Marlene Olin/ Fiction 7.1/ Spring, 2019

MARLENE OLIN

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Upstreet Magazine, Arts and Letters, Eclectica, and The American Literary Review. She is the winner of the Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award (2015) , So To Speak Fiction Prize (2018) , and a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.

THE REMAINDERS OF YOU

            I. The Funeral.

            For whatever reasons, be it the place or the season, only a dozen funeral goers show up. It’s August in Miami.  The snowbirds have long flown the coop.

            Those that are here cram into the first rows. Their feet are planted and their tissues poised. Outside, it’s ninety degrees in the shade, the sun slicing the curtains, the curtains pulled tight against the heat.  How the women make a show of caring, suffering in their pantyhose, dabbing their makeup and wagging their heads!  How the men beat their breasts, davening in their mothballed suits, knees bent and scalps glistening. You would have loved it, Mom.  How they sway in sync!

            The rabbi is a stranger, someone you never met. Solemnity is stamped on his face. A black suit, a white shirt. He wears sorrow well. He grabs the podium with both hands. Then like an old-fashioned newsreel, the highlights of your life are replayed. It takes five, ten minutes tops.

            “Selma was a wife, a mother, a grandmother.” (Here he pauses, clears his throat, cracks his neck). “A devoted mahjong player. A crossword puzzle devotee. A good cook!”  Then he looks at his watch and exhales (seconds seemed like minutes) before he soldiers on. How the poor man scrambles to fill the time!  The 23rd Psalm. That bit from Ecclesiastes. He makes sure to chant the Kaddish twice (slowly, adagio, stretching the vowels to make them last). Then finally, amid the sniffling and snorting and clearing of phlegm, the crowd all mutters Amen.

            At first we think he’s done. I hear books snapped and feet shuffled. But then suddenly he glances at his wristwatch once more, wipes his sweat with his tie, and looks up at the ceiling. And for reasons I can’t fathom, he starts speaking about birds. Swifts, to be exact. Those crescent-shaped like flying sickles. You remember. Those small black birds that find their way into chimney tops and roof eaves– spinning and gyrating– like some crazed Cupid’s arrows run amok.

            The rabbi knows he has a captive audience. The air-conditioner is heaving blasts of cold air, the pews in the chapel are cushioned, no one is in a hurry to get anywhere fast. His voice a whisper, half-closing his eyes, he speaks like he is hypnotized.

            “Behold the common swift. The birds sleep, eat, even mate while in flight.  Free and untethered. Light and unencumbered. A wisp of wind. A breath of air.

            Once a year, every year, they fly back to their nesting grounds. Jeremiah saw them. Daniel saw them. Judah Maccabees saw them. For over two thousand years, they’ve returned to the Holy Land. No matter the victor or victim, no matter the battle or brawl, every November they return. The smallest of cracks, the tiniest of crevices, they find. In. Out. In. Out. A twig. A leaf. A bug. A month or two later their job is complete. As soon as their fledglings are ready to fly, they leave and start the cycle once more.”

            When he pauses, we assume he’s through. A few people rise in their seats. But still the startling ramble continues.

            “There are those who pray at the Wailing Wall. There are those who write messages and tuck them into slots. But I prefer to watch the swifts, to watch the way they swoop and soar while never touching ground.”

            And just like that he’s finished. The funeral director (appropriately grim of course, a wad of invoices discreetly hid inside his coat) takes over, passing out directions to the condo card room, assuring a sea of gurgling stomachs that an ample lunch will soon be served.  But they’re creatures of habit, your friends.  Followers of the pack.  There isn’t a casket, and without a casket how can you have a burial?  They pull at my sleeve, their knobby fingers shaking, their fetid breath inches from my face.

            “The graveside. We’re not going to the graveside?”

            “Mother wanted to be cremated,” I remind them.

            Still they look around, searching for maybe a table or a shelf, expecting to see an urn or a tastefully carved box.  (Something gilt or granite. Inlaid. With the appropriate gravitas.)  Little do they know that you’re sitting in the front seat of my car, filling a foot-high Tupperware container to the brim.

            I shrug my shoulders. What else can I do? “Mother didn’t believe in the rituals,” I tell them.

            A little old man in a fedora appears out of nowhere. “Selma was cheap. She never spent a dime,” he chortles, “whenever a nickel would do.”

