aged man without a shirt sitting on the stoop of his mobile home. Anna felt her mother watching her.  The melancholy in the car was contagious. Outside, the man drank beer from a can. Anna closed her eyes again. Their car would follow the road they were on. Mark was driving. Shirley, her older sister, in front. Shirley’s hand on his thigh. It seemed pointed. Like a flag Shirley was raised for their mother, who would not let the couple share the same bedroom. Anna looked out the window at the blur of passing pines.
“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” their mother asked over-bright. No one said anything but Mark smiled and looked at her in the rear view mirror.

When Anna closed her eyes again, she heard nothing. Their words were muddled and lost in the air. She heard Shirley titter–a secret kind of laugh meant to acknowledge a private joke made in public. Anna did not care.

After thirty such minutes, Mark parked the silver car in front of a yellow house with small windows just on the outskirts of Truckee. Flanked by other mobile units, it was the only house in the neighborhood with a real foundation. All of its curtains were drawn. Yellow ochre curtains, heavy and dower. Anna looked apprehensive, her mother looked tense.

“It’ll be alright, honey. Just hold my hand.”

Anna ignored the suggestion. Irritated both of them. She lit a cigarette instead, then sniggered when Shirley put a hand in the back of Mark’s pocket. Both daughters watched their mother. Their mother, meanwhile, seemed not to notice anything whatever.

A day away from the funeral.

Their mother rang the doorbell but no one answered so she opened the door. Peered through, into dark brown interiors and a century of stale air. It was a family business. Started in the 1800’s,  someone rebuilt the house in the 20’s. Everybody stepped inside.

“They know we’re coming. I called ahead. They’re expecting us,” their mother said. It was dark inside. The darkness swallowed them up when she closed the door behind them. It creaked. The house smelled like old people and stained teeth and pickles. Aunt Myrtle after a night of passion. It was an acidic smell that lay beneath an all-pervasive dust. Anna took shallow breaths.
She saw an ancient cat stretch on a side table. There were muffled sounds of elusive conversation. Impossible to make out, they seemed to come from everywhere at once–like people talking inside the patterned wall paper walls. An old clock chimed.

“Hello?” their mother called out. Her voice did not echo, but rather, dispersed.
An ancient man materialized at the top of the stairs in front of them. Leaning on the banister, he climbed down, wearing gloves and a pair of weary suspenders. Balding. His eyes were weak and peering, they contributed to a mole-like impression. There was a hunch in his back, a tire of weight around his waist—a pear man. He moved slowly, sometimes rubbing his hands together.
“Mrs. Johnston?” he said, peering through the dark in deference to custom. Anna shrank into her mother. They were as tall as one another. Anna almost taller, and like a shield. “Is that you?” He whistled when he spoke. “I see you’ve brought your family?” The old man odded his head at the bottom of the stairs and slipped over to the cat on the side table. He stroked the cat’s head, but it did not move. Only its eyes opened to slits. The old man smile. He couldn’t have been more than five feet. Maybe five five if he straightened his back out. Probably he was five five when he was a young man. Anna wondered if everyone shrunk. He definitely had a big nose and giant earlobes–which she had also heard grew exponentially over the course of men’s lives.
He put out his hand, which Anna, still standing in front of her mother, took, “Bad circulation,” he said. “My hands get very cold, so I wear gloves. Thank you all for coming. I’m sorry for your loss.” He looked meaningfully at the children with small myopic eyes. Frail in all save for his gut. “Right this way,” the man said and without waiting for a response, pointed down the hallway, leading them into a darker dark with the crook of his finger. Shirley, Mark and their mother followed him down the hallway. Anna took two steps after them, then stopped in the corridor full of old mirrors, examining their warped faces where the glass had slunk into an irregular bow. She watched her family move away and leaned against the dark wooden wall.
She pulled up the corners of her collar with a tug, an action that felt like an exclamation point. Something she was saying to the darkness. An over-bold rebuke. She waited for them to come back, her feet heavy with indecision. It was impossible to move. They seemed to take forever where they had disappeared into a room down the hall, through the gloom and to the right where she supposed the bodies were burned. Or would that have been the basement?

She wondered if the old man was spry enough to be an axe-murderer.
The waiting stretched into an eternity. She stretched out the first two fingers of her hand and pressed them through the farthest corner of her coat pocket: to make like she had a gun there if she had to. She wished she had a toothpick.
“Missus?” Anna jumped and instantly pulled the fake gun out of her pocket, thoughtlessly leaving her index finger exposed and weak and indecisive. Embarrassed, she looked at her hand blameful. Her cheeks burned hot. She did not look up.
“Come inside. Come here, have a seat. You don’t have to wait like that in the door.”

