by Carrie Grinstead
They put Mary Helen in a gray pantsuit, and I couldn’t imagine a worse choice. I turned to the stranger standing beside me at her casket. “Where the hell did they get that?” I asked.
The stranger, a woman with violently plucked eyebrows but no trace of makeup, raised a hand to her chest and whispered, “I’m sorry, what?”
I turned back to the casket. I drank cheap wine from a plastic cup. What would Mary Helen have wanted to be buried in? What would I have said, if they’d consulted me? Well, nothing. Mary Helen spent the last decade of her life in a muumuu in her kitchen. She chain-smoked Marlboros, she overfed her West Highland terriers, and in certain desperate hours she called me, her last living sibling, and her only brother.
Marty, I have emphysema. Marty, I have a fever I have bronchitis I have a bad valve in my heart Marty the toilet won’t flush and not one of them came to help! Why, Marty, why? What have I ever done? Why did the Lord see fit to give me such rotten kids?
Now at her wake, the rotten kids clustered by the table of cheese cubes and rolled-up cold cuts. Late afternoon sunlight slanted through orange and red maple leaves, through the frosty windows of the funeral home, and still the room felt appropriately dark and mildewed and miserable. Plastic wall sconces held sagging carnations. The carpet was dark brownish-red but did not hide the food and drink stains of wakes past. Thick red velvet covers were draped over every chair.
Most of the rotten kids had spawn of their own, and the young ones infested the whole room, whining and squirming in their little suits, pressing hands and faces to the windows. Hiding, apparently, under every single chair. I’d tried at first to sit down with my wine, but I couldn’t seem to do it without a child’s sticky hand shooting out from the velvet and grabbing my ankle.
And so I stood with Mary Helen, sipping. Sipping until I was something like warm, until I thought, okay, all right; the rotten kids and their morticians had done fine. As fine as could be expected. Her last few threads of hair combed and powdered. Her lips, bloodless for years, tinted a tasteful pink. And that suit, though absurd to anyone who knew her, looked at least decently made, classy enough for something off the rack, with delicate pinstripes that I kept wanting to trace with my finger, all the way from her ankle to her lapel.
Unclear what had finally finished her off, but at least, this time, I hadn’t found the body. At least, now, I would never find another.
Some creature wrapped itself around my bad knee. My worse knee. Lately the knees were so bad I often slept on a cot in the back of my shop, rather than climb the stairs to the shop above. The worse knee jittered and pulsed, anticipating pain. I grunted and sloshed wine over my hand, landed a drop of it like a bloody tear under Mary Helen’s left eye.
The girl released me, stepped away enough for me to see her. She was one of the smallest, and I didn’t know her name or which rotten kid she belonged to. She bounced on her heels. Black ribbons bounced in her hair. “Uncle Marty, Uncle Marty! Can you lift me up?”
“No,” I said.
She squeezed her hands together in supplication. “I want to see Grandma! Oh, Uncle Marty, I hope Grandma died with her eyes open so she can see me in my pretty dress.”
The woman with the brutalized eyebrows reappeared and crouched beside the child. “Mira, what did we say? We said it’s not important if you’re pretty, it’s only important if you’re smart.”
Little Mira cast up her pleading eyes, round as the paper plates dropped here and there on the floor, deep blue as the autumn sky. Pretty, indeed. Much prettier than her mother, who must not be that old but had lost her youth early. The child’s dress probably came from Target, from Macy’s at best, but I liked it. Bodice of some synthetic blend, imitation pearls down the back, satin ribbon around the hips.
I had always liked those drop-waist dresses, the slimming top and the short pleated skirt. I rarely saw women in them now, or even girls much older than eight. My sister Mary Katherine had worn dresses like that all through the sixties, though they were out of date even then. She’d sewn them herself, and she’d taught me to sew. That was the kind of dress she had on when I found her slumped in the bathroom, after swallowing enough barbiturates to kill a horse. That was the dress she had on still, in the East St. Louis cemetery where Mary Helen would go tomorrow.
Mary Helen’s eyes were closed, of course, and if we’d been alone maybe I would have explained that to Mira, how the eyes were always stitched shut with a curved needle and fishing line.
The mother stood, wrapped a hand around my arm. “How are you, Uncle Marty?”
A second or so of panic—who was she? I ran through the rotten kids’ names in my head. Brian came over but he said it’s not his job to unclog a drain Matthew keeps threatening to cut up my credit cards Samantha says she’s going to take my dogs to the pound, Marty—
“Larissa,” the mother said. “Brian’s wife. Why don’t you come sit down and we’ll talk for a bit? We never see you anymore.”