            A clutch of old ladies are looking and pointing. Hard of hearing, I suppose. They have no idea how loud they speak. “And such a service,” they hiss. “We never heard such a service.”

            The old man in the fedora can’t help himself. Brandishing his cane, he jumps again into the fray.  “It’s a sin to speak unkindly of the dead,” he booms. “What else could the poor rabbi do?”

            II. The Plan.

             The streets are nearly empty and the boardwalk so desolate I look straight out to the sea. I’m staying on Collins and 29th for pennies. A room that overlooks the ocean, a balcony replete with chaise, an evening breeze that lays the daytime heat to rest. My children call every night and every night we have the same conversation.  What with their kids and their jobs, they’re busy. At least too busy for the funerals of strangers. And they barely knew you, Mom. The real you. They only knew the older, adulterated version, the face you painted for our yearly visits. The face you showed for bridge games and the club.

            Josh just turned forty. He and his wife are lawyers, remember? My power couple. His words are sharp and to the point. “You sure you don’t need me there, Mom?”  And when I say no for the thousandth time, his relief is thick enough to taste.

            But Lisa is a different story. She’s thirty-three and a single mother.  How she suffered through our annual pilgrimages, the way you pinched her cheeks, parading her in front of your friends, my little doll you used to say.  Though she calls from Long Island, she feels just a heartbeat away.

            “We need you home, Mom.” She’s trying not to sound desperate but I know how desperation sounds. We finish each other’s sentences, me and my daughter.

             The Tupperware container, a nagging reminder, sits on my hotel room dresser.  “The ashes,” I tell her. “Whatever am I supposed to do with my mother’s remains?”Just a few yards away, the surf beats against the sand. A child is laughing and sea gulls are squawking. I wonder if Lisa can hear them over the lines.

            “You’re on the ocean, right?  Do what they do in the movies,” she tells me. “Close your eyes and dump.”

            I glance once more at the dresser. How you hated the water. I was born and raised in Miami, and yet you were too terrified to let me swim. You filled my head with ugly stories about Coney Island, about the day your uncle nearly drowned, about how undertows could suck you in and pull you out to sea. A litany of stories. “Dead bodies!” you’d say. “That’s what they find in the ocean. Dead bodies.”

            To this day, the ocean brings me nightmares. When my grandchildren swim, I grit my teeth and pray. You loved no one more than you loved yourself. How easy it was to luxuriate in your fears.

            Despite you, in spite of you, an hour later (in my swimsuit and my flip flops no less), I head for the beach. A five minute walk from the pool area, and I’m there. I’ve poured a few ounces of your ashes into a Styrofoam coffee cup. The cup’s in one hand, a towel’s in the other while whatever I ate for dinner is crawling up my throat. Maybe it’s the time of night or maybe it’s the time of year, but the whole place is deserted. Under a sea grape tree a young couple is necking. Farther out, a man is fishing in a boat.

            Slowly I inch forward. A full moon hovers glazing the water in a pool of light. I drop my towel on the sand, slip off my shoes, venture in. The water’s shockingly warm as it laps against my ankles. Under my feet the sand crunches. Something like seaweed strokes my shins.

            For a few brief seconds, my fears are shelved. The push and pull of the waves, the salty smells, the slightest of breezes brushes my hair. It’s like a lullaby, the rocking, like a mother putting a child to sleep. And then I remember you and your words and my heart starts hammering in my chest.

            For a moment I’m paralyzed.  I want to call for help, I need to call for help, but no one’s close enough to hear. The water’s up to knees then it gropes toward my thighs.  Behind me, the couple is laughing. I will my pulse to slow, remind my heart to beat.

            Then suddenly I remember the coffee cup. I plant my feet firmly in the sand, feel the wind against my brow, take off the lid.  With two hands I hold the cup to the heavens. The clouds part, the stars shine, and a fistful of what used to be you smacks me in the face.

            Somehow I get back to my room. In the shower I clean off the grit and gristle and gargle with Listerine twice.  My sixty-three-year old bones ache and my weary head throbs. But sitting on my dresser, confronting me with the weight of the world, is that container. And one way or another, I will find a home for its contents within the week.

III. The Homestead

            The next day my adventure begins. Armed with sunscreen for my rosacea, a granola bar for my low sugar, a bottle of water and another coffee cup, I taxi to the rental car office then steer the world’s smallest rental car north. The sprawling city of Miami is a lifetime away from the sleepy town I grew up in.