Anna couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from. She sidestepped to the right, turned and bumped into a large woman with large breasts. She shuddered. The woman took a deep breath and rose like a lion, closer to her mouth. Another floral-patterned sundress. They seemed to be everywhere. Tiresome. Anna looked up at last, her chin still pressed to her neck. Presumably this was the wife of the old man, possibly the daughter. It was difficult to say. A young looking wife. An old looking daughter. Pale in either case. Taller than him, but if the daughter, might shrink to his stature given another twenty years. She had the same small sallow eyes.

“In or out, my mother used to say. Well you’re in, so you’ll have a seat and wait like anybody else.” Anna felt the woman take her hand. It was a soft hand. It was cool and dry. The woman’s skin was thin and soft and breakable. Anna was afraid to grasp too tight, she didn’t want to tear it.

They went into a parlor together. The disembodied voices were clearer in the parlor. There were drawn velvet curtains; in certain places the fabric blushed with the daylight, in those places where the velvet was thin and over-worn.

“What is this?” Anna heard herself ask. Sounding like a child with a very small voice.
“The waiting room. They’ll find you in here.” The woman sat on a sofa facing the television and resumed her knitting. Its luminescent pictures played with the features on the old woman’s face, erratically manipulating the proportions between her nose and eye sockets. As the values of electronic light adjusted, they cast rapid shadows on the wall behind her. Anna shivered. The woman watched the box like a stone. Anna sat down in the farthest chair. She yawned.
She put her hand back in her pocket and flexed her index finger against the corner. A game she and her dad used to play when she was kids.  Her dad said it was always a good idea to carry a gun Just In Case. Anna looked around at all of the taxedermied animals. On every part of the wall there were mounted heads. Some hung on the wall and others lay fixed to wooden plaques on the carpet. A moose, the biggest, and dusty smiled in the center of the room. Three deer, one on the wall. Five racks without faces. A Jackalope. A Bear, fully stuffed and standing with glass eyes, reflecting the television screen. Its teeth bared wide. Grinning. The clock chimed again, a quarter of an hour. Anna listened to the ensuing seconds as they tocked by.

The old woman turned suddenly “Are you hot?” she asked; the television highlighted a thick white hair on her chin. “Would you like some water?” Anna said nothing. “I’ll get you some water.” The woman rose and stepped away from the field of light.

“Anna?” Shirley’s face peaked round the door.

Anna looked at her, dumb, and blinked. “Mom?”

Shirley stepped into the room. She carried a leather box. “There you are. Let’s go.”

Anna rose. “Did you get it–him?”

“Yes. Here it is.”

Anna reached for the box, but Shirley pulled it into her chest dismissively. They all walked toward the front door.

“Wait ’till we get outside.”

Their mother was crying behind them.
“Can I hold it?” asked Anna. She looked at her siblings. “Is it O.K. if I hold it?”
“Wait until we get outside,” Shirley said again. “Mark are you Ok to drive again? Are you Ok?”

“Sure. Of course.”

Their mother turned to the old man, once more at the foot of the stairs. “Thank you so much,” she said. Then to Shirley, out of the corner of her mouth, “Did you pay?” Shirley nodded. In another whisper their mother said, “I’ll pay you back later.”
“Didn’t you want your water?” the old woman asked them as they walked outside.

“That’s O.K.,” Anna said. “Thanks, though. Thank you for your kindness.”

It was better outside in the light. For everyone.

Shirley blinked. “That was creepy,” she said.

“Can I now? Can I hold it now?”

“Sure Anna. Here you go.”
The box was heavy. It surprised Anna when she took it, because it was a pretty small box–eight by ten inches–covered in plastic made to look like leather with a little plastic button clasp, like the kind that used to be on Bridget’s clothes when she had been a child–before she learned to button buttons. The box felt dense and she undid the clasp to look inside inside was a plastic bag filled with loose grey sediment. Dust. But heavier. It seemed disappointing to see her father this way. Impossible to comprehend how all of his six feet, one hundred and ninety pounds could fit in the compartment in her hands.  She could not hear his ghost.

“Heavy isn’t it?” Shirley asked. “I was surprised. Still, though. I guess that’s all of him.”

They climbed back into the car, still silent but the light of day brought something new, at least.

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