I had not seen her ever, so far as I could recall, and I was seventy-nine years old but my recall was just fine, thank you very much. Apart from the bad knee and the worse knee, the head colds that seemed to hit me every other week, I was the same as I’d ever been. Spared the emphysema, the bronchitis, the kidney cancer that claimed Mary Josephine, the alcoholism that wrapped Mary Elizabeth’s car around a tree outside my window.
“You need more wine?” Larissa asked, and a slight list to the left told me she’d had a bit herself. An errant tendril of hair kept reclaiming its place in front of her eye, no matter how many times she blew or swatted it away. “Let’s get you some more wine.”
Good enough. I followed her across the room. I was walking exactly as I had the first time I wore this suit: a stickman, barely able to bend my knees. That first time, Mary Elizabeth’s funeral, the suit was newly made and stiff as a board with Ivory Starch. Now the suit was fifty years old and practically dust, but I had stood in one place too long.
Swing left leg, swing right, and my shadow ticked like a metronome across the carpet. Like Mary Cecilia’s metronome while she practiced her flute. Mary Cecilia, the sweetest and the prettiest. Hair pale as moonlight and soft as silk, delicate upturned nose, a single left-side dimple. My favorite, everyone’s favorite, the baby. (I was two years younger, but, being a boy, I could not be the baby.)
Practicing, Mary Cecilia always sat on the edge of the bed that she shared with Mary Veronica. I sat on the floor with her metronome. No fingerprints, no speck of dust ever marred the case. The pendulum ticked and ticked, and time ticked and ticked but never seemed to pass. No clock winding down, no calendar pages torn away.
All through the afternoons of summer, a boy stood at the window, leaning in, closing his eyes, listening to Mary Cecilia play. By the fall, he was gone, and one morning I woke up to a fresh snowfall, and to Mary Cecilia in her nightdress, hanging from the bare arms of an oak.
Some years later, after Mary Veronica’s scarlet fever, the bed was burned. The house bulldozed not long after that. Sometimes, still, in spite of everything, I believed the metronome ticked on.
Larissa refilled her wine and dropped into a chair. Mira raised the chair’s velvet cover and hid beneath it. With a swing of her arm and an arch of her poor eyebrows, Larissa tried to get me to sit next to her.
I topped off my own cup. I nodded politely to Larissa and was about to tick back over to the casket.
“I have an Aunt Mary,” Larissa said. “I mean, pretty much everyone I knew growing up had an Aunt Mary. And then I meet Brian and he tells me he’s got like eight of them.”
“Five,” I corrected. “And one Uncle Marion.”
She drank, choked a little on a laugh. “Marion? Marty is short for Marion?”
“It was important to our mother. To name all her children after the BVM.”
“The what now?”
“Blessed Virgin Mary.” I raised my free hand to my lips, as if kissing a rosary. Years ago, at some earlier wake, I would have known if the gesture was a prayer or a joke. I didn’t know anymore, but Larissa laughed.
So, a joke, and I told her another. “Mother was thrilled, having all those daughters. She was sure the Lord would call at least two or three to be nuns.”
On cue, Mira peered out from under the chair, draping the velvet cover like a habit over her head.
“And He didn’t?” Larissa asked.
“He did not. Mary Hosana was the only one who kept her purity. She died of a fever when she was eight.”
Larissa leaned over to the drink table and refilled her cup. Then she leaned toward me and urgently whispered, “Can I tell you a secret? I’m not even Catholic. I mean I had to convert and everything to marry Brian but, you know. I don’t think I even remember how the Hail Mary goes.”
She blew up at her hair and gave me a wide, purple-toothed smile. With her round face and her widow’s peak, her inky hair and her full lips, she looked nothing like any of my tall and waifish sisters, yet in that moment she put me in mind of the oldest ones. Grinning and winking and teasing, whispering and conspiring.
I allowed myself to sit, forced my knees to bend. She rested her hand, gently, on the bad one. The rotten kids drifted away from the food table and traded handshakes and solemn nods with people I didn’t know, people who certainly couldn’t have known Mary Helen and wouldn’t have liked her if they did. Most of them were my vintage, dry and gray, and as they moved around Larissa and me I noticed several Roman collars on the men and shapeless, flavorless wool skirts on the women. Retired priests and nuns, here for the food.
“I know about you, Uncle Marty,” Larissa said. She reached behind her for the wine bottle, refilled her cup and mine. She held the bottle over the table for a moment, then pulled it back and set it on the floor between our chairs. She tugged on her chair cover, dropped it back down to hide Mira. “Brian told me you’re weird Uncle Marty, and you live alone, and you’re a tailor. Brian told me lots of family stories. You know, before we had her and stopped talking to each other.”