            Fifty years ago, there was no I-95 connecting one county to the other.  A multitude of expressways now wind and weave, intersecting each other in pretzel-like loops.  The map’s sitting on my lap like a dog, and every few miles I look down and pat it for reassurance.  Cars zoom by, horns honk, faces sneer.  I remind myself to keep in the right lane (it’s important to stay in the right lane, keep in the right lane for Pete’s sake!) but then I forget to press down on the gas. And the map’s no help. Streets are scattered like varicose veins with hundreds of capillaries between them. Miraculously, I find the exit to Miami Gardens Drive. Then five minutes later, I’m back in our old neighborhood again.

            Everything looks the same but different. It doesn’t take me long to find our house. A concrete box in a row of other concrete boxes, a hibiscus hedge, a spindly palm. The jalousie windows are still there.  The air conditioner in my bedroom still juts out from the wall. Time has not only stood still but reversed itself. The mailbox in front lists to the side, its door gaping like a huge mouth.

            I listen for familiar sounds but no. The streets are empty of children.  There’s no Good Humor man with his tinkling bell, the Dixie cups with their wooden spoons, the popsicles we raced the heat to finish.  On a lawn a car sits perched on concrete blocks. Assorted litter (plastic bag, flyers, advertisements) rolls like tumbleweeds across the sidewalk.  From an opened window, the sound of rap music thumps.

            There was a time I knew each and every person who lived in these homes. The Goodmans, the Schaefers, the Lopezes, the Smiths, the Wachoskis, the Friedmans, the Stones. I spent more time at their houses than I did at my own. During the summer. After school.  I was your only child, and you were my only mother. Was I even missed?

            A door opens.

            “Mama,” says the little girl, “a white lady is sitting on the sidewalk. A white lady’s crying.”

            A woman black as coal helps me up, offers me water.  My purse is in one hand, the coffee cup in the other as I once more approach our front door. Remember our housekeeper Delilah? I used to marvel at her hands, the way the palms were white, as white as mine, my little hand fitting inside hers. She made me lunch, bandaged my scrapes, mended my clothes. Yet how you yelled and screamed whenever our hands touched. As if hers were dirty. As if her hand bore some sort of dirt that wouldn’t wash off.

            The woman nods yes when I ask if I can use her bathroom and is speechless when I find it right off the bat. I lock the door and flush the contents of another coffee cup down the toilet. An hour later, I’m back at the hotel.

IV. The Eateries

            My daughter wants me home. She called again last night, running through her checklist, checking up on me while reassuring herself. Did you take your pills, Mom?  Are you remembering to eat?  Don’t forget your sunscreen.

            These are the things people say to each other when they care.

            My car now drives on autopilot. In a half hour we are back in the old neighborhood. Though my elementary school still exists (the outside corridors, the bricked facade) the new walls are windowless. I drive in circles looking for landmarks. The public park where a tornado once snapped the swings and twisted the basketball poles. The convenience store where I rode my bike (a new name, I wonder how many new names have come and gone). Dad’s favorite hot dog stand is now an Arby’s, the Ham’N’ Eggery’s a pizza joint.

            As if by instinct, the car steers itself east. I smell the ocean before I hear it. The themed hotels with their kitschy statues (The Desert Inn with the horse and wagon, The Sahara with its camels) have been replaced by fancy condos. I check once twice three times to make sure I’m in the right place and still can’t find the Rascal House. Remember the Rascal House? Those Sunday breakfasts with the free baskets of rolls and pastries? Dad would order an egg, a single solitary egg, and eat a dozen rugelach.

            The only time we felt like a family was in those restaurants. I hid behind the menus, looking at other families, wondering if we appeared normal, wondering if just the appearance of normal was all that counted. How I lived for Sundays!

            I was nurtured on promises. It won’t always be like this, Dad would say. One day, I’ll be able to retire. One day, I won’t have to travel all week long. Let someone else sell vacuum cleaners for crying out loud! We lived as if Dad were a guest in his own home, dropping his suitcase in the foyer every Friday night then squeaking out the door first thing Monday.

            You had no idea how lonely I was. Minutes before we heard your car pull into the driveway, Mom would draw on her face, paint her lips, practice her smile. I’d think about all the families you would visit, the gingerbread homes you would charm. I’d imagine other little girls in other houses and wonder if they were prettier or smarter.  How I envied those little girls!

            To cheer myself, I imagined your misery. I’d imagine you driving those long empty roads with a cigarette out the window, passing telephone poles, flag poles, light poles. On the radio only one or two channels could be found above the static.  A brief shower this afternoon will be followed by clear skies! Praise the Lord! Thank you, Jesus!

            Or maybe you’d be sitting in a hotel lobby, holding a yellowed newspaper, eating supper with another salesman on white chipped plates. A single bulb would light the hallway to your room.   Then you’d pull back a tattered bedspread and listen to crickets chirping and car doors closing while a couple laughed across the street.

            “It’s time to put those memories to rest,” says Lisa. “Your mother. Your father. They’re all one and the same at the end of the day.”

            The Rascal House (believe it or not) is now a gourmet market. Holding the coffee cup, I go inside, find the ladies room, and flush the contents down the toilet. Then I treat myself to a cheese Danish that costs an astounding five bucks. It’s not as good as the Rascal House but good enough.

V. The Bowling Alley

            “We miss you, Mom,” says Lisa.

            I’m the invisible thread that ties my daughter’s family together.  The carpooling, the cleaning, the cooking. Don’t think for a minute these things come naturally, I tell her. Not all parents enjoy their children. My mother taught me that.

            Bowling was Selma’s life until it wasn’t. She was into personalizing back then. The personalized bowling bag. The personalized sweat towel. The earrings with her initials left and right.  Her name was embroidered across her bowling shirt in big red cursive letters. For years I called her “Selma” because everyone else (the mailman, the grocery guy, even strangers on the bus) did, too.

            There were no cellphones in the 50’s and 60’s, no email, no texting. My mother disappeared for hours. Once I had a stomach ache and the school clinic called Mrs. Schaefer down the block. Another time I broke my finger in P.E. and suffered for three hours straight.  A league’s a league, Mom used to say. She had obligations.

            Then one day a real emergency happened, a life or death crisis.  As usual, there was no way to reach my mother. I was in eleventh grade English when the principal (Mr. Bernstein?  Mr. Weinstein?) grabbed the sleeve of my blouse and pulled me into the hall.

            We stood in the corridor. On every door, a list of Honor Roll students was scotch-taped front and center. While he was talking, I looked around his shoulder and searched for my name.

            He yanked at his moustache and spoke real fast. “Your Dad had a coronary. I’m so sorry. They can’t reach your mother. Do you have any idea where your mother is?”

            “She’s at Lucky Strikes,” I replied. “They’re having a tournament.”

            He reached behind his ear for a pen. “Do you by any chance have their number?” 

            “Dad’s in Omaha, right? I think he’s in Omaha.”

            “He’s in the morgue,” said Mr. Weinstein/Feinstein. “They’ve been trying to reach Selma all day long.”

            If memory serves, the bowling alley was on the west side of town. I steer toward an industrial area with a coffee cup by my side. The site of the old bowling alley isn’t hard to find. It’s the size of a hangar, a concrete behemoth sitting behind a large caged fence. A new sign says Need a Warehouse? Call 1-800-S-T-O-R-A-G-E. There aren’t any cars in the parking lot. Across the street, a man is selling flowers in a bucket. An ancient padlock and Beware of Dog sign hang loosely on a gate.

            Looking back, it was a crazy thing to do. But sometimes, crazy is a good thing. Sometimes, crazy shakes things up. And wouldn’t you know, as soon as I whack that padlock two three times with the heel of my sandal, that rusty piece of junk falls right off.

            I was sure there wasn’t a dog. They sell those signs by the dozens at the hardware store to just to scare people off. So when I see him, I’m more than a little surprised. He looks like one of those TV police dogs used to sniff out drugs, a brown/black blur with sparkling teeth and sweaty gums. He heads straight for my purse (that was some smart dog) and stabs it with his nose.

            “You want a granola bar, nice doggie?” I say.  I hand over my snack and give him a leftover piece of Danish for good measure. Then me and my best friend head for the warehouse doors. Of course, they’re locked. I try eight different locations, knocking and yelling, but no one’s home. Standing on my tiptoes, I upend my coffee cup into a dumpster. The dog follows me all the way to my car while the man selling flowers nods his head.