“I live above my shop,” I told her. “Sixty-four years, I’ve lived alone above the shop,” I told her, because I sensed it would delight her, the way the oldest sisters were always delighted by the smooth rocks and the terrified toads that I found and carried home. The way Mary Cecilia delighted in the white flowers I picked, and hung them from her curtain rod to dry.
“No!” Larissa gasped. “How is that even possible, sixty-four years? Why?”
It was a place, I told her. It was a place, and I was a person, and when I was fifteen the tailor found me outside the church after Mary Cecilia’s funeral. He smiled as if he’d been waiting for me, and he offered me a job in his shop and a room above it.
Day after day, the tailor measured and cut and basted. His foot pumped the pedal, tick-tick-tick-tick, and his machine hummed. I swept the floor and oiled gears. He used me sometimes as a dummy, pinning padding to my shoulders and hips, murmuring, Perfect, perfect, perfect. And every night, he gave me two firm swats on the bottom and walked off into the dark.
Larissa’s mouth fell open. “Oh, Marty, no! That’s terrible. How could he do that?” She took a swig from the bottle, and I did the same. “You can’t swat boys’ bottoms. Everybody knows that.”
“He could have done a lot more.” I lived above the shop, he lived somewhere else, but we were together, and often alone, from the pre-dawn haze to long after dark. Endless chances he had, and he never took them. A bop on the butt, a long slow leer, another day done.
A priest shuffled by, smiling vacantly, holding a plate with a single mini quiche. Gray hairs sprouted from his ears, and his head was angled way too far forward on his shoulders. I was too stiff to lean toward Larissa, but she sensed what I wanted and scooted close to me, tilted her ear to my mouth. “I guarantee that guy’s done worse,” I whispered. “I guarantee you he lives in the nightmares of more than one altar boy.”
Larissa nodded. “I know, right? I’ve heard most priests are secretly gay. Like eighty percent at least.” Then she jerked away, as if I’d pinched her. “Oh my God, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t assume—I mean are you gay? It’s totally okay if you are.”
“I’m not anything,” I said.
She giggled. She swatted the bad knee, but I must have been drunk because it did not hurt, only buzzed, only burned and shimmered. “Yes you are!” she said. “Everyone is something.”
She sat so close I felt her warmth and heard the rustle of her cotton sateen dress, and I drank, and I confessed that I had committed my share of mortal sins. In the years after the tailor died, after a stroke froze his leer forever on his face. Women, plain and lonely, came into the shop carrying their husbands’ Navy Dress Blues. Just let them out, they insisted. The waist, the shoulders. If he can’t fit into them for the parade he’s going to be so mad.
Mad men in parks, in the earliest hours of morning. They wanted things, they expected things, and I—I wanted nothing in particular.
Always I seemed to float on the ceiling, or above the shrubs and fog. Looking down at my body and the body tangled with it. Pink and humping, rooting and moaning. Excretions, tacky and sour.
“I just prefer bodies in clothes,” I told Larissa. “I always have.”
Her dress was dark navy, as respectful and simple and forgettable as you could possibly want for a wake, except for the low princess neckline that left her collarbone exposed and shining white in the last light of day. I traced it. “This,” I whispered. “This is lovely. Why would anyone show more skin than this?”
We sat now knee to knee, and we were alone. We were unmoved by writhing children and their irritated parents, unaware of the weakening sunlight and the sudden unseasonable snowflakes ticking and ticking at the windows. We breathed each other’s breath and stared into each other’s eyes as if we might kiss. As if kissing might mean something new, something neither of us could name.
She jumped to her feet, knocking over the bottle of wine. She ran across the room, stumbling into chairs and shoving rotten kids and dried-up nuns out of her way.
I didn’t realize the room had been noisy until, suddenly, it fell silent, and everyone turned.
Mira was climbing Mary Helen’s casket. She hung sideways off the rim, one knee already hooked over the side. Her skirt flipped up and exposed her lacy white underpants. She grunted, tried to dig a patent leather toe into a casket handle and gain the last bit of leverage she needed. She almost made it, but Larissa got hold of her armpits and pulled her away.
Larissa held the child close and buried her forehead in Mira’s neck. Black hair tangled in gold, old in young. Larissa’s shoulders shook. No one else moved. No one knew what to do, what to say, how to comfort this first person to cry at Mary Helen’s wake.
Slowly, Larissa lowered Mira to the ground. Slowly she rose, brushed the hair back from her eyes, and showed us all that she was laughing. Rotten Brian laughed next, opened his arms wide to hug her, and then the hairy-eared priest laughed, and Samantha, and the nuns. They laughed; how could they not? What else was there but laughter? Laugh at the child, delighted and twirling now in her pretty dress. Laugh at death and at the gathering cold. Laugh at ourselves, at us humans, and all we had done and all we had failed to do. I wanted to laugh, at myself and at my sisters, but I had never in my life been so sad.