            VI. The Fantasy

            By twelfth grade, I had one foot out the door. My college applications were signed and sealed, my driver’s license was in my pocket, I had a steady stream of income from babysitting jobs. But suddenly you were hanging around like some sort of vestigial tail, cleaning closets, scrubbing bathrooms, emptying and organizing the drawers. I thought you had lost your mind but (looking back) all you lost was Dad.

            “Let’s be tourists!”

            In each of your hands was a shopping bag brimming with flea market finds. Straw totes, floppy hats, I ❤Miami T-shirts. It was Sunday (how we both dreaded Sundays). I had piles of homework to plunge through and plenty of friends with cash and cars. But there you stood, itching to be anywhere but home, with nothing to do and no one to call.

            So that’s how our Sunday ritual began. Every week, rain or shine, we’d get in your Ford Fairlane and hit the tourist attractions. One week we’d head to the Everglades and ride on the airboats. Another week we’d steer to the Seminole reservation, eat fry bread, try on patchwork jackets, watch shirtless men pry open alligators’ jaws.  And sometimes we’d just blend in with the crowds, strolling the Lincoln Road Mall, catching a movie at the Carib, playing miniature golf at The Fun Stop, slurping snow cones in the heat.

            “We’re like twins!” you’d say, pointing to our shorts and sandals, the visors you bought from kiosks, the oversized sunglasses, the silly shirts. “Best friends!”

            Cringing, I’d smile and pat your shoulder. Begging, you’d lean forward for a hug. That year could have been our year, Mom.  That year could have been special. Instead we were two lost souls groping in the dark.

VII. The Woman and the Horse

            But there is one memory I can cling to. It was 1959.  In the photo, I’m wearing the blouse Dad brought me from Hawaii (flamingos, hibiscus, a touristy kind of shirt).  How I loved that blouse. I must have worn that blouse everyday in kindergarten.

            It took us only twenty minutes to get there.  I saw the Aquafair sign a mile away as one car after another snaked toward the entrance. The crowd pushed past the dolphin show, the pony rides, the sodas and the candy apples. Clinging to Dad (I wasn’t much taller than people’s waists), I followed the footsteps in front of me, squeezing my elbows and watching my toes. The air reeked of seaweed and popcorn and when the breeze blew, the musk of wild animals tingled my nose.

            A brand new stadium had been built on the bay with the rows descending into a pool. We surged upwards, grabbed three seats in the middle, and waited. Then all at once a woman appeared with her horse, guiding the horse with one hand, waving to the crowd with the other.  They climbed up up up a sixty foot ramp until they reached the platform.

            The crowd held their breaths. Each of you grabbed one of my hands. And in those seconds before the woman and the horse dove, a current passed between us, a feeling so magical and electric, so full of prospect and promise, that anything was possible.  Two hundred pairs of eyes were searching the heavens when that horse jumped and oh so slowly arced it body, the woman crouching to the side, holding the horse’s neck even as they smacked the water.

            Once again we held our breaths and grabbed each other’s hands. Then after the longest ten seconds of my life, the pair at last emerged.  We were wet and tired but laughed all the way home, stretching the time, somehow knowing that this moment was special, perhaps even realizing that this moment would be our last best thing.   

            Of course Aquafair no longer exists. Instead a P.F. Changs and Morton’s Steakhouse stand in its place. Funny how the slightest of expectations, the smallest of glimmer of hope can disappoint.  I order some chicken lo mein and a glass of iced tea, flush the contents of my coffee cup down the toilet, and return to the hotel.

            “It’s over,” I tell my daughter. “It’s been a week, I’m coming home.”

            I pack my bag, tidy the room, scroll the channels on the TV. But rituals (another lesson to be learned) demand respect.  The Tupperware container still holds court on my dresser though only a handful of ashes is left.  I stand on the balcony and gaze at the pool area until it’s emptied. The hour’s late, the light dim, the sky watercolored. A plastic bottle floats. A child’s pail rolls. A towel lies on a chair.

            Then finally, when dusk settles, I go downstairs. Holding the container, I circle the pool not once but twice and say a prayer.  In the distance, pelicans are perched on pilings. With their wings flapping and their bills snapping, they’re about to take flight. For a few moments I stop and stare. Then heading toward the ocean with the wind at my back, I toss the remainders of you.